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Star Crossed

[whitespace] Talking Pictures guest Naomi Epel ponders the bard's writer's block

By David Templeton


For over five years, writer David Templeton has been taking interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time out, he does the dinner-and-a-movie thing with Naomi Epel, famed San Francisco author and "media escort." The movie in discussion is the hit comedy Shakespeare In Love, in which the star-crossed Bard wrangles with love, poverty and a bad case of writer's block.

"David! It's Naomi," announces Naomi Epel. "Clara and I are going to a movie tonight. We're thinking of seeing Shakespeare in Love. Shall I still save that one for you?" Epel is calling, a few days before the New Year, to remind me that I'd once suggested we see S.I.L together--whenever the film was finally released.

"Save it. Save it," I plead, aware that, should she see the film tonight--and it turned out to be awful--she'd be unlikely to want to see it again with me. "You're the perfect person to see this one with," I add, quite honestly (knowing full well that she's not, um, especially fond of Shakespeare's plays). "It's a film about writer's block--and these days, Naomi, you're the expert on that subject. How about Wednesday night? I'll bring Susan."

"Wednesday's fine," Epel affirms. "I'll bring Clara. We'll make it a double date."

This chatty little exchange is the result of years of professional association with Ms. Naomi Epel. As a respected "media escort," this long-time Berkeley resident has been a secret, unofficial Talking Pictures guest more times than either of us can remember. You see, it's Epel's job to schlep visiting authors around town--from the airport to the hotel to any scheduled book-readings or interviews--and occasionally to the movies to scarf popcorn and to wax philosophical with someone like me.

So we've gotten to know each other fairly well.

In the course of Epel's literary chauferism, she's had happy access to the minds and psyches of our greatest living writers and thinkers. Her first book Writers Dreaming was an exploration of how some of these authors are inspired by their own nocturnal visions. In addition to quizzing writers about their dreams, she's also been picking their brains for hints on how they retain their creative powers, what methods they use to focus on their work--and what they do whenever they're blocked. Ray Bradbury and William Saroyan, she learned, take long walks to get the ideas moving; others, like Stephen King, observe peculiar rituals before writing; Maya Angelou copies lists of rhymes whenever she's stuck.

Now, Epel has pulled all of these ideas together in The Observation Deck (Chronicle, 1998). A kind of "creativity kit," it consists of an absorbing, 160 page book describing hundreds of writers' suggestions, and a deck of 50 cards, each one stamped with a different block-busting idea. Feeling blocked? Close your eyes and pick a card. Try the suggestion in question and see what happens. It's not surprising that The Observation Deck, released last October, has been an instant hit among struggling writers--and looks to be propelling Naomi to a kind of "writer's block guru" status.

So what does Epel have to say about William Shakespeare's little problem?

"Gee, it wasn't much of a block, was it? Shakespeare got through it pretty fast, didn't he?" We've just seen the movie, and the four of us are now sampling the cuisine of Singapore at a bustling San Francisco restaurant. In the movie, a young, fictionalized Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes), struggling with his latest comedy, Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter, is smitten with the beautiful Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow)--the soon-to-be-married daughter of a wealthy merchant--and, suddenly unblocked, creatively and emotionally, snatching plot ideas and character names from everyone around him, is profoundly compelled to write the increasingly tragic Romeo and Juliet.

"My blocks should be so short, and end so favorably," I remark. Tapping my copy of The Observation Deck, I ask, "You don't have 'falling in love' in here, do you? Didn't any author ever say that falling in love started their literary juices flowing again?"

"No. No. Not one," Epel says, laughing. "I think falling in love is bad for the creative process. It distracts you from your work for at least a year."

"And yet love inspired Shakespeare's sonnets, probably," I argue. "Love inspires reams of poetry, good and bad."

"That's true. That's true," she nods. "But what kind of literature--what kind of novels--do we know about that came from someone falling in love? While they were still in love? I think the novels come around after love is over, don't they?"

As for the entertainment value of the film, we are divided. Naomi gives it a six. Clara concedes that it's pretty, but far-fetched. I loved every minute of it. And Susan, whom also enjoyed the film, was especially taken by how much the film stole from other sources, down to the colors and posing of the Romeo and Juliet death scene, which she points out was modeled on Gustav Klimt's 1908 painting The Kiss.

Which leads us to the film's comic notion that Shakespeare's creative process was partly fueled by, um, stealing anything he could from other writers.

"I have a whole chapter in the deck about that," Epel points out, laughing. "It's called Learn from the Masters. It's one of my favorites." She reaches over to pick up the book. "There's a great quote in there from Voltaire. Let's see. 'Originality is nothing but judicious imitation.'

"The most original writers borrowed from one another," she says, "and in so doing they developed their own craft. This is all about imitating. Joan Didion used to copy, line by line, whole stories from Hemingway, to learn how he made sentences. And--who was it? Somerset Maugham I think--who used to copy out a page of Jonathan Swift every day. I think you have to be willing to take from other people, because stories don't come from nowhere."

"Well," I interject, "Don't some people writers believe its unethical to borrow ideas from others?"

"Maybe they do," she replies, "but then they're not real artists. Borrowing, changing, using, adapting, It's what true artists do.

"And I'm not talking about plagiarism," Epel continues. "These people use other people's work to explore and to learn something for themselves. They're using the bones of the story with which to discover and explore the issues that they are wanting to deal with."

"Romeo and Juliet," I have to admit, "wasn't original to Shakespeare. But he didn't piece it together from bits stolen from Marlowe and friends, like in the movie. It was actually an adaptation of a William Paynter novel, Palace of Pleasure--which was based on a poem that was inspired by a short story that was derived from an old Italian folktale."

"So there you are," Epel answers. "But we really do take ideas from the events and people around us. And that's fine. There's another quote that I love." She reaches again for the book. "Tony Kushner, the playwright, says, "The fiction that artistic labor happens in isolation, and that artistic accomplishment is exclusively the provenance of individual talent is ... in my case at least, repudiated by the facts.' He goes on to say that Angels in America, without the input of two dozen people, 'would have been entirely different--would, in fact, have never come to be.'

"So a play could go from Romeo and Ethel to Romeo and Juliet, because we don't create on our own, all by ourselves in a vacuum. I think so many people suffer because they think that they have to act solely on their own--that every idea must leap up from our own little pea brains, as opposed to just being open to whatever ideas and inspirations happen to arise.

"And speaking of Romeo and Ethel, there's another point," she goes on. "He wrote badly at first. That's also part of some writers' process. Because, face it, Romeo and Ethel was really stupid, but if he hadn't started with that, he might not have written anything at all. He had to put something on paper. That's the essence of the writer's craft, I think. You have to dare to write stupid ideas, and to slowly make them your own as you discover what it is you are trying to learn.

"I think what stops a lot of people from being truly creative," she adds with a grin, "is that they aren't daring enough to start out being stupid."

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Web extra to the January 7-13, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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