Haruki Murakami is a best-selling Japanese writer known for his novels: Norwegian Wood, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and Kafka on the Shore. Murakami’s stories are described as dream-like fantasies, where ordinary people face extraordinary scenarios, where magic and nostalgia blur the lines of reality.
In times of turmoil and political chaos, when confusion clouds our judgements, books that delve in surrealism offer peculiar comfort. For writers creating works during these strange times — uncertain how to make sense of the world around us — we can turn to Murakami for a bit of guidance.
Here are the top 10 quotes on writing from the author who shows us that enchantments are hiding in the everyday shadows.
1) It’s a dark, cool, quiet place. A basement in your soul. And that place can sometimes be dangerous to the human mind. I can open the door and enter that darkness, but I have to be very careful. I can find my story there. Then I bring that thing to the surface, into the real world.
2) There’s no such thing as perfect writing, just like there’s no such thing as perfect despair.
3) I often recall these words when I am writing, and I think to myself, ‘It’s true. There aren’t any new words. Our job is to give new meanings and special overtones to absolutely ordinary words.’ I find the thought reassuring. It means that vast, unknown stretches still lie before us, fertile territories just waiting for us to cultivate them.
4) When I start to write, I don’t have any plan at all. I just wait for the story to come. I don’t choose what kind of story it is or what’s going to happen.
5) Dreaming is the day job of novelists, but sharing our dreams is a still more important task for us. We cannot be novelists without this sense of sharing something.
6) Good style happens in one of two ways: the writer either has an inborn talent or is willing to work herself to death to get it.
7) I think memory is the most important asset of human beings. It’s a kind of fuel; it burns and it warms you. My memory is like a chest: There are so many drawers in that chest, and when I want to be a fifteen-year-old boy, I open up a certain drawer and I find the scenery I saw when I was a boy in Kobe. I can smell the air, and I can touch the ground, and I can see the green of the trees. That’s why I want to write a book.
8) The good thing about writing books is that you can dream while you are awake. If it’s a real dream, you cannot control it. When writing the book, you are awake; you can choose the time, the length, everything. I write for four or five hours in the morning and when the time comes, I stop. I can continue the next day. If it’s a real dream, you can’t do that.
9) Which is why I am writing this book. To think. To understand. It just happens to be the way I’m made. I have to write things down to feel I fully comprehend them.
10) I know how fiction matters to me, because if I want to express myself, I have to make up a story. Some people call it imagination. To me, it’s not imagination. It’s just a way of watching.
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Benita hates talking to her aunt Chloe, if you could even call what they do talking. Mostly Benita listens. Aunt Chloe has stories — stories about her life — story about her childhood, stories about her marriage, stories about her children, sometimes about work she did, sometimes about people she knew, other times about a trip she took. Always, she ends with this phrase: “And that’s why we [fill in the blank] and you should too.”
Benita waits for that finishing remark so she can nod and agree. It always comes, all she had to do was wait. And when it does, it punches her in the gut. It doesn’t allow her to enjoy the story, because in the end, she knows that Aunt Chloe isn’t telling a fun story, she’s lecturing.
You could say that Aunt Chloe’s stories are didactic.
But is that not good? Why is it bad to tell didactic stories? Shouldn’t you want your listeners to leave with some wisdom like a nice souvenir that they can take with them into the future? Telling didactic stories seem like giving your audience the most bang for their buck — the best use of their time.
There was a time long ago when didactic stories were popular. Religious sermons, ancient texts, stories that teach ethics such as Aesop’s Fables, are examples of didactic stories that have favourable reputations, because they taught people how to be civil as they learned to live with each other.
From the stories of Christ to Siddhartha, people have relied on didactic stories to learn how to confront the obstacles of life and participate in a society of many.
The word didactic itself comes from Ancient Greece, which means “relating to teaching, education, and wisdom.” Ancient Greece, of course, being a key time and place for great philosophical teachers and thinkers, all telling didactic stories to get their ideas across. The importance for the general public to receive moral guidance couldn’t be more important back then when communication and entertainment were not as easily accessible as it is today.
Yet, Aunt Chloe had a story — one that she thought was worth telling — should she not share her story the way she felt it should be told? What was Benita’s problem? She should be appreciative of a free lesson from someone of experience. Not that Aunt Chloe was Christ or Siddhartha, but she certainly had a point of view.
Every storyteller has a perspective and it’s from there that they decide which stories are worth telling and which aren’t. Obviously they would want to tell a story that gives their audience the most value.
But Value is an interesting word, often used to market something that is of quality but is cheaply sold.
What didactic stories are — are simple answers. Without understanding the complexities of an audience member’s life, it aims to give directions and solutions as though every problem or pursuit can be resolved by obediently following what the story has to offer. Didactic stories make blunt assumptions, just like what Aunt Chloe does when she sees Benita. She assumes that she has the answers for her, even though Benita wasn’t asking.
Didactic stories come across as preachy, or belittling, or having a hidden agenda. Didactic stories are not open ended. They have a very clear conclusion. Instead of allowing the audience to interpret what the story teaches, a didactic one outright tells them what to know. It is in that rushed method of communicating that the important lessons in the story are actually lost. Didactic stories end up being less effective in encouraging a certain behaviour as compared to telling a truly meaningful story with rich characters and an interesting plot.
So, what can we do? How do we avoid telling stories like Aunt Chloe?
First, understand that having a story with a message is not a bad thing. Every story should have a core theme worth sharing, however, one should avoid telling a story with the solitary goal of convincing the audience of an idea or a way of life.
A good theme doesn’t make a good story. And a good story doesn’t need to do any convincing. By taking the audience through an emotional journey via the senses of the characters, we can actually get them invested in the exploration of the theme. The audience will come to the conclusion on their own or have a thought that opposes the meaning of the story. Either way, the audience is empowered to form their own opinions, even when it’s the storyteller that reaches the ending. And the ending certainly should not be how Aunt Chloe ends it, “And that’s why we [fill in the black], and you should too.”
Secondly, didactic stories often lack the complexity and characteristics of real life events, and that’s why fairytales — which lessons of morals can come across as didactic — are often catered towards children as opposed to adults, who understand that a little girl being eaten by a wolf or pigs getting their houses blown down is just the beginning of the problem and not the end. Didactic stories, in order to keep their lessons clear, leave out the messiness that is reality. And what happens then is something that is more cliche than convincing.
Lastly, to avoid telling didactic stories, we must understand that great stories don’t have easy answers. Great stories aren’t recipes or instruction manuals. Great stories are a mirror that forces us to confront the feelings inside ourselves. Great stories ask us what we think about this or that, but never telling us whether it’s right or wrong, for there are no right answers. Every audience member should be able to bring their own history, their own experiences, their own principles and values, and use those as the instruments to come up with their own conclusion.
Therefore, a story that avoids being labelled as didactic allows for wondering and contemplation.
And that is why we shouldn’t write didactic stories, and you shouldn’t either.
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Whether you have a story you’re polishing up or 2021 is the year you’re clearing the table and starting anew, it’s good to give your writing projects some specific targets. Writing contests have always been a great motivator for me. It challenges me to put my best foot forward. It gives me a deadline.
Without much further ado, here are some prose contests in 2021.
I’m not a perfectionist. If I was, this video wouldn’t exist, because I’d be too busy fussing over every cut or picking the perfect background music. Or fixing the light or writing this script or making sure my hair looks good. I’ve gotten very good at not worrying about those things over the years because this… is a YouTube video and blog post so it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things.
I’m not here to impress anyone, I’m only here to express myself.
I know a lot of people suffer from being perfectionists. It can be paralyzing and it can stop you from taking your first steps in creating something. It’ll stop you from learning and trying. I get it. You’re afraid you’ll look stupid.
Well, as someone who’ve looked stupid many times in the past, I’m happy to share some of my advice. Yes, this is me giving advice on how to not be good at things.
10 tips — let’s go!
After you hit publish, you are bound to see mistakes. You are going to want to pull that piece down and delete it forever, but it’s often something inconsequential. It’s often things that your audience, unless you tell them, won’t even notice. Even if someone calls you out for it, embrace that, someone actually took the time to let you know (even though they might have been a jerk telling you). Say thanks for catching that. Or oh man, my bad! It’s going to happen. There are way too many things to deal with. But with my next tip, I can help you get more comfortable making mistakes.
Make A lot
Once you start making a lot, then you stop being precious with each individual project. Mistakes that have happened five, ten projects back don’t matter anymore because your mindset is on to the next thing. You are going to make the next project better. When you have the mentality that you are going to make a lot, then being perfect doesn’t matter, but rather, consistency, practice, patience, and incremental improvement become the goals.
If something is never due, then you will never feel any pressure to finish. You can keep working on it and working on it until the law of diminishing returns leaves any improvement so minuscule that it wouldn’t even be noticeable. Sometimes, you work a project so much that you end up making it worse. Give yourself a time limit, not a quality limit. There is an old adage known as Parkinson’s law which states that a task will expand to the timeframe given to complete. If something is due in a week, you’ll take a week to do it. If something is due in a month, you take the full month. The best way to make more is by shortening the deadlines.
Much like giving yourself a deadline, creating limitations is actually a good way to avoid getting bogged down by your perfectionism. Whether it’s forcing yourself to write in a specific genre, having a maximum word count, or using a set structure like the hero’s journey, you establish some rules that you have to follow. Having complete freedom may sound great, but it is too nebulous for you to focus. You end up creating something too grand that keeps expanding and expanding, which is not good if you want to actually finish something. By setting limitations, you know the boundary in which your creativity can focus and flourish.
Start Something New
If you feel the pain of imperfection, if you’ve been staring at your work and are not even sure how to fix it, then it’s time to start something new. Clear the table of what you’ve been doing and begin again. The longer we spend on a project the more invested we get in it and feel we need to do it justice. This type of thinking imprisons us. What we should do is put that project aside, recognize that we are not at the level to get it to the standard we want, and begin something new. I often tell myself, “Okay, this new project I’m going to try to learn how to do this…” so that by the end, I’ll have the practice to go back and fix what I couldn’t in the previous project.
Have a Clear Audience
Instead of creating something that I’d think everyone would enjoy — which is impossible — when I feel like my work isn’t perfect, I think about one specific person who I’m creating for. Once I have this person in mind, like for example with this video, I’m thinking of someone like you, who is perhaps curious to know why my projects are so not perfect and how I live with myself. Knowing you, I have a clearer understanding of why I’m doing this and I feel supported. Also, don’t be afraid to make things for yourself. Your audience can easily be yourself in the future. I want to make a video for myself a year from now. I want to write a book that I want to read. Making it for yourself is as worthwhile as making it for a million faceless fans. You probably won’t make money, but then again, you never know until you finish.
Work on Multiple Projects At Once
I usually have multiple projects going at once because if I ever get stuck, tired, or angry at a specific project, I can just switch to another. This allows me to always be making something. Even though my attention is scattered, there is often progress happening on multiple fronts. Experts will tell you not to do this. And I’m no expert, however, it’s this diversifying method that has kept me from burning out. It’s also helped with my continuous improvement even though it’s not as exponential as focusing on one specific project at a time, in the end, I still have something to show for it, which to me, is worth a whole lot.
Have a Learning Mindset
Much like advice number 5, it’s good to go into each project with the eagerness to learn, not the pressure of making it perfect. If you can approach a project as an opportunity to learn something specific then you can measure the success of the project not on the merits of the work but rather your experience and knowledge gained from it. Having that student approach is so humbling because then you can ask questions and discover as you go, as opposed to feeling like you need to land the perfect trick in front of a group of judges. You don’t need that type of pressure.
Accept That You Might Lose it Forever
Create with the knowledge that tomorrow that project might disappear. Something could have happened to your hard drive and everything was erased or there were a fire and all your material burned to the ground. Know that what you are making is not going to last forever. It might not even survive the process in being finished. It’s a terrifying thought, but that’s why it’s so important to not be precious with your work and do it because of the enjoyment and not because you want to make something so astoundingly perfect that it can stand the test of time — because nothing can.
You’re Not Perfect (neither is your audience)
We all have the idea of a perfect project in our minds. In there it is beautiful and complete and so very great. But we are not perfect and as soon as we attempt to transfer what’s in our brain into the external world, we are bound to muddy everything up. Languages, colours, and emotions appear and sound differently to different people. Even if you think it’s perfect, you cannot help how others are going to respond to it. Everyone has different preferences and tastes — and nobody is completely right or completely wrong. You are bound to make something some will love and you are bound to make something that someone will hate.
Those are my 10 thoughts on how I live with the fact that I’ll never create anything perfect, nor do I even try. I wish I have a little more attention to details sometimes and perhaps I could be a little bit more diligent with my work, but honestly, I feel like this approach has kept me content and consistent. But like I said, everyone should have their own process and as long as you are enjoying what you’re doing then it doesn’t matter if you want to make something perfect or not. None of this matters.
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Frank works at a firm but he really wants to write the next great classic — and he has just the story. But why is he struggling to get his work published?
True. He believes that once the first draft is written, he’s 80% done, perhaps a little bit of proofreading is needed, but the agency and publishing house will deal with that. After all, the idea is great!
Alas, no responses. In a moment of (what he considered) weakness, he allows his coworker to read his work. “I like the story,” says his coworker, “but the writing, it’s a bit crude.”
Crude!? How dare he criticize his work… his style… his self-expression. “Yes… there might be some typos,” says Frank returning to his desk, thinking: He wasn’t crude… He knew crude and his writing wasn’t crude. Crude was his friend Kyle.
He recalls hanging with his old high school friends at an upscale restaurant where he frequents regularly. After a few drinks, one of her friends, Kyle, who had recently returned from Europe was boasting about all the adventures and sexual escapades he had.
“Oh man! You should have seen the babes I was with. They were sexy, big tits, big ass, if you know what I mean…” Kyle made some grotesque gestures — Frank understood what he meant, there wasn’t a lot of subtlety to it, but they were at a nice restaurant and the way Kyle was speaking was making him uncomfortable. He looked around to see if the other patrons were watching.
Kyle was crude! Frank knows that. How can his coworker use the same word to describe his writing?
Well… like crude oil or crude sugar, you can say that Kyle’s behaviour, Frank’s writing, and (even my drawings here) are undeveloped — it’s raw, unrefined, unpolished. While it is in the natural state, it is lacking the completeness that a quality product should have.
When we bring that understanding of the word “crude” and relate it to our writing, even though we’ve poured our heart and soul into a piece of work, without the revision necessary, it could indeed come across as crude.
But Frank’s writing is not a lost cause. Crude is not completely negative. Crude writing can be strong in some sense. It doesn’t leave room for interpretations. It’s not poetic, sure, but it’s clear and blunt (often to a line of offensiveness). Nevertheless, crude writing gets the point across in a direct way. Crude writing is rarely misunderstood. It might be abrasive or rough, but the concept is there in its purest form. Crude writing is something Frank can work with. Crude writing is better than nothing written.
The problem is with Frank’s expectations. He wants to have his work published. He wants it to be regarded as a classic. He wants to have his work within a certain space. And it’s in that act of putting something where it doesn’t yet belong, like Kyle’s talk about lewd acts in an upscale restaurant, that makes Frank’s writing crude. When comparing his work against those who have spent months and years refining their stories — using the same guidelines to judge — it simply doesn’t meet the standard.
There is certainly a place for crude writing — in fact — for many, it might be a style that works for their personality. There are people out there who would happily consume crude sugar, but most people would rather eat candy.
If you want your writing to appeal to the largest number of readers, then embracing the fact that you write crudely might not be the best place to start. Readers look for books and articles, the same way shoppers buy groceries, and when shopping, you’d rarely find crude sugar and chocolate bars in the same aisle. The same goes with writing.
Crude writing can happily live on a blog or a Facebook wall. Just like how Kyle’s sexual stories can live happily at a bar. Yet, it’s when we want to have our work and ourselves reach a certain level, like athletes or actors preparing for a competition or performance, we need to put in the work to polish and refine.
Frank is proud of his work. It is a personal piece, pouring freshly out of him. Yet, he did not see the crudeness. He is inexperienced and the work is too close to him. He goes through it again, but doesn’t know what to fix or improve on. This is a frustrating place to be.
Crudeness comes from lack of self awareness. It often needs not only someone to point it out, but someone with the patience to offer suggestions after they pointed it out. It’s having that direction to offer that makes someone a good editor for writing and life. It has to be a mutual progression. If Frank confronted Kyle in the restaurant and told him he was being crude, he would have reacted the same way Frank did after his coworker read his writing. Defensively. In order to overcome crudeness, one needs help from someone who has experience confronting and overcoming the process themselves. But most importantly, they need to want to be helped.
How many books written by a dead white man have you read? How many books have you read from someone of the same gender as yourself? Of the same ethnicity? How many books have you read by someone from your country?
When we choose what to read, we tend to gravitate to what we are familiar with. I was brought up in public school to read classical books, books by white people. I reflect on all the stories I’ve read, and I’m ashamed to say I wasn’t that surprised.
It is time we diversify our reading — and I’m going to approach this in a pragmatic way. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop reading books by white men. No, it just means I’m going to expand my perception of books that are available to me without that feeling that the author had not written the book for me. It was written for me — if I choose to read it. So here is what I’m doing.
I’m calling it the 1 out of 5 rule. 1 book out of 5 I read will be from a writer of a different gender or sexual identity. 1 book out of 5 will be from a writer of a different ethnicity. 1 book out of 5 will be from a writer of a different nationality. 1 book out of 5 will be a book that I think I’ll hate, which I feel will oppose my beliefs and interest. 1 book out of 5 will be a book of my choice, anything I want.
With something like books, we can’t be colourblind readers, because currently in most book store white authors take up more shelf space and therefore, if you just go in and grab a book, you’ll likely pick up one from a white author. At this very moment, if you want to read something written by a black, indigonious or person of colour, you need to dig for it. You need to make a conscious choice to do that. You need to go further down the aisle to look for it. And it’s fine. But let’s make that effort to do so. And this is how we start. It doesn’t mean we are going to stop reading Hemingway, Whitman and Faulkner. It means we are going to bring up the other authors as well, authors with perspectives that aren’t of the white man.
Look, there is no clear way forward. People are arguing and people are yelling. People are unable to be compassionate. People are blaming and people are shaming. Before we join that mob. Before we yell and scream — and add to the noise. Before we make a post about how we care and make other performative activism. Before we get overwhelmed and outraged. We need to start not by destroying the system, but we need to start by fortifying our ability to have empathy and our ability to be compassionate. That is where it starts. Reading is where it starts. Understanding is where it starts. Learning to think for ourselves is where it starts.
That’s how I’m going to diversify my reading and I hope you’ll join me.
I like to read a few different books at the same time. I find it helps me motivated to read more and it generally inspires me to write a lot.
Don’t get too distracted, but here is my YouTube channel filled with writing inspirations and ideas to help with your creative process. Check it out!
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As Cormac McCarthy, the author of No Country for Old Men would put it: when we look back at the past, we tend to view it through “pink lens”. He recalled regular conversations with his grandmother, where she lamented that in her youth, young men wouldn’t spend nights playing poker while their girlfriends were left alone. Of course, such proclamations, as McCarthy knew, were unfounded as men have been known to partake in poker, pool, and other activities without their better halves since the beginning of time. However, his grandmother believed her statement and that in her lifetime the world had shifted — perhaps for the worse.
Written during the apprehensive periods after 9/11, No Country For Old Men is a story about corruption and greed, chance and justice, but it’s also a story about the foreboding future that we’re hurtling towards, and the ineptitude of our leaders, our law enforcements, and ourselves as we brace for violence and destructive forces that our beyond our comprehension.
Over a decade since it’s initial publication and adaptation by the Coen Brothers, the story’s nihilistic themes are still relevant as we’re now confronted with obstacles that the old men in charge seem unprepared to handle.
This is the story of Cormac McCathy’s inspiration and Joel and Ethan Coen’s process towards adapting the novel that pulls off the shades and reveals a world worthy of pessimism.
Born in 1933 in Providence, Rhode Island, Cormac McCarthy knew from an early age that he would fail to be a respectable citizen. Hating school from the early days and vowing never to waste his life working, taking orders from others, he pursued a life as a writer, educating himself with books during his time in the Air Force while dispatched in Alaska, when he was twenty-three years old.
With a curriculum designed by himself, he read novels feverishly from literary greats including Herman Melville, Fedor Dostoyevsky, and William Faulkner, who was perhaps the one he drew his style from the most. A lot of Faulkerian themes could be found in McCarthy’s first novel, The Orchard Keeper, published in 1965 had, which makes sense because it earned him The William Faulkner Foundation Award for notable debut novel.
McCarthy, with a literary grant, would end up building momentum from his first novel, travelling Europe, writing three more novels, before receiving a McArthur Genius Grant that enabled him, in 1985, to publish his fifth and perhaps most critically revered work, Blood Meridian, pushing him to the level as one of the great American writers of his generation.
In the 90s, McCarthy finally got mainstream recognition for The Border trilogy that included, All the Pretty Horses, published in 1992, The Crossing, published in 1994, and Cities of the Plains, published in 1998. While Blood Meridian was a violent, horrific story full of blood and carnage — The Border trilogy was restrained. However, with his next novel, No Country for Old Men, published in 2005, McCarthy turned the dial back, as the depiction of senseless evil required a trail of blood for the readers and the old sheriff in the story to follow.
As the years past, McCarthy stayed true to his personal ideology and avoided succumbing to greed or distractions. He made his writing the prime focus of his life, forgoing lucrative opportunities and public adulations. He grew up not wanting to work, and in a way he succeeded. In a rare interview with Oprah in 2007, after winning a Pulitzer Prize for his 2006 novel, The Road, the writer dispelled the illusion that his achievements — although were not work — weren’t effortless. He had no advice to offer aspiring writers seeking a workfree life, except this, “if you are really dedicated, you can probably do it.” One has to work to not work.
Prior to 2000, the relationship between McCarthy and Hollywood had not been great. For example, Blood Meridian was deemed a cursed adaptation project. The list of esteemed filmmakers that had been linked to the project and then forced to surrender due to the complexity included Ridley Scott, Tommy Lee Jones, Martin Scorsese, John Hillcoat, and James Franco. The problem wasn’t that these filmmakers weren’t imaginative or talented enough, the problem was that the studios weren’t willing to take a risk on it.
Go figure, that the first adaptation that Hollywood would commit to was All the Pretty Horses in 2000. Directed by Billy Bob Thornton and starring Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz, All the Pretty Horses received an overwhelmingly negative reception to no fault of the source material. What hurt McCarthy’s first movie adaptation was the politics behind the production. The first cut of the movie was over three hours long, as Thronton had wanted, but Miramax insisted that he cut 35% from it. It was this that ripped the heart and soul from the movie, making it feel rushed, uninvolved, and flat. Some believe that the edits were forced upon Thronton because of his previous directorial foray, Sling Blade, in 1996, where he’d refused to make edits.
McCarthy always had an interest in stage and cinema. During his career, he experimented with writing scripts including a play, Sunset Limited in 2006 and a screenplay, The Counselor in 2013, directed by Ridley Scott. No Country for Old Men was originally written as a script, however, when it didn’t gain any tractions from Hollywood, he rewrote it as a novel.
Luckily, by the time he was ready to publish, the manuscript found its way into the hands of producer Scott Rubin. Rubin purchased the film rights and handed the script to Joel and Ethan Coen, who were starting their next project, which was an adaptation of a novel. The novel they had in mind initially was To the White Sea by James Dickie, published in 1993, a story of an American gunner surviving the final months of World War II in war-torn Tokyo. In the summer of 2005, the Coen brothers decided to put To the White Sea on the shelf and focus on No Country for Old Men.
What motivated them to pursue No Country for Old Men was how unconventional the story was told and the subverting genres. They loved the idea of the good guy and the bad guy never meeting face-to-face. They were drawn by the unforgiving landscape and the sentimentality of the story.
While No Country for Old Men would be the first official Coen Brothers adaptation, they were no strangers to drawing inspiration from literature. Their 1990 neo-noir, Miller’s Crossing was inspired by American novelist Dashiell Hammett and the 2000 comedy, O’Brother, Where Art Thou? was a modern interpretation of Homer’s Odyssey. When asked about their selection process by Charlie Rose in a 2007 interview, they simply stated, “Why not start with Cormac? Why not start with the best?”
And so they did. While one brother typed on the computer, the other held a copy of No Country for Old Men open flat. They were praised for the faithfulness to the novel, where they didn’t so much as alter, but rather compressed scenes to fit with the medium of film.
Shot by the admired cinematographer, Roger Deakins, No Country For Old Men was a sharp left turn from the Coen Brothers’ two disappointing attempts at comedy, Intolerable Cruelty starring George Clooney and Cathrine Zeta-Jones in 2003 and The Ladykiller starring Tom Hanks in 2004. Pulling from the starkness of Fargo, the violence of Miller’s Crossing and the stylization of The Man Who Wasn’t There, No Country for Old Men required the Coen Brothers and Deakins to be absolutely precise technically, in order to capture the realism that the story required.
Meticulous storyboarding kept the movie on track, even through all the debates regarding the staged violence on screen. Without the violence, the emotional payoff would be lost and the merciless evil will lack the gravatas the story required. The movie doesn’t glamourize the violence, but instead shows the brutality of it. The violence happens quickly, savage and painful — and in a way, without purpose. The famous coin flip scene in the convenience store simply wouldn’t have the same tension, if we, the audience, didn’t recognize what could be possible if chance went the other way.
No Country for Old Men is a movie almost devoid of music. The choice to go with a minimalistic soundtrack was seen as a removal of a film making safety net. Music helps the audience reach an emotional peak faster. It guides the story and builds tension, allowing the viewer to anticipate what will happen next. Think back to any thriller or suspense movie, and you may recall the soundtrack leading up to a climactic moment. But without music, the storytelling is exposed, giving the audience an out-of-the-comfort-zone experience, making the movie arguably more gripping and suspenseful. It puts you there with the characters. You hear the breathing. You hear the footsteps. You hear your heart pumping.
The Coen brothers had a clear vision of who they wanted to cast in the role of the aging sheriff Ed Tom Bell. There was a shortlist of actors who had the qualities to portray a character who could really inhabit the landscape and provide a profound performance of an elderly man coming to terms. Tommy Lee Jones grew up in San Saba, Texas, not far from where the story was set.
Initially, the role of Lewellyn Moss was offered to Heath Ledger, who in 2006 was coming off one of the biggest years with starring roles in The Lords of DogTown, The Brothers Grimm, and Brokeback Mountain, which earned him his first Oscar nomination. However, Ledger had to turn down the opportunity because he wanted to spend time with his daughter.
Then came Josh Brolin. With help from Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez to film an audition reel during a lunch break while on set for 2007’s Grindhouse, Brolin entered the conversation for the vacant role. While the audition tape — shot on a million dollar camera — didn’t have the desired effect for the Coen Brothers. The director and writer duo would eventually meet with Brolin, through much persistence from his agent — and decided that the child star from The Goonies was the right choice. Even though before shooting started, Brolin got into a motorcycle accident while heading back from a wardrobe fitting, breaking his collarbone. Luckily for Brolin, his character would have a bullet wound in the shoulder for the majority of the movie.
The most memorable performance in No Country for Old Men came from Javier Bardem’s portrayal of the psychotic hitman, Anton Chigurh. The role brought a lot of challenges to Bardem, including a femine haircut that was not a wig but his real hair, which made going out in public during the three months of filming a unique experience for the Spanish actor. Another challenge was finding humanity in a character that had no qualms towards human life. Bardem pointed to the scene where Chigurh was alone stitching up his wound as an important one for the character as it showed the audience that he was not immune to pain, he was not a robot, and it’s there that we understand that this monster was like us, and that made him so much scarier.
With a budget of $25 million, No Country for Old Men was shot in the early summer of 2006 in Las Vegas and New Mexico, where it first crossed paths with a rival movie that it’ll forever be connected to: Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. The Daniel Day-Lewis epic about a ruthless oil tycoon, based on the 1927 novel by Upton Sinclair Oil!, shared location with the Coen Brothers in Marfa, New Mexico. The biggest problem with the shared location was that There Will Be Blood’s production sent heavy smoke into the air one day, causing No Country for Old Men to pause their shoot to allow the smoke to dissipate. Both movies set in the desert, with similar themes of greed and corruption, will be deemed by many to be the top two movies that year.
What made many love No Country for Old Men were perhaps the same reasons some disliked it. It was a movie that defied conventions, it straddled genres — suspense, crime, western, and american gothic — and it was, to many, infuriatingly mysterious. The offscreen death of Moss, the villain’s pathetic escape, and the abrupt ending, left many confused. But it was in those cinematic choices that made the movie so memorable, because it mirrored the lives we were living. We brought our own interpretation to the story. Are we governed by destiny or self-determination? Are we the hunters or the hunted? How have our immoral acts lead to where we are now, and how many more can we get away with before our luck runs out? These are of course questions without clear answers, but No Country for Old Men suggests that our luck is already up, and here are the consequences. What do we make of that?
On May 19, 2007, No Country for Old Men premiered at the Cannes Film Festival where it became a frontrunner for the Palm D’or but would end up losing to the Romanian film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days. On November 9, 2007, the movie was released in the United States, grossing over $1,200,000 through the opening weekend, becoming the highest-grossing Coen Brothers movie of the time.
The movie would be nominated for eight Academy Awards for Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, and winning Best Adapted ScreenPlay, Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Javier Bardem, Best Directors, and most incredibly, Best Picture, beating out Atonement, Juno, Michael Clayton, and their western rival, There Will Be Blood.
No Country for Old Men is a movie I think about often. It was released in my final years as an inspiration-seeking teenager and I watched it in a theatre that no longer exists. Like the character of Sheriff Bell, who reminisces about a simpler time, I too think back fondly of that experience — I remember sitting on the edge of my seat in that empty theatre on a Saturday afternoon. I have failed to recreate the experience ever since. That’s a great lesson in life, and perhaps the most pertinent theme of the story, regardless of chance or free will, we can only have this moment and whether we choose or not, this life will happen, so if nothing more, we should brace for it.
If the Coen Brothers were to adapt another novel, what would you like to see? Let me know in the comments below.
You have writer’s block. You’ve been sitting there in front of a blank page for hours and nothing is happening. Or do you feel like all you do is write about yourself?
I struggle with empathy. As a writer, that is a handicap. I find myself too focused on my own world and my own goals that I seldom take the time to acknowledge others.
Writing is good medicine for the unempathetic, but like meditation, it is something I need to practice.
Here is how you can practice writing and strengthen your empathy skills.
Allow me to introduce this idea to you. I call this The Cup of Sonder technique. You might have heard this word before, Sonder.
Sonder is the realization that everyone you see passing by is living a life as rich and complex as yours.
It’s basically people-watching. Sit at a coffee shop, sip your americano, and look out the window. Watch as the characters pass by. All you are given are their external traits.
Pick a person and fill in the colours of their lives.
Where are they going? What are they concerned about? What are they looking forward to?
Start writing all of this down and begin to create a world around these serendipitous characters.
I know it’s not the best time to be outside, people watching…
So, if you can’t go sit at a coffee shop and delve into sonder, I have created a list of 100 writing prompts below. Each one is designed with 3-5 traits of a stranger passing by.
Please feel free to write about these characters:
1. A woman with a ponytail and large round glasses is wearing a trenchcoat and holding a briefcase.
2. A burly man with a large beard and a big belly is wearing boots.
3. An older woman in an expensive jacket is shouting at someone ahead of her.
4. A man wearing a tank top with tattoos on his exposed arm is walking casually with a smile.
5. A young boy with a green cap is carrying a big case, walking purposefully.
6. A curly-haired woman in a denim jacket is locking up a bike.
7. A woman in a long purple dress that exposes her shoulder is smoking a cigarette and listening to music with big headphones.
8. An elderly man — with a thick mustache, has his hands in his pants pockets — is looking up at the top of a building.
9. A 300-pound man with small glasses is texting urgently on his phone.
10. A boy with long hair is brushing the tears out of his eyes.
11. A bald woman is wearing a fur coat and walking a large 200lb dog.
12. A skinny man wearing a construction vest and a hard hat is covered in soot.
13. A man with his hair dyed green, wearing a black trench coat and holding a cane, stands idly waiting for the traffic lights to change.
14. A woman, wearing yoga pants and a tank top with pigtails, is carrying a bag of groceries.
15. A man with tangled hair, wearing a sports team hoodie, is walking an old bike with the loose chains.
16. A teenage girl, with a fluorescent pink backpack, is listening to music and nodding her head to the beat of the song.
17. A large man is looking at a piece of paper in his hands, shaking his head in frustration, and swearing loudly to himself.
18. A mother, wearing an expensive green dress, is pulling her son who is resisting her command.
19. An old woman, dressed in a red velvet coat, is pushing a dolly of full plastic bags.
20. A man, with sunglasses and a popped polo shirt collar, is spinning his keys on his finger and whistling a song.
21. A large woman in a baggy black hoodie and sweatpants jogs by.
22. A thin man, wearing a baseball cap backward and a small black t-shirt, is walking with a limp.
23. A man, with a strong build and short brown hair, is holding his phone, looking up occasionally, and reading the street signs.
24. A bigger man, in a brown sweater and a toque (beanie), wearing earphones, is walking with one hand in his pocket.
25. A woman, in blue jeans and a blue tank top that might be a one-piece swimsuit, passes by holding a bicycle helmet.
26. An elderly lady, wearing a blue bucket hat and carrying a backpack in front of her, is looking into a window of a restaurant.
27. A man — wearing sunglasses, a gray blazer, and shorts — crosses the street, while drinking a cup of coffee.
28. A teenage boy in a striped shirt is holding a bouquet of flowers like it is a suitcase.
29. A dad, crossing the street carrying a toddler and holding the hand of an older child, is expressionless as he picks up a shoe that fell from his toddler’s foot.
30. A woman with long brown hair stops to look through a shopping bag she was carrying.
31. A younger woman with crutches and a leg in a cast hobbles past.
32. A small woman with big glasses in a fluorescent raincoat is holding a mailing tube tightly.
33. A man with bed head hair is wearing earphones, scrolling through his phone, and looking up now and then to avoid hitting anyone.
34. A well-dressed woman hands her boyfriend her phone and poses along the street for a photo.
35. A large man, wearing a construction helmet, is taking notes on a tattered notepad.
36. A man, with a baseball cap and big lumberjack beard, is walking with a cane.
37. A woman — with short blonde hair, black sunglasses, and a turtleneck — is waving at someone across the street.
38. An unshaven man with greasy hair, wearing a polo shirt, is holding a door open.
39. A woman in scrubs is untangling her earphone cords while holding her tablet.
40. An older woman in sweatpants is drinking from a bottle wrapped in a paper bag.
41. A younger man wearing sunglasses with short hair is helping an old lady cross the road.
42. A bald man with a white backpack and a long beard is carrying a pink electric guitar.
43. A chubby woman dressed all in black is riding a kid scooter.
44. A man with long white hair, wearing a safety vest, is holding a bundle of blue tarp and searching for something on the ground.
45. A man, with a white hat and big brown boots, is carrying a hiking backpack.
46. A woman with her hair disheveled passes by, wearing a long baggy rock band t-shirt and flip flops.
47. A woman with short hair dyed blue wearing a basketball jersey.
48. A man, wearing a bowler hat and a pink-patterned trench coat, walks by swinging his arm wildly.
49. A woman, with a blonde ponytail, dressed all in black is digging through her purse.
50. A very tall man, towering above everyone else, passes by concealing something moving in his pocket.
51. A young man, with feminine features, strolls by with a bounce in his step.
52. A man, with a mop-top haircut, is wearing thin-rimmed glasses on his long nose.
53. A woman with a large afro in a blue patterned dress and three-inch heels strides pass with a purpose.
54. A woman, wearing a black hoodie and sunglasses, is holding a large feather like a glass of wine.
55. A man with bandages unwrapping around his legs is trying to gather the loose ends.
56. An androgynous man runs by with blond hair in a bun, wearing a red hoodie t-shirt and spandex pants.
57. An old woman in a red silk coat stands at the corner with her arms behind her back staring across the street.
58. A fit woman with a ponytail, wearing a green sports bra, is pushing a baby carriage as she jogs.
59. A very large man, shaped like a balloon, trudge by wearing a big blue shirt with Al Pacino’s Scarface on it.
60. A tall woman, with long hair down to her butt, is wearing a black romper, holding a small purse casually at her side, and walking with great posture.
61. A man, with many piercings on his face and hair dyed with multiple colors, passes by with a cigarette in his mouth.
62. A shirtless man, with short messy hair, is holding a clear plastic cup with nothing in it.
63. A man with a backward cap and a goatee, wearing a red plaid shirt, is carrying a flagger stop sign.
64. A woman with dreadlocks is pushing a very large double bass case on wheels across the street.
65. A tanned man with long curly hair, wearing a tie-dye shirt, is skateboarding as fast as possible down the street.
66. A girl with a fairy haircut and eyebrows that spike up at the end walks past with a cup of coffee.
67. A balding man with comb-over hair is wearing a long shirt — way too long for him — and walking as though there is a rock in his shoe.
68. An old lady wearing a blue fishing hat is pulling a two-wheel shopping dolly that has flower patterns on it.
69. A woman wearing only an orange bikini and running shoes is filming herself on her phone as she walks by, not acknowledging the glances she’s receiving.
70. A teenage boy with long hair, wearing a black tank top, is lighting a cigarette that won’t spark.
71. A woman in a pink dress is riding a motorized wheelchair, speeding by and almost hitting some pedestrians.
72. A tanned thin wrinkly man is holding a garbage bag open and telling people to look inside.
73. A well-built man with a white beard is wearing a beanie and a whole assortment of necklaces from animal teeth to colorful gems.
74. A man in an ill-fitting tuxedo is pacing nervously, pulling out a flask from his inside coat pocket and taking a swig.
75. A grumpy old man sits on a bench, wearing a brown coat, with his arms are crossed as he watches people stroll him by.
76. A small short-haired woman is wearing multiple layers of clothing, topping it off with a vest, and following a couple asking for change.
77. A woman with silky blonde hair is adjusting a big gray backpack that clung heavily on her shoulders.
78. A man, with a salt-and-pepper five o’clock shadow, is wearing a green hoodie with the zippers unzipped, revealing that he is not wearing a shirt underneath.
79. A man in a fresh new blue t-shirt is walking around with a snake wrapped around his shoulder.
80. A little girl in a white dress is eating chocolate ice cream and walking a dog the same size as her.
81. An older man is running down the sidewalk, pushing a two-wheel hand truck with a tower of boxes upon it.
82. A small man — but very muscular — with a lot of tattoos is constantly looking over his shoulders.
83. An athletic woman is rollerblading while wearing a long pink dress.
84. A man with thick eyebrows and a thicker mustache is carrying a cardboard box filled with antique.
85. A woman, wearing a red shirt with the number 69 on her back, is laughing loudly as she walks by.
86. An older lady carrying a shopping bag in one hand and a rolled-up yoga mat in the other is in no rush to get where she’s going.
87. A glamorous woman in a beautiful gown has her make-up ruined from tears still on her face.
88. An athletic young man wearing a white t-shirt decided that here is the best place for him to do some pushups.
89. A woman in a plaid shirt and ripped shorts is carrying a six-pack of beer and a brown paper bag.
90. An elderly woman, with slicked-back greasy hair, is wearing aviator glasses and a leather jacket.
91. A strapping man in a larger yellow shirt is pushing a double baby stroller that has no babies in it.
92. A man wearing a motorcycle helmet on his head is shuffling through a folder full of documents.
93. A college student is typing on her laptop as she walks down the street, carrying a backpack with the zippers open.
94. A man with a long ponytail is smoking a pipe and curling his curly mustache.
95. A woman with a lot of plastic surgery is wearing a shiny dress that is reflecting the lights off the sun.
96. A young girl with pig-tails is riding a unicycle down the street and waving to people as she passes by.
97. A lady in t-shirt, shorts, and high-heels falls to the ground, her glasses sliding away from her, her elbows are scraped.
98. A man, with a handlebar mustache and a mullet, dressed in a denim jacket, is carrying a medicine ball in both arms.
99. A 20-something-year old is holding a case of beer, but the box is broken, so he’s having an awkward time carrying it.
100. A man wearing a facemask and sunglasses is standing at the intersection waiting for the street lights to change.
I hope it can inspire you and that you will create something wonderful from it. Please feel free to share what you’ve written in the comments below, I’d love to read it. And if you are up for the challenge, you can try to write all 100, one for each day.
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Heather and Patrick were having coffee together and a conversation about a novel came up. American Gods by Neil Gaiman. “I love that book,” said Patrick, to which Heather responded with a disgusted grunt. “I didn’t like it.”
Patrick was a little shocked because they often enjoyed the same type of entertainment. “Why?” he asked.
Heather thought about it for a moment, recalling some aspects of the story and said, “Hmm… I felt that Gaiman was just trying too hard.”
Patrick was not satisfied with that answer, “Shouldn’t a writer always try hard?”
“Oh,” said Heather, with no desire to continue the conversation. “I just didn’t like it…”
Patrick, not wanting to spoil their afternoon together decided to drop it. But the thought lingered in his mind. “Trying too hard.” Shouldn’t that be a good thing?”
While Heather failed to articulate elements of the story that she disliked, “trying too hard” is a common expression to describe a piece of writing — or a creative work of any kind — that didn’t register with the audience. This is especially noticeable when the work is something as big and bold as Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.
Nobody would deny that it was a piece of ambitious work. It’s a story about life and death, mythology and beliefs, new America, and sacred lands. It has a massive cast of characters and a climax as epic as any other notable fantasy. But surely that cannot be a bad thing. Can it?
A writer gives off the impression of trying too hard when the effort put into the work is not only visible but excessive. Although this can all be a matter of personal taste, Heather must have found the references to mythology and religion, the metaphor of media and technology as deities, and the usage of real-world geography and imagined realms too much. Each one of these unique elements added another flavour to the story that she simply wasn’t familiar with. It felt too experimental and it failed to capture her imagination.
When a reader finds that a writer is trying too hard to impress her, it can be off-putting. Unnecessarily large words, similes that miss the mark, flowery language with no purpose, humour that lacks the wit, and cliffhangers at any opportunity given are all elements that leave the reader feeling like the writer was trying too hard.
Of course, Patrick didn’t think Neil Gaiman was trying too hard. He found American Gods to be an entertaining and thought-provoking novel. Over 450 pages of thrilling action and adventure. He found the story to be a fresh take on a familiar genre and proved to him that Gaiman was a writer that continually pushed the limits of his own creative and literary capabilities.
One could argue that Gaiman wouldn’t have written something that impacted Patrick so significantly if he didn’t write something that Heather would consider trying too hard. Because one can only believe that Gaiman was trying hard. All writers should try hard. They should all try as hard as they can. They should push their imagination and their writing to the full limit of their potential.
As far as “Trying too hard” goes, it’s not a completely negative critique. There are some merits to be given. An A for effort. When someone tells you that you’re trying too hard, know that you are heading in the right direction — perhaps a bit of refining is needed — but don’t let what one reader says hold you back from your next epic story. Try hard and keep improving.
If you enjoyed this article, please check out the What Is… of Writing series:
In order for artists to improve, they need to draw the same thing over and over again. Each time they draw something, they see something different. Something they didn’t notice previously. Each time they draw, they dig a bit deeper. They see angles, colors, textures in a different way. They challenge themselves to be more refined or more creative, bringing something new to the original idea.
We can apply this creative technique to writing as well. For the next 30 days, I want to challenge you to write about the same thing every day. It can be your chair, your room, your dog, your family, your cup of coffee, anything, but whatever you pick, stick with it for 30 days. Each day, write one new sentence, as long or as short as you want.
For me, I chose to write about the intersection in front of my apartment. It’s a busy place with a lot going on. It’s noisy. It’s dirty. And each day, I see something a little different in it. Or at least try to.
Some days I write something really good, other days, I just try to get a sentence down. The goal of this exercise is to practice observing deeper, seeing details that aren’t immediately visible. It also helps you develop a habit. For many people, writing every day can be a challenge, especially if they have a lofty goal, like 2 pages a day or a 1,000 words. This challenge simplifies the process: 1 sentence. Easy. Write about the same thing every day. No need to wait for inspiration, it’s there. Write about that!
What makes this a challenge is that you need to overcome your own perceived limitations. By day 5, you’ll run out of surface-level stuff to write about. That’s when your creativity really kicks in. That’s when you hold on and discover how your mind actually works. You may feel bored around day 10 or 15, but keep going, because your best sentence may come at day 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, or 30. You may need to get through the shit first. And that’s the last thing about this challenge. It allows you to practice perseverance. And perseverance is essential.
I encourage you to start after you finish reading this article. There is no time better than the present. Good luck! I look forward to reading your work.
For more writing and editing resources, please consider signing up for my mailing list. You won’t receive emails from me often, but when you do, it’ll include only work that I’m most proud of.