Homegrown Hollywood Writer Lands Penguin Publication: A review of Finishing School—The Happy Ending to That Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done.
By Cary Tennis and Danelle Morton
Cary Tennis and I have been friends since our early teenage years, which is to say, for nearly half a century. It has been a remarkable experience to watch him evolve as a writer.
During my high school years, I spent a lot time at Cary’s house, which was about two blocks away from my own. The place was a karmic center for my old crowd of friends, who were mostly artistic types, painters, writers, poets, and musicians. My own project at Cary’s place was one that was never finished—or finishable. I was engaged in covering a VW microbus with acrylic paintings and collages of photographs. The photos would fade after two weeks in the sun, and constantly had to be replaced.
When Cary told me that he had a book accepted by a major publisher, I was overjoyed for him. But I had to laugh when he told me what the book was about. It is a how-to book about finishing writing projects. I was laughing because Cary had notoriously been stalled on a novel for eighteen years. The unfinished novel was achieving the weight of a myth.
I had a similar incredulous reaction many years before, when I heard that Cary had become an advice columnist. Back in those days, there were many things that I would seek from Cary. He is a patient listener, a gifted writer and musician. He’s funny, and exciting. And he was a good friend who was there for me on many occasions when I really needed a friend. But of the many things I might seek from Cary Tennis, advice wasn’t high on the list.
Yet Cary’s advice column, Since You Asked, ran for 12 years in Salon.com, and has become a classic of its kind. His success in the form is especially remarkable when you consider the hard act he had to follow. He took over Salon’s advice writing chores from one of America’s leading writers—Garrison Keillor.
Cary’s columns themselves are continually entertaining, well crafted, witty, engaging, and dramatic, full of the wide-eyed enthusiasm that is part of Cary’s nature. And the advice is actually pretty good advice—even wise advice.
He has a gift for mining his adversities. His writing draws candidly from his personal struggles, including his recoveries from alcoholism and cancer. He pulled himself out of some terrible situations, and he learned from them. But what really distinguishes Cary’s advice columns from the run of the mill dispensaries of canned answers has less to do with what he learned from life, and more with something Cary has always had—a singular artistic vision.
Cary would talk about the process of writing an advice column as being akin to fiction writing. He would characterize the wise counselor being one of the fictions. But there’s more to it than that. The columns draw upon skills that are part of the training of every college trained English major. You can see Cary’s literary critical eye at work in the choice of the letters to answer. You see it in his approach to the answers– the identification of a theme, the analysis of characters and conflicts to find a meaning that applies to the letter writer, then to the counselor, and finally, to the world at large. It is an interactive form of art—one clearly influenced by Cary’s experiences as a guitarist. He picks up the essentials of the inquiry, and does literary riffs of them, using a combination of established structures and wild improvisations. Advice columns as jazz.
Cary’s columns can be found at Salon.com, or at his own website, carytennis.com, or in collected volumes available through Amazon.com or bn.com.
Cary also holds a series of writers’ workshops, utilizing the Amherst Writers and Artists Workshop approach.
Years ago, I attended one of these workshops.
It wasn’t like I felt the need for a writing workshop. With one novel published by a major publisher, I was confident that I knew at least the essentials of the craft. Even when I was in the Creative Writing program at Princeton University, under the guidance of renowned, award-winning authors, I found the workshop format frequently counterproductive. It was sort of the old swim or sink approach, with many drownings.
I enrolled in the workshop with my daughter, Courtny, who also studied Creative Writing at my alma mater. It proved to be a marvelous father/daughter bonding experience, aimed at our mutual interest.
During the course of the Cary’s writing workshop, virtually every single one of the participants produced wonderful pieces. It was really extraordinary. Maybe it had something to do with the teaching method, or Cary’s leadership, or the caliber of writers he was able to attract, and or the way all the participants ended up feeding into one another’s creativity, or the synergy of all of these factors in combination. It proved to be one of the most rewarding creative experiences I’ve ever had, and that is saying a great deal.
There was a key conceptual difference between Cary’s workshop and the writing workshops I had previously attended. The prior workshops revolved around the basic premise that there was a right way and a wrong way to create fiction. Implicitly, they were driven by a competitive impulse. It was like a blood sport. It was based on hierarchy, and all the participants were scrambling to establish their respective ranks. The teacher functioned more as a referee and a judge. Or like a coach. There were winners and losers, in the class and in the world. It was meant to reflect the commercial reality of the publishing business, in which an editor or an agent or a reader made the same kind of brutal choices.
In Cary’s workshop, the participants, and even the group leader assumed the role of fostering the creative process. Everyone focused on what was good about each piece of writing. There were no winners or losers. It was an egalitarian enterprise.
Curiously, at that time, Cary was writing professionally under circumstances that more closely approximated the rationale behind the traditional model of writing workshops. On a routine basis, he had to deal with the commercial and competitive rules and demands of editors and other buyers. He had to face the realities of the market.
I was in a very different circumstance. I had a day job, and I didn’t have to depend on my writing to put food on the table. I had grown frustrated with the publishing industry. I had a very clear sense of the kind of writing I wanted to produce, and I was stubborn enough to insist on being the sole arbiter of whether or not it was worth the effort – or the compromises– to make a sale.
That kind of attitude surely was counterproductive to gaining a readership. I knew that I was far too eccentric a writer to ever produce a best seller. But I confided to Cary there were many times I wondered where the hell was my cult following was hiding.
Years ago, the Princeton Creative Writing Program had issued a statement that their goal was not to produce commercially successful writers, but rather to teach Creative Writing as a tool for promoting personal growth. This was years after I had graduated, at a time when I was working in the comic book industry.
My initial reaction was that this was entirely the wrong approach. That writing was a craft, and craftsmanship needed to be taught. I recalled my first script submission to D.C. Comics—a short story for one of their now defunct Romance titles. I figured I was hot stuff, after getting mostly praise and encouragement from the big-name writers who had been my professors (though one of them had privately said that he thought Princeton would never produce any great writers— not taking Fitzgerald into account, presumably because he had dropped out. Another professor had lavishly praised my work and then told me he was planning a horror novel about a Creative Writing professor who lavishly praised a student’s work when he privately despised it, and years later the student appeared at his doorstep with a ten-thousand-page manuscript, which he forced the Professor to read at gunpoint. “You’re not trying to give me a hidden message, are you?” I asked. “Nah,” he assured me.)
The D.C. editor who read my first submission was a legend in the industry—Joe Orlando. It took him five minutes to decimate my submission, and even less time to tell me how to fix it. In that ten minutes, I felt like I had learned more about commercial writing than in four years of writing workshops.
As the years went by, I was able to get past the editor’s desk, but my work still floundered in the market.
With age, I became less hostile to the notion of approaching Creative Writing with the sole goal of achieving personal growth. By this time, I was entirely isolated from the industry. The lack of readers bothered me, but it didn’t bother me enough to change my attitude or product. The personal rewards and insights outweighed the financial considerations, and they outweighed the risks or rewards of being judged by others.
When I picked up Finishing School, I thought, I don’t really need this book—any more than I needed Cary’s workshop. I’ve had more than enough experience in knowing the kinds of adversities that stall a writing project, and I have my own toolkit for getting around the roadblocks. I’ve read more books about the craft of writing than I can stand to think about. Actually, the very first of them had been given to me by Cary’s mother, when I was about sixteen.
But I was willing to give the book a try. Only because Cary Tennis had co-authored it.
I glanced at the table of contents which listed common pitfalls for writers. I ticked them off one by one—nope, doesn’t apply to me. Nope, not at this point in my life. Nope after nope… until I came to Arrogance. Yes, that would be a pit into which I have commonly fallen during my less than successful writing career. The sales of my writing have never been good, and the experience of decades finally instilled some level of humility. Yes, I have been arrogant about my writing in the past. I’d like to think I’m above that now.
The essence of Finishing School is a method for connecting with others in a non-judgmental way in order to get things done. By discarding categories of good and bad, it enables the participants to focus on a goal. The book describes an approach that could apply generically to almost any kind of project. It emphasizes bonding and forming connections with other people in order to promote individual efforts. It does so in a way that encourages completion without regard to the actual content—or even the actual value– of what gets completed. The protocol could apply to anything. The universality of the process becomes apparent when you consider that the authors were specifically addressing to what is commonly the loneliest activity in the world—the capturing of dreams, the rendering of passing ephemeral thoughts into concrete and organized form, the preservation of gathered information that otherwise resides in the leaking vessels of memory, or in the distorting streams of verbal exchange.
Finishing School is very much the finished product, a piece of writing polished to a shiny professional gloss. It is full of useful pointers, competent advice, and entertaining anecdotes about the ordeals and hurdles that writers commonly face. Cary Tennis and Danelle Morton complement one another, providing great insights from opposing perspectives.
The book tells the story of how Cary Tennis finally finished his epically unfinished novel. Once again, he has found a way to successfully mine his adversities.