My Favorite Creativity Gurus

Brenda Ueland wrote the book IF YOU WANT TO WRITE: A BOOK ABOUT ART, INDEPENDENCE AND SPIRIT, one of the best works on creative process. I love her book, STRENGTH TO YOUR SWORD ARM, a collection of her astute, funny, short, packed articles from a newspaper column she wrote in her hometown. And I love her biography, ME, a title she used well before Katharine Hepburn did.

Natalie Goldberg wrote WRITING DOWN THE BONES and other great books on writing process and life and creativity.

Jessica Abel is a comics artist and storyteller who is helping lots of folks go down the creative path. Her website is here. Check it out.

…in between…

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:

  • Motivated.
  • 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 got the photos above off Erik’s facebook page, where you, too, can check out Erik’s wonderful way with words. I’ve been known to re-post his status updates.

For now, here are some links to great photos of Erik. Ciao.




Related article featuring Erik Conn

Austin Film Festival Panelists Say “Keep Writing!”

St. Augustine writing, revising, and re-writin...
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The Austin Film Festival is still running, though the conference, which began last Thursday is now over. It’s going to take some time to process everything I experienced. For now I’m floating on the admonitions of many successful screenwriters who said in different ways, in various voices, illustrated by individual details, stories from the trenches, in bright funny tones and in serious dramatic ones to keep writing. I’m up on Monday morning blogging, working on my current script, my next script, my short story collection, and a treatment for my current script, even as I will work my regular job this afternoon. Each of these things and more, I’ve always done. But now I’ve heard many successful writers I admire, tell me in person, time and again at this conference, this is how it works. For a writer like me who works on everything at once, the conference made me know it’s okay to work that way. I often question the way I work, and wonder if I’ll ever get anywhere that way. The panelists said every writer works differently. Let your creativity lead you. Just keep writing.

Now I have a clearer picture of what to do today, what to do next. I feel I can do it, and I feel great about it. I’m reminded every writer, including Lawrence Kasdan who’s had his scripts made into some of the most successful movies in history, and Pamela Gray, who’s written one of my personal favorites, A WALK ON THE MOON, continue to struggle to write, to find the time, to keep writing. I learned from screenwriter, Monte Williams, former press secretary for Governor Ann Richards, to respect and keep your day job as long as you need it, maybe forever. I learned from every writer you can and should stay in your town and work your regular job and keep writing, and you have to go to L.A. sometimes, too. Yes, meet successful writers, managers, and agents attending this conference and talk to them directly. After all, this festival does not segregate the panelists from the attendees; you can meet your idols in the Driskell Hotel Lobby or have drinks with them at the bar, and have a life-changing chat. But several panelists advised us to connect with other writers at our own level who are here in the audiences, stay in touch, sleep on each other’s couches, and rise together.

I’m working on several more posts about the conference. The next one you see here will be, “You’re About To Get Kasdaned!” It’s my second favorite quote from the panel, “The Creative Career: What You Need to Know” with Lawrence Kasdan (THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST, BODY HEAT, THE BIG CHILL, WYATT EARP, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARC, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, RETURN OF THE JEDI, THE BODYGUARD), Craig Mazin (SCARY MOVIE 3 & 4, THE HANGOVER 2), Daniel Petrie, Jr. (THE BIG EASY, BEVERLY HILLS COP, SHOOT TO KILL, TURNER & HOOCH, TOY SOLDIERS) and Rhett Reese (DEAD POOL, EARTH VS. MOON, ZOMBIELAND 2).

Please feel free to ask questions about the conference, and I will do my best to answer them in the next blogpost or the comments section. KEEP WRITING!

Structure and Being in TRAIN DREAMS by Denis Johnson

About halfway through the novella, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, I was inspired to stop reading long enough to draw a picture of the structure of the story. Across the page I drew a straight line representing world history and American history on a continuum of about 100 years. Through that line I drew a curvy line representing the personal history of the main character, Robert Grainier, a man hired by various railroad companies in the western United States for the hard labor of building and repairing tracks and bridges. Where the straight historical line crossed the curvy line of Grainier’s life, I drew X’s. The X’s represented events of natural and regional history of the American northwest and the personal histories of Grainier, his acquaintances, friends, and family. The center point is where the story begins, 1917, when Grainier is thirty-five and has a wife and young daughter.

Reading this beautiful and vivid book and making the diagram inspired me to start my own novella by doing the following: choose what I feel is the most compelling invention, technology, movement, or event in American or world history, and use it as the midpoint or prime of my main character’s life. Extend my research fifty years in either direction for context and setting. Set the story in the regions of Texas I’ve lived, or else in a region in the United States to which I feel connected and about which I want to know more. Make a list of several industries, jobs, and careers in the region. Read first-hand accounts of life, work, family, politics, culture. Keep a running list of the stories I can’t get out of my heart. Let those blend and percolate with the stories I’ve lived, witnessed, heard, read. Let the main character bubble up from the magic creative cauldron and start speaking to me.

I felt Johnson must have done all these things in the writing process.

Yet, as I continued reading the story, Johnson’s imagery spoke to me about those lines I had drawn. Both the straight line and the curvy line reminded me of train tracks. I started feeling the underlying image in the novella, trains, or more specifically, I felt the impact of the first train image affecting the main character, essentially an orphan train that brought Grainier from his birthplace to the home of his uncle at an age before which he can remember nothing. It may be missing from his memory, but it’s the connection to the underlying event shaping his entire life. I’ve heard it said that every myth is actually about what’s missing. The hero or heroine will spend the story finding that which is lost. Train Dreams follows Grainier through a life where he walks along charred pathways, past open windows, and into forest clearings searching for himself by searching for the family that’s missing. The sheer amount of loss this character suffers in the story proper is matched only by his initial forgotten losses. His ability to commune with nature in its elemental vastness and its individual representatives, allows him to find in some form everything that was ever lost to him.

I wondered if Johnson’s inspiration for the story was the poignant reality in our history of orphaned children riding trains toward uncertain futures from 1854 to 1929. If not, I’m convinced it was something equally heartbreaking. Any of the life and death events in Train Dreams could have been the initial inspiration. I’m reminded to undertake writing stories arising from feeling and not just from ideas of structure or research. Structure and research will help me shape the writing process, as long as I’m taking the first step from the heart, because I simply have to. Johnson’s book feels like a foregone conclusion, a myth we’ve all heard told, an experience we’ve all had.

It’s clear why “train” is in the title. In the first paragraph we get a description of the train bridge Grainier and others are repairing. Train imagery fuels the story’s outer events and inner impulses. I wasn’t as clear at first about the “dreams,” but now I know. Two weeks after reading Train Dreams, I recall the story through my own vision, as if remembering my own dream. In the dream I’m Robert Grainier, a laborer, a husband, a father. I’m seeing through the eyes of the human being who lived that life, created those memories, suffered those tragedies. I can feel the pain in my arthritic joints from long years of hard labor. I can see the fluttering wrappers from the chocolates and the fluttering pages of the Holy Bible I imagined my wife holding as long as she could in an attempt to save something while escaping a raging wildfire. And I see the specter of my daughter inside my cabin, or at least my fractured heart, returning to me after I thought she was lost forever. I see all this from my own mind’s eye, as if I’m recalling my own dream. I’m not sure how Johnson managed that. I’ll have to reread the book to find out.

Have you read anything by Denis Johnson? What’s your favorite? What’s your favorite myth and why (movies, books, anything)? If you’re a writer, how do your story ideas come to you?

Writing Instead of Reading

Cover of "The Huffington Post Complete Gu...
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Here’s what I wanted to read today:

Self Editing For Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King

For obvious reasons. It’s already helped me immeasurably with its first instruction on narrative summary and how writers overuse it. Turns out I’d written an entire story using large chunks of narrative summary, and I didn’t even realize it. I was surprised I’d used so much narrative summary given all the practice I get writing screenplay scenes. I’ve gone back to the story to create more scenes in real time. It’s much better now, or it will be.  In the long run, the screenwriting will help me write better short stories. And so will the book Self Editing…when I can get to it. There’s nothing like being down deep in a screenplay rewrite to make me want to work on my short stories.

The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging by the editors of the Huff Post and Create Your Own Blog: 6 Easy Projects to Start Blogging Like a Pro by Tris Hussey

Again, for obvious reasons. These two books helped me plan and get started. But I’ve also learned through experience you create your blog by writing a post every week. That deadline, even self-imposed, comes up fast, especially if you have a day job and if you’re working on other writing, as well. So far, it’s scary and fun. Weird and normal. Weird to put out work that’s unfinished, raw, on the fly. Normal, because it captures the authentic flow of life and writing every week.

The Anatomy of a Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby

I’m yearning to start a new script, and I think this is the book to crack open for that purpose. I want someone to tell me how to do it, get me started. But I’m at a place where I need to listen to my own voice and just write. This is the last rewrite before I post the script on and hopefully sell it fast! I’m going to use this wonderful Truby book as a reward when I’m finished.

Train Dreams: A Novella by Denis Johnson

I read a moving review in The New York Times by Anthony Doerr on this Johnson novella that made me want to run out and buy it and read it immediately. I ended up putting a hold on it at the library, and I’ll go pick it up tomorrow. Doerr writes this about the book, “It’s a love story, a hermit’s story and a refashioning of age-old wolf-based folklore like “Little Red Cap.” It’s also a small masterpiece. You look up from the thing dazed, slightly changed.”  He also compares it in the beginning of the piece to your favorite “most devastating” place in nature, that you want to share and keep safe at the same time. I’m there. Reading it tomorrow. Can’t wait. The review is wonderfully written, too. Check it out.

Instead of reading all these books I got tons of writing done today. Maybe I’ll read a little before sleep tonight. Big work day tomorrow and hopefully tons of writing, too. But I’ll hit the library early and pick up Train Dreams in hopes of getting to it.

My sis, Kim, studied acting at The University of Texas at Austin (and got her BFA there). The great Sam Shepard visited her playwriting class. One of the students asked him which playwrights he reads. Shepherd answered, “I don’t read plays. I write them.” That quote can float me along while I’m writing but having a hard time getting in all the reading I want to do. For me, it’s writing first, the great, wonderful, difficult, wrenching work. Reading is the reward and inspiration for the labor of writing.

Do you read when you’re writing? What are you reading today? What are you looking forward to reading?

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Divining The Real Deal From Henry James

Portrait of Henry James, the novelist
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“…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?