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.”

opening the cabinet

I recently received a notice that I’ve been running my Tumblr page, “The Beginning of Your Meaning, Friend,” for ten years.

the Tumblr archive from September, 2012

The original idea was for my Tumblr to function as an “artist’s playground,” a space to accumulate the raw materials that would inform my writing and artwork. Even the title of the blog, stolen from the same Twenty One Pilots song I use to commission each of my notebooks, suggests this:

Are you searching for purpose?
Then write something, yeah, it might be worthless
Then paint something, and it might be wordless
Pointless curses, nonsense verses
You’ll see purpose start to surface
No one else is dealing with your demons
Meaning maybe defeating them could be the beginning of your meaning, friend…

the Tumblr archive from January, 2022

In many way, my Tumblr functions both as a cabinet of curiosities (an idea proposed by Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work) and a time capsule of the things that have inspired me moment to moment over the last decade. Looking back, I’m grateful for this tiny corner of the web that feels just a little bit like home.

Here’s to ten more years of artwork, heartwork, and inspiration…

If you’re curious, feel free to take a look around.

don’t dream it, be it…

For three years in college, I played Brad Majors in an annual production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The production, mounted in a seedy bar on the edge of campus, featured full-scale musical numbers and plays host to a slew of University of Dayton-specific callbacks, Easter eggs, and references.

Contrary to what you might think, dancing in your underwear in the local dive offers plenty of life lessons.

“Look! Up in the sky… it’s a bird, it’s a plane…”

Produced by an organization called Dayton’s Annual Transylvanian Convention (a direct reference to the film), these annual performances functioned as a fundraiser for the local AIDS Resource Center, while also offering college students the opportunity for freedom of self-expression.

Functioning without the support of the local university (turns out Catholic institutions have more than a few objections to sexual freedom, alien transvestites, and orgies), DATC has always embraced the same Do-It-Yourself attitude of 1980’s hardcore. Simply put, any goal for the production was placed in the hands of the cast, crew, and production team. Everyone was responsible for everything. To my mind, this philosophy was embodied perfectly in a line from the film: “Don’t dream it, be it…”

This aesthetic manifested itself in a guerrilla approach to production, rehearsal, marketing, and performance. In my three years with the show, rehearsals where held in people’s basements and living rooms. The director embarked on many a thrift store treasure hunt in search of costumes. The chorus members hung curtains and the cast collected props. The stage was built in the producer’s backyard, assembled atop the bar’s dance floor during tech rehearsal, and then struck every night before the midnight rush, only to be reassembled prior to the next day’s show.

Every minute detail was the product of collaboration and gut-instinct. Signing up as a member of DATC required fierce energy, immense m=commitment, and a willingness to do anything and everything to take the show to the next level.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show – Cast and Crew circa 2013

Ultimately, DATC embodied (and continues to embody) the collision of theater, community engagement, and the freedom of creative self-expression, all filtered through a guerilla-style DIY work ethic. I guarantee, seeing this show will change you life. It did mine.

I look back fondly on the time I spent as a member of the cast and enjoy those moments every so often when I get to do the Time Warp again, but the ability to dance in high heels wasn’t my primary takeaway from DATC.

The biggest lesson was when setting goals for yourself, the most important step is transforming your intention into action.

Don’t dream it, be it…

steal around

In conversation with Brian Koppelman on The Moment, Paul Schrader talks about the elements he stole from a variety of films to make his 2018 film, First Reformed.

“The secret of stealing is that you have to steal around,” Shrader says in reference to the various sources of his material. “You can’t go back to the same 7/11 every time. They catch you. You go to the floral shop. Then you go to the gas station. Then you go to that hot dog stand that nobody goes to. And you keep grabbing this stuff and eventually somebody will think that you made it up.”

head down. mouth shut. (or “discretion if the better part of valor”)

I’ve never liked how I worded number three on my list of rules to live by. When taken by itself, the phrase “head down, mouth shut” seems to imply looking the other way in the face of atrocity (much like the German baker in Band of Brothers, who claims not to have known there was a concentration camp down the road from his bakery.)

In revising these rules, number three ought to read “Discretion is the better part of valor,” meaning know when and when not to speak.

While working at a theater company in my mid-twenties, I sat in on a rehearsal where a director was trying to block scene changes that involved a multitude of actors. In the midst the logistical difficulties, one actor continually chattered about how they could assist and make things easier. This actor took on unnecessary responsibility, stepping beyond the bounds of their assigned role and ultimately derailing the director’s concentration.

“Do me a favor,” the director finally said to the actor. “Don’t help.”

There are moments when speaking up only adds to the noise in the room. In order to be truly helpful, you have to know when you’re actually contributing.

This rule doesn’t mean “don’t speak.” It simply means, “only speak when you can add to the conversation.”

be fearless

A few years back, I wrote a blog post about how scary the world had become. One paragraph in particular went a little something like this:

The food we eat is poison, the water we drink is laced with chemicals, and the air we breath is toxic. Every day, we’re told there are foreigners coming to kill us or men in dark suits coming to take our guns. People get gunned down for their beliefs, for rejecting someone or simply because they decided to go out in public.

Our planet is dying, there’s too much radiation, the pH level of the ocean is all outta whack, there are robots in a lab someplace plotting the layout of the world’s first ever person zoo (don’t believe me?), the government is owned by corporations who buy elections–Oh, and nuclear annihilation remains a constant threat too. And those are just the basics.

Seriously, what is there to hope for? There’s so much more to be afraid of.

I wrote this in early 2016, before the American government’s turn towards fascism, before the explosion of wildfires that continue to consume the West Coast, before a global pandemic, before a seditious riot at the Capital, before Russia invaded Ukraine.

This blog post came before a lot of things. And as far as I can tell, everything on the list continues to be true. “What a time to be alive,” I hear myself say all too frequently, in a mix of awe and terror.

A friend of mine said it best though: all these things may be true, but we hope anyway. We live. We go outside. We sing. We dance. We get drunk. We laugh and cry and love each other. When we don’t, the fear wins. Our lives shrink around us until we’re smothered.

So be fearless enough to live. Sing. Dance. Get drunk. Laugh and cry and love because it’s what we’re here to do.

Yeah, it’s scary.

Do it anyway.