Tuesday, May 18, 2010

This Land is Your Land

This Land is Your Land
“I don’t know that song.”

Those are the words my niece Taylor said to me.  I had just started playing and singing the Woody Guthrie song, “This Land is Your Land” and she and her sister Emma were sitting on the living room floor of my sister’s house, listening.  I think they really just wanted me to play “I’m a Believer” since they knew that song from Shrek.  But I thought they may recognize the Guthrie tune since I remember singing it all the time when I was in elementary school. 

“Don’t you guys sing this song in school?”

“No.  We’ve never heard of it.”

For some reason, this incident has stayed with me for the past several years and I’ve wondered how many children out there don’t know about Woody Guthrie or any of his songs? 

So I decided I was going to write a children’s play about Guthrie using his songs.  And then I decided I wanted this to be a puppet play.  So now I have a new project for the coming year or so.  It may transform into something else, not necessarily about Woody himself—this is not going to be a biography.  It will be a snapshot of the depression-era and a look at this travelling folksinger who gave working-class people hope, joy, power and inspiration. 

Now I just have to convince my puppet friend to make the puppets.

The best part of this project is that I have such a specific target audience: my nieces Emma and Taylor.  I may have to use them as test subjects as I write the story.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Where Are You Going?

Yesterday I was having drinks in celebration of my wife who just became a PhD and I got into a conversation with a fellow playwright.  He also happens to be a PhD candidate and is struggling with writing his prospectus—which is like an outline of what he is going to write for his dissertation.  He feels this exercise is a waste of time because the prospectus is due before he takes a six week trip to delve into archives.  Who knows what he may find there that will change the argument of his dissertation.  So why bother?

I told him it’s a helpful exercise even if he decides to change everything.  Which seems like foolish advice, but here’s why I say this.  

I used to hate outlining plays and screenplays.  (He says he never outlines his plays when he writes.)  An outline is like having a map.  You don’t need to use the map or follow your plans.  You can take detours, but its nice to know there was a plan that you could use if you needed to.  

I love getting derailed.  I love when characters surprise me, but I can’t always count on it.  The writing process is particular to each project so you never know how it will unfold.  

Yes, you should dig into the archive (both literal and figurative) and see how that changes your story and changes your plans.  An outline is not meant to be prescriptive.  It’s a tool to help you frame your thoughts and ask yourself:

Where do I want to go?  How will I get there?

If you don’t ask those questions in the beginning, you might just end up lost.

(And not like LOST the TV show.  I mean, lost.)

Seriously, you use Google maps to plan your drives, why not use some of that energy to plan your writing?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Do you teach subjects? Or do you teach students?

Just finished reading THE ELEMENT and had to post this great excerpt in the last chapter here:

"The Element has implications for teaching.  Too many reform movements in education are designed to make education teacher-proof.  The most successful systems in the world take the opposite view.  They invest in teachers.  The reason is that people succeed best when they have others who understand their talents, challenges and abilities.  This is why mentoring is such a helpful force in so many peoples lives.  Great teachers have always understood that that real role is not to teach subjects but to teach students.  Mentoring and coaching is the vital pulse of a living system of education."

How many of us remember a great course in college by the syllabus or the tests or the papers we wrote?  Or do you remember the teacher?  

I think of some of the great teachers I've had in my life (like the amazing beacon of light Davey Marlin-Jones or the ever prescient William Esper) and I remember not just their personality or wisdom but how they saw something in me and found a way to use my natural talents.  I aspire to be that kind of teacher.

Teachers teach students.  Not subjects.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Are you out of focus?

I’ll be honest.  I don’t feel like writing today.  There have been a lot of days like that in the past year.  A little less lately, but they still come and go.  

These are the days that separate the writers from the dabblers.  Writers don't have the luxury of choosing to work only when they feel inspired.  They show up and do the work.  

There are many days I’m sure you don’t want to get up and go to work, but you do any way.  It’s the same with writing.

(Oh sure, some days you might call in sick and call it a “mental health” day--I mean, I'm not knocking anyone who wants to get their Ferris Bueller on).  

My wife has just finished writing a dissertation.  This is like writing a book.  And writing a book is like writing anything else, like a play or a screenplay.  In order to write this giant academic masterpiece she had to have two things:
  •   Incredible focus for a length of time
  • A plan

Focus is what gets us up in the morning and drives us through the hard times, through the days when we don’t want to work.  Focus is what allows us see the final outcome.  Focus is our energy put to good use.

A plan is just that--a plan.  It’s not just saying, “I’m going to get up at 6 am and write for an hour every morning” but that’s part of it.  A plan is saying I’m going to write an abstract today, a summary tomorrow, a chapter this week, a chapter next week, etc.  When I did the exercise of writing a screenplay in 28 days, the best thing about it was how it laid out a plan of writing.  One day you write a paragraph outline, next day you write 10 pages, then the next 10, and on and on.  Next thing you know, you have a screenplay.

You have to have a plan and focus.  Okay, maybe not you.  Maybe you have that already and good for you, but I don't.  I haven’t had a plan or focus in a long time.  So I’m doing a lot of planning right now.  I’m planning out the things I want to write about in this blog, for example.  I’m planning on my projects for the coming year and after.  

I’m planning on doing a lot of writing.  

Of course, planning about writing isn’t writing.  Only writing is writing.

But I’ll save that topic for later.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity | Video on TED.com

Here's the TED video that I watched where I first became introduced to some of Dr. Ken Robinson's ideas on creativity and education.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

What I'm reading--The Element by Ken Robinson

My last post I talked about how I’ve taken a break from writing in order to re-evaluate and refresh.  I didn’t stop reading, though.  Truth is, I never stop reading.

One of the first conversations my wife had with my brother was about how I keep three or four books on the nightstand by my bed.  I'm usually reading all these books at various stages and my mood dictates which one I read that particular evening before I go to sleep.

The book I've been reading almost every night is Dr. Ken Robinson’s THE ELEMENT: How finding your passion changes everything. 
The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything 
This book reexamines what we think of when we think of intelligence and creativity.  It has inspiring stories about how many creative and intelligent people found their passion and their “element” in their chosen fields, people like Matt Groening (Created or The Simpsons), Gillian Lynne (choreographer), Alan Ball (writer of American Beauty and Six Feet Under) and Richard Feynman (renowned physicist).  

It also examines the education system and the way we use outdated aptitude tests to gauge intelligence, like IQ tests or college entry exams like the SATs.  The issue with these tests is that they only test for certain aptitudes, not for all. 

I’m not knocking education because I do believe in good education (and have a mountain of college debt to prove it!).  But many of our bad habits and ingrained fears began early in school, when we're told what is “right” and what is “wrong” in order to promote conformity.  Thus begins our childhood desire to “fit in” and not be different.

Only later when we grow up do we realize that what makes us special, talented an unique are those very differences that teachers were trying to stamp out of us.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

How do you fill the void?

“Your art should cost you something; otherwise stay home and do it for your cat.”

Stephen Adly Guirgis, playwright

I know, I know. I have been a very bad blogger.

I blame Facebook.

Okay, perhaps, Facebook can't be the scapegoat here.  Not entirely. Lately, writing has not been fun. Writing a grocery list or an email has been torture. Even writing one-liners for my status posts has been agony. So I’ve taken a break from writing these past few months to deal with some life issues.  And I’m okay with that. Everyone needs to step back sometimes to reevaluate and refresh—more on that later.

What I am not okay with is seeing how this blog has gotten so off-track.

Often, we forget that writing can’t just be a one-way street filled with venting or talking nonsense into the ether. Not good writing, anyway. It needs to connect to the audience. There doesn’t have to be some overt message, but it should have a point. Otherwise, as Guirgis says, do it for your cat.

So. What was my point?

This blog is called “Fighting the Void” because I believe everyone can be artistic. Everyone has talent. Not all of us are destined to become Van Gogh (and who would want to be crazy enough to cut off an ear anyway?). But all of us are capable living creative lives.

The trouble is we struggle with resistance. We hear critical thoughts from our inner editor. We are self-defeating, thinking its all crap. Or we have trouble figuring out what exactly it is we want to say. We are afraid of what people will think of our “true self” or how we really feel about things. So we do nothing, because that’s easier.

Making something, anything, is a struggle. And its not just art I’m talking about. It’s making a spreadsheet that people can read. It’s making a presentation that captivates a meeting room instead of putting people to sleep. It’s living fully and finding joy and passion no matter what we are doing.

In other words, my fellow warrior in art, I have led you astray. I have filled these posts with tangents, tidbits, oddities, and negative rants. Not anymore. This space will be devoted to thoughts on the daily struggle of fighting the void.

But here’s a question for you (if you have actually read this far)—what do you want to see in this blog? What posts have helped you, entertained you, or kept you motivated when all seems bleak? If your answer is nothing, then I would like to know that, too.

This blog is just not for my own wandering musings, but to connect. I don’t want to be in this fight alone.

So, what do ya say? Are you going to join me in the fight?