For All the Ziggys and Snapes Out There

Personal, Uncategorized

Something I’ve been thinking a lot about this week—since David Bowie and Alan Rickman died—is the role of artists play in our daily lives. It’s become apparent that these two touched many, many lives. And obviously, Bowie and Rickman reached larger audiences than most artists will see in their lifetimes. But, I often struggle to feel legitimate, and I’d like to take a moment to encourage other artists, creators, and makers, to just keep doing it. Because not only will you be a better person for it, but your art will benefit others’ lives in ways you may never know.

The delight a child gets from your silly illustration. The thrill an audience gets from your monologue. The escape a reader experiences while reading your novel. An audience member’s catharsis at the end of your play. The comfort a person feels wrapped in your hand-crocheted scarf. The room that is brightened by your painting. The impromptu dance party inspired by your song. The face that lights up at a taste of your perfect risotto. These are all worthy contributions to the world. Remember that when you feel discouraged.

And don’t let the muggles tell you it’s silly to mourn your favorite wizard.

IMG_4859

New Year Review

Personal, Podcasts, TV, Work

photo-1439556838232-994e4c0d3b7c

New Year’s has never been my favorite holiday, though I admit I like it more as I get older. It’s refreshing to eat healthier and clean out your closets, even if the spell only lasts a few weeks. However, as December waned, I took no joy in all the year end round-ups and “best of” lists. I had a gnawing irritation in my gut. I felt like a failure for not meeting my goals, for not getting any closer to the career and life I want. And that feeling was stealing my joy.

Christmas was busy enough to keep me distracted, but the feeling of failure was still lurking around. After Christmas, I was driving and feeling dejected, listening to a rebroadcast of one of my favorite podcasts, Dinner Party Download. The episode contained an interview with Jason Segel, from back when he was promoting his critically-acclaimed movie, The End of the Tour. I listen to DPDL every week, so I had most certainly heard the interview before. Maybe I missed it last time, or maybe I forgot, but Segel dropped some wisdom that was so simple and clear that it lifted me out of my anxiety fog.

“If you are being nice to the people around you, and are trying to take care of yourself and do a little exercise, and are working as hard as you can at what you do, then you’re entitled to have a little bit of peace.”

-Jason Segel

Yes! Yes, Jason, I am entitled to some peace. You know, it’s not as if all this anxiety has propelled me forward in my “career.” It’s not some renewable energy source that I can use to fuel my life. Actually, it’s quite the opposite. Anxiety kills creativity and sucks the fun out of everything. So remind me of this in a few months, when I’m still plugging away at writing, with no success, still a 32 year-old barista, still not sure what to do with myself. Just remind me that none of those things should get between me and my enjoyment of life.

A list of things that I did in 2015

  • Wrote a screenplay.
  • Signed my first option agreement. (That one kind of fell in my lap, but I’m counting it because it’s a big milestone for me.)
  • Changed jobs. Out of retail hell, hopefully for good.
  • Grappled with screenplay structure and seem to have come to terms with it. For this I have the Scriptnotes podcast to thank, as well as Craig Mazin‘s talk on structure at the Austin Screenwriter’s Conference.
  • Speaking of which, I attended the aforementioned Austin Screenwriter’s Conference and found my tribe.
  • Oddly, I finally began using two social media sites that have been ubiquitous for years: Pinterest and Instagram.

A list of things I’d like to do in 2016

  • Read more books. (I created a Books board on Pinterest (which is pretty heavily influence by NPR’s Book Concierge) to keep track of my must-read list.)
  • Make a list of classic movies and watch them.
  • Spend less time mindlessly scrolling the internet.
  • Have better posture. (Continuing the trend of “discovering” things everyone already loves, I think I may like yoga…)
  • Cook from my cookbooks more. (I have whole cookbooks from which I’ve cooked nary a recipe.)
  • Submit my work to screenplay festivals.

There. Nothing on that list is unachievable. Some of those things are actually fun.

The Year’s Best

As my New Year’s gift to you, I’m listing some of what I’ve watched, read, or listened to this year.

I’d love to hear about your favorites of 2015 and what you’re looking forward to in 2016. Happy New Year!

 

Kill The Monster

News, Personal
Denmark Vesey, leader of a  slave revolt in 1822, was one of the founders of Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, SC.

Denmark Vesey, leader of a slave revolt in 1822, was one of the founders of Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, SC.

The tail end of our trip to Charleston coincided with the terrible atrocity that took place at Emanuel A.M.E. Church last night. My prayers are with the victims and their families. Charleston is beautiful and inspiring, but it’s impossible to walk around the city and not be reminded that last night’s attack is just another in a series of racially motivated atrocities that have happened over the centuries, in Charleston and throughout our country. The statue pictured above honors the leader of a slave revolt, but the park it calls home is named after a Confederate general. Statues around Charleston commemorate Confederate officers. A Confederate flag flies at the South Carolina State House.

Let’s get this out of the way right now. This was not an attack on religion or Christianity. Christians, especially white Christians, this is not your persecution. Those people were targeted because of the color of their skin. (I hesitate even to use the word race because there’s no biological or physiological basis for dividing humanity into different races.) The congregants of this historic church were targeted because our society has failed to put to death the cruel, barbaric, toxic, evil monster that is Racism.

Most of us with any shred of a conscience will look on last night’s events with sadness and disgust. But few of you will recognize your own role in fueling the monster.

If you have ever shaken your head in disapproval at the sight of an interracial couple, you are part of the monster. If you have ever (incorrectly) railed against the cost of black people on the welfare system, you are part of the monster. If you have ever remarked in surprise at an African American’s articulateness or cleanliness, if you have ever uttered the phrase, “She’s pretty for a black girl,” you are part of the monster. If you display a Confederate flag and proudly claim it as your heritage, you are part of the monster. If you have ever snapped your fingers and mockingly adopted a black accent or derided a name that begins with La’ or Sh’, you are part of the monster. If you have used the N-word, whether casually or pointedly, you are part of the monster. If you don’t understand why African Americans can use that word and you can’t, if you justify the deaths of unarmed black men and boys at the hands of law enforcement because of their clothing, their use of marijuana, or their alleged crimes, you are part of the monster. If you’ve ever passed up an applicant’s resume because their name sounded black or insisted the Civil War was only about states’ rights, you are part of the monster.

And this is the hardest one to write. If you’ve ever sat silent while someone else made a racist comment, biting your tongue and feeling sick inside, you are part of the monster. I am part of the monster. My silence has made a comfortable home for the monster. My silence has made it possible for the monster to live another day.

Last night Dylann Storm Roof was the gnashing teeth and crushing arms of the monster. But we were its polluted lungs, the veins and arteries carrying its dark blood, and the foul skin holding it together. People of color can’t slay this monster. We white folks have to strangle the monsters in ourselves if this nightmare is ever going to end. That ability to change, the ability to grow and evolve is what raises us, the human race, above monsters.

Productivity and Breathing Room

Personal, Work

There are countless advice articles for writers encouraging us to write everyday. Steven Pressfield, who I touted in my previous post, orders us to defy Resistance and write. The beautiful force of love and wisdom and profanity that is Cheryl Strayed tells us to “write like a motherfucker.” I believe them and agree with them because what they’re talking about is hard work, and I’ve grown suspicious of anything that purports to be easy.

But recently I favorited this tweet:

FullSizeRender

 

I favorited it almost without thinking, because it’s true for me. Often solutions to problems, ideas, or rewrites will come to me when I’m not doing anything related to writing. Driving is an especially productive time for me, which is somewhat unfortunate given that I haven’t mastered voice-recorded dictation. Last week I sent my script out to two friends for feedback. So it’s kind of a natural point to let it breathe. But in the meantime, another of my ideas began to coalesce in my brain. I sat down and wrote a beat sheet of sorts for a new script. But the whole time I kept writing and thinking the wrong character names because my head’s still in the other script.

So that’s what I’m thinking about this week. How to find the balance between writing like a motherfucker and giving it time to breathe.

The War of Art

Books, Personal, Work

I can’t believe I forgot to write a blog post last week, because I actually had something really cool to share. Last week I read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, and I felt like I was reading a book about myself. If you know me and you’ve wondered over the years, “What is the deal with Alison? She’s seems smart enough. Why can’t she get her shit together?” (Believe me, I’ve been wondering that too.) This book has the answer. It’s Resistance.  Resistance is the inner force that works against us whenever we try to do something positive or creative. I recognized it the moment Pressfield began to describe it. I’ve wrestled with Resistance for years. I feel it everyday. But now that someone has identified it for me, and clued me in to its devious manipulations, I feel more powerful to fight it.

There are so many takeaways from The War of Art, that I could never convey them all in a blog post. I highly recommend reading it yourself. Especially if you are someone who’s always had a desire or calling you’ve never fulfilled, or never tried to fulfill.  You know who you are. And it doesn’t just apply to creatives. If you’ve ever dreamed of doing something that would be good for you and the world, but a little voice told you not to, because of fear, insecurity, or inertia—you should read this book.

Normally I don’t read a lot of “self help” books. I tend to get bored with them. But I will probably read this book again. That’s how great it is. I also read a follow up called Do the Work, which is shorter but takes the concept of Resistance and lays out more practical advice for actually doing the work required to accomplish what you’ve set out to do.

I’ll leave you with this quote from The War of Art.

Rule of thumb: The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.

– Steven Pressfield

Filling the Well

Personal, Work

  

I’m traveling today, so this update will be brief. Last week I told you I had moved on to a new script after hitting a wall with the first one. Well, after a weekend away from it and most of Monday spent running errands and listening to music, I got some new ideas. So I’m back in the old script!

I bet you’re not surprised. I think everyone has a related experience, when all you needed was a little break to refresh your mind. That’s not to say I have it all figured out, but at least I have a direction. 

I can’t remember where I read it, but recently I saw a passage from Julia Cameron about filling your well. Creative work drains your “well” so you must take time to fill it with more images, and I think, sounds, smells, stories, tastes, and feelings.

As artists we must learn to be self-nourishing. We must become alert enough to consciously replenish our creative resources as we draw on them– to restock the trout pond, so to speak. I call this process filling the well. 

– Julia Cameron


I think I will read some of her books. 

Progress Update

New outline/timeline and 13 pages into version 3. 

My Challenges

Figuring out what the hell I’m doing. 

  


Leap In The Dark

Movies, Personal, Podcasts, Video, Web

Leap-in-the-dark

As someone with more than her fair share of existential hang ups, I’ve always envied artists who seem to blithely glide through life, creative energy flowing freely, uninhibited by anxiety or uncertainty.

But I’m not that person and it does my angsty little heart good to see how other artists work and to hear about their struggles. Here’s a few things from around the internet that have soothed my soul this week.

Emma Thompson’s Screenwriter’s Lecture at BAFTA (in which she recites the beautiful Agnes de Mille quote I’ve illustrated above.)

LA Times’ article on Ethan Hawke’s new documentary, Seymour: An Introduction. (See also Hawke’s interview on the Dinner Party Download and this video on Indiewire.)

Vanity Fair’s Tribute to Nora Ephron

Screw the Muse

Personal, Work

photo-1421986527537-888d998adb74

Not to sound repetitive, but it was another weird week. On Tuesday I enlisted the services of professional screenwriting consultant, Erik Bork. I’d read a lot of his blog entries and liked his tone. Some screenwriting blogs have obnoxious graphics and a kind of arrogant tone. Erik’s tone is honest and down to earth and he writes about issues that concern me. If you go to his website, you can sign up to receive his Ten Key Principles of Screenwriting. I found these to be really helpful and informative.

Erik raised some issues regarding my screenplay that I can’t seem to get around. The conflict is too internal. The characters are underdeveloped. I know with enough work I could fix the characters. But I’m stuck on this internal conflict. The idea for the script came to me several years ago and I’ve been building it a little at a time. I never stopped to consider the structure of the story, or the main conflict. Looking back it feels like I started building a house without a blue print. But by now the idea is solidified in my head. After our conversation, I sat down and tried to manufacture an external conflict, but it felt like I was straying from the story I wanted to tell. The thing is, I know Erik is right. I agree with his criticisms. I just don’t know how to fix it.

IMG_8787

So I decided to put this script aside and begin work on another idea. The new idea has a more straightforward, external conflict. I think it fits better into the screenplay structure. This week I started hashing out the story. The idea isn’t as fully formed as the other and the scope is bigger. I’m entering a territory where ideas don’t just come to me from the ether, I’m actively producing them. It’s hard. At the same time it’s empowering, not to be dependent on the “muses” for inspiration. And my hope is that once I’ve digested the formula for screenplays and gained more experience as a writer I can go back to the script I wrote this month and make it better.

Sometimes it feels like I’ve taken on an enormous task. Maybe I’ve set my goals too high. Three screenplays in six months could be crazy. But I’m going to try anyway. Not trying isn’t an option.

And I’d like to thank those of you who’ve encouraged me over the past week. Your words are greatly appreciated.

Progress Update

This week I began outlining a new script. It’s all handwritten so far, nothing in the computer yet. I also did quite a bit of research on Monday and Tuesday. I love doing this research because I don’t have to turn it into a term paper and hand it in for a grade. In fact, I can play fast and loose with the facts because I’m writing fiction!

My Challenges

Keeping my spirits up and the wheels turning. I’ve also been breaking some of my productivity rules this week, spending too much time on social media and no time in face to face meetings with friends. I will do better next week.

A Weird Week

Personal, Work
A beautiful photo to get you through these last teasing weeks before spring. (Photo via Unsplash.)

A beautiful photo to get you through these last teasing weeks before spring. (Photo via Unsplash.)

It’s been a weird week. I’m waiting for feedback on my second draft and I’ve been a tad under the weather. So productivity was down, but only slightly. I re-read my draft a couple of times and I’ve found myself growing quite fond of the characters. You’d think characters would be like children, you birth them and immediately love them. But these characters came to me only partially formed and I had to build them into something interesting.

But are they interesting? That’s the question that nags at me. I’ve succeeded in creating something that I like. But I’m not one of those artists who’s just in it to please themselves. Actually, other people not liking my work would not be the worst thing. Other people being bored by my work would be the worst thing.

Progress Update

This week I read and edited my draft, sought feedback, and re-wrote the short film script that will accompany this feature length script. The good news is that I’m actually ahead of schedule by about two weeks. Oh! And I thought of a title. (That’s big for me.)

My Challenges

Being patient and figuring out how to fill the gap between finishing the draft and getting feedback. I brainstormed a little for my next script but didn’t feel like I could devote enough head space to it yet.

 

The Vicarious Shame of a Racist Heritage

Personal

There’s a poison that contaminates my childhood memories and present day interactions. It has trickled down through generations, robbing me of the ability to feel proud of my heritage. It’s even difficult to discuss this poison publicly, because it infects people I love dearly, and while they may not feel its shame, I do. I’m talking about racism.

My Background

I grew up lower middle class in rural North Carolina. The elementary school I attended was kindergarten through 8th grade, and at its highest enrollment had about 300 students. I estimate 99 percent of the students were white, as were 100 percent of the teachers. Our foreign language education (French) was eliminated in 5th grade. (I remember that clearly because I was disappointed.)

I was raised Southern Baptist. My church was also all white. I will avoid telling specific instances of racism in my family and community because I feel an impulse to protect the people I love, even when I abhor their racist ideologies. All you need to know is that I was not allowed to interact with black people or their culture. At that time, I’m not even sure my hometown had even the most white-washed of ethnic restaurants. Chinese and Mexican food moved in when I was a teenager. (Or at least that’s how I remember it.)

The high school I attended was much more diverse, though whites were still a huge majority. The social groups seemed naturally segregated, with only a few kids crossing the lines between groups. I remember at least one big fight over racial tensions.

Healthy Skepticism

Somehow, from an early age, I sensed the inherent wrongness of racism. Of course some prejudices seeped in and had to be dealt with as an adult. But overall I remember knowing very clearly that the racism in my family and community was not simply wrong, but a pernicious and ugly evil. Looking back, I’m not sure where I diverged from my upbringing. My mom never actively espoused racism but passively accepted it in others. I attribute much of my understanding to her.

I was also in church once or twice a week, memorizing Bible verses and singing songs. “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight,” goes the children’s Sunday school classic. It boggles my mind to think how that song was passed down through the years by people who most certainly did not treat people of color as souls that God himself holds precious. But I guess I took the song at its word. Besides, I could never find anything in the Bible that supported racial prejudice. I knew that certain verses had been twisted by racists and segregationists to support slavery and Jim Crow, but their manipulations seemed to me quite obvious and in direct opposition to everything Jesus taught. When I questioned elders about this lack of Biblical support for prejudice and racism, I was told it was simply common sense that the races should remain separate.

Education and travel only reinforced and strengthened my childhood aversion to racism. I began to question everything I was taught, and on many issues (Okay, most issues) I found myself breaking away from conservative teaching. My generation seems torn between the two. I know lots of people my age who have abandoned that part of their upbringing. Others in my generation have adopted a sort of Racism Lite™ which is not as readily noticeable as that of their elders but is definitely still toxic. I squeamishly consider this progress. But why have some of us been able to break away and others not? Why are some people completely content to accept what they’re taught without questioning it? Because as we all know, racism is not a genetic malady: it has to be taught.

My Ancestors

My great-great-grandmother, Hattie.

My great-great-grandmother, Hattie.

Recently I became fascinated with Ancestry.com. (Before people start jumping in to warn me of potential inaccuracies, let me say I take it with a grain of salt.) For the unfamiliar, Ancestry.com gives you access to tons of historical records: census data, military records, birth and death certificates, etc. The site also links you to family trees that overlap with yours, and you can import their data into your tree. Using this method I’ve been able to trace my lineage extraordinarily far back in time. Naturally, the further back in time, the more room for error. But it’s a fun experience nevertheless.

I didn’t find much that surprised me. Each branch of my family descended from people who came to the American colonies before the Revolutionary War. All of them were European (German, Swiss, English, Scottish) and all of them were Protestant. Once they arrived in North Carolina, specifically the Piedmont area, they stayed. And stayed, and stayed. And most of us are still here! So far I have only found one Native American in my family tree; a Cherokee woman from Virginia.

As you’d expect, I found several Confederate soldiers in my lineage. I’m not proud of that but I recognize they were poor farmers and had no choice in the matter, whether or not they supported slavery. So far I’ve only found one relative who owned slaves, and even he was no plantation owner. What I did find was a noticeable lack of education. Some of the old census records document education and literacy. Many of my ancestors were illiterate. Others had not attended school but listed they were able to read and write, which begs the question, exactly how literate could they have been?

Even as recent as my grandparents’ generation, some of them didn’t finish high school and none of them went to college.  While I understand that statistically there are probably lots of professors, engineers, and doctors who were and are racist, I can’t help but think my generation has benefitted from our free, public education, laws that kept us in school to at least the age of 16, and technology that brought other cultures into our homes.

Education is Key

The recent passing of net neutrality is a step in the right direction for our country, as well as the legalization of municipal broadband. I see easy and cheap access to information as a way to hasten the downfall of racism, and all kinds of prejudice. I’m very worried, however, about the recent Conservative attacks on education in our country. I’ve read about Republicans in Texas removing critical thinkings skills from public school curricula, Republicans in Oklahoma banning the AP U.S. history course because it didn’t reflect the positive aspects of United States history, and Republicans in my home state of North Carolina are busy slashing funding to certain public university programs. I don’t have any answers for how to stop this onslaught, except to vote in better representatives. But as education rates drop and poverty climbs, the backwards thinking that has caused so much suffering in our country will be much slower to change. I try to remain optimistic, reminding myself that change happening slowly is still change, but for people whose lives are literally lost in the meantime, that’s little comfort.