This is excerpted from my CD, The Writer’s Cave, Why Writers Write What They Do. It is available from amazon for $10. To order click here:
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The Writer’s Cave, True Stories of Why We Write What We Do, written and presented by John Lehman
BOB: Part One, THE WRITER AS VAMPIRE
JOHN: Question: Do writers sleep in coffins?
In the old days, victims of writers, e.g. readers, were occasionally interred while still in an author-induced deep sleep. This may have given rise to the myth from gravediggers and others who observed them emerging from coffins and crypts that literary people do sleep in coffins. So the answer is “no,” though a writer may choose to sleep in a coffin for other reasons. I understand coffins are quite dark and very quiet.
I get this idea for a one-person presentation. A DVD commentary on an Ingmar Bergman film, Persona, suggests that a director/writer is like a vampire. Wow, I think, the writer as vampire. So I write something up. It begins this way:
It’s 35 years ago in one of the Slavic countries that gave rise to the legend of vampires in the 11th century. My first wife and I are wandering the streets of Split, Yugoslavia—an ancient Venetian city on the blue Mediterranean with white buildings stacked up its hills.
He turns to the audience.
Come along with me.
John continues conversationally.
I’d just left the Army and we are on the first leg of a year’s journey that will take us to Greece, Bulgaria, Italy, Austria, France, Spain, Portugal and back to Germany.
Anyway, it’s a warm early fall afternoon and a crowd is gathering several blocks away. With our one-year-old in a carrier on my back, we hurry down the seaside street to see what possibly could be going on.
There’s the snapshot in my memory that remains. A movie is being shot in front of an old hotel. This is intriguing in itself. But then we look past the actors and cameras and see that the man directing it is none other than…the legendary…
John looks off to their left. His initial enthusiasm is replaced by disillusionment.
He looks terrible. As wide as he is tall, he’s dressed in a black shirt, black trousers, and a black suit coat that he must have slept in. His hair is greasy and hanging straight over his forehead and his corpulent face is a sweaty, beet red. He seems to be tilting slightly backwards to balance his colossal weight.
But it is the Orson Welles. Orson Welles directing!
John looks back as if they are seeing the action of the movie shoot.
A taxi pulls in front of the hotel entrance and as the woman gets out the camera on the other side zooms in, shooting into the interior of the automobile she’s leaving.
All this is done without any verbal direction. In fact this seems to be more a rehearsal for a scene that will be shot.
Orson Welles is turning to the cameraman.
My God, I am going to hear the greatest cinematic genius of all time actually tell his cameraman what to do.
He says, with that still-sonorous Orson Welles voice coming from deep in his diaphragm as if from the bottom of a huge, empty barrel,
“Mario, keep your eyes on the camera, these people will steal anything.”
That’s it. Probably no one in the crowd but Pat and I understand English, but we laugh all afternoon repeating the words:
“Mario, keep your eyes on the camera.”
And the baby laughs too…so hard and so beautifully…
… that during the whole rest of the trip if we want him to roll with laughter, we say…
“Mario, keep your eyes on the camera!”
John returns to his own thoughts. The joy starts to dissolve.
What an anticlimax, but looking back what could he have said that would be more memorable? For Orson Welles—known as the boy genius because of his early masterpiece, Citizen Kane—making movies for TV in Yugoslavia was probably the low point of his career. And here was my son beginning his life…with wonderful giggles. My little boy’s laughter was his masterpiece. To his parents, he was “our baby genius.”
When John begins again his voice is weary, more confessional.
A nice story, but now, almost 35 years later, here’s why I think it fits the topic, “The Writer as Vampire.”
As writers, we’re consumed with finding significant “meaning.” We are elated when we think we have that. But then times change. Life moves on. And what is significant changes for us.
When I sit down to write a poem about the Orson Welles encounter 20 years later, my son is a teenager in the Air Force—neither a “teenage genius” nor an “Air Force genius,” and my wife has left me. So the cheery ending of the little memory doesn’t seem quite appropriate anymore.
Here are the last two stanzas I come up with:
His shot seemed a curious choice.
When the woman stepped out from
the cab a camera entered through
a door that opened on the other
side. Did it make sense, to film
the empty space where once she
had been, leaving us to watch her
parting shape from the dark inside?
In twenty years, my wife, herself,
would go, never once looking back
on unedited footage decomposing
in the can.
His face was crimson with broken
veins and greased with sweat; his
voice—that voice—no longer Harry
Lime’s, but the mumbled growl of
Hank Quinlan toward his seedy end.
What I wanted most that day, was
a shimmering globe to hold forever
dear, instead, in his voice I heard
only shards of broken glass. “Mario,”
he said, “you keep your eyes on the
people or they will steal everything.”
And she did.
I like the Citizen Kane snow-scene-in-a-glass-globe allusion, but now, my emphasis switches from watching the camera to “keep your eyes on the people.” Now I had “truth” that fit my current situation.