One thing I wrote about when I set this blog on its current course was that most of my professional writing so far has spared me a lot of critical scrutiny as a writer. I've sold my non-fiction mainly on my knowledge of the subject matter, thus taking the spotlight off the writing itself. Writing comic books I can hide behind artists and established characters. But with this book, about subjects that few people are aware of, I'm really forced to present myself as a "writer," to succeed or fail on my ability to capture and hold readers through my narrative. This is the first book I've sold because an editor wanted to work with me and my literary voice as opposed to a subject matter.
That led me to think that my challenge here was to deliver a powerful enough voice and authorial presence to justify the book. To put me at the center of the process, demanding attention as me and then delivering a strong enough authorial presence to justify the attention. But now I'm starting to wonder if I don't have it backwards.
My thinking's been shifting since I spent the past weekend at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Friday night I saw Harold Lloyd's The Kid Brother. Saturday it was William Desmond Taylor's Soul of Youth, René Clair's Les Deux Timides, Carl Maria von Dreyer's Mikäel, and Paul Leni's The Man Who Laughs, with Conrad Veidt. Then four more on Sunday: Lotte Reiniger's The Adventures of Prince Achmed, Coleen Moore in Her Wild Oat, Teinosuke Kinugasa's Jujiro, and the King Vidor/Marion Davies/Marie Dressler The Patsy. Movies ranging from the good to the incomparable, with superb live music and a Castro Theater full of joyous worshippers. The effect of the whole was transcendent.
The emphasis of the introductory speeches and the program notes was almost entirely on the directors and actors, with occasional mentions of cinematographers, producers, and studios. Almost never was a writer mentioned, and yet silent movies had writers. Between the desire of Universal Pictures executives to adapt Victor Hugo's L'Homme Qui Rit and the astonishing on-film work of Paul Leni and Conrad Veidt lay a writing process, no doubt hard and chaotic and hair-pullingly fraught, during which at least four scenarists had to chop a sprawling, wordy, twelve-volume novel down to about a hundred pages of visual continuity. Events had to be cut, rearranged, stripped down, and invented. Image and movement had to be substituted for conversations and exposition. Characters had to be sharpened to points of light. And then, to convey the information that only words could carry, a fifth writer was brought in to script the intertitles, in each of which a transition had to be carried or a backstory evoked in a third as many words as a typical Hugo sentence. A great silent movie was also, usually, a writerly triumph.
But of the five writers on The Man Who Laughs, I'd heard of none of them. And I know a fair amount about old Hollywood, too. Only one of the five, whose name I can't remember now, got credit on screen.
Sometimes you'll hear a spiritual writer speak of writing not for personal glory but for God. Those silent movie writers were doing that, in a sense, although the gods they were giving expression to were Paul Leni and Conrad Veidt and Olga Baclanova and "Uncle Carl" Laemmle's Universal Picture Corp. Their motives were scarcely holy, of course, but what they asked of their talents was the same: They turned their writing not toward expressing themselves or calling attention to themselves but toward making a larger project work. They directed their art through others because it was through those others, those actors, those crew people, that the story would be revealed.
All of which puts my own past work in perspective. Whether I was subsumed in a collaboration with cartoonists or serving as the vessel for some non-fiction subject matter to find its way to the readers interested in it, my relative anonymity was a gift to the project. I was far more useful leading the readers attention away from me instead of toward me. So now I'm thinking that even in this book, in which the author and his skills and his voice are so much more important than in past work, I might still do best to make sure that the process is not about me. Maybe the best thing I can do is forget not only about the readers' eyes on me. Let go of both the fear of not living up to critical expectations and the hope of receiving critical accolades. Be just a conduit for the story and for the immortality of the people I write about.