Wednesday, April 30, 2014

On Writing

I started this blog as a think-out-loud tool for myself, and I've slowly let it slip into neglect (the fact that it's on Blogger and not Wordpress is a dead giveaway). Why did I sacrifice long-form thought on the altar of social media snark and snippetization? Who knows, but just this morning, I decided to go back and read my opening post, "When I Grow Up." And several things hit me.

First: I wrote that piece seven years ago to the day. Second: the feelings I expressed are as relevant today as they were then. And third: Despite the fact that I've since written a screenplay that actually turned into a distributed film starring an Oscar-nominated actor ("Memorial Day"), I still ultimately value a collection of travel writing more than anything else I've written. And I haven't contributed to it in almost 10 years.


On April 30, 2007, I wrote:

The writing that means the most is the writing that can't be sold.

I'm glad that I sent Future Me that message seven years ago. But now for the task at hand: to answer four questions about writing. 

1) What am I writing? 

At the moment, I'm working on a particularly eclectic mix. For a paying client (I'm a one-man ad agency by day), I'm writing a book on their rather colorful corporate history and producing a Star Trek parody video for their upcoming annual conference. Then there's my current lineup of "spec" (read: unpaid) work.

On that front, I'm working on two screenplays. One is a historical drama covering St. Paul's gangster past--a wonderful Prohibition-era story yet to be told, as St. Paul was one of a handful of gangster "safe havens" in the 1930s. The other is a script called "Pulling the Plug." This is a dark comedy about a family who has to pull the plug on someone twice: once when he falls into a coma, and then again when they realize that he's programmed his social media accounts to dish the family secrets after he's dead. 

2) How does my work/writing differ from others of its genre? 

I'll focus on screenwriting, because that makes this a particularly tricky question. Since movies are more collaborative (and commercial) than any other genre, being "original" can be difficult. In fact, within the rigid structure and formatting confines of a screenplay, originality can be a liability. It's not an exaggeration to say that if a production company sees a script that isn't 90-120 pages long and written in 12-pt. Courier font with no more than four consecutive action lines before dialogue, they'll throw it in the garbage without reading it. It's also said that a movie is written three times: once by the screenwriter, once by the director, and finally by the editor. I've now seen that entire process, and it's true. 

I think my "difference" comes in two forms--one dramatic, one comedic. For dramatic scripts like "Memorial Day," my unique angle is taking a traditionally big and powerful genre (the "war film") and making it subservient to something more human. All war movies are about more than war. But to me, that film isn't about war at all; it's about how we strive to achieve immortality through storytelling ... and how that tradition largely disappeared when we discontinued the oral tradition. For the gangster project, I'm following a similar path: The "gangster" aspect is subservient to the protagonist's quest to preserve his own safe haven at all costs.

In my comedic scripts, I've made an unconscious habit of using death (broadly defined) as a theme. I wrote a script called "Fake Your Own Death, Inc." about a benevolent psychopath who kidnaps people and fakes their deaths for them (because he knows it's the only way they'll ever realize their true worth). I won a contest and received an option on a script called "Deadbeat Boyfriends," which was about a guy who fakes weddings for women who want to pretend to marry Mr. Wrong so that Mr. Right will crash the ceremony. And then there's the new one ("Pulling the Plug").

Why do I do this? I think it's because to this day, the only book that has ever made complete sense to me is Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death, which I read in high school. I would since add a newer book by Ajit Varki called Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind. Light reading, eh? The point is, all meaning, all humor, all inspiration comes from the fact, fear and denial of death. So why not just tackle it head on?   

3) Why do I write what I do? 

I write in different genres to fulfill different needs. As I've mentioned, my favorite things to write are personal travel journals, and there's a thick, three-ring binder of essays and observations to prove it. When travel became more limited after I started a family, I began to define "travel" as any significant life experience. At one point, that included writing about a painful late miscarriage and the daughter I'll never have. That piece was the only one I ever sought to share, and it was later published as "Hieroglyph" in a literary journal called Water~Stone Review.

I've written long-form journalistic pieces when the subject has interested me. But mostly, I write screenplays. Why? Because I tend to think cinematically, and there's nothing like seeing something go from your head to a big screen ... and witnessing people laughing or crying at what you've created. 

That last point is critical. I once had the honor of attending a "Memorial Day" screening watched simultaneously by active-duty National Guard members in Kuwait and their families in Minnesota. I have no military experience, but hearing the sniffles from military family members at the exact point in the script that made me weep when I wrote it was an unforgettable "writer" (and human) moment. It reminded me to always be grateful for the ability to create. Like most writers, I spend a ridiculous amount of time feeling insecure about my abilities and wishing that I had real talent, like [fill in the blank]. But I can die knowing that words and images I conjured in my basement were able to provide catharsis for hundreds of people in a theater two years later.  

4) How does my writing process work? 

It doesn't. Screenwriting in particular is saturated with books and podcasts on process. I've tried them all and found that every script demands a different one. In general, though, my process looks something like this:  

- A random idea falls from the sky. I wake up with it, think of it in the shower. Sometimes the second I get out of my normal environment, an idea suddenly comes to me. Don't think this happens every day. A good idea can wait years before revealing itself. 

- Increasingly, I share the concept with everyone I know, even on social media. The risk of someone "stealing" your precious movie idea is very small, and it's better to find out early if it's been done before or is too close to something you've never heard of. You also sometimes get great ideas from other people ...

- Knowing that if I write this sucker, it's going to sap all of my non-existent spare-time energy for 6-18 months, I try to remember how good it feels when you finally print the first draft and secure it with those two shiny, golden brass fasteners. 

- Taking that one step farther, I make a fake poster--as if the script has been bought and the movie made with my ideal cast. I look at the one above for "Pulling the Plug" whenever I get bogged down, and John Cusack makes me smile. (Want to be in the movie, John?)

- From this point on, it's chaos. The only thing that keeps me sane is seeing the writing process as sculpture. First, there's an eruption of lava. Don't think about it too much. Embrace Anne Lamott's "shitty first draft" concept with a vengeance. The lava eventually hardens, and then I begin to chisel and sculpt. At each of these phases, I have a profound desire to be in the one after it. 

- I read my work and hate it. Then I keep fine-tuning it until I hate it just a little less. Then, years later, I might actually like it. Just a little.

This article is part of a "Blog Hop," started by Ellen Barone and continued by my friend, fellow Ireland study-abroad-program-mate, and award-winning writer and photographer Kristen Gill.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

25 Years from the Most Important Moment


It's been brought to my attention, and in retrospect it's amazing I didn't sense it on my own, that this week marks 25 years since the day that I and 30+ other Notre Dame and St. Mary's students left on a Pan Am jet for the small village of Maynooth, Ireland.

I would travel to every bend of the country during that sophomore year of 1988-89, sometimes carrying nothing but a backpack, a journal and my thumb. But I also extended my travels to the continent and beyond. At the age of 19, I found myself skiing the Alps, gazing up at the Glockenspiel, walking among the ghosts of Masada, viewing the despairing slums of Gaza from the comfortable remove of a U.N. bus, swimming (I should say floating) in the Dead Sea, lighting a candle inside St. Peter's Basilica, riding the street cars of Budapest, staring in genuine awe at the Mona Lisa, and busking on Dublin's Grafton Street (and once on a boat to the Aran Islands).

Yet, despite the fact that I recall this year as often as one remembers a departed family member, these aren't the things I think about. What I really remember are the walks. 

The house that I shared with fellow Americans Pat, Bryan and Trace was two miles from everything: the college, the grocery store, the laundromat, the pub ("The Roost"), the ATM, the phone booth, the chipper. You couldn't even get a shower without first taking a good walk (and thus needing it even more). The first leg of the journey took you out of our bland, cookie-cutter housing development, Cluain Aoibhinn ("Kloon Even"). The bulk of it sent you along a narrow road marked at the halfway point by a "News Agent," at which I bought no newspapers but many Cadbury Dairy Milk bars. As you neared the school, you took a stone bridge over a small canal that ran along a horse pasture. Then finally, after nearly 20 minutes, you spied the castle ruin marking the entrance to St. Patrick's College. I made this walk every day, at least twice a day, for eight months.

I have no real recollection of what I thought about on these daily journeys, sometimes completed with my roommates, more often alone, sometimes on the way to the main road where you hitchhiked to Dublin, often late at night after The Roost had finally closed its doors. But I do remember one particular morning. It was midway through the year. I'm sure the air was laced with co-mingled coal and peat moss smoke rising from every house chimney. I was likely sporting worn black suede shoes with slightly detached soles, and wearing three layers of denim and flannel underneath my favorite maroon-and-black-checkered jacket.

I crossed that stone bridge and stared at the frost underneath the hooves of the horses, and at that moment, something washed over me that I've always found impossible to describe. Pete Townshend writes about hearing gorgeous music in his head as boy while on the sea one day--strains he's never been able to adequately recreate (though he says he came closest in the introduction to "Baba O'Reilly"). I can equate my feeling only to the correction of an astigmatism, like images that had always been split, fragmented and malformed finally coming together into perfect, sharp focus. But the images were me. And in that odd, glorious moment, it was as if I finally felt some kind of defined place in the universe: right, comfortable, genuinely spiritual. So overwhelmed by the feeling, I stopped and inhaled its euphoria along with the coal, peat and chill. And then, just as quickly as it had come, it vanished. I wouldn't be surprised if everybody on that program experienced something similar in their own way. It's the reason why I and the handful of others on my return flight cried in silence the second our plane left the ground in Shannon and headed west to bring us home.

I still bemoan never being able to conjure that cosmic ecstasy in Maynooth 25 years ago, but over time I find myself letting the wanting go in favor of hoping that others, especially my son, have the chance to feel something similar. I partly owe my Irish experience to my father's insistence that all of his children study abroad. And since his sudden death in May, I find myself wondering if his 77 years ever delivered him a comparable, magical moment. I imagine that if it did happen, it was while he was in college or grad school, before he chose the path of taking responsibility for other people and institutions, maybe when he was a newspaper reporter in St. Louis or Minneapolis--some point in his life when he was young and idealistic, doing what he truly loved, and able to accept the universe's generous offer of a unique place, just for him, just for that moment.  

Friday, November 16, 2012

Another Meditation on "The Vault"

I've already written in a previous post about the long-standing symbolism of seeds as units of potential, and intellectualized about the human condition and whether we possess the ability to realize any kind of potential other than technological. Now that I'm finally putting pen to paper on this script, today's Friday meditation is more personal: How do we feel the expectations of our parents when we are children, and how do we place expectations on our children when we become parents?

As children, parental expectations produce all kinds of complex and contradictory effects. The biggest insult would be to feel that your parent(s) have no expectations of you whatsoever, which means that you're simply untalented and incapable. The biggest stress is to feel that your mother or father has gathered all of life's perceived failures into a giant heap and placed it on your shoulders--the "Tennis Dad" run amok. I recall recently reading an article ... probably in reaction to the "Tiger Mom" controversy ... about adults who as kids were pushed into prodigy. The lasting image was of a former virtuoso child pianist who now lives in a house in which a grand piano is suspended above him in the living room. Needless to say, he no longer plays, and probably has more than a sliver in his budget pie set aside for therapy.

As kids, you feel that expectation, for better or worse. You need to feel it. It needs to be there. And at some point, you decide whether you will embrace it or rebel against it. If you're lucky, your true ambitions match well with your parents' expectations, and you will be comfortable in your own skin. More likely, they won't be a perfect fit, and you will choose either to appease in exchange for approval, or reject (and face disappointment) in exchange for freedom. As a parent, I constantly think about those sacred cows I probably don't even realize I have, and the possibility that my only child might one day reject them (e.g., he'll not only reject the notion of studying abroad while attending a liberal arts college, he'll reject the entire notion of "college" as antiquated, and the concept of "liberal arts" as quaint, trite and no longer relevant).

And how will that make me feel? Disappointed in the rejection of what I value? Or pride in the fact that he is choosing to be his own man?