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

With Genius, the play’s the thing – a review

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Early last year, I saw a trailer for a biographical movie that recounted the love story between a novelist and his editor. For every bit that the novelist was a flamboyant, erratic larger-than-life character, his editor was a buttoned-down, controlled one. And yet, between the two of them, they produced works that sit among the sleeves of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, two of the editor’s other writers.

I was intrigued.

Last June, Genius had its theatrical release in North America, only to disappear almost as quickly. I had completely forgotten about the story, until this week, when the movie launched on Netflix.

Now, I know why it disappeared. Not because it is a bad movie, but rather because it was produced for the wrong medium.

The theatrical release Genius should have had was on a stage, not in a cinema. Although not written intentionally as such, Genius is a play.

Based on A. Scott Berg’s 1978 National Book Award-winner Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, the film recounts a tempestuous period in the 1930s when the first frenzied pages of Thomas Wolfe’s (Jude Law) autobiographical O Lost found their way onto the desk of Scribner’s editor Max Perkins (Colin Firth). It then follows the bond that forms between the two men as they fight to tame Wolfe’s creative furies, eventually honing it into the retitled Look Homeward, Angel and his sophomore novel Of Time and the River.

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The loves they left behind: Laura Linney (top) and Nicole Kidman

The process was not without its victims, however, and as minor secondary plots, the film unveils the impact of the men’s singular focus on their loved ones: Perkins’ loving wife Louise (Laura Linney) and his five daughters, as well as Wolfe’s loving but jealous benefactor Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman).

As I watched the film—directed by Michael Grandage with screenplay by John Logan –I found it structurally constrained and yet exuberantly written. With the exception of links between plot sequences, every scene played out as intimate conversations with the characters largely speaking in poetry, especially Wolfe and Perkins. It was as though Logan was trying to capture the Joyce-like prose of Wolfe’s mania and cast it from the mouths of his characters.

After pausing the movie for a few moments about 40 minutes in, not completely sure what I thought of it, I came back to the film and immediately realized what was challenging me. This was a stage play that was unaware of its identity.

Once I had that in my mind, the movie proceeded to unfold beautifully and naturally.

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Defining the act of falling in love

As a writer and editor myself, I was enthralled by the ongoing debates over how best to describe the emotions of falling in love and that tortuous feeling of having the words you bled to write being torn asunder with the simple stroke of a red pencil.

I understand, however, that not everyone would be as appreciative or have such a personal connection to these scenes.

The movie was eviscerated by the critics I read, and rightly so if viewed as a movie.

“Hammily acted, overstylized and lacking in subtlety.” – The Guardian

“Dressed-up box full of second- and third-hand notions.” – The New York Times

The Independent reviewer apparently saw what I saw:

“The acting, along with John Logan’s script, belong to the theatre.”

Like many stages plays, there is essentially no build up, and we are immediately dumped into central relationship of Perkins and Wolfe, two artists straining to make the other see his vision for the project at hand. Thus, when Kidman’s Aline or Linney’s Louise show up in the story, we are given almost no backstory to help us understand their perspectives or reactions to the intellectual love affair that blossoms.

And to the subtlety comment, Logan inserted F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) at the nadir of his career as an omen to Wolfe about what lies ahead, and Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West) as an emblem of a man who possessed his life, much as Wolfe tried to do and failed.

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The fates: Guy Pearce as F. Scott Fitzgerald & Dominic West as Ernest Hemingway

But perhaps the biggest tell for me that this was a stage play—and something that hits the subtlety debate—is the hat that Perkins wears throughout the entirety of the film. No matter where he is, no matter the time of day, no matter how he is otherwise dressed, Perkins wears his grey Fedora. It is what allows him to maintain his control on the world.

And because of its importance to Perkins—the true hero of this story—the hat is what brings power to the film’s close, in a scene that could otherwise be seen as cliché (and may yet be, by some).

The audience for Genius will be a narrow one, unfortunately. It has, however, piqued enough interest in me to look into the works of Thomas Wolfe, as well as A. Scott Berg’s biography of Max Perkins.

 

See also:

Colin Firth and Jude Law’s literary bromance needs an edit (The Guardian)

Michael Grandage should have stuck to his day job (The Independent)

‘Genius’ puts Max Perkins and Thomas Wolfe in a literary bromance (New York Times)

Hot Girls Wanted documentary (a review)

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Watched Rashida Jones‘ documentary Hot Girls Wanted about the amateur porn industry and can honestly say I have no idea what I think of it.

Part of the challenge is I have no idea what the point of it was other than to document the experiences of several young women (18-25 y) as they approach and experience the lifestyle. We can argue day and night about whether the lack of an overt agenda or POV is a good thing, but to my mind, it presented the women as neither victims nor empowered…simply as women who made a choice.

To be blunt: These women chose to go to Fuck Camp to make money and escape home.

It is interesting to watch the impact of their decisions on their lives and particularly their relationships with families and boyfriends. And I had to laugh at the irony of one woman who was clear in her rationale about her decision until it came to talking to her father about it.

And I must admit that I was surprised at how cavalier (my biased standards, not theirs) the women were about what they were doing, the potential hazards of the situations they found themselves in, and any thoughts as to how this might impact future life decisions beyond the 3-6 months they made money (not a typo…a woman’s “marketability” typically only lasts 3-6 months).

One of the few images I'm willing to show

One of the few images I’m willing to show

Over its 82-minute span, the documentary drags a little in places and often covers the same ground, no doubt to reinforce some of the more graphic elements. And it is graphic, stopping short of showing the actual sexual acts, but giving you enough of the rest (e.g., nudity, bondage, choking, vomiting) to bring across the essence of what these women are doing.

And in the end, the take-away is whatever you take away from this story.

No matter what your opinion going in, this will only reinforce that opinion. It doesn’t seem to be aimed at making you change your mind about the merits or evils of this industry. The same woman who feels exploited in one scene expresses a sense of empowerment in the next, and in some cases, about the same act.

Adult women making adult decisions about the adult industry. Good or bad is for you to decide for yourself.

An actress and a producer discuss the documentary

An actress and a producer discuss the documentary

…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?

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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…

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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.

His master’s voice

His_Master's_Voice

You always see cartoons and sitcoms of men completely beaten down by their wives, crushed under the weight of constant haranguing and abusive disparaging language, and I have always thought how sad.

I was fortunate enough to marry a woman who was nothing like those wives and so I did not develop a marital slouch. This is not to say, however, that I couldn’t hear her voice from anywhere, the bat and dog having nothing on me.

Perhaps the best example occurred during a women’s hockey tournament in which my wife—I will call her Leela, because that is her name—was participating.

As a hockey lover and good husband, I attended almost every game Leela played and this tournament was no different. The tournament took place in a large rink complex (about 4 sheets of ice) and so the concession stand was well away from some of the rinks.

With Leela ensconced in the dressing room for her upcoming game, I took the opportunity to sneak off for a coffee and hot dog. While I awaited my food, one of the other husbands showed up and we started chatting. Time became immaterial.

Suddenly, I stopped talking and like an icy meerkat, rose up on my hind legs at a disturbance in the Force. I was being beckoned.

As I peer my failing eyesight through three sets of doors, the Plexiglas getting murkier with each layer, I espied a waving hockey glove.

“Gotta go!” I announced, as I bolted for the doors.

Indeed, it was Leela who, through a mouthguard, did her best to scream my name. She needed new skate laces.

If an audiologist had been in the rink, he would have detected no sound. Likewise, there was no visual clue that anything was wrong. And yet, I had been imprinted, so I knew that darkness had descended and my assistance was required.

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Now, make all the whipping noises you like, but we found out that the connection also works in the other direction.

At Leela’s regular hockey games, in a men’s league, I would sit in the bar above the ice sheet with all of the other wives, where I could watch the game in relative comfort. It also gave me an opportunity to make mental notes on Leela’s play so we could discuss it on the way home (something she wanted, so get off my back).

In one game in particular, however, there were no notes to make as Leela seemed to refuse to actually play, despite taking her regular shift. She would enter the appropriate zone of play and seem to just tripod with her hockey stick, dreaming in a universe of her own.

Annoyed by this, I finally mentally yelled out, “Leela! For god’s sake, do SOMETHING! Skate, check, fall down. Move!”

Miraculously, her body suddenly jolted, as though smacked in the back of the helmet, and she involved herself in the play. The rest of the game, she remained engaged.

On the ride home, afterward, we talked about it. She explained that she was standing there in the offensive zone, completely zoned out, when all of a sudden, she woke up as though shaken and realized that she had to do something.

It would seem, her master’s voice is just as loud as his.

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(Images are property of owners and are used here without permission, so stick it)

Can you relate?

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I spent three days this week wandering the show floor of a conference on stem cells, interviewing scientists and corporate executives for a series of articles I am writing. As this is the first time I have met most of these people, the conversation usually starts somewhat tentative as the people try to figure out how to address my journalistic needs while fulfilling their marketing agendas. This is just the nature of such interviews.

Luckily, I have a secret that tends to break the ice a little. Early in the conversation, I try to find an opening in what they are telling me to relate a personal anecdote or observation about my own scientific training as a protein biochemist—yes, I actually used to be quite smart.

Within seconds, the interviewee’s posture changes, their voice takes on a new timber as they realize that I am a kindred spirit even if my uniform has changed. Suddenly, they know I can relate, and the conversation becomes one between friends or colleagues.

The same holds true for storytelling.

When the reader picks up your novel or short story, the viewer sits down to watch your movie, the initial engagement can be tentative as the reader tries to figure out what you’re doing, where you’re taking them. The reader holds back from completely engaging with you as they wait for that magic moment when they can relate.

No matter how fantastical or mundane your story, the reader must be able to latch onto something, to find a kindred spirit.

More often than not, it is your protagonist—the canonical Everyman or Everywoman—who has some visceral need to fulfill or challenge to overcome. Killing the dragon is the superficial challenge, but damned few of us have had much experience killing dragons. Most of us, however, have fought for the respect of our community or have had to overcome a fear and step forward to take control or responsibility.

Hell, readers might even relate to the dragon, as in the movie Dragonheart, where Sean Connery’s Draco finally explained that his assaults on the townsfolk were [SPOILER ALERT] his attempts to save the last dragon—him—from extinction.

In the rarest of cases, it may not be a character, but the environment to which someone relates. This is my situation with the series Mad Men. I find it difficult to relate to any of the characters and their hyper-exaggerated soap opera problems. Having spent more than five years in advertising, however, I can relate to the creative challenges within the office. I find myself getting angry or frustrated as I watch pitch meetings or client presentations because of my own baggage.

As a creator of your story, you cannot hope to know everyone who will come across your story. Thus, you cannot—nor should you—build your story to accommodate these varied experiences. You have to tell your story to tell it effectively, but you can broaden its appeal by making sure your characters (and possibly your environment) offer clear parallels to the current human experience. (If your primary audience is dogs or fish, then change the word “human” as appropriate.)

At their most basic levels, what are the human conditions that your characters express or are trying to repress (oooh, subtext)? When you get a good handle on that, you’ll have a better understanding of how relatable your story will be to your audience.

(Images are used without permission.)