(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)
Harry's ghost requested it. I refused. I fought it. In the end I wrote it: the story of two musicians trying to write one song, groping desperately through a fog of drugs and alcohol. By contrast, creating the script about them took no effort, took no time at all, and I had a bewildering amount of fun. This was so unusual, in my long experience as a screenwriter, that I had to wonder, was it really I who had written it?
What does it really mean when we writers say that something "wrote itself"? It has happened to most of us at least once, unpredictably, and it's a wicked ride. All of a sudden the work gushes out; riding the giant surge of inspiration, we're barely able to type fast enough, forgetting to eat, sleep or pee. The exhausted writer will say afterward, in a happy daze, "I don't know where that came from."
Writers crave this mysterious and violent visitation, which feels like being mauled by your muse. But you can't order up a delivery if you don't know where it comes from.
Thus we are drawn to the treacherous lure of ju-ju, the magic substances and talismans that bargain with the brain to synthetically recreate that ride. It's like hiring a hooker or buying an inflatable doll when your true object of desire is out of town. We pretend she's our muse, an artificial version of what we're seeking but that has been known to get the job done. You tell yourself the trick will work - until one day, it doesn't.
The menu of paid companions is long and diverse, because selecting a writer's helper from the catalog is a very personal choice. There are the hallucinogens, the opiates, the stimulants, everything from absinthe to Adderall. Complications may include dizziness, shortness of breath, sudden rage, loss of equilibrium, cardiac arrest, kidney failure, schizophrenia, suicidal thoughts and, in some cases, death - but hey. It's for the work.
In the previous chapter I described Harry Nilsson and John Lennon trawling Palm Springs for mind-altering materials, so that they could get to work on some music. The search absorbed so much time and energy that the writing never even began. I was no different; I too believed that my best work only manifested if I was artificially plugged into an exalted state. Like Harry and John, I needed to override the pain.
I refer to the painful difficulty of writing itself.
Yet when I was a child discovering how much I loved to write, it was easy, all play and no work. After all, why would any kid choose to do something painful? Or ask where the ideas came from? They simply tumbled into your imagination, and the fun began. You felt good about yourself when you made something from nothing; and if you were a child who generally didn’t feel good about herself, you became willingly addicted to the pleasures of creating.
So when did it become painful?
I decided to be a writer when I was 14. My boyfriend, who was five years older, dropped out of Princeton to write a novel. He wrote every day, or tried. It had never occurred to me that I could write as a profession, until I observed the simplicity of his choice: first decide you’ll do it, and then just do it. Even on days you don’t want to. This is your work.
I started practicing right away. That was when anxiety first crept into what was once playtime, now called work. As the professional I imagined myself to be, I was no longer courting only the praise of parents and teachers, whose support I could always count on, but also exposing myself to the judgment of strangers. I felt the pain of expectations – my own, and those of nameless numberless readers to come.
I needed help to quiet the jitters. I noticed my boyfriend drank beer and bourbon, and smoked cigarettes. It lodged in my mind that this, too, was professional. I didn’t much like smoking but I manned up and inhaled. It more often made me want to take a shit than write. Alcohol was better. Although my parents didn’t drink, there were a few liqueurs like Dubonnet in the sideboard for guests. The trouble with alcohol was, after the first giddy page zipped off the typewriter carriage, the mind started to leak fuel. Incoherence was only a half a page away. Still, that first page was a winner, and I could start all over the next day, with Marlboros and some horrible aperitif helping me to nail page two.
Once I’d polished off all the guest liquor, and was busted for it, I turned to caffeine. By this time I was writing my first novelette, and wildly menstruating. Midol became my boughten friend. Since I was pretty sensitive to drugs, a single Midol tablet was the equivalent of a cup of strong coffee. My mother dutifully purchased Midol for me at the pharmacy, while my manuscript pages piled up: sixty pages, and no cramps.
To double my supply, I exaggerated the quantity of my periods. As far as Mom knew, my menses were titanic. In my high school senior year, she took me to a gynecologist, who prescribed Daprisal. Oh, the rapture of Daprisal: dexedrine and aspirin, for gals on the rag, Baby’s first speedball. In college, taking Daprisal and staying up all night to write a paper in a single session was like a sacred ritual. I presented my mind on drugs as a kind of burnt offering to the muse. In return I could reasonably expect to finish the paper by dawn, at twice the page length required and in passionate prose that had deteriorated to blabber by the time I came to write my conclusion.
Halfway through my junior year at Sarah Lawrence, I followed my boyfriend’s example of dropping out of college to write fiction. While holding down a job at the Village Voice, I wrote in my spare time. By then, pot, mescaline and acid were also available for muse-chasing, but proved too unpredictable. I might just as easily wind up on the roof, cackling at the stars, as hunched over the typewriter. Marijuana tore me from my desk and sent me out for ice cream. Daprisal, alas, was discontinued (as was my boyfriend).
As I became a true professional hired to write screenplays, I sought anything with an upward tilt. Uppers brought not only energy but grandeur: words came intercut with imagined applause, awards accepted, revenges accomplished, certain select people eating crow, and approval from both parents plus God. When I took uppers, I didn’t merely feel good about myself; I thought I was a flaming genius. Still, I was too tense with ambition to tolerate straight amphetamines; they made me hypomanic. I needed that yin/yang upper/downer speedball combination, like cocaine with wine, a treasured formula when I could afford it. This mixture saw me through a novel and its script adaptation. Whenever inspiration flagged, I’d stumble up the Pacific Coast Highway to the bar at Moonshadows, still dressed in my nightgown, which I wore with boots, hoping people would think it was a granny dress but really not caring if they didn’t. There I would chug a legal speedball: Irish coffee, the Tao of caffeine and bad whiskey with Reddi-Wip and a cherry.
I always wrote at night, but had to change my habits when I got married and had a baby. Then my work window shrank to four hours in the daytime. Drugs and wine were inappropriate for breakfast, especially while I was breastfeeding, since I’d be transferring my jones to my daughter via the nipple. I settled for a weak juju of Darjeeling with milk, and redoubled my entreaties to whatever was passing by – deity, angel, ghost, muse – to help me meet studio deadlines. I asked for easy inspiration to do work in which I took small pleasure, except when I got the checks.
By the time Harry Nilsson’s ghost appeared in 1994 I was down to green tea, Chupa Chup lollipops, and anti-depressants: not much in the way of mind-altering drugs, but I still believed you had to pay some kind of fee, anything, to receive brilliant ideas from wherever they came from. Hell, once I’d even slaughtered a sheep to that end (see Chapter 26 and 27) Writing is hard, I would tell anyone aspiring to push words. And, I should have added, expensive. Because ever since adolescence I’d been treating my muse as coin-operated.
That changed on the day I sat down at my desk, early one morning before I’d even made tea or unwrapped a lollipop, and began writing a script I had no intention of writing. I was idly noodling around, dreading another day of unemployment. It was so baffling not to have a job, when for years I’d had my pick of offers. Why now, at my peak? Just write anything, I told myself. See what happens. I opened a blank script document and typed “EXT. – DESERT – DAY”. And so began the saga of Harry and John Lennon and May Pang and me on our lost weekend in Palm Springs.
Five hours later found me still writing. I could have gone on, except it was time to make dinner for my family. As I fried fish, I pondered what had just happened. The tidal swell of inspiration, the hot rush and rapids of ideas, the obsessive focus to the exclusion of all else, the feeling of being wrung dry afterwards – in short, the headlong ride that writers crave – none of that had occurred.
I had been calm, patient, entirely free of anxiety. The flow of words, scenes, imagery was gentle and constant. The characters had been simply there. It was as natural as stepping into a shower already running.
And every day afterward was the same: the water waiting for me, generous, regenerating, until the script was done.
I thought back to the vision I’d been shown in my meditation trance a few months before: an image of creation as a ladle pouring forth sheer radiance, a shower I had merely to step into whenever I felt ready to join the flux. It had no location. It was just there.
Muses and ghosts, grandfathers and jinns might act as sherpas to the source, but I was astonished to realize I didn’t need them anymore to find the shimmering falls. I had only to drop my towel and get naked before wading in, and that small action was called…trust.
Trust was the one and true juju, my offering to that effulgence of spirit: if I trusted that inspiration was eternally there, a gracious unending flow, then creation would grant me my portion.
It didn’t matter that the script, called Karma Kamikazes, was never produced (although it remains one of my favorites). It appeared heaven intended that no paid employment would come my way until I completed this one project, a divinely scheduled lesson wherein I would learn, finally, how to write.
From that time on, I have written in this way. I know where the words come from, and I trust that the water is always on. I’m back in playtime, in the fun.
Further, it was a kind of goodbye to all the spooky that had gone before. At long last, I had outgrown my need for the dead and disembodied, a need that had occupied my life since my first contact with my deceased grandfather.
The day after the script was finished, I got a call offering a job. The producer claimed to have been unable to reach me for weeks, unaware she was using a wrong number. Never mind, I said. Even if you’d had the right one, I was unreachable.
The universe had hardly ceased doling out lessons, though. The hardest one seized me high in the Andes, on the second day of a 2005 hike up the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. What lay before me was Dead Woman’s Pass, and another goodbye.
(To be continued.)
- I am a restless writer of fiction, film, and music. I scripted such films as 9 and ½ Weeks, Sommersby, Impromptu (personal favorite), What Lies Beneath, and All I Wanna Do which I also directed. Both my documentaries, Marjoe and Thoth, won Academy Awards. Formerly a recording artist, I continue to write music, posting songs on my website. I live in New York with my husband James Lapine. My second novel, the paranormal thriller Jane Was Here, was published in 2011. My latest film, Learning to Drive, starring Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley, came out in August 2015, now available on VOD, DVD, and streaming media. This blog is a paranormal memoir-in-progress, whenever I have spare time. It's a chronicle of my encounters with ghosts, family phantoms, and other forms of spirit.
Sunday, April 2, 2017
Sunday, February 12, 2017
Yep, hot pants.
(Bad scan of photo by Norman Seeff for my album cover)
(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)
I love writing on planes. I find my voice easily at great altitude, along with focus, inspiration, and the odd sensation of being assisted. One could say that, if help comes from heaven, then we are closer to heaven inside that speeding silver bullet, aloft in the outer atmosphere. (Except I don’t believe the afterlife is high in the sky, or even in a separate place. I prefer to think of fellow spirits as living in the next room, and we share a wall that doesn’t actually exist.)
On this particular flight from LA to New York, the last thing I expected to be writing was song lyrics. I was no stranger to channeling music, though it hadn’t happened in a very long time – more than a couple of decades before boarding this plane. In my twenties, when I was a recording artist, I used to receive snatches of songs from my late grandfather in the lull between dreaming and waking. I would be fed an idea, an image, a phrase, a melody. In the morning, I would finish the song, in the manner of a collaborator. These episodes were uninvited and ultimately frightening. Thankfully, they ended once I had completed the assignment: a one-act musical that was produced in 1981, after which I stopped writing songs entirely.
Channeling is not for me. I’ve never liked working with another writer. As a collaborator, I do not play well with others – I can blow on my own soup. Neither am I a candidate for “automatic writing,” which my mother’s father did after his mother’s death, allowing her spirit to guide his pencil on paper as his hand traced her words of advice and comfort.
But when I suddenly started jotting the words for a song on that plane, there was no ghostly pressure pushing my pen. And yet, the voice wasn’t mine. For one thing, I was alive, whereas the person writing the song was deceased and thought being dead was funny.
Over and out
What was that
Over and done
Miss the fun
Hanging in the air like a fading star
I’m just a breath away, yet so far
That was all. The moment passed, the voice withdrew, and I looked at what I’d just written. The wordplay, the humor, the touch of wistful nostalgia…
I smiled. Hi, Harry.
Also: I’ll take it from here, thanks.
I completed the song and recorded it on MIDI equipment I set up, to my husband’s displeasure, in our dining room. Though I wrote the rest of the verses as well as the music, I considered the whole of “I’m Over” so suffused with Harry Nilsson’s sensibility that it felt weird to claim sole credit. I couldn’t discuss the song’s provenance with anyone, since my reputation as a rational person was already frayed.
With the song finished, I felt I had done what Harry had asked when he visited me after his death. I was grateful for the nudge that got me composing again, which enlivened the tedious months of waiting for my next script job.
Time passed; no ship came in. My mind wandered back to the idea of writing a script about my dissolute “lost weekend” with Harry, John Lennon and May Pang in Palm Springs. The logline would be easy: “A world-famous pair of pop stars attempt to dry out and compose songs for an upcoming recording session on which their careers depend. Bringing a couple of female companions for sustenance, the musicians book into a stolid Palm Springs hotel. From that moment, our heroes proceed to do everything possible not to succeed.”
That sounded like a movie I, for one, would want to see. I’d have to change the names, set it in the present, and delete myself from the story, since my own behavior made me sick to remember. Owing to the buckets of alcohol consumed, there was plenty I didn’t remember, too: holes in the narrative. I assumed my behavior was sickening there, too. By fictionalizing, though, I could paper over the holes. And some scenes would be wicked fun to write. For example, the tram incident! I recalled that escapade in detail because I was not drunk when it took place. It began like this:
Harry and John woke up in the late afternoon as usual. The “Do Not Disturb” sign was undisturbed. Palm Springs was quiet on any day, but Sundays, at least in 1975, didn’t even have a heartbeat. Yet the clock insisted this was the happy hour. The lads were out of drugs, which was providential because they were supposed to detox and had been putting it off. On the other hand, songwriting was out of the question until one’s consciousness was altered or askew. Liquor seemed both attractive and appropriate.
None of us liked the idea of hanging around the hotel bar, where all these terminally sedate guests were giving us the hairy eyeball. May’s denims and mine were cut off an inch below the pubes, for easy access, and between us we didn’t own a single bra. Harry and John looked seedy and uncouth in their patchwork denims, porkpie caps, and famous-person shades. I doubt if any of those clueless fossils recognized there was a Beatle on the premises, except maybe the concierge, who was all for getting us off the premises.
Harry asked the concierge if there was a bar that was out of the way and relatively uninhabited. (The boys were supposed to stay out of the public eye, since their misadventures in L.A. had been all over the press recently.) The concierge recommended a mountaintop cocktail lounge in the area. During the day, people took a scenic tram up to the summit, to eat lunch in the restaurant and admire the spectacular view, but at this late afternoon hour almost everyone would’ve gone back down the mountain.
Our driver (of the same limo that delivered us to Palm Springs) was Mal Evans, the road manager who had been with the Beatles since the early days of mania, a burly, sweet-tempered man who had seen too much of everything. Mal dropped us off at the tram and parked the limo nearby to wait for our return.
We had the tram to ourselves, a welcome sign that the day traffic was done and the lounge would be quiet. As we began our ascent, rocking on the cable, I glanced out the wraparound windows and fell into a panic. No one had informed us that we would climb to 8000-plus feet above sea level over a two-and-a half-mile vertical drop. Because of my vertigo, I’d never so much as been to the top of the Empire State building. I spent the endless 15-minute trip with my eyes squeezed shut and my face buried in Harry’s shoulder, praying not to blow my lunch, which, now that I thought about it, I hadn’t eaten. My knees wobbled so badly he had to help me off the tram when we arrived. Feeling the solid floor under my wedge platforms, I made straight for the bar. For once, I needed a drink more than the boys did. And I wondered how the hell I was going to get back down the mountain again without full-on primal screaming.
Only about twenty visitors remained in the lounge, an older crowd, couples at intimate tables, a few dancing to music from a jukebox, no loners or barflys. The ambience was quietly convivial. We parked at the bar with our backs to the people to make sure no one recognized Lennon. I sank my muzzle in a beer, and Harry ordered four double Brandy Alexanders for himself and John. I don’t remember what May drank, or if she had anything; of the four of us, she was the designated grown-up.
The sun dipped behind the mountain, the sky faded to black, and the small crowd got a little rowdier as closing time neared. We realized we had wandered into a nest of single (or cheatin’) geezers, all looking to hook up in a discreet romantic setting. The bartender announced last call. We bought ourselves a round for the road.
And then the jukebox played the opening bars of Yesterday. That’s how John knew he’d been made. “Someone sees me and thinks it’s cute to play ‘Yesterday’ and I hate it. Or ‘Let It Be’ or ‘Hey Jude.’ They’re Paul’s songs.”
A few emboldened people approached the bar to talk to him. Time to get away: we abandoned our drinks, moving out to the tram platform – but not before John went over to the jukebox, located some of his songs, then plugged in enough quarters so that ‘I Am the Walrus’ and ‘You Know My Name, Look Up the Number’ would play repeatedly. Let the fuckers try to dance to that.
We were first onto the tram when it arrived, but it didn’t take off immediately as we hoped. People streamed out of the lounge: it turned out to be the last tram of the day; everyone was headed home. Surrounding us, the geezers packed in tight, until there was barely room to breathe. Harry, John, May and I were mashed into the middle, turning protectively inward to face each other. The door slid shut; the tram swung away from the platform and proceeded downward.
I didn’t have to wrestle with vertigo this time because it was dark out; the night obscured the steep drop; only the lights of Palm Springs sparkled through the ink, growing closer as we descended. There was silence in the car, but for communal breathing.
Then some wag started to hum “Yesterday.” We heard suppressed laughter. I felt a hand on my butt. I looked at Harry but his arms were pinned to his side. It wasn’t his hand. May gave a little yelp and turned to John: “Is that you?” – “Me what?” Then I felt another set of fingers sliding up my leg. May’s eyes bugged; she whispered, “They’re feeling me up!” -– “Me too,” I said. “Me, too,” said Harry, said John.
We were trapped, unable to move as people groped and prodded our bodies. The crowd’s hilarity overflowed. They were in command, and they were horny. “John!” One grandma fought her way through the crush, jamming her boobs against his back. “John! Bite my tit!”
Clearly Beatle frenzy wasn’t just for teenyboppers. It can happen that in advanced age, we grow unruly and shameless all over again. I am a fogey now, so I know.
The tram touched ground. The people who had been pressed to the door spilled out when it slid open, the crowd parting just enough for us to make a break for freedom. We all four sprinted toward the parking lot, with a pack of rabid, frothing seniors in pursuit. Mal Evans, trained by Beatles’ tours, instantly appeared with the limo, jumped out and opened the door. We piled inside as he thrust the crowd back.
The limo peeled out. After we recovered our breath, with the too-quiet streets of Palm Springs sliding past our windows, Harry suggested we look for another place to get a drink. And that led to the next adventure….
That scene would be fun to write, too. If I wrote the script that I’d refused to write for so long. Oh just do it, I told myself. You’re bored. Write the first page and see what happens.
I opened a blank script file.
What happened next was of far greater moment than my little tale of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll; of channeling and Schmilsson’s ghost. By the end of three weeks I had lifted a little closer to heaven.
(To be continued.)
For those requesting, here are the complete lyrics for "I'm Over":
Over and out
What was that all about?
Over and done
Sorry to miss the fun
Hanging in the air
Like a fading star
I'm just a breath away
Yet so far
I'm over, over, ah…
Over the falls
No one writes, no one calls
Over the hill
Hardly time to drink my fill
Stranded in the space
Between here and now
Seems I lost my place
Don't know how
I'm over, over, ah…
I been underprivileged undermined Undersold undersigned
Over easy over toast
Overhunted overrated overcomplicated
Over knocked over raked over fucked over
Run over hung over warmed over leftover
Overruled overused overheated overshoes
Overwhelmed overfed overbred overspent over
Bent over keeled over reeled over
Head over heels over dead oh
Over the moon
Out of sight, out of tune
Over and above
Is it too late to show you my love?
My love, my love…