What if you could hear all of your friends conversing at the same time? And I mean regardless of whether they were in the same room with you.
Every thought. Every synaptic firing. Every vocalization. Pouring into your brain constantly.
The razor blades are under the sink. Try to be a good fellow and keep all of the blood in the tub, would you?
Welcome to Twitter.
I started on Twitter less than a year ago and I have noticed one thing about the people I hang out with: they fall into one of two camps. The constant pingers and the lurkers.
I, my apologies to everyone, am a constant pinger. I am one of those people who continues to post things throughout the day, and I never stay on one subject very long. I’ll hit themes and run with those for a while, or I’ll go through a period where all I do is respond to other people’s posts with “witty” ripostes. I’m not nearly the retweeter that most pingers are, but that’s mainly because I constantly feel the need to add to conversations rather than simply echo them.
In my actual social life, I have been referred to as “The Honest Ed” of comedy. Honest Ed, as the name would imply, was a local retail showman who had a large store at the corner of Bloor and Bathurst Streets in Toronto that fundamentally sold cheap crap to the masses under bright neon signs. Thus, the moniker given to me. Most of my humour is crap, but every once in a while, you’ll find something you like.
My brother Scott, in contrast, would be classified as a Lurker, if he had a Twitter account.
These are the people who patrol the social waters, largely unseen and shark-like, not interacting until they find just the right moment and then BAM!
At a family gathering, Scott would sit in the room, only slightly more animated than the wallpaper, while I rat-a-tat-tatted in all directions like a wind-up monkey with cymbals. He would wait for his moment and lay out a line, a joke, a comment that was smarter than anything I had said cumulatively. The room would collapse and he would dissolve back into the furniture, never to be seen again.
On Twitter, the lurker is the person whose icon only shows up rarely in your timeline. The person who catches your eye—when they catch your eye—only because you thought they were dead (or at least their account was dead). But catch you they do, and pay attention you must, because they have finally decided there is something worth saying and it should be good.
The pingers, I may only read about 1-10% of what they say at any given moment, making judgements on importance within the first two or three words (so much for 140 characters).
I have my favourites, those I will read more thoroughly, and those favourites change with my changing moods or their changing conversations.
So what is my point in this post?
I don’t have one. I’m a pinger. It’s never been necessary.
I merely observed something and felt I needed to comment on it…for more than 140 characters.
PS If you want to “hear” the Internet evolve, there is a really amazing site that monitors changes to Wikipedia and represents those changes visually and musically. Not surprisingly, it is called Listen to Wikipedia.
From their site: Listen to the sound of Wikipedia’s recent changes feed. Bells indicate additions and string plucks indicate subtractions. Pitch changes according to the size of the edit; the larger the edit, the deeper the note. Green circles show edits from unregistered contributors, and purple circles mark edits performed by automated bots. You may see announcements for new users as they join the site, punctuated by a string swell. You can welcome him or her by clicking the blue banner and adding a note on their talk page.
(Image is property of owner and is used here without permission because I couldn’t get a word in edge-wise)
Where do you find inspiration? What causes one moment to pass completely unnoticed and another to trigger a flurry of activity?
Truth be told, I don’t think inspiration comes from outside but rather from within. The exact same moment viewed at different times by the exact same individual may result in completely different responses depending on the openness of the individual to inspiration.
When you are open to inspiration, you witness and experience life through a completely different lens, one that sees connections and patterns between events and objects that do not necessarily exist in the forms themselves.
The priests sitting in the bar become a foil for the man trying to pick up women. The dog urinating on a building becomes the unwitting initiator of the death of 275 people in an office tower. The crows on the telephone lines become dark angels surveilling the land, awaiting the arrival of a malevolent spirit.
The irony of inspiration coming from within, however, is that it is something you cannot really will into existence. You can easily sit for hours with pen poised over paper, awaiting inspiration’s wafting arrival, only to realize that days have gone by without result. And trying to force your way through artistic constipation only seems to worsen the situation as you strain against the blockage by forcing invisible connections. Rarely, if ever, will inspiration make itself known to you in this way.
All you can really do is till the soil in which inspiration will implant itself and hopefully germinate. Rather than clear away all distraction, you may find it better to envelope yourself in distraction. By allowing the mental and spiritual noise to flow over, under and through you, you remove the hard edges of the real world and let the boundaries criss-cross in chaotic flux, searching for new patterns that your mind’s eye can mark.
It may also be helpful to engage your mind in someone else’s art, whether of the same medium as yours or no, but remembering to also give your mind permission to wander.
There is no exam at the end of the novel you’re reading. No request to reproduce the painting you are viewing. No critical essay to argue once the concerto has ceased.
So let yourself go and let yourself respond—consciously and viscerally—to the art. Let a word, image or note ricochet through your mind until it attaches itself to an earlier thought or feeling. Don’t try to define or even understand the clusters that form but rather observe them until the need to create takes hold.
Inspiration is about the initial amount of discovery, not the final product. An ephemeral spirit, inspiration is likely to dissipate at your first attempt to put a leash on it. You cannot present inspiration with a road map and expect it to clear the path ahead. Rather, you must follow inspiration as it meanders, bearing witness to the miracles it triggers.
Where do you find inspiration?
Everywhere and anywhere, when you are ready to let it be seen.
Perhaps the most interesting advice I heard while attending the 2013 Austin Film Festival came from the Just Tell the Story session by screenwriter Ron Nyswaner, who suggested that not all stories are movie-worthy. It’s not that such stories are unimportant or not worth telling, but rather that film is a very specific medium—as are novels, videos, television, etc.—and therefore requires specific criteria be met for appeal.
1. Do you have a worthy protagonist? It is important that the audience understands the protagonist’s struggle, that the character is constantly dealing with questions of life, loss, yearning. There should be clearly understood interior and exterior conflict.
2. Does you protagonist have face worthy obstacles or a worthy antagonist? The antagonist should represent the opposing view, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the antipode to your protagonist’s views. Overall and within individual scenes, there should always be a sense of ideas in conflict. Nyswaner stressed the importance of the hope-dread axis—What do you hope is going to happen and what do you dread is going to happen in a scene—suggesting that the stronger the axis, the more tension you build in your story.
3. How strong is the central relationship? Sydney Pollack suggested that every story is a love story, and Nyswaner followed on that, suggesting that the relationships between your characters, and particularly the protagonist and antagonist, is what drives the story forward. The stronger that relationship (positively or negatively), the stronger the story. He also discussed the idea of triangulation; the effect of adding a third party into a scene to increase the tension or stakes.
4. Where am I (the writer) in the story? Who am I? All good art is personal, Nyswaner said, so the writer should look for his or her emotional connection with the story. By making the story personal to you, you develop a deeper story.
5. Take your audience into a world that’s interesting. If the audience cannot connect with the environment that you’ve created, they will find it difficult to get into your story. This doesn’t mean that the environment has to be familiar so much as understandable and relatable.
6. Do you have enough turning points to carry through a feature? A good film story is constantly changing direction, keeping the audience engaged and intrigued. Without sufficient turning points, audience members disconnect from the story or worse, get bored. Attitudes and powerbases should shift throughout the story to keep the audience guessing.
7. Does the audience love the story and its characters? Nyswaner suggests writers must be ruthless, paraphrasing a quote (trying to remember by whom) that a writer is a person who will betray the people he loves to impress people he will never meet. The key for a writer is to give everything to the story he or she is trying to tell, even at the cost of real-world expectations and relationships. This is not to say that success comes from being the biggest asshole, but rather that it is important to keep the focus of a film on the story and its characters to the detriment of other external factors (as best as possible).
Ron Nyswaner is perhaps best known for having penned the movie Philadelphia, but has also worked on television (Ray Donovan) and in print, and teaches film at the Columbia University School of the Arts.
So beautiful. The fullness. The curves. You make me smile. I want to be with you forever. You’re perfect. I love you.
This is the greatest paragraph ever written. The most beautiful dialogue ever conceived. A scene that will be remembered for eternity.
Many of the posts I’ve written have been about cutting yourself some slack, about overcoming the inner demons of doubt. Giving yourself permission to fail. That perfection isn’t your goal.
Well, now we need to remember that not only is perfection not your goal, it is not even possible. There is always room for improvement, so please don’t ever fall in love with your work.
When creating a new work—a novel, screenplay, whatever—it is important to leave yourself as many options as possible, to keep all of the doors open until you reach a combination that works best for you.
Too often, however, writers jump into their work, pursuing the idea that offered the first blush of love. In their zeal to express that love, they put on blinders to other possibilities. Perhaps it is a pure love, but I’m confident for a few of us, it’s also probably fear of never finding another love.
And once we express that love, we are loathe to question it, even when presented with another option. This is the only way the scene can be written. This is the best way to achieve the point of the scene. Everything else is weaker.
Maybe you’re right, once or twice in a work (or career), but rare are those moments. So let me recommend something scandalous.
Start seeing other options.
I’m not asking you to fall in love with them or to fall out of love with your original idea, but infidelity can be healthy. It may even make you appreciate your first love all the more. (Why do I suddenly feel like Silvio Berlusconi?)
Just dip your toe in the water, if this idea makes you nervous.
If your lovers currently meet in a restaurant, explore what would happen if they met in a post office, a house of mirrors, a sanitorium.
Too much too soon?
Then change the type of restaurant. How would your scene change if they were at an expensive restaurant, McDonalds, a hot dog cart, on a picnic?
Try this with any and every aspect of your story, and do it as early as possible. The longer you work on a project, developing its specifics, the harder it will be to change any aspect of it beyond cosmetic editing.
That path you see to your goal may be less of a path and more of a cavernous rut you’ve worn by running over the same idea time and again. Wait too long and you don’t see anything else. You can’t see beyond its limits.
Don’t let that happen to the concept that you love and more importantly, to the creative spirit you continue to nurture. It may be painful. You may have to walk away from the one you love, but trust me, you will fall in love again. I promise.
(The image is property of the owner and is
used optioned here without permission.)
“How the heck did you come up with that?”
It’s a common question I get when talking about my latest ideas, and for years, my answer was a resounding “I dunno…just came to me.”
To a limited extent, the response is correct, but it suggests the process of ideation is much more passive or deus ex machina than it really is.
Ideas surround me, as they do you. They are in the nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs that make up our moment-by-moment reality. They are in the streetcar in which I presently ride, the streets down which I presently travel.
In the dark-haired beauty two rows before me who is fixated on adjusting her hair rather than close the window through which the hair-mussing breeze blows. And in the armada of free-range humans who occupy the parkette we just passed, proving themselves houseless rather than homeless.
The challenge for many would-be writers is that these are starting points for ideas rather than fully fledged stories or subjects. These are the writers who wish to be reporters or chroniclers rather than explorers.
Think instead of these idea kernels as pieces of clay, as something that can be moulded into any of a thousand other shapes. Take the kernel and play with it for a while. Give yourself a chance to see what it feels like, smells like, sounds like, tastes like.
Twist it. Turn parts of it over. Reverse its halves.
What is something were feasting on Toronto’s homeless? Imagine a mobile service that will do your hair and makeup while you commute to work. What if a terrorist planted a bomb on a streetcar and it had to travel no slower than 50 mph? Or an aesthetician to the deceased in From Hair to Eternity.
All of these are probably bad ideas, but the ideas have evolved.
Twist it again. Mould it again. Press it onto something else, like so much Silly Putty, and see what sticks.
Keep the good. Set aside the bad. But keep working it until something you really like begins to show itself.
You have no idea the wonders you will discover.
If I move into a beautiful New England home with my beautiful family and on our first night, the walls run red with blood and a disconnected voice cries “Get out!”, I go to a hotel and move the next day.
I do not search for an explanation (or at least not that night). I do not instinctively head for the dusty attic, the dank dark basement or that rather nasty looking shed under the menacing weeping willow in the darkest corner of the back yard.
So when I read about characters doing just that in a novel or screenplay or watch actors do it at the movies, I find myself thinking they deserve whatever comes next because they are idiots. What the hell motivated them to have that stupid response? Out of the gate, I disconnect from the character.
Now, despite the title of this blog post, I am not suggesting that only my instincts should be followed in screenplays, novels, etc.—these would be damned short stories if everyone did—but rather it is a call to writers to help me, as a reader or viewer, understand why the character behaved the way he or she did. Until I do, I cannot really bond with the character.
This isn’t easy, but it is necessary.
Whenever a character responds to something or takes an action, you have to ask yourself, why did he or she do that? And over the course of your story, are all of that character’s choices consistent with his or her personal journey from before your story’s opening to its conclusion?
And as if that isn’t difficult enough, you then have to ask yourself, have I written the story in such a way that the audience can see the logic of the choices, even if only in hindsight?
This last point is crucial, because as writers, we often know or understand things about our characters that never make it to the page. Thus, while everything may seem completely consistent and logical to us, it may still be confusing to our audience, who is not privy to the machinations within the head of the writer god.
At the same time, you never want to spell it out for the audience, because then story reading or watching becomes too passive an exercise and the audience doesn’t engage. You need to feed your audience just enough information that it can begin to make inferences about your characters’ behaviours and so become connected with your characters.
The good news is that this is unlikely to happen in your first draft or at best, will happen in drips and drabs.
As you develop your story past draft one, you will find moments of inconsistency or more likely, your trusted readers and advisers will find inconsistencies. Take those in and mull them over. Odds are, fixing those issues will not require a major refocus of your story…just a heavy-brush rewrite. And your story will improve.
So if the walls run red with blood, a disconnected voice cries “Get out!” and your protagonist doesn’t, I better understand why.
(Images are the property of the owners and are used here without permission.)
I find it interesting that most people seem to be less afraid of being stupid than they are of looking stupid.
I say this because of the inordinate amount of stupid material I find every day—the people posting this stuff obviously don’t think it’s stupid—and yet many of the brightest people I know (and not just those with whom I agree) are paralytically afraid of saying anything lest people think they’re stupid.
Now, I appreciate that stupid is subjective, but this is not a condemnation of stupid, it is a call to embrace our personal stupid and use it to move forward to brilliance.
If you watch a group of children as they age—not literally moment-by-moment; that would be stupid—you will see that they start out unfiltered and unhindered by subconscious voices that make them edit themselves. They are free to create amazing things and proudly display those things on refrigerators around the world.
As they get older, though, those subconscious voices creep in and you find the children become less enthusiastic about their art. They become more self-conscious about being seen as stupid, and so the refrigerators of the world become increasingly barren.
That is incredibly sad, and not just because the typical refrigerator is a featureless, oddly coloured box with little inherent fashion sense. It is sad because it creates a population of adults who are incredibly repressed and overwhelmingly self-conscious.
As I have mentioned before, I have numerable friends who want to write, but they are routinely stopped from taking any action by an infernal firewall of what to write. They can’t just write anything. Writing just anything would be stupid.
No! No! No! Writing just anything would be freaking brilliant!
Writing just anything would make you a writer, rather than the non-writer you are now.
Write the word “stupid”. Write “stoopid”. Write “styupid”. Write “stewed pet”. And bloody screw AutoCorrect.
Let stupid be your creative scissors and run around the room not caring into whom you run or stab. Stupid begets intelligent, no matter how stupid that sounds.
Besides, no matter how clever, intelligent or prosaic you are, someone is going to find your writing stupid. Stab them with your stupid scissors and move on.
I absolutely abhor the novel Crime and Punishment, routinely espousing that the crime was the writing of the book and the punishment is the reading, and yet many people find it a marvelous work of art. How stupid is that? (You can read that as I’m stupid or they’re stupid…I don’t really care.)
In King Lear (III, ii), Shakespeare wrote: “The art of our necessities is strange that can make vile things precious.”
As used in the play, this line has absolutely nothing to do with the point I’m making, and depending on how you read it, the line actually blows my thesis apart or completely justifies it. Now that is freaking stupid.
As Liam Neeson should have said in the movie: Release the Stupid!
You may just find that your stupid is pretty amazing…and even if it’s not, you’re one step closer to your brilliant.
(Images used without permission. Pretty stupid, eh?)
Committee (n): 1) a group of individuals specializing in irreversible creativity vivisection; 2) last known location of a good idea. See also: elephant’s graveyard.
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing anyone creating art is less the generation of new ideas and more the knowledge that at some point, you will have to release your art to an awaiting world; aka, relinquish control.
Now, we can (and have) discuss the illusion of control at any phase of the creative process, but there is no denying that if you want your art to be appreciated by others, you will have to pass your newborn into someone else’s hands…or worse, someseveral else’s hands.
For writing—my predominant area of interest—that moment can come quite early in the creative process, whereas for other art forms, such as sculpture or painting, it may appear quite a bit later (please correct me, if I under- or misstate things).
You must respect your art. You must protect your art. But you must also realize that if you intend to share your art, and perhaps even make money from it, you must be somewhat flexible with your art. When you bring it to the world, it ceases to be all about you.
A teacher once suggested that upon completing a play, Shakespeare merely became another critic of the work. His opinions on meaning and significance within the play were simply one more voice and held no more sway than those of any other critic. I don’t know that I agree—what self-respecting writer would?—but I see the point.
When I write a screenplay, I need dissenting and diverging voices to ensure that I am not leaving things out or glossing over important plot or character points that are clear in my head. At the same time, I must be sure that my vision is protected, lest I start writing someone else’s screenplay.
I understand, however, that if I want to turn this screenplay into a movie or television episode, I will have to relinquish some of the control to the hands of studio executives, producers, directors, actors, directors of photography, sound teams, and in all likelihood, the third cousin of the guy who runs the craft services table. I have to be comfortable with the idea that each of these people wants to (actually, must) contribute in some way to the final product to give them a sense of ownership. They too are artists.
I am struggling at this stage with several television projects I have been developing. I have a computer filled with TV series concepts and/or pilot scripts, and I am trying to decide with what production companies to share my babies. Like Smeagol, I stroke my precious and have a rampant distrust of everyone.
How do I know the company I choose shares my vision, will protect my baby, isn’t just a group of ravenous Orcs? I don’t. I can’t, ahead of time.
What helps is watching fellow writers who rabidly protect their newborns at a much earlier stage in development. Who in a reading group, spew buckets of foamy spittle while savagely defending the use of the word “vivisection”, or primal scream that their protagonist’s motivations are obvious to anyone with half a brain.
I am doing the same thing with my projects, only at a later stage and mostly in my head (and possibly with just half a brain). Just as they have to learn to let go or at least lighten up, so do I.
In writing this post, I am coming to realize that my art is in the writing of the screenplay, not in the making of movies or television. Thus, when the screenplay is ready to move on, I must let it go and hope it flourishes…even if I am not ready to let it go. The art must grow and breathe, regardless of my personal reluctance and fears.
Committees are still evil…you will never get me to say otherwise…but unless I am willing to do everything on my own, which would not do justice to my babies, committees are a necessary evil and less dangerous to my babies’ successes than on overbearing, overprotective parent.
For a humourous take on the evils of meetings, please also see the recent blog post by Ben’s Bitter Blog: Meeting Bitterness.