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Thursday, September 12, 2013

Michael Palin’s Discipline

Hawaii’s remote location is both a blessing and a curse.  Traveling there makes for a delightful change of place, where aided by the warm temperature, the cool tradewinds, the stunningly beautiful landscape, and the laid-back, carefree nature of islanders, one can cast off the cares of the world.  And yet, because so much must be transported there, everything becomes more expensive.  Staying in a remote location such as Punalu’u becomes even more expensive, with such necessities as a half-gallon container of ice cream (which in recent years has been bastardized down to 1.75 or even 1.5 quarts) costing ten or twelve dollars in a local grocery store.

So it was that my wife and I embarked on the hour-plus drive back to Hilo, where for a mere seven or eight dollars, our modern, sleeker cartons of ice cream could be found.  Other comforts of civilization cost too much, and had to be left on the shelves for budgetary reasons.

While there, in this pinnacle of Hawaiian civilization, we took the time to visit Hilo Bay Books.  There I secured a few precious items of literature that I had wondered if I might ever find.  Noticing the man behind the counter was watching a clip from "Monty Python’s Flying Circus" on his computer, I mentioned that I was currently reading Michael Palin’s Diaries.  To my surprise, he asked which of the two volumes I was referring to.  "The second one, concentrating on the 1980s," I told him. Like me, he loved the classic TV series, and was amazed by the creativity of its founders.

Michael Palin has been blessed with enviable talent, but that didn’t mean he could simply sit down and whip up a masterpiece whenever the mood struck him.  As a successful actor, writer, and TV presenter, his time and talents were in constant demands, to say nothing of all his personal commitments to his family and friends.  In the spring of 1981, Palin had finished his scenes for “Time Bandits.”  Yet he was constantly involved with the film, due to his friendship with Terry Gilliam, the disagreements between the Pythons and their management, the brewing trouble between Gilliam and George Harrison over the film’s music, and the constant rejections from American distributors.  Add to all that his regular meetings with the Pythons as they transacted business and tried to cobble together various ideas for what would become their final theatrical movie, “The Meaning of Life.” 

Finding time to pursue personal projects proved nearly impossible.  He constantly fended off offers from TV, movies, and fellow Pythons to participate in other movie and TV productions.  Yet he carved out several hours each day for writing.  Initially, he wasn’t sure what type of story he wanted to tell.  With so many competing distractions, this uncertainty over the shape and scope of the finished project didn’t help.

On March 9th, he records, “Nothing springs instantly to my pen—no characters so all-consumingly important that I have to write about them.  It’s a shame really—all those people out there with burning convictions and desperate messages to the world which they can never make anyone listen to and here am I, pen poised to create entertainment for the world and not knowing what I want to say.”

Three days later, he faces another long day at his desk.  He estimates when he should finish.  He wonders when he can have his next cup of coffee.  He records, “Yawn.  Stretch.  Yawn.  Look blankly through all I’ve written this week, trying desperately to summon up any belief in the purpose of these arbitrary scribblings and character snippings.” 

“The hour passes without hardly a line written.  It’s like insomnia, in reverse.  My mind refuses to wake up.”

Later that day, he opts to go for a run during an unseasonable dry spell.  As he pounds around Parliament Hill and nearby surroundings, inspiration strikes.  By the time he returns home, he sits down with renewed enthusiasm, and with clarity of focus starts to write what would eventually become the film “The Missionary.”

Okay, his breakthrough didn’t occur while he was actually sitting down at his desk, trying to write.  The idea only struck him when he went out for a run.  But would it have occurred to him if he hadn’t chained himself to the desk each day for hours at a time?  I don’t think it would have.  How about you?

Dragon Dave

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