a death in the family…

Gary hsMy brother died November 19th.

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.

220px-Nobodysfool

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…

Yes, and…

wonderbookIn 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)

True.

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.

last pic w Gary

The Handless Maiden

feelings-switch_269Last week, I wrote about owning your own shadow. This week, I’ve been reading Robert A. Johnson’s book on The Fisher King and The Handless Maiden and again, it’s resonating. Hands, writing, feelings….

We’ve done a weird inversion of the feeling and the rational. We increasingly replace rational solutions on a societal level – the way we regulate our schools, businesses and so on – with the singular litmus test of feeling good, regardless of whether it is effective, smart or makes sense.  Meanwhile, many of us are cut off from our feelings on the micro or personal level and that is when lives feel empty and fill with all the -isms and addictions. Nature abhors a vacuum.

Johnson describes the devil’s bargain at its worst: we want relatedness, but we will not give relatedness. Something for nothing. To gain a bargain at the expense of some inner value is extremely dangerous. Easier, faster, more is the great seduction of the modern mind.

“One faces the devil’s bargain frequently when planning the structure of one’s day. How much can one crowd into the day? How much can I get with minimum payment? How many times in the day does feeling (the daughter’s hands) take second place to practicality? How many days go by without music or the gym or a sunset walk?”

This leads to the lottery mentality of overnight success. Artistry requires time, effort, often pain and suffering… the more uncomfortable feelings.  Here’s Leonard Cohen on writing “Hallelujah“:

“The only advice I have for young songwriters is that if you stick with a song long enough, it will yield. But long enough is not any fixed duration, its not a week or two, its not a month or two, its not necessarily even a year or two. If a song is to yield you might have to stay with it for years and years. ‘Hallelujah’ was at least five years. I have about 80 verses. I just took verses out of the many that established some sort of coherence. The trouble that I find is that I have to finish the verse before I can discard it. So that lengthens the process considerably.

“I filled two notebooks with the song, and I remember being on the floor of the Royalton Hotel, on the carpet in my underwear, banging my head on the floor and saying, “I can’t finish this song.”

Discipline is required to give one time to work, but there’s the balance of allowing time for the unexpected, for honoring the generative part where the creativity bubbles up. It is one of the reasons Julia Cameron prescribes the Artist Date in her book, The Artist’s Way.

Fill the well. Allow feelings to surface. Write them, perform them honestly and you can help heal the world.

Owning your shadow

shadow

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 Psyche that 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.”

The talented Justine Musk has also written about this in her post on the heroine’s journey.  You can hear her read at Roar Shack on November 10 at 826LA in Echo Park, CA.

Character and Movement, part two

kooza_resizedstill2The few things I’ve learned so far from the Alexander Technique at Body Chance are that your head is always in motion, your head and neck are attached behind your nose (focus on that while writing or walking and see what happens), your arm is a larger-than-imagined hinge and the glide hinges are at the center of your breastbone, and to relax (as before auditions) let your jaw go. The jaw is a two-part hinge – you only need the first gliding part and if you relax into that first movement of the hinge, breathing and general body relaxation follow. I am beginning to see how Benedikt Negro stays present and appears lighter than air in his performances.

benedikt in character

Studying clowning, movement, improv – any one of these is another way into creating characters for writing or acting. Benedikt taught us that the foundation for clowning is entering a scene with one energy and exiting with another. It reminds me of one of the things Rob Roberge teaches about dialog in a scene: it’s about characters saying “no” to each other until the final “no.”  There is one energy in hoping for Yes and another once No is received. Or vice versa. Something in a scene must shift for an audience to remain engaged. And stillness to notice the shift. The master of using the stillness – silence itself – to change energy and supply emotional information is Samuel Beckett.

kooza_resizedstill3We are constantly in movement, even while appearing still. The world is constantly in movement, even in the most serene still life. The globe turns. Emotions swirl within us. Think about your character’s body (or your own!) spring-loaded in gravity and see where it takes you.

 

Resurrection is an Art Form

the-fool“…the human capacity for achieving new meaning is linked to our capacity to let life make a fool of us. If we can look into the mirror and recognise the fool, if we can unflinchingly assert that the fool is satisfied, if we can welcome the uninvited guest of ourselves at any moment, even when taken unawares, then there is a possibility that the diamonds are real, the prize genuine, the glitter gold.”                                                                                                   ~ Mark Patrick Hederman

Sometimes life slays you. Rejection after rejection, both personal and professional, betrayals, unexpected deaths, bad news from family or friends… and then there’s all the world’s problems as well. There are times when circumstances, often out of your control, just grind you into the ground. What can you do? The short answer includes prayer, meditation, time with people who love you, being exceedingly kind to yourself, therapy where applicable. And then you keep going.

I live in Los Angeles and needed a change of scenery without time for a vacation. It’s been ages since I went to the mountains – the beach is where I grew up and my usual go-to. A trip to the local mountains seemed to bebigbearlake in order. Life’s been challenging on many levels lately and I needed clarity, fresh vision, refreshment generally, and revelation would be nice as well. I drove up to Big Bear Lake for the day and returned with all of those things without explanation as to how they arrived except that I emptied myself. I took deep breaths of alpine air, opened my arms to the sky and waited for the divine hug.

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool. ~  William Shakespeare, “As You Like It”, Act 5 scene 1

These are the times that break us open into truly being artists. We change through pain. We surrender. We begin to understand that there may be purposes to suffering beyond our comprehension. We take those wounds into our work, transforming them, sometimes transcending them.

I’ve had acting and writing teachers use Samuel Beckett’s last lines of The Unnamable in teaching three act structure:

You must go on.

I can’t go on.

I’ll go on.

Let life make a fool of you and go on.

Break the rules

ImageTake a look at 5 TV Rules That Aren’t Rules Anymore. Some of the best writing in any medium is on long-form television right now (and yes, I know some of them are adapted from books). Point being, challenge your assumptions. Take risks. Think about what scares you the most and go do it (keep it legal and moral, please). That character, scene, bit, or riff that you love? Twist it. Destroy it and see what happens. Maybe you’ll restore it. Or maybe you’ll find greatness. Have fun.

What would you fight for?

notre-dame-fighting-irish-logo-leprechaun-300x276The 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.

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.

 

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.