By Fergus M. Bordewich
March 31, 2014
A crook cured me of writer’s block.
I used to fear the mental brick wall, the insuperable anxiety of feeling halfway through a manuscript that I had nothing left to say. Around that time, back in the 1970s, I got to know a semi-reformed stick-up artist in New York. I was trying to write a profile of him but couldn’t bring it to climax, and thought perhaps I could tell his story better in a screenplay.
Well, okay, Paddy didn’t exactly cure me of writer’s block himself. But my struggle to write about him led me to Samson Rafaelson, who taught a film-writing seminar at Columbia University that he invited me to sit in on. Rafaelson was then in his late 80s, an artifact from filmdom’s Golden Age. He’d had a meteoric career in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s, then dropped out of sight, and was rediscovered in the 1970s. In our class he talked often about the wispy, brilliant romantic comedies he had written for Ernst Lubitsch—The Shop Around the Corner, Heaven Can Wait—films that still sparkle with wit, clever dialogue, and plot twists that are as utterly convincing as they are unlikely.
His lectures were as crisp and economical as his scripts, although his age occasionally betrayed him. He once repeated an entire lecture word for word, but no one in the class had the heart to tell him so.
“I did my best writing when I didn’t know what was going to happen next,” he said one evening. “It’s only when you’ve painted yourself into a corner that your imagination really begins to work—that’s when you really begin to write.”
Paddy started shooting heroin again, and sticking people up, and went back to jail. I never succeeded in turning his story into a screenplay, or a book. But I never feared the blank page again: I look forward to the corners that I know, inevitably, I will always paint myself into.
Fergus M. Bordewich is the author, most recently, of America's Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union. His next book, The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government, will be published in February.