Hunter S. Thompson Typed Out The Great Gatsby & A Farewell to Arms Word for Word: A Method for Learning How to Write Like the Masters

Image  via Wikimedia Commons

The word quixotic derives, of course, from Miguel Cervantes’ irreverent early 17th century satire, Don Quixote. From the novel’s eponymous character it carries connotations of antiquated, extravagant chivalry. But in modern usage, quixotic usually means “foolishly impractical, marked by rash lofty romantic ideas.” Such designations apply in the case of Jorge Luis Borges’ story, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” in which the titular academic writes his own Quixote by recreating Cervantes’ novel word-for-word.

Why does this fictional minor critic do such a thing? Borges’ explanations are as circuitously mysterious as you might expect. But we can get a much more straightforward answer from a modern-day Quixote—an individual who has undertaken many a “foolishly impractical” quest: Hunter S. Thompson. Though he would never be mistaken for a knight-errant, Thompson did tilt at more than a few windmills, including Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, from which he typed whole pages, word-for-word “just to get the feeling,” writes Louis Menand at The New Yorker, “of what it was like to write that way.”

“You know Hunter typed The Great Gatsby,” an awestruck Johnny Depp told The Guardian in 2011, after he’d played Thompson himself in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and a fictionalized version of him in an adaptation of Thompson’s lost novel The Rum Diaries. “He’d look at each page Fitzgerald wrote, and he copied it. The entire book. And more than once. Because he wanted to know what it felt like to write a masterpiece.” This exercise prepared him to write one, or his cracked version of one, 1972’s gonzo account of a more-than-quixotic road trip, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Menand points out that Thompson first called the book The Death of the American Dream, likely inspired by Fitzgerald’s first Gatsby title, The Death of the Red White and Blue.

Thompson referred to Gatsby frequently in books and letters. Just as often, he referenced another literary hero—and pugnacious Fitzgerald competitor—Ernest Hemingway. He first began typing out Gatsby while employed at Time magazine as a copy boy in 1958, one of many magazine and newspaper jobs in a “pattern of disruptive employment,” writes biographer Kevin T. McEneaney. “Thompson appropriated armloads of office supplies” for the task, and also typed out Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and “some of Faulkner’s stories—an unusual method for learning prose rhythm.” He was fired the following year, not for misappropriation, but for “his unpardonable, insulting wit at a Christmas party.”

In a 1958 letter to his hometown girlfriend Ann Frick, Thompson named the Fitzgerald and Hemingway novels as two especially influential books, along with Brave New World, William Whyte’s The Organization Man, and Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything (or “Girls before Girls”), a novel that “hardly belongs in the abovementioned company,” he wrote, and which he did not, presumably, copy out on his typewriter at work. Surely, however, many a Thompson close reader has discerned the traces of Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Hemingway in his work, particularly the latter, whose macho escapades and epic drinking bouts surely inspired more than just Thompson’s writing.

In Borges’ “Pierre Menard,” the title character first sets out to “be Miguel de Cervantes”—to “Learn Spanish, return to Catholicism, fight against the Moor or Turk, forget the history of Europe from 1602 to 1918….” He finds the undertaking not only “impossible from the outset,” but also “the least interesting” way to go about writing his own Quixote. Thompson may have discovered the same as he worked his way through his influences. He could not become his heroes. He would have to take what he’d learned from inhabiting their prose, and use it as fuel for his literary firebombs–or, seen differently, for his idealistic, impractical, yet strangely noble (in their way) knight's quests.

Not since Thompson's Nixonian heyday has there been such need for a ferocious outlaw voice like his. He may have become a stock character by the end of his life, caricatured as Uncle Duke in Doonesbury, given pop culture sainthood by Depp's unhinged portrayal. But "at its best," writes Menand, "Thompson's anger, in writing, was a beautiful thing, fearless and funny and, after all, not wrong about the shabbiness and hypocrisy of American officialdom." Perhaps even now, some hungry young intern is typing out Fear and Loathing word-for-word, preparing to absorb it into his or her own 21st century repertoire of barbed-wire truth-telling about “the death of the American dream.” The method, it seems, may work with any great writer, be it Cervantes, Fitzgerald, or Hunter S. Thompson.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How Hunter S. Thompson Gave Birth to Gonzo Journalism: Short Film Revisits Thompson’s Seminal 1970 Piece on the Kentucky Derby

"In 1970, Hunter S. Thompson went to the Kentucky Derby, and he changed sports journalism and broadcasting forever." Or so claims historian Douglas Brinkley, the oft-imitated but never replicated writer's literary executor, in the short Gonzo @ the Derby. Directed by Michael G. Ratner and first commissioned by ESPN's 30 for 30, the thirteen-minute documentary tells the story of how, having made his name with a book on the Hell's Angels, the 33-year-old, Louisville-born Thompson took a gig with the rebellious and short-lived Scanlan's Monthly to go back to his hometown and report on its famous horse race — and how he almost inadvertently defined a whole new kind of journalism as a result.

As the 1960s turned into the 1970s, the United States looked like a country in serious turmoil: "Everything seemed to be coming unglued in America," says Brinkley. "Kent State and the Black Panthers and the rebellion that's going on around the nation, and yet here is this old-fashioned Kentucky Derby festival going on." The late Warren Hinckle III, who edited Scanlan's, had one question: "Who went to these damn things?" And so Thompson, described here by former Rolling Stone managing editor John Walsh as "the quintessential outsider who likes to make himself the quintessential insider," went — with neither press credentials nor reservations — to find out the answer.

Thompson did not, as every fan knows, find out alone. Scanlan's also flew in, all the way from England, an illustrator by the name of Ralph Steadman. When Thompson and Steadman managed to meet amid the gregarious chaos of Derby-time Louisville, neither man could have known how inextricably the culture would soon associate their work, the former's feverish, impressionistic yet hypersensitive prose and the latter's untamed-looking, distinctively monstrous artwork. Both of them found their voices in presenting reality not as it was, but as grimly heightened as it could feel to them, and both, given the era, occasionally did so with the aid of mind-altering substances.

At the Kentucky Derby, however, they stuck to alcohol — as did, if you believe Thompson's reporting, all the rest of the attendees, and in an at once hellaciously debaucherous and sinisterly genteel way at that. "Unlike most of the others in the press box, we didn't give a hoot in hell what was happening on the track," he writes in the final product of he and Steadman's trip, "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved." (Find it in the collection, The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time.) "We had come there to watch the real beasts perform." Yet even as they gazed, backs to the horses, upon the sheer grotesquerie of what Brinkley calls "the white Southern power elite," they realized that they, too, amid their blustering fakery, half-remembered altercations, and near-constant binging, had become beastly themselves.

After all that, Thompson, back in New York to write up the story, feared that he didn't have a story at all. In desperation, he told not of what happened at the 1970 Kentucky Derby but of how he and Steadman experienced the 1970 Kentucky Derby, leaving plenty of room for speculation, remembrance, artistic license, and unverifiable madness that eventually devolves into the raw notes he scribbled amid the storm of high-society Southern squalor. Could he have possibly suspected what a potent combination that and Steadman's illustrations (described as "sketched with eyebrow pencil and lipstick") would make? Bill Cardoso, then editor of the Boston Globe, understood its power when he first read the article, even coining a word to describe it: "This is it, this is pure Gonzo. If this is a start, keep rolling."

The short documentary, "Gonzo @ the Derby," will be added to our list of Free Online Documentaries, a subset of our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Inspiration from Charles Bukowski: You Might Be Old, Your Life May Be “Crappy,” But You Can Still Make Good Art

Now more than ever, there’s tremendous pressure to make it big while you’re young.

Pity the 31-year-old who fails to make it onto a 30-under-30 list…

The soon-to-graduate high schooler passed over for YouTube stardom…

The great hordes who creep into middle age without so much as a TED Talk to their names…

Social media definitely magnifies the sensation that an unacceptable number of our peers have been granted first-class cabins aboard a ship that’s sailed without us. If we weren’t so demoralized, we’d sue Instagram for creating the impression that everyone else’s #VanLife is leading to book deals and profiles in The New Yorker.


Don’t despair, dear reader. Charles Bukowski is about to make your day from beyond the grave.

In 1993, at the age of 73, the late writer and self-described “spoiled old toad,” took a break from recording the audiobook of Run With the Hunted to reflect upon his “crappy” life.

Some of these thoughts made it into Drew Christie’s animation, above, a reminder that the smoothest road isn’t always necessarily the richest one.

In service of his ill-paying muse, Bukowski logged decades in unglamorous jobs ---dishwasher, truckdriver and loader, gas station attendant, stock boy, warehouseman, shipping clerk, parking lot attendant, Red Cross orderly, elevator operator, and most notoriously, postal carrier and clerk. These gigs gave him plenty of material, the sort of real world experience that eludes those upon whom literary fame and fortune smiles early.

(His alcoholic misadventures provided yet more material, earning him such honorifics as the ”poet laureate of L.A. lowlife" and "enfant terrible of the Meat School poets.”)

One might also take comfort in hearing a writer as prodigious as Bukowski revealing that he didn’t hold himself to the sort of daily writing regimen that can be difficult to achieve when one is juggling day jobs, student loans, and/or a family. Also appreciated is the far-from-cursory nod he accords the therapeutic benefits that are available to all those who write, regardless of any public or financial recognition:

Three or four nights out of seven. If I don’t get those in, I don’t act right. I feel sick. I get very depressed. It’s a release. It’s my psychiatrist, letting this shit out. I’m lucky I get paid for it. I’d do it for nothing. In fact, I’d pay to do it. Here, I’ll give you ten thousand a year if you’ll let me write. 

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

David Mamet Teaches Dramatic Writing in a New Online Course

FYI: David Mamet, one of America's preeminent playwrights and screenwriters, will be teaching a course on Dramatic Writing over at MasterClass this spring. Featuring 25 video lessons and a downloadable workbook, the course will take you through Mamet's "process for turning life's strangest moments into dramatic art. He'll teach you the rules of drama, the nuances of dialogue, and the skills to develop your own voice and create your masterpiece." The cost is $90. It's not every day that you can get inside the creative process of the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of Glengarry Glen Ross. So perhaps it's money well spent.

As we've previously mentioned, MasterClass has enlisted other accomplished figures to teach courses on their craft--eg, Steve Martin does comedyWerner Herzog, filmmakingAaron Sorkin, screenwritingChristina Aguilera, singing, and Frank Gehry, architecture, to name a few. You can browse their complete list of courses here. And watch a trailer for Mamet's course above.

If you're looking for free courses, check out our collection, 1200 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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How Quentin Tarantino Creates Suspense in His Favorite Scene, the Tension-Filled Opening Moments of Inglourious Basterds

We all have a favorite Quentin Tarantino scene, but the director of Pulp FictionKill BillThe Hateful Eight, and other movies that can seem made out of nothing but memorable scenes also has one of his own. "My favorite thing I think I've ever written is the scene at the French farmhouse at the beginning of Inglourious Basterds," Business Insider quotes him as saying in a panel at San Diego Comic-Con. "The scene Tarantino refers to is the very first one of his brutal World War II epic" wherein "SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) arrives at a remote dairy farm in France that is suspected of hiding Jewish people. Landa sits down with the farmer (Denis Menochet) and questions him about the whereabouts of the Dreyfus family." A "tense and sneaky psychological mind game" ensues.

You can learn exactly what makes those opening twenty minutes such a miniature masterpiece in the Lessons from the Screenplay video above. Drawing from psychological research on the nature of tension and suspense, series creator Michael Tucker highlights certain "key components of tension experiences," including uncertainty, instability, and a lack of control, and shows how Tarantino uses them to heighten the tension as much as possible throughout these seventeen minutes.

"It's like the suspense is a rubber band," Tarantino says in a Charlie Rose interview clip included in the video, "and I'm just stretching it and stretching it and stretching it to see how far it can stretch."

Tarantino also uses a suite of techniques that moviegoers have come to associate specifically with him, such as long stretches of dialogue that go off on extended tangents ("Part of my plan," he says in another interview clip, "is to bury it in so much minutia about nothing that you don't realize you're being told an important plot point until it becomes important"), the charged consumption of food and drink, and the potential for carnage at any moment. "The fact that the audience is aware they're watching a Tarantino film adds to the suspense," says Tucker. "We know there will be consequences, and that Tarantino has no qualms about showing violence." And after the tour de force of its opening, the movie still has well over two hours of pure Tarantinian cinema to go.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda Creates a 19-Song Playlist to Help You Get Over Writer’s Block

Photo by Steve Jurvetson, via Flickr Commons

Last year we alerted you to a short doc about authors and their relationship with writer’s block. Many were philosophical. Others like Philipp Meyer dismissed it: ““I don’t think writer’s block actually exists,” he said. “It’s basically insecurity.”

How seriously you take it or how terribly it affects you, we have a Spotify playlist created by Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame called “Write Your Way Out.”

He revealed the playlist on his Twitter feed on March 20 with an apology that the mix took longer to make than expected. It is a mix, he said, “about writing, songs that feature great writing, and everything in between.” Like his other mixes, he’s thinking about us, that kindly Mr. Miranda.

The eclectic mix begins with “Happy Birthday Darling” from Bright Lights Big City (“Now when you write my son, make the choice, find your voice, look down deep in your heart”), then features English-language hip hop from the Hamilton Mixtape (Nas’ “Wrote My Way Out”) and Spanish-language hip hop from Calle 13 (“Adentro”), folk classics (Joni Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning”, Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages”), even some jaunty pop from Vampire Weekend (“Oxford Comma”) and Sara Bareilles (“Love Song”). He ends with Raúl Esparza's ballad "Why" from the musical Tick, Tick, BOOM!, which closes the mix with a paean to the healthy addiction of creativity. ("I make a vow, right here and now / I'm gonna spend my time this way," he sings.)

And don’t worry if you don’t have Spotify (which you can download here). He’s listed the tracks on his Twitter post too.

It’s nice to know that Miranda fussed over this selection like one used to do back in the days of cassette tapes. Does that mean he has a crush on all of us?

via Nerdist

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at and/or watch his films here.

How to Tell a Good Story, as Explained by George Saunders, Ira Glass, Ken Burns, Scott Simon, Catherine Burns & Others

All of us instinctively respond to stories. This has both positive and negative effects, but if we don't understand it about ourselves, we've won't fully understand why people believe what they believe and do what they do. Even given the deep human attachment to narrative, can we clearly explain what a story is, or how to tell one? Acclaimed author George Saunders has given the subject a great deal of thought, some of which he lets us in on in the short film above, which Josh Jones previously wrote about here on Open Culture. "A good story," he tells us, says "at many different levels, 'We're both human beings. We're in this crazy situation called life that we don't really understand. Can we put our heads together and confer about it at a very high, non-bullshitty level?'"

At this point in his career, Saunders has tried out that approach to story using numerous different techniques and in a variety of different contexts, most recently in his new novel Lincoln in the Bardo, which takes place in the aftermath of the assassination of the titular sixteenth President of the United States. Few living creators understand the appeal of American history as a trove of story material better than Ken Burns, author of long-form documentaries like JazzBaseball, and The Civil War, who finds that its "good guys have serious flaws and the villains are very compelling."

And though he ostensibly works with only the facts, he acknowledges that "all story is manipulation," some of it desirable manipulation and some of it not so much, with the challenge of telling the difference falling to the storyteller himself.

"The common story," Burns says, "is 'one plus one equals two.' We get it. But all stories — the real, genuine stories — are about one and one equaling three." Where his mathematical formula for storytelling emphasizes the importance of the unexpected, the one offered by Andrew Stanton, director of Pixar films like Finding NemoWALL-E, and John Carter, emphasizes the importance of a "well-organized absence of information." In the TED Talk just above  (which opens with a potentially NSFW joke), he suggests always giving the audience "two plus two" instead of four, encouraging the audience to do the satisfying work of putting the details of the story together themselves while never letting them realize they're doing any work at all.

"Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty," said the playwright William Archer. Stanton quotes it in his talk, and the notion also seems to underlie the views on storytelling held by This American Life creator Ira Glass. In the interview above, he describes the process of telling a story as recounting a sequence of actions, of course, but also continually throwing out questions and answering them all along the way, oscillating between actions in the story and moments of reflection on those actions which cast a little light on their meaning — a form surely familiar to anyone who's heard so much as a segment of his radio show. And how do you become as skilled as he and his team at telling stories? Do what he did: tell a huge number of them, telling and telling and telling until you develop the killer instinct to mercilessly separate the truly compelling ones from the rest.

Glass illustrates the benefits of his lessons by playing some tape of a news report he produced early in his career, highlighting all the ways in which he failed to tell its story properly. He turned out to be cut out for something slightly different than straight-up reporting, a job of which reporters like Scott Simon of National Public Radio's Weekend Edition have made an art. Simon takes his storytelling process apart in three and a half minutes in the video just above: beyond providing such essentials as a strong beginning, vivid details, and a point listeners can take away, he says, you've also got to consider the way you deliver the whole package. Ideally, you'll tell your story in "short, breathable sections," which creates an overall rhythm for the audience to follow, whether they're sitting on the barstool beside you or tuned in on the other side of the world.

What else does a good story need? Conflict. Tension. The feeling of "seeing two opposing forces collide." Honesty. Grace. The ring of truth. All these qualities and more come up in the Atlantic's "Big Question" video above, which asks a variety of notables to name the most important element of a good story. Responders include House of Cards writer and producer Beau Willimon, The Moth artistic director Catherine Burns, PBS president Paula Kerger, and former Disney CEO Michael Eisner. Since humans have told stories since we first began, as Saunders put it, conferring about this crazy situation called life, all manner of storytelling rules, tips, and tricks have come and gone, but the core principles have remained the same. As to whether we now understand life any better... well, isn't that one of those unanswered questions that keeps us on the edge of our seats?

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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