Tag Archives: Writers

Carrie Fisher: Actress, Writer, Freedom Fighter

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We all know that the witty, insightful actress and writer Carrie Fisher, who died today at age 60, began her career as an actress in the 1970s. She became a Hollywood star at age 20 when Star Wars was released in 1977. While many know that she went on to write books, screenplays and stage shows, far fewer people know that she was also a sought-after Hollywood script doctor. During the 1990s, she was frequently hired to repair weak screenplays, working on such movies as Hook, Sister Act, Lethal Weapon 3 and The Wedding Singer. The work was lucrative, but she was never credited by name as a writer for any of the films whose scripts she saved. (She is said to have been one of the script doctors who tried but failed to bring life to all three of the Star Wars prequel scripts, too.)
 

Fisher’s writing talents are evident from her memoirs, in her one-woman theatrical show, Wishful Drinking, and in the screenplay based on her autobiographical novel Postcards from the Edge. In late 2001, when the nation was deeply shaken after the September 11 attacks and frightened lawmakers began urging each other to limit Americans’ freedoms, Carrie Fisher donated an autographed copy of the screenplay for Postcards from the Edge to an auction of celebrity artifacts to benefit the American Civil Liberties Union. I was the winner of that auction, and my Carrie Fisher-autographed script is one of my prized possessions.

Fisher grew up as Hollywood royalty, the child of popular singer Eddie Fisher and America’s sweetheart, Debbie Reynolds, and was later the stepdaughter of Elizabeth Taylor and wife of musician Paul Simon. Despite such privilege, she also grew up seeing the seedy side of fame: her parents’ scandalous and very public divorce (her father left Debbie for Elizabeth); her father’s addiction to speed; and her mother’s financial catastrophes brought on by marriages to faithless gamblers who stole her money, diverted Debbie’s savings to their mistresses and brought prostitutes into their home.

In Fisher’s first big film role (in Warren Beatty’s film Shampoo,) she  played a jaded teenager who propositions the much older character played by Beatty.  Her character’s world-weary attitude and hard-edged directness in Shampoo show up again in her portrayals of Princess Leia in the first three Star Wars films. By her twenties, she was self-medicating and addicted to drugs. It was only when she learned that she had bipolar disorder that the reasons for her mood swings, depressions and hunger for intoxicants became clear to her. She sought to wean herself from her addictions and began to divert her insecurities and keen observations into her writing.

To the benefit of her readers, she shared her stories of her own depression, self-loathing, addictions and mental disorders, first through her art, then through memoirs and interviews. Fisher fought to destigmatize mental illness and encouraged people to be honest with themselves and others, to get help and to accept themselves as imperfect but worthy of love and understanding. For a woman who had grown up believing that putting on a perfect façade and never letting the world see her sweat was of paramount importance, her journey toward self-acceptance and her willingness to tell the world of her flaws and illness and her ultimate freedom from addiction was a brave one.

From her earliest days, Fisher had a steely confidence on screen and spoke in an authoritative voice that didn’t jibe with her fresh, youthful beauty. Her world-weary delivery and seeming steeliness made her a compelling Leia Organa. On screen she was a princess and the leader of a galactic rebellion, but behind her seeming confidence was enormous self-doubt. While her insecurities led her to dangerously self-defeating impulses in her youth, they also brought her to  deep insights which she used to fuel the raw, honest, hilarious but brutally true stories she wrote of her life. She showed us how smart, beautiful, rich and talented people could be just as fearful, self-defeating and confused as the rest of us.

Carrie Fisher was a woman who spent her life creating fictions through her acting and writing, but she lived her own life as fiercely and honestly as she was able. She laid herself bare in her writings, one-woman shows and interviews, including her recent discussion of her life and work with NPR’s Terry Gross. She laughed at herself before anyone else had a chance to, and let us know that it was okay to fail, to fear, to fall. Even a Hollywood princess is only human.

Just this year, the Harvard Humanist Hub gave Fisher the Outstanding Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism, saying that “her forthright activism and outspokenness about addiction, mental illness, and agnosticism have advanced public discourse on these issues with creativity and empathy.”

In Carrie Fisher’s memory, I’m making a donation to the ACLU today, because the leader of the rebel alliance would want us to keep up the good fight against the demagogues who hope to round us up, wall us off and shut us up. Carrie Fisher was, after all, the woman who embodied Princess Leia Organa, leader of the rebellion against the ruthless Empire. Making a donation to keep civil liberties safe seems like a small but meaningful thing to do to honor someone who spoke her mind, made us laugh and brought us so much joy through her work. Won’t you join me?

Mud-luscious and Puddle-wonderful: The Poetry of E.E. Cummings

Cummings

[Revised from the version originally published by in Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

Here’s the thing about works of art that we all grow up with, have to analyze as kids, and dismiss because they seem dated or obvious, hackneyed or over-explained:

Sometimes they’re actually wonderful after all.

For example, the poems of E. E. Cummings. I love them. During my junior high and high school years (think 1970s) he was one of the more frequently taught poets, largely because his acrobatics with punctuation and wordplay are fun and accessible even to people who claim to hate poetry. I know there are critics and readers who think him naive or over-exposed; they find him too accessible or well-known to seek him out afresh to find pleasure or insight. What a shame.

I reread his poems every few years (and even more often nowadays) in the expectation that, at last, I’ll find them somehow embarrassingly old-fashioned and obvious. But they never feel that way to me. They still have those great lines that punch me or move me when I don’t expect it, the casual colloquialisms, the thoughts that beg to be combined into one word to emphasize their speed or oneness. All of those devices can be found in “Buffalo Bill’s,” for example.

One of the most anthologized of his poems is the fresh, light poem “in Just-” which evokes the way children explode out into the world and splash and stomp and whirl through it in springtime. I still love its cadences, the way friends bettyandisbel and eddyandbill are so constantly with each other that they merge into single entities, the bittersweet everpresence of that little lame balloon man as he whistles far and wee.

The bitterness of the young Cummings, disillusioned by his experiences during World War I and unable to leave what he learned behind upon his return home, pops up regularly in his work. When we think of the “lost generation,” the disillusioned postwar youth of the 1920s who populate the work of writers like Fitzgerald, we think of novels full of ennui, anger, and feelings of betrayal. We think of heavy works like Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front or the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen. But Cummings made his own jabs, often in wisecracking, cynical asides, such as in “my sweet old etcetera.” In”next to of course god america i” his sarcasm and disgust for jingoism and militarism get considerably darker and more obvious. By the time one reads “Humanity i love you” Cummings’ anger and disillusionment with not only his country but with humanity are made completely plain. But so are his ambivalence and sense of humor (dark though it is). This isn’t the Cummings we were taught to consider so harmlessly affable and nonchalant, too easy, too fun or fey.

My favorite Cummings poem remains the one most people would probably consider the obvious choice, “anyone lived in a pretty how town,” which so many high school anthologies have reprinted for decades with the same dull set of talking points and questions. Yet it’s surprising how many different interpretations I’ve seen for this supposedly obvious poem. In my reading of it, I always find it terribly moving, in its sweet and small way. The poem contrasts the vastness of time with the anonymity of the little characters who populate it, including dear little anyone and noone. Seasons pass as the poem lengthens, children forget the essentials as they grow older, and while “anyone” and “noone” mean nothing to the world at large, they are everything to each other. The inevitability of death and anonymity are softened by the fact that, while busy folk bury the dead side by side, “little by little and was by was,” and forget them (if they ever knew them in the first place), anyone and noone loved each other and were each other’s everything, and in their little lives, that’s all anyone and noone required.

This poem feels anything but gimmicky to me. Like Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man” speech in As You Like It, “anyone lived in a pretty how town” boils the stages and essence of life down quickly, with bittersweetness, humor, a touch of cynicism, but also a touching empathy for the littleness and vulnerability at the heart of every human being. That’s why children still learn these works today; because they’re beautiful, because they’re funny, because they’re a little dark and surprising, and because they’re true.

For my last two years of college, I had to commute an hour each way to Mills and back home again, and I found I could make good use of those hours on the road if I borrowed spoken word records from the library, taped them, and then listened to the tapes in the car. (This was in the olden days of the early 1980s when one rarely found prerecorded books on tape but all sorts of wonderful things could be found on record at public libraries.) I was introduced to some fine plays this way (Ibsen’s The Master Builder and An Enemy of the People, Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, lots of Shakespeare) and a lot of poetry. One of my favorite records was of Cummings reading his poems in the late 1950s. Often I find listening to poets reading their own work painful; so often they adopt a false tone and awkward phrasing, with self-conscious over-emphasis or an odd near-monotone, or a bouncing lilt at the end of each phrase, in a sort of questioning manner, like a Valley Girl? putting a question mark? at the end? of each small phrase? It’s been many years since I listened to E. E. Cummings read, but I remember finding his readings surprising and a great relief from the artificial, stentorian tones of so many other readers and writers of poetry.

By the way, the long-standing stories that Cummings signed his own name e. e. cummings and hated capital letters are myths; Cummings signed his name with the usual capitals and often used capitalization in his poetry, just not always in the obvious or expected ways. He did like to be inventive and a bit subversive in his use of language, but not to the extent that he felt it necessary to take on the affectation of using non-standard punctuation for his own name. I think this oft-repeated error serves to underline the common (and I believe erroneous) belief that he was a gimmicky writer of sing-song verse. To my mind, he was an original thinker with a light touch and a sense of humor who influenced a lot of (often bad) poets by snubbing long-established convention in ways that grab attention. Nowadays nearly every school child is asked to mess with English a little after reading a bit of Cummings in hopes that this mild subversion of all he or she has been taught will shake loose some creativity and instant love of poetry: Drop your capitals, Betty! Start a verse in the middle of the line, Isbel! Scrunch those words together into one long line, EddyandBill! We’ve all seen and done it so many times it feels quaint. It wasn’t in the 1920s when Cummings did it. And it still feels fresh to me, 80 years later.