I Can’t Get Started

I spent eighteen-plus hours of Labor Day weekend in the back seat of a car going to and from Arkansas. For a major portion of the journey I had my iPad and notebook on my lap, while one of my traveling companions had a giant artist’s sketchbook in which he wrote rough sketches of characters and dialogue punctuated by suggestive illustrations.

Both of us were preparing to tell stories.

A friend of mine said to me the other night that she found creation a daunting task because (and I agreed) every story begins with an infinite amount of possible choices and the writer has to narrow them down to the best possible box that a reader or actor or artist could lose themselves in and dissect from top to bottom. Over the years I have worked hard on my method of the work that goes into stories before writing the first draft, and since I firmly believe every new tale is better than the last, I have to think the method is working. Everyone has their own method, such as the cartoonist-in-the-margins stylings of my traveling companion, and none is better or worse than the other, but I offer this as help for those who feel that they can’t get started.

(Optional soundtrack here)

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The Wrong Kind of Focus

Image from Dreamatico

Image from Dreamatico

My mind is an interesting one.

Right before I moved to Chicago, I spent a day with some of my best friends from college, and they told me they thought I might have some degree of Asperger’s syndrome…a suspicion my parents confirmed later on, telling me I was tested for it as a child. If this is true, it is something I welcome. My brain has intertwined tendencies, one dominating over the other depending on the day, to both focus on things and scatter itself through fields of information, and this has allowed me to absorb a wide range of knowledge AND settle down to tell long-form narratives.

My mind also gets me in trouble, in that I can be overcome with the most intense depression.

I have never been clinically diagnosed with depression. But there are times when I have what I once called manic episodes, but, not wanting to use that language, instead refer to as “the wrong kind of focus.” Something will trigger what I perceive as a problem and my mind fixates on that problem in a desire for solutions, realizes it cannot, and destroys my sense of well-being.

This misguided focus is rooted in a common lie every one of us tells ourselves, to quote Donald Miller: that life is a story about us. We can easily convince ourselves that if a person or group we are close to is angry or sad or simply having a bad day, then it has to be our fault in some way, that we offended or hurt them or let them down. For me, there is no greater fear than hurting another person, and the possibility that I did is often my greatest motivator for a poor focus.

My most recent episode was at a party with many old and new friends. I had been been enjoying a few drinks (Alcohol is definitely an aid to manic episodes as it weakens my intellectual stability.) and was in a marvelously good mood on a warm summer night. Then a person I greatly respect said one thing that snapped my brain to attention. This person clearly meant nothing personal by the remark and was in no way angry at me. But in that moment my good mood vanished and I thought of myself as a sad, worthless excuse for a human being who hurts everyone he meets.

I left the party soon afterwards because everyone else was in a great mood and I refused to let myself bring other people down. I ended up (naturally) calling my parents and sobbing for half an hour.

Twenty minutes after I was home, I was alright again, and the only thing that made me upset was that I let myself ruin a wonderful night.

That’s the last thing. This has happened to me enough to recognize the pattern over and over but while I have worked to reduce its frequency, it has never gone away. My mind will snap every month or two for a little bit under the pressures of doing so much and trying to maintain a positive attitude through it all.

I don’t think it will ever stop.

I write this because I have so many wonderful and brave friends who have shared their emotional upheaval with me and others. We all deal with our own little demons. And maybe there is someone else out there who has this same pattern of picking up the wrong kind of focus, and I want you to know you are not alone.

The Wisdom of Continually Starting (Soundtrack by Jimi Hendrix)

Yesterday at church, one of the readings was the ninth chapter of the Book of Proverbs, which describes how Wisdom builds the famous house of the seven pillars, prepares a meal, and then invites everyone, especially those who have no sense, saying “Leave your simple ways and you will live; walk in the way of insight.”

We are supposed to grow in wisdom with time, but what strikes me in this passage is that Wisdom has to get things ready for people to fully experience her gift, and a meal means doing this every day, over and over again. She continually restarts.

Dave Marquez, an individual whose remarkable talent is only matched by his kindness, has written some things lately that got woven into my mind with this passage. He had a long monologue/conversation on twitter on August 8th about how some artists get successful with innovative works that rise from their youthful exuberance, and others reach their height only after much work, much trial and error, and the development of craft. And on his tumblr he paid tribute to two masters, Toth and Toppi, and their brethren and the difference between efficient comics artistry and an inefficiency that somehow makes the art more beautiful; the point is that everyone succeeds with their own method, and that method comes when the initial ideas and principles set during the youthful exuberance are perfected after years of craft.

I understood his point very well. I am 30 and that is still a relatively young age for comics (although look at Noelle Stevenson schooling all of us at 23). Hitherto I have been most successful at setting forth the themes and devices I want to convey and work with for my career. Meanwhile, the writing and rewriting of multiple drafts of stories and abandonment of certain others (there is a full-length OGN I wrote called The Isabel Letters which you will never see but was so important to my current work) has made me determined to tell better stories and find the best ways to do so. I have often said that every time I think about Amelia, I focus on what I would have changed and what I wish I had done differently. After Form of a Question is released I will probably do the same thing. For my success, each completed work has to be in some way a failed experiment, and in my failures I learn how to do it better next time. Like Wisdom herself, I begin the process anew with every day, with every tale. Even this weekend, I finished a 14,500 word outline for a novel I hope will be my #NaNoWriMo project this year (unless comics comes calling…otherwise it’s the story I write next) and immediately began acquiring research materials for a new project in which I can do some things I wouldn’t be able to do in this novel. It never ends.

But youthful exuberance has its place, and my pondering both the Bible and Marquez led me to this closing thought. Like any classic rock devotee, I love and respect Jimi Hendrix as one of the greatest and most important musicians of them all. He was also a fantastic composer and that gift developed with time (and is best brought out on Gil Evans’s extraordinary big band recordings), but if you were to ask me what my favorite single record of his is, I would say his first single, “Hey Joe.”

“Hey Joe” is simple and boasts one of the more economical guitar solos of Hendrix’s career, but what attracts me to it is his young energy, enthusiasm, and above all sense of discovery…there are moments in that instrumental break and the extended fade-out over Mitch Mitchell’s clattering drums when the playing feels so loose and live, and I can hear Hendrix realizing the possibilities of what his guitar could do in the studio and how to develop his incendiary stage presence in new ways. That this culminated in the ambitious Electric Ladyland is not only a gift to us, but is also the logical conclusion. It is a work of seasoned practice and commitment to growth, rising from comparatively simpler blues and roots played with passion; the clear path of wisdom sprung from exuberance.

 

A Requiem for Barry Goldwater, or, What I Think About 2016

I inherited a taste for voracious reading from my parents, and that appetite reveals the mingling of their blood in me. My mother loves novels, but my father sticks to biography, history, and political commentary: I think the only two works of fiction he’s read since 2010 are Amelia and The Legend of Bagger Vance. Therefore, when I found a list a couple months ago of the greatest non-fiction books of all time, I forwarded it to him right away. “It’s good,” he wrote back, “but it’s very left-leaning. A comprehensive list should have some books that shaped the right wing. I’d have liked to seen Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative on there.”

This comment stuck with me, and in the lead-up to the first Republican presidential debate a week ago today, I read that book cover to cover. I wanted to learn more about the man who helped define right-wing politics as the first of a lineage stretching on through Nixon, Reagan, and the modern GOP. It surprised me more than I expected, and in light of these opening moves for the presidential campaign, it helped me formulate my argument for why we need to keep the Democrats in the White House in 2016, and why we should want to.

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What I Pray For

Saturday night I had dinner with two of my best friends in Chicago, Chris and Christina, and at one point the conversation turned to who, living and dead, you would want to end up sitting next to in a diner for a conversation. One of my choices was St. Paul, whose ideas to this day shape what I believe in. The next day, coincidentally, I heard a reading in church from Ephesians in which Paul describes how every one of us has a different role to play in God’s plan. I continually struggle with my attempts to serve God as a lay person. My writing, and the ideas I share in it, are one of my primary ways (Though may the Lord strike me down if I ever get overtly preachy!), but lately I have been looking for other things to do, and as this search begins, I am thinking about something I have done every night since middle school: pray.

Saint Paul

Prayer is such a simple thing and yet it evolves so much over time. I began praying out of a sense of duty after my confirmation in the Roman Catholic Church, and I stuck to that duty throughout my years in high school when I went through a crisis of belief, and in that time I asked for so much for myself, from the banality of good weather to more material desires. Coming out on the other side of that crisis, I prayed, and still pray, out of a thirst for a relationship with God, and I have learned that there are things I now express which quench that thirst even more.

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Place at the Table

Hello, everyone!
It’s been a while due to a combination of moving, pulling weight at the Addison Recorder, and submitting some new projects to Boom!/Archaia, but now that I am set up in the new home and the wifi is working properly, I’ll be adding more and more.
I have been working on a post about the absolute brilliance of Giant Days but No. 5 ended on such a phenomenal cliffhanger that I am waiting to see the resolution in No. 6 (which was supposed to be the end of the series anyway until Boom! in their wisdom expanded it to twelve issues). So instead I am going to talk about a bit of alchemy that happened a couple weeks ago and proved to be an instructive experience.

Table
One of the major projects that has consumed me since 2013 is my screenplay, and at the beginning of July, I had my first table read ever as three superb actors and improvisers borough it to life.
This is something I would recommend any writer attempt to set up, even for non-dramatic writing, and there are several reasons for this, but the largest is: IT GETS YOU OUT OF YOUR HEAD.
Writing (unless you have a terrific partner) is by nature a solitary activity; it is hard to share a creative process or a particular logic on how a story is supposed to play out, so the solitude is in many ways necessary. However, for writing to connect with a lot of people, it has to be relatable in theme and character, and the latter point is where the solitary side of writing works against you. No matter how diverse your characters are, you are controlling what they do and say and guiding them to express your themes. The danger is obvious: they’ll all come out as variations on the same melody, their manners of speaking indistinct from each other.
Actors performing your work is both a test and a revelation. A test to guarantee that your dialogue isn’t samey and the conversations feel like actual conversations (thankfully, mine did) and a revelation in that your characters who lived in your head are now fully alive, and that much more able to surprise you.
Let me explain with what I learned at my table read. The small cast was due to the screenplay having only four speaking parts, one for a true supporting character. The three leads are a man and two women, and I conceived one of the women, and wrote her through seven drafts, as a sharp, sardonic know-it-all in the vein of Katharine Hepburn. The actress reading her dialogue is a very funny comedienne and I was sure she would bring out these qualities in the character. To my surprise, from her very first lines, she was speaking with a flat, drawling boredom. It took about two or three scenes for puzzlement to turn into understanding. The character was someone thoroughly dissatisfied with with what on the surface seemed a successful life; her journey through the film is of her wanting out but not sure how to get out, and she slowly falls in love with a man who shares her dissatisfaction and who she thinks might help her out. Given her situation and a connection with a kindred spirit not insisting she change, her boredom and mild dejectedness made perfect sense.
Equally importantly, this new understanding put the character in clearer contrast to the other female lead, a passionate woman with a loquacious, rapid fire, almost free verse way of speaking. Life and lifelessness now stood side by side to better dramatic effect.
I never would have figured this out had not an experienced performer dug deeper into the text and understood what was truly going on.
Actors are great in many other ways. If a line reading clearly confuses them, then you know you have to make the point more defined. If the overall plot doesn’t fully make sense to them, then it’s time to add a brief exploratory scene. And performers have read so many scripts that they know when you are being too wordy or piling too many unnecessary details into the text.
The result now is the tightest 107 pages I may have ever written.
In the aftermath, the other actress in my cast sent me a very gracious thank you, describing my writing as “an actor’s playground.” I would not go that far, but she and her colleagues have inspired me to try to give that feeling to all my work; not necessarily strictly in terms of acting, but in the hope that anyone who reads my writing will experience it as a world full of people they can interact with and relate to.

Time Spent in Los Angeles (including a list of people you should follow on twitter)

Optional Soundtrack for this One

It was Pentecost Sunday this past weekend, and in the story of the first Pentecost, Peter speaks of a day when sons and daughters will prophesy, the young see visions, and the old dream dreams.

I heard this well-beloved story this year in the church where I became an Episcopalian, St. James in the City on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, and this year it particularly hit close to home. I’m not prepared to say I’ve had visions in my life, but Los Angeles was where I learned how to dream, and how to turn my dreams into reality, starting with Amelia, and if we’re talking about prophesying, L.A. is where I conceived of what my life could be and realized the plan for getting there.

Also where I ate a lot of great breakfasts.

Also where I ate a lot of great breakfasts.

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Over Our Heads and 18-month-long Discoveries

Optional Soundtrack for this One

A couple weeks ago, I had a long conversation about comics with Keith Burman, who is not only a major fan of the medium but also the exceptionally talented bassist/lead singer of the Chicago punk-rock band Private Instigators. We were plotting out a story that may yet see the light of day, but during our talk, Keith said something about comics in general that struck me.

The current trend in comics storytelling is to eschew stand-alone issues in favor of arcs and events, which can be annoying but is wonderful if done well. Keith’s point was that one of the ways to do a story arc well is to always end each portion of the tale with the main character in over their head.

It may not work for this guy.

It may not work for this guy.

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Why I Am A Feminist

I had another amazing time at C2E2 last weekend and had originally intended to write a Winchell-esque piece about “who I saw and what I did and where I ate” and all that, but the best panel I attended: a magnificent conversation about being a woman on the Internet moderated by The Mary Sue co-editor and (now) excellent published author Sam Maggs inspired me to change the tenor.

Because this is important to me. Very important. In the past few years, this has become the major shaper of my writing, my political leanings, and my overall public demeanor.

Some of you may choose to see this as a firm declaration, others as the start of a conversation that I’ll be happy to have. It is both.

I am a feminist.

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Anthony Trollope at 200

During my first visit to my alma mater, Emerson College, the head of the film department peppered me with questions about my writerly ambitions and among the many pieces of advice he gave me was this: “You should read some of Anthony Trollope’s books. That man knew how to write for movies before there was such a thing as movies.”

Trollope

It took me three tries to get through a Trollope novel, with Can You Forgive Her? (a book Stephen King thought could have been titled Can You Possibly Finish It?) being the one I finally cracked. This would be the start of a lifelong journey. I now have two shelves on my bookcase filled with nothing but books by and about Anthony Trollope, who turns 200 today. I’ve never read more by a writer, written more about a writer (during my year in grad school I wrote my master’s thesis and two other papers on Trollope), or been so inspired by a writer.

I’ll also be the first to acknowledge that, while many of his books are thankfully still in print and his reputation has only grown in the past decades, Trollope can be a foreboding proposition. He is one of the eminent Victorian novelists, but he has little in common with the grandiosity of Charles Dickens, the sharp-tongued satire of William Makepeace Thackeray (who was Trollope’s own hero), or the tragic nature of Thomas Hardy. He comes closest to George Eliot, who said several times that Middlemarch owed a debt to Trollope, but even Eliot had a poetic spirit in her that Trollope lacked.

Trollope was the realist of realists, the English-speaking Balzac or Tolstoy, a man who filled his novels with masses of detail external and internal, to the point where readers could close the covers after 800 pages and realize that not very much happened. The length is not the only obstacle. His books are peppered with references to current events and classical quotations that need footnotes, and above all, his novels were almost all linked together in the same fictional universe, with characters and plots carrying over between books. His greatest achievements are the six-volume Chronicles of Barsetshire and ANOTHER six-book series, the Palliser Novels, based around a supporting character in the fifth Barsetshire book. Knowing you have to read five other novels to fully appreciate one is an understandable turn-off…yet I have to say that Framley Parsonage and The Eustace Diamonds, two of the most outstanding novels I’ve ever read, only get better when placed in the sequence. Further, his stand-alone works (which are still linked to his grander narrative) are not quite as good. His most celebrated story, The Way We Live Now, is half-visionary masterpiece, half-some of his weakest romantic plotting (he was a Victorian, after all, and multiple love stories dominate each book) taking up way too much space in place of really interesting ideas, plus a tinge of anti-Semitism. He Knew He Was Right and The American Senator are his finest stand-alones, but they’re also two of his longest.

To finish it off, Trollope’s style can come across today as excessively strange. He was firmly planted in the social ethos of 19th-Century Britain, and his books are dominated by a deeply felt Christian morality—the entire Barsetshire series concerns itself with the duties of clergymen, but this morality is best expressed in his treatment of women. He shows elaborate concern for “proper” female behavior, and the only person he laughs at more than a feminist is an American feminist.

Yet I love this writer.

Anthony Trollope had a gift that all the great writers possess, but few in so acute form: the ability to depict human beings in all our psychological complexity. His novels lack the one-note supporting characters of Dickens or clear-cut heroes and villains to root for. All his characters have great and terrible traits alike, and Trollope makes it clear to his audiences why they are all equally worthy of praise and blame. Resolutions do not come easily (although they do come) and the conflicts are recognizable and relatable to our own existence, for Trollope understood the importance of money, vocation, and the day-to-day struggle of life for rich and poor alike, and wrote about these issues brilliantly. Trollope’s sympathy for his characters also counteracted his chauvinist streak, as the women in his novels are often brilliant, daring, strong-willed, and almost in spite of the author depicted as equal to his men. (That first Trollope novel of mine, Can You Forgive Her?, is also the strongest of several books with LGBT-leaning plotting, which in its case made sense. Trollope had a long, happy marriage to his wife Rose Heseltine, but also nursed a passion (which at that time was at its height) for the bisexual American feminist Kate Field. Never let it be said that the Victorians were boring!)

Trollope also had an astute understanding of politics, which is the central theme of the Palliser novels. Many of his complaints about how people win and hold offices are still on the nose, but more importantly, he had a political theory, expressed in many of these books, that I have adopted in real life. Trollope described himself, with the same realism found in his novels, as “an advanced conservative liberal.” (This was also the view of his great altar ego, Plantagenet Palliser.) He was not naïve enough to think that class differences and the power structure could be eliminated overnight. He believed there was a ruling class, and that there was much in culture and practice for any society that needed to be preserved and kept safe from reform. At the same time, he believed that

  1. human society will always be moving towards equality
  2. all of our actions need to promote this tendency
  3. and following that, every politician must recognize their duty to the individuals who give them a place of power
  4. to be completely fair, Trollope also felt that all individuals must submit to the ruling class…his one streak of idealism comes in hoping that this system will create knowledgeable voters who choose good leaders. I have always felt he would take America today greatly to task.

Trollope’s personal and political philosophies were huge influences on me, but it is his writing ability that has most touched my life. The Emerson professor was absolutely right about Trollope’s plotting: for books where not a lot happens, these stories are perfectly paced and structured, with the multiple plotlines given appropriate space and perfectly interacting with each other. He continually reminds me to do the hard work of creating realistic characters with goals, flaws, and a perpetual sense of empathy. And above all, discovering more about Trollope’s life gave me my sense of discipline. Most of his career as an author coincided with long service for the national post office, and he would rise every day at 5:30 without fail to write. If he finished a book or short story and there was still time left, he would move on to the next tale. This commitment paid off for him, obviously, and it is now starting to pay off for me…it is a model every writer should adapt.

Finally, Trollope was hilarious. His writing style borders on the postmodern with frequent authorial intrusion and digression, and his ultra-opinionated narrative voice often produces a chuckle. (My favorite Trollope anecdote, which is characteristic of his narrative style, is that at a banquet someone made a long, tedious speech about a subject, and Trollope leaped up and yelled “I disagree with you entirely! What was it you said?”) Some of his scenes, characters, and chapter titles are uproariously funny, in part due to Victorian phrasing and humor, in part due to his own inward sense of mirth.

Anthony Trollope’s legacy lives on two hundred years after his birth and is stronger than ever. This year, the final Palliser novel, his valedictory, poetic rumination on the passing age, The Duke’s Children, was restored to its original manuscript length with the return of 65,000 words Trollope had been forced to edit out. The thought of a longer text is one that excites beyond words.

So with my emotions in mind, I wish Anthony Trollope a very happy birthday. I’ll be tweeting my favorite Trollope chapter titles all day today, so I urge people to give a look and respond with favorites of their own.