Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Spring Fever: On Baseball Season and the Joy of Not Being an Expert on Some Things

Forget the alert on your iCal.  To hell with the buds of green sprouting on the branches outside your window.  It isn’t really springtime until legendary announcer Vin Scully utters, on opening day of the new season, “It’s time for Dodger baseball!

Alas, Vin retired last fall after a 67-year run, ending one of the great rites of spring.  I can’t blame him, though; he’s more than earned his retirement.  There isn’t a person in the world that doesn’t wish him a long and happy ride into the sunset.  Life, meanwhile, goes on.  Spring came just the same.  So did baseball season.

Fellow Bronx native Vin Scully at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles

I have a special fondness for spring.  It is the season of my birthday, which evokes all those happy associations from childhood—not just the parties and presents, but emerging from the long winter frost to be tempted back to the streets by the perfume of blooming flowers, the petrichor of rain-slick pavement, the gentle, pre-summer warmth coming back around for a long overdue visit.  Nothing, however, heralds the season for me so resoundingly as the resumption of Major League Baseball.

This has not always been the case.  Truth be told, baseball is a fairly recent personal pastime of mine.  My wife is the real sports nut in the family, having grown up only blocks from Shea Stadium as a card-carrying—and long-suffering—Mets fan.  I was raised in the Bronx, right up the Deegan from Yankee Stadium, though it’s probably for the best I was never much of a baseball enthusiast, and certainly not a Yankees fan, otherwise our two-decade romance might have proven too star-crossed to survive one of the great New York rivalries.  Given how resolute (to put it diplomatically) team loyalties can be, it was fortunate I was decidedly nonpartisan.

I guess you could say I discovered the pleasures of baseball the really old-fashioned way—by sitting in the stands and watching the games.  And that only happened here in L.A.  Through her work, my wife regularly receives Dugout Club tickets to Dodger Stadium—those fully catered VIP seats right behind home plate.  (Yes—they’re as fantastic as you might think.)  I’ll admit I initially went along for the all-you-can-eat Dodger Dogs, but, somewhere along the way, I learned the game—and got invested in it.  That’s the thing about baseball, after all:  For three-plus hours, you have nothing to do but sit and watch (once you’ve reached your gastrointestinal limitations from the buffet, that is), so eventually you’re left with little choice but to start paying attention.  Baseball doesn’t wow you into engagement so much as lull you into complacency.  But more on that point shortly.



I wonder if it would please my late father, or just frustrate him, that I wound up coming to the game so relatively late in life?  He and I had very few interests in common; he fed his preternatural intellect with political talk radio and the financial pages (“the real crime blotter,” as he called it), with absolutely zero interest in or knowledge of pop culture from any era.  Given his hypercerebral nature, he was hard man for anyone to connect with, and our nearly fifty-year age difference didn’t help matters.

He was a great lover of baseball, though—it was the only thing he ever watched save the nightly news—and he tried tirelessly to endow me with that same passion for the game.  He never came home without a pack of baseball cards for me, and we watched games together on WPIX both at home and down at Ehring’s Tavern near Broadway.  (I’ve noted previously on the blog how much time I spent in the neighborhood bars before I’d even reached double digits.)  For my tenth birthday, in 1986, he brought me to my first game at Yankee Stadium, against the Cleveland Indians.  I still have the program.  It might even be one of my happiest memories with him.

But I just couldn’t connect with baseball.  Born without much of a sports gene to nurture, I preferred instead to sink my time into movies and comics.  I lived for fantasy—for the heroes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, for the horrors of John Carpenter and Wes Craven, for the monthly adventures of Batman as envisioned by artist Norm Breyfogle.  (My mother took me to the movies on a regular basis; Dad never joined us.)

It’s appropriate, then—and certainly telling—that my fondest baseball memory from childhood was sneaking into a screening of the R-rated Charlie Sheen comedy Major League (Golden Fleece—“Sports Fleece”) with my best pals Matt and Sean when I was twelve.  I couldn’t relate to—or even make sense of—statistics on the back of a bubblegum card (ERAs?  RBIs?), but I could identify with characters.  It’s safe to say that writer/director David S. Ward more effectively cultivated an appreciation for the game in my receptive mind during the two hours spent watching Major League than my poor father managed to do in a dozen years of direct tutelage.  Even then, it seems, story was how I related to the world around me.

Tom Berenger and Charlie Sheen in David S. Ward’s “Major League” (1989)

Like so much of my early education, it occurs to me now, I probably would’ve taken more from it if I’d had a little context for what I was learning.  (Again:  one of the benefits of couching lessons in narrative.)  But, save the occasional Major League sequel, baseball pretty much went dormant for me after my parents separated through arriving in Los Angeles in my mid-twenties.  For over twenty years, movies were my prevailing passion, screenwriting my vocation, and narratology my field of study.  I had room for little else in my life, and I was fine with that.  If you’re blessed enough to have one, you know that passion inevitably becomes obsession, and obsession, like addiction, wants your complete attention—for better and for worse.



A few years ago, I grew deeply disillusioned with the movie business, and left screenwriting behind to pursue a career as a novelist.  And though the correlation didn’t occur to me till I started writing this post, my interest in MLB kicked into an appreciably higher gear right around that time—2014 or so.  That was when I learned to really follow the game, understand the calls, and even start making them in my head before they were officially announced.  I was even becoming familiar with the Dodgers’ roster—not merely names and positions, but each player’s strengths and shortcomings.  Once I knew the personalities—their backstories brought to light by Vin Scully—and understood the rules of engagement, I was invested in the game, same as I was invested in the plight of the underdog Indians in Major League.  It just took thirty years for the two roads to intersect!

Because when I said earlier that baseball lulls us into complacency, what I meant is that it brings us into its world gradually; we have to invest time in it before we’re able to invest emotion—just like a good story.  “Traditional team sports are not only dependent on mainstream, larger screen television for their success, but also on the top-down style of old-school media and narrative consistency of an enduring and inviolable value system,” writes media theorist Douglas Rushkoff (Present Shock:  When Everything Happens Now, [New York:  Penguin Group, 2013], 40).  He goes on to say:

“Team sports take hours to watch and require a very particular sort of commitment to play.  A kid must sign up at school, submit to a coach, and stay for the season.  By contrast, extreme sports are improvisational in nature, and more about texture, pleasure, and style than about victory over an adversary.  They emphasize process, form, and personal achievement, and resist efforts to standardize play” (ibid., 41–42).

In other words:  Sports, like stories, can reflect a narrative or postnarrative worldview.  And it’s the slow-burn, old-school narrative of baseball, in contrast with the watch-this-now! immediacy of extreme sports—of virtually all our on-demand media in this day and age—that I respond to.  It’s also the reason I’m reading more than ever now and watching so much less scripted television:  I feel bombarded with shit I have to watch, and all of it is instilling in me an opposing preference for quiet, contemplative activities.

Which is why I take such pleasure in sitting down with my wife to watch the game almost nightly—mostly on SportsNet LA, but on occasion at the ballpark itself—between April and the onset of autumn.  The game holds our attention but doesn’t demand it; it allows us to have a daily shared experience, but with room to breathe.  The DVR queue of “must-see” TV, by comparison, is all homework—a never-ending to-do list.  Baseball, on the other hand, is something my wife and I can invest in together every night, as fervidly or as casually as we please given our mood.  (One can chat during a game, after all, but not a show.)  I wish I’d understood that was the point of it all when my father tried to get me into baseball way back when.



All that said, however, I should confess:  Though I can now follow the sport—from game to game and even across the arc of a season—I can’t rattle off stats with encyclopedic authority, and I only have a cursory awareness of the other clubs in the National League (from when they play the Dodgers), with virtually no sense of the AL teams.  I couldn’t sit with anyone but my wife and have lively conversations about careers, averages, the merits of a controversial call, or who’s showing promise in the minors—all of that is beyond my scope of expertise.

I also don’t long for the days when MLB was “pure,” before it was spoiled by performance enhancers or free agents, because like a child born into our era of global warming, I have no sense of a less-polluted environment.  This is all I know.  Aside from this post, I’ll never write a paean to the sport like, say, Billy Crystal or Larry King has.  When it comes to baseball, I am strictly a hobbyist—a casual spectator.

This is precisely the way I want it—exactly what is so appealing about the sport to me.  Because, prior to developing an interest in baseball, I don’t know that I really had a hobby.  Books and movies, as I’ve established, are both a passion and a vocation, and when I speak about such matters, I do so from a position of great personal investment and acquired professional authority.  When my sister and I saw Rogue One last year, we had a long conversation about it over dinner, and only after I’d thoroughly and academically deconstructed it did she ask, “But did you like it?”

The unfortunate truth is, I don’t like any movies anymore.  They elicit no emotional response from me whatsoever; I can’t recall the last one that made me feel something—even the ones I admire.  Fifteen-plus years of working in Hollywood, it would seem, has beaten the delight of cinema out of me; nowadays, movies serve no function other than that of an intellectual exercise.  Part of that is owed to my disgust with the business itself, and part with our current cultural preference for rebooted ‘80s IPs that have sucked all the air out of the room.

That’s why I’ve devoted so much real estate on this blog lately to calling out Hollywood for turning the cinema into a Gen X greatest-hits compilation.  All the movies I grew up on, that I once couldn’t get enough of, are now the only option at the multiplex; a generation of filmmakers has squandered its opportunity to make a mark on the culture by producing big-budget fan fiction for a hopelessly nostalgia-addicted audience.  What a waste—an inexcusable shame, as I have exhaustively (or, perhaps more appropriately, exhaustingly) observed on this site.  Which reminds of something satirist Tony Hendra (he of This Is Spinal Tap) wrote in his memoir Father Joe:  The Man Who Saved My Soul:

“I’d already learned (and repeated to The New York Times) the routine [National] Lampoon defense of even its cruelest parodies:  you only parody the things you love.  (We rarely went as far as admitting the next step—and the truth—that you only parody what you once loved and now loathe.)”

That, it’s fair to say, is the reason I’ve been so critical of superheroes and Star Wars, of Ghostbusters and Star Trek, over the last year or so:  I used to love them, but somewhere along the way I came to loathe them.  It’s with no pleasure whatsoever I acknowledge that many of the groundbreaking films that inspired me to pursue storytelling have become corporate franchises that now only inspire my bilious disdain.  Such, I suppose, are the perils of passion.

Because if passion is a gift, it is a curse, as well, and one’s feelings about his obsessive preoccupations tend to swing capriciously from one extreme end of the spectrum to the other; there’s seldom an equanimous middle ground.  Our passion, particularly if it is our profession, is the lens through which we interpret and evaluate the world around us.  No cop or doctor or athlete or artist could deny this.  I grew up loving movies; later I became a screenwriter, then a novelist; now reality itself is processed in my brain by way of learned abstractions like narrativity and postnarrativity, and everything I see shares some measure of cause and consequence with everything else, even if it all appears unrelated on the surface.  Like Neo in The Matrix, there’s no unseeing the streaming code behind the pretty pictures.

But, quite mercifully, I don’t think about any of that when Kershaw takes the mound.  Or when Turner throws to González at first to get a runner out.  Or when Utley collides spectacularly with the second baseman.  I don’t think much about anything—I simply enjoy what’s happening while it happens as I root, root, root for the home team.  If they don’t win, it’s a shame—but that’s all it really is.  It’s not anything I’ll lose sleep over, or, worse still, that might trigger a philosophical rumination on how the corruption of the sport is itself indicative of an existential crisis on the part of an entire generation reeling from the loss of the analog world.  (‘Cause Christ knows we’ve all read enough of that shit here over the past year!)

No, baseball is a subject I can’t speak to with any authority, nor any real appreciation for its nuances and gameplay patterns.  With baseball, I just get to be fan again, like I was the day Matt and Sean and I slipped into that long-gone twinplex down on 231st Street showing Major League way back in April of 1989.  For me, the game is a pastime in the purest sense:  a welcome reprieve from the tyranny of passion.


  1. So much to relate to here, Sean! I was never a baseball fan, but through my husband’s obsession, developed a love of basketball. (If I became a basketball fan, he had to learn to scuba dive – that was the deal). 😀 Originally we were huge Celtics fans (pre-free agency) and still are UConn fans (we lived in CT for a long time and had seasons tickets to the women’s games). For me, there was something great about getting to know the team members individually and watching them cooperate and navigate the court with a single goal in mind. The story was real and happening right before my eyes. I could make calls, coach from my couch, and spout stats. It was personal. It also something that I don’t do myself and not only because I’m the height of a twelve year-old. I’m from a non-competitive sports family and my parents never expressed any interest.

    I think you’re right that when we become too close to a vocation, on par with an obsession, we lose some ability to see the magic. We can’t unsee the matrix that operates behind the scenes. I notice that with reading, just as you experience it watching television and movies. I can’t help slipping into observation mode and appreciating or disparaging the craft of the work. There is nothing better than a book (or movie) that makes you forget you’re reading (or watching). Sports is like that – the story is happening right before our eyes and it’s an unpredictable human story.

    • Thank you for the lovely response, Diana! I don’t have a lot of accomplishments to brag about, but being that I have held down a 21-year monogamous relationship (married for nine), I am sometimes asked, “What’s your secret?” Because even the most loving couples can get “used to each other,” and can retreat to their individual hobbies rather than spending that downtime together. (To be clear: Solitude is a virtue, too.) And I’ve discovered that trying (because it is a proactive effort) to find common interests, even if it means one spouse adopting the partner’s pastime, is a great bonding exercise. So, my wife and I have the Los Angeles Dodgers (who, like us, are New York transplants), and we even try, every few months, to read the same book at the same time so we can discuss it. (Right now, for instance — and I’m not kidding — we’re both reading Catling’s Bane!) I think more couples should do what you and your husband did: make a deal whereby one watches basketball if the other learns to SCUBA dive! You round out your own interests in the process, and you create new memories with the one you hold most dear. That’s what’s called a win-win.

      They say cynicism comes from knowing too much, and though I don’t consider myself a cynic, perhaps fifteen battle-scarred years in Hollywood has anesthetized me to the pleasures of cinema: Bad experiences in the Biz and perhaps an overindulgence in analytics has made it hard, if not impossible, for me to experience the sheer joy of surrendering to a movie anymore. I think we all long for that feeling of watching Star Wars for the first time (how else to explain the cottage industry that has sprung up around that one franchise?), or discovering Middle-earth in Tolkien’s awe-inspiring Lord of the Rings, but after a while you start to feel like a junkie chasing that elusive first high again: You keep trying and trying and trying even though you know the thrill of that virgin experience can never be recaptured. Every so often, though, I’ll read a book (11/22/63) or see a movie (Creed) that allows me to feel the magic once again rather than see the mechanics behind the curtain. It is still attainable; there is a kid within me yet who wants to believe. I just need a lot more convincing now than I once did!

      Sports has elements of narrative — it’s almost like theater in some respects, isn’t it? — but my lack of expertise allows for an almost childlike immersion in the game, and that’s very appealing to someone who longs to give himself over to an emotional experience but has found the tried-and-true methods (like movies) lacking in recent years. Perhaps it’s a good thing that neither my father nor my wife nor Charlie Sheen himself could get me into the game when I was younger, but rather that I came to it on my own, when I most needed it. If I’d had any more history with the game, any greater emotional investment, it might not have been the saving grace it’s become over the last few tumultuous years of professional transition. Only when I was ready for it did it all come together for me…

      • There’s another blogger who rants about her frustrated search for “book heroin” – that immersive experience that completely consumes. I know exactly what she means and those books are hard to come by. I love those rare movies, too, where I’m swept up into the story and the real world fades away for a time (as it can with an immersion in the world of a sports competiton). I don’t doubt that your insider knowledge of Hollywood has taken some of the polish off the industry. For me, part of it may be a function of age and becoming bored with the “same old,” but it does seem that Hollywood has gotten a bit lazy with movies, sacrificing story and character for the quick flashy buck. It’s fun as always to chat over here – I love it that you and your wife are both reading the book (and it’s a little terrifying Ha ha). Have a great day. 😀

        • I suspect the reason each of us is so taken with the very particular stories that we came of age on — the reason we’re so inclined to say, “They don’t write ’em like they used to!” — is because it was all so shiny and new to us then, so it was all a delight to behold. The movies and books that defined our formative experiences were wondrous things, taking us into new and unimagined worlds, be it Middle-earth, Tatooine, or the Land of Oz. But narrative is like a narcotic in the sense that the more we’re exposed to it, the higher our tolerance to its effects becomes: It just gets harder and harder to feel that elusive high. (And part of that is unquestionably owed to an overfamiliarity with mythic patterns, hence the rise of postnarrativity and its unconventional story structure.)

          We also just outgrow certain kinds of materials as our tastes become more sophisticated, which is why the cartoons (like, in my case, He-Man and Transformers) and children’s books (Encyclopedia Brown and The Hardy Boys) that delighted us a kids can’t hold our interest any longer. Our brains and hearts thrive on challenge, so we need to seek out more challenging narratives to feed that need. (That’s why I can’t understand how it is an entire generation of middle-aged men have no interest in experiencing anything other than superhero and Star Wars movies ad infinitum.) So part of the joy of being a fan of story is always seeking out new books and movies, like a cultural archaeologist, hoping you’re going to hit pay dirt this time, but knowing that more often than not you won’t. Doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the search; if anything, a great book/movie makes the thrill of discovering it all the sweeter.

          I love chatting with all of you, too — as I think you can tell! — and I thank you in particular, Diana, for being such a faithful reader and commentator, willing to engage and contribute to a lively conversation!

  2. I love this essay, Sean, not least because it parallels my own childhood in many respects: my dad was a huge baseball fan also, though as I grew up in Philly, we heard Richie Ashburn and Harry Kalas on the radio on weekends, announcing the Phillies games. He also had no interest in genre fiction, though he was an avid reader.

    Unlike you, however, I never got into baseball, or any spectator sport other than boxing.

    Anyway, there’s a lot to unpack here, and I’ll have to take another look at it later.

    • Aw, Dave, thanks so much for saying that! Whenever I post these essays, I think to myself, “No one is going to care about this.” And that goes double for these “off-brand,” more personal anecdotes (like “This Is 40” and “Ghosts of October”). And this one in particular was very quickly conceived, written, and posted as a last-minute replacement for an interview I’d hoped to publish but had to postpone, so I thought for sure it was going to go over like a lead balloon! So, for that reason, I really appreciate that you took the time to read it, promote it (on Twitter and Google+), and comment on it. All a writer ever wants to feel is that his work has resonated with someone…

      • It resonated with me too, Sean, on many points. First, as an aside, I can’t believe how long your post is and that you kept me reading to the end. You write a lot about a given topic, but you aren’t wordy. As daveauthor said, there’s a lot to unpack.
        My dad and my brother both loved/love baseball. I’ve never been a stats person, but I always loved the rare occasions I got to a game live. I always understood the leisure and the drama much in the way you’ve described it here. So glad you’ve found that joy in the game with your wife.
        I’m with Diana on being a writer messing up many books for me in a similar way to how movies have become for you. But I do get swept away in moments at least. And if characters are well written, they will still live for me, and I often think about them beyond what the author’s mechanics were or even where their narrative took me. Kind of like Diana’s, Books are Living Things, post. I hope at least characters or the mythos of a film can still carry you away. It’s sad to lose that fantasy magic. It’s harder for me to find it now, but not out of my grasp.
        Your comment about passion becoming obsession and relating it to addiction really hit home for me. Especially when paired with sharing down time with your spouse. Because Writing is my second full time job, and it’s my passion, I’m watching myself give more and more time to it and less and less to my husband and the other people and things I enjoy. It’s even beginning to affect my health since it requires so much sitting and I give up active time too much. Having you so clearly spell that out, and hearing it was something you noticed pulled it into focus, even though I’ve been struggling for balance for several months, and really over a year now. Maybe looking at writing blatantly as an addiction will help me get it back in the correct perspective. I’m sure I’ll still be driven, but I’ll hop off that train and take more Sunday Drives with the hubby. 🙂
        Luckily he and I still share biking and reggae music, and I can be pulled away from writing in an instant to watch biking with him or my feet will pick me up to dance with him if he puts on the tunes.
        Thanks for the great post. If this is your spur of the moment substitute, maybe you should make it a point to do some ‘rambling’ more often.

        • Wow, Sheri! What an amazing response! Thank you!

          (Note: I hyperlinked to Diana’s “Why Books Are Living Things” post because I love that article, too — one of my favorites on Myths of the Mirror.)

          You know, I’m fully capable of turning the analytics off and just enjoying a movie or book; I much prefer it that way! But if a story starts to lose me, and I become disengaged emotionally, then I start applying the tools of my trade — often unconsciously — to diagnose the problem. So for me, there’s no greater pleasure than a story that doesn’t trigger that switch from the right to left brain, they’re just harder to come by with age/experience/sophistication.

          I will say this: The pure joy of moviegoing definitely gets ruined for anyone who’s had a prolonged career in the entertainment industry, because your cynical colleagues think they’re so goddamn smart, and all they want to do is deconstruct everything and tell you why they could have made the movie so much better than the filmmakers did. You come out of a screening with a colleague, and the first thing out of his mouth is invariably, “Okay — here’s everything that was wrong with that…” That kills your enthusiasm for movies after years of exposure.

          I recall seeing The Dark Knight Rises, which absolutely took my breath away and sent shivers down my spine at several points in the story (as I’ve written about) — it was just a magnificent, ambitious, epic piece of filmmaking in my estimation — and I’ll never forget that the following week at my writers group, and on the phone with my management, all anyone wanted to do was crap on it. They’d say, “What were the chances Alfred would walk into that very café when Bruce just happened to be there? That was so stupid!” And I’d respond, “You seriously couldn’t just surrender emotionally to the poetry of that moment — of two friends saying their final goodbye?” And they would just grimace and state without qualification, “No — it was stupid.”

          Is it any wonder I stopped trying to engage my friends in intellectual discourse about movies? Christ, when The Force Awakens came out, I practically went into hiding; I just couldn’t bear to hear all the “infallible” opinions on it. If they’d wanted to have a discussion, that would’ve been one thing, but anyone who works in the industry thinks they know better than everyone else when it comes to movies. (And — worst-kept secret — most of them know nothing.) One of the things I’ve tried to do on this blog is come out with very strong opinions on matters of popular storytelling (because it’s my blog, after all), but to try to illustrate all my points with examples from cinematic antecedents and a heavy reliance on craft. And I don’t think it is craft that has eroded my sense of magic in the movies so much as the movie business itself. But I’m putting more and more distance from the Biz all the time, and perhaps one day I will find joy in movies themselves again. Stay tuned.

          Ah, writing. This is an obsessive profession we’ve chosen, and that carries with it certain hazards, doesn’t it? I always think of a lyric from “Mission,” a song by Rush about the nature of being an artist:

          “But dreams don’t need
          To have motion
          To keep their spark alive
          Obsession has to have action—
          Pride turns on the drive”

          We are compelled to do this, by internal forces we don’t always fully understand. Believe me, I get it. But you don’t have to look at it as an addiction; it can be a facet of your life without controlling your life. Let me explain:

          Writing is my full-time job, and I have a very understanding spouse who is perfectly willing to “silently suffer” through weekends without me (while I’m locked in my office). I have tried more conscientiously lately to be as attentive to her personal needs as she has been to my professional obligations, and that’s part of the reason I have recently instituted policies like “Kitchen Timer,” which allows me to have designated daily writing periods and make time for family matters — it gives me a tool to prioritize both things without taking an all-or-nothing approach to either.

          It also allows me to get to the gym every single morning, six days a week (save Sunday), a practice I undertake because I am very aware that this is a sedentary profession that keeps one confined to a desk for hours on end, and I’ve seen far too many writers let their physical wellbeing go to seed. But “Kitchen Timer” helps me balance all of those different demands. If you haven’t read that article, check it out — it may help give you a framework to find balance again. It did for me. The program, which is simple to follow, rewards behavior rather than “progress” (the number of hours spent writing, or the number of pages produced), and allows us to set reasonable daily goals, achieve them, and feel good about ourselves for having done so. And it’ll leave plenty of time for Sunday drives and reggae music, to boot! Let me know if you find it helpful!

          Thanks so much for the really thoughtful (and thought-provoking) comment, Sheri, and for engaging me in exactly the kind of spirited discussion I wasn’t getting from my Hollywood brethren!


  3. For pure love of the game, spend seven innings at a little league game. Find a team of 10-year-olds–they know enough to play decent ball, and are innocent enough that their joy and genuine passion (not yet obsession) surrounds them like an aura. Don’t pick some fancy, big-time travel team, go local. They turn double plays on the one hand, and trip over their laces on the other. But they go through the line up slapping hands and acknowledging “good game” to their opponents, every time. What a great story you’ve given us, Sean. Glad your happily ever after came to fruition–never felt any love for the Yankees either!

    • Great advice, Wendy!

      You know, I’ve been blessed to live in areas on both coasts — my hometown in the Bronx and my current ‘hood here in the San Fernando Valley — with very supportive Little League infrastructures: city-funded (and well-maintained) playing fields and loyal local-business sponsorships. When my wife and I take the dog for Sunday walks through the nearby recreation center, there’s no greater pleasure than pausing at the baseball diamond to watch the kids take pure joy in the gameplay and teamwork of the sport — in all of their incongruous grace and ungainliness, just as you described it! Perhaps this weekend we’ll stop to watch for more than just a moment…

      Old-fashioned as baseball may be — a “relic” of a linear, analog world — organizations like Little League may be needed now more than ever. Team sports encourage face-to-face interaction — to paraphrase Tom Hanks, there’s no texting in baseball — and they teach us that we lose more than we win in life, but the most important thing is that we keep trying regardless.

  4. Like you and so many of your those commenting, I didn’t know a thing about baseball on my own. It wasn’t until I started dating my husband a hundred years ago and hung on every word he said that I started to get a liking for it. I used to think baseball was boring and how could anyone sit and watch a sport where nothing was happening. Then I learned how the game worked and came to appreciate it. Baseball really is a team effort and you can’t win unless everyone is doing their job at the same time. My husband loves baseball, knows a crazy amount of information about the sport, the players, and the history. Through him I acquired some information I can drag out at cocktail parties. He’s a die-hard Yankee fan. We’re not allowed to like another team in this house. Joking, of course. I think. Ha.

    And similarly to you, I have a hard time finding books that sweep me up and allow me to forget I’m a writer. Almost instantly my writer brain kicks in and I want to fix what’s wrong on the page. Sadly, often times things are wrong on the page. And I hate to say this, but often times when a book is self-published. Not that traditionally published books are all wonderful. We’ve discussed that topic. Traditional publishers are looking for what will sell. What sells and what’s well written aren’t always the same thing.

    As for movies, if I’m in the theater watching a film for the first time, I have been known to get swept up by the story. I think I’m swept away with the entire experience of being at the movies, but that’s another story. One of my favorite films is Inside Out by Disney Pixar. Those people at Pixar can write a mean story. I got totally swept away with that one, at the movies. I had to hide from my daughter that I was crying at the end. I suffer from uncontrollable weeping. (wink wink)

    As always, thank you for a great post.

    • Having been exposed to the Yankees/Mets rivalry my entire life, I think it’s probably fair to say your household is not permitted to root for another team! That is one seriously contentious issue amongst baseball fans and New Yorkers alike. The only détente I can recall was the World Series of 1986, when everyone was pulling for the Mets. But that’s the last time I remember that happening up in my old hometown of the Bronx!

      I maybe read one or two truly great novels a year; by that I mean stories that completely sweep me up in their narratives and make me check my analyst’s hat at the door. (Some of that is admittedly subjective: Certain types of stories resonate strongly with some readers, and less so others, for all sorts of unquantifiable reasons.) As I know I don’t need to tell you, Stacey, self-publishing is just a mechanism (one we’re lucky to have), and not necessarily indicative of subpar material per se, but there’s no question that many writers have abused it with manuscripts that weren’t “ready for primetime,” as they say. Whether a conceptual deficiency, an executional issue, or an editorial failing (or any combination thereof), too many self-pubbed books are not held to high enough standards before they are released. Which is a shame, because that taints all self-published books in the process, many of which are deserving of publication but can’t find it, for whatever reason, by way of the conventional outlets…

      … which, as you noted, should in no way be considered arbiters of quality. Like movie studios, legacy publishers (particularly the Big Five) are indeed concerned with what sells over what’s well-written. For instance, last year I read Michael Crichton’s The Lost World (twenty years late to the party, I realize), and I couldn’t believe how stunningly terrible it was: the premise, the writing, the characterization — all embarrassingly lacking. But it was a sequel to a bestseller (Jurassic Park), designed to provide a springboard for a second blockbuster movie, so there was tremendous financial impetus to publish it, even if there were zero artistic reasons to do so. You’d like to think an author as successful (and wealthy) as Crichton was at that time wouldn’t want such a piece of lackluster material, such a shameless and undercooked cash-grab, tarnishing his repertoire, but I guess a “sure thing” in a business with a staggeringly high failure rate is a seductive proposition no matter how lofty a position on the food chain one occupies.

      It’s possible that when I said I never get swept in a movie anymore I was being a little hyperbolic and indulgently jaded. I can think of a few in the last few years that have really affected me: Django Unchained (2012); The Dark Knight Rises (2012); Mad Max: Fury Road (2015); Brooklyn (2015); Creed (2015), not to mention a ton of really solid recent horror movies (Bone Tomahawk, It Follows, Southbound, Don’t Breathe, The Boy). I’m not so far gone, it seems! If you read my first response to Erik below, you’ll see that upon further reflection, I realized a great source of my discontent with movies has more to do with the people who make up the industry (screenwriters, producers, managers, agents, creative execs), the vast majority of whom are overopinionated and under-talented, their insecurity about the latter fueling the former, and pretty much spoiling the entire moviegoing experience with their bile. So I’m going to have to be more aware of that moving forward, and condition myself to be less susceptible to that special brand of cynicism.

      As far as I know, Pixar has a fairly unique approach to developing material: They basically have a group brain trust — a creative think tank that breaks the back of each project’s story in committee. In that sense, it’s a lot like the writers room of a television show, except the ideas that are generated all go toward developing a single closed-ended narrative rather than sustaining an ongoing series. They understand that the story has to come first — it’s the foundation for everything that follows — and that even a high-concept premise needs a strong emotional through-line. Their track record for creative and box-office success is by no means an accident, but rather owed to their creatively nurturing and unified culture. But that’s what happens when you get professionals who fundamentally understand story, and the fact that they are based in the Bay Area — away from the toxic culture of Hollywood — can’t hurt, either; the insecurity I mentioned in the previous paragraph, on the part of producers and development execs and what have you, leads to a lot of very questionable creative choices that may very well serve the egos of those who suggest them, but seldom serve the finished screenplay/film in any positive way. Such is Hollywood.

      Thank you, Stacey, for a great comment — for your willingness to always participate so fully in the conversation!


      • I love your blog. It always makes me think. Just a quick add on to your Pixar comment above, I read an article recently, and forgive me for not being able to find it and post it here, that talked about PIxar’s requirement that everyone on the writing team has to be honest. If they think something isn’t working, they have permission to speak up freely. Honesty goes a long way to making writing better. If all is done is stroking egos, no one gets better.

        • Well, thank you for the kind compliment, Stacey. I do “go deep” here; that’s just the kind of short-form nonfiction writing I respond to (I love the essays of Matt Taibbi and John Jeremiah Sullivan), and thusly the kind I practice — in my own way, and true to my own interests. My posts here are admittedly not, shall we say, “easily digestible.” But I’m only encouraged to keep publishing them, and to keep striving for new intellectual insights, because folks like yourself take the time to engage in the kind of discussion that demands more than just hitting “Like,” you know? The last year of blogging in particular has been really gratifying, because a number of “regulars” like yourself have brought so much to the table, and compelled me to reconsider, refine, and mature my own understandings of some of the topics I’ve raised. And that’s something I can’t thank you — all of you — enough for.

          Writers use the artifice of narrative to find and reveal truths about the human condition, and that can’t be accomplished unless we practice honest storytelling. And while such a vague abstraction — “honest storytelling”? — probably deserves a blog post of its very own, it means knowing your craft and applying it responsibly (and, of course, artfully) in service of the story. And honesty is just as important in feedback, too — telling a writer what he needs to hear versus what he wants to here. But that, too, requires command of craft and a checked ego: Too many critiques merely reflect how another writer might approach the material versus helping the author in question better realize the best possible version of his story. I’ve taken so many notes over the years (from managers and fellow screenwriters) to the effect of, “Well, the hero of your story, Dracula, is a vampire… but what if he was an alien? And instead of setting it in Victorian London, maybe this is all happening at an outpost on Mars…?”

          Notes like that suggest your reader didn’t connect with the material (which could indicate a critical deficiency in the manuscript itself, or simply a reader who didn’t “get it” — hence the reason we solicit multiple pieces of feedback), and now he’s just throwing out concepts and scenarios that are creatively intriguing to him, but don’t necessarily have anything to do with the story you’ve written. As an editor yourself, I’m sure you know that giving good feedback is a skill unto itself, one that requires not only a mastery of the discipline, but an ability to not insert oneself into the creative process, merely to help facilitate the realization of an artist’s vision. And writers/editors/advisors who can do that are a rare breed indeed.

          But perhaps that will be the subject of its own post in the coming months…

  5. Lots of thoughts here. I’ll admit up front that I likely won’t be able to voice them all here; but be assured that this post was truly thought-provoking, whether you get all the details or not.

    You: “Whenever I post these essays, I think to myself, ‘No one is going to care about this.’ And that goes double for these “off-brand,” more personal anecdotes (like ‘This Is 40’ and ‘Ghosts of October’).”

    Me: Pish-posh.

    It’s ironic that you’d feel that way, given that your whole post was about how the enjoyment in a rules-based game like baseball, for you, is about the unfolding story of it all. So it should come as no surprise that readers also find one of the most appealing things about a blog — particularly one where you delve into technical ideas — to be when you include your own story as part of “the game.”

    I totally understand the point of your title (and the main point of your post) as well. Like you, Diana and others, I can’t help but dissect the things I’m good at. I hear music, and my brain automatically separates out the individual instruments; the vocalist pitch, timbre and affected qualities; what was AutoTuned and what other effects were used; what the timing is; what the song structure breakdown is, etc.

    With advertisements and other marketing, I think about the copy, the graphics, the psychological ploys, the intended target audience, the shortcomings, etc. I never just see “an ad.”

    And with books, I’m taking in story, yes — but I’m most often unable to separate it from the craft (or lack thereof). It’s all very meta and thus hard to explain to most. But I’m more aware of “whether this story is doing what it needs to do to allow others to be caught in the moment or to suspend disbelief” … all while not ever really having my own disbelief suspended. And I used to be able to truly lose myself in a story. I miss it. And I do get close sometimes still. But I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to un-know what I know about writing from the inside to ever truly be unaware of the words and the writer again.

    Still, I can’t bring myself to believe that the joys of being able to create — writing, music, visual art, effective marketing, atmosphere — are a bad trade off for seeing the creations of others with an “inside eye.” What we really want is both, but I don’t know if that is humanly possible.

    We set new baselines for what “really enjoyed” means. And when we’re talking with most people in common terms, few would know the difference.

    However, with regard to those friends of yours who feel the need to let others “know what they know” to the point of outwardly dissecting things … they need to learn to use their “inside voice.” It’s hard enough for those of us in the know on a topic to keep the balance; we don’t need more analysts adding to the mix.

    • This is where interaction in the comments can be really beneficial, even illuminating: It sometimes helps me further think through what I’ve written about and refine my position on it, even on occasion enriching my own understanding of it. (Case in point: When Bill Finger biographer Marc Tyler Nobleman engaged me on my controversial “Man Behind the Mask” post with a dissenting argument that only managed to further persuade me I had indeed taken the right stance on the issue.) In responding to Sheri‘s comment, I wound up reflecting on an aspect of my experience that hadn’t entered my mind when I wrote this post: the years-long exposure to the unassailable opinions of my colleagues.

      With full acknowledgement to the systemic dysfunction of the movie industry itself, which has unquestionably contributed to my discontent with its product, it’s the people who work within the biz that make moviegoing (irrespective of movie-making) such an utterly joyless experience: They’re the ones who are completely incapable of surrendering emotionally and intellectually to a cinematic experience; rather, they go into every movie with an ax to grind, and come out seeking to prove to anyone within earshot how much smarter and more talented they are than the filmmakers.

      To that end, you’ll hear these very declarative assertions like, “That film was misdirected,” or “The storytelling was really shoddy,” or “The movie had no third act.” But none of that is ever followed up with a supporting argument, citing some cinematic precedent or principle of craft; no, it’s simply presented as a flat statement, without elaboration or qualification.

      That, of course, is because they’re not capable of defending their point, merely issuing it with irreproachable authority. And that’s because they don’t have command (or even basic knowledge) of craft; they don’t fundamentally understand how narrative works. The thing is, because people have been exposed to story all their lives, many then assume that means they know how to tell one. And everyone out in Tinseltown considers themselves an expert in storytelling, despite the fact that there are no proficiency standards or certifications in this business the way there are in, say, the legal or medical professions. So in order to establish your credentials, you have to take a strong position on every script you read and movie you see, and what conveys expertise more resolutely than criticism? That it more often than not comes from a place of personal insecurity over acquired mastery is a syndrome I’ve heard identified as “confidence without competence,” and it is rampant in Los Angeles.

      So, you see, there’s no incentive in Hollywood to like a movie — the uncultured masses like movies, after all, and they’re morons, right? — and if you practice that malignant elitism long enough, you become incapable of liking them anymore; eventually that well of dreams is irreversibly poisoned. And since this is a one-industry town, every discussion you have with everyone here is directly or indirectly about the movie business, and being that they’re all too goddamn smart to ever just enjoy a movie and leave it at that — God forbid maybe even celebrate its virtues — you can imagine what 24/7 exposure to that kind of targeted negativity does to your enthusiasm: It incrementally but inevitably erodes it. (Think of it like wearing the One Ring, you know what I’m saying?)

      And I guess that’s what happened to me. Which could really be the subject of its own blog post. (Who knows — maybe I’ll just repurpose this response at some point and publish it as its own essay? God knows it’s long enough!) But this gives me hope, in a way, that when the day comes I’m no longer in L.A. — a time that isn’t too far away, fate permitting — my enthusiasm for cinema may one day be restored. (That blessed day when I get to toss the One Ring back into Mount Doom — er, Mount Hollywood, I mean.)

      So you’ll have to forgive me, Erik, for going off on such a long tangent, but your comment inspired it, and I thank you, because this reply — forcing myself to think through this a bit more thoroughly — has been incredibly invaluable for me, if possibly less so for you!

      With respect to some of your other points (and I’ll try to keep this part brief), thank you for the positive feedback on the post itself! And I agree: Developing the skills to create a particular type of art in exchange for the pure hobbyist joy that made one fall in love with the form in the first place is a worthy trade-off by any metric. This reply has only made me realize that craft itself hasn’t diminished my appreciation for storytelling, only established a more authoritative baseline, as you put it, to better admire its finer points. Next month, I’m going to use the principles of craft to celebrate one of the biggest franchises in Hollywood: Pirates of the Caribbean. If I’m successful, we’ll all gain a deeper appreciation for some of the really rich storytelling techniques at work in that blockbuster series.

      All that said, the point of this post still stands: We shouldn’t undervalue a “mere” hobbyist’s interest in some diversions. Ballgames and live concerts are two of my greatest recreational pleasures, in large part because I don’t in any way understand the machinations at work behind them. I just get to be a fan, and enjoy how deceptively easy good pros make those things look without any aspirations on my own part to be able to do them, too.

      Erik, thanks for inspiring and indulging a very lively discussion! I’ve taken more from it than you can likely appreciate.

      • You: “… a time that isn’t too far away, fate permitting …”
        Me: Wait until you read my next post … 🙂

        I would say that my parallel to how you feel about baseball and concerts would be dance. If I could only watch one show on TV, it would be So You Think You Can Dance. As a lifelong mentor, I am inspired by the real mentoring that happens on the show. But as for the dance, I only know that it moves me, even thought (and, as was your point, probably because) I myself have never been a dancer. I touch on the edges of it — storytelling, music, theater — but have never been in that world. So I can be swept away by it without getting caught up in the details.

        • I slugged in a hyperlink to your “chance” post because I hope everyone who reads this will take the time to read that. Great story!

          My wife loves So You Think You Can Dance! (Even if, as Jimmy Fallon once pointed out, it has a needlessly accusatory title!) A few weeks ago, in fact, we went to a live taping of Dancing with the Stars here in Hollywood (which recruits much of its talent from SYTYCD). And as corny and overproduced as DWTS (rightfully) seems when you watch it on TV, you can’t help but get caught up in the spectacle of it all when you’re sitting right there in the ballroom. (The audience was actually invited to come out onto the floor and dance underneath the mirror ball for about ten minutes before the taping commenced.)

          Obviously, the celebrity performances can be hit-or-miss (to put it kindly), but when the pros come out to do one of their exclusive routines, it is a thing of beauty to behold: You’re just completely taken with the grace and physicality of it all. There is a narrative to a good dance, but it’s a different experience than a novel: It’s fluidity doesn’t encourage intellectual contemplation the way a book or movie or song might, but rather provides an almost exclusively emotional — and fleeting, nonrepeatable — experience; like a dandelion, it blossoms and then dissipates just as quickly. A dance isn’t necessarily about anything other than what you felt as you were watching it. That it’s not thought-provoking makes it an extremely appealing alternative art form.

          And the crazy thing is, though I have no ambitions whatsoever to dance like those pros do (nor any real chance in hell, mind you, even after a thousand lifetimes of lessons), a week after the taping I was by chance in a restaurant down the block from an Arthur Murray studio, and at the hostess’ podium they were handing out promotional vouchers for free lessons. So I took one! It looked so fun, and I thought maybe it was about time to put my go-to “hall pass” (at weddings and other such occasions) of “Oh, I can’t be taught to dance” to the test — to see if it’s a fact… or just an excuse. How would I know I can’t be taught if I’ve never tried? Mind you, I don’t expect I could ever be great, but maybe I could be halfway competent? And anyway, how nice would it be for an old dog to (try to) learn a new trick?

          But again: With only a hobbyist’s agenda. It would be fun to learn the basics without committing to mastering the techniques. And that’s the thing I needed forty years to finally recognize — that I didn’t really understand until baseball came along: that interests don’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. One doesn’t have to be either an authority on a given subject or an outright absenter. Sometimes it’s nice to know just enough to get swept away, as you put it, but not carried away into obsession. We ought to acquire more hobbies that can give us that kind of restorative balance.

          • Fun discussion here.

            You know what’s even more remarkable about dance? Often, even on SYTYCD, the same people perform the same routine twice — once earlier in the season, and then, often, again at the finale. And one or the other of the performances will just have “the magic,” while the other, however good, just doesn’t quite. It’s not always the first one that takes the title, either. And you sit and try to think about why the magic happened on one and not the other. You know they’re both amazing. You could even watch them back to back and compare the movements, and it was all the same with negligible differences. But there was an emotions spark in one — whether created by first-performance jitters, last-performance emotion, personal life circumstances, novelty, experience, who can say? — that the other just didn’t have. Almost mystical.

            And I agree about pursuing hobbies that provide balance between distance and immersion, learning and knowing, comfort and challenge.

          • Indeed. All the technical proficiency in the world can’t endow a work of art with soul — that’s the X-factor. All the craft one consciously applies has to come together, and then even at that the artist has to somehow breathe life into the thing. Art is mystical, like life itself, no matter how much we learn about the way it works. You can peel away one physical layer after another, but eventually you’ll get down to the core — the metaphysical nucleus — with nowhere else to go. That’s the part that can’t be explained or intellectualized, and we just need to learn to accept that.

            We were discussing this recently — perhaps on Diana’s blog? — that writing, per my mentor David Freeman, is “the artful application of exact technique to create something that transcends logic to become beauty.” That’s true of any art form, not just writing. All the technique and good intentions in the world don’t add up to much if you can’t deliver transcendence; you can teach/learn technique, but you can’t teach/learn that. I don’t know where that comes from. That’s the part of the artistic process that remains mystical, no matter how well-versed one becomes in craft, and it’s the golden fleece all good artists strive for. And when you consider how hard it is to attain, you have to admire any artist that manages it. Instead of asking, “Why are there so many bad books?” or “Why are there so many bad movies?”, we instead ought to marvel when any book or movie coheres — when it transcends — given the astronomical odds against such an occurrence. But that’s what makes a pro a pro: The casual spectator doesn’t see all the effort that goes into making the magic look so effortless.

            Great conversation! (Especially when you consider that it all started with my passing interest in baseball! How did we get onto the subject of metaphysics?!)

          • OK, we’ve run out of “turns” on the last thread, but I’m not done yet. 🙂

            On the point of the je ne sais quoi factor, I felt it strongly in the recent live release of Beauty and the Beast when it came to Ariana Grande’s performance of the title song during the credits. I really don’t believe that I just have attachments or whatever to Celine Dion’s version, because it was the original, but Celine just … transcends, as you put it. I can tell you that Ariana Grande’s vocals were technically “good” … but it didn’t move me (and at times, even irritated me, feeling somehow more about the singer than the song). And yet, though “How Does a Moment Last Forever” was new to me and had already been sung in part a few times during the film, when the end credits rolled and Celine sang it, one line in and I was breathing differently. She technically did “less” with her vocal movement than Ariana G., yet I was rapt by Celine and underwhelmed by Ariana.

            Again, all rather fascinating.

          • I second all of that, and I know exactly what you’re talking about.

            You know, Patrick Stewart was an accomplished British stage actor who was not looking to tie himself down with a multiyear commitment to an American television show. And part of the reason he agreed to do The Next Generation is because he was assured — by his agents/advisors — that in no way could the success of an iconic series like Star Trek be replicated, so he figured it would be a one-and-done payday, at which point this “ill-advised experiment” would receded into the dustbin of pop-cultural history, never to be unearthed.

            And, to his advisors’ credit, in those first few seasons, the show had a very hard time finding its voice, with many episodes serving as de facto remakes of plots from the original series (or the aborted Phase II from the seventies). But at some point, TNG found its creative footing, and though it shared a DNA strand with classic Trek, it developed an appeal — and a following — all its own. Stewart wasn’t Shatner, and rather than trying to force a facsimile of what had worked before, the scripts were tailored to Stewart’s unique strengths (and Picard’s particular characterization), and a different kind of alchemy was somehow, against all odds, incubated in that otherwise familiar paradigm.

            Cut to J. J. Abrams’ “reboots,” which opted to take all the classic characters and recast them. And while they all (mostly) look and sound the part, the chemistry just isn’t there; the whole enterprise (pardon the pun) comes off as big-budget cosplay. We make fun of the histrionic acting styles of William Shatner and DeForest Kelley, and yet they breathed life into those chintzy sets and created something that transcended the sum of its parts. And the last three Star Trek movies prove that you can’t just cast lookalike actors and throw expensive special effects on the screen and expect to recapture the very particular, one-of-a-kind magic of the original. Stewart (and his colleagues) had soul, and that allowed TNG, over time, to achieve its own form of transcendence; the new movies, on the other hand, are just an Ariana Grande–style cover performance: It all looks and sounds letter-perfect, but the magic just ain’t there.

  6. Fascinating read, Sean.

    Vin Scully retired, huh? I’m just getting the memo. My dad took us to Dodger games when I was a kid. I routed for them and all, because I was there, but I’m afraid it never really took. I didn’t have much taste for reality TV even when it wasn’t on TV.

    Interesting point about not becoming an authority, and what a nice mental break that can be. I can be a story snob.

    I read your post from last summer and liked it (since you linked back in this article), but I’ll comment here. I’ve wondered why there are so few new movies that spark my interest–and why so few of the new TV series strike my fancy. I’m afraid that I quite like a three-act framework. It seems to have a groove worn right down to my soul. I like series, but I want them to end, like LOTR or Zelazny’s Amber series (both of them). Post-narrative, like much of post-modern art, doesn’t get it done for me.

    And I loathe the remakes. Beauty and the Beast was better the first time. (Seriously, it snows at the Beast’s castle in June? How are the roses supposed to grow? They might as well have set it post-apocalyptic because that would’ve at least been different. It would have made about as much sense. But that would’ve meant they had to create something new.)

    I’ve never been an industry insider, so I can’t comment on Hollywood or publishing tastes. But it seems like the focus is less on creating a good story than one that sells. Perhaps it’s always been that way, however, I don’t remember a diet a reconstituted tales like this. I don’t mind retellings–I retell fairy tales–but they need to bring something new to the table.

    I didn’t get excited about Carrie Fisher coming back to the screen. At least Harrison Ford got himself killed (wonder if he had that one written into the contract?). I don’t care about the Star Wars characters anymore, and I definitely don’t want to hear about the Death Star ever again.

    I’ve often wondered about movies that are lame–not ones that just aren’t to my personal taste–but those in which the storytelling is irrevocably flawed. I get it in a book, especially if it’s self-published. Okay, it was written for an audience of one. But many people have to get involved in a movie. It has input from actors, directors, writers–all sorts of creative types. Surely they couldn’t all have turned their brains off. I guess this is what happens when you try to create a product with no underlying stories or characters.

    It’s interesting that they aren’t creating much new at the theaters. I can’t say I’m thrilled with the television offerings, either. I think TNG was the last show I actually cared about.

    I’m an optimist, though. Good storytelling has survived a great deal to continue to exist. I can’t see this generation killing it off.

    It might take a while for Hollywood to get the message, though.

    • Thank you, Cathleen, for the thoughtful response!

      Yes, Vin retired at the end of last season, alas. They just held his Ring of Honor induction at Dodger Stadium last night, as it happens. He casts a long shadow over both Major League Baseball and broadcasting. Not too shabby.

      Part of what’s exciting about postnarrative television is that, unlike the more conventional closed-loop act-structured story, postnarrativity can be very hard to predict. Take, for example, this season’s breakout hit This Is Us: It was impossible to know from week to week, and even scene to scene, whose story was going to take center stage, or even which time period the narrative would cut to (because the very essence of postnarrativity is that it does away with our traditional notions of linearity). Now, there is always thematic unity to each episode — there is structure — but it doesn’t unfold in that very predictable rising-action/falling-action linear formula. That makes everything old — the family-based melodrama, a staple of stage and screen since time immemorial — seem new and relevant again.

      But what makes postnarrativity exciting can also make it frustrating, because we expect — even long for — conclusion and/or finality. We want a story to end eventually — even one we’re enjoying. And stories don’t give us that satisfaction — that catharsis — anymore. I recall at the height of The Sopranos popularity — midway through the run of the show — I stopped watching it. And it wasn’t because the quality had dropped off or that it was leaving me bored, but simply because I’d reached a point where I felt I had to get out of that world, and it refused to point me to the exit. Because that’s the thing about mafia stories: At first they’re fun… and then they take a turn and they’re not fun anymore — where the darkness of that world sticks to your skin in a way you no longer like. That’s the lesson those stories teach. Except postnarrativity doesn’t concern itself with a moral to the story, only the endless self-perpetuation of the story. The Godfather and GoodFellas brought us into their dark worlds, but they let us out as soon as we got the message — that those worlds were a bad place to be. The Sopranos, on the other hand, wouldn’t set me free, so I had to extricate myself; I’d had simply had enough at some point.

      Audiences long for finality so deeply that they insist it’s coming even when it isn’t. Case in point: I have been arguing with friends for years that Game of Thrones, despite explicit and repeated statements to the contrary by its creators, would never actually reach a definitive conclusion. Every one of my colleagues flatly told me how wrong I was about this, and pointed to the imminent final season of the show as proof that all would indeed be wrapped up in a nice, tidy bow. And yet what got announced just this morning? Not one but four “offshoot series” are in the works. Which proves what Rushkoff has said all along: These series are “not about creating satisfying resolutions, but rather about keeping the adventure alive and as many threads going as possible.” On that subject…

      Ah, Star Wars. Remember walking out of Return of the Jedi in 1983 and thinking, “Damn, that was really satisfying.” After three great adventures, Star Wars was over. And then it wasn’t. And here we are, forty years hence, and that stupid franchise has been allowed to monopolize the cultural stage. But the days of Return of the Jedi were those in which stories were about reaching resolutions, not “keeping the adventure alive and as many threads going as possible.” Since Disney acquired the property a few years ago, I’ve often wondered: Will we now be required to sit through a Star Wars movie every year for the rest of our lives?

      Whereas novels (particular the self-pubbed variety) can suffer from not enough input (authors working in a self-indulgent vacuum devoid of peer feedback or editorial guidance), movies often succumb to the meddling of too many cooks. (That’s not the only reason movies fall short creatively, but it’s a common one.) Everyone involved has an opinion on the material and an agenda for it (and that goes triple for corporate brands like Star Wars or Transformers or what have you), but few of them have any command of storytelling craft (as I mentioned in my reply to Erik above), and so all sorts of bad ideas get imposed on the material not because it’s what’s best for the project, but rather to assuage egos (and we have no shortage of those here in Hollywood).

      The trick for any storyteller is to learn/master craft, and then to keep a relatively small but trusted circle of creative advisors: enough to get a nice mix of educated feedback, but not so many that your compass needle starts spinning in circles from all the opinions. (Also part of the reason to develop a solid logline first and foremost.) But one isn’t going to find that kind of creative independence in Hollywood, alas, which is why I got out. As master of horror (and uncompromising filmmaker) John Carpenter once said: “I’m here for a short period of time on this earth, and, by God, I want to do it the way I want to do it. And it may not be what you like and what you want, but fuck you.” Hollywood needs more mavericks like that, but there’s no “cinematic middle-class” anymore: The whole business is $200 million tentpoles and under-$10 million Blumhouse movies. In other words, there’s either too much money on the line to be creative/experimental, or not enough to realize what you envision. Again: That’s why I got out.

      Hollywood — as we know it, at least — is going to suffer (well-deserved) systemic collapse before it gets the message, but you are absolutely right when you say that storytelling will thrive as long as humanity does. It’s going to morph into new forms and new permutations, and continue to speak to the needs of our ever-evolving society. There are very creative people out there expressing themselves with tremendous artistry in all media: film, television, prose, comics, dance, music, illustration. And that’s why it’s become all the more important to support those artists and help spread the word about them on our blogs, on sites like Amazon and Goodreads, and through social-media outlets like Facebook and Twitter. I’m not a pessimist about this stuff by any measure! It’s about supporting honest and worthy storytellers with our money, time, and platforms as much as it is calling out the corporate franchises that have overstayed their welcome on the cultural stage. We can do both things; art is something very much worth fighting for.


  7. As writers, we absolutely must be able to shut off our minds and find some enjoyment outside of the craft. Upon watching a movie, especially for the first time, I do my damnedest to take off my writer hat and simply enjoy what I’m watching, scene by scene. Line by line. Live in the moment and not try to analyze on the fly.

    My writing schedule tends to follow a normal 9-5 day. When I’m done writing for the day, I’m done. It becomes family time, relaxation, letting the day drain away. Currently, that involves heated Mario Kart races with my wife and Deadwood binging.

    • I don’t think I fully appreciated the need for hobbies — for diversions — for most of my adult life, Jeff. Like yourself, I turned my adolescent passion — movies and TV and comics — into my profession. It’s a funny thing: As a kid, you’re always advised to try to follow your passions and make them your living. And that isn’t necessarily bad advice, but what they don’t tell you is that “going pro” complicates the relationship we have with our recreational fixations: All sorts of factors — the transformation of what was merely a pastime into a disciplined daily grind, disillusionment over bad business dealings, etc. — erodes the innocence that lies at the heart of those passions. And then you become a guy like me: a writer who was inspired by the cinema of George Lucas that now hates Star Wars. And I’m sure there are pro ballplayers that long for the pure, unadulterated joy of playing catch with their schoolmates at the local playground. They just never warn you that following your passions is a precarious path, because you may one day find that the thing you used to love is now anathema to you.

      These days, I utilize the “Kitchen Timer” method and write far fewer hours — on the novel (not the blog) — and get way more done. But the beauty of that system is that it allots quality writing time every day, and still leaves room for other obligations and recreation. Since I’ve moved away from the all-or-nothing approach that defined much of my twenties and thirties, I’ve found I can make time for writing, for baseball, for workouts, and for family each and every day without giving any of them the short shrift. And I think many of the things I’ve written about on this blog over the past few years — getting out of Hollywood (the industry if not the city itself), instituting “Kitchen Timer,” taking an interest in baseball — has in fact been part of a spiritual pilgrimage to restore balance to my life. That’s not something I necessarily realized before writing about all of those things, but that’s the benefit of blogging: It allows us to find correlations between seemingly disparate, unrelated phenomena.

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