Last year, I worked on the screenplay for the short film version of The Green Bench. Unlike novels, screenplays are intended to be a group effort. Lots of people bring their abilities and you won’t be happy if you are not flexible. The major plot points and themes, yes, fight for those. However, if you’re fortunate, actors will breathe life into your characters in new ways, chemistry happens between a group of actors that you cannot plan for, the camera crew lights and frames according to their expertise, the director has his or her creative vision, and so on. The director’s creative vision may align with yours and they will still bring new ideas and shading to scenes and to the work as a whole. All of the cast and crew names are on a film for very good reasons.
As with short stories, short films are all about distilling down to the essential elements. Short stories done well are more difficult than novels – in longer works, you might be able to pause to explore or add in another point of view. There is no room for that in short forms. When we got a script that was ready to shoot, it turned out to be an absolute joy on set. Everyone was upbeat and professional. Whenever a crew assembles, sometimes the family is functional and sometimes not. This time it was. There were a handful of smaller parts I wrote with friends in mind and they delivered flawlessly. It’s rare to have that voice in your head be the same one on set and it was pure joy to experience.
Now I am working to expand that short work into a longer one. Oh boy! After all that distillation, now it is time to broaden, develop and enlarge. I’ve had the great good fortune to get to know poet Brendan Constantine and he gave me notes as only a poet can on the short version. Poets look at the small, the minute. If you’ve never asked a poet to give you notes, do. It’s a whole new world! Things I would never have thought of and, perhaps counterintuitively, gave me a few jumping off points to expand the work. For example, is there anyone else in one particular scene that is not referenced who would logically be in the background? Who else is impacted by Evan’s illness? I saw right away that his best friend needs to be a part of the larger story. What is more interesting to explore, before or after? In this case, after is where all the drama lives. I don’t yet know if I will pull it off successfully, but it’s stretching me in unexpected ways and the unexpected journey is the most fun and satisfying.
There’s been a lot of bad news this summer. Drought, unrest, domestic violence, hacking the Cloud, hacking off heads… in the 21st century. We’d hoped we would be better by now.
One of the most important things the arts can do is allow us into another person’s world. Of course, if you set out to do that, you probably won’t achieve much of anything beyond preaching to those who already agree with you. But if you’re willing to allow it to unfold as part of the process, magical things can happen.
Some are calling the leaking of nude photos of celebrities sexual assault – no – sexual assault is sexual assault. What is closer to the mark is a disregard for the dignity of another human being. Intentional humiliation is attempted murder of the soul.
Disregard for the dignity of another human being. How do the characters you create feel about that
At their best, stories help us understand each other and ourselves. If you can tell one honestly, passionately, through writing or acting, you will affect others. Watch the actors who allow their vulnerability to shine through; think of the books that stayed with you. What was it that resonated? If you are willing to dive into your unconscious, if you have courage, if you are willing to be still and let us see, you can give that gift. Michael Redgrave shows us the secret part of himself – he allows us to see his vulnerability – and a quiet performance becomes powerful and deep.
What do you know that is yours? That thing you’re fighting. Your success. Your failure. What do you feel deeply about? Why? If you allow the real you, with all the fears and insecurities and secrets to shine through, we will love you for it. And you will make our load just a little easier to bear.
Below is a TED talk from Elizabeth Gilbert on success, failure and the drive to create. In it, she discusses “home,” something I heard Dorothy Allison also talk about in a memorable lecture a few years ago at Antioch University, Los Angeles (will look for my notes to include in the next post).
This dovetails with a dream workshop I did. Any artist will tell you of the power of the unconscious – even while too many leave it untapped. It pays to spend time diving down to access images and dreams that enrich your work. In that 5 hour workshop, I got it, really got it, that we can never escape our shadow, our traumas, our wounds – we can heal, certainly, yes and yes and yes, we should heal for our own well-being – but the scars remain and there’s purpose to that, because whatever happens, whatever it is that you believe keeps you from your creative vitality is also the fertilizer for that very vitality. We need both… we are both. Darkness and light. Yin and yang. Dormant and blossoming. We stand at the midpoint between failure and success and Gilbert tells how she keeps her equilibrium:
There’s something about the passing of a master in a field you’ve been trained in that pierces the heart – not in the same way as family or friends of course – but out of a bit of knowledge about the journey, the work, the struggles, the process, the lifestyle. There are so many writers and actors who struggle with mental health, with addiction, with depression, statistically more than the general population. I saw it at grad school when Marcos Villatoro lectured on mental illness and creativity – the room was overflowing and nearly everyone either had bipolar or loved one with it or a related disorder. God knows, I’ve known a lot of addicts, some in my family. I am sad at the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman. And terribly disheartened by the comments I’ve seen blaming him. All bets are off when opiates are in the picture. Rehab is no cure, not for alcohol, sure as hell not for heroin. To say PSH was a talented actor is an understatement. Not everyone beats addiction. Not by a long shot. It’s not about willpower. Not solely. Do you think he wanted to leave his children? Doubt it. I’m sure he was looking forward to the next thing with them, the next event with his loved ones, friends, the next role…
There is so much about addiction we do not know. We do know people sometimes turn to drugs not just for kicks, but to cope with undiagnosed mental illness, biochemical imbalances, mysteries. Rehab does not always work. Not every junkie or drunk is a selfish bastard. Most are deeply wounded souls looking for balm, for relief. They may well behave like selfish bastards while under the influence. Oh yes. Still, they deserve our compassion and our help. Yes, they have to walk that road alone and every day is a choice. Just remember before you pick up that rock of condemnation, sometimes the monster… the disease… the addiction… wins. And the rest of us lose someone loved, someone talented, someone who probably would have stuck around if they could have found a way.
Growing up at the beach, I was in the water all the time. One of the scariest things that can happen is getting caught in that washing machine when big wave after big wave comes pounding into shore and you can barely get your breath in between and you wonder if you’ll make it back to shore, how you’ll ever get your feet under you again. That’s what grief is like, that’s what events since August have been like. I will be glad to see 2013 go with its bad news and heartbreak. Here’s hoping it’s all out of the way now so 2014 will be better.
I don’t need to write about my brother because Richard Russo already did for the most part in Nobody’s Fool. There’s a lot of him in Sully. Or vice versa, I’m not sure. Paul Newman played him in the movie. Appropriate. Handsome with eyes every bit as blue.
What do you take from real life into characters? What ignites that alchemy? Recently I was asked out on a coffee date, then the day before he decided that a Catholic who loves bacon was unacceptable to a self-described “tapas-loving Buddhist.” I would have never imagined that interaction! (it’s just coffee!!) So there’s a seed for a scene or a couple of characters. And that is where improv comes in. A premise, strong characters…
In his incredible Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction, Jeff Vandermeer quotes Philip K. Dick finalist Karin Lowachee who says, in part, “An actor once said that acting to him was ‘finding truths in imaginary circumstances,’ and I think that applies equally to writers. Writers, to me, are very similar to actors in how they engage with their process and with the ultimate work. It’s just that actors output through motion and speech, and writers output through the written word.” (17)
Sometimes it is hard to say “yes and” to life. And yet we do and we keep going, keep creating, and sometimes, if we’re lucky, spin grief into art.
Why do you want to create? Why do you write, act, compose, play? If you don’t know, spend some time and get clear on the why. That “why” is the engine that drives you. It keeps you going after rejection – and rejection always comes. It helps if there is some aspect of service in your answer, some greater good. If it is only about you and you are down for whatever reason, you won’t be able to take action, keep writing, finish the book, the play, go to the audition or the gig. If it’s only you and you cannot show up or get yourself up off the floor, it all stops. If there’s something you a driven to say to your audience – do you know who your audience is? – that can keep you taking action regardless of how you feel on any given day. “They are counting on me” or “this must change” gives you power when your normal everyday strength wanes.
For the broader view, here’s Saul Bass’ Oscar winning short from 1968 Why Man Creates (yes, it is of its time)
Perhaps since it’s October and Halloween is just around the corner, the dark, the spooky, the unseen are more on my mind. Robert A. Johnson, a Jungian psychologist, wrote a slim book, Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psychethat is very helpful for artists. He’s also the author of She, He, and The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden. Most of the circles I spend time in are made up of artists of one kind or another: writers, actors, improvisers, musicians and so on. Most are functioning perfectly well to all outward appearances, but I’d wager most carry a heavy shadow. With a large measure of creativity apparently comes a large shadow.
Every artist I’ve met deals with depression and loneliness at one time or another, some nearly all of the time. Some also act out or have difficulties in a variety of relationships. In his book, Johnson writes:
“A friend asked me recently why so many creative people have such a miserable time of it. History abounds with stories of shocking or eccentric behavior among the great. Narrow creativity always brings a narrow shadow with it, while broader talents call up a greater portion of the dark. Schumann, the composer, went mad; the world knows about the very dark side of Picasso’s life; and everyone hears stories about local geniuses with their unusual habits. While those with the largest talent seems to suffer most, we all must be aware of how we use our creativity – and of the dark side that accompanies our gifts. To make a work of art, to say something kind, to help others, to beautify the house, to protect the family – all these acts will have an equal weight on the opposite side of the scale and can lead us into sin. We cannot refuse our creativity or stop expressing ourselves in this way; yet we can be aware of this dynamic and make some small but conscious gesture to compensate for it.”