19 January 2012

NaNoWriMo IV: Channeling Jason Segel

A lot of people don't know this, but Forgetting Sarah Marshall was semi-autobiographical for star and co-writer Jason Segel. His girlfriend had come over for something "important," and he mistakenly thought that was code for sex, so he decided to strip down and greet her in the nude. Lo and behold, she had come over instead to break up with him. Even during that agonizing and humiliating experience, Segel had the presence of mind to take note of the potential value of the episode for a movie. He mined and fictionalized other anecdotes and worked them into the story that became Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

I've quoted from The Untouchables several times recently, and again I call to mind a line of dialog spoken by Robert De Niro as Al Capone. It's in the very first scene, as Capone holds court with several journalists while receiving a shave from a barber. One of them quips about Capone being named Mayor of Chicago, and the rest chuckle. "We laugh because it's funny; we laugh because it's true," the film's antagonist affirms.

I missed several days of writing because I was sick (one of my friends checked my symptoms against WebMD, which suggested I may have had West Nile Virus, so I'm sure it was bad), but I finally resumed writing tonight. I had occasion to insert a (somewhat) fictionalized account of one of my own embarrassing anecdotes. I didn't insert it because I'm lazy, though I admit it was nice to know how that passage actually began and ended before I even began to type. Rather, I borrowed from the past because it suited the story and I hope that, like Segel, I'm able to parlay my own humiliations into storytelling gold.

Segel is not, of course, the first person to do this. But I have long admired that he was courageous enough to not only write that experience into the film, but to then play the part himself essentially ensuring that he would need to relive it during take after take...so that it could be immortalized in the final cut of the film shown to the world. Our society has a tendency to either worship or deride actors. I'm not saying that Segel is somehow a greater human being than any of the rest of us, and yes, his courage is of a wholly different variety than that of the men and women who serve in the military or stand ready to assist us in emergencies as police, firefighters or medics.

But I would challenge you to ask yourself: How comfortable are you about not just owning up to your most embarrassing and humiliating experiences, but in sharing them? Would you want to tell complete strangers about these incidents? Would you be willing to allow these shameful moments of yours to become fodder for everyone else's amusement?

Most of us can think of stories of ours that have become the stuff of legend among our families and friends. When it's just the guys, we might invoke these stories to bust each other's chops. We cringe at the idea of these tales being made known to the girls we bring around. Maybe that level of story is okay to put in a story.

How far would you go, though? How personal are you willing to get?

I'm not asking because I want to challenge anyone. Nor am I at all insinuating that I possess that level of courage. I merely wish to draw your attention to the fact that the stories that entertain us do not originate in a vacuum. Someone has spun those yarns from at least a modicum of actual, real life experience. As I progress on this novel, I find myself increasingly cognizant of the kind of selflessness that the really good writers must possess alongside their quick wit and deft use of vocabulary and grammar. I am into Act II now, and I wonder...how much of that selflessness will be asked of me before I complete this work?

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