Four didn’t seem like enough and six seemed like too many and so five it was. Specifically, The Live Five, a place in WONGDOODY space where we drag in figures of note and blast them with five questions about creativity. In the hopes that if you look at something long enough it might change how you understand it. For the better.
In a place and space where everyone cops to actually knowing what a book is but no one actually reads them, it takes a certain kind of, dare we say, guts to continue, well, gutting it out as a writer. Which is every bit of what Cintra Wilson is and does. With forays into film, TV, plays, books, and a steady stream of work appearing everywhere from the New York Times and Salon to Elle and MTV, Wilson has done the damned near impossible: shown a respect for the written word that’s belied by a culture suspicious of the very nature of that written word.
And if the words “the Algonquin Roundtable” mean anything to you, note that she’s done it all with a stylistic flourish worthy of anyone who ever sat at that table. So whether she’s dishing on a sweating Francis Ford Coppola literally singing for his supper, or John Lurie’s take on late ’70s New York’s downtown art scene, her wised-up (and wickedly funny) take does now what she’s done with it for the last three decades: excoriates the deserving and praises the praiseworthy.
Bouncing from her Northern California digs (with a small detour to Poland) and then to her New York redoubt which she just left for a little COVID-free space back in the San Francisco Bay Area, Wilson’s time is tough to manage. As it should be when the phone and emails are both helps and hindrances. But drop into The Live Five? She said she would, if she could. And she just did, so she can. So, read, weep, rinse, repeat.
Having written plays, screenplays, TV treatments, scripts, and books, to what degree do you find yourself shackled to any sort of premise at all that’s determined by the marketplace? I am recalling here your pitch meeting with Lansing and Coppola where it seemed the lesson learned was to sing for those providing your supper. Or am I wildly off base here?
Why do you write things? To entertain and/or edify, right? Unless you’re the kind of writer that only writes to get their own artistic rocks off, and doesn’t care if they are understood by anyone else. To some great degree in this culture, your artistic merit is judged by your marketplace success — which is ridiculous. Usually art that has the most merit gets the least amount of attention. But yes, I have tried, in my misguided way, to make things that have some kind of broader appeal — not in an effort to make money, actually, but to have my work be understood and “gotten” by people. That’s where the rubber hits the road, for me. That’s what I want.
But you’re a little off-base about Francis Ford Coppola. I think the real lesson learned was that Sherry Lansing is a terrible person, probably due to some unholy dose of acquired situational narcissism. Francis really wanted to do a remake of Gidget as a big fat American musical with John Travolta — he was in love with the idea. Lansing just didn’t want to give him enough money to do it, and Travolta wanted some absurd fee like $50 million. Even after it ground to a halt, Francis was still workshopping it and rewriting it and tinkering with the script. I got fired at some point because I got really mouthy when they switched out my carefully researched vintage ’60’s surfer slang for “Yo, Dude” -type nineties dialog.
How much pleasure does one over the other give you? I mean which is the most fun, and maybe that’s the wrong word here, and which is the least and why?
All writing projects have their own special agonies. Writing is fucking difficult, always, if you’re really trying to do it right.
Plays were fun. I really want to get back to plays, if society ever returns to the theater. Writing books on stupidly unmeetable deadlines gave me a lot of nervous breakdowns. Writing is like the Slow Food movement, for me. You want the tomatoes to be naturally ripe. You want the table to be beautifully set with fresh flowers and the good silverware. Some things naturally take more time because they are just more difficult to prepare. I’ve blown a lot of book deadlines.
I’m trying to write for TV now, which is a whole other metaphysical discipline I’m going to have to figure out. Loads of structural laws and baked-in time limits.
It seems that your work over time has gotten less revelatory if you think about Juvee versus even your last substack where it’s greatly detailed but I find myself knowing less about you over the course of a read. Or is that type of writing, given that so many are doing it, just distasteful to you now?
When I wrote Juvee I was 19. The play really wasn’t about my own experience in juvenile hall — it probably should have been, but I wasn’t ready to make loads of “I was a teenage speed freak” confessionals — it was a play about fictional kids.
But I’ve always tried to make things emotionally true without really revealing a lot about myself. “We want more YOU in it!”, is the complaint I get a lot from editors. I never thought of myself as incredibly interesting until fairly recently — now I am old enough to realize my life has been amazing because of all the incredible people I’ve known. I am an empath, and I find myself habitually drawn toward narcissists because on a deep, preconscious level I love them and find them dazzling — at the same time, I really hate when people can only talk about themselves. I haven’t felt a lot of compulsion to open the personal kimono though as a means of drawing attention to myself. I tend to deflect attention focused my way onto whatever narcissist is nearby. They enjoy it so.
But actually, in the Substack, I am messing around a lot more with memoir. I’m trying to open up more. I’m a very shy person who is also kind of an extrovert. I am actually, in theory, writing a memoir on the Substack in a very slow way…especially because I keep getting distracted by things like tattoo shows.
You were telling me that you had recently reached a place of divine not-give-a-fuck-i-tude…how much do you see this benefitting your creative process, if it all?
I think that attitude comes with the territory of being a woman of a certain age. Catherine Deneuve allegedly once said that at a certain point you have to sacrifice your ass to save your face, or the other way around. At a certain point you don’t care about saving either one, because your sanity becomes so exquisite when you stop caring about anything the patriarchy thinks of you…and by “the patriarchy,” I mean women who spend their lives giving way too many fucks about what they look like because they don’t realize they have internalized the patriarchy.
Creatively, it puts me in an interesting place, perspective-wise. I’m older and wiser if not smarter. Or whatever. I’m quite unsentimental.
Is creativity overrated when it comes to the yeoman-like job of actually producing copy/content/anything? I mean creative, yes, but is it possible to have something that was “creative” and yet not very effective? And what are you enjoying now, by way of writing?
What is effectiveness, really? Success? I suppose it depends on whatever your metrics are. There’s all kinds of reasons why art is good, even when art is bad. The worst art is cynical and/or dishonest. I bet Thomas Kinkade was a real asshole around Christmastime. He was effective, just not on me. I think I am creative but not very effective.
But writers? I can barely read worth a damn right now. I have ADHD, and so I mostly read headlines. And I mostly read stuff as research for whatever thing I’m writing. I love anything by Lucy Sante though. John Lurie’s memoir History of Bones was pretty great — I reviewed it a couple of weeks ago for the New York Review of Books. I’ve also been spending a terrible amount of time playing poker on my phone. So…I have that going for me.
Photograph by Abigail Adams Bernard