Tag Archives: writing

We Are All The Hardest Working Man in Show Business

Watch me, now.

Watch me, now.

Yesterday, I started the 7-minute workout, the latest fitness craze made popular by an article in the NY Times. According to the article, “exercises should be performed in rapid succession, allowing 30 seconds for each, while, throughout, the intensity hovers at about an 8 on a discomfort scale of 1 to 10.” So, when I told my husband I’d done it, he asked if I’d remembered to work at 80% of my maximum effort. To which I responded: “Doesn’t everyone?”

My argument being that most people rarely function at 100% of their capacity unless they’re under special circumstances, like competing in the Olympics or being chased by killer bees.

It’s like when you go out for a run and finally settle into a rhythm, then a car drives by, or another jogger comes along and you speed up your pace. Turns out, you did have more to give, only you didn’t want to use it unless you absolutely had to, which, thanks to a hearty dose of shame, you did, as soon as that cute guy in the short-shorts whizzed by you.

I was thinking about the idea of pushing ourselves to the max and how it relates to being a screenwriter/novelist. There’s a lot you can say about showbiz folks, but the one thing you can’t accuse them of is not giving it their all. Be it the grueling dance rehearsals and tour schedule of a highly paid pop music diva or the hours a writer like me spends toiling away in solitude—the competitive nature of this business require that when we perform, we do it at no less than 100%.

I guess, in a way, being in showbiz is it’s own kind of interval training—sprint and rest, sprint and rest.  And we need those calm periods in between film shoots and manuscripts in order to slow down and reconnect with ourselves, to get more than five hours of sleep a night, and refill our creative wells. But the second we’re called to action, we’re off and running again. Because no one ever gave that break-out movie performance or landed a life-changing script deal by giving anything less than 100%.  

At least that’s what we tell ourselves each time our screenplays fail to sell, or when we don’t get that directing job or land that plum role. We rally, regroup, then push ourselves to do better next time. We double down. Then, we double down again.

Yet, in the rest of our lives, I think most of us operate at around 80%, at best.  Just last night I was talking about this with another mom (as we watched about 20% of our sons’ baseball game) bemoaning the fact that no matter what we do, we’ll never be better than be B+ parents.  I know this because during the first three years of my son’s life, I tried parenting 100%—hauling my floppy-necked infant to mommy-baby drum circles, my valuable hours spent filling ice cube trays with homemade organic baby food.  Turns out, 100% mommying is about 20% too much mommying for me.  At least it is if I want to leave space for any of the other important things in my life, like my writing, my husband, and my friends.

In general, I believe there’s nothing wrong with living life at 80%. It’s steady. It’s not totally exhausting. If life is a marathon, 80% is what we need if we want to cross the finish line. 

But what I’ve had to come to terms with over the years is that creative types like me don’t like to run at a steady pace.  We prefer pushing ourselves to our limits, even if we have to put ourselves in extraordinary circumstances and under extraordinary pressure in order to find out exactly what those limits are. Which is why we are all the hardest-working men in show business. (No offense to James Brown.) And even though it can feel utterly depleting at times, dancing as fast as we can without any guarantee  we’ll win the dance contest, I believe there’s great value in challenging ourselves. Like mothers who suddenly find themselves able to lift a Volkswagen off their child, unless we’re pushed to our limits, we may never find out how strong we truly are. 

 

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The Yoga of Writing

In Ashtanga yoga, the term drishti refers to a point of focus where your eyes can rest instead of wandering.  It’s a soft-focus gaze, the point of which is not to concentrate on a specific object, but to eliminate distraction. And just like staring at something and taking in its detail would draw your focus outward, away from your practice, shutting your eyes would draw your focus in, which, as we all know, comes with its own set of distractions.  Like so much in yoga (and in life) drishti is all about balance.

Which brings me to my analogy of the day.

For me, good writing comes from the same place as drishti—you look at your work too hard and you’re lost in the details, you rely too much on the subconscious and your writing’s not grounded.  So my advice to all you writing yoginis out there is to step back and give your writing a soft-focus gaze.  Just like in yoga, it takes practice to find the right balance, but the moment you achieve it, all of the searching and strain suddenly falls away.  Just like in yoga, some days it comes naturally and effortlessly, and other days it does not.  In fact, just yesterday I was in yoga class repeatedly reminding myself to let go of all conscious thought and be in the now when I came up with the idea for this blog post.  ;)

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Snape & Nellie Olsen: Creating Characters We Love to Hate

This morning, my son and I finished the 3rd Harry Potter.  This is my second go-round with the series, and as much as I’m loving them all over again, my biggest joy is getting to watch my 7-year-old experience these wonderful books for the first time.  Among the many voyeuristic and maternal pleasures in this, one of my favorite things is seeing how riled up he gets over Snape.

You can see it in his eyes, or in the way his hands curl up every time Snape deducts points from Gryffindor.  Oh, the injustice!  Yet at the same time, it’s obvious how much he revels in his hatred of Snape.

It’s the same theory by which the kooky loudmouth inevitably gets invited to the party, in hopes that his presence will breed solidarity among the rest of the (well-liked) guests (or at least give them something to gossip about).

I tried to a find similar literary example from my own youth and came up with one from television instead.  Nellie Olsen.  In case you’re not familiar with LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, Nellie Olsen is the banana-curled 1870’s version of a mean girl.

To this day, the sight of those perfect blonde ringlets make me want to shove the girl down the steps of Olsen’s Mercantile.  But alas, Nellie Olsen is no longer a little girl, and also, she’s a fictional character.   For years, LITTLE HOUSE was my favorite show on TV, but much as I loved Laura Ingalls, hating Nellie Olsen was half the fun.

My point is:  you can’t create a great villain without having great affection for them.  Whether they’re simply annoying and cruel (Nellie Olsen) or truly evil (Hannibal Lecter) if your villains don’t get your blood boiling, they’re not doing their job.  And just like in real life, where the people who get under our skin just so happen to be the ones we resemble most, good villains embody many of the same flaws as our heroes.

No wonder I hate that damn Nellie so much.

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What do being pregnant and being a writer have in common?

I made the mistake of doing a Google image search for the word CRAVINGS. Apparently there’s a big demand in the stock photo market for super contrived and/or inappropriately sensual food photos.

 

Now that I see this question written down, I’m tempted to answer it with a punch-line.  What do being pregnant and being a writer have in common?  Either way, you’re fucked.  Ba, dum-bum.

But seriously, folks.  It hit me today that the cravings I have for certain books and movies when I’m writing (deep into my writing) and the cravings I had for certain foods when I was pregnant—and let me clarify I AM NOT CURRENTLY pregnant—are quite similar.  Same with the revulsions.  There are specific books and films that I suddenly need to read or see that relate to my writing and will hopefully inform my writing, yet are not too similar to what I’m writing, just as there are other books and movies that could taint my work, and thus, must be avoided like the plague.

Both the cravings and revulsions are exasperatingly transitory.  When I need them, I need them RIGHT NOW.  But when I don’t, I shun these books and movies like Superman does kryptonite.  It’s like the time I was pregnant and I spent all day long fanaticizing about a very specific chicken parm sandwich from a very specific Italian restaurant, then, just as the waitress placed it before me, the thought of taking a bite made me want to hurl.

It is not coincidence that the word craving and the word crazy share the first three letters.

After all, how can you NOT go crazy knowing there’s a mystery growing inside of you that you don’t entirely control?  And yet, I enjoy being at the beck and call of my own weird cravings and revulsions, trusting my gut to steer me toward what I need (and away from what I don’t) as I continue to wrestle with the One Big Question That’s Not Yet Ready to Reveal Its Face.

Which is why I believe that the ephemeral state of mind that gives birth to ideas feels so much like it does being preggers.

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Not the first writer in the family

I took this photo at Ellis Island this past Monday.  It was just one of many posters about the Yiddish theater scene on New York’s Lower East Side during the early 1900’s, and if I didn’t have a whiny 7-year-old boy tugging on my hand, I might have stayed there all day.

“Yonkle the Cowboy Jew.”  Do titles get any better than this?  No one in my family had anything to do with Yonkle, but I learned through my grandmother that her father (my great grandfather) was an actor and a writer in the Yiddish theater whose accomplishments included translating Shakespeare’s plays into Yiddish.  What I would have given to see one of those plays.  Even just thinking about Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech in a thick Jewish accent is pretty darn entertaining.

Also, I like knowing that my interest in words and theater is something that’s been a part of my family for generations.  It makes me  feel connected to my ancestors  and gives a new perspective to why I do what I do, like my work is part of a bigger family history that I am also taking part in.

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It’s an Honor Just to be Nominated

This morning, I wrote the Acknowledgments page for the back of my book.  Throughout my writing process, I’ve kept a running list of the people I wanted to thank, so that part was easy.   But the truth is, I’ve been practicing my public thank you’s in my head for a very long time now.  (see essay below)

It’s an Honor Just to be Nominated 

I descend from the airplane onto the tarmac at Cannes in a gauzy white dress.  My skin is the color of milk because I’ve fanatically used the SPF 90 every goddamn time I’ve gone outside for even ten seconds, but the effect is flawless.  I look like a snowflake. And like a snowflake I gracefully drift down this set of metal stairs, and like a snowflake, I too have a unique imprint, a singular beauty. That’s how they’ll describe it in Daily Variety. I am at my thin weight, about the size of a skinny Oprah (which we all know isn’t truly skinny but is great for Oprah). “A zaftig snowflake,” the Hollywood Reporter will later say, uncharitably.  So maybe I’m more like a Medium Oprah, but at least they got the snowflake thing.

Halfway down the airplane’s aluminum steps, a gentle wind billows my dress as if on cue—not in a Marilyn standing over the grate kind of way, but more like the winds are heeding the call of the enchantress, like in a Stevie Nicks video.  I stop then, and smile at the reporters and fans crowded below, tossing my long auburn curls in their direction.  It is a restrained smile, the kind that says, “No, it doesn’t really mean anything to be here, to have my film in the running for the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.  This is the fluff, the chocolate glaze on the éclair of life. Go home and kiss your children tonight.  That’s what’s really important.”

After winning the Palm d’Or, the Academy Awards seem like a blur.  At first, I consider boycotting them—everyone knows the Oscars are bullshit, I mean “Braveheart”, come on—but then I realized I might actually win, and how would that look?

Of course, no one told me about the limo line.  Chances are you’ve never been in it, but I can tell you it’s a lot like being stuck in the George Washington Tunnel at rush hour except you’re wearing taffeta so you can’t eff-ing move unless you want to end up looking like a Hefty Cinch Sack on the red carpet.  And if the thought of me walking down the red carpet makes you jealous, don’t forget that I rode all the way from my beachfront house in Santa Monica balancing every pound of my Medium Oprah weight on the back of my neck and my feet so as not to wrinkle the dress.  It was like a goddamn core fusion yoga class except at yoga I don’t wear $400,000 worth of Harry Winston diamonds.

“I’m the film’s director,” I complained at one point to the woman dabbing powder on my nose, “do I have to look so fricking pretty all the time?”

“You’re shiny,” she responded flatly.

Next thing I know I’m crying and my living rigamortis posture has collapsed in a pathetic heap on the limousine floor and the make-up lady is apologizing even though she doesn’t mean it because now there’s mascara running down my cheeks.

The next thing I remember, I’m on-stage at the Kodak Theater.  I am wearing black because let’s face it, I need too, and my acceptance speech is a hilarious off-the-cuff recollection of my tragicomic limo ride to these very awards!  Everyone is in stitches, and I hope they cut to a close-up of Nicholson laughing because later I’ll be able to parlay that into a new fantasy where I rendezvous with Jack in the ladies bathroom at the Vanity Fair party (you know Jack) and he tells me I’ve got chutzpah and that he’d like to do me in a bathroom stall.  But for now, I am just accepting this great, great award and people from high school are watching on TV.

After the laughs die down I take a deep breath, look directly into the lens of camera number three, and let the tears begin to flow.  Now it’s time to express my solemn gratitude for those who’ve come before me, to thank those who’ve helped me along the way and always believed in me, especially those who are dead now. That you’ve chosen me from among these talented directors is truly an honor.  It is an honor just to be nominated.

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