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.

things I did this year

New Year’s Eve always puts me in a reflective mood. I’ve always felt this is a day for looking back to remember the previous year while preparing for the next trip around the sun.

A few years back, I started compiling a list of things I’d done in the previous year. This has become a bit of a tradition, an exercise in reminding myself what I’ve accomplished, where I’ve been, and how I’ve grown.

With this in mind, here are a few things I did in 2022:

  • met the first female Vice President of the United States
  • walked my mother down the aisle during my little sister’s wedding ceremony, danced and got drunk at the reception, and gave a toast at the rehearsal dinner
  • wrote, produced, and directed my own short film
  • helped produce a horror film
  • hosted a film premiere in my home town for the community who made my life possible
  • finally caught (and survived) Covid-19
  • quit a job
  • got fired from a job
  • hired employees
  • fired an employee
  • started dating again, then almost immediately stopped dating again
  • walked in Fourth of July Parade
  • flew home to attend a music festival featuring all my favorite bands
  • took an impromptu road trip from Chicago to Cincinnati with a complete stranger in the middle of the night
  • watched my best friend knock ‘em dead on stage at USC
  • got high in front of my mom
  • finally got over a girl I’d been hung up on for quite a while
  • had a “State of the Union” conversation with my dad
  • filled out post cards and wrote letters to potential voters in preparation for a consequential election
  • heard a candidate for Mayor of Los Angeles outline a pretty unconvincing plan to address the homelessness crisis
  • helped build a Hollywood actor’s workshop from the ground up
  • had dinner with friends at The Magic Castle
  • ran bottle service at an impromptu nightclub built in an empty parking lot on skid row, all while listening to Tiesto and The Chainsmokers perform
  • visited the house where Halloween was shot
  • watched the football team from my hometown make it all the way to the Super Bowl
  • helped organize a reunion of some of my high school classmates
  • served Jeff Goldblum vegan pizza
  • hung out in Kyle MacLachlan’s driveway
  • went to a film premiere and the afterparty on the roof of the Academy Motion Picture Museum
  • shook hands with a Nobel Prize winner
  • revisited some of my favorite TV shows from childhood
  • attended a Zoom cooking class with a bunch of my co-workers
  • saw a few absolutely towering acts of theater
  • cheered on the winning team in Game 6 of the NBA Finals
  • helped a friend move into his first house
  • visited The Mustard Museum in Madison, Wisconsin
  • helped produce a short film starring two Broadway legends
  • ate lunch and made conversation with said Broadway legends
  • joined the folk band
  • completed The Artist’s Way with a group strangers
  • finished the first draft of a (really good) novel
  • built a sandcastle on the beach
  • wrote and recorded my own songs to send out in my Christmas cards
  • accepted that I finally had to let go of a few people who once meant the world to me
  • made some new friends, some good choices, and some pretty good art

Here’s to more friends, more art, more madness, and more hope in 2023…

the doorway

In anticipation of my annual Christmas card, I’ve been tinkering around with songwriting recently. I’ll be honest, it’s miserable and I hate it.

The difficultly lies in embracing that fact that I’m not very good at it. As with anything else, you have to allow yourself to be bad at something before you can be good at it. And as much as I love music, I’m riddled with impatience as I attempt to craft lyrics and melodies. I know I’m holding myself to a unrealistic standard for a beginner.

In detailing this process to a friend recently, one metaphor in particular seemed apt–that of a door. It’s as if creative ideas exist inside us and our skill becomes the doorway through we manifest them in the world. The more practiced your craft, the larger your doorway and the easier it seems to manifest your creative ideas.

The idea of honing a craft speaks to one of my favorite stories from David Bayles and Ted Orland’s book, Art & Fear

[A] ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

The student who spends a semester making pot after pot refines their shape and size of the doorway, allowing their ideas to move seamlessly into the world. The student who has spent their entire semester honing their idea may have the perfect pot inside them, but they don’t possess a way to externalize that idea.

The more work we do, the more refined our skill. The more refined the skill, the easier the work becomes.

recent musings

It’s been a busy couple of weeks. A few highlights:

  • attending a lecture by Jennifer Egan at UCSB, in which she spoke with Pico Iyer about nostalgia (“We all want what we just missed,”), journalism and writing fiction as the means to be delivered out of one’s life (“I don’t need to be who I am all the time,”), and fiction as the only true storytelling form that allows you inside a character, (“If you’re looking at an image, you’re on the outside,”).
  • going to a screening of Oliver Hermanus’s Living, a remake of Kurosawa’s Ikiru (one of my favorites). The screening included a Q&A session with Hermanus, screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro (who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2017), and actor Bill Nighy, in which the three filmmakers discussed auditioning hedonism in the face of tragic news, using time period as a means of creative constraint, and institutions facilitating procrastination.
  • continuing through the Team Deakins podcast, with discussions including Sam Mendes (who talks the distinction between film and theater, with some brilliatn example’s from Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day) and Ed Solomon (who discusses multitasking various writing projects, using one screenplay to “take a vacation” from another).
  • finishing Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way with a group of fellow artists, writers, and musicians, which has been a wonderful voyage these last few months. While I generally think of myself as creatively healthy, there were plenty of readings and exercises in this book to further open me up.
  • revisiting a few classics, including Rodman Philbrick’s The Last Book in the Universe and Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet. As I continue work on my novel about high school students and banned books, I’m having a blast revisiting the books that made me love reading in the first place. Another highlight from this year: going back to Neal Shusterman’s The Shadow Club and its sequel, The Shadow Club Rising.

a recipe for chocolate chip cookies

I was talking to a fellow filmmaker recently who gave me a brilliant metaphor.

For years I’ve said that any time I learn a new skill, it becomes another tool in my toolbox. An apt metaphor perhaps, but this filmmaker spoke about the skills she’d developed as ingredients in a recipe.

“Imagine making chocolate chip cookies,” she said. “Not every skill you possess is going to be sexy. You need skills–production logistics, fundraising, people management–that serve as the flour and egg in the recipe. Not everything you do can be the chocolate chips.”

I love the idea that when working on a large scale creative project, such as a film, your ingredients that add up to more than the sum of their parts.

Yes, we all want to believe that making movies is all the chocolatey delicious parts: directing actors, lining up shots, free-range creativity.

But there are so many boring ingredients (comparable to flour) that are vital to making the entire project a success: problem-solving, personality management, project logistics, scheduling, location scouting. The list goes on and on and on, but without these bland ingredient, the project doesn’t take on its own life.

Sure, eating chocolate chips on their own is great, but it pales in comparison to the whole cookie.

take care of the work

My dad recently loaned me his copy of The Church of Baseball: The Making of Bull Durham, Ron Shelton’s firsthand account of writing and directing one of the greatest sports films ever made.

“we’re dealing with a lot of shit…”

In a beautiful moment of synchronicity, I was listening to the Team Deakins podcast recently, a series of conversations between legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins and his wife and collaborator, James Ellis Deakins. The episode featured an interview with Tim Robbins, who recounts a story from the making of Bull Durham.

Robbins recalls hearing a commotion behind him during a screening of some of the footage. He turned around to find director Ron Shelton, his fists clutching the lapels of a producer, who was lifted off the floor and pinned against a wall. “Don’t you ever talk to my actors again. I’ll fuckin’ kill you,” Shelton snarled through gritted teeth.

In recalling this, Robbins commends Shelton for standing up for his artistic vision: “He was a first time director. He was laying down the law. I’m making my film. If you don’t like it, fire me.”

Robbins goes on to say:

That’s what we have to do as artists. We have to be that strong with our art or else it’s not worth it. What good does it do to be a yes man and an artist? I don’t think that’s possible. I don’t think those two things go together. You become a supplicant. You become a functionary, but you don’t become an artist that way.

This rings true in my own life. It’s difficult to advocate for your vision, to prevent your work from being compromised, especially in a world that’s groomed artists to be thankful they get to create at all. While I hate to conflate an artist with their work, this sentiment evokes the Janis Joplin quote, “Don’t compromise yourself. You’re all you’ve got.”

Perhaps better said, in the words of one of my old mentors, “Take care of the work and the work will take care of you.”