Month: May 2011

Friction, dread, and arriving “having had”

hand-painted sign

I’ve been in Portland for a week now. It’s a beautiful time of year here, cool and damp, studded with the usual rare bits of sunshine, but everything is in bloom, and people seem even happier than usual when the sun does come out.

As I did last year, I’m staying in a wonderful little house in a highly walkable neighborhood. So much so that while I have a car at my disposal, thus far I have chosen to walk1, to the grocery store, the world’s greatest bookstore, to meet with friends. Oh, yeah, I apparently have friends here, and we do stuff. A lot. Eating, mostly, but all the walking means I can eat with impunity. I’ve walked more miles and done more stuff and seen more people here in a week than I’ll do in L.A. in a month. All in all, it’s been a pretty excellent so far.

Yet if you had climbed inside my head for the two or three weeks before coming up to this place, this place I like so much that I’ve transplanted myself here for 2-4 weeks every year for the past four, you’d have been certain that I planned these trips up north as some kind of punishment. The nearer my departure date drew, the more my anxiety level rose. I had too much going on in L.A. to leave right now. I had no good reason to go, except that I’d promised; I’d sound like an idiot when people ask me why I’m here, just like I do when they ask me what I do. I’d be missing things: my colorist appointment; my own business mixer; my stuff. (It’s always about me and my hair and my stuff.)

Never mind those previous trips that I’d dreaded had turned out to be delightful learning and growing experiences. This one would suck. I’d be lonely. I’d be adrift. It would be a disaster.

* * * * *

You might write off this anxiety as a fear of failure, and trust me, that’s there in spades, but my anxiety and resistance extends far further than that. Sometimes it seems like I approach anything that presents any potential friction with a level of dread.

There are the tedium-based frictions: brushing my teeth; cooking vegetables; washing my hair.

There are the rejection/failure-based frictions: returning phone calls. Actually starting projects I am contracted to do. Following up with people who have expressed interest in doing new projects.

And there are the reminders-of-my-own-incompetence-based frictions: practicing guitar, doing my Nei Kung exercises, drawing, small-talk-socializing.

But the King Daddy of them all is writing. Writing is tedious. You are never guaranteed success. Even when you get good at it, you suck at it. There is little I dread more than sitting down to write.

As luck would have it, however, there is nothing I want more than to be a really good writer. And until you can go to the Really Good Writing Store and load up on that shit, you’re sort of stuck with plain old practicing. Which means writing, and plenty of it, and with serious, focused intent on improvement.

* * * * *

Success doesn’t help much to alleviate this mindset, by the way. As they say when you invest, past performance is not indicative of future results. If you’re looking for guarantees, the universe and your broker are fresh out.

On the other hand, success is not entirely useless. It’s proof that you managed to finish something once before. And it can keep other people momentarily occupied while you get on with the business of doing the next thing.

* * * * *

There are several things I do to keep myself writing. One of them is writing here, on the blog. It’s much easier writing privately, in morning pages or in the Google Wave with Daveâ„¢, but hanging my own ass out to dry in public helps focus my energies and inspires me to bring my “A” game in a way that cracking open a spiral notebook does not. (Although I still do the other, private kinds of writing. Because really, if you want to be a writer? Just writewritewritewrite. Like a motherfucker, as Sugar says.)

For this same reason of using the public to keep me honest and on schedule, I write a monthly newsletter. It’s a different flavor of focus: less “self-help”-y, if you will, but no less helpful.2 Ditto, the monthly column for actors: it’s useful in an entirely different way to write about what you know for different kinds of audiences.3 You can take classes. You can buddy up and swap stories. But outward-facing writing with accountability is just a sensible and grownup way of working at the thing you want to get better at.

Does it mean any of this writing is easy to do? No. Well, sometimes, for stretches. But not as much as you’d think.

There’s always some level of dread involved. There is dread because there is friction. There is friction because there are stakes. No stakes, no dread.

Once you’re really in, there is always some level of dread. Ergo, there must always be some form of dread management.

* * * * *

There is a wonderful term in the film & television industry, “show up having had.” As in, show up on set for your call time tomorrow having had some damned thing or another to eat, because there won’t be any there when you arrive, sucka, nor time to eat it, neither.

You can, of course, opt not to eat beforehand. But you’ve been forewarned: food won’t be coming for a while, and you’ll be expected to work in the meantime. Without stopping to shove a sandwich in your face. And, if you’re “talent”, certainly without doing anything that will hamper Hair & Makeup or Wardrobe as they try to do their jobs. Can you work without food in your stomach?

I never thought much about “having had” while I was working as an actor, except perhaps that the production company was a cheap bastard. Which may or may not have been true, money had started getting tight by the time I got out. Really though, productions have always been expensive, because it’s always going to cost a lot to get 150 people together in the same place for a limited time to get one thing done. “Having had” was but one way of keeping the production running smoothly. All kinds of contingencies are planned for with a shoot: how we’ll rearrange the shots in case of weather, in case the baby doesn’t cry on cue, in case there’s a truck jackknifed on the I-5. Producers are professional dreaders; they worry in advance, to head as many worries as they can off at the pass.

Commercials (and movies, and TV shows) may suck when they’re done, but thanks to the professional dreaders, they get done.

* * * * *

If you have ever done improv, watched improv, or heard about improv, chances are you know about the foundation of improv: “Yes, and….” No matter how implausible the scenario you are confronted with, you embrace it and build on it.4

Yes, your hair is on fire, and fortunately, I have brought a bucket of water in my gigantic rubber purse. Yes, we’re at the top of K-2 in disco pants, and look: there’s John Travolta! Yes, and so on.

This is (mostly) how I handle my nutty little fears and phobias. Yes, I don’t want to brush my teeth, and I’m going to just fire up the Braun and see what happens, anyway. On particularly fraught days, I’ll play additional games with myself: I’ll just go in the bathroom. I’ll just pull the toothbrush out of the holder. Etcetera. You hear runners talk about this sometimes, that just getting the shoes on and stepping outside is often enough to get them over the hump, off and running.

I seek out ways to reduce friction nowadays. Sometimes it’s washing, peeling and prepping my veggies as soon as I get them home.5 Sometimes it’s placing multiple reminders in the calendar about shopping for Girl Drag before a big event (I resist my Girl Drag more and more). DVDs help get Mt. Laundry folded and put away. Arriving at conferences a day before the madness begins helps me ramp up to the crush.

With writing, it basically boils down to keeping my ass in shape, then parking it in a chair from a certain hour to another hour so my hands can make the clackity noise. The pile of supposably good writing grows incrementally, day by day, week by week. I wish I could tell you otherwise, but that’s been my experience so far. By all means, reduce friction where you can here, too. Make sure you are fed and watered (not too much). Get a good night’s rest. Have your public-facing stuff, your accountability groups, your coaches and classes, your blah blah blah. Then sit down and write.

No matter what you do, the writing will probably hurt a little. There’s only so much friction to be removed.

Dread, and write. Get slowed to a crawl, and write. Write write write. (And please, feel free to substitute “parent” or “paint” or “calculate” or what you will for “write”.)

The dread makes sense. But it alone can’t make you stop.

xxx
c

1Or take the bus. Portland also has an outstanding public transit system, possibly the best feature of which is that they refer to those 65+ plus as “honored citizens.” Something to consider when planning one’s retirement.

2Two points here. First, re: the “self-help” moniker, I wrestle with this all the time, as some of my friends know. In fact, I had a long discussion here in Portland this weekend with a writer whom I greatly admire about how conflicted one feels, being labeled as a self-help writer. On the one hand, it’s the thing you hope for most, that your writing “lands” and actually helps someone in the process. On the other, well, come on. The genre is neck-in-neck with fantasy sci-fi and business for crap writing.

Second, writing the newsletter is just as helpful to me as a writer as writing the blog is these days. It forces me to organize my thoughts differently, and that’s always good, to be able to organize your thoughts in different ways. But the newsletter itself is arguably more helpful to readers, or more readers, anyway, than this blog is. It’s more straightforward in the way it serves up tips and ideas; the blog is more elliptical. So if you’re looking to be a better communicator and you don’t want to dick around with “self-help”-y stuff, by all means, quit reading this silly blog and subscribe to the newsletter.

3Recently I also began blogging for my wonderful friends and clients at the ASMP. Only a couple of posts so far, but writing for photographers, like writing for actors or designers, is a different game and keeps me sharp. Highly recommended, writer-types.

4Nothing beats a real, live class for learning the value of improv, but Patricia Ryan Madson’s Improv Wisdom runs a close second, and is a delightful read, to boot.

4I’ve done this off and on for most of my adult life, but reading this post on barriers by Ramit Sethi really helped me recommit to this simple but effective practice. Bonus: it may help you recommit to improving your finances as well.

Frrrrriday Rrrrroundup! #53

cheese and crackers on a plate

An end-of-weekly roundup collecting fffffive of the fffffoxiest things I fffffind stumbling around the web. More about the genesis here. Every dang Friday Round-Up here, you procrastinating slacker!

Two things I want: to be this cool when I am 76, and to find as many stories like this between now and when I turn 76. [Facebook-ed, via Marilyn Maciel]

More of a marketing-type post than I usually share of a Friday, we’re all a little work-weary, especially heading into a holiday weekend here in the U.S., but this piece by photographer Billy Sheahan on how and why giving it away is good for business is one of the smartest things I’ve read on the topic, from a civilian or an expert. (Guess he learned something at that SB3 conference, huh?) :-) [delicious-ed]

The Grapes of Wrath, ultra-condensed version. [Stumbled, via Roger Ebert].

Wonderful art from a remarkable young Brooklyn artist.  [Tumbled, via Expresh Letters]

xxx
c

Image by mathiasbaert via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

The danger of 10% evil

tiny metal gargoyle figurine

Many years ago, I was in the world’s worst acting class.

Its badness was made possible by its goodness. Much like a relationship where you’re slowly gaslighted into madness until a gigantic Acme mallet (or Joseph Cotten) shows up to snap you out of it, about 90% of what went down was fine, excellent, even.

Which is precisely why the remaining 10% was so dangerous: plenty of inert matter to make the poison go down smoothly.

* * * * *

Do you think about money often? I think about it quite a bit, just before I shove the thoughts from my head in a holy panic.

My lifelong attitude toward money mimics my childhood attitude toward adulthood: Lots of power; too much scary. RUN! The thing is, of course, you really can’t avoid either. Or at some point, you just realize that avoiding them is more exhausting than giving in. And when you do finally settle into one or the other (or both) a bit, when you start handling your money with respect or learning to delay gratification in favor of prudence and responsibility, you see that it’s not really dollars or years that you’re scared of; they’re just dollars and years.

You’re scared of that part of you that you think is incompetent. Or vain. Or maybe flat-out evil, you devil, you.

You’re scared that the small, not-so-good part of you will override the big, pretty-okay part of you and ruin everything. That you will be left alone, reviled and ridiculed for the incompetent/vain/flat-out-evil devil you are. That you will die.

It doesn’t matter that it won’t, you won’t, and you probably won’t for a long, long time. That 10% of you puts on a really convincing show.

* * * * *

One thing I learned in that horrible-wonderful acting class was that a well-drawn character wants something more than anything else, and over the course of a well-played scene, will use every trick in her personal playbook to get it. (We call the wants “intentions” and the tricks used to get it “tactics.” Now you can impress your actor friends with your inside knowledge.)

Here’s the conundrum, the strongest want is nothing without an equally strong obstacle in the way of that want: Al Pacino thwarting Robert DeNiro in Heat; the survivors racing against the water in The Poseidon Adventure; Ray Milland battling himself in The Lost Weekend. It can exist without or within, but if you take away the immovable object, the unstoppable force whizzes frictionless through nothingness, fizzling out somewhere far, far past our interest in watching it. The tension between the two is what fuels the creativity of the characters and heightens the suspense.

More tension, better show.

No tension, no show.

* * * * *

I’m working on a huge (HUGE) project for my upcoming birthday this September. It’s the kind of project that could be astonishing and life-changing and crazy, crazy fun if it comes together, not just for me, but potentially for a lot of other people, you included. And if it falls apart, of course, it is one of those things that will make me, and only me, look stupid. The flavor of fail I am more afraid of than anything.

Here’s the hilarious (and predictable) part: as the deadline for each part of the project has approached, I’ve balked. You’re coming off of a five-month Crohn’s flare. You need to focus on your business. You’ll have to call in every favor you have and rack up debt in the favor bank, to boot. The scale is ridiculous. The time frame is insane. You’re insane, even if you pull it off, there’s no assurance it will make any kind of difference.

All of these things are true. Mean to say, but no less true for it.

But what is also true is that so far, all the drama has come from me, myself and I playing out a three-person scene; the universe has been an extraordinarily compliant scene partner.

So it’s 90% good that I’m 10% evil. Otherwise this sucker might never get liftoff.

* * * * *

I don’t know how you discern between regular shadow and the toxic kind in the moment. These sorts of calculations almost always benefit from some time and/or distance. Seth wrote an excellent book about knowing when to stop (and when to plow through) that I should probably re-read. Byron Katie came up with those four questions that do a pretty good job of rooting out untruths.

If you put a gun to my head, I’d say the danger of 10% evil crosses over from frisson to “Warning, Will Robinson!” when you feel yourself starting to disappear. The point of danger, this kind of danger, is to make you stronger. There were people in that horrible acting class who were well served by it. I was one of them for a while, and then I wasn’t, and then I left.

But I don’t think you should wish away evil any more than you should wish away time. Instead, wish for the alertness to stay on your toes. Wish for help from the muse finding creative ways to slay your dragons. Wish for courage. Wish for vision.

Then get that show on the road.

xxx
c

Image by downhilldom1984 via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Frrrrriday Rrrrroundup! #52

An end-of-weekly roundup collecting fffffive of the fffffoxiest things I fffffind stumbling around the web. More about the genesis here. Every dang Friday Round-Up here, you procrastinating slacker!

No matter how you felt about Roseanne during her heyday, you’ll find her behind-the-scenes story of what it was like to fight the Hollywood machine fascinating.  [Facebook-ed]

A wildly inspiring commencement speech that addresses the crazy world of change any aspiring creative artist is graduating into. [delicious-ed]

If this man’s story doesn’t make you feel like you can accomplish anything you set your mind to, I honestly don’t know what will. [Tweeted, via Brian Clark].

A lucid and gracious discussion about inheritance that I wish my family had read.  [Google Reader-ed]

xxx c

The young Mizzone brothers kicking booty on an old Earl Scruggs tune via YouTube [1:20]

The work that goes into magic

girl in tub full of cheese puffs by hypnox

I went to a wonderful wedding over the weekend.

It wasn’t wonderful because I got to see a bunch of people I knew again; I knew almost no one, although I enjoyed meeting everyone. It wasn’t wonderful because of the food or the dancing or the setting, although all of these were top-notch (as was the officiant, who outshone my efforts by a country mile).

It wasn’t even wonderful because it was one of those situations where the bride and groom were so perfectly suited to one another that every last person there was cheering on the union. Well, okay, that part was pretty wonderful. But it was magically, specially wonderful because of the how.

The happy couple met via a wise mutual friend who knew them both well, and who served as conduit. Long before she was able to do that, however, each of the two lovely people had done a whole lot of work.

They dated people who weren’t right (in some cases, egregiously so) and learned from their mistakes. (Note: this took a not-inconsiderable length of time.) They accepted the counsel of friends and trusted advisors, then got their own shit straight and their priorities in order. They built lives and homes and friendships that not only sustained themselves, but that they thought would be worthy of the significant other they each dreamed of meeting someday. One of them even made extensive, detailed lists of the exact things they wanted in the other (while continuing to take a fearless moral inventory of themselves, to cop a phrase from the Big Book.)

There was no sitting around eating Cheetos, watching TV, waiting for lightning to strike. There was no putting in some cosmic order with the universe and fluffing things up just enough to pass muster. There was constant, specific, meaningful work with focused intent.

Then, and only then, came the “miracle.”

* * * * *

Here’s what I have learned about envy and idle wishing: they come from a shallow place of not-knowing.

They come from not knowing what the people you’re envious of have gone through to get where they are, nor the full spectrum of what they live with to stay there: how many mountains of shit they’ve shoveled; how grueling and unglamorous the day-to-day maintenance of success can be.1 Occasionally, someone will graciously do us the courtesy of exploding the myth of overnight success or of showing us how scary success can be, but it’s rare to get a peek behind the curtain. (It’s one huge reason why I’m always hammering away at people to read more biography, the other being that they wipe the floor with most self-help books.)

For some of us, envy and idle wishing also come from not knowing yourself, and what you’re capable of, and even what the hell it is you want exactly. It’s far easier to envy someone else their success than to figure out what yours might look like, much less to go after it.

I’ve been guilty of any number of these not-knowings so many times over so many years, it shames me. I feel as though a preponderance of resources have been expended futilely in an effort to get me to K-N-O-W things. I’m like a black hole, a running toilet, an uninsulated shack of not-knowing. I am the most energy-inefficient knower I know when it comes to knowing this.

Then again, it takes you as long as it takes to figure something out. At least when you finally do know something, you get to keep it. You can’t send the knowing back any more than you can un-ring a bell.

What you do with it after that is up to you. My go-to responses have been anxiety, sadness, and (surprise!) more shame. (Shame has racked up an insane number of emotional frequent flyer points in my brain.)

These days, I’m finding action works much better. I would go so far as to say that action can be startlingly effective. It almost doesn’t matter what the action is, just that it’s an action with right intention behind it. Lists are good. Physical activity is really good. Acts of service are outstanding, no matter the size. Seriously. Anything that takes me out of myself breaks the spell, and nothing pushes me and my b.s. to the side faster than an act of service. That, and a 45-minute walk will cure just about anything. Instant perspective.

It’s also useful to have good friends and trusted advisors, like our aforementioned not-so-young lovers. I suspect that kings lose kingdoms because they have no one around them willing to argue against their own fortune in service of the crown’s. It’s really, really easy to eat Cheetos and believe your own press, a lot easier than doing the hard work of change, or the scary work of facing up to things (and working, regardless).

But all of it, work alone, or work facilitated and guided by other people, is work. The magic is the dazzling bit that the world sees, where all the work comes together.

* * * * *

More days than not, I write. I write three college-ruled sheets’ worth of morning pages that no one will ever see. I write in the Wave with Dave Seah. I write a monthly newsletter and a monthly column for actors. I write interviews (which I’m beginning to collect here). Increasingly, I write articles for publication elsewhere. I write comments on the blogs of people you’ve probably never heard of. I write (and rewrite) pages of content on this very site which most people never see but that need to be written, regardless. I write poems. I write songs. I write an unbelievable amount of emails.

More days than not, I’d prefer doing anything to writing. But every minute of every day, I’d rather have written something wonderful. So I write.

This is how I am starting to look at what I write. At choosing the things that I will write, which means choosing the things that I won’t write, and figuring out what I’m supposed to be writing. The very mushy, very vague communicatrix-dot-com has served me well as a means to get me writing, and I may well decide to keep it that way, as an outlet, and nothing more. The public-facing side of my inner work, to share my toys and keep me honest.

Lately, though, I’ve been feeling the need for more focus, more specificity, and more writing (or just more something) that supports flesh-and-blood me as much as spiritual me. I’m not sure yet what that looks like, or what that means for this space. Perhaps it’s this whole turning-50 thing, hard to kid myself that I have endless time anymore. While I don’t require a huge stack of money to loll around on in my old age, it’s reasonable to assume I’ll need some, and that while the spirit is willing, eager, even, to work until the bitter end, the flesh may not be able to keep up the necessary pace.

I am doing what I can to get clear on this on my own, and my trusted advisors are helping me with the murky bits. It’s about as much fun as writing every day is guaranteed to be, but like the writing, I seem to be getting better at it the more I do it.

When I am ready, though, I will have no problem asking loudly and clearly for what it is that I want, or for soliciting the assistance of a matchmaker (pro or amateur), or for smiling ear-to-ear when my Specific Thing and I are finally united.

And I will share with anyone the story of how a “miracle” was really nothing more than an assemblage of ordinary parts selected with ordinary concentration and fused together with ordinary labor, and finished off with a tiny dollop of magic.

xxx
c

1Or, in some of your creepier cases, how many dead bodies they have buried in the backyard or what that portrait stowed away in the attic looks like.

Photo © Hypnox, via. (Both NSFW)

Frrrrriday Rrrrroundup! #51

An end-of-weekly roundup collecting fffffive of the fffffoxiest things I fffffind stumbling around the web. More about the genesis here. Every dang Friday Round-Up here, you procrastinating slacker!

Nothing gets people’s righteousness fired up like a good, old-fashioned discussion of the moral implications of spending.  [Facebook-ed]

The delicate art of approaching influential people. [delicious-ed]

Imagined conversations between Sean Penn and Scarlett Johansson. [Tumbled, via The Urban Sherpa].

Why “how to invest your money for the coming collapse” is a trick question. (Warning: buzzkill!) [Stumbled, via Dave Pollard]

xxx
c

Video of John Cleese discussing creativity [10:37]

C*cksucking boulder update for Wednesday, May 11

photo of Colleen Wainwright by Shawn G. Henry

Hey! I look like me again!

After a banner week that for some reason came to a screeching halt at the stroke of midnight on Monday, I bow to no man and no calendar, I spent yesterday doing the digital equivalent of wrassling alligators.

Emails that were supposed to go out but didn’t. On multiple fronts.

Cell phone outages, Skype SNAFUs and a very exciting full-on cable outage.

Even my chicken wouldn’t poach properly, for crying out loud.

Which means there’s no cheery video today (although there’s a growing catalog you can amuse yourself with).

The spectacular nature of my week was not public-facing enough to share in a fresh forward/backward post (although last week’s is still fairly fresh, and has details on an event happening tonight, if you’re L.A.-local).

There will not be a poem tomorrow, although BOY HOWDY, if you decide to take Pace & Kyeli’s World-Changing Writing Workshop, there is a doozy of a poem by me in there, plus a doozy of a deconstruction.1 You know, in case you’re interested in how a completely non-poetry-writing person becomes someone with dozens upon dozens of not-half-bad “poems” that people seem to enjoy reading. (Free hint for you non-poetry-writers: do not even think of the word “poem” without quotes around it.)

So I thought I would share two things:

First, the AMAZINGLY AWESOME shot that Shawn Henry took of me at SB3 Chicago. He is a genius photographer and super-nice and has totally cute legs (he’s got this thing about wearing shorts, which I would, too, if I had legs like that). If you’re in or around San Diego, you should hire him. I mean, look at that shot! I look fantastic, and still like myself!2

And second, my newsletter. It is also AMAZINGLY AWESOME. Well, most of the time. This month’s is especially good, I think. Or maybe it’s just especially long. But it occurs to me that since I took down the newsletter signup link from the front page and anywhere else it might be easy to find, you may not have found it, so how would you know whether it’s good or bad or even if it is at all?

If you’re looking for stuff of a more explicitly useful nature, how to market yourself, how to improve your writing, how to not want to stab your eyes out when you go on Twitter or Facebook, that’s the place. One highly useful article plus three “treats”, once per month. I get more good feedback on my newsletter than anything else I make. Someday, I might even share it with you, like I do those crazy rotating kudos on the website.

Until then, trust me, and sign up for it. You’ll get the latest issue, and every issue after that until you unsubscribe, which you can do at any time.

Thanks, and feel free to leave kind and loving notes to me in the comments, or just raves for Shawn’s work.

I mean, really, look at that!

xxx
c

1Oh, and that’s an affiliate link, by the way. Because damn straight, I’m gonna make bank on that “poetry.” Plus Pace is kind enough to go through great machinations so that I am an affiliate solely for the WCWW among all of their other stuff. It’s a long story I’ll get into at some point when I’m ready to reel off my affiliate-linking policy. Until then, just trust me: I do not recommend anything I wouldn’t buy myself, and if you’re looking for some sound schooling on how to become a better writer at a really reasonable price, I think you should buy this.

2Because you are my pals, I will also share with you my favorite-favorite shot from the group. I mean, come on, does that not make you laugh out loud? We are an unstoppable combo, Shawn Henry and I!

Photo © 2011 Shawn G. Henry