Why even bother? (Creative crisis)

2-broke-girls-s1-poster-2

The life of anyone practicing an art form—whatever you do with passion is your art—is a continual balancing act between impassioned self-expression and self-questioning despair. For me, this duality revolves around my efforts in fiction writing (i.e., screen, novel, poetry, short stories, etc.).

Earlier today, I learned that the television series 2 Broke Girls ended its six-season run on CBS, and the news briefly shifted my balance toward despair.

On a couple of occasions, I tried to watch the sitcom about two broke girls plying their trade as diner waitresses while targeting a dream of opening a cupcake shop. But each time, I had to turn the show off after a few minutes because I found the comedy so excruciating.

Every 15 seconds, there was yet another wink-wink nudge-nudge one-liner that I felt lacked any art whatsoever, dialogue that but for an incessant laugh-track would likely have been met with complete silence in front of a live audience.

And yet, the series aired for six seasons. It had enough of an audience for CBS to keep it on the air.

I like broad comedy; truthfully, I do. I even write it on occasion.

I live for Mel Brooks’ comedies, for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, for Blackadder, for The Muppet Show, for SCTV, In Living Color and Kids in the Hall.

Anyone who has followed me for any period of time—especially on Twitter—knows I am up for any joke-opalyse.

But the appeal of 2 Broke Girls and its ilk—looking at you, Two-and-a-Half Men—simply eludes me. It feels like one-liners in search of a higher purpose.

But here’s the thing I constantly need to remind myself:

This difficulty rests entirely within me, and has nothing to do with the creators or writers of any of these shows.

 

Celebrate, don’t negate

Getting ANY television show to air, getting any screenplay turned into a movie is difficult, even in this era of seemingly limitless venues and diminishing equipment costs.

That any show manages more than a pilot episode is amazing. So, six seasons of broadcast should be celebrated from every mountain top.

As an artist, I applaud 2 Broke Girls creators Michael Patrick King and Whitney Cummings for getting their show on the air. I congratulate the people behind the Sharknado series for continuing to produce films.

To denigrate these efforts simply because they do not suit my tastes is not only unfair, it is also blatant hubris.

Who the hell am I—a writer who has one television special to his credit (thank you, SomeTV!)—to say that these efforts are unworthy of attention?

For that matter, even if I were more routinely lauded and vastly more accomplished, it would not be my place to dictate what should be valued as Art.

And as an artist, as someone exploring my passions:

Dwelling on this topic is useless. More importantly, it is detrimental to me and the craft as I exercise it.

 

Remembering why

It would be naïve to suggest that trends in comedy and writing have no influence on my career as a writer, but honestly, my career is secondary to my writing; a beneficial side effect, if you will.

Comparing my efforts to those of others is therefore unimportant.

My only true comparator is what I wrote yesterday and any internal sense of whether I am getting better at making the points I wish to make, telling the stories I want to tell.

I write because I have something to say.

I write because I don’t know how not to.

I write because it brings me joy.

Certainly, part of understanding my craft is seeing how others approach the same challenges and opportunities I face.

Just as I must choose my path forward, so too must they theirs. Although I may not see the merits in their choices, they are doing what is right for them and I must honour that.

There is room enough for all of us.

 

Disclosure:

I own complete series collections of Get Smart and Hogan’s Heroes, which I appreciate others might consider as insipid as I do 2 Broke Girls.

 

See also:

So, What’s Your Story? (web)

So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook)

Whither the losers

coyote

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.

illusions

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.

groundhog-and-emma

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).

rossio

See also:

The Hidden Tools of Comedy (Steve Kaplan)

Shaped, not defined

We are all, in many ways, shaped by our life experiences.

It is important to remember, however, that those experiences don’t have to define who you are or what you become. That is up to you.

wade

Leadership focuses on others

[See video here…Viacom pulled YouTube video above]

When you have really touched co-workers’ lives, when you have helped people grow by nurturing them and fostering their inherent talents, when you have taught people through example, then and only then can you walk away knowing that you have done a good job.

Anyone can shill the product or service that your organization offers, but it takes a special person to see beyond his or her ego and know that it’s about others and making the world a better place.

Looking forward to your next adventures, Jon. Thank you.

Writing is its own success

(I’m going to post this here, now, so that when I do make it big financially, I can prove I really did believe this while I was still poor.)

A writer writes

A writer writes

If you don’t love writing for the sake of writing, get out. For the sake of your own sanity, do something else.

I would like to make a career of my screenwriting and novel writing, but if I don’t, I will still do it and be glad that I do.

The truth is that the majority of us (like 99.9997%) will never make it big as writers…not Terry Rossio big, doubtfully Damon Lindelof big, nor Nora Ephron big. Hell, I’m not even sure the simple majority (50%+) will even make a livable wage as writers.

But as much as I want to hit it big and spread the gospel of my genius (he says only half-facetiously), I write because I love writing and I don’t know how to not write.

I can do other things to keep food in the house and a roof over my head, but I don’t want to if I don’t have to. It all interferes with my time for writing.

Perhaps this passive approach to accomplishing something with my writing will keep me from making it big. But I prefer to think that by focusing on the joy of writing, the excitement of expressing my thoughts and feelings, I will be happy throughout the entire process, from now to wherever and whenever I end up.

If nothing else, this attitude means that everything that comes down the road is a known positive rather than a potential disappointment.

Good luck, everyone.

Bonus!

Bonus!

Left-handed (DNA) compliment

While attending the surprise birthday party for a friend in the sciences, I noticed he owned a coffee mug from a group called Life Sciences Career Development Society based at the University of Toronto. Actually, to be more accurate, what caught my eye was the DNA double-helix on the mug…and the fact that it was wrong.

Wrong

BOOM! My head explodes.

As someone with biochemistry & genetics degrees who has written about the life sciences for ~15 years, this seemingly innocuous error drives me crazy. This must be how copy editors feel when they see a misused semi-colon (and I’m sorry about that).

right v wrong

For the non-biochemists, through a characteristic known as chirality (look it up…too hard to explain here), the typical DNA double-helix in human cells—the famous Watson-Crick-Franklin structure or B-DNA—has a right-handed helix. This means that if you could see the double-helix (above) and let your fingers follow along the curve of one side as it wraps around the other, you could only do this comfortably with your right hand.

You can see that in an example of a single helix that curves either to the left (left) or the right (right).

handed

Unfortunately, somewhere in the mists of science illustrations time, an artist drew the double-helix of DNA in the wrong direction and that double-helical abomination has perpetuated ad nauseum, including irritatingly enough, in science publications and scientific logos such as a recent health article in the Toronto Star (image below), the cover of a sci-fi novel and the LSCDS logo.

DNA - backwards

And if I only saw this in 50% of the images, I’d be irritated but probably not the raving loony I am now. But no, this freak of nature is everywhere. The correct right-handed DNA illustration is the anomaly.

So why does this matter? Maybe it doesn’t, and I am just a raving loony.

Certifiable loony!

Certifiable loony!

But for me, I struggle with what else might be wrong in a life science or healthcare story if they can’t get the DNA helix right. Do I trust the math of an investment planner who doesn’t know that four quarters equals one dollar?

Luckily, the fix is an easy one. Simply mirror the image you have (not turn it upside down) and the left-handed double-helix becomes a right-handed one. (In a mirror, your actual left hand looks like a right hand.)

So, medical illustrators everywhere, please fix your catalogues of scientific illustrations. My head can’t take too many more explosions.

So much better

Nerves already calming.

[Also, from a design perspective, up and to the right is more palatable for North American audiences as it implies future success (e.g., rising value). Has nothing to do with handedness, here.]

For the more biochemically savvy:

Yes, there is left-handed DNA, which is also known as Z-DNA. But as you can see from the illustration below, its structure is significantly different from the smooth-flowing curves of B-DNA (and the equally unusual A-DNA).

Two rights don't make a left

Two rights don’t make a left

On Second Thought

Do you think?

Why do we give our second thoughts so much more sway than our firsts? What is so magical about the second thought that makes it more believable, more honest, more sensible?

I had second thoughts about writing this simply because it was prompted by a conversation with a friend who is struggling with a dilemma. Would my friend be upset I was talking about him or her? Making light of his or her dilemma? Sharing secrets that weren’t mine?

I can deal with that.

Rare is the person who completely trusts his gut; who goes with the first thought that comes into his head. To the outside world, such a person is often considered rash or impulsive, perhaps even flighty. Rarely is he described as definitive or confident.

Second thought, in contrast, is seen as considered, rational, reasoned…well, thoughtful (or thought full).

The Senate of Canada’s Parliament has oft been described as the chamber of sober second thought, as though the House of Commons is populated by ADHD-riddled chickens, prone to explode at the slightest provocation.

(The realities of the Canadian Parliamentary system are fodder for a different blog post.)

The concept of sobriety does point to one of the benefits of second thought. The decision not to pursue flights of drunken fancy such as driving home after drinking too much rather than take a taxi. But while this points to the benefits of second thought, it also points to its source: Fear.

We have and listen to second thoughts because we are afraid. We are afraid that our first thought was ill-considered (rash) and might result in failure. And because we don’t want to take responsibility for that failure, we build a rationale for our alternative thoughts, thus making ourselves more confident in our decision.

The harsh truth, however, is that no matter what our final decision, there is always a risk of failure, perhaps catastrophic. The Titanic and Hindenburg were well-considered ventures based on sound and common practices. It was the unforeseen (if not unforeseeable) incidences that doomed the exercises.

To a greater or lesser extent, gut instincts and reactions are You unencumbered by rules and conventions. They represent the way you view the world and yourself without the censorship of social pressures. Thus, I believe, they more accurately represent your goals and desires, and ultimately what will make you happy.

Now, this is not a belief that was reasoned on the basis of careful study. If nothing else, that would defeat my argument. It does, however come from a lifetime of observing others and myself.

I have no reason to lie to myself when under my own control, in the absence of other influences—chemical or human. Thus, my gut instinct is my truth.

This doesn’t mean that I have to follow it—there may be extenuating circumstances to go another way—but I should never deny the instinct.

In denying it, I will never have the opportunity to build faith in it, and ultimately, second thought is a lack of faith in myself.

confident