David Bowie: RIP

It wasn't the first thing I expected to encounter when I turned on my iPad this morning, but there it was on my New York Times feed-- David Bowie had died on Sunday evening. I felt my stomach drop, just as it had when I'd first heard about John Lennon being gunned down 35 years ago. The world had lost another fearless artist, something that's constantly in short supply, something that diminishes our collective vitality at a time when we need more of it, not less.

For the record, I was never a huge Bowie fan. I never attended one of his concerts. I owned a scant few of his records. But I admired him immensely-- more so as I grew older than when I was young and too dumb to realize what was going on behind the public artifice Bowie wielded so effectively. The man behind the mask was an artist in the truest sense of the word: he explored ideas, toyed with the notion of identity, championed the value of lives lived on the fringes (even while he was embraced-- but never co-opted-- by the mainstream).

On Friday evening (January 8, 2016, Bowie's 69th birthday), I watched an evening of Bowie on Palladia, the cable TV music channel. There was a D.A. Pennebaker movie about his final 1973 performance as Ziggy Stardust (with the Spiders from Mars). That was followed by a "Storytellers" episode from 1999, with David talking about his life and music while doing a set that spanned his career to that point. Then there was the debut of his latest (and sadly, last) video-- "Lazarus," from his just released album Blackstar.

If anyone doubts the depth of Bowie's artistry, that video is evidence of it. In addition to the Biblical reference to rising from the dead, the video shows a clearly gaunt Bowie at his theatrical best. And it ends with him climbing into a cabinet (an upright coffin?) and closing the doors . The man knew he was dying, yet he managed to make art right up to the end.

If anyone can lay claim to being the Lazarus of the music world, it's Bowie who created and killed off multiple identities throughout his career, each time rising again with a new persona. But behind them all was a singular man-- David Bowie. Unfortunately this time he won't rise again-- but given the depth and scope of the body of work he leaves behind, he won't ever truly leave us. His legacy is assured through the music, videos and films he created over the past 50 years.

He will be missed by family, friends and fans alike. And by people like me who, even when we didn't like a specific piece of music, appreciated the creative mind behind it. While others have learned from him-- think David Byrne, Arcade Fire (whom Bowie championed), Laurie Anderson (who married Bowie's pal Lou Reed)-- no one surpassed him in terms of daring or vision. Whether you were a fan or not, you can't deny the man was an artistic force to be reckoned with. RIP, David. We are richer for having had your presence in the world.

Yes, There Is Great Dialogue on Television

This is the final season for Justified, one of television's great unsung series. Because it was based on an Elmore Leonard short story, it should come as no surprise that the series has featured some of the most unique and fascinating characters to ever grace the small screen. (Yes, I know Breaking Bad, which was also a brilliant series, did the same, but Justified took characterization and storylines to new heights.)

But where Justified's writers really excelled was with dialogue (not surprisingly since that was one of the late, great Elmore Leonard's strengths as well). There is a poetry and musicality about the way the characters speak that makes listening to them sheer pleasure. Whether it's key characters like Rayland Givens and Boyd Crowder or secondary ones like Wynn Duffy and Ellstin Limehouse, the words coming out of their mouths often has risen to the Shakespearean in quality, cadence and complexity.

Writing great dialogue is no easy feat. It has to sound natural to the character, fit the circumstances of a scene and work within the context of the story being told. Doing all that and still managing to make it sing, that's masterful writing. (And equally masterful acting, for even the greatest of speeches will fall flat if the speaker is weak. The cast on Justified has always done a superb job with what the writers have provided.)

If you're a novelist or screenwriter looking for a tutorial on writing great dialogue, binge watch Justified. Every episode will have someone saying something that will make you shake your head in admiration-- and rewind to hear it again.

If ever a TV series merited an award for the way it reveled in the power of the English language, Justified is it. I'm going to miss my weekly dose of its music.

A Meditation on What It Means to Be a Writer

There's a quotation I once heard attributed to Ernest Hemingway (although I can't prove he said it): "There are two kinds of writers. Those who want to write and those who want to have written." I think most writers are a bit of both. We write because we want to, like to, have to, need to, can't help ourselves, or some combination thereof. Writing is both an involuntary act of self-expression and a voluntary act of self-control. It is both wild abandon and willful articulation, yin and yang, revelation and disguise.

This blog will attempt to tackle writing from both inside out and outside in. Every writer knows both: the something inside us that drives us to commit words to paper (or screen) and the something outside of us that keeps our noses pressed to glass straining to get a glimpse of what we don't know, the something that constantly eludes us, the movement we see peripherally that tantalizes us with the promise of what could be if only we were a little better, a little more consistent, a little more prolific.

Writing is a pleasure when it's going well and a chore when it isn't. It's Mark Twain's imbalance of inspiration and perspiration. It's the subject of this blog. I'm not trying to prove anything, convince anyone of anything or do more than what every writer tries to do -- enjoy both the process of writing and the sense of accomplishment that comes with having written.