Again with the Groundhog -- Umberto Tosi

Another Ground Hog Day and I'm spinning my wheels. Same rut; different project. They say that rewriting is part of the process, but I feel like Bill Murray's clueless curmudgeon midway through his trial by repetition. Eighty thousand polished and re-polished words and now I'm redoing the opening - always the opening, the grabber, the launch. I feel like I'm weaving a Persian rug with my fingernails. I'm forever climbing an M.C. Escher staircase. I'm at the stage of get-on-with-it-already.

And it's Trump vs. Biden for the White House again this year -- deja vu soaked in Trump-aversion shared by a majority of my frustrated countrymen. Deja vu turns into horror when we recognize how closely Trump's MAGA fascist path parallels that of Hitler. Two years on and an increasingly demented Trump seems undeterred by consequences of his bloody, failed January 6 insurrection. Similarly, the Führer and his Nazis continued their rise to power undeterred by failure of their 1922 Munich Beer Hall Putsch.

My inamorata Eleanor Spiess-Ferris agrees about the Trump fascist threat, but counsels that my personal pique comes more from rushing the creative process. Expectations are resentments waiting to happen, and all. Desire is the cause of all suffering says The Buddha. The muse inspires but demands dedication and patience. 

She's right, but I'm the impatient type. I never believed that suffering enhances creativity - compassion yes, but mere annoyance no. Eleanor reminds me that I've complained about being trapped in this loop before. “It happens with my paintings too,” says the ultra-prodigious, surreal narrative painter who keeps churning out masterpieces in her eighties. “You'll break through. You always do.” 

I'm not so sure. You never know what's going to work until it does.

Eleanor Spiess-Ferris
 Add to this, the nadir of my seasonal blues has arrived right on time this February. On topping it off, I've worked myself into a case of la grippe - psychological or viral. So, with apologies, I'm taking a blogging break this month and offering a re-run about Groundhog Day from here on. 

I posted most of this in February 2016 (with prayer that as far as elections go, 2024 is a rerun of 2020, not 2016.) Enjoy if you didn't read it the first time around.

***

The late Harold Ramis who produced and directed Groundhog Day, was all over the place about how many years Phil Connors, the hapless cynical weatherman played by Bill Murray, spent reliving February 2 in Punxsutawney, PA. He once said 10,000 years and other estimates have ranged from ten to thirty-three. It takes a lot of practice for a mere mortal to play piano with style and become a real mensch as Murray's character eventually does – also to write compellingly. The film has been hailed as a spiritual metaphor by Buddhists, Jews, Christians and atheists – and, of course, representing the stages of creative process. “I get it everywhere,” Ramis said, “but the movie is what it is, a movie.”

Ramis was a Chicago boy, as are Danny Rubin who wrote the original screenplay and Bill Murray. The trio had interwoven histories with the Windy City's legendary improvisational theater and sketch comedy groups founded by Paul Sills, including Second City and the Story Theater. Ramis went to Stephen K. Hayt Elementary School a few blocks from where I live in Rogers Park on the North Side.

My long-time friend and San Francisco improvisational theater coach and jazz musician Doug Kassel came up with that same Chicago crowd – as a young performer under Second City founder Paul Sills and his mother - the godmother of American improvisational theatre Viola Spolin. Kassel recalls playing with Ramis in “the first SC hippie cast with John Belushi, the Murray Brothers, Joe Flaherty, Gilda Radner and Eugenie Ross-Leming. 

This was just before Ramis and Flaherty joined SCTV in Canada” with Catherine O'Hara, John Candy, Andrea Martin, Rick Moranis and others. “It's hard to stand out when you're surrounded by people like that, but I think that he (Ramis) thought of himself as a writer rather than as a comedian.”

Rubin, now a Harvard professor in Brookine, Massachusetts near where I was born, says it took him only four days to write the first draft of Groundhog Day's original screenplay and about 10 days more to refine it. However, it took him three years to formulate the concept, characters, locale, storyline and other specifics needed to start the actual writing. 

Rubin published an e-book on the process – How to Write Groundhog Day. It's part tutorial and part breezy inside story about the screenplay's inception, development and production, which he breaks into: “Pre-Hog,” “Hog” and “Post-Hog”. It's only available as an e-book, he says “because paper doesn't do hypertext.” The e-book includes an early draft of the actual screenplay with hypertext annotations and author comments. With finger-touches, the reader gets notes on the evolution of pickup scenes between Phil and Rita, why they chose Sonny & Cher's “I Got You, Babe,” as Phil's endlessly annoying 6 a.m. clock-radio wakeup number, reminding Phil that he don't got Rita, or anybody.

Harold Ramis, Oct, 2009
The script revision process went on right through filming in Woodstock, Illinois, a town 50 miles north of Chicago that was made to stand in for the real Punxsutaney, PA, which was deemed too rural. Ramis revised Rubin's script once Columbia bought the rights, tailoring it more to the comedic talents of Bill Murray, with whom Ramis had made Ghostbusters I and II and Meatballs. 

Murray – said to have been going through personal troubles at the time – wanted something darker than their previous hit comedies. He argued with Ramis so much that the two had to use Rubin as their intermediary. Their friendship damaged, Ramis and Murray quit speaking to each other for more than twenty years until just before Ramis' death of a vascular autoimmune disorder at age 69 in February, 2014.

Everyone who opines on the writing, counsels patience and persistence, and especially, remembering that actual writing part is only stage one. It lays track to deeper writing. A character mouthing a snappy comeback on screen can make the screenwriter look like a genius, says Rubin in a 1999 essay, Time Thinking. But that snappy line might have taken weeks, months or even years to discover. “Writing allows me to be a kind of time bank. I can store up thousands of potential moments until just the right one is called for. That's when I make a time withdrawal.”

Makes sense to me.For a while, I was self-satisfied that it took me a scant eight months to write the 500-plus pages of Ophelia Rising. That is, until I remembered that I had spent years researching the idea for an historical novel re-imagining Shakespeare's fair maid. 

Writing is a time loop, and the writer, like Bill Murray's Phil Collins, can get stuck even more by trying to find a quick way out instead of letting the process produce what it will. It doesn't help much to remember that – only to keep going. There's one catch that adds urgency, however: unlike Phil Collins, we mortal writers don't have an unlimited number of Groundhog Days to get it right. That can be a curse, or an incentive to get things done imperfect though they may be.
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Umberto Tosi's novels include his highly praised, Frank Ritz, Hollywood noir detective mysteries The Phantom Eye, and Oddly Dead plus his story collection, Sometimes Ridiculous. His epic historical novel Ophelia Rising continues to earn kudos as does his holiday novella, Milagro on 34th Street. His nonfiction books include High Treason (Ballentine/Putnam), and Sports Psyching.  His short stories have appeared in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. His stories, essays and articles have been published widely in print and online since the 1960s.

Comments

Griselda Heppel said…
Don't lose hope, not when you're so nearly there! At this advanced stage, the beginning is the hardest bit. You've got the story but you have to grab your readers to draw them in, but not in a way that they don't know what the blazes is going on. Now I know how hard it is, it makes me admire writers who seem to do it effortlessly (obviously not effortlessly) even more.

I had a rather depressing encounter with an agent once who read the first chapter of my book and just said, 'have you noticed how many stories begin with a chase?' Um, yes... including mine, actually, but not in the first paragraph. So not soon enough for her. Just her way of telling me she wasn't interested.

It takes huge skill, giving just enough exposition to allow your readers to care about your characters, but not so much as to weigh them down before the story has got going. Still working on it myself...

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