James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater Chronicles

My Writing Journey — Part 2

“Fear is the mind-killer.”

—Frank Herbert, Dune

The line struck me, and stuck with me. I had a long way to go to conquer Fear, however.

What I didn’t fear was plunging into reading a dense, complex novel like Dune, but had to admit that I didn’t enjoy that level of narrative world building (see also: Tolkein) as much as a good ripping yarn. I didn’t bother with the rest of the Dune books (oh, maybe one or two), but I kept reading other SF and fantasy.

And then there’s Star Trek. Yeah. Back then, that meant what geeks now refer to as TOS—The Original Series that ran from 1966 to 1969 (and the 1-season animated version from ’73). What fleshed out the Trek universe at the time were not the feature films and later series, but rather the ancillary materials: novelizations, comics, the Star Fleet Technical manual full of pseudoscience and blueprints. Also on my bookshelf was a copy of a screenplay I ordered from the old Star Trek fan club, the first script of any kind that I’d ever held in my hands.

kirk-and-spock

Why had I wanted a copy of a script, of all things? Well, for a number of reasons: first of all, as established one couldn’t simply watch these beloved episodes, not in the pre-VHS days when one had to pray one of the local stations would pick up the syndication package and strip the series at four, five, or seven pm. But also, having a copy of a script felt like a sacred object, especially after a book I’d read called The Making of Star TrekThe blurb on the front said, ‘The book on how to write for TV!’ with a picture of the beloved Enterprise firing neon-blue phaser beams.

Maybe I wanted to write—I didn’t know if it would be for TV, but the idea that people made a living creating the scripts and episodes of Star Trek seemed a magical life indeed.

Not only did I devour the book, but when it’d come time in Mrs. Wright’s 6th grade class to do an oral book report, I chose The Making of Star Trek. The behind-the-scenes details of the writing and production of the series had captured my imagination as much as the stories Gene Roddenberry, et all, told across the 79 episodes of the ‘old’ TV show from nearly ten years prior, and while nervous as could be, I did a pretty good job of reporting to the class how interesting the process of crafting the stories and programs seemed from the perspective of the people doing the creating.

“So you know,” I concluded, glancing down at the cover of the book in my hand, “if you want to learn how to write for TV, this um would be a good book to read.”

In sixth grade you didn’t have to be too eloquent or much of a deep thinker with a report like this, but Mrs. Wright seemed immensely pleased, gave my book report an A+. I suppose it did seem thoughtful and interesting—I remember others did book reports on Davy Crocket and baseball players and other such things. But I was thinking about scripts.

photo-2

Note the date received (in stardate form, of course), and that I had yet to catch on to ‘i before e except after c’. I typed that notation using a manual typewriter my Aunt Becky gave me, and on which I typed all my earliest works, hammering away. By the time of my actual typing class several years later, compared to the manual I found using a Selectric to be like floating on air.

But not only Star Trek scripts—I had developed another obsession, this one more earthbound: M*A*S*H, both the wildly popular TV series, but also Robert Altman’s original New Hollywood masterpiece, as well as the source novel and a number of cheesy spinoff books that’d been published since the show had become a staple of the powerhouse CBS sitcom lineup. All of it concerned a beleaguered, anti-authoritarian group of military surgeons ‘three miles from the front lines’ in the Korean War, whose hijinks and disdain for establishment rules and order belied their underlying sense of duty and morality—these were doctors, after all, and their oath held clear even (especially?) on the front lines of a bloody and brutal conflict.

Before long, I had a copy of that script, too—the Oscar-nominated feature film version, that is, by Ring Lardner, Jr, which I ordered from Jerry Ohlinger’s Movie Material Store on 14th Street in faraway, magical New York. The M*A*S*H screenplay came to me on legal size paper, and obviously photocopied through a number of generations. I beheld it as though the Rosetta Stone, however, and read and re-read it with great engagement, noting the differences from the finished film, how the dialogue had changed from page to screen, and so on. I would love to still have that script—it’s one of the great missing pieces of my childhood, never, now to be recovered. (I know what happened to it, but the person who had it has taken it with him to his early grave. There’s nothing you can hold for very long, as the man said, neither sentimental old copies of screenplays, nor people themselves.)

Elliot Gould as Trapper John, Sally Kellerman as Major 'Hot Lips' Houlihan, and my personal hero, Capt. Benjamin Franklin 'Hawkeye' Pierce as played by Donald Sutherland. Yes, I did were a hat like that for a long long time.

Elliot Gould as Trapper John, Sally Kellerman as Major ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan, and my personal hero, Capt. Benjamin Franklin ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce as played by Donald Sutherland. Yes, I did were a hat like that for a long long time.

I grew to love M*A*S*H so much that my friends and I often role-played, to the point that one day we decided to write our own scripts and episodes… and later, the idea would come to actually produce one, so much so that my best pal and creative partner Jason Wright and I actually met with a representative from the SC Arts Commission, and I also went so far as to write to 20th Century Fox for permission to use the M*A*S*H characters in a student production. The letter came back from a Vice President who said that no, no, M*A*S*H belonged to them, and I could not use Hawkeye and Trapper in my little movie. I remember feeling so crushed and disappointed—what could the harm be? At least I’d had the sense (probably on the advice of the arts rep) to write to Fox to request permission.

I used to have all these... don't know what happened to them. Probably sold to a used bookstore way back when.

I used to have all these… don’t know what happened to them. Probably sold to a used bookstore way back when.

The M*A*S*H experience taught me much—the ambitions that my grandmother had tried to suggest were beyond my abilities were now being discouraged by other adults from outside my family, and even my writing partner:

“We’ll all look silly,” he said, “trying to look like grownup army doctors—how will we give ourselves 5 o’clock shadows like they always have? Rub ashes on our face? It won’t work.” Hearing it from a friend sealed the deal, and the M*A*S*H project fell by the wayside.

Luckily, I still have the script pages we wrote. I’ve pretty much kept everything, including my love of both Star Trek and M*A*S*H. Jason was right, though—it all would have been too much to pull off effectively, especially the technical part of putting the whole finished product together. But at least I was dreaming big!

Mercy. Get a load of the self-consciousness on display regarding the adult themes of the material, as well as Jason Wright's balloon-popping notation in the last paragraph. Writers need balloon-poppers in their life.

Mercy. Get a load of the self-consciousness on display regarding the adult themes of the material, as well as Jason Wright’s balloon-popping notation in the last paragraph. Writers need balloon-poppers in their life.

What’s especially interesting about the folder of materials I still have is that so much of it seems to be attempts to write prose versions of the stories I wanted to tell, rather than script pages, including a number of ‘Chapters 1’—lots of starting things, but very little finishing, not of large scale projects like a screenplay or a novel. Not in the 8th grade.

In any case, as much as I continued to love reading and would try occasionally try to write a short story, the idea of movies and screenplays had captured my mind, which films like Star Wars (and many others, of course, both populist and arthouse) would only continue to stoke throughout my life. The scope of the complex, great novels I admired like Dune seemed impossible to pull off to me, that introspective, sensitive kid wandering those pine barrens in Lugoff, but scripts, those I had already begun to write. Maybe people like me did become writers.

Of all these early influences, however, perhaps none has stayed with me like Roddenberry’s vision of Trek. There’s no more important fictional character in my personal development than that of Spock, struggling with his meddlesome human emotions as he tries to pursue a course of pure reason and logic, which remains the essence of my own journey—and maybe everyone’s. But truly, the anti-authoritarianism of Hawkeye and Trapper, too, have shaped the way I think and behave—like those counterculture surgeons (M*A*S*H is really allegory about Vietnam and the 60s rather than Korea or warfare in general), I still don’t have much patience with the metaphorical ‘regular Army clowns’ whom they so bedeviled with their recalcitrant and moralistic ways.

I still cry when I watch the end of Wrath of Khan. Yeah, I do.

I still cry when I watch the end of Wrath of Khan. Yeah, I do.

Next time the story of my writing path veers back to novels, however, with two enormous and lasting influences: Stephen King’s The Stand, and John Irving’s The World According to Garp.  

My Writing Journey (Part 1)

Liked it? Take a second to support dmac on Patreon!

About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest novel Let the Glory Pass Away releases in January 2017.

4 Replies

Leave a Reply