“Phantom Thread” is a Hot Mess

I’ve been a fan of Daniel Day-Lewis since The Last of the Mohicans, which I’ve seen many times. As the critics say, nobody inhabits a role the way he does. So after all the raves for Phantom Thread, and the Oscar nominations, I expected to swoon over what’s apparently going to be his last film.

He plays Reynolds Woodcock, a successful haute couture designer in London in the 1950s who’s meticulous, eccentric, obsessive, and an uber-curmudgeon. Someone “noisily” buttering her toast at breakfast can apparently spoil the equilibrium of his entire day. Woodcock’s no-nonsense, stylish, highly efficient  sister is his business partner and their bond is intense.  Then a disruptive force comes into their lives when Woodcock invites Alma, a waitress he meets outside of London, to move in, work at his atelier, and be a model.

And that’s when the movie slowly goes off the rails, losing all psychological believability. We don’t know anything significant about Alma’s background–and barely anything about Woodcock’s–so the attraction between them seems shadowy and even creepy.

It becomes more than that when Woodcock impulsively decides to marry Alma and almost immediately finds her a malign influence on his couture business: “There’s the smell of death in this house” he laments to his sister, and he can’t concentrate on his work. As if we’ve switched to some kind of dark fable, Alma poisons him to get him under her control. Twice. And he seems to enjoy it.  I’m not making any of that up.

None of this is convincing or coherent in a movie that relishes surfaces: beautiful interiors, gleaming dress fabrics, pearls shining on aristocratic necks.  What’s sadly missing in this film that drags on past two hours is background and depth.  Who are these people, really, and what makes them behave the way they do?

On a more basic level, but just as important, what’s Woodcock’s status in the world of fashion?  Why are his clothes suddenly not fashionable enough for some clients?  The gorgeous surfaces and the inside view of the intense labor involved by a whole team of people to create couture may be dazzling–but they cover up way too many gaps and ambiguities.

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of twenty-five books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He teaches creative writing at Michigan State University and on line at writewithoutborders.com.

My Worst Review Taught Me a Valuable Lesson

Romance writer Rachel Van Dyken just did a helpful blog about how to handle your bad reviews. No matter who you are, you’ll get them.

That’s why a graduate creative writing program can actually be good preparation for your public life as an author where you’ll face reviewers who not only dismiss your work, but might even hate it.  The criticism you get in a writing program can toughen you up and get you ready.

It worked for me–even though it might have been devastating.

My first really fine short story was totally trashed by my MFA workshop. It drew on deeply personal material for me: this was the first story where I explored the emotional realities of being a son of Holocaust survivors.  I thought I’d made a breakthrough in terms of subject and style.

The workshop participants disagreed, with gusto.  One by one, they demolished the story, pulverized it, and blew the dust into the wind.  They didn’t like the prose, the characters, the structure, anything. There wasn’t much left by the time the professor pronounced his verdict. He dismissed it as just “something you could write in your sleep.”

I was shocked, but I didn’t believe they were right.  The critiques didn’t stop me from entering it in the program’s writing contest which was judged by the editor of the Best American Short Stories series.  She was the famous co-founder of Story magazine and had championed the work of Tennessee Williams, Richard Wright, and J.D. Salinger.

Three weeks later, she awarded it first prize, and when I told her what had gone on in my workshop, she growled, “Don’t change a goddamned word.”  A week later in the workshop, the professor said, “It’s still crap, but now it’s crap with a prize.”

That story was published a year later in Redbook, a magazine with a circulation of 4.5 million readers, and it launched my career.  I got queries from agents and fan mail.  So when bad reviews eventually came my way in newspapers or magazines, I remembered that workshop, the prize, and just kept writing.  Because I learned early on that as a writer, you can’t please everyone–and you won’t.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He teaches at Michigan State University and you can study creative writing with him online at writewithoutborders.com.

 

 

Writers Are Always Writing, Even When They’re Not “Writing”

People at my health club often ask me “What are you working on?” or “Are you writing another book?” This happens even if I’ve just published a book. and it was covered in the local newspapers and on local radio.

When I say “I’m always working on something,” most people look bemused. It probably sounds too vague, or maybe they think it’s an excuse, a cover for the fact that I’m not actually writing anything at all.

But it’s the truth. I never stop writing. I don’t need a PC, tablet, legal pad, Post-it notes or anything physical to write. Once I have an idea, it settles into whatever part of my brain has become Lev Raphael, Inc. and has its own independent life.  Sometimes it has Casual Fridays or staycations, but that company is busy 24/7.

Watching a movie or TV show, I’m not a passive viewer. I rewrite dialogue in my head and sometimes say it out loud (only at home). When I caught an episode of The White Princess, I winced when two characters in Tudor England said to someone whose daughter had died, “I’m sorry for your loss.” That struck me as way too 2018, and Lev Raphael, Inc. was thinking of ways the show’s writers could have expressed the thought with a less 21st century feel: “Your loss grieves me” or maybe “I mourn for your loss.”

Dialogue that misses the mark makes me think harder about the dialogue in whatever book I’m working on.

Of course, I enjoy it more when the dialogue is memorable, and that’s one reason I’ve watched Scandal. It’s showcased characters each episode by giving them moments where they go off and repeat themselves in various ways with different emphases. Sometimes the feel is comic, sometimes it’s threatening or even grotesque, sometimes it’s all of that–and it’s always entertaining.

On Scandal the character playing Attorney General David Rosen once actually brought a human head in a box to his ex-girlfriend’s apartment, asking her to store it briefly in her freezer or fridge. She was incredulous and demanded to know why the powerful, shady character Rowan had given it to him. Hapless Rosen said it was because he needed a DNA sample to track down a deceased villain. While the box sat in his lap, he explained:

That man terrifies me, I was not about to argue. He gives me a head, I say thank you for the head. I take the head and I go, right?

I had DVR’d the episode, so I replayed this a few times. His lines made me take mental notes about a character in an extreme situation not responding with panic, but acting almost normally while reporting something completely bizarre. The contrast between the box and how he spoke about it was highly instructive: Lev Raphael, Inc. opened another file…..

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of 25 books in genres from mystery to memoir, including, Writer’s Block is Bunk, a guide to the writing life.  You can study creative writing with him on line at www.writewithoutborders.com.

When Doves Don’t Cry: Travel Notes From France

My first time in France, the doves outside my tower bedroom window sounded happy and fat. Their pillow-soft, subtle conversations woke me every day for a week when I stayed in a 19th century Renaissance-style chateau hotel. Twin towers with pointed roofs graced the terrace side, and it looked like something in one of the posters that had hung in my fourth grade classroom.  That’s where I first started learning French and started dreaming of going to France.

My tower was shaded by trees where the doves clustered and cooed. I couldn’t see them, but their presence was as rich as the desserts and sauces downstairs in the elegant restaurant.  The waiters and owner treated me well because I ordered and talked about meals in French that surprised the staff and the owner. My French wasn’t perfect, but it was good, and I was American. Those were two things that didn’t go together in French minds. I wasn’t guessing: People told me that directly.

The compliments were as comforting as lying in bed every morning in my round bedroom whose ceiling was easily 15 feet high, and then lounging in the suite’s main room. The walls were covered in faded green silk which somehow seemed to match whatever it was I thought the doves had to say to me. Their sound was as soothing as gentle fingers massaging a forehead creased with a migraine. I’d think about breakfast, read a Guide Michelin in French, consult a road map and plan which chateaux we would drive to in the Loire Valley that day.  Blois?  Amboise?  Azay-le-Rideau? Usse? Angers? Chenonceau? Saumur? Villandry?  So many tempting, gorgeous choices….

I knew that after each day of touring, the evening would bring another elegant, lavish meal with my spouse–and the next morning would start with the quiet contemplation of murmuring doves.

Oh, and another leisurely cup of coffee after breakfast downstairs on the terrace before driving off. And sunshine. French sunshine.

It had taken me years to come to France, and here I was, actually discovering myself in French, discovering that all those years of books and classes had actually taken root, that I could think in this language, feel in it, react in it. I had never traveled to Europe before. I was entering a new life, seeing myself in a new light.  And learning the language of doves.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from mystery to memoir and travelogue.  You can find them on Amazon.

EPA Chief Scott Pruitt Deserves A Private Jet ASAP!

Last year the EPA explored leasing a private jet for its adiministrator Scott Pruitt, but the plan was never carried out because apparently some of his advisors thought the monthly $100,000 cost was excessive.

That was a foolish, penny-pinching decision, worthy of Scrooge.  The EPA’s budget for the 2017 fiscal year was $8,058,488,000.  Why on earth should anyone care about a pittance like $1,200,000 a year’s worth of Pruitt’s flights?

It’s also unpatriotic and unhealthy. After all, he’s in charge of environmental protection and shouldn’t that start with his own personal environment?  If we want Pruitt to be working at his best as he works for us average Americans, he should not have to put up with the crap that the rest of us face when we fly.

A private jet would spare Pruitt from the mediocre food, cramped seats with minimal leg room, unpredictable flight delays, kids kicking seat backs, malodorous and messy restrooms, people yapping on their phones, crying babies, unwashed passengers creating their own aroma zones, drunk or garrulous seatmates, and overworked and cranky flight attendants.

If we want the best and the brightest serving the nation, they should be treated that way.  At the end of the day, $100,000 a month is a very small price to pay for protecting our environment.  And like many other government officials, he’s probably writing a memoir about his time in office, so he should be able to do that in comfort.

Letting Go And Moving On: A Writer’s Tale

I’m working on my 26th book and I know that finishing it will leave me sad because living in the world of writing is balm for my soul.  Life feels concentrated, focused, enriched when a book is my mental companion.  It’s part of the fabric of each day, whether I’m actually writing or not because it’s always on my mind, and I feel a sense of loss when it’s done.

But finishing is also joyful. And that’s not because I enter the familiar process of watching the book move out into the world through various stages of publication–and then look forward to all the possible speaking engagements.

The joy is partly something more mundane: cleaning up and letting go.

While working on a book, I generate endless drafts of chapters, sections of chapters, and several of the entire book itself no matter what the genre. With some books, especially one of my Nick Hoffman mysteries, I might have to go through ten drafts of a really difficult or challenging chapter before I get it right.

I print everything off because I learned a long time ago that it’s too easy for me to miss errors, gaps, typos, and continuity issues reading the book on any kind of screen.  I need to have the text in my hand to see it clearly.

For almost ten years now, all that paper has been indexed and stored–but not by me. Special Archives at Michigan State University’s library purchased my literary papers and whenever I finish a book, I box up everything connected to it and someone from the library comes to take it away to add to The Lev Raphael Papers.  My work has joined the papers of other well-known writers associated with MSU like Jim Harrison, Thomas McGuane, Carolyn Forché, and Richard Ford.

If any researcher now or in the future wants to follow the progress of a book or story of mine, it’ll all be available, from Post-it Notes to scribbled-on rough drafts to the final product final drafts.  The blind alleys and abandoned parts are all there, and so is all the research material I’ve gathered, since I don’t need to consult it any more.

When I’m done with a book, I’m always surprised at how much “stuff” there is associated with it.  But seeing the collected work of a year or more carted off doesn’t leave me with the writer’s version of Empty Nest Syndrome.  That’s because there’s always another book waiting in line to be written, another world for me to enter and explore.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery including a book of advice for writers: Writer’s Block is Bunk.

What I Discovered When Flying With A Disability

The New York Times recently ran a story about being in a wheelchair and feeling invisible. When I injured my knee a few days before a trip from Lansing to D.C. via Detroit, I hesitated about arranging for wheelchair assistance in Detroit. It wasn’t invisibility I dreaded, it was exposure.

For those of you who don’t know the route or the Detroit airport, if you’re flying to or from Lansing, the connection there can take at least fifteen minutes even with the moving walkways and the monorail, because you have to switch terminals. As they say in the city of my birth, it’s a schlep.

My injury didn’t require surgery, just physical therapy when I got back. I had already cancelled a previous family visit to D.C. due to a severe migraine that kept me in bed for a whole weekend and I was determined to go this time. The trip was important, but then so was my health and comfort. I did not want to aggravate my injury.

I’d been in an airport wheelchair before when I had to take a flight to London and I didn’t like it. Yes, I got through security much faster, but at a price. People stared, then looked away. Both parts of that equation were very discomfiting. Were they wondering what was wrong with me since I seemed fit? Were they embarrassed for having been caught staring? I was embarrassed myself to have my disability—however unseen—on public display.

For this D.C. trip, a friend joked that I could wear a sign that said: INJURED KNEE. STOP STARING. That made me laugh, as she knew it would.

Being transported by wheelchair because of an injury, being helpless for what seemed like ages on that London trip made me feel reduced to that injury at a time when the pain, reduced mobility, and inconvenience had disrupted my normal routine enough already. In a chair, the disability felt like it was in charge and I was along for the ride.

I could easily imagine the flip side for my D.C. trip: limping the whole painful way. My light, well-packed roll-aboard would turn into a loathsome burden. Stopping to rest would be mandatory. Knowing that I might have to speed up at some point because the closer I got to the gate, the slower I’d be going as the pain and fatigue caught up with me. And people would stare anyway since airports aren’t made for limping but for rushing, and my face would likely reveal how miserable I felt.

Having dealt with shame in other areas of my life and written about it, I knew facing this was important, so I did order the wheelchair. And? Well, there was no happy ending. No sense of “closure.” No soaring ballad by Adele over the credits. But at least I was comfortable and on time– and most importantly, I won’t hesitate next time if need a wheelchair.

I’ve never been a sports nut, but I’ve belonged to a health club for years. I’ve done yoga, weight training, spinning classes, had swimming lessons with a coach, and I’d taken my physical being-in-the-world completely for granted until recently. I wonder now how many times over the years I’ve stared at people in airport wheelchairs. What was I thinking?

Lev Raphael is the author of two dozen books in genres from memoir to mystery, including the travelogue/family history My Germany.

Five Reasons Why You Have to Stay on Facebook–Besides The Adorable Puppy Photos

Everywhere you go, people are talking about giving up Facebook because their data has been given away.  But Facebook is essential in this wildly narcissistic age because it keeps people humble.

1—Are you excited about posting a link to your first blog? People will be sure to comment about the title without having read the blog, and disagree with it somehow in a way that makes you feel very small. Or if they’ve read the blog, they won’t comment at the site where it appeared, or even say anything on your Facebook page, but will FB chat you about your typos.
2—Are you delighted about something as innocuous as finally having seen every movie that Helen Mirren’s ever starred in and you start your day by posting that news, hoping fellow fans will chime in? Someone you know will post about having had lunch with Mirren and talk about how charming and unassuming she is. Ditto Ian McKellan, who dropped by for dessert.
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3—Are you proud of having written 1500 words on your new novel? The book it took you months to plot? Well, count on this: Dozens of your Facebook buddies will let you know that they write twice as much as that a day. On a bad day. Even after having had surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome.
4—Are you pleased that you got a weekend away and went to the beach where you happily posted photos of surf and sand? At least one of your pals is sure to post pictures of the fabulous villa they recently rented in Spain for a month, including shots of smiling sexy locals, and let you know how their shopping sprees, drinking binges, mani-pedi sessions, yacht hopping are going, moment by moment.
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5—Are you thrilled that you finally got a book published? Someone will humble brag about not being able to figure out where the newest foreign language edition of their umpteenth novel came out, but they think from the look of the title if might just possibly be Bulgaria? Which isn’t that big a market really compared to Germany where their book was also published last year and Angela Merkel wrote such an awesome blurb….but she’s just a politician….I mean, so….
Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery.

“Do You Know Stephen King?”

It sounds like a specialized question, but it’s not. Apparently, if you know King, your reality as an author is verified, whether the person asking will ever bother to read a book of yours or not.

I’ve been asked about King many times times by cab drivers when I’m doing book tours across the country and they find out why I’m in town. It’s almost always the first question.

So, here are some sample answers to help out all you road-weary, flummoxed authors in those moments when your mind might go blank and you’re wishing you had stayed home or taken your parents’ advice and gone into your cousin’s wallpaper business. Feel free to suggest your own.

— “We went to college together. Dude could par-tay!” Make up the wild story of your choice at this point. You’re a writer. Be grotesque. Embellish.

— “That SOB? Never wanted to. He used to date my cousin and he was into really kinky sex that left her with a limp and allergies. It’s really sad.” Sink into your seat and mutter darkly.

— “Yes, but he trashed my house once after a séance and we haven’t talked since, though our lawyers are working it out. At least he says those are his lawyers. Sometime you can see right through them…. It’s kinda creepy.”

— “Stephen who? Is he some kind of writer or something? Like, wha has he written I might have heard of?” Look truly puzzled.

— “Are you kidding? I’m the one who gives him his book titles and plot twists. He gets writer’s block all the time and calls me drunk at three in the morning. Shit, I shouldn’t have said anything. Please don’t tell anyone!”

— “No. Have you?” Glare.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery.

University Teaching Is Not A Demolition Derby

I do a lot of speaking at colleges and universities around the country, and faculty tell me many behind-the-scenes stories. Properly disguised, these stories make great material for my Nick Hoffman academic mystery series: tales of petty infighting, squabbling committees, ridiculous vendettas — all the simmering snarkiness that Borges called “bald men arguing over a comb.”

But I also hear stories from students that aren’t as amusing, stories about what it’s like for them to be in a classroom with a professor who sees teaching very differently than I do. Some teachers aren’t at all bothered by shaming students in front of the rest of the class, as if they’re coaches whipping an under-performing player into shape.  I heard from a former student today about how her new creative writing teacher tears down everything she writes and it’s profoundly undermining her confidence.

Creative writing is one of my passions, and I’ve heard of other professors in these classes who stop students while they’re reading aloud and say, “That stinks!” or worse. I’ve never done that. I do stop students to ask them to slow down or read more distinctly, or to offer something positive if I was blown away and couldn’t wait till they’re finished. And sometimes I just start laughing if the piece is well-done humor. As for dissing a student’s work, who does that help?

I’ve heard of some professors who can be so intimidating that they make students shake with fear when they challenge what the students have to say. I’ve also heard of professors in creative writing classes who don’t let everyone read their work aloud but keep picking their favorites, creating resentment and embarrassment. In my creative writing classes, everyone reads aloud or nobody does; the class should be a creative community, not a jungle.

I see it that way because I had an amazing creative writing teacher during my freshman year at Fordham University; she became my mentor and role model. She ran her workshops with good humor and warmth. She spurred us all to write better by pinpointing what we did best and helping us improve whatever that was. She never insulted us, humiliated us, made fun of us, or played favorites. She encouraged us all with grace and good humor. I’d even say she enjoyed us; she definitely enjoyed being in the classroom and made us feel that way too. Nobody ever dreaded being there.

Teaching isn’t combat or coaching, especially teaching creative writing. We’re not in the classroom to humiliate and harden our students as if they’re going into the cutthroat world of business or getting ready for the next football game against a team with no losses. Our role should be to help them grow as writers by identifying what they do best and where they need to do more work. As reporter Charles Kuralt put it simply, “Good teachers know how to bring out the best in their students.” Who needs shame to do that?

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block Is Bunk and 24 other books in many genres which you can find on Amazon.