lessons learned from houseplants

Early in the pandemic, I started collecting plants in my living room. Surrounding myself with green things helped provide peace of mind during a period of so much upheaval and tumult. Here was something I could control, something I could care for. All I needed was a little potting soil and some water from my kitchen sink.

As time has worn on, I’ve accumulated more and more plants. While my gardening knowledge remains minimal, there are a few things I’ve learned, simply from caring for these living things, day by day.

  • First and foremost, you can’t coax a plant to grow. It sprout and flourishes on its own time.
  • Occasionally, there are leaves and vines that will need pruning. You’ll have to snip and cut here and there, trimming down the short-term expansion for the sake of long-term growth.
  • Repotting a plant will allow it to flourish and stretch into more than it was, provided you continue to fulfill its basic needs.
  • Some leaves and chutes and vines will die on their own. Despite water and sunlight, they’ll wither for no particular reason. And there’s nothing you can do, but prune the dead parts to make space for the living ones.

Austin Kleon closes out his book, Keep Going, by reminding us that creativity–and indeed, life itself–is filled with seasons. Things come and go. There are periods of growth and expansion, followed by hibernation and constriction, then growth once again.

In my own life, I’ve seen this to be true. I’ve had many a creative project that withered on the vine. I’ve cut opportunities out of my life for the sake of creating most space to grow. Moving from the midwest to Los Angeles was a repotting of sorts, a self-inflicted trauma that provided an opportunity to flourish.

With all the talk of climate change, we often forget that we humans are ourselves a part of nature. It only makes sense we would follow its most basic rules.

cut your teeth

Malcolm Gladwell’s Principle of 10,000 hours is well documented, but for those of you who aren’t familiar, the idea goes like this: achieving mastery of a specific skill require an estimated ten-thousand hours of practice. Backed by research studies and social experiments, Gladwell asserts that “ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.”

And now let’s turn our attention to greatness.

In my mind, Aaron Sorkin sets a standard for great screenwriting. From his work on The West Wing to The Trial of the Chicago 7, Sorkin’s mastery as a writer of dialogue and circular scene structure is unparalleled. The open ten minutes of The Social Network prove as much; it’s a masterclass all on its own.

Here’s the problem: in order to develop the skill to write a scene this tight, this well-crafted, this perfect, Sorkin write an awful lot.

And how did he do so? He spent years writing television. Not just any television mind you: he was writing The West Wing (not to mention his early work on A Few Good Men, The American President, and Sports Night, and the much-overlooked Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.)

Sorkin wrote every episode of the first four seasons of The West Wing, a nearly unimaginable feat. “No human being will ever write 22 episodes a year for four years ever again,” said West Wing alum Bradley Whiteford at a 2016 cast reunion. “That’s 11 feature films a year. It will never, ever happen again.”

It’s daunting to realize the only way you wind up writing the opening of The Social Network is to cut your teeth writing The West Wing. But as Macklemore says, “the greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint, the greats were great because they’d paint a lot.”

Additional Notes: In a recent interview with Brian Koppelman, when asked why he didn’t let someone else write The West Wing, Sorkin explained, “for the same reason Martin Sheen doesn’t let someone else play Bartlett from time to time. This is my part.”

Words cannot express how much I love this mindset. Know your place on the team. Show up and do what you’re there to do.

all you can do is the work


I’ve fought with my desire to control for years.

We’re all hurtling through the world, like pinballs ricocheting off one another. While it’s reasonable to expect today will look a lot like yesterday, the truth is we’re thrust head-first into the unknown each morning.

This is something I’ve always struggled with.

I don’t like change. I don’t do well when forced to wriggle around in unknown circumstances. I will kick and scream and drag my feet, insisting life meet me on my terms. It’s a desire to control how everything turns out, propelled by my deep-seated fear thing won’t turn out the way I expect them. It’s an impulse, a bad habit, a pattern of thought.

Truth is, this isn’t any way to live a life. And it’s something I’ve been working to change. Making art has taught me about the process of letting go. The work takes on an entire life of its own when you stop worrying about how you’re doing and instead focus on the act of creating. All you can do is the work. The finished product will be what it will be. And often times, it’d better than you could have ever imagined, but only because you let go of your expectations.

This practice works on a small scale, but I’ve been trying on implement it into my life as a whole. Instead of constantly worrying about how I’m doing, I’m trying hard to live my life. The work of life is living. And all you can do is the work.

Trust the rest will take care of itself.

tell the story

A while back, I wrote a play.

I was in conversations with a theater company about producing this play when the world shut down. A lot of things happened after that. You know what I’m talking about.

Now, theaters wants to produce plays with a message, plays that say something about the world we live in. That’s fine. That’s good. That’s important.

However, I recognize, as a storyteller, the message is secondary. Yes, every story has a message. That’s how stories work. That’s what stories do.

But at the same time, my job isn’t that of a messenger.

My job is to tell you a story.

Everything else is secondary.

tunneling to the other side

Last night, I watched If These Walls Could Sing, a documentary about Abbey Road Studios, on Disney+ and had an absolutely ball.

What resonated more than anything was the number of musicians who spoke about Abbey Road Studios with a sense of spiritual awe, as though the space itself is a portal to where creativity itself lives.

I’ve written previously about thin spaces, physical locations where the threshold between the physical realm and the divine realm seems thinner. It’s my belief these places emit a certain feeling, an energy you can pick up on. Sometimes they’re churches or temples, other times they’re recording studios or theaters.

I’ve encountered a few thin spaces in my life, most notably the summer camp where I was camper and eventually a counselor and the apartment where I lived my last two years in college. Part of what made these places so special was the history surrounding them.

the summer camp where I spent
some of the most formative years of my life

With summer camp, the land itself had been donated to the Episcopal church during the Depression as a place for inner-city youth to experience nature. The camp had a rich history of providing spiritual sustenance to hundred of kids. This created an energy on the property, a sense that it was a special, sacred place. Further enhancing this energy was the culture generated by campers like myself, who would go on to become counselors to the next generation of kids coming to the property for the first time.

302 Kiefaber, my college apartment, had a similar vibe. Passed on by a group of upperclassmen, 302 had previously functioned as a communal space, a venue for parties and concerts and late-night music making. I’d often come home to find friends playing music in the living room or actors rehearsing a play in the kitchen. I wrote short stories to the glow of Christmas lights while my roommate fiddling with electronic music on his Midi keyboard. 302 itself seemed a factory for all kinds of creativity.

302 Kiefaber, the apartment where I lived
during my last two years at the University of Dayton

While some spaces are innately thin, I think it’s possible for us to wear at the fabric between physical and metaphysical spaces. Any place can become a thin space, with enough creative and spiritual work. The more time we spend trying to tunnel our way to the other side, the thinner the space becomes.

Like people, places carry energy. Walk into a space like the one where The Beatles recorded “A Day in the Life,” chances are you’re going to feel the weight of all the creative history, emanating from wherever ideas come from.

speaking truth to power

I recently listened to an episode of The Moment with Brian Koppelman in which Koppelman reflects on his late father’s influence and the lessons learned from watching his father operate in the music business.

One of these lessons is how to speak truth to power, a privilege that stems from a similar place as professional connection.

[…] one of the biggest advantages [was] learning how to talk to power, learning how not to be frightened when you walk into a room that could determine part of the direction of your future. And watching up close how somebody successful and powerful deals with failure and deals with success.

Perhaps its my fascination with political dramas, as well as working to understand the importance of power dynamics in storytelling, but I find this idea absolutely fascinating.

We’ve all walked into rooms that terrified us. We’ve all had conversations that scared the shit out of us, because we know the person we’re sitting across from can crush our hopes and dreams without batting an eye.

Learning to counteract this fear is a vital skill.

Last year, I had the opportunity to meet the Vice President. It was a brief, passing moment, and yet, eerily similar to one of my favorite scenes from The West Wing:

If we’re to be fearless in our lives, we must learn to relax, breathe, and speak honestly, even in the face of powerful people.

play time

One of my favorite reads from last year was Get Jiro, a graphic novel written by Anthony Bourdain and Joel Rose and featuring art by Landon Foss.

The graphic novel depicts a wild world in which chefs dominate the social fabric like crime lords. There’s a joyful savagery to the story, which opens with a disgruntled sushi chef beheading a clueless customer for ordering a California Roll.

Here’s what I love most about it: Bourdain is doing this because he wants to. It’s obvious he’s doing this not for notoriety, but just for the hell of it. It’s play, at its purest and most simple.

I’ve tried to cultivate activities in my life that function strictly as play, be they musical endeavors, visual art, or the occasional rifling through the coffee can of Legos I keep under my desk.

As artists, we must remain vigilant that our work is play and our play is work. When the main hustle becomes lackluster, hobbies and side project function as a vacation from the main hustle. This is why I’ve worked so hard to make my home a creative playground.

Get Jiro is a great lesson in the importance of creative play (in addition to serving as a reminder of the perils that accompany ordering the California Roll).

ask for what you want

Every time I decide to write about my “Rules to Live By,” this is where I get stuck. It’s a simple enough piece of advice, and yet I’ve struggled with it throughout much of my life.

The first time I heard this nugget of wisdom articulated this way, I’d just begun working as an apprentice at a theater company. The job began as most do, with a formal sit-down that included going through an employee handbook and an overview of the way the theater worked, followed by a tour of the space.

me and my fellow theater apprentices, gearing up for preproduction, December 2015

What made this experience different though was the outlining of best practices. The apprenticeship turned out to be a gauntlet run, a trial by fire. It was a job padded with the perks of education. Sure, I was scrubbing toilets, but I was also taking classes in acting and playwriting and directing. And one of the cornerstones of the experience became this piece of advice: ask for what you want.

Want the tech director to lead a class in Jujutsu? Ask.

Want the stage manager to teach you how to do aerial silks? Ask.

Want that internship with the Artistic Director? Ask.

Want a few days off to drive to New York and see a Broadway show? Ask.

After all, the worst someone can say is “no.” And as much as it terrifies all of us, “no” isn’t really all that bad.