Getting Reacquainted

Here’s a quick one… I’m finally sitting down with the book after a month or more away. I’m done with chapter 9 apparently. I had forgotten that! Sad, right? Now I need to move forward and crank out the final eight chapters or so. I’m right at the unofficial half-way point so it was a good place to stop, but now as I sit here, I feel like I’m starting from scratch. It’s like I’m in the midst of a long-distance relationship and my partner is back in town for a weekend visit. We have to get to know each other again. The question is, how do you have small talk with a book?

A friend of mine – writer, animator, artist, director, renaissance man Mike Wellins – once told me the best thing to do when getting back to an idea is read through everything you have and change one thing. Force yourself to change something. Anything! Guess what? It works. I’ve used this tactic before on screenplays and even altering a line of dialog that I previously loved really helps re-connect me to the material. When I come back to a writing or editing project after a few weeks away, it’s like somebody else’s project. And that’s true… the person who last worked on this was the me from a month ago. Sometimes I think, “That guy from five weeks ago was a genius!” And other times it’s like, “What the hell was he thinking?!” Either way, making changes here and there reestablishes the immersion into the material that I really need to start thinking in the world of that story. The present-day me owns it now.

So here I am, past the 20,000 word mark and moving forward. Cheers to the me from a couple months back who did all this work. But he’s gone now. I’ll take it from here.

Collaboration or Isolation?

This past weekend, I got together with about 16 people and shot a short film. I had written the script last March with no real intention of making it, but over the summer I made the mistake of having a beer with Kyle Glenn (@kyleglenn) and he talked me into shooting it. I don’t know how. For a quiet guy with a sensitive stomach, he can be very persuasive.

One of the main reasons I’ve been cooling off on film production is that it requires so many people to make it happen. After making FORGE last year, I told myself that if I produced another film, there would have to be enough money to pay everyone properly (including myself). I’m talking $150,000 instead of $7500. Micro-budget filmmaking can be very rewarding, but even on a single day project, I can’t shake that feeling that everyone is doing me a huge favor. They put in their time and energy and I’m hopelessly aware of that every minute during production. Frankly, it’s distracting. So since October 2010, I’ve focused on generating ideas instead of actually making them. Then Kyle Glenn and his stupid beer happened.

Ok! I’m not blaming. He made a very good case, and I didn’t need much arm-twisting. In fact, I think the conversation went something like this: Kyle: “You should make another movie.” Co: “Sure! How about Robot Sentry? We can shoot on September 30th!” Nevertheless, I regretted it as soon as I got home. I had a book to finish, I was saving money for… something cool that was as-of-yet unidentified, and I was trying to learn how to relax. Most of all, when I made FORGE, I had no other obligations. This time around I had a day job to contend with. Let me tell you, the two weeks leading up to the shoot were crazy. It was like the whole world needed my immediate attention. If it weren’t for Justin Koleszar and his help with casting, and Kyle and Amber and their regular support check-ins, I would have called the whole thing off. But once the shooting started, I was in my element. I expressed ideas and made decisions for three days straight. I worked with people I liked and respected. I remembered why I loved filmmaking. When people had input, it was useful and constructive and made the project better. There’s nothing more fulfilling than true collaboration. Overall, fantastic experience.

The catch is that even when you’re done shooting, you still have a responsibility to all those people who helped you on the shoot. You finish your film. Allow me to add something to the beginning of that thought… If you’re not a thoughtless slack bastard, you finish your film. So many projects get shot and end up on a hard drive in a closet somewhere. If people are putting in their time and energy for no money, you have to at least honor their efforts with a finished project. The good news is that editing picture and sound is a lot like writing. I start with a blank timeline, frame in the general structure, then refine and refine until it makes sense. And I can work alone. I don’t have to schedule with anyone and nobody is waiting for me. (quick aside: absolutely everyone on Robo was on time every day. It was amazing.) I can get up early or stay up late. Now that I’ve been working in post for a week, I remember why I was getting out of production: working alone is way less stressful.

So I’m thinking I have it figured out and I’ve decided that I like solo work better. For now. But if that’s true, why am I always texting, emailing, im-ing and calling people? Maybe it’s because I’m a naturally social person, but I get too stressed when I have to rely on people or, as is often the case, when they have to rely on me. It’s hard to enjoy it anymore. I guess I’m talking in circles on this one. I just said I loved it, and now I’m saying I don’t love it. My point is that I’ve changed over the years. My youthful, thick-headed optimism has finally given way to that grinding tension that comes from experience. Specifically, the experience of actually experiencing all the things that can go wrong on a group film project. Each time we pull off a movie with no deaths or other serious setbacks, I feel like I’m using up my life’s supply of luck. Sure, good planning goes a long way, but so many things can go wrong that I’m always waiting for that one thing that will bring a production to its knees. Again, money can fix almost any problem. Maybe that’s at the root of the stress, this shoestring method of operation. In summary, I love it when it’s going well, but I can feel the specter of doom just around the corner.

It also begs the question, how much can go wrong when writing a book? Weather, cast, crew, equipment, money… none of that is needed if I write a book. Nobody is waiting for it. Nobody will talk smack about me later if I don’t finish it right away. Nobody got up at 6am to help me write it. But maybe it’s the Kyles and Justins of the world who push me to finish movies and nobody is pushing me to finish this book. Maybe the stress is what generates a finished product. Lots of “maybes” in this post.

If someone came forward with a couple hundred grand (or million) and asked me to make a movie, I’d totally do it. Money changes everything. Paying people what they’re worth would alleviate a lot of that stress. On the other hand, then I would have the stress of pleasing an investor instead of the cast and crew. Man. Tough one. Maybe somebody will pay big for my ideas. Then I can collaborate with people on where we’re going for happy hour and keep the stress levels a lot lower.

Becoming a Ghost

I wrote a thing about writing while at work a couple days ago. The whole idea with that is to squeeze in an extra hour or so of writing each day just to keep the thinking fresh. Obviously, you also have to write when you’re not at work. A lot.

People complain to me that they have no time to do their writing and then they follow up with a story about hiking or friends or weddings or Dexter. Ah. Right. You want to do all that other stuff, too. That’s cool. Enjoy. When I was 20, I told my dad I wanted to go to film school, he made this hesitant expression and said, “You have to be a fanatic to succeed at that.” I said, “I am a fanatic!” Then he said, “Not really.” I see it now. I can feel that same expression on my face when people tell me about their lives in the same conversation as lengthy explanations of how they’re working on something, but they haven’t had time to polish it. Replace “polish it” with “start it.” That’s what they really mean.

Here’s the straight and simple reality: when you are working on a creative project, there is nothing else. No other hobbies. No other relationships. For that window of time that you are working on your book, your film, or your art car, you must spend your time on only that. Friends won’t get it. Family won’t get it. They’ll negotiate with you for your time. They’ll make offers and deals: “Hey, let me buy you lunch.” They’ll give you guilt trips: “Your mother is worried sick. Think about your mother!” They’ll make threats: “I’ll never talk to you again!” Yeah, that’s the idea. But don’t worry, they’ll come back. Or maybe they won’t, but wait until the project is done before you feel bad about it. Seriously though, while your mind is stuck on accomplishing some goal, you can never pay full attention to your friends or family, right? You’re always half stuck back in your idea, wishing you were there finishing it. So your loved ones get half your attention and worse, your idea gets half your attention.

I’m exaggerating a little to make the point, but not much. I have a lot of really really great friends. Some of the world’s best people. I love eating and chatting and staying in touch with them in between projects, but now that I’m on this book, I’m not mentally available. I space out in conversations and minutes later realize I have no idea what we’re talking about. I may have even verbally contributed to the discussion, but I don’t remember what I said even a few seconds later. That makes me the bad friend. The only solution is to declare myself a social write-off and hope that friends will answer my calls when I come out the other side. Some will be offended, some will move on, many will be there when I’m ready. But the book will get finished and love it or hate it, at least I’ll know I’ve done it.

It’s not easy, but nobody who accomplished anything had it easy. I like the story of Michael Crichton who wrote every day all day no matter what. He was known for getting up at 2am and writing until 10pm with regularity. Vacations, weddings, funerals, and everything else was secondary. Sure, this was only when he was working on a book, but the guy wrote a lot of books. If you need a metric for how this worked out for him, he was married five times. Maybe he didn’t believe in global warming, but he knew how to finish a book.

Ok, so now you’re the hard core hermit recluse all boarded-up and ready to buckle down for three months. Guess what? You’re still doing it wrong. You can’t live in a vacuum. Nothing is more detrimental to the flow of ideas than removing yourself from the world. You need to hear people speak and watch them interact with each other. And television doesn’t count! Get out to a coffee shop, or better yet, go to dinner with a close friend or significant other and people watch. Your companion will know you’re not in deep conversation mode or small talk mode and won’t prod you for conversation. In fact, that person may be interested in listening to you hash out the project. Meanwhile, you can glance around the room and watch things unfold. Years ago, I had a writing instructor who said when he couldn’t get the flow going, he took his notebook and went to the airport. This was back in the day when you could go through security without a boarding pass and meet people right off the jet way. He would sit there and watch people as they freaked out to get to their flights or shed tears as they parted ways or jumped into each others’ arms when they were reunited. Instantly, he said, images flooded into his head for his writing. Something about being around people, but not with them, allowed his brain to free up and the ideas broke loose and started moving again.

This works. Remain in society, but haunt it, don’t live in it. Drift among people and watch them. Most won’t even notice you’re there. Don’t worry, you’re not a creeper (unless you’re doing this at the playground). If you have some willing companions who will spend time with you and don’t expect lively interaction, all the better, but keep your mind centered on the project. Meditation gurus suggest you close your eyes and focus on your breathing. When something pops into your head, you push it out of your mind and go back to your breathing. I’m saying you should do this but instead of your breathing, focus on your project. And keep your eyes open.