SHOT BY THE WRITER
One hundred plus file boxes unmanageably squeezed into shelves in my garage, the drafts and notes and research materials under my keep from the 34 writing jobs I’ve had over the last 20 years. I needed to consolidate but could not start that process until I’d found a means to commemorate all that work. Those unlucky projects. The truly unworthy. (And the brilliant.) I briefly considered shredding everything by hand with a table saw and building a ceremonial fire. I kept imagining an un-produced script riddled with bullet holes, then bronzed like a baby shoe, for a shelf in my office. A decent memorial for jobs done. Memento Mori.
Then I fell on this title: “SHOT BY THE WRITER - Works on Paper: 1983-2004.” All the works I did not own, did not control, could never have back. 22 motion picture screenplay writing assignments locked in at all the studios -- rewrites of the original work of others, adaptations of books, my own original scripts sold as pitches and written under contract. All shelved, encumbered by dropped rights, some rewritten repeatedly by others. I would cast the screenplays in bronze using the ancient lost wax method. The cover pages would be re-created on a letterpress. The owner of my gym, John MacLaren, a former Navy Seal, offered to teach me to shoot a gun. I found a firing range willing to allow me to provide my own targets.
As I “shot” the scripts for bronze casting, I was amazed by the dramatic effect of the bullets. It became clear to me that the actual “shot” scripts with their shredded, exploding words on the smashed, fibrous paper stock riding through the intense gashes of the exit wounds held their own striking visual power. Printmaker Lev Moross suggested to me that the paper scripts be photographed with a large format (8 x 10) camera to display this detail to its best advantage. Cinematographer Robert Elswit very kindly lent me his Zone VI view camera and gave me a lesson in its operation. I wanted to give my scripts glamour. I studied the lighting technique of Hollywood photographer George Hurrell. So the shreds of the typed pages and bullet-minced words might shine like the curls in Bette Davis’s hair, ready for their close-up.
Instead of simply recording some kind of rite of passage for my abandoned work, I found myself drawing back in the original energy I had generously dispersed into this now-forgotten writing. I had reclaimed the words and the emotions behind them in their rawest form, pushing back to blank pages, taking back the letters and the words from before the sentences were formed, the dialogue and description written. My dead work lived on. Reborn.
Burn a book? Never. I can barely bring myself to give them away or even lend them. But when Pen USA, the international writers’ rights organization, asked me to set ablaze and photograph seven of the best books ever written, in the name of artistic freedom and the First Amendment, I agreed very quickly. Pen USA holds a benefit reading (Forbidden Fruit) during which actors read from seven selected titles on the American Library Association’s list of one hundred most challenged books of the preceding decade. A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials based upon the objections of a person or group. Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others to that book. Between 1990 and 2000, 6,364 challenges by groups or individuals were reported to the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom. In 2005, Judy Blume was the most challenged author in America.
These attempts at censorship do not always succeed. But sometimes they do. Municipalities do ban books from their public libraries and school libraries in America. On rare occasions, instead of ordering the school janitor to shred the book or disposing of it in the used book marketplace, members of a community have been allowed to publicly burn the books. In February, 2005, “concerned” parents in Norwood, Colorado, actually burned Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya after succeeding in having the book banned from the middle school curriculum and library. They believed the book promoted paganism. And did they see the false idols dying in the flames of Bless Me, Ultima?
In my previous series of photographs and sculptures, Shot by the Writer, I fired live ammunition through final drafts of all the assigned worked I had done as a screenwriter for hire but did not own or control. I had been well paid for the writing. But this work did not and never would belong to me again. I found my own, altogether different visual terms for these creative efforts re-creating them as lost wax bronze sculptures and archival prints from large-format transparencies.
When Pen USA asked me to burn great books for them, I was honored and surprised that a higher use had been found for the creative schematics and visual skill sets I had honed with Shot by the Writer. Sanctioned by renowned supporters of writing to commit this forbidden act, I plunged forward and began acquiring and burning books so that they might never be burned again.
Technically, I schooled myself on the challenges of working with live fire. A book on fire is dangerous and fast moving. It’s gone in twenty minutes. From a visual standpoint, I understood the dramatic visual interplay that ash, flames and smoke would have on printed words. But I needed to explore the effect of fire on different kinds of editions. Months earlier, I had acquired a copy of Billy Bathgate by E.L. Doctorow which I discovered was a first edition. As I began to read it, I found myself very sensitive to the quality of the paper, the design of the letters, the feel of the excellent cloth-covered, hard bound edition with its clean, fresh dust jacket; how good binding elevates a text, adds presence, weight to the act of reading. I fantasized about seeing my own novel presented within such a sumptuous container. I would never again pick up a book in quite the same way. The text -- the book -- is paramount. But a good book deserves to be printed and bound properly, mythologized in its packaging.
With this heightened palate, I inventoried the used book stores within driving distance. I cyber-rummaged Amazon.com and the various used-book off-shoots of Amazon Marketplace. As I acquired multiple copies of the designated victims, I was filled with sadness and regret, yet commissioned with a license to transcend the implicit wickedness, the malicious sickness of the action. Burning books is a taboo. Picking up the last few copies of these volumes at the handful of excellent used book stores in Los Angeles, I was greatly stricken. The owners of these stores select books to sell because they are worthy. They are the keepers of the good books – which I was assigned to destroy. I was acquiring copies that would be martyrs, dying so others might live, a challenge to the challengers, because free people read freely.
Editions of the seven chosen books began piling up in my office: Old paperbacks, first editions, brand new commemorative volumes, used trade paperbacks, retired library editions. I burned the books, not to suppress them, but to promote them. Fire is passion. The greatest passions are never-ending fires. And so it is with great books and the great ideas they convey. As they flickered away and turned to ash, I fought time and nature to capture some part of the soul of the text in the camera before it went up completely. Book lovers and book haters share knowledge of the quality different editions possess. In hand or in flames, cheap paperbacks move fast. Hardcover books tend to burn more slowly. Opened up, on fire, the pages turn langorously on their own. Corners turn evocatively. The spine stands alone once the pages turn to ash. Trade paperbacks are deceptive. Sometimes they go up like cheap paperbacks. But often, they hold the staying power of hardbacks.
Ironically, I had just completed my own first novel. To study fiction technique, every evening before bed, I habitually read a short story or a chapter from a novel. Over the last year and a half I have read the collected works of William Trevor, Alice Munro and Flannery O’Connor. These authors have rekindled my love affair with the printed word, its power to convey so much to the imagination in ways no other medium can. I had begun to appreciate anew the act of reading, the magic of the book, the power of great writing to take hold of us and stimulate thought, feeling, emotion. My own novel, The Bad Version, is also about a text: A screenplay. In my story, this fictional screenplay matters in the world only because it has meaning for one single reader.
There are those who would deny us the opportunity to read books which they deem objectionable. They must understand well that books change lives, elevate minds, illuminate details of existence like no other art form can. Fearing that this power will somehow do damage, they seek to eliminate controversial books from their communities, our world. I burn copies of these challenged books, with the hope that the firelight will somehow illuminate the tyrannical nature of these challenges. These fires are set as a challenge to their challenges. We will not ban their right to challenge but we will do our utmost to prevent the banning of these books we cherish or any books at all in our world.
Fire does fascinate. It creates dynamic visual effects on paper which are extraordinary to document photographically. The censors who burn these books must watch the flames with sanctimonious glee, sure they are doing the right thing. We must more than match the passion of the censors who would burn to negate. As I precisely and carefully burned their targets for them, safe in the knowledge that there was no shortage of these publications and that I was not denying access to these works to anyone, I attempted to shed light on these attempted crimes against freedom. There are people in America who want to destroy the parts of our culture of which they disapprove. They would withhold To Kill A Mockingbird, Slaughterhouse Five, Beloved, Leaves of Grass, Always Running, A Wrinkle in Time, A Light in the Attic and hundreds of other books from everyone. Free people read freely. The paper may burn but the words, the ideas, the dances of thought and imagery they convey linger in the smoke and ash. I can read the words within the fire and ash. They linger even after the paper is all gone.