Don’t fall on the idiot side of stupid

IdiotIn an ongoing conversation about men and women with my friend, Chuck, he remarked that men often fall on the idiot side of stupid where women are concerned, whether it’s about seeing what’s right in front of them, breaking old patterns or choosing destructive over healthy. Women have their own issues around bad judgment, such as bonding before they have any idea of what they’ve gotten themselves into and then literally fighting their own biochemistry to break free (see Dr. Pat Allen).

I’ve been thinking about what it means to fall on the idiot side of stupid in other areas and it seems that a lot of it goes to the issues of change and habit. I’ve been taking improv classes for about six months now and can recognize habits and patterns. Some of them are very successful, but as with any art form, they can also be a trap.  Light side/dark side. At TEDGlobal, I learned the Greek root for idiot, idios,refers to the self, so there’s a self-centered component in all of this. What happens when you look past yourself?

If you always date the same type of person and it always crashes and burns, you might want to change your type even if it feels weird, wrong, scary or uncomfortable at first. Challenge your assumptions and pre-conceived ideas. Same with the acting, writing, music, painting, or improv habits you’ve developed. Some of them may not be serving you; some of they may be serving you exceptionally well, but there might be challenges to learn from if you shake things up.

There’s a great tribute to the late Elmore Leonard by a man who had a life changing encounter (yeah, NRO, get over it, arrived via libertarian). It’s a testament to the power of habit and how to churn out a great deal of work over a lifetime. After reflecting, and particularly after a time of day exercise in improv and seeing how scenes change when the time of day changes – for example an office at 8:30 am is different from right before closing is different from the office in the middle of the night (H/T Craig Cackowski) – I began to wonder how it might affect one’s writing if a writer mixed it up, if one did not always write first thing in the morning. I realize not everyone has the luxury to experiment due to jobs, kids, spouses and other family obligations, but if you can vary any part of your creative routine, do so and see what happens.

zeus-greek-mythology-687267_1024_768
Zeus says don’t be an idiot.

Elmore Leonard’s routine worked for him and I’m not saying you have to change what works – far from it! – but consider the habits, routines, choices and so on that you know in your gut are hindering your progress, your growth as an artist and as a person. Try something new once in awhile – a new routine, work with unfamiliar characters or forms; if you’re single, date someone “out of your league” or against type; try a new activity such as rock climbing, improv, singing, learning a new language, anything that sounds both intriguing AND scary, so you don’t fall on the idiot side of stupid.

 

TED ache

TEDGlobal There’s this thing that happens after a TED conference – it’s hard to return to normal life. It’s taken me awhile to get around to this post. There was a lot to process and I haven’t finished by any means, but here’s a bit about my experience. First off, Edinburgh is a great city and I fell head over heels in love with it. Beautiful, next to the water, friendly, great food, walkable… all good things.

When I returned home, I discovered that a friend of mine attended in 2012 and we had the same reaction during the week, “What the hell am I doing with my life?!” And not in any kind of negative or comparative way, but at TED you learn that you can have a huge ripple effect, sometimes with seemingly small actions, and you want to participate, not for personal or selfish reasons, but to make the world better because there are greater possibilities for good than you realized.

TEDGlobal is a remarkably kind and supportive environment. So many creative, curious, hard-working and innovative people across disciplines. It is also as intense as everyone says. I’ve been describing it to friends as a multi-disciplinary grad school on steroids.

Opening party at Scottish Museum
Opening party at Scottish Museum

There were great talks of course (see Chander’s post below for some of the best). At TEDU, before the main stage talks began, they told us that we would get more from the people sitting around us than the main stage speakers. Yeah, right. Well, yes, they were right! At the opening party, I met Steve Cardinale and we ended up talking about the conscious curation of one’s life and in the course of that conversation, I saw that the umbrella over my life is about the move from unhealthy to healthy. Whether it’s the charitable work I’ve done with others in Dandora, themes in my novels, discussions with friends or my own journey, the unifying purpose or mission for my life is about what it takes to stimulate, inspire and encourage the move from unhealthy situations to healthier ones. I saw this in the Kibera slums when they tried to move people out into nice apartments who would then rent them out and return to the slums, to their work, sense of community and home. I’ve seen it in my move from the mess I grew up in into creating a better situation for my children. Or at work, not only in the roadmaps to emotional recovery in my novels, but the process itself whether in writing or on film sets and theater stages to get productions functioning in kinder, healthier and ultimately more efficient and productive ways. Obviously, there is no easy or simple answer, but the facets of that problem are what I’m exploring. The theme was Think Again and that happened right away for me.

TEDGlobal 2013 in Edinburgh, Scotland. June 12-15, 2013. Photo: Ryan LashThe attendees and speakers are fantastic. You could approach any group and be welcomed into the conversation. I was able to put friends back home doing non-profit work in Kenya and Uganda in touch with the speakers doing the kind of innovations that will enhance their work in Africa. And just about everyone I ran across was also so much fun! I had the great pleasure of getting to know professors, scientists, journalists, and more and formed friendships that will continue over dinners in Chicago, New York, perhaps Singapore, etc. There was a lot of fun to be had at TED, including flying quads (wish WordPress would let me post that video!). There’s a great generosity of spirit, too, that I found very encouraging. How will this play out in my own life? Who knows, but I am thinking again, thinking bigger, thinking a lot.

Bruce Bassett gives a great account of what it’s like during and after TEDGlobal, particularly the observation that there was almost no negativity. I didn’t hear any during the week. Here are some other observations by Chander Chawla (includes some of the best talks), Henrik Ahlen and Katerina Biliouri.

What’s the rush?

In the last post, I briefly addressed the dragging of feet that can go along with finishing your work or getting it out into the world. We cannot know if success will come quickly, after many years or not at all. All we can to is to try to be prepared and that means making the work and ourselves the best we can.

There’s another way to defeat yourself and that is rushing work out. NaNoWriMo can teach you to just write and write fast. Very fast. There’s huge benefit in that. Clean out the system, prove to yourself you can be far more productive than you imagined, discovering that your characters have things to say in scenes that may not make it to the next draft, but give you valuable information on who they are and so on.

Sometimes you need to slow down. Examine the work, your process…. That can mean slowing down to play with the story. Whether you write fast or slow, it is important to honor your own process once you land on it, but be aware it may change from piece to piece or book to book. What is important about not rushing is not rushing the work out into the world. We tend to believe we’ve written THE BEST BOOK IN THE WORLD as soon as it’s done. It takes perseverance to write over seventy thousand words for a novel. Talent aside, it’s a lot of work! You feel you should be rewarded – at least appreciated – and that’s fine, but don’t act on it, not until you’ve had more eyeballs on your manuscript. Reward yourself in other ways and take the time to make sure your work is ready to send out.

One of the best things you can do for yourself is to have at least one great mentor and to surround yourself with talented writers, preferably ones who will tell you the truth. And one or two non-writers as well. Ask a few people to read it before you start querying agents. This does not apply if you’re, say, Jonathan Safran Foer with Joyce Carol Oates as your advisor on your senior thesis. There are exceptions. Now back to real life!

Pay an editor to go through it and make sure it is free from errors and that it flows. Get both specific and global notes. Check the punctuation and do not rely on spell check. Look at the overall structure – do sequences make sense? Is there a strain of a theme that gets lost halfway through? I will give you an example. I had a very talented editor give me notes on WRESTLING ALLIGATORS. She pointed out that I made an allusion to the Daedalus-Icarus myth at the beginning that was then not explored in the rest of the text. It was a challenge, but in one of the subsequent passes (after I’d dealt with her other points), I spent a fair amount of time walking in the hills trying to come up with an answer and finally found it. It enriched the manuscript in a way I never expected and I would have not found it on my own. If I had rushed the manuscript out, that piece would have not been addressed and I would have missed the growth I experienced in that challenge. I really enjoyed solving the problem and discovering a way to solve it will benefit future work.

There are many things about the writing life that are challenging and one is the balance you have to strike between knowing when to go fast and when to slow down. Have you ever wish you’d taken more time before sending work out? Or do you have a triumph about taking your time?

I Want You To Want Me

Rejection.

Well, that’s depressing, but all artists, all writers, must deal with it at one time or another. Maybe all the time or at least it feels that way. The added problem is that rejection triggers me and other writers I know with old echoes of rejection, humiliation, etc. from childhood. Probably true for most writers because of the reasons we started writing in the first place. I can at least report that as your skin thickens and you maintain the attitude that it is fuel to propel you forward, it hurts and resonates less.

William Goldman famously said about movie making, Nobody knows anything, and I think to a degree that holds true for books. The agents and publishers are bright hard-working people, but no one knows for sure what’s going to sell, let alone catch fire, especially in fiction. Sometimes we have to fan our own flames, twirl our own sticks together on a little pile of kindling in the dark and see what happens. Any one agent or publisher (or review for that matter) is not worth the time or emotion to be devastated. But it still stings.

We are spiritual sharks. We must keep moving forward to live.  UPDATE: Leonard Chang has some thoughts on that

And then what if…?

Curiosity is the engine of art. The desire to know or learn and the desire to create come together in the best writing. Probably the two defining questions for the writer are ‘what if?’ and ‘what happens next?’ To which Lisa Cron would add ‘and so?’ (read her book Wired for Story to find out more about that)

The stimulus to trigger your curiosity can come from anywhere: a bit of conversation that passes you on the street, articles, daydreaming, music, museums, the line at Starbucks, you name it. Following any of those questions is the path that takes you into your material. While writing this, I did a Google search on curiosity and found a Tumblr on morbid curiosity.  If that or another site featuring people at their favorite celebrity tombstone doesn’t give you an idea for a story, I don’t know what will. There are so many approaches you can take – who died, how, what was their life like, why be photographed at the tomb of someone you never met, what is the fascination, hobby or obsession? and so on. Maybe it only gives you a jumping off point for a character, but that’s no small thing.

If your curiosity is strong enough, it can blast through writer’s block or fill up a blank page before you have time to be intimidated. All it takes is imagining or encountering a question compelling enough to get you to ask “and then what happened?”

How can you use curiosity to enhance your writing? First, keep a small notepad or recorder with you or use your smart phone so you can makes notes as you encounter inspiration or story ideas, a bit of dialog or an interesting character. Keep reading all kinds of material, including things outside your normal interest, try new things, Google random words, go rock climbing, learn the tango, travel, pay close attention to your environment and see what happens. The wonderful thing about curiosity is that it is endless.

How has curiosity led you into a story?

talent ≠ character

In the wake of the John Galliano incident, I spent way too much time procrastinating regarding my own writing by reading comments about JG and getting depressed. First, it shouldn’t, but it surprised me how many people were willing to overlook and make excuses for his ugly remarks or not understand how he could hold those views in light of his talent. Seriously?

That’s like saying, “You make pretty dresses (books, music, art, etc) so you must be all pretty inside too.”

Then there were those who eviscerated Mel Gibson and somehow thought this was different. Um, no. Whatever your political, sexual or faith orientation, a bigot is a bigot. Blaming it on his inebriation? Mental illness? Come on. Try lack of character. Lack of good character. Just because someone writes great music or novels or designs or acts well, doesn’t mean anything about what kind of person they are. I’m not sure how this fairy tale took root in our culture (lots of blame to go around including the Romantics to Hollywood movies), but it’s demonstrably wrong. Coco Chanel: compelling rags to riches story, iconic designs and she was not only a Nazi sympathizer but collaborator and notorious anti-Semite. Wagner, another anti-Semite, yet his music has endured. Others are blogging about this and noting the difference between the art and the artist.

And I’m not alone in thinking about what Woody Allen said: “People worship talent and it’s so ridiculous. Talent is something you’re born with, like Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] is born tall. That’s why so many talented people are sh*theels.”                         …and then he married his step-daughter.

So once again, talent does not equal good character. Fame does not equal good character.

It is, however, a worthwhile endeavor to improve your own character as your improve your writing (or other art) because you do not have to be an unhappy, miserable jerk to create something wonderful and worthwhile…or controversial. Truly controversial, not merely shocking. I know plenty of now-sober writers whose decision to set aside the bottle or needle has no doubt extended their years to work, improved the quality of their life and relationships, and given them the clarity we all need to create art that creates connection.

all in all you’ve hit the wall

What are some of the reasons for stopping? In his book (which I recommend) on writing, IMMEDIATE FICTION, Jerry Cleaver makes the case for conflict and continually raising the stakes: “Happy lives make lousy novels…. If the characters are having a good time, the reader is not.” What if, on the other hand, it’s about you and not the page?

There are some problems that can cause you to hit the wall, creatively speaking. Things like myopia when it comes to the work, being totally rule-bound (though please know the rules before you begin breaking them), forgetting to play, concentrating too hard on the outcome you want, fear, difficulty taking risks, lack of perspective, not listening to other opinions, worrying too much what others will think, and writing for the entire world. Newsflash, you can’t please everyone. Open up your process and let it breath. Have a good time. Get to your point. Have a reader in mind and write to them. Go out and play once in awhile.

The solutions for you as a writer are remembering your playfulness, striking that balance between what you want to say and getting helpful input from others, clarity, resourcefulness, research, persistence, flexibility and a willingness to go with your strengths while developing your weaknesses. If story isn’t your strong suit, do some writing exercises that focus only on the story. Honing your pitch would be one of them. The National Storytellers Network has lots of resources. There are more here. Visit Toastmasters. Yes, Toastmasters – tell a story to a room full of people. Write a play. Take an acting class. Get out of your comfort zone and improve your writing.

Can you play through pain? Are you stuck because it’s just too difficult? Marathoners (and for the record, that in no way describes me – blew out my knee playing soccer when I was a teen) talk about hitting the wall around mile 22 (26.2 miles in a marathon). There are plenty of sites and books to tell you how to prepare for the wall, but if you’re going to compete physically at a certain level – if you are serious about it – you learn to play (or run) through pain. In a sense, the same is true for writing. You have to learn to write no matter how you’re feeling (within reason – time off for major life events). In other words, it does not matter if the subject matter is uncomfortable psychologically or if you think the first three chapters stink or (whine, whine) you just don’t feeell like writing today, keep at it. When I talk to other novelists about it, our mile 22 is usually in act 2 (what is it with the number 2?) The fun and agony of it is that no one can save you, the writer, in Act 2. You have to find your own way out. Steven Pressfield and the always-opinionated David Mamet have been there and written about it. More on getting unstuck by Michael Bungay Stanier. Now that you are, go write!

more on shock and awe

Been thinking more about the need to shock in fiction. Watched Sydney Pollack’s doc “Sketches of Frank Gehry” last night. Pollack said, and I’m paraphrasing, that he thought of talent as “liquid trouble.” The trick was to let it seep out in productive and creative ways, to use the talent. Also made the point that liquid trouble was largely frustration with things as they are and the desire to change them. If you strive for excellence, then you’re definitionally competitive and ambitious. Reminded me of something I read when Ricardo Montalban died. He was a famous perfectionist and it grew directly out of his faith. He maintained that we create in imitation of God and have an obligation to get it right.

Taking all of this together, trying to shock the audience/reader makes sense – it’s the obvious way to jolt someone out of complacency. The problem is that it loses its effectiveness if done too often and the ante continues to go up. It seems that we need more creativity to express that frustration with the way things are without going solely for shock value. Right now I’m thinking it’s about leading the audience on a journey so that by the end they see things as if for the first time. Yeah, easier said than done. Believe me, I know.