Live life, then write

ZoologyFew, if any, writers have practiced the craft of storytelling their entire lives.

Sure, almost all of us have written since we first learned how, but few saw this expression as anything more than personal amusement or a passing phase. And when we completed our last essay in high school or college, most put the quill aside for more socially acceptable vocations.

In my case, it was a life in Science, getting first a degree in zoology and then a degree in molecular biology. Others went to law school or into medicine. Yet others worked a production line or took up a trade.

In any event, we all largely dismissed writing from our lives or at best, saw it as a hobby on par with doodling.

And yet, despite putting our pens away and mothballing our creative tendencies, these years were not lost. Quite to the contrary, these years have been invaluable to making you the writer and storyteller that you are today.

Friends will sometimes ask me to speak to their adolescent and college-aged children who have expressed an interest in writing. They want their offspring to understand both the opportunities and challenges of the lives they desire. And I am happy to oblige.

Where the kids are willing to share with me, I listen to their interests and goals, offering insights where I can. But in almost every conversation, my ultimate piece of advice is the same.

Live a life and experience your world.

This is not to say you should give up on your writing, even for a brief period. Dear god, no.

Write. Write. And keep writing.

My point is more that your writing will be so much deeper, richer and more meaningful when you have life experience under your belt. Your greatest asset as a writer is the time you’ve spent interacting with your world, even when only as an observer.

Ladies who shop

You write the people you know, the lives you’ve led

Life exposes you to the amazing diversity of people and perspectives that populate this planet.

Life teaches you about human interaction, in terms of both relationships and conflict.

Life unveils the subtleties and nuances in communication, and the insane power of silence and subtext.

Life is how you instinctively know what to write next. How your character will respond to an event or statement. Why your stories will resonate with others who have similarly lived lives.

And because my life has been different from yours—at least in the minutiae—we will write different takes on a story even when given the exact same starting material.

As you can imagine, the advice is not always welcomed. Life can feel like a delay to the gratification of self-expression.

And yet, not only is it not a delay, a life lived is the embodiment of the self in self-expression.

Your life lived is your truth, and good storytelling (even fictional) is about truth.

 

To improve your storytelling skills, check out:

So, What’s Your Story? (web site)

So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook)

Bizarre faces

Without a strong understanding of self, there is only empty expression

Movie Review 360 (or don’t plan drunk)

mr360

Like many of you, I hang with a group of friends who watch movies and then argue in a bar afterwards. And like many of you, all of my friends are “visionaries”.

Over beers, one of my friends said “We should record this”…but whereas the rest of us sobered up, he kept pushing this idea, adding a 360-degree camera to the alcoholic mix.

This past week, Movie Review 360 was born.

Watch two goofballs and a guest (balled, bald or otherwise) talk about the latest releases from Hollywood and Netflix while drinking to excess on a limited budget (we are nothing, if not Canadian).

This week–ably assisted by documentarian Liza Vespi–our thoughts on:

  • Ron Howard’s Inferno
  • Man vs Snake (on Netflix)

Our thanks to Ginger & Russ for hosting us at The Edmund Burke in Toronto.

See also:

Inferno(t) – a review

Man vs Snake – a review

Slaughter Nick for President (trailer for Liza Vespi doc)

…but I know what I like

Congratulations! You’ve landed a paid writing gig. Finally, all of that hard work and practice is going to pay off.

Mind you, unless the person paying you to develop a screenplay, marketing campaign, novel, whatever, is simply giving away his or her money out of some form of altruistic zealotry gone mad, the benefactor is likely to want to participate in the project, to take some degree of ownership, and therefore to weigh in…with notes.

So, you’ve just received your first batch of notes.

And amazingly, they are relatively minor and/or completely in sync with concerns you had about the work and so give you further impetus to make the changes you kind of knew needed to be made.

But seriously, folks. These notes don’t make any sense. The note-giver clearly didn’t understand the nature of the project he or she assigned you. To make most or any of these changes would be to seriously weaken or outright destroy the project.

Now, what the hell do you do?

shock

Step 1: Curse.

Yes, feel free to curse the gods for this tedious torture of your creative soul. How dare these mere mortals give you notes? The audacity to think they could contribute to this work of Art, when the very notes they provide merely highlight their ignorance.

I don’t have a problem with hosting a pity party of one (or a few close friends). The key is keeping the party short, particularly when working to deadline.

You are an Artist, and Art requires Ego and a degree of Hubris. Without hubris, how would any of us ever have the cahones to show our work to others?

The reality, however, is that we have chosen to work for others, so…

unimpressed

Step 2: Set aside your ego and re-read.

Put a tea-cosy on your vision for a moment and really try to understand the notes you have been given. I’ve heard it said often: What is the note within the notes?

I have found that people often can’t identify or vocalize what they specifically find troubling in a piece of Art. But rather than simply give you no notes, they try to identify things that may have some bearing on their issues…the operative word there being “may”.

If you stand back a little further and ignore the specific requests, can you see something in common between the notes, a greater theme or need from the note-givers?

Do your best to step out of your shoes and into his or hers. A change in perspective may give you a greater insight as to the real challenge the note-giver is facing with your work. You’re the writer; you have one need. A director or a marketing manager will have different needs and perspectives. Respect that.

It is possible, however, that you will still be uncertain (or clueless) as to what to do next. In that case…

what

Step 3: Ask questions/seek clarity.

Acknowledging the note-giver’s concerns or comments is not the same as accepting them. It does, however, give him or her a sense that you respect them and are trying to maintain a collaborative relationship. I cannot begin tell you how much this means to people and pays off in the long run.

Offer your interpretation of the issues to confirm you see things the same way as the note-giver. If you do, brilliant. You can now offer alternatives to the less palatable requests that may satisfy the note-giver’s misgivings.

If you don’t, brilliant. Now, you have the opportunity to gain insights into the note-giver’s perspectives. This will allow you to brainstorm new approaches that will satisfy both parties.

You may also find that many of the requested changes are not a high priority for the note-giver or were merely suggestions of things you could do. For all the opinions people offer throughout their lives, most individuals are incapable of giving effective notes and thus, demands, suggestions and brain farts all look alike to the person receiving them. This holds for the Artist, as well. Don’t allow your and their ignorance to drive you crazy.

So, now that you either have an understanding with the note-giver or realize you are working with a control-obsessed ego-maniacal asshole (it happens)…

gotcha

Step 4: Make your changes or rollover.

What you now do with these notes hinges on a cost-benefit analysis.

Are there ways you can bring greater clarity to the story you have written that will address the needs without either incorporating the specific requests or significantly altering your vision of the story?

If yes, then you have not only improved the work, but you’ve established a wonderful rapport with the note-giver that will likely lead to future opportunities for collaboration.

If not, you need to ask what your goal is for this particular project.

If it is your magnum opus, then feel free to stick your heels in and refuse to make the requested changes, but in the knowledge that you may very well be fired and find it difficult to get work in the future. The note-giver and community may respect your stance and in the final analysis, acknowledge you were correct in your refusal, but it doesn’t happen a lot.

If, however, this project is the first step toward a longer term relationship with the note-giver and/or the hiring community, then go back to Step 2 and think harder as to how to make this work to everyone’s advantage. The onus is on you to do your best work within the framework you are given.

In this latter situation, of course, another alternative is simply to rollover and acquiesce to the requested changes. It is completely possible that the note-giver is right and you simply could not see the problems because your ego was in the way (aka you were too close to the project).

On the flipside, of course, if the note-giver was wrong, you may carry the burden of his or her errors and so find future work with that individual unlikely but then why would you want to work with that asshole again. Or, he or she could step up and take ownership of the error, in which case, you may have found a partner who will trust your instincts more the next time.

Getting notes is never easy, but it’s going to happen whenever you leave your Artistic cave. How you deal with them will have a significant impact on how often you get paid to do your thing.

Ergo ego

(Property of evolution.berkeley.edu)

(Property of evolution.berkeley.edu)

Be as egocentric as you want, but always remember: You were one point mutation away from being somebody else.

(PS To the genetics nerds out there, I know they messed up the “original” strands in this diagram as the originals from different strands cannot be identical but rather should be complementary.)

Music to my ego

Like fish

When you first start exploring any art form, you are typically rapt in the joy of expression, but you are also at your most ego-vulnerable. Thus, it is nice every now and again to receive some positive feedback and it is even better when that feedback comes from someone who represents your art’s industry (rather than your mom).

As many of you know, one of my screenplays was a Second Rounder in the 2013 Austin Film Festival screenplay competition. Part of achieving that status is receiving readers’ notes that explain why you moved forward in the competition and why you stopped. A couple of days ago, I received the notes for my feature Tank’s.

Wow.

Below, I offer some of the positive feedback (I received negative too).

An exhilarating, imaginatively conceived, meticulously crafted, professionally polished animation intended fairy tale, a love story set in the cosmos of fish.”

Obviously the work of a talented, experienced writer who knows animated light comedy, how it works, and how to do it.”

The linear narrative is redeemed, however, by the enthralling depiction of fish as people, their humanly drawn nautical universe, and a buoyant, lighthearted mood pervading the narrative.”

Is the writer competitive here with, say, the creative minds at Pixar? Without question, yes.”

“The storytelling is befitting of the silly/adult humor of Dreamworks while still maintaining the light family-friendly air of a Disney cartoon musical.”

Kind of makes me want to keep writing, you know?

JB

(Images are property of owners and are used here without permission because I am that good)

 

My important thoughts on narcissism

Ancient Greek algae specialist Narcissus

Ancient Greek algae specialist Narcissus

Makes complete sense when I engage in it, but it eludes me why anyone else would.

Narcissism is so perfect that even the Americans and British agree on its spelling.

Back in the day, a “selfie” was a form of masturbation. Today, it is a…hunh…how ironic.

Interestingly, the actual mythical figure of Narcissus never seemed to complain that the vision he loved was of the opposite hand to him.

How obvious for Narcissus to name narcissism after himself.

The original title of The Chronicles of Narnia was The Chronicles of Narcissus, but had to be changed when the children could never get beyond admiring their wardrobe.

Contrary to popular belief, narcissism is not a sign of personal insecurity…at least, it isn’t in me.

An alternative version of the myth of Narcissus involves an identical twin brother who drowned. Turns out Narcissus was a bit of a prick, but an imaginative one when it came to the inquest.

(Image is property of Caravaggio, but he wasn’t answering when I called to see if it was okay to use the image.)

I sight

I cannot see you

As you might wish,

But only as my eye allows.

Retinal engrams

Of old beliefs—

Blind spots

Emotional and real—

Shade the greys,

Colour the colours,

Frame light with dark,

Dark with light,

Until all I see

Is what I choose

To acknowledge,

To believe,

To understand.

I cannot see you

As you might wish;

Be glad I see

Any of you at all.

A slug eyes me eyeing him as it crosses a shrub near Tofino, BC

A slug eyes me eyeing him as it crosses a shrub near Tofino, BC

Dara Marks at Toronto Screenwriting Conference 2013

Engaging the Feminine Heroic

Dara Marks

In a follow-up to her very popular Transformational Arc talk of previous years, Dara Marks took us through another aspect of character development, something she calls the feminine heroic. A counterpart to the well known hero’s journey, the feminine heroic completes the hero’s character and thus is not necessarily tied simply to female heroes. Rather, it encapsulates the feminine side of everyone’s natures.

Transformational Arc

She explains, as writers, we are constantly trying to understand the narrative in which we are living, but we experience that narrative from a very personal perspective. Thus, in her canonical transformational arc, there is both an outer realm, where external forces act upon the hero, and an inner realm, the more personal influences. We grow, she says, only in relationship to demands on us to grow, and the external realm stimulates the internal reckoning.

The union of the feminine and masculine brings about wholeness in the character. It is a combination of the masculine spirit, which represents all that we can be, and the feminine soul, the deepness of our authentic self. Marks offers the example of a tree, which may reach toward the sky, but is only as strong as the root system that provides it nutrients.

Everything we are in life is what comes from deep within ourselves.

Marks presented this relatively complicated diagram that illustrated the hero’s external and internal journey (and in many ways, reflects our own journey through counseling or life itself). To the left, we find the Ego Self, where the onus is on my aspirations and beliefs of me. To the right is the True Self, which is understood after reflection and denotes my understanding of myself in the universe.

The union of the masculine and feminine sides of a character creates a wholeness

The union of the masculine and feminine sides of a character creates a wholeness

Ego Self: All early development, even that of a child, relies very heavily on the development of the Ego, a sense of will and determination. We believe that we’re in charge, despite all evidence to the contrary.

So if we start the journey in the Ego Self realm, we can look at the External or Masculine side and the Internal or Feminine side of ourselves.

Masculine Ego: In the top left quadrant, we have the Call to Life, the external mission that demands we strive or ascend to a greater level. We assert the force of our will on the universe. This area therefore is associated with a youthful and energetic quality. We have to move forward. We cannot let fear hold us back. To do this, we must sacrifice our feminine side, pushing those feelings down, or we cannot move forward.

Marks suggests that the tragedy of Hamlet was that he couldn’t get beyond his feminine side when he needed to move forward. She also gives the very literal example of Agamemnon, who was forced to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia before the Greek ships would be allowed to voyage to Troy.

Feminine Ego: In the lower left quadrant of the diagram, we see the influence the masculine decision has on the feminine ego. We suffer a wound because part of us is no longer valued. We are literally abandoning a key part of our self and this will have a lingering effect. While we appear invincible externally, we are very vulnerable internally.

Thus, the feminine side needs to be rescued by the proverbial knight on a white charger. Marks is quick to point out that this is no time for political correctness as at this stage in our development, we just don’t have the internal skills to rescue ourselves.

She goes back to Greek myth to show how this works, focusing on the story of Demeter and her daughter Persephone, the latter of whom was abducted to the underworld by Hades to become his wife. Demeter was distraught at the loss of her daughter and journeyed to the underworld to bring her back to the surface.

The underworld experience may be difficult, but it is educational and we need to journey through it to come out more whole in the next stage.

Marriage of Death: The combination of the masculine and feminine ego is what Marks calls the Marriage of Death. Anytime we strive to become something new, it means the death to other aspects of our being. We just can’t strive at all things at the same time. But this marriage is not designed to last.

As Marks points out, the problem with striving is that it is doomed to failure. We can’t be rich enough, strong enough, famous enough, whatever enough. And it is at the moment of realization that our dreams are doomed that we have a Crisis of Faith (masculine side), which leads to an Awakening of Potential (feminine side). We move closer to the discovery of our true self, the right hand side of the diagram.

Masculine True Self: As the masculine ego passes through its crisis of faith, it suffers a fall from the unattainable heights, which converts the Call to Life into a Battle for Life. For self-renewal, it is essential that our delusions and illusions are shed during this descent, such as the belief that we are in control of our lives. And thus, at this stage, it is the masculine self that needs rescuing.

Marks offers the example of Odysseus (a popular subject at TSC this year) and the knowledge that his journey home was his great undoing as he loses more and more of his ego self (including his ships, crew, etc). The second half of his journey is literally the journey homeward toward his true self.

Feminine True Self: And who rescues the masculine true self? As the masculine side becomes more vulnerable, the feminine side becomes emboldened. We heal our wounds and reunite, turning pain and suffering into love and creativity.

The way out of our self-imposed purgatory is through compassion. We have to hear the story and then feel and acknowledge the pain. And it is only when the pain is given voice that it can move back from the underworld into life.

Marks exemplifies this aspect with the myth of Inanna and Erishkegal (which I do not know as well and so simply provide a link).

Sacred Marriage/True Self: It is at this point, through the sacred marriage of the masculine and feminine that we finally achieve the true self.

NOTE: All images and illustrations are property and copyright of Dara Marks and are used here without permission.

Glen Mazzara at Toronto Screenwriting Conference 2013

The Odyssey of Writing

Image

In his opening presentation to the TSC, Mazzara recounted the story of The Odyssey and used it as a metaphor for his own journey as a writer, comparing the setbacks and challenges experienced by Odysseus to his own.

As Mazzara explains, the story of Odysseus’s return home after the Trojan War is a story of changing winds. Such is the case with writers. When we decide to become writers, we have a lot of anxiety blowing in our heads. They can drive you insane. And bad news; those winds don’t go away, no matter how successful you become as a writer.

That anxiety permeates every scene you write. And once you start working with others, those people add to the confusion in your head.

Writers constantly look for validation, he says, they look for love. In this way, actors and writers have much in common as both groups are looking to receive love and adoration. The big difference is that writers know they’ll never get it, whereas actors maintain the delusion.

The chaos in writers’ heads also sets them at odds with the rest of the film and television industry, which is designed to run under more control. Thus a snarky relationship develops, with people in the industry constantly putting down or belittling writers and diminishing their works. The example he cites is the discussion of whether Shakespeare wrote his plays or it was a British lord with absolutely no record of having written a single literary word.

Mazzara says you simply have to get into a space where you are purely working on the work for the sake of the work. You have to learn to live with the anxiety.

 

He then looked at the concept of hubris and ego. In recounting the story of Odysseus blinding the Cyclops, he noted that as long as Odysseus remained “Nobody”, he was safe and managed to escape the island. It wasn’t until he stood on the prow of his escaping ship and proclaimed that it was Odysseus who blinded the Cyclops that things really went to hell.

When we write, Mazzara says, we have to remove our ego. We are only the steward of the story. The story wants to be told and we are merely the instrument by which this happens. And when working in groups, we have to be generous with each other and avoid taking credit.

He suggests that there is a tendency to try to manage our anxiety by taking the credit for work we have done or to which we have contributed, but we have to avoid this at all costs.

 

Mazzara then gets to the part of The Odyssey where Odysseus reaches Ithaca but finds his home invaded by suitors for his wife. Disguised as a beggar, he sets up a challenge that whomever can string Odysseus’s bow and fire an arrow through a series of axe heads will win the hand of Penelope. After all others have failed, the ridiculed beggar is given the opportunity and despite not being known for his strength, Odysseus strings the bow, makes the shot and then slaughters his disrespectful competitors.

All this to say that writing is about sticking to your strengths and doing it your own way. Mazzara showed loose sheets of foolscap on which he hand wrote his presentation because that’s the way he writes, by hand, on paper. When he tries to write on the computer, he finds himself editing his material and reworking lines as he writes them. On paper though, he can let the writing flow and works his way through the material in his head. However it works for you, he says, be sure you stay in the moment, stay in the story.

We all feel anxiety about conforming to how others do things. He is adamant that we have to fight this urge. As he describes it, it was a lonely journey for him to see that his method of writing works despite being antithetical to the way Hollywood works. Writing, he says, needs to be effortless.

As far as writing as part of a group in a writers’ room, he makes the comparison to a musical group heading into a recording studio, where everyone makes a contribution to the final product. Change one of the players or eliminate one component and the final product is different.

 

And finally, he says, there is a moment when you get your shit together and you know you can make it work. That is the moment you’ve come home.

 

In the Q&A, when asked about the bloody slaughter and carnage phase of The Odyssey, Mazzara said that was the editing phase of screenwriting, when the sheets are covered with red ink and look like they’ve been dipped in blood. In fact, he said, to lighten the blow on other writers, he refuses to use a red pen.