Beautiful sunny cool day in Austin. Inspiring “bro-client” Erik Conn, drummer extraordinaire, swung by the house in a pick-up truck rerouted by the marathon. Called across my big green backyard to say hey as I hung laundry (muddy dog beds, rugs, towels, and sheets). Though I was ensconced in slobarific writer sweats, and hadn’t had a shower yet, I took a brief break to chat.
I was glad to see him. You ever have one of those friends that gets right to what’s real? The day, the weather, his blues and joys, tacos, house-sitting, fans, concerts, art, music, the zone, discussions of ego and other psychological structures and their relationship to the soul. Such was our conversation, as always. Not to mention bro hand-clasping through the wire fence (tall because of escape artist dogs) and words in parting that leave me feeling loved and supported. More than a few times he’s called me one of his favorite Jedi Knights.
Inspired by the familiar discussion with Erik, his dedication to creating art that pays off huge in joy and beauty but not so much in moola, and how difficult that can be, here’s where I am right now on the zig-zag creative path:
Practicing life-long writing habit.
Know what I want to say and saying it.
Putting “it” in the work (all angst, problems, arguments go into the writing, not the air).
Dividing writing time fairly well between the creative and editing sides.
Spending an equal amount of time learning the business, making contacts, and marketing as I do creating the work.
Operating as if writing is my main job now.
Always have a great guide or teacher (right now, it’s Truby).
Not thrown off course by creative peaks and valleys.
No writers block, though I do swim through mud often on the business side of things.
Setting boundaries, ie, I say no to 90 percent of gatherings, arts, shows, holiday visits, travel, even relationships.
Maneuvering through the minefields of life and day job and just keep writing.
And it’s all worth it.
Here’s a shout out to Erik and all the other struggling artists, who’ve dedicated to their art and craft and are still in the in-between world of the day job that pays the bills (which could last forever as far as anyone knows) and are still driven to create. Here’s to you, creators!
As Erik said today, “The sun is on my face. I’m glad to be alive!”
Where are you in your process? Feel free to give a shout out in the comments to the dedicated creator in your life, especially if it’s you! Post links if you feel it.
I’m heading to the Austin Film Festival (AFF) tomorrow as a badge-holder, which means I get to go to some of the panels and listen to great, successful screenwriters discuss their experiences writing for film and TV. By many accounts, The Austin Film Festival is the best festival for writers, having been created for the purpose of nurturing and honoring them.
Last January I attended a warm, helpful, inspiring panel sponsored by AFF in which Noah Hawley, creator of THE UNUSUALS and MY GENERATION, and Kyle Killen, creator of TV series, AWAKE and LONE STAR, and screenwriter of the feature film, THE BEAVER, discussed writing and being showrunners for TV. Hawley and Killen were gracious, interesting, funny, smart. I loved being in the same room with them. Enjoying music, books, painting, sculpture, movies, TV shows, beautiful buildings, dance, plays are all great ways of communing with the artist. We all do it when we enjoy the arts. We can have direct experience of the creative mind when we view art. But listening to them discuss their creative process in the same room, days in a row, and going to films at night (or at least next week as the festival continues), I imagine will be even more rarefied.
During the conference and festival, which run tonight through next Thursday, I plan to write shorter blogposts more often about my experiences there. I hope to hit most of these panels:
How to Work the Conference: For Writers
Sustaining a Writing Career Outside of L.A.
Roundtable: The Business Side
Based on a True Story
The Creative Career: What You Need to Know
Agents and Managers
A Conversation with 2011 Outstanding Television Writer Awardee Hart Hanson
The Heroine’s Journey: Writing and Selling the Female Driven Screenplay
I’ll have to choose between a couple of these as they occur at the same time. There are many more panels, too, some aimed at filmmakers rather than writers. I’d like to go to some of those just to see what they’re like. There are also films, luncheons, awards. I haven’t even looked at the film schedule; yet, I know the new film by the Duplass Brothers called JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME will be screened, and I plan to see it. I first heard about them when they were living here in Austin, and I just love their movies. Rodrigo Garcia who wrote NINE LIVES and many other movies I love will be part of the Showrunners panel. I always enjoy what he has to say about the creative process. I’ve heard him speak in a moving way of his love and respect for the creativity of the artists he works with.
I’ll keep you posted. Are you going to the Austin Film Festival? Want to meet up at any of the panels? Do you want me to ask anything in particular of the panelists?
Since Texas is burning, and our friends and neighbors are evacuating and losing their homes, this morning I was drawn to William Faulkner’s short story, “Barn Burning.” As you may know or imagine, the story is not so much about a barn burning as it is about relationships, power, conflict, identity and “the terrible handicap of being young.” Nevertheless, I feel drawn to the element of fire in the story. Faulkner was too. It’s a stunning tale, not of heated passion, but the blazing effects of cold methodical rage.
I recommend the story for it’s rich detailed rendering of a life of despair, not only due to economic and class oppression, but due to the particular suffering one ruined person inflicts on everyone else, all the time, without end. For my narrower purposes of learning to write from one of the greats, I want to mention one small device Faulkner used that helps me solve a problem in the writing of one of my stories.
I notice Faulkner jumped forward in time in a couple of instances by letting the narrator tell us early on how the young boy main character would have responded to certain abuses if he were older. This allows the reader to have a spark of hope the boy can’t possibly have in real time as the story unfolds. The narrator may be omniscient, but the story stays with the boy’s point of view, keeping it intimate, immediate, and terrible. Faulkner’s use of the narrator’s wider scope is small and measured, like the father’s campfires and his spirit. The few tiny sparks from the future indicating the boy’s adult self are brief but significant expansions of awareness needed to keep readers buoyant, even as they feel the despair of the characters.
The takeway for me: in my story “Heat Wave,” I need my main character to move forward in time and come back to the present, not just in a flight of fancy, or a wish or hope for the future, but as a premonition, a state of being brought on by great exertion during the heat. One member of my writers group pointed out one instance of a premonition in my piece that was distracting, seemingly plunked there from another story. She was right. At first I thought it wasn’t working because it was a premonition. I wondered if it was too new-agey and didn’t fit the story. But I’m trying to blend magical moments with normal experience; that’s what my story is about. In truth it didn’t work, because I hadn’t written it well. There are two other premonitions in the same piece that do work. Keep the premonition, but observe Faulkner: cut the part that announces it’s a premonition, and simply let the narrator state what is true in the future of the character’s life.
The talk of writing feels like dry tinder near the circle of heat such a story as “Barn Burning” radiates. I hope I catch some of Faulkner’s flames, even as I hope the wild fires around us soon burn out.
“…the figures in any picture, the agents in any drama, are interesting only in proportion as they feel their respective situations…” – Henry James
Before writing in the morning, sometimes I read a short story for inspiration. Today I chose Henry James’ “The Real Thing.” I’m rewriting a script today, not a short story, but short stories inspire me no matter what I’m writing. It works for me like divination, as someone who picks passages from the Bible or any inspiring written work, and reads them as if they’re messages from God or the muses.
In “The Real Thing,” an illustrator finds a married couple at his door looking for work as models. They have fallen from a higher class and operate not only as a team to find work, but to hide their state from their friends and even from themselves. We watch them through the eyes of the illustrator. They’re “the real thing” in that they really are the upper class people the illustrator is commissioned to render. Furthermore, “the real thing” refers ironically to the shifting nature of identity when human beings are forced to confront their nature and essence. The married couple cling to their past identity in the new situation. It seems to work, much as any big fish in a small pond. Maintaining their posture, literally and figuratively, gets them work. However, they have no sense they may need to adapt to the actual world they now inhabit, the world of art, in order to thrive or even survive. In this world, an immigrant servant who doesn’t speak the language emerges as the best model. Modeling is artistic in itself and requires an openness and malleability of expression. That talent can arise in anyone, thus dismantling the influence of the class system in the couple’s new world.
In a companion piece, “The Mirror of Consciousness,” included by Gioia & Gwynn in their book, The Art of the Short Story, James writes about the need to tell the stories through a consciousness that feels what is happening. He says the story is weak if it merely recounts facts and is strong when those facts and events filter through the mind of someone who feels them fully. In “The Real Thing” the illustrator is deeply affected by the actions of the married couple over time. At first it helps his work and later hurts it. Through the lens of the illustrator’s struggles and his own feelings for all his models, I was moved by the plight of the fallen couple, rather than merely irritated by their obstinance and classism.
The takeaway for me today: my main character serves well as the consciousness through which I show the plight of her struggling friends and neighbors, the web of characters around her. And, I meant to underscore her own troubles by doing this. But since the story is about her, I see that I need to make her more alive, more malleable, more feeling. I need to show her struggle more clearly in the beginning, so the changes near the end have more impact. She must feel the full extent of the situation I’ve put her in, or else my audience won’t. It won’t matter how many rewrites I do if I don’t do that.
How do you get inspiration? Who’s your favorite character in books or on screen?
“When plot, whatever it does or however it goes, becomes the outward manifestation of the very germ of the story, then it is purest – then the narrative thread is least objectionable, then it is not in the way.” – Eudora Welty from “The Plot of the Short Story” (1949)
I’ve been working on a screenplay a long time, rewriting, rewriting and rewriting some more for months. Submitting to contests, bringing it to group for critique. Reading aloud with my sister. I’ve also been working on some memoir stories and short stories. Even these shorter stories were taking a long time. I’ve put in tons of hours with not much in the way of finished work to show for it. I decided I needed to write a story in one day just to feel better.
How do you go about writing a story in one day? I knew immediately I’d make it easy and write a one-page story (it’s actually four pages long, but trying for one page was a great way to start). How do you get an idea for a one page story? You watch the first image that goes across your mind. I won’t say here what it was, because it’s the end of my story, “Stigmata,” and I want you to read it. I took that image and realized it was about a character mentioned in one of the other stories I was working on. He was the father of the ex-girlfriend of the main character of my story called “Heat Wave.” Okay. I accepted that. Furthermore it was an image of this character as a child. Hmmm. This interested me. I went with it.
My image was the ending, so I began to wonder what would happen to this character for this ending to occur. And that is when I experienced the Eudora Welty quote above. I saw more images in my mind’s eye of the outworking of events that would lead to the ending I first envisioned. The image was the germ, the events leading to it, the plot.
I discovered the story contains elements of many things I care for deeply about relationships, culture, society, and the individual. I didn’t try to write about those things; I followed an impulse. It was satisfying and joyful. I’m going to work this way with the rest of the stories in my collection whenever I can. This method shows me through experience the meaning of another quote by Welty in the same piece:
“…form is connected with recognition; it is what makes us know, in a story, what we are looking at, what unique thing we are for a length of time intensely contemplating.”
What are you intensely contemplating? How do you get your ideas? What are you writing?