Theosophy by Rudolf Steiner: a field guide to reality

Theosophy: An Introduction to the Spiritual Processes in Human Life and in the Cosmos (Cw 9)

Theosophy: An Introduction to the Spiritual Processes in Human Life and in the Cosmos by Rudolf Steiner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This book speaks with vigor and authority about things that most of us spend our lives studiously trying to ignore.

Sometime in late adolescence I became aware that my life had a spiritual dimension and even a spiritual purpose. I might not have put it that way at the time, but I had developed a seasick feeling that all of my notions of about life and its aims were inadequate and wrong. I had no idea what to replace them with, so I embarked on a search that in time got me looking at the great religions of the world. While I did hear of a thing called the perennial philosophy, which taught that all the spiritual traditions share fundamental beliefs, I couldn’t help noticing that the religions were also very different from each other and made conflicting claims about many things.

In my late 20s I joined a Vajrayana Buddhist congregation and felt that I had found my spiritual home. But a thought that also occurred to me was that all these various issues addressed by religions, things such as what happens when we die, what are the fundamental aspects of reality, is there an unseen world, and are there sentient beings beyond what we can cognize with our senses, are fundamentally questions of fact, just as questions about the natural world are questions of fact. The world religions have different things to say about these various questions, but my thought was that these thing shouldn’t be articles of faith, but matters that could, in principle, be decided objectively one way or the other, somehow or another. I thought that it should be possible to bring a scientific attitude to matters of the spirit.

I didn’t realize it, but I had reinvented the impulse behind theosophy, the spiritual movement that took shape in the 19th century, popularized by Helena Blavatsky. Knowing nothing about it, I’d always assumed it was just flaky New Age mumbo jumbo. Having arrived at the Buddhist path, my need to look into other things died down, so I gave it no more thought for the next couple of decades.

In recent years, though, my interest has flared up again. Not that I’m dissatisfied with the Buddhist teachings–I just find myself interested to hear what other traditions have to say. I’m a Western Buddhist, which means that I am practicing these teachings in a melting pot of other spiritual ideas, some of which may be quite valuable. And then there is still the question of what are the facts.

I searched for books on theosophy, and this one by Rudolf Steiner appeared to be a promising introduction. And I was not disappointed. In this primer, first published in English in 1910, Steiner, an Austrian philosopher and Goethe scholar, lays out the fundamental principles of theosophy, the science of the spirit. Both Steiner himself and Michael Holdrege, the author of the foreword to this edition, warn that the material is difficult and cannot simply be absorbed in a casual reading. An active intellectual effort is required of the reader to reach out and take hold of what Steiner is presenting. And here I must agree, for, even though I’m used to reading challenging texts, I found that this one made unaccustomed demands on my attention and my imagination.

This is largely because the subject matter is the unseen realms of reality, and these are being discussed with language that was invented to help us communicate about the sensory world. But there is also the issue of the inherent subtlety of the ideas themselves, and even their surprising complexity at times. One of the most mind-stretching teachings in the book is that the human being has 7 different “bodies” or components, of which our physical body is but one. For now I can only say that I’ve been introduced to that idea; it will take time for me to reflect on what it means.

However, for most purposes, it’s convenient to look at the human being as composed of 3 more familiar elements: body, soul, and spirit. Steiner clearly explains what these things mean, and how we need to orient ourselves to them in order to live full, worthwhile, human lives. In brief, body is the realm of sensations; soul is the realm of urges and feelings; spirit is the realm of thought. In these 3 realms, which we all occupy simultaneously, we seek to move toward beauty, goodness, and truth, respectively.

There are things here which conflict with the Buddhist teachings as I understand them. Steiner talks about our immortal or eternal aspects, including the “I,” while Buddhism denies the existence of any lasting soul. But I’m at a stage of life where I don’t feel I need to go either/or with these ideas; I feel that they can be in dialogue with each other, and that the truth can be found this way. Certainly I do feel, deep down, a desire to move toward beauty, goodness, and truth.

Why are we here? What are we doing with our human lives? These are important questions, and this book is a portal to the road of discovering the answers for ourselves.

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back home in the Million Club

Good gravy, it’s been a long time since I have posted to my beloved blog. Apologies to my long-suffering readers! Why the long silence?

Rightly or wrongly, mostly the latter, my blog tends to get folded in with my activities on “social media,” and for the past months my energies have been aimed elsewhere. The places I have been posting to lately have been my Facebook author page and my page on Quora, where I have been not only answering questions but now, increasingly, posting them. They have invited me to be a Quora Partner, which means that I can earn a share of the ad revenue that is generated by visits to my questions. This revenue, howsoever small, is most welcome, and so I have been devoting an increasing share of my social-media time budget to posting there.

Back Home in the Million Club - Will Smith as The Fresh Prince

Watchable Will

Posting questions is all right, but I still much prefer posting answers. And 3 days ago I passed a milestone on Quora: my answers had reached 1 million views. I admit that I enjoy being in the “million club,” a feeling that I got while writing The Odyssey back in 1993. When the show was being broadcast, Michael Chechik, the executive producer, would receive ratings reports from the CBC, and Warren Easton, my cowriter, and I would look at them when we emerged from our cave (my house) to visit his office for one reason or another. One week, that of the broadcast of episode 7, “A Place Called Nowhere,” the viewership cracked 1 million. In Canada, for a Canadian-made show, that was an excellent number. I remember telling my father, who was a longtime CBC producer, and he was amazed.

It was all the more gratifying because the audience delivered by the “lead-in” to our show–a CBC production called Road Movies that consisted of student-made videos of traveling in Canada–was only about 220,000 people. That meant that our show brought in about 800,000 new viewers that night. Mind you, our own show was itself a lead-in to an even bigger hit, which registered over 3 million viewers here in Canada. But that show was The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, a Hollywood production starring Will Smith, and a massive hit in the U.S. and Canada. That night we delivered them 1 million pairs of eyes, and they only had to earn 2 million more of their own.

So. All these years later I’m back in the Million Club, in a new and different venue, and to be honest I feel right at home here. For although I don’t regard myself as a mass-market artist or creator, I do believe that work of quality and integrity will find its audience, and that audience will always be a large one in the long run.

Thank you for being part of mine. I intend to post here much more often now!


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The Fatherhood Principle by Myles Munroe: making God your role model

The Fatherhood Principle: God's Design and Destiny for Every ManThe Fatherhood Principle: God’s Design and Destiny for Every Man by Munroe Myles
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you’re a Christian, or are willing to become one, this book lays out a strong and principled approach to being a man and a father in the contemporary world. For this author, man and father are synonymous terms, regardless of whether one has had actual biological offspring, since a man’s role and purpose in the world is to act as a “father” to others who need dependable and unselfish guidance and support.

Munroe’s views are based on the Bible, which he takes seriously and literally. And if you’re willing to accept all Bible stories, especially that of Adam and Eve, as literally true, then his arguments are strong and well formed. You can even say the same about his views on homosexuality, for which he became notorious in his native Bahamas (he died in a plane crash in 2014), for in the Bible God’s position on homosexuality is as clear as can be.

The big question is whether one who is not a Christian, or not a Christian who takes every Bible story literally, can still benefit from Dr. Munroe’s vision of fatherhood. I like to think yes. My own experience is that genuinely spiritual people, of whatever stripe, are a positive force in the world. Here Dr. Munroe tells men, especially young men who may feel confused and aimless, how to gain a sense of purpose and meaning in life, and thereby become the rock that others can lean on or stand on for support. Feminists would no doubt howl with execration at his ideas about men being the heads of their households, but I suspect that many women would be happy to marry a man who was principled, ethical, and dedicated to the welfare of his family. Munroe’s vision of man as the head of the household is that he leads by example and does his best to help everyone in his care to realize their potential.

But for such a man to be entirely credible he does need to have a strong spiritual grounding, and in Munroe’s view this means being thoroughly versed in the teachings of the Bible. For the real question is what one does when the going gets tough. The godly man has the Bible and his church as his supports; what does the secular man or the non-Christian man lean on? I think that men from other spiritual traditions, such as, say, Buddhism (where I’ve had my own spiritual training, such as it is), can probably take valuable advice from Munroe’s book, even though Munroe himself is dismissive of other spiritual traditions. If you believe there is such a thing as masculinity and masculine virtues, then it makes sense to apply these notions to that most defining of male functions: fatherhood. If you can ground those virtues in spirituality, then you’re on your way.

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Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion by Jane Harrison: what those myths are really about

Prolegomena to the Study of Greek ReligionProlegomena to the Study of Greek Religion by Jane Ellen Harrison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book, originally published in 1903, is the best thing I’ve found on Greek mythology or Greek attitudes to things of the spirit generally.

I forget exactly what prompted me to get it, probably favorable mention of it in some other book, but in July 2010 I got myself a used copy of the stout Meridian Books paperback published in 1955. An imposing tome of 682 pages, it sat on my shelves until just 5 months ago. At that time I had hit, as I occasionally do, a gap in my reading, and I came down to the “library” (a carpeted storeroom housing our freezer and 3 Ikea Billy bookcases) to prowl for something of interest. I finally decided to give the Prolegomena a chance.

I was immediately impressed with the author’s perceptiveness, authority, and approach. The book’s 12 chapters take one on a journey from “chthonic rituals” of “ghosts and sprites” to an extended discussion of Orphism, which occupies the last 4 chapters. And what a journey it is: I felt that all kinds of puzzles and mysteries and seeming inconsistencies of Greek mythology resolved and fell into place. The fascinating thing about this book is that it has very little to do with what I had always thought of as Greek religion, which was a religion centered on the familiar gods of Olympus. Jane Harrison occasionally mentions these gods in passing, but her interest is in all the religious phenomena that lay in the penumbra of the spotlight pointed on Olympus by Homer and other classical authors. Her interest is in tracing the development of Greek religion from its most primitive manifestations up to its most sophisticated ones. The Olympian gods formed part of that story, but only a part, and seemingly, as this author tells it, by no means the largest part.

I was already aware that ancient Greek religion had been formed by a collision between the prehistoric matriarchal system of the ancient inhabitants of the Balkan Peninsula and Crete and the patriarchal invaders who swept down from the north and east. But Harrison shows how the deepest layers of Greek religion need to be sought in the beliefs and behaviors of primitive people who fear, above all, ghosts. Much of what develops into what we call religion begins with the riddance and placation of the souls of the dead, who, when angry, vengeful, or envious, can bring terrible misfortune to those still living. Long before there is anything so definite and well characterized as a personal god, there are countless invisible sprites–the Keres of ancient Greece–who affect the human world for good and ill, and many of Greece’s famous festivals and rituals had their origins in repelling, expelling, and appeasing these ghostly figures.

Harrison shows how goddesses and gods eventually emerged from these primitive spirits, and how these gods eventually became clearly distinguished and named–even if with a number of different names. And she shows how these two eventually gave way to a higher, more mystical kind of religious experience and practice that gained the name Orphism. Some investigators have believed that Orpheus was a god, but Harrison dismisses this view. To her it’s clear that Orpheus was a man, a revealer and reformer who created a mystical new religion inspired by the worship of Dionysos and injecting new esoteric meaning into primitive rites.

Much of the author’s argument is based on the interpretation of ancient Greek art: vases, bowls, funerary monuments. The book is richly illustrated with black-and-white reproductions of these, and Harrison’s depth of knowledge of these artifacts is most impressive. She knows what she’s talking about.

The prose itself is very readable. Harrison writes with passion and admiration, even as she does not hesitate to criticize and pass judgment on ancient practices and authors when they reveal signs of savagery or confusion. She is quick and punctilious to acknowledge the work of other scholars, but unafraid of noting when she disagrees with them or rejects their ideas. She is also well versed in the ancient authors and treats them in much the same way; she relies on them, but is aware of their personal shortcomings. There are a couple of interesting footnotes too in which she admits that some theory of her own, already appearing earlier in the book, is in error! Read carefully.

In all, a thoroughly excellent book. If you’re new to ancient Greek mythology and religion, then you probably should not start here. Acquaint yourself with the Greek myths and festivals, and then reach for this book. You start to see how all those various strange myths start to make sense; they are expressions of a few guiding principles that underlie their formation.

For us in the West, Greek mythology is the mythology; when we talk about “myths,” often we mean Greek myths. Our culture is shot through with them; our modern stories are based on them and are filled with allusions to their events. For example, I’m currently reading The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, published in 1995, and I suddenly realized that some of the action was based on the Oedipus myth. But those myths are the tip of an iceberg, and to appreciate them fully one should have a sense of the shape and depth of the berg that lies below the waterline. Jane Harrison’s book examines the underwater part of that iceberg, and it’s illuminating indeed.

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Aristotle, meet Paul. . . .

On Thursday, March 7, 2019, I reached a personal milestone: I finished reading the works of Aristotle.

I read them mostly from the 2 volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World that contain his works: volumes 8 and 9. Together they contain 29 books on 1,425 densely printed pages. It’s been quite a journey, one that has taken me at least 10 years.

Now I’m not sure which of his books I read first. I think it was the Poetics, a short work about poetry; I bought the Penguin Classics paperback in June 2007 and probably started reading it right away. The reason was that this book is mostly about dramaturgy, for the kind of poetry that Aristotle discusses in the most depth is tragedy: drama. He regards this as the highest form of poetry, and this book explores why that is. As a screenwriter and storyteller, I was eager to learn what this ancient thinker had to say on one of my favorite topics. And I was electrified: Aristotle’s work, short as it is—62 pages including end notes—remains the single best textbook for the dramatist and storyteller, in my opinion.

So let’s say that’s where it started. Where it ended, on March 7, was with the closing words of Book V of On the Generation of Animals, one of 5 “biological treatises” with which volume 9 of the Great Books opens. Aristotle was a significant naturalist who made a great many detailed observations of a wide array of animals. From these he tries to draw conclusions and principles–scientific theories–based on these observations.

Over the 12 years that passed between reading these 2 books, I read all the others, not continuously, but off and on. They’re not all equally good or equally well organized, but the best of Aristotle represents the best thinking ever done in the history of Western thought. And although he is an astute observer of the world and its myriad phenomena, he is at his best when he is managing the most abstract ideas. This is where he really comes into his own.

The most difficult book? For me, and I think for any normal person, it was the Prior Analytics, the work in which he sets out his theory of deductive logic. It is a detailed analysis of the structure, classification, and valid operation of syllogisms. Take it from me, it makes for some mighty dense reading.

You can be a perpetual student and never leave the Prior Analytics

Indeed I didn’t make it through the book; I searched for a guidebook to help me, and found an excellent one: Aristotle: Prior Analytics by Robin Smith, published in 1989. Smith (and I don’t know Smith’s gender–there’s no clue to it in the book!) provides a detailed guide to the content. I set up a binder and worked my way through the book by making detailed notes and diagrams; the notes run to 53 longhand pages.

The Prior Analytics is actually the third of 6 books in the set called the Organon or “instrument,” which set out Aristotle’s formal method of thinking and arguing. The intent is to provide the “instrument” that allows a citizen to order his thoughts and succeed at debating with his fellow citizens–a central activity of political life in a democracy. The Organon forms the core curriculum of a liberal education, that is, an education in the 3 liberal arts of logic, grammar, and rhetoric. Inspired by the vision of liberal education, I was eager to acquire one for myself–or anyway the nearest thing I could get to it–and so I was highly motivated to read these books carefully.

And so I did, filling a 3-ring binder with notes along the way. To be sure, only about a third of the binder is devoted to notes on Aristotle’s Organon; the rest is devoted to notes on Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student by Edward P. J. Corbett, a textbook for college students published in 1965; and to The Trivium by Sister Miriam Joseph, an even deeper textbook, published in 1937. Indeed, I have come to regard this latter work as the best overall text on liberal education; I see even Aristotle’s books as supplements to it.

Having now read all of Aristotle, I can say that I hold him in high regard. In this respect I’m like Mortimer J. Adler, the American philosopher who was editor of the Britannica Great Books series. He was emphatic that many of the thorny problems of philosophy were in fact solved by Aristotle; it’s just that subsequent philosophers, especially modern ones, never bothered to familiarize themselves with his work.

I can’t say that I’ve familiarized myself with Aristotle. I feel that I have been introduced to him. But, like any people who have been introduced, we are now free to get to know each other better. It’s too late for Aristotle to get to know me, but I can get to know him by referring back to his works, which I fully intend to do. Having read them, I now have a rough idea what’s in them, and can pull out the relevant volume when I want to refresh my memory.

What is the most striking, interesting, or provocative idea that I have taken away from reading Aristotle? There are several candidates, but I find that the one that keeps haunting me is his observation that the concept of equality is applicable only to quantities, and not to anything else. I think he’s right, and this thought has big implications for modern ideas about equality as it applies to people and their political and economic conditions. I have done some thinking about this and will share my thoughts in due course.

For now I want to bask in a sense of achievement, as I did after finishing reading the Greek dramatists and the works of Shakespeare. In this case, I think you’ll agree that the achievement is bigger. He exercises the mind in a way that few other writers do. But we all know that exercise is good for us.


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if you can’t read a book, read a bookmark

Time to build some more vocabulary! I have recorded another video of me reading out a completed vocab bookmark, and posted that to my Facebook author page. Now, as promised, I am putting up the words for your perusal.

Again, these are words that I have come across in the course of my reading. My self-made paper bookmarks migrate from book to book in a random way as I finish one book and start another; the fact that I have several books going at any one time means that the bookmarks truly make a random journey, usually over the course of several years each. They can be novels or nonfiction works.

Anyway, here is the latest batch. Enjoy!

halter 2: rope for hanging criminals: noose; also: death by hanging

contemporaneous  existing, occurring, or originating during the same time

Make a sentence using . . .

joinder conjunction

fusiform tapering toward each end

filibuster 1: to carry out insurrectionist activities in a foreign country

prize 1: something taken by force, stratagem, or threat, especially: property lawfully captured at sea in time of war 2: an act of capturing or taking, especially: the wartime capture of a ship and its cargo at sea

barkentine a 3-masted ship having the foremast square-rigged and the mainmast and mizzenmast fore-and-aft rigged

doss to sleep or bed down in a convenient place; a crude or makeshift bed

chaff 1: seed coverings and other debris separated from the seed in threshing grain

straw 1a: stalks of grain after threshing; broadly: dry stalky plant residue like grain straw 2: dry coarse stem especially of a cereal grass

astragulus one of the proximal bones of the tarsus of the higher vertebrates

detergent cleansing agent, as b: any of numerous synthetic water-soluble or liquid organic preparations that are chemically different from soaps but are able to emulsify oils, hold dirt in suspension, and act as wetting agents

register 1c: to record automatically: indicate d: to make a record of: note

rummer large-bowled footed drinking glass often elaborately etched or engraved

ecidemon ichneumon: in medieval literature the enemy of the dragon, also considered by some to be the enemy of the crocodile and the asp. The name was used for the “pharaoh’s rat”—the mongoose. The word itself is Greek for “tracker.” The Latin translation, calcatrix, gave rise to cockatrice. The ichneumon was one of the few that could look at the cockatrice without turning to stone [note: this definition is based on Wikipedia, not my trusty Webster’s, where the word was not to be found]

genet small Old World carnivorous mammal related to the civets but with scent glands less developed and claws fully retractile

cloy to surfeit with an excess usually of something originally pleasing

buckram 1: stiff-finished heavily sized fabric of cotton or linen used for interlinings in garments, for stiffening in millinery, and in bookbinding

lock tuft, tress, or ringlet of hair

tress 1: long lock of hair; especially: the long unbound hair of a woman–usually used in plural

achmardi green-and-gold brocaded silk

colloquium a usually academic meeting at which specialists deliver addresses on a topic or on related topics and then answer questions relating to them

sadhu a usually Hindu mendicant ascetic

compeer companion

kola nut the bitter caffeine-containing chestnut-sized seed of a kola tree

There it is, another bookmark’s load of words. I am that much closer to being able to use them accurately at will, and I hope you are too. Now quickly: what is a genet?


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The Odyssey – The Fall
watch the pilot episode (complete with scene 49)

For better or for worse, the work for which I am still best known is The Odyssey, the fantasy TV series which I created and wrote with my writing partner and longtime friend Warren Easton. In it, an 11-year-old boy, Jay Ziegler, falls out of a treehouse and ends up in a coma, which somehow has transported him to an unsettling world where children rule because adults have never been heard of. The Odyssey starred Illya Woloshyn, Tony Sampson, and the late Ashleigh Aston Moore, and provided many other local kid actors, such as Ryan Reynolds, with their career starts. The show was produced here in Vancouver and initially aired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, with 39 episodes appearing between 1992 and 1995.

In Canadian terms our show was a hit, with a peak audience of over 1 million viewers, and many more than that when you look at other countries. It was also a huge critical success, drawing praise for its intelligent, hard-hitting material aimed at kids without talking down to them. Many, perhaps most, of the show’s fans were adults, intrigued to find mythological, psychological, and political themes entwined in a kids’ adventure story. The series was a darling of festivals, winning awards such as a Top Ten World Program at the Cologne Conference—that is, selection as one of the 10 best TV shows ever made.


Now, by the grace of YouTube and the work of devoted fans of The Odyssey, I am able to invite you to watch The Fall, the pilot episode (complete with the controversial scene 49). Consider it an Odyssey odyssey extra.


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The Odyssey odyssey, part 26

Here’s the latest installment of the spine-chilling tale of the creation and production of my 1990s TV series The Odyssey. If you want to start at the beginning, go here. Otherwise, read on!

And if you have questions or observations, just make a comment here, or post to Twitter or Facebook.


The Odyssey odyssey part 26, told by Paul VitolsAt the risk of sounding whiny, writing a good script is hard. If you have any trouble believing this, I can only suggest that you try it. I speak from experience–not only my own as a writer, but also, during 1991, as a paid reader of scripts for CBC Drama in Vancouver.

The good scripts I saw there were notable for their rarity. As I recall, there were only three, maybe four, scripts that actually aroused my enthusiasm and generated a positive report from me. Two of those wound up being produced–one by the CBC as a made-for-TV movie, the other as an independent feature film. This tends to confirm Robert McKee’s contention that good scripts do indeed get produced. He thinks it’s a myth that there are all kinds of great scripts out there, lying in drawers, gathering dust because Hollywood and the film business are too schlocky to produce them. Truly good scripts do get produced–eventually.

One of my favorite stories in this vein is of the script for An Officer and a Gentleman, written by Douglas Day Stewart probably in the late 1970s, and, in my opinion, one of the best movies of the 1980s. Stewart had written other scripts for hire, such as The Blue Lagoon, but this script was done on “spec”–speculation, an industry term for a script that is the writer’s own idea, written for love and not for pay. The idea is that you write the script, then sell it and get paid.

Stewart himself was an alumnus of the aviators’ school in Puget Sound, Washington; it was a world he knew intimately. The phenomenon of local blue-collar girls’ trying to catch Air Force officer-husbands in the 12 weeks of the training program was real. He created the character of Zack Mayo, the cocky, lone-wolf martial artist who signs up in search of somewhere he can belong, and by the time he was done he knew he had a winner. He’d written a great script, and he knew it.

He thought, “If I can’t sell this script I might as well give up, because nothing makes any sense.”

He started peddling the script, but couldn’t get anyone to bite. Why? It was the late 1970s, and no one wanted to do another “war” movie. The decade had seen the production of movies like Coming HomeThe Deer Hunter, and Apocalypse Now, and, although everyone thought the script itself was good, all the studios were “warred out”.

Stewart was frustrated, because as far as he was concerned, it wasn’t a “war” movie–it was a love story that happened to be set at an Air Force training academy. There was no combat; the action never left Puget Sound.

He kept shopping the script. Eventually somebody bit: it was Lorimar, producers of the hit TV series Dallas. They hadn’t made a feature film before, but they were jacked on the script and thought it could be a winner. Lorimar bought the script and set about making the movie. It went on to be one of the biggest hits of 1982.

As a writer, one of my favorite parts of the Officer and a Gentleman story was how the filmmakers had decided not to bother shooting Stewart’s final scene, which was when Richard Gere, in his officer whites, strides into the pulp mill where Debra Winger works and carries her out while her coworkers cheer. Apparently Taylor Hackford, the director, and others, thought the scene too corny and didn’t want to shoot it. Stewart begged them to just try shooting it–to see what it would be like. He was just able to talk them into it. It proved to be the “money” scene in the movie and was probably responsible for half of their total box-office take.

My point: it was a good script and it got made, despite unfavorable headwinds in the current production climate.

Warren and I were challenged with the task of coming up with 13 great episode ideas for season 1 of what was then still called The Jellybean Odyssey. We’d only written a few scripts in our lives up to that point. This was a huge task.

In a way the task was all the larger because we were inventing a whole fantasy world. Writing a cop show or a courtroom drama provides certain automatic parameters on what you might write about. This was wide open, and for that very reason created anxiety. When you can do anything, what do you do?

For inspiration we got ourselves a copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and of Robert Graves’s telling of The Golden Fleece. Although our show was called an Odyssey, Warren and I felt that Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece might provide a more workable story-template, perhaps because in Homer’s epic so many of the adventures involved fantastic monsters–and we weren’t planning to do a “monster” show. I’ve already described how our character Jay started out as Jason, and was shortened to Jay after we always abbreviated his name as the letter J, and referred to him as such. Jason had a definite goal, he had his crew of Argonauts as our Jay had his companions on the journey, and he had specific episodic adventures en route to the fabled Golden Fleece at Colchis on the Black Sea. As we ventured on our own voyage of creation, this was our security blanket.

The stories we read did spark discussion, but in fact we did not wind up using very much from the texts. Gradually it became clear that our fantasy world could not be a place of random episodic adventures (“geek of the week” as we called it). We had to give our world a structure and a purpose; it had to be designed and built, in some sense, as an obstacle to Jay and his wishes. It had to be systematically opposed to him somehow.

Because Warren and I shared an interest in world problems and political philosophy, we tended to talk about these things and get excited about adapting these ideas to our show. Gradually the idea of kids running a kind of authoritarian police state began to emerge. What could provide more conflict and danger for our hero than that? At the same time, what could be more creepy and more comic than the idea of teenagers running a police state? We loved this idea.

In some ways the real test of our series idea was episode 2–the equivalent of a recording artist’s “sophomore album” or a novelist’s “sophomore book”. If you have a great first CD or book, you’re under huge pressure to replicate your success with your second effort. Most artists who make a big splash with their first effort fail at their second. We didn’t want this to happen to us–and, I’m pleased to say, it didn’t.

To be continued…


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building vocab one strip of paper at a time

Many people believe that we think by using language–words. Not me. Indeed, I think it’s easy to show that this idea is not true. In my view, language is a communication technology. But it’s still extremely important, and all the more so if you happen to be, as I am, a writer.

I work continually to build my command of English. One of my methods of doing that is to write down new words as I encounter them in my reading. My bookmarks are blank slips of paper on which I write each new word as I come across it, along with its definition from Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. I have a good supply of these bookmarks, and they get shuffled around as I finish reading one book and start another, so by the time I complete a bookmark it is usually filled with words from a number of different books read over the course of a few years.

Have these words ever had to bunk together like this before?

Okay, here goes:

To give you an idea, I thought I would share the contents of a recently completed bookmark. Most of the words were not new to me in the sense of never having seen them before. My main criterion for adding a word is that it not be in my active vocabulary. I ask myself, “Could I use this word in my own writing right now?” If I lack confidence about that, then I add the word and its definition. When a word has multiple senses, I usually just write down the sense in which it is being used in the book where I found it.

colophon 1: inscription placed at the end of a book or manuscript usually with facts relative to its production

venerate 1: to regard with reverential respect or with admiring deference

advert 1: to turn the mind or attention–used with to

nascent coming or having recently come into existence

trepidation 1: archaic: a tremulous motion: tremor 2: timorous uncertain agitation: apprehension

barrow male hog castrated before sexual maturity

chamberlain 2a: a chief officer in the household of a king or nobleman

ipecac 2: emetic and expectorant drug that contains emetine and is prepared from ipecac especially as a syrup for use in treating accidental poisoning

emetine [yes, sometimes I have to look up words in the definitions too] amorphous alkaloid extracted from ipecac root and used as an emetic and expectorant

agraffe hook-and-loop fastening, especially: an ornamental clasp used on armor or costumes

awn one of the slender bristles that terminate the glumes of the spikelet in some cereal and other grasses

byssus 1: fine probably linen cloth of ancient times

galliot 1: small swift galley formerly used in the Mediterranean

breastwork temporary fortification

baldachin 1: cloth canopy fixed or carried over an important person or a sacred object

rodomontade 2: vain boasting or bluster: rant

shirtwaist woman’s tailored garment (as a blouse or dress) with details copied from men’s shirts

anodyne 1: something that soothes, calms, or comforts; 2: a drug that allays pain

benison blessing, benediction

spavined 2: old and decrepit; over-the-hill

organdy very fine transparent muslin with a stiff finish

linguiça form of smoke-cured pork sausage seasoned with garlic and paprika in Portuguese-speaking countries

selectman one of a board of officials elected in towns of all New England states except Rhode Island to serve as the chief administrative authority of the town

reredos a usually ornamental wood or stone screen or partition wall behind an altar

morris chair easy chair with adjustable back and removable cushions

larrup 2 dialect: to move indolently or clumsily

Parsons table usually rectangular table having straight legs that are flush with the edge of the top

span pair of animals (as mules) usually matched in appearance and action and driven together

That’s my bookmark: both sides. The final step of the process is that I review my bookmark by reading all the entries aloud to myself before recycling it. Formerly I did this in privacy and solitude, but lately I have taken to recording videos of this heart-stopping action and posting them to my Facebook author page. If you think you can handle the excitement, you can watch me read the above list, and see how I grapple with pronunciation.

Going through this process means that often I remember exactly where I learned certain words. If you would like to build your own vocabulary, I warmly recommend this method as one way of doing so.

 


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The Odyssey odyssey, part 25

Here’s the latest installment of the spine-chilling tale of the creation and production of my 1990s TV series The Odyssey. If you want to start at the beginning, go here. Otherwise, read on!

And if you have questions or observations, just make a comment here, or post to Twitter or Facebook.


The Odyssey odyssey part 25, told by Paul VitolsFall 1991. The pilot episode of The Jellybean Odyssey was produced and ready. The network, though officially never forthcoming with praise (well, except for their own ideas), seemed pleased with it and certainly intended to broadcast it, but not for several months.

This was alarming. Why? For one thing, if the network intended to await the ratings of the broadcast pilot before making a decision to pick up more episodes, then we’d be looking ahead to another year before we could start making–or even writing–new shows. This was bad for two reasons.

One was that our stars were 11-year-olds, growing fast. Every extra month that slipped by without making more episodes allowed them to grow visibly older. If the network really dawdled before deciding to order more episodes, Jay would have sprouted several inches and had his voice change between the pilot and episode 2. The network never showed the least sign of caring about this factor. We knew that if it came down to it, the network might wait two years, order more episodes, then, when told the kids had grown to adult size in the meantime, shrug and move on to some other show.

Another problem with delay was financial. Warren, who was trained as a cook, could get “disposable” jobs readily enough. He was also single and lived (wisely) in humble rental accommodation. I was married and carrying two mortgages plus a personal loan, much of this debt at a high rate of interest. Kimmie was working full-time, but I had quit my job in September 1989, and two years later had exhausted all my savings. I had written a story treatment for my would-be kids’ feature film, My Dad the Butler, but the Foundation to Underwrite New Drama had opted not to fund a first draft, closing off that possible revenue source. I was still earning $150 a week for writing reader’s reports on other writers’ unsolicited script submissions to CBC Drama in Vancouver, but this was nothing like the income I needed if I were to meet my obligations.

Meanwhile, Warren and I, to survive, had drawn advances from Michael Chechik against future work on the show, and had tapped that well as far as we could. To keep my living situation going I juggled, I scrimped, I borrowed. As worries piled up, I would think back to my interview with Sarah Scott Simonson, the psychic I had consulted in 1990. She predicted that I would undergo such a period of financial juggling and dodging, but that it would end well, with my TV show being picked up and revenue coming in. She had counseled me to keep juggling and not to give up.

I didn’t plan to give up, not unless I absolutely had to. But in the meantime the uncertainty was creating stress in my marriage. Kimmie was increasingly worried that we were going to lose our house, and all I could offer in response were faith-based assurances that it wouldn’t happen–I wouldn’t let it happen. And I wouldn’t: if it came to the crunch, I’d get out there and start delivering pizzas or doing whatever it took. But neither of us had ever taken on such large financial obligations before, and Kimmie was a worrier by nature. She was doing her bit, but by itself it wasn’t enough. I had to contribute. Sometimes the tension was too much and we fought. I had faith in the project, but it was a tense time, much of which I spent with my gut in some kind of knot, and lying awake at night.

Week after week dragged by. The CBC was silent as the Sphinx. Michael Chechik at some point asked CBC’s head of programming, Ivan Fecan, about how things looked for an episode order, and Fecan responded, “If you want an answer now, the answer’s no”–his way of pushing back against being rushed.

Week after week. October. November. We’d hear rumors of network movement. The new budget year was coming; they’d have to sort out their spending for the coming seasons. Surely soon we’d hear…

Maybe they were going to wait till after the pilot was broadcast after all, effectively turning out would-be groundbreaking TV series into a one-off half-hour, like “What’s Wrong with Neil?” All because we were new and untested and unimportant compared to their flagship efforts, like Street Legal. We’d made a good half-hour, but we were small fry, newbies, unknown. We didn’t matter.

December.

Offhand I’m not sure of the exact day, but it was probably Friday 6 December (not Friday the 13th–surely I would have remembered that!) that I got a phone call from Michael Chechik in the afternoon. He excitedly reported that he’d heard from the network, and they had ordered the rest of the scripts for season 1 of The Jellybean Odyssey to be written.

Yes!! This wasn’t an actual order for episodes to be produced–but from the writer’s standpoint it was the next-best thing, since it meant more work and more income. Also, even though buying scripts was relatively cheap for the network, they wouldn’t be doing it unless they had a good idea that they were planning to go ahead and order season 1. In short: it was the best news possible.

I immediately passed the news on to Kimmie and Warren. And Kimmie and I decided to meet for a celebratory drink when she’d finished work. We met at Sailor Hagar’s, a neighborhood pub close to ICBC head office (Warren may have been there too–sorry Warren, don’t quite recall). In the standing-room-only bustle of the Friday afternoon, end-of-week celebration, Kimmie and I drank a pint and savored the exultation and relief of having survived a kind of desert crossing together.

Something I had long wanted had now actually, that day, come to pass: I was a guy with a TV series. We were giddy with excitement and happiness. Never before–or since–had I felt that I’d so thoroughly earned a celebratory pint of beer. What a relief.

To be continued…


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