2008-05-30 / Columnists

School Scope

Truth Is Stranger Than …
Commentary By Norman Scott

Norman Scott Norman Scott I'm feeling so literary with the Rockaway Literary Arts and Film Festival coming June 7-8 (like, how about Pete Fornatale, the greatest DJ in the history of rock, coming to talk about his book on Simon and Garfunkle's "Bookends.") Thoughts of fiction and non-fiction come to mind. Writing so much about the "doin's" at The NYC Department of Education and the UFT, sometimes I'm not sure into which category this column falls.

Three summers ago, I signed up for fiction writing through Gotham Writers' Workshop, one of the best ways to put your toe in the water. The only fiction I had written was a short story in college, but what's the big deal? I can pump out words like crazy on topics galore - just ask the poor editors at The Wave.

So, as I sat in front of the computer trying to make up a short story, I found one excuse after another to get up - and eat. (If I look fat, blame Gotham.) Well, one thing led to another and I used an idea from people I knew at school 25 years ago to create composite characters and tell a story that had some truth and some fiction. WOW! What an experience. But how hard compared to non-fiction writing where I can just let it fly.

Staff members at P.S./M.S. 43 in Far Rockaway took to the sidewalks before school on May 22 to distribute leaflets to parents about the proposed budget cuts to their students' education. The rain didn't dampen their spirits! Staff members at P.S./M.S. 43 in Far Rockaway took to the sidewalks before school on May 22 to distribute leaflets to parents about the proposed budget cuts to their students' education. The rain didn't dampen their spirits! Now, I had to watch for story development, how much to tell the readers, and when to tell them. How to open, how to close, and all that other stuff in between - descriptions, dialogue, scenes. It turned into one of the hardest things I'd done. I got so involved, I didn't even hear when my wife asked me to do things around the house (heh, heh).

At Gotham, the rest of the class critiques your work in as positive a manner as possible. People are so encouraging, you actually begin to get the feeling you can do this. So, I went back for Fiction Writing II in the fall, followed by a screenwriting class in the spring.

In the meantime, I joined a bunch of people from the Gotham class in a writing group (why spend $350) and we've been meeting for over two years, with some people coming and going. We recently added three people after advertising on Craig's list. When I recently hit the group with the third revision of a story, at least the new people weren't seen standing on the edge of a subway station trying to decide whether to read it again or jump.

There have been so many wonderful suggestions in shaping of the story, the group functions as editors - the author takes the stuff that makes sense and where there's a consensus, you get a real sense of how an audience will react. While I have to lock myself in an isolation booth when writing fiction (as opposed to non-fiction, which I can write on a toilet seat, something readers of this column often mention), when in a writing group, the process is not a lonely journey. That so many of these people who are serious writers actually bother to read my stuff and comment in the most thoughtful and serious way, amazes me. And so much of their writing just blows me away.

Mixed Genres

There are so many fiction/non-fiction controversies around - see James Fry - I was surprised at Salmon Rushdie's comment in a recent interview in the NY Times: "…creative nonfiction, as it gets called, is one of the great innovations of the last 30 or 40 years." All fiction contains many elements of non-fiction and one of the arts of a fiction writer is keeping the reader guessing. Unless something is 100 percent "real," people think it should be labeled fiction. I'm not so sure anymore.

In my last column, I talked about my involvement in the film "Dispatch," a mixed genre film, as a cinematographer and editor. I learned some interesting things about fact and fiction. We began work on the film looking at it totally as a documentary with Belle Rock car service dispatcher Jim Urban as the central character. Can you build a film around a strong character like Jim? Absolutely. Some people who saw early footage thought he was a fictional character. There was so much good stuff, we were reluctant to take any of it out. But you can't have a 3-hour film of one person talking, no matter how fascinating he is. The film began to evolve beyond a simple documentary, which we were not totally comfortable with, especially my long-time collaborator Mark Rosenhaft, who has made films since the early '70s. (I'll go into the reasons for this discomfort over working on a mixed genre film another time.)

We interviewed drivers and passengers. None of them could compete with Jim. One of the great things about film editing is how a 12-minute interview can be chopped into short segments that are very effective. Working without a script, we were able to craft the movie in the editing room as we structured and restructured the film into theme-based segments. Snip, snip, snip, sometimes milliseconds at a time, until a somewhat coherent film emerged.

I won't say more about "Dispatch" until after people get to see it at the Literary/Film festival, where it will be shown as a short. Maybe truth is not stranger than fiction.

Starring: The Wave

I wanted to interview Wave editor Howie Schwach because of his unusual decision to take on such a massive job after retiring from the school system. He is a perfect subject for a Manhattan Neighborhood Network TV show I work on, focusing on retirees who have found another career. Many of the people I work with have had experience in the TV industry. When I showed them the interview, one of them said she interviewed Howie for Channel 4 after the Flight 587 crash.

Rita Satz, who worked for the Today Show (Matt Lauer once sent her flow- ers with a note, "Thanks for making me look so good.") and the local news for many years. She met her husband on the beach in Rockaway when she was 14 years old - her grandfather owned Kastner's Hotel and Restaurant on Beach 116 Street, and the Pasadena Hotel, which was washed away in a hurricane, so she was a frequent visitor. She gave me some old pictures for The Wave to use.

Rita was very enthusiastic about producing the Schwach segment. On a recent visit to her Manhattan apartment to review the footage, I noticed a bunch of statues and awards. "Oh, that's my Emmy," she said. She won other awards on consumer fraud when she worked as Betty Furness' (remember her opening refrigerator doors in commercials) producer. But she's proudest of the Kappa Delta Epsilon Professional Journalists Association award for breaking a story on adoption illegalities, where her co-winner was Seymour Hirsch. "We beat out '60 Minutes,'" she said.

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