Over the Moon but Earthbound

I’m simply over the moon. A screenplay I wrote Protection made the finals at Cinequest Film & VR Festival, and won third place in the Destiny City Film Festival short script competition. Although it’s just a short, Protection represents months of gradual progress, indispensable advice from other writers, and the sticking-place destination of some serious courage-screwing on my part.

Harsh reality, please do not kill my lunar buzz quite yet.

But oh, man. There’s still such a long way to go.

At some future festival, I hope to take pride in an actual film based on a story I’ve written. After all, the dream is to see words come to life on the screen. But that’s more than I can produce alone, and I can only control my part toward its fulfillment.

What lies beyond writing-related goals—measurable, executable, and in my control—is that dream. And although its hope alone may fuel the often arduous work of writing, its ultimate manifestation is out of my hands.

So following this moonstruck sojourn, I’ll gravitate back to Earth—and back to work.

5th Annual Destiny City Film Festival poster by Carla Bartow
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Respite from Brevity

On the eve of National Novel Writing Month, two old saws combat one another in the folk-wisdom of mind. Is it insanity to expect a different result from repeating the same behavior? If at first you don’t succeed, should you try again—and again?

Halloween spirit rises to its pitch, and I face the horrifying, exhilarating prospect of another NaNoWriMo: write a 50,000-word novel in one month. Reckless, I preregister on the website and revel in the combined sense of dread and euphoria. I consider the word-count stats of previous failures, and shrug off bitterness, square my shoulders against regret. I declare a freethinker’s intent to shoot for a lower word-count of my own choosing. We’re all winners here, right? But I can’t help but wince at the sting of truth. NaNoWriMo makes a regular loser of me.

Is this persistence or neurosis? Idiocy or grit?

50,000 words in thirty days. Overwhelming. Unfathomable.

Exciting.

“What’s wrong with me?” I ask myself as I set the clock’s alarm back a precious half-hour, prepping for tomorrow’s first early writing session. “I don’t have time for this,” I mutter, the old annual mantra, as I squirrel away little blank notebooks along the path of my daily routine. “What’s the point,” I groan as I block off a lunch break on my calendar with a single note: WRITE.

What numinous allure compels such masochism? What drives any sane person to even consider engaging NaNoWriMo each November? In anticipation of my imminent self-humbling, I’ve tried to capture its appeal in a few words here (and this is the last time I’ll idealize brevity in my creative life until December):

NaNoWriMo lends validation to perform poor-quality writing in the name of unleashed creativity. In fact, it insists upon it, via the sheer weight of its word-count goal. There’s no time for revising, no time for second-guessing. Essentially, NaNoWriMo propels a month-long brainstorm—from which insight and innovation occasionally, happily emerge.

It sanctifies procrastination in the name of single-minded focus. During these hallowed weeks, other writing and creative projects take the mental backburner. Although childcare and professional responsibilities remain understandably at the fore, inessential housework does not. In November, pizza and sandwiches regularly find their way to the dinner table. Dust bunnies find a home underneath it.

It provides a means of mental-plane solidarity among writers, creators, and daydreamers. Beyond social media hashtags and swag, the event stands alone as a genuine feat of connectedness and positive creative energy.

Finally, NaNoWriMo sets up the basis for a deep sense of personal accomplishment. Even if all 50,000 words don’t make it to the page, that gratification will be there nonetheless. That compound effect of thirty-days’ effort awaits, along with a great sense of pride… and just maybe a rough first draft (or at least a few good ideas).

These are the rewards that lead me back to National Novel Writing Month—to try and try again, as crazy as it may be. And as for the question, What’s the point? Consider a new, improved annual mantra, with gratitude to artist Francis Bacon: “Since everything’s so meaningless, we might as well be extraordinary.”

Best wishes to all 2017 participants.

NaNo-2017-Participant-Facebook-Cover

Groundwork

I have no innate sense of direction. When tasked with an important appointment in unfamiliar territory, I like to make a preliminary visit to my destination—and ideally, I like to walk around. Often such a scenario is simply not feasible. Time, distance, and convenience limit such a luxury. But when it is possible and I take the opportunity, much of my new-situation anxiety falls away. Walking provides a means to get a feel for a place at ground level. Walking is slow: it provides the details. Walking is meditative: it allows the mind to make connections to what the senses perceive.

I’ve recently realized an equivalent tendency in the realm of my writing. I began a new story several months ago in the form of feature-length screenplay. As I struggled and struggled—with the outline, the direction, the theme, the beats—as I set it aside repeatedly in exchange for shorter, swiftly-completed writing gratifications—I wondered. Maybe I’m just not up to the task? Maybe the idea is bad? Maybe both.

However, I was loath to give up on it entirely. I sorely miss working on a long storyline. I spent recent years—years—wrestling with a sprawling, epic novel, the end of which I simply could not reach. Although at times immensely frustrating, it was also the most fun I’ve ever had writing. I loved working on it despite the complexity.

But ultimately the novel became an exercise in futility: I was so deep in the weeds, so low to the ground, that I couldn’t keep the story moving in any one direction. I wanted to reach a worthwhile destination, but I was lost.

In school last year, I used that novel’s story as the subject of a screenwriting project. I was forced to rise above the details and simplify both my narrative and my thinking. I had to focus on basic plot points, singular character motivations, and essential themes. From the bird’s-eye vantage point of a screenplay beat sheet, the story’s destination came into view at last. The finished product isn’t perfect, but for now, I’m satisfied: that story exists. It has officially been told. I can make clean break and step away.

And I need to step away. The necessary work to finish a major writing project is more laborious sweat than creative spark. Right now, I don’t want sweaty labor to be the bulk of my creative life. I’m yearning for that early-stage spark. I want to regain that sense of story-passion. That sense of fun.

With this new story idea proving troublesome, I considered the wisdom of giving up. It seemed like a dead end. Yet still it lingered in the back of my mind….

And so it lingers today. Scenes appear in my imagination unbidden. Characters show up in insomniac hours to make conversation, and to make their pleas. Exhausted, I acquiesce. Fine, I’m listening.

Maybe they’re right.

Perhaps this new story does hold potential, considering my subconscious is so insistent (or is it my sanity fraying at last?). Maybe it is my next chance to reclaim that endurance-enabling creative passion. But to find out—to get there—I must feel the story, sink into it. I need to set aside the outline for a while, put away the beat sheet, stop overthinking the possible themes.

I need to walk through it at ground level.

I must slow down, go deep and detailed, get lost inside the minds of the characters, immerse myself awhile in the new imagined world. Direction and destination aren’t important during this preliminary amble. The goal is to sense-perceive the story in its incipiency.

Several days ago, I fired up Scrivener for the first time in a long while. I saved a novel template. I started writing prose: a purple, long-winded, overly-detailed account of my opening scene, complete with the character’s thoughts and feelings—what he saw, smelled, heard, tasted.

It was fun.

Each successive morning since then, I’ve awakened early and excited to return to that world, to squeeze in a tiny bit of writing time before morning’s workaday busyness sets in. If this excitement keeps up, and with the help of a parallel script-in-progress, I think I can navigate to the narrative’s end (eventually, anyway—as the crazy-working-mom schedule allows). Thanks to an awesome screenwriting instructor and gracious feedback from my writer’s group, I know much more about storytelling now than I did a few years ago. I hopefully have the skills now to alternate groundwork for a bird’s-eye view of the plot when it’s necessary to gain perspective.

But for me, it’s groundwork that fuels initial passion for a story. In the past, the energy generated by groundwork was what sustained me through the long trip of telling a tale—and it ultimately propelled my writing to its completion.

I hope that will be true of this story too.

groundwork1

On Bukowski and Motherhood

The famous first line from Charles Bukowski’s Roll the Dice: “If you’re going to try, go all the way.” He implies: let your creative fire consume you to the exclusion of all life’s dross.

I love it.

From a theoretical standpoint, I love it.

But I have questions.

I’m compelled to sit down over whiskey shots with Bukowski and clarify.  When you mention not eating for three or four days, surely you mean just during the day? Regarding the loss of relatives, what’s the selection process? And when you say “it could mean freezing on a park bench,” could that possibly mean for just a half-hour, waiting for my three-year-old to take one last slide ride (“Okay, now say ‘bye bye’ to the playground!”)—and then I can go inside and warm up?

As much as I adore the notion of the extreme creative life—as darkly intrigued as I am by its most tragic tales—I’ve come to realize something over the years. The angsty, 80s-era goth teen in me hates to admit it: my creative life has not been representative of Bukowski’s dice-rolling sentiment. It has not been extreme.

I’ve tried several serious creative pursuits over my lifetime, but none to the exclusion of all else. Music was a huge part of my life for many years. I rarely had to choose between music and jobs, school, friendships, or relationship. My husband and I spent a decade in the same band together before we married. Friendships were a consequence of musical pursuits—not collateral damage.

Writing is different than playing in a band. A solitary pursuit. “Isolation is the gift,” Bukowski says; he’s talking about writing. Sometimes it’s hard to discern another writer in your real-life midst, but when you do find one out there, it’s a super-cool common bond. Well, or maybe it’s just my one-sided perception. Regardless, I find it motivating, invigorating.  I dig thinkers. I dig those who sanctify time to craft words to articulate thoughts. And I wholly admire what I call the “comfortable alone”: those who can withstand silence, who are willing to forego interaction long enough to reflect and process and bring forth eloquence.

When I find another writer, I’m struck by a sense of camaraderie in mutual isolation.

Writing requires silence in a noisy world. It demands isolation and introspection in an era of social networking and immediate gratification. Pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, Charles Bukowski implied it in Roll the Dice (although he gives voice to the extreme): to bolster and intensify that creative fire, one must understand there’s a tradeoff. For periods of isolation, sessions of silence, one must push back against status quo culture.

But may I suggest, perhaps over another whiskey round—one need not trade it all to “go all the way”?

When I was pregnant with my first child, I knew everything would change. Of course: we had just dismantled my home office and repurposed it for a baby’s room. Everyone told me things would change. I was told by seasoned parents that I would put everything on hold. Music, writing, painting, drawing. All that could wait, would have to wait. My child would come first now, in every aspect. And I’d be okay with that, I was told.

I would necessarily, happily trade it all away: my creativity, my ambition, my times of solitude—all for motherhood.

Quick. Before last call. Again may I suggest—one need not trade it all?

May I hope?

I am determined to find the middle ground. To honor one’s creative fire is something I plan to teach my own children. They’re small now, and they need a lot of attention, so my carving out alone time is sometimes impossible and often impractical. But I’m willing to work gradually. They’re growing up fast, and they pick up on a lot.

In order to teach it—this respect of one’s internal creative drive—I try to do it, when I can. I want them to understand it’s not only “okay” to take that time, it’s crucial. By integrating the concept of occasional, regular alone time in my family culture, I hope to provide my kids validation to seek and treasure their own aloneness, and what creativity may come of it.

But striking a balance is key. The active pursuit of writing is, strangely, much like a child: given attention, it wants ever more attention.  I negotiate with my own writing-addicted id/ego complex the same way I bargain with my kids. “Patience, you’ll get your turn.” “Be good for me, and you’ll get a treat.” “I’ll be back, and then we’ll do something fun together!” My creative fire is a toddler.

If he could read this, Bukowski would probably laugh at me. But who knows? Maybe he’d at least pay the tab.

Either way, the angsty goth teen in me would dig it.