We are the stories we tell ourselves

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Human beings connect through story. We define our individual selves by story. We even define our universe in terms of the stories we tell ourselves.

And despite often sharing experiences with others, my understanding and interpretation of those experiences—my personal Truth—is the story that I build around those experiences.

If I see something I have never seen before, I immediately construct a story. I give it context from items around it or its location or its presence at this time of day.

And remarkably, if I came upon this same thing tomorrow rather than today, the story I construct then might be entirely different from the one I build today.

Thus, story is malleable. It lives and breathes as we take in new information from our surroundings and incorporate that information into the story, making tweaks and adjustments to ensure that everything continues to make sense.

When the story doesn’t make sense, when congruence is lost, we get upset, and in some cases, put up hostile blinders. This is when human beings lose connection.

Because story is such a personal thing, the Creative—whom I define as anyone who pursues a task with passion—is faced with an essentially insurmountable challenge: How do I share my story through myriad personal filters?

Ultimately, you cannot control how another receives and interprets your story.

abstract art

What is my story for this work? What story did the Creative intend?

Even if the Painter tells me her intent in painting a portrait or landscape, the Novelist types out in no uncertain terms precisely what he means to convey, the Musician strikes notes and chords to instill specific feelings, I can remain oblivious to those intents, consciously or un-.

This simply is; and we can only hope that it does not negatively influence the passion to create.

That passion, the drive to create, must be given voice, however; and so the Creative moves forward, doing his or her best to share (much as I am doing now in writing this).

A dedicated Creative struggles on, regardless of the insurmountable barriers, and strives to convey the most effective story he or she can, looking for ways to layer thoughts and emotions and spiritual energies onto the personal stories of others.

We practice what we know. We experiment with the unknown. We seek guidance and critical analysis.

And most importantly, we accept that we will never achieve 100% success instilling our stories in others, and yet push ourselves and our Art as if it were possible.

As Creatives, as people of passion, that is central to our stories.

*****

If you’re interested in learning how to build stories more effectively, seeking guidance for nascent projects or critical analysis of existing works, feel free to check out my website So, What’s Your Story or reach out to me here or via my Facebook page.

In the meantime, I wish you all the success in the world.

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Artists I adore (and you should follow)

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Barnaby Dixon – puppetry

As many of you know, I am nutso for puppetry and have somehow managed to know some amazingly talented puppeteers. But as much as I adore my friends, one fellow blows me away not just for his skill as a puppeteer, but also as a puppet designer.

For a guy that looks like he’s 12—I’m over 50, so you all look 12 to me—Barnaby Dixon seems ancient in his craft and wisdom. From the very first YouTube video I watched, he has dazzled me with his love of the art form, his ability to bring the inanimate to life, and his presentation style that draws you in and makes you feel like this is a private conversation. Stellar!

Visit Barnaby’s web site, Facebook page and Twitter account

 

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Baram & Snieckus – comedy

I know, I know. I have to get past my addiction to these beautiful sketch and improv wunderkinds. But I can’t help myself.

Apart, Matt Baram and Naomi Snieckus are wonderfully funny and vulnerable and endearing, but together, they rocket off the charts.

As I have reviewed previously (see below), Baram & Snieckus are to the modern era what Stiller & Meara and Nichols & May were to theirs, people who express the challenges and wonders of social awkwardness, allowing us to laugh at the things that frighten us in our daily lives.

No one is more neurotic than Matt…until Naomi erupts in her own mental mushroom cloud.

And that this husband-and-wife team are beautiful, friendly, giving, caring people is an absolute bonus.

You can follow Matt & Naomi on their web site, Facebook page or Twitter.

 

See also:

You and Me Both – A revue review

Still Figuring It Out: Baram & Snieckus

 

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Filippa Levemark – visual arts

As a photographer, I adore nature. As a writer, I adore bizarre or interesting juxtapositions. Thus, I had no choice but to fall in love with Filippa Levemark’s work.

With the seemingly simplest of compositions, Filippa combines nature and human infrastructure to powerfully demonstrate that the two worlds are one and the same. Try as it might, humanity cannot hold itself as distinct from the wildlife that surrounds us, nor should it.

Her work is beautifully approachable and yet is rife with meaning, offering depths that may be missed at first glance.

Based in Sweden, my greatest hope is to find a way for her to bring her works to Canada.

You can follow Filippa on her web site, Facebook and Instagram.

 

 

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Irene Carl Sankoff & David Hein – musical theatre

As a student at Toronto’s Second City Training Centre several years ago, I had the great fortune to meet and do improv with a gorgeous and talented actress named Irene Sankoff, a truly giving performer.

Years later, I heard that Irene and her husband David Hein had created the somewhat autobiographical stage musical My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, which played to wonderful reviews in Toronto. What I didn’t realize was that the musical would explode in the theatre world both in Canada and abroad, setting these two up as a creative force of nature.

And just this past year, they have repeated (and likely surpassed) that success with a new musical Come From Away, based on events in Gander, Newfoundland on 9/11 when hundreds of air passengers found themselves suddenly grounded.

The musical just completed a spectacularly successful run in Toronto and begins Broadway previews on Feb 18 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in New York, where it is sure to sell out quickly.

But like my Baram & Snieckus comment above, what makes these two particularly special is that they are genuinely wonderful people and have such love for their craft and for the people who come see the show.

Recently, on a frigid Toronto morning, the pair brought coffee and donuts to fans waiting for rush tickets to their final Toronto performance (Toronto Star article). The pair and performers from the show entertained the small crowd, singing songs and chatting with the chilled throng. That is simply beautiful.

Follow Irene & David’s adventures on their web site, Facebook and Twitter.

 

Whither the losers

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History, we are told, is written by the victors. So, it also seems, are books about writing; although it is perhaps more accurate to say that books about writing only talk about winners.

Whether we’re talking about Star Wars, Unforgiven, Casablanca or The Wizard of Oz, almost any model of screenplay structure or character development or dialogue construction can be retrofitted to suit the film in question.

It’s like one of those mysterious illustrations that test whether you see two faces or a goblet. Once the secret is pointed out to you, it is virtually impossible to unsee.

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Faces or a vase? Old woman or young?

Now, I’m not suggesting that these films or scenes or characters within aren’t good examples of the methods and approaches being promoted. Rather, because they are good examples, I question how much you can learn from them.

If you know the film well, it can be virtually impossible to imagine it any other way. And that is what the lesson should be telling you.

What happens when you don’t follow the model?

What does bad writing look like and how can you fix it?

Without that last part, learning to write well becomes the typing equivalent of being given paint, brushes, canvas and the Mona Lisa. Now, go out there and launch the new Renaissance! (The Rerenaissance?)

A couple of years ago, I had the good fortune to take a comedy writing workshop given by Steve Kaplan. Aside from providing our small group with a series of tools to not only analyze but also develop comedy—nicely captured in his wonderful book The Hidden Tools of Comedy—Steve walked us through examples of where these tools were used to great effect AND examples where they weren’t.

Alongside excerpts of Groundhog Day, we watched scenes from Alex & Emma. After considering the classic sitcom about nothing Seinfeld, we were inflicted with the show’s original and quite terrible pilot.

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Like with the positive examples, you see the failures when they are pointed out to you. But the nice thing about the failures is you can ask what could have been done differently to make the idea or scene work better.

(Note: Sometimes, the answer is nothing, because it was a weak idea or poorly written.)

You may not have committed the specific sin you’re studying, but it at least gives you the opportunity to use the tools you’ve just acquired and see if you can’t make that “Elvis on crushed velvet” look more like the Mona Lisa.

elvis-lisa

And particularly for the relatively novice or untested writers, examining failures helps to keep from establishing an impossible bar of success. Rather, it suggests that whereas we always strive for greatness, mediocrity can make it to the screen, and more importantly, we do not need to (and never will) achieve gold with every piece we write.

Which is good, because for every Pirates of the Caribbean and Shrek, there is a The Lone Ranger (all written in part by the wonderful and giving Terry Rossio).

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See also:

The Hidden Tools of Comedy (Steve Kaplan)

500

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So I have hit the milestone blog post: 500.

For some of you, who have followed me from the earliest days, you are no doubt thinking: “500? Really? Seems like 5,000.” For those of you relatively new to the wonder that is my blog, please note closely the previous statement.

I dithered over what to write for my 500th post, and have decided I’m going to talk about you…well, some of you.

I “follow” quite a few blogs…I read many fewer…and I seek out even fewer. I’m sorry for those I don’t visit more regularly…hours in a day and all that. It’s some of that last group, I want to highlight here…those glorious few who make me stop whenever I see they’ve posted something new.

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Filippa Levemarks Blog

The paintings that this woman creates and the themes she explores by mixing media and mixing subject-matter blow me away. Rare is the image that doesn’t elicit some emotion in me. Hers is a style I have seen nowhere else and is worth exploring.

 

Jack Flacco

To read Jack’s blog is to have no clear idea as to who Jack is, and I mean that as a compliment. Jack takes on any subject it seems, but always in a thought-provoking and welcoming way that makes you want to contribute with a comment. His latest topics have been: monotasking, Veronica Mars, infectious pandemic readiness and phone addiction.

 

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Bare Knuckle Writer

As the title suggests, Steph Snow is a no-holds-barred writer who likes to talk (or rant) about writing. With generous dollops of humour, she discusses the creative fortunes and practices that torture her soul on a seemingly daily basis. Misery truly does like company.

 

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Readful Things Blog/Julian Froment’s Blog

I list these two blogs together because they are both discussions of the written word—e.g., reviews of books and authors, discussions of book marketing—and because the bloggers (Ionia Martin & Julian Froment) are beautifully connected at the soul (I don’t ask questions about any other forms of connections). Amazing people whose love for words is only surmounted by their love for each other.

 

Schelley Cassidy Photography

As a photo-hobbiest, I deeply appreciate the craft and skills that other photographers bring to the world. In this case, however, Schelley and I seem to share a greater fascination for the minute rather than the panoramic, as suggested by her regular feature “What is it?” where you only see an aspect of an object and are left guessing as to what that object is.

 

Ron Scubadiver’s Wild Life

If I couldn’t have my life, I would want Ron’s. A world traveller and freelance journalist, Ron is an amazing photographer, capturing incredible aspects of life in the many places he has visited. I particular enjoy his collections of people photos, often taken at a festival or gathering, which are incredibly natural and inviting.

 

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Ned’s Blog

Ned Hickson is not right in the head. And that’s what I love about him. A journalist in the Pacific Northwest and volunteer firefighter (or latex-coat fetishist…can’t really tell), Ned brings an irreverent sense of humour to everything he writes, earning him several accolades including his own NSA file. Ned also has a book to his credit, which I believe he has to return to the library next Tuesday.

 

Curnblog

More a collective than a personal blog, Curnblog offers amazing insights into all things film, whether examining an individual film or genre from angles such as sociology, creativity or cinematography. Predominantly the work of James Curnow, the blog is like having your own little film school where you can access new and unusual topics on a weekly basis without the pressure of essays, theses or exams.

 

There are so many other blogs to which I would like to direct you, but I am happy that you made it this far down the page. Perhaps for my 1000th blog post!

My gratitude for your patience and enduring interest.

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Is writing Art?

Questions you are unlikely to ever hear:

  • How close to the edge of the canvas can I apply acrylic paint?
  • If I’m sculpting the bust of Zeus, at what moment should I work on his nose?
  • Is it okay to drum the body of an acoustic guitar with my fingers rather than pluck the strings?

Painting. Sculpture. Music. Three of the myriad art forms where practitioners typically acquire some degree of training, and then step away from that training to develop  their own style.

Art comes where the rules end

Art comes where the rules end

Questions you can fully expect to hear:

  • In a 90-page screenplay, on what page should the inciting incident occur?
  • In a poem, should I complete a thought within a line or break it up into two or more lines?
  • Can I describe more than one character’s point-of-view within a scene in my novel?

Writing.

Every day, billions of people across the planet write. Post-It notes. Shopping lists. Emails. Love letters. And perhaps because of this ubiquity—perhaps because writing is rivaled only by speech as a form of expression—the world tends to view writing in a different category from all of the other arts, assuming people see it as an art form at all.

Everybody writes, so how special can it be

Everybody writes, so how special can it be

Obviously, there are better writers and worse writers, but more often than not, that reality is viewed as difference in skill, not art or craftsmanship. It is as though the world believes that if we all applied ourselves a little more, we could all write a great novel or play.

If asked, I am confident few would think that the only difference between them and Mozart, Yo-Yo Ma or the guy playing bassoon in the subway (my friend Jeff Burke) was time in.

Certainly, most acknowledge the greatness of Shakespeare, Dickens, Moliere, Hemingway (forgive my Western bias), but those are seen as rare exceptions to the norm.

Art comes where the rules end

Art comes where the rules end

People will buy paintings on the roadside. You will sometimes stop and listen to a musician in the park. But how many of us will stop and buy a novel or collection of poems anywhere other than the bookstore or online?

And sadly, this sense that pretty much anyone can be a writer pervades the writing community itself in insidious ways, and is particularly debilitating to new writer artists timidly trying to develop their craft.

Unlike almost any other art form, to my eye, writers get hung up in the right way to do things, as suggested by the questions above. As an example, this post was prompted by similar questions raised by a novelist blogger I follow.

It is okay to emulate aspects of others’ writings, to follow certain conventions of grammar and syntax. But at the end of the day, you have to ask yourself why you write; because it is a passion within you or to please the universe?

“Write the way you want to write,” was my advice to her questions on acceptable style (my italics). “As your colleagues suggested, this is just your style and will either be liked or not liked by your readers.”

“Never be afraid to be yourself…your readers will respect that in you,” I concluded, “and anyone who doesn’t is frankly not your reader.”

No one questions the difference between the skill of painting a house and the art of painting a landscape. Why should the same not be true for writing a Tweet and writing a poem?

Writing is an Art Form, to answer the title question, and you—the writer—are an Artist.

Learn from those who have come before and who practice now, but be brave and divine your own path.

Rule breakers

Broken Rules Falls to Chaos Anarchy Pieces

Oil and water do not mix because, well, they are oil and water. This is a rule. We made a cliché out of it, so it must be a rule.

And yet, it is not a rule.

Oil and water can mix. You just have to screw around with it by adding another component to the mix…an emulsifier. True, this isn’t the same kind of mixture as blue Kool-Aid plus red Kool-Aid makes purple Kool-Aid, but the colloidal suspension of oil droplets in water is still a mixture.

So what about combining oil painting with water colour painting? Anathema, you say. They are two distinct media, you cry.

So what, I respond.

Because we’ve never seen it done (or at least, I haven’t), doesn’t mean that it cannot be.

Each medium offers its own strengths and limitations, and magnificent works have been created with either. Is there a way, however, to enhance those strengths, moderate those limitations by combining the media within a single work?

Every day, new rules are created, new schools of thought founded that try to define a panoply of Art forms. This is good, as these institutions form the parameters in which new Artists learn and understand their craft.

Can you imagine the panic of being told to go make art and being given nothing to do so: no instruction, no media, no resources?

And yet, those very institutions can strait-jacket the unwary and the unthinking, as rules become commandments rather than guidelines. When any attempt to step outside of the school is med with derision, contempt and blinkered exclusion.

The very congresses and champions established to support the growth and evolution of Art can easily become the prison wardens of that Art, confining aberrant Artists in an attempt to petrify the one true form.

(By the way: The same is true for Science, where journals and textbooks are rife with examples of explorers being squashed for daring to suggest something that didn’t fit within scientific canon.)

It would be naïve and harmful to suggest that rules should not only be broken, they should be shattered. If you wrote a novel using numbers rather than letters, you might find a very small audience for your work and little understanding from peers. There is much to be said, however, for grazing, nicking or wounding the rules.

Rules should be constantly questioned, viciously challenged if Art is to evolve. Without such a challenge to the nucleotides that comprise our genetic material, we would not exist and the planet would be lifeless.

But just as we demand mutation and adaptation to facilitate Artistic evolution, so must we accept the other half of the Darwinian equation. Only those most fit to survive will. The majority of mutations and adaptations will be for naught and that Art will perish.

It is a harsh reality, but look at what it has wrought in just 40,000 years since humans first applied colour to walls.

All this to say, break some rules. Test the limits. It is your evolutionary destiny as an Artist.

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(Images are property of owners and are used here without permission and against the rules.)

Faces of the ROM

I have been on a face kick of late, watching sculptures, paintings, images for signs of life and personality. My recent trip to the Royal Ontario Museum was no different.