It often seems that universally writers talk about two conflicting aspects of the work.
1) Writing is work. No amount of fantasizing will get you to the finish line. Te-Nahisi Coates describes writing as an act of physical courage, and the ultimate product of your labor? Passable at best.
2) The lengthy periods of writer’s block.
Out of one side of the mouth comes the old admonishment: “There is nothing to writing! All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” From the other side, the admission that lack of inspiration or confidence can take a writer’s voice for days, sometimes even years.
For three months, I have not posted anything to this blog. But fortunately this is not because of writer’s block. I have been writing. And the project that took all my efforts in the months of May and June and that kept me silent in this medium was a screenplay, the conception and execution of which, like most spates of honest work, took up far more time and energy than I had initially provided for.
A few years ago I wrote, co-produced and worked as script supervisor on a short film shot here in Honolulu entitled John E. Dirt. It was a great month. An absolute hoot.
In order to accomplish the project, we called upon friends, acquaintances and family members. We also had the good fortune to work with industry professionals that the director, Bill Draheim, had met working on movies and in television here in Hawaii.
I plan to tell more about this ambitious vanity project in the future, but the reason I bring it up now is because one of Bill’s friend from Hawaii 50, electrician and photographer Hesham Metwally, showed up towards the end to help out. He happened to be looking for a writer.
In the final shot, Hesham lit a spliff and waved it in the dusty air of the third-story floor we had built our set on, its smoke mingling that coming from the prop cigarettes that a villainous roadie, played by J.T. Rowland, blows into the face of our suffering rock star, John E. Dirt. Bill let the spliff-waving stand. We were ready for a party.
I didn’t hear from Hesham for two years. Then one day, while slogging through another day at my permanent-adjunct teaching position at Hawaii Tokai International College, I got a call out of the blue. It was Hesham. He wanted to discuss a project.
When we met for a coffee, Hesham right away went through the endless frustration of self-styled writers who “loved the project” and were “very excited about it” but invariably evaporated when pressed. Perhaps they were all of that most common genus of writer: the one who doesn’t actually write. But there were other reasons he encountered affable dismissal, which I will go into later.
“Everyone thinks they’re a writer until they face the blank page,” I must have told him, or something along those lines. My way of cluing him into the reality of how difficult it is to write. “So what is the story,” I asked him.
He lowered his voice conspiratorially: “Have you heard of the ‘The City of Refuge’?”
Here a little backstory is required. I’ve lived in Hawaii for close to twenty years. I arrived in late 1997 hot on the heels of my college sweetheart, a girl I could not live without–at least for the next ten years. Her family sat squarely at the overlap of various progressive political movements: her mother was a self-proclaimed Communist, her father, a Hawaiian nationalist. I was deeply in love and still reeling from the existential shellacking my studies as a political scientist undergrad at a small liberal arts college had. My white middle class upbringing seemed paltry and shallow compared to the indigenous valley community she came from.
I have since matured a bit and have a less sanguine view of where she comes from and a more generous view of where I come from, but at the time, callow youth being what it is, I leapt into the struggle hook line and sinker.
In sum, I became involved in activism. I met many brilliant people and more than a few eccentrics. The occasional cracked pot hardly stuck out among the whistle blowers; sometimes, they are one and the same!
My twenties unfolded, mystically and haphazardly, a harrowing and psychological decade. I disappeared from my old life, sinking into a sort of stuporous political zealotry, reminders of which still flare up in my writing, my Facebook posts, and the occasional bar stool debate like malaria or a cold sore.
At the end, I was a single, unemployed father. As Kurt Vonnegut would say: “So it goes.”
In any case, the upshot was that of course I had heard of the ‘City of Refuge’, or Pu`uhonua as it is called in the Hawaiian language. This is a place, usually fairly remote from other communities, where a person can take refuge if they had had the bad luck of being accused of breaking one of the strict laws, or kapu, that regimented life in ancient Hawaii.
Hesham had heard of the place (really many places, as each island was said to have one or more of the refuges) years ago and come up with an adventure idea so obvious that on hearing it, I couldn’t help but wonder why no one had thought of it before.
A young man and woman fall in love. A jealous rival frames the young man who is then accused of breaking the kapu. His only recourse is to flee to the City of Refuge!
Now, the idea is admittedly brilliant in its simplicity and I have high hopes for the project, but just allow me one quick quibble as a writer who has been approached with ideas before.
So after Hesham has told me the skeleton of the plot, I ask him: “Well, what happens on the way to the Pu`uhonua?”
“Yeah, but what happens in his escape? That’s the movie, bro.” I tell him.
In cinema-speak, what Hesham hadn’t thought about yet was what is known as Act II. Act II It is the longest part of the movie, doubly so. It is the part when the movie fizzles or sizzles. It is the part where you actualize the brilliant concept you’ve established in Act I, also known as the introduction, and work up to the climax that wraps everything up in Act III.
For those of you who don’t write, please keep it in mind that success lies in the execution.
Act II, that’s the movie, bro.