Some may wonder if any writing gets done at a retreat in beautiful Costa Rica, which is better known as a vacation spot than a place to work, even on something one loves. The fact is my co-instructor and host Ezekiel Tyrus elicited a lot of fine work from our pupils, applying disciplinary techniques to one’s daily regimen that proved stimulating and productive.
I offered a complementary if unconventional approach, focusing on various sources of inspiration for one’s work, both internal and external, since environment matters as much as experience.
For instance, during the retreat I hosted a double bill of movies about the literary lifestyle: Barbet Schroder’s film of Charles Bukowski’s autobiographical screenplay Barfly (1987), starring Mickey Rourke (with whom I actually have a personal history) and Faye Dunaway; and Robert Towne’s 2006 adaptation of John Fante’s novel, Ask the Dust, starring Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek. Fante was actually Bukowski’s idol, so the two fit together thematically in more ways than one.
Most of the audience present enjoyed it, but one in particular, Dustin Thompson, expressed instant distaste for the film, thanking me for showing it, but admitting he didn’t care for it “at all.”
It still managed to resonate with him on a subconscious level.
Dustin is a fascinating individual in many ways, not least of which being his razor sharp wit and seemingly effortless talent for turning a colorful, memorable phrase during casual conversation. A native of Mississippi, Dustin shares this gift for language – both spoken and written - with many other Southern authors. He comes from a long literary lineage and he does his regional heritage proud, apparently without even trying, simply by being himself.
Of course, his engaging and charming personality springs organically from an inner wellspring of painful life experience, from coming out as a gay man in a historically bigoted community to spending hard time behind bars for a crime he did not commit. He was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person, who happened to be a loved one that betrayed him.
All of these challenges collectively helped mold Dustin’s unique character into a tale of personal triumph that provides inspiration to his fellow aspiring authors, while also proving a sharply honed sense of humor is as valuable a coping mechanism as an innate ability for self-expression. Dustin humbly boasts both in spades.
But even given his compelling life history, Dustin has showed us that expanding one’s consciousness beyond our natural perimeters can result in epiphanies that enrich our minds, hearts, souls – an eventually, maybe even our bank accounts, if we can commercialize our Art without sacrificing the integrity of its source.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, But the Mind is a Picky Critic…
Being the model Southern gentleman, Dustin gave each of us a handwritten “thank you note" on the final day of the retreat. Mine featured his subjective review of Barfly, a movie he did not enjoy, but for whatever reason, could not stop contemplating. Obviously some buttons had been inadvertently pushed, and when that happens, you never know what might pop out…
I just watched “Barfly.” I didn’t connect with he premise or the characters, whose lives revolve around drinking, but I appreciated the glimpse inside a life that exists not too far from mine, at least geographically, although L.A. didn’t feel like one of the characters as it does in certain movies.
While I thought Mickey Rourke’s performance was a bit hammy, with his odd gait and posture, I now understand how he became successful, because he comes to the edge of the fourth wall and dares you to take his eyes off of him. Faye Dunaway is a believable and surprisingly sympathetic character even though she uses people, cheats, and pulls out a preppy woman’s hair.
I will admit there were great lines about not hating people, believing in everything and the old trope “I don’t like you.” I can totally see Bukowski’s love of classical music with the tones representing characters, the repetition and layering found in most classical compositions, as well as the ending mirroring the beginning, setting up the new cycle.
I love broadening my view and cracking my bubble.
You did that for me and I can’t thank you enough.
I was very moved by this final sentiment, but it also illuminated one of the points I’d been making to the group – and in this blog – all along.
While this particular piece doesn’t adequately represent the sheer elegance of his prose in general, it does illustrate the importance of not only exploring but also accepting ideas about both life and literature beyond the scope of one’s immediate surroundings.
Currently Dustin is very happily employed at a VA hospital while working on his memoirs. He certainly has a life story worth telling. We all do. We just need to connect with our inner voices, so the only person qualified to do so will convey it properly.
As I said to Dustin, “Write like you talk, and you’ll be a big hit.” But he certainly doesn’t need my advice. He’s already well on his way.
PHOTO: NICK HALVERSON