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:
Where did the idea for my first novel, Dead Weight come from? First, I’d taken scuba diving lessons. In fact, I got carried away and went all the way to divemaster. It was fun. Maybe not so much towing in a puking newbie and hauling him up onto the beach through the surf, but most of it was a lot of fun. Helping a student to overcome their fear and go for it, night dives, seeing an octopus jet off in a cloud of ink, swimming through the kelp forest off Catalina…. We used to joke that the dive store would be a great setting for a sitcom. That part got me thinking about characters. Anyway, there was that, but part of the framework I used – stole like an artist – was from Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The story is different, some of the themes are different. The characters are completely different. But there’s a framework from the last part of the John Huston movie, or perhaps more accurately, from my memory of Huston’s version.
This is one reason we started Annotation Nation. There’s nothing new under the sun. Take a look at other work, great and terrible, and analyze what they did. Don’t copy it. That’s lazy and immoral and plain rude. Figure out how the great ones did what they did. Was it through the musicality of the language? Imagery? Did they mess with your senses? Subvert your expectations? All of the above? Can you “steal” the way in which they used imagery? Again, not copying, but using for inspiration. If they used imagery of the human body in their story, is there a way to translate that effect into, say, the imagery of flowers in yours?
Look at a piece of art, writing, music, an acting performance, etc. that you don’t like, that you find mediocre and figure out where they went wrong. Can you avoid the same pitfalls? What would you do differently? Why? There’s a lot of mediocre stuff out there because people don’t take the time to go deeper either from fear or laziness. Go deeper. Ask the hard questions. Put your characters in scenes that are not in your show or book and see what they do. Make the bold choice, something off the wall and ridiculous. Maybe you’ll fall on your face. But maybe, just maybe, things will open up in a new and exciting way and you’ll hear people say, “I’ve never seen it that way” or “I’ve never thought of that” or just that it was awesome. No matter what your area, if you have trouble with self-consciousness or fear, take improv classes.
I leave you with Apollo Robbin’s TED Talk – I was in the front row in Edinburgh for this and I caught a few things, but certainly not all of it. He is amazing.
The University of Notre Dame has been running a series for years now called What Would You Fight For? Each week during football season, they televise one and post it online. What would you fight for? Seriously. Is there anything and if not, why not? It’s another way of asking, “what are you passionate about?” That’s probably the main reason I loved TED Global so much – same reason I love Notre Dame. They are passionate about things. They are actively trying to make a difference, to improve the world in small ways and large.
What do I or have I fought for? Everything from the right word on the page, the right scenes for the book or screenplay to the right approach in helping kids in Dandora get a basic education. I’ve fought for money for scholarships for my own kids and for the ones in the slums. I’ve fought to be a better person and a good parent. I spent years fighting the bureaucracy of LAUSD to make sure my children got a good education. I fought the legacy of dysfunction in the family I grew up in so that the one I created would be better, kinder.
If you’re not fighting to be better at what you do, a better writer, a better actor, a better person or for where you live or on behalf of those who cannot fight for themselves, then how are you spending your life? There’s never a reason for boredom. There is too much to do. There are too many dreams to explore, too many problems to solve. Fight to create the best book possible, to give the best performance, to be the best spouse, the best parent. Fight your demons, fight for faith, for art, for healing, for freedom. Fight on behalf of the weak, to make the world better than you found it. Fight to be the very best you can be. Fight the good fight. An artist can always improve.
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.
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.
The 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.
party!), American folk rock from Lissie, remixer Tim Exile, Irish vocalist RuthAnne, and three Palestinian brothers who form Le Trio Joubran. Hard to imagine a wider range of musicians. Please check out the links, go watch them on YouTube buy their music. I believe most are on iTunes. They are fantastic.
John Kenny opened the conference playing the carnyx, an ancient Celtic horn brought back after hundreds of years. He played with piper Roddy Weir and when they post the video, will put it up.
Had the chance to talk to Yaron about how he prepares to improvise. He has a very specific way of practicing specific things so that when he sits down and composes in front of an audience, he has hundreds of things to draw from. Same thing I’m learning in improv for the stage at IO West.
Your brain gets a workout during the week – all parts of your brain, thanks to the music and art. I heard over 70 lectures in a matter of days. At first, they all blended together, but since we are pattern seeking beings, things began to sort themselves out.
The theme was Think Again and that I did, not only about the work I do, but who I am and why I’m here. There’s something that happens at TED that is hard to explain if you haven’t been there. It has nothing to do with your own abilities or accomplishments or comparisons, but there’s the awakening or can be (and I’ve heard it from different people who attended in different years, so I think there’s something to this) of “what the hell am I doing with my life?” It’s not about feeling bad, just the desire from so much inspiration to make this life count and make a difference. So many small things have such huge ripple effects…. It all has me thinking again.
In the next post, I’ll go into some of the talks that resonated and some of the conversations that changed my thinking.
It’s been a wild month. My application to attend TEDGlobal was accepted, so I will be in Edinburgh, Scotland mid-June. More on that in the coming weeks. I have been recording some of my work, but I also did one of Neruda’s love poems. I will be posting my own work in the coming weeks as well, but for now, some Neruda If You Forget Me.
I have been taking improv classes and it will be interesting to see what, if any, effect that has on my writing. It has already helped in terms of public speaking and performance. I’ve always found the interface between different art forms fascinating. This weekend, I had the opportunity to take a few comedy writing workshops at IO West and the First Scripted Comedy Festival. The classes were excellent and gave me a new perspective that I will be exploring this year. There was a fun exercise in one: write a letter to yourself from a body part or organ. I chose my toenails. It was fun. Sometimes, you just have to be silly to keep going.