The last few days, I had this wild idea for an art piece that involved stenciling silhouettes, painted canvas, and melting crayons with a hairdryer.
However, when I went to melt the crayons, the gust of heat from the hairdryer not only didn’t melt the wax, it detached the stencils from the canvas. Safe to say, this particular project was a failure.
I woke up today with the following from Seth Godin in my inbox:
I’m currently working on a novel high school kids in revolt and a play about comic book writers building a universe–two different stories with different characters, engaging with completely different worlds.
A friend asked this week, “how do you determine which stories are books, which ones are plays, and which one would be movies?” Great question.
It sounds trite, but when struck with an idea for a story, the story typically lends itself to a particular medium. For example, the novel about high schoolers functions as one character’s recollection of a series of events. The events of the story triggered an internal change in the narrator, a change he attempts to walk back by telling the story to the reader (a prime example of my belief that some of the most important learning we do in this life is unlearning falsities instilled within us).
Because so much of the conflict and change occurs on an internal level, brought about by the act of telling the story, this particular piece lends itself to prose. Simply put, it’s a story that wants to be a novel.
In contrast, the play about comic book writers centers on competing recollections of events. The story alternates between a comic writer’s recollection of events and the recollection of his partner, the comic artist. By offering this material on a stage, one character can narrate events to the audience while the action plays out behind him in direct contradiction to his recounting.
Presenting competing versions of events onstage allows for these two characters to step out of the action of the scenes and engage in conflict over whose recounting is accurate. This ultimately serves as the central conflict of the play, leaving the audience to play referee and decide who wins: the writer or the artist.
Ultimately, the needs of every story are different. It falls to the storyteller to determine which tools and what medium are most beneficial for telling that story as it needs to be told.
When I was a kid, I’d rearrange the furniture in my bedroom every summer.
Sometimes, it was a simple as switching the placement of the dresser and the bookshelf. Other times, I’d slide the bed across the room, reorient the posters on the walls, and move the light fixtures from one corner of the room to another. (There was even a summer when I sprinkled my ceiling with glow-in-the-dark dots to emulate the night sky.)
There was never a conscious reason for tackling this great rearranging, but I think it may have had something to do with marking the end of one season and the beginning of another. It was a practice that fell by the wayside for much of my twenties (I was never in one place long enough and didn’t have much furniture to rearrange) and as a result, haven’t engaged with for a long time.
It’s only recently, as I find myself trying to step into a next phase of life and longing to take steps to a more realized version of myself, that I’ve begun to shuffle my furniture around again. I spent the last several days scooting the couch and bed and bookshelves around my apartment and already, I can feel the benefits. Changing the way I move through my physical space serves as a simple way to change how I move through my life.
The more I read and learn about psychology and breaking patterns, the more convinced I am that rearranging the furniture is the first step in rearranging myself.
While I was in college, I had the opportunity to meet Alan Zweibel, one of the original writers for Saturday Night Live.
He told a story about how he got the job at SNL: he’d been writing jokes on his own, collecting them and refining them at open mic nights throughout Manhattan. One night, a young producer named Lorne Michaels saw Zweibel’s set. After the show, he told Zweilbel he was developing a late night sketch comedy show for NBC. He asked to meet with Zweibel to discuss working on the writing staff. “Bring any material you’ve written with you,” Michaels told him.
At the meeting, Zweibel handed Michaels his collected jokes, a mass of pages the size of a phone book. Michael’s hired him on the spot.
The point: don’t wait to get started. Do what you want to do. If you want to make movies, make movies. If you want to write, write.
When opportunity comes knocking, it doesn’t want to hear your ideas. It wants to know what you’ve been working on.
My favorite bit though, is when Gaiman describes the process of beginning his Sandman comics, and how despite having the end in mind already, he felt as though he was “hitchhiking” his way through his own story:
It’s the equivalent of ‘I’m in New York, I’m going to hitchhike to Los Angeles. I know where I am and I have an idea of the kind of places I’m probably gonna go on the way.’
But then you hitchhike, and sometimes you don’t quite go to the place you thought you were going. And sometimes, somebody that you meet on the way becomes incredibly important to you. But at the end of the day, you still have that journey. It just took you twice as long.
Referencing advice from his therapist, Hamburg says of writing, “Be a detective, not a judge.”
I’ve been watching a lot of The Sopranos and Mad Men again recently, which typify this advice. We as the audience are free to judge characters as they engage in ruthless, selfish, and abhorrent behaviors, but part of the reason these shows were so innovative is because the writers don’t judge the characters. The creators of both these shows are committed to exploring these characters, instead of passing judgement on them.
In regards to the struggle of the early days, Hamburg says:
“There’s something about sitting in your apartment, nobody’s told you you can have a career…and you just have some kind of self-belief, mixed in with insecurity…and writing for the sake of ‘I have a story to tell, I think I have a voice, and nobody’s paying me.’ It’s so pure.”
With this single sentence , Hamburg paints the vivid portrait of my life as it exists now. I find myself feeling delusional enough to write most days, coupled with an exhaustion from working to sustain that delusion. The older I get, the tougher and tougher sustaining this delusion becomes.
Finally, Koppelman winds the interview down by asking Hamburg about getting competitive. Hamburg touches the root of the desire to compete when he speaks about jealous stoked by the work of others. “As I get older,” he says, “I try to turn competitive to inspired. I try, and I just told you earlier, trying is having the intention to fail.”
I find myself feeling this way frequently, a pattern I’m working to break by channeling my channeling my envy into inspiration as well.
This is one of those conversations that came at the right time, as I find myself languishing through a season of doubt. As Austin Kleon reminds us, “creative work has seasons. Part of the work is to know which season you’re in, and act accordingly.”
Bearing that in mind, if anyone needs me, I’ll be hibernating…
A friend of mine is studying to be a screenwriter. The other night, we had a conversation about her graduate program.
She’s in her mid-thirties, while most of her classmates are in their early twenties, a disparity she claims is obvious in their writing. Much of the work her classmates produce is imaginative , but not reflective of inner-life and the subtle interior changes that make for great character development.
“It’s not a matter of feeling or being superior,” she said. “It’s simply the fact I’ve had ten more years of life. That’s ten more years of heartbreak and life experience and dialogue in my ears.”
I was certainly someone who generated a lot of not very good work in my early twenties. It took years of studying character and plot structures to understand that those hundred pages I vomited into a Word document didn’t count as a story. And one of the things missing was a key component of character: psychic scars.
I’ve heard Matt Weiner talk about learning this technique on The Sopranos (citation needed). The idea is that every character suffers trauma and will have small triggers to set them off.
The most obvious example from Mad Men: Peggy Olsen’s reaction to children following her unplanned pregnancy and giving her child up for adoption. It’s subtle story points like these that touch a character’s core wound and propel the character forward in the story.
Maybe our work in our early-twenties isn’t good because we’ve failed to find these things in ourselves. We don’t have as many psychic scars. Or if we do, we haven’t explored them. We haven’t yet plumbed the depths to understand them and as a result, ourselves.
Examples from my own life: I’m getting ready for my brother-in-law’s bachelor party, a weekend getaway at a lake house in a small Wisconsin town. A small Wisconsin town that shares its name with an ex-girlfriend’s last name.
You can’t write these things. You have to live them. And this is why the work in your early twenties isn’t up to snuff.
As Junot Diaz says, “Read more than you write. Live more than you read.”
…obscurity can be this great gift. You can experiment. It’s a kind of freedom. Now, unlimited freedom can be very paralyzing, too. Freedom is not necessarily the best thing ever for art; there’s a tension between freedom and constraint out of which great art arises.
My college roommate and I spent some time recently reflecting on our education and what we learned in college.
While he studied Computer Engineering and has gone on to be successful in his field, my education in English, American Studies, and Film was a little less clear cut. As someone once told me, “You’re going to college to learn how to live a life.”
I think one of the most profound lessons of my college experience was living an existence of dissent. The school I attended was a small Catholic institution, known for its programs in business, engineering, and education. Liberal Arts took a backseat almost everything else, including and especially, maintaining the school’s “party culture.”
At my Commencement Ceremony, the President of the university stood on stage in front of my entire incoming class and our parents and said, “Welcome to college. We hope you find your newfound freedom intoxicating.”
My parents were appalled, but not for the same reason I was.
The culture of the school emphasized excessive drinking, casual sex, and lighting couch fires in the student neighborhood. As a wide-eyed eighteen-year-old, none of this was what I’d signed up for. I made it two-thirds of the way through my freshmen year before taking a drink of anything, for no other reason that I simply didn’t want to do what everyone else was doing.
But what I found more disturbing than anything was the way people mindlessly went along, both by majoring in things they didn’t care about and diving face-first into the party scene without coming up for air.
Both socially and academically, college became a time I learned to stand my ground in a culture and social structure with drastically different priorities than my own. While I eventually did find like-minded people and acquire a taste for the same antics I’d once derided, my day-to-day schedule emphasized my passions, interests, and creative expression. I was committed to learning to live.
More than anything, this time felt like practice for existing in a world out of sync with my beliefs. It proved to be an immense preparation for living in a world where success is measured in dollars earned and materials hoarded instead of the kind of intangibles that make life worth living–compassion, curiosity, empathy, kindness.
Given recent developments in the news, standing against systems out of sync with who we are proves to be a more and more useful skill, one we should all develop. If we are to change the culture, we must first find footing to live authentically as ourselves.
As Albert Camus says, “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”