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Mary Guillermin: “Don’t be afraid to cut things that don’t work or that can tighten things up”

Don’t be afraid to cut things that don’t work or that can tighten things up. When I write a paper as I did for this book, my process of waiting for the alchemy to happen means I don’t need to cut much out. But after writing and performing a one-woman show and knowing it was […]

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Don’t be afraid to cut things that don’t work or that can tighten things up. When I write a paper as I did for this book, my process of waiting for the alchemy to happen means I don’t need to cut much out. But after writing and performing a one-woman show and knowing it was too long, I took the scalpel to several loved scenes. I could tell the story would hang together without those scenes even though I had enjoyed those scenes in the initial performance. Then I found a certain joy in the sacrifice. I liked the crisp sharp movement of the remaining scenes; less detail, smoother story.


As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mary Guillermin.

Mary Guillermin was married to John for the last 16 years of his life.

She is the Director of Communications and a Senior Pellin Practitioner at the Pellin Institute International, which offers training, coaching, and counseling in Contribution Training and Gestalt online and in person (www.pellininstitute.com). She is a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist in California, and a writer and solo show artist.

Mary performed her first one-woman show, From Crazy to Sane: A Tale of Feminine Mysticism, Magic, & Madness at Solofest 2020, the largest solo show festival on the West Cost, just before theaters closed due to the pandemic. In her show, she highlighted some key aspects of her marriage to John.

She is also an accomplished collage artist and many of these collages are used as back screen projections to illustrate her play.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

My late husband, John Guillermin, directed 34 films between 1950 and 1988, including some major blockbusters that almost everyone who remembers the 1970s has heard of — Towering Inferno, King Kong ’76 and Death on the Nile. Yet as John’s second wife, interested in the arc of his career and his feelings about his work, I couldn’t help noticing that there was nothing written about John the director — except a few paragraphs here and there about his bad temper and habit of yelling at the crew when he didn’t get the results he wanted. John and I didn’t meet until 10 years after he made his last film, so I didn’t witness that myself — but there’s no question that was his reputation.

Until he died in 2015, the short entry under his name in Wikipedia was almost entirely taken up with his bad temper and, to my memory, barely mentioned his films. After his sudden death in 2015, six weeks short of his ninetieth birthday, there were many obituaries to draw on and the Wikipedia entry expanded; but his bad temper lived on. There was nothing of substance anywhere about John’s body of work — no books, no film criticism — soon after John’s sudden death, I decided that I wanted to find a way to get a book published about his career.

First, I approached Neil Sinyard, a film professor and writer who was the co-editor of an influential academic series published in the UK called British Filmmakers. There were 26 in the series, including some directors I had never heard of. I was pretty scandalized that John’s 20 films made in British Studios between 1950 and 1966 (and the rest of his substantial filmography) hadn’t earned him a place in the series. I knew I couldn’t write a whole book of film criticism with no background in that field, so I originally started looking for someone like Neil to author a book. Neil did indeed want to write a book about John’s work, so he applied for funding and when none came through, he advised that we work on a book together.

Over time, Neil and I contacted various writers and professors in both the UK and the US and built a team of nine authors, all of whom thought John’s body of work was significant and that he was underrated as a director. I was also interested in setting the record straight about John’s personality — he wasn’t just a bad-tempered man — as well as getting a reassessment of his work out into the world. I found in John’s papers an autobiographical article written as if for publication; here were the man’s own words about his relationship to the role of director. I realized that I could weave my personal experience and therapeutic knowledge of the effect of traumatic events (mostly John’s experience of corporal punishment in the British schools of the 1930s) into a book of film appreciation and produce a highly unusual book that was film criticism interwoven with biography. I knew I was a reasonable writer, and I could turn my hand to appraising some of my husband’s films if I was in the good company of other professional writers on films.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

This is a hard question to answer as I am such a new author with a career as a published author only a few months old! I can’t think of a relevant story, sorry.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

My biggest challenge was in curating a book that was a labor of love for everyone concerned. I would send out email after email to the pool of people who had expressed interest, and the same faithful few would respond. I spent so much time on tenterhooks not knowing if I would end up with enough authors covering enough films to make the project feasible. My answer to that was to keep going with determination and perseverance. Things did come together in the end.

But perhaps more to the point; what was my challenge as a writer? Although I loved writing and particularly enjoyed writing papers for my MA in Clinical Psychology program, I wasn’t a writer as such. In the course of my academic life as a young BA student and much later in life as a mature student, I developed a way of writing papers that worked for me. I would get an initial idea, find quotations from other sources that resonated with my idea (though the idea would go vague and I would forget exactly what it was) — then everything would bubble away in my subconscious and finally the alchemy worked, and the initial idea would return fleshed out with the meat of the quotations that pulled everything together.

The project of the book about John’s films stretched into years — 2016, 2017, 2018 — and I’d written only a few paragraphs here and there. I was mulling over my initial ideas, and I knew the moments in the films I wanted to highlight (my equivalent of finding quotations) but I just couldn’t get into serious writing. In the late summer of 2019, I hired Precocity Press to handle the editing and book production. The chapters were coming in from the other contributors. By February 2020 most of the contributions were in and edited. And I still couldn’t write. The publishing team was waiting for myself and one other contributor. And waiting.

I kept telling the publishing team, “Don’t worry, once I get going, I’ll be able to write quickly.” Inside myself I was thinking, “I hope that’s going to be true this time.” Finally, I got a bit desperate and I set myself a goal. I would dedicate the month of August 2020 to doing something on the book every day, even if it wasn’t the actual writing. One week of August passed, two weeks, I was keeping to my goal of doing something on the book every day — reading my writing fragments, watching the films and transcribing the passages I knew I wanted to quote. Finally, two or three weeks into August, I started writing. Ideally, I wanted to write up all three of the ideas I had for chapters, but writing was proving so hard I kept my goal to my main idea; the chapter on John’s attitude to femininity. But then the writing started to flow. I wrote 16,000 words in a couple of weeks and everything turned out as I had hoped. My three ideas became three chapters.

Of course, each writer’s process will vary. Some people work by writing a page a day or writing for half an hour a day. I think the part of my experience that is relevant to other authors is to honor the process of writing that works for you but know how you are going to tackle blocks that arise. My suggestion is to pay attention to the goal you set yourself. If you are stuck, make that goal really small. The trick is to find a small enough goal that you just don’t have an excuse for not meeting it. If I had set myself the goal to write something every day in August, it wouldn’t have worked. So instead I said, I have to do something connected to the book in some way, in any way, just so I am focusing on it, and even if what I choose only takes 15 minutes that day.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I can’t seem to recall any funny mistakes, sorry.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Last year, just before the pandemic struck, I wrote and performed my first one woman show. A huge part of my inspiration was wanting to write about my life with my husband. In the end writing about my marriage was just one part of the arc of my life story described in my play, “From Crazy to Sane — Or Am I? A Tale of Feminine Mysticism, Magic & Madness” but in fact the first scenes I wrote before I even knew there would be a one-woman play were the scenes about my husband.

Right now, I am writing and developing my second solo show. The working title is “Love on the Other Side of Death” and this will focus on my grief and my felt experience of sensing my husband after his death. The main characters — in a solo show, one actor plays all the characters — are John and our little dog, Pixie, who is going to talk a lot in this play, and myself.

Solo theater is adapting to life as it is lived during a pandemic with closed theaters by changing to live streaming with audiences watching from home. It’s exciting to be a first-time playwright and actor in the forefront of a creative adaptation to the restrictive conditions during a world wide pandemic.

Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

I believe the most interesting story in the book is the chapter that is comprised of my late husband’s stories about his childhood and some aspects of his life as a film director. I appreciate the honesty in how he talks in revealing detail about the way he suffered at school as a sensitive, artistic boy in the 1930s and early 1940s. He was bullied for his names — girls names in English; Yvon Jean becoming Yvonne Jean — and by being beaten by both schoolmasters and prefects — corporal punishment being a normal part of education in Britain in those decades and beyond. He writes openly about his feelings of terror and how he later developed the mask of the all-powerful film director to cover up his insecurities.

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

The therapeutic method I am trained in is called Contribution Training, and we teach that people heal by contributing to others. I see a direct relationship in my husband’s life between the hurt he suffered as a bullied and sensitive child who didn’t fit in and his desire to have a voice in creating films. He wanted to control something creatively after being oppressed by adults and older boys. He turned that hurt around into a nourishing contribution to millions of film lovers.

I think the idea that we can contribute to others by giving to others from our hurtful experiences is extremely powerful, and I hope readers will absorb that from this more-personal-than-usual book of film criticism.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.

Listen to the “Voice” of the author in any book you read. Literally hear the words as if that person is reading the book to you. You will develop a sensitivity to the rhythm and tone of the writing.

Listen for your own “Voice” as a writer. When I reread my own work, I can hear words that fall flat, or sentences that are clumsy. I weed them out until I can mentally hear that the pattern and content of the words match my style and voice as a writer.

Read all sorts of books, both the classics and less literary books. By reading widely, you can recognize and savor really good writing. (I was lucky enough to proofread for years for a friend who wrote really well. I think I absorbed some of the clarity of her writing through being steeped in it. I think that was the single strongest factor in making me into a good writer; a sort of apprenticeship). Also, I found when I was starting out as a writer, I might unconsciously reflect a certain author’s style in what I wrote. That told me I was absorbing good style, and that if I kept at it, my own writing would develop into my style, or as I put it above, my own voice.

Don’t be afraid to cut things that don’t work or that can tighten things up. When I write a paper as I did for this book, my process of waiting for the alchemy to happen means I don’t need to cut much out. But after writing and performing a one-woman show and knowing it was too long, I took the scalpel to several loved scenes. I could tell the story would hang together without those scenes even though I had enjoyed those scenes in the initial performance. Then I found a certain joy in the sacrifice. I liked the crisp sharp movement of the remaining scenes; less detail, smoother story.

Don’t be afraid to put yourself on the page whether that is direct self-disclosure such as I use in writing about my relationship with my husband and his faults, or my own grooming for sexual abuse; or whether you mold your personal experience into a fictional account. Truth, factual or psychological, rings true. The reader can feel that, and it helps them connect to your words and story. “I know that feeling.” I remember shocking myself as a young woman, reading Doris Lessing, and thinking, “She’s really captured what it feels like to be a man.” Wait, what? I suppose I recognized a way of thinking as different from mine, a way that felt authentic. I don’t know if a man would have agreed. But for me as a reader of her novels, it meant I trusted her ability to describe the range of human experience.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

For my particular style of writing, waiting for alchemy to occur in the subconscious, the most important habit I developed was the habit of trusting in myself and my process. I did get worried when it was so difficult to start writing for this book, but around the time I was settling down to my month dedicated to the book, a therapist colleague suggested that I hadn’t been able to write because I was still in mourning. That helped to free me, but in fact, even when I couldn’t see quite how I was going to get myself started, I did trust that I had been working unconsciously on the ideas that were the backbone of the eventual chapters. I did believe that the words would flow easily once they had started. The key to that trust for me is not panicking when the initial idea fades or there are only a few nuggets. I stayed calm and believed the writing would flesh out and become something more than the original idea.

In relation to this book, I wasn’t used to such a slow start that had to be worked at, but once I got going I found out things about the way (I thought) my husband thought that I wasn’t previously aware of, and those new intuitions really expanded the depth of my contributions.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

I think Shakespeare is a big part of my love of literature — no one has ever used language as inventively as he did. When you are brought up imbibing Shakespeare in the theater and in films the richness of the language seeps into your bones. I feel my childhood was rescued by the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis and E. Nesbit’s children’s stories. Both these writers talk about a magical reality. I really needed that to survive what seemed to me even as a child like drab repetition in modern daily life — as well as the heartbreak of my parents divorcing. As a passionate adolescent, I loved immersing myself in D.H. Lawrence whose prose matched the intensity of my own emotions, yet also the ordered and superbly observed world of Jane Austen. My complete Jane Austen collection was read as many times as my complete collection of Sherlock Holmes’ stories. I feel these authors and more became part of the living landscape of my mind and they provide subterranean influence when I write.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I am involved in mental health as a psychotherapist (and someone who regained my own emotional balance after experiencing extreme mood swings as a young adult) as an advocate for Recovery — not just addiction recovery but having the tools and good practices to help us overcome emotional problems in Mental Health Recovery. I believe that the field of mental health is too medicalized with clients and practitioners rushing to use pharmaceutical solutions that don’t work for everyone and often cause uncomfortable side effects. I think that the place of practical tools, such as are employed in the carefully thought-out precepts of Twelve Step programs such as AA and Al-Anon and of the method I am trained in, Pellin’s Contribution Training, should be expanded. Therapy is important but so is harnessing the power of the mind of the ordinary person to influence their lives for the better. My Director at the Pellin Institute, Peter Fleming, and I want to promote the idea of mental health recovery that need not necessarily include the use of pharmaceuticals as a grassroots movement. There are pockets of Mental Health Recovery proponents among the Helping and Caring Professions, but without much influence — despite President George W. Bush signing a law in 2000 promoting a Recovery-based mental health system.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I have an Instagram account but it’s not very active. I have a personal page on Facebook under “Mary Guillermin” and also a page for the book. www.facebook.com/JohnGuillerminBook

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!

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