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9.29.2012

from David Wright

"To be a faithful writer is to contend with so many forces tugging on our fidelities. We can be faithful to experience, to language, to communities, to audiences, to the self, to forms, to traditions, to innovation, to family, to moral, political or spiritual convictions. But more often than we'd like, we cannot keep all these faiths at once."

- by David Wright, from Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Creative Writing Classroom, for Poet's Quarterly 

9.28.2012

T.S. Eliot, from Anatomy of Inspiration

An excerpt from an excerpt:

"To me it seems that at these moments, which are characterised by the sudden lifting of the burden of anxiety and fear which presses upon our daily life so steadily that we are unaware of it, what happens is something negative: that is to say, not ‘inspiration’ as we commonly think of it, but the breaking down of strong habitual barriers — which tend to re-form very quickly. Some obstruction is momentarily whisked away. The accompanying feeling is less like what we know as positive pleasure, than a sudden relief from an intolerable burden."

T. S. Eliot, from The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, cited in Anatomy of Inspiration

9.21.2012

Reconciliation


A few posts ago, I wrote that the one project both the creative person and the person of faith is involved in is the ministry of reconciliation. It's worth it to revisit the origin of that phrase. It comes from Paul's second letter to the Corinthians. He writes:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.

The words here recall the story of Eden, when God looked at all he had made and said "It is good." The creation story* is a narrative of drawing order out of chaos. "The earth was without form and void." But from this nothing came every living thing. The nothing did not make something. The Spirit of God made something from the nothing. 

Then we messed it up, of course, and the ministry of reconciliation is - among other things - about dealing with that chaos again. About drawing order and making something out of these shards of our lives and the lives of others. It's about becoming right with God - and in so doing, becoming right with the world.

Plenty of artists will tell you that art is about destruction. I find it odd that they leave it at that. Yes, there's destruction in art, the way there's destruction in any exercise. You have to tear a muscle to build it. It's not always pretty. But the end goal is not destruction. We don't destroy for destruction's sake. We tear down that we might rebuild. It's the same principle behind the log in the eye. You deal with yourself before you deal with someone else. You tear down that you might build up. You dig in so that you can refill. These aren't cliches. This is the work of the man and woman of faith. This is also the work of the artist.

They work together, too. I suspect it is easier to reconcile your interior life to the life you were created for if you've made an exercise of such things with paint or pen. And one's creative work can only benefit from order within. It simply isn't true that the best artists are the crazy ones. You don't have to be self-destructive to be creative. But there's something to the suggestion that those who are most aware of their own need, most open at the seams, are also the most willing to be used by the creative spirit. I suggest that you can be both open and aware without falling apart, and that both faith and creativity - especially together - serve as a powerful means to heal the breaches within us. 

Vague? Not really. When it comes down to it, this is about being aware of brokenness in the world around us, and responding with both our art and our prayers. In the end, it looks very practical indeed. 


*If it's hard to think in these terms because of an objection to the science of Genesis 1, we can talk later. But seriously, if you can't appreciate the book of Genesis because of your middle school biology class, you've got some personal hang-ups to deal with.

9.19.2012

He Whom Chance Favors

It was Louis Pasteur who famously said, "Chance favours only the prepared mind." I've been thinking of that recently. This past Saturday, I moderated a panel discussion on screenwriting and novel writing at Stan Lee's Comikaze. Vanessa Fewings and Mark Wheaton were on the panel, both with distinct perspectives based on significant experience in both camps of writing.

One of the audience members asked about breaking in to the industry, a question which every hopeful screenwriter who doesn't have an "in" with Hollywood is desperate to hear an answer to. Mark's answer was not necessarily encouraging, but it was certainly a call to arms. Basically, he said to write, write more, and keep writing. The more material you have across a variety of fronts, the more prepared you are when an opportunity arises.

I was reminded of this again when watching the Paley Center's Vampire Diaries panel from this year. Don't judge! It was playing in the background, the cast maintaining a stream of comic dialogue with each other as moderator and audience threw questions at them, when I heard it again. Ian Somerhalder answered a serious question with a suddenly serious answer, explaining that for actors and showrunners alike to find success, there's a degree of luck that must be involved. And "luck," he reminds us, "is when opportunity meets preparation."

There are all sorts of blogs, books, websites, conferences, and conventions that will guide you through the process of getting discovered. And all those things have their place. But when it comes to being an artist - whether a writer, actor, painter, or musician - the most fundamental project is your art. Not your platform.

With that in mind, pick up the pen or the paintbrush. And when you are done, pick it up again. A writer is one who writes. An actor is one who acts. There's no other way to become what you want to be than to do it, and when you are done, to do it again. 

9.18.2012

Community Bible Experience

This fall I'll be hosting a reading group through my church in which we go through through the books of the New Testament using an edition from Community Bible Experience. There's nothing sneaky about the edition; it's NIV. But the books are arranged in a unique reading order, and the chapter and verse markings are removed.

Obviously since this is something we're starting at the end of the month, I don't have anything specific to say about the reading itself. But the concept is a good reminder that some things we've grown very accustomed to occasionally require a fresh look. We don't need to make them new - there's nothing wrong with familiarity. But to readjust our vision, to remind ourselves that our perspective has been limited by any number of factors - that's important.

I hope that the premise of "a fresh look" doesn't inspire everyone to throw out their knowledge and experience. But there should be a way to acknowledge that we have blind spots without assuming our own past is untrustworthy.

These are somewhat disconnected thoughts, but consider it a heads-up as to what I'll be doing for the next couple months. And if some of the thoughts and conversations that come out of it land here, you'll know why.

9.13.2012

Escape from Hat, by Adam Kline and Brian Taylor

This past week my lovely company launched a brand new children's book, Escape from Hat, by Adam Kline. The book is scattered with illustrations from Brian Taylor, some in color and some in black and white.

The book tells the story of a brave rabbit, Leek, who is determined to do whatever it takes to return to his boy, Cecil. Aided by a warrior she-rabbit, Morel, the pair travel through a perilous land without a sun, a place replete with monsters, dimmer-dammers, and the rabbits' arch-enemies - the black cats.

I love all of ZOVA's book releases equally, but some involve a more unique vision than others. Escape from Hat is not like other books. It's incredibly hard to categorize, being most accurately described as a "fanciful epic." It stands on its own in a number of ways, not least for the artistry of its words, the strange fusion of its language and illustrations, and the tongue-in-cheek allusions peppered throughout the text.

You may have noticed that I don't write very often about ZOVA's book releases here, and that's in large measure because I try to separate my work from my personal life. But this is a book that has seeped into the cracks between my two worlds. It's one I continue to read for pleasure as well as vocation. I recommend it to everyone with abandon, not because I had a hand in its development, but because it's a book that everyone will love.

And because this is a personal blog, filled with personal thoughts and feelings and experiences, I'm going to say this from the bottom of my most personal heart: You, too, should read this book. And you, too, should share it with friends.

Here's how:

1. Buy it on Amazon*. The print book is beautiful, but the digital book is lovely too. The color illustrations look incredible on a Kindle Fire screen. I have seen them.
2. Review it on Amazon, agree with the tags you see there, and copy your review over on Goodreads as well.
3. Share the book with your local elementary school, middle school, or library. They will appreciate it. If they want more, tell them to contact the publisher (you know who) directly. I love those people.
4. Post one of the above links on Facebook or Twitter, or pin the cover to your "favorite books" board on Pinterest. If you tweet about it, hashtag #escapefromhat so we can find you and share in the conversation.
5. I see you are now an avid fan. You can follow the author on Facebook, and the illustrator on Twitter and Pinterest.
6. Still wondering what to do with your love? Buy more copies and ask for them to be gift wrapped. Stow them away for Christmas, or let the cat out of the bag early.

And please drop me a note. I would love to hear your thoughts.

*I know most of you personally, so if you can't afford to buy a copy, let me know. You can borrow mine. No, really.

9.11.2012

What Movement Can Mean

While watching "Dead Enders" on Friday, I was reminded of something Jonathan Rhys Meyers said of his Tudors co-star Natalie Dormer. He said that more than any other actor he'd worked with, she knew how to use her whole body in a performance.

I mentioned before that one thing I was struck by in watching the play was the investment stage actors have in every movement of their performance. They are aware of their slightest motion. Everything is intentional.

No part of my work or play requires this. I am not an actor, dancer, or mime. But I can see a different reason why it would be helpful to practice such intentionality.

The body is often referred to as an instrument. This is not a flippant acknowledgement of the difference between your head and your hands. Instruments are meant to be used. And if there is one project that the creative person and the person of faith is perpetually engaged in, it is the ministry of reconciliation.

I'll talk about that more later, but here it is in brief: The work of the artist is to bring order out of chaos. To reconcile the way things ought to be with the way things are. This happens on the page, on the canvas, on the screen. But it also happens in conversation, at the cash register, and while riding the bus.  This is why the work of the artist is so similar to the work of the hopeful saint. If you are trying to develop your creative self, you cannot help but develop your humanity as well. It is the same project.

What does this have to do with a stage performer's physicality? Remember how we got here. The stage performer has learned to use his body as an instrument for his craft, which is to tell the story of the moment at every moment.

Imagine what you could communicate in your conversations with friends and family, or your interactions with strangers, if you used not only your words, but your whole body. I'm not talking about the kind of body language you read about in self help books. That's a small part of it, but I'm talking about something more.

If I'm fully engaged in another person's life and presence, it should show in my movement and posture. I say "should," but it may not be natural. And that's okay. I take time and I give attention to the tone of my voice when I want to encourage someone who's shy or affirm my friend's story of their long and painful day at work. I interject with "mhmm's" and "I see's" to let them know I'm tracking every word. But there is so much I can say, so many ways I can care, if I turn my whole self to them.

What could we accomplish as ministers of reconciliation - in our art and in our lives - if we treated our movements the way we treat our words? If we were gentle with them the way we can be gentle with our voices? Or energetic? Or thoughtful? What work would being aware, from our fingers to our toes, do toward loving others? Or being generous with them? 

9.08.2012

"Dead Enders" - a play in two acts

Last night, I saw "Dead Enders" (also titled "Orphans") at the Hudson Theatres in Hollywood. I brought my journal, a pen, my smartphone (which I tried not to use much), money for parking and a beverage at intermission, lip gloss, and sunglasses that I didn't need (the play was at 8PM).  



I arrived early, which is unusual for me, and sat by myself on the edge of the audience, a position which quickly became metaphoric for my feelings about the audience in general. "Dead Enders" stars three amazing actors: Michael Connors (who also directed), Jesse Allis, and Beau Mirchoff. Since most audience members came to see the latter, they were comprised almost exclusively of teenage girls. I felt old, and in feeling old, also felt a little creepy. 

The performance began with the stage manager reading the audience instructions about turning off our cell phones during the performance. She read these instructions straight from her iPhone, and I did not miss the irony. 

The lights went down, then up again, and Jesse Allis was on stage as Phillip - a homebound orphan suffocatingly but carefully sheltered by his brother, Treat (Mirchoff). Within a few scenes, their scrappy, dysfunctional routine is interrupted by Harold (Connors), a man of sketchy means whom Treat intends to milk for all he's worth. But Treat is not in control - nor is he ever, it seems - and Harold takes the boys under his wing for better or worse. 

The trouble I've always had with stage performances is that I'm very aware of what I'm watching and that I'm watching it. Something has to happen on stage, something magical, to make me careless of my surroundings. I was never, not even in the most poignant moments of the play, unaware that I was sitting in a room full of teenage girls. Mostly this was because they seemed to laugh at all the wrong parts (like, shall we say, a death scene) or not laugh at all the right parts (like, shall we say, an intentional joke), but perhaps I'm being fussy. And it didn't help that my people-watching before the performance began turned the audience itself into a kind of character.

Ultimately, though, my awareness was none of the performers' faults. The magic did happen. I saw it. During the second act, from the time Treat climbs through the window and on, I believed every word and gesture. 

More than with film or television, there's an immediacy to theater that inspires unparalleled delight. You are completely invested in the success of the performance as well as the progression of the story. You are rooting for actor and character both, and I'm not convinced that's just because they are standing right in front of you. I think it's something endemic to that type of performance itself. It has to do with the investment the actors have in every cell of their characters, in every slight movement. Your eyes can rove the whole stage. The camera of the audience is never out of focus. Every motion is charged. 

Aware as I was of the audience, I was more aware of the characters on stage. I forgot to think about how the one actor balanced performing and directing the piece. Or how the other actor managed to prepare his posture behind the scenes before stepping out. They became their characters and the characters became the play. Theater won.

I've been thinking about stage performance in general ever since (which, granted, hasn't been that much time), and I've also been thinking about how depressing and weird is celebrity culture (for reasons). But most of my thoughts on those will wait for another day. For now, I'd encourage you to take advantage of the last few performances of "Dead Enders" this month. Bring your brother, your father, or your neighbor-who's-a-boy, and you'll make for a welcome variation in the audience. After all, it really is a piece about fathers and brothers more than anything. Ticket sales/donations go to a worthy cause. If you need any other excuses, let me know. I used them all.


9.07.2012

Creative Excursions

One of the things Julia Cameron advocates in The Artist's Way is weekly artist dates. These are one to two hour excursions with your inner artist to do or see something creative or inspiring. I tend to roll my eyes at talk of an inner anything. So rather than talk about my inner artist, I'll talk about my creative self.

Ideally, the creative self would be the same as the regular self. The one that washes the dishes and puts gas in the car should still be the creative self, because even - and perhaps especially - in these mundane things, the creative mind should be at work. Of course, this is hardly ever the case. We tend to move through the mundane world on autopilot, and it often takes a very intentional transition to shift from that frame of mind to one of creative vision.

The goal of the creative excursion (like "inner artist," I'm also not a fan of the term "artist date" - but feel free to call them whatever you like) is to make it a regular habit to seek places, events, and experiences of inspiration. To be aware not only of what you're seeing and doing, but of how you're seeing and doing.

As mentioned before, I've been pretty haphazard about my trek through Julia Cameron's book. Because of that, I've not yet done one of these excursions. Part of the problem is that they're meant to be done alone, and I feel a little rude running off to do something fun without inviting someone along. I don't mind being by myself, but there's a certain expectation with any expedition that it be shared.

Tonight I'm going to see a play in LA. I haven't invited anyone along, so it will be me and a pen. I have very skeptical feelings about plays in general. I generally feel they're designed more for the performers than the audience. I am hoping to be converted into a theater-goer tonight. I am hoping to learn to be a little more brave in my choice of creative outings. I am hoping to enjoy the performance and discover something about Los Angeles I didn't know before.

I'll let you know how it goes.

9.05.2012

Love Does, by Bob Goff

I promised at the beginning of the summer that I'd write about Bob Goff's darling book Love Does. I finished it a while ago, but I'm not sure that I want to say much about its content. The purpose of the book is to encourage and inspire you to live more fully, and it works toward that purpose by telling stories of Bob Goff's own life doing exactly that. The title says a lot, reminding us that love is more than an ideal or a feeling, but an epic motivator. The book provides countless reasons to love humanity, and countless inspirations to turn that love into action. I'd say more, but the stories speak for themselves, and they are worth sitting in for a while. Each chapter tells its own story, and you could - if you felt like it - hop haphazardly between chapters, sampling whatever you have time for.

I called the book "darling" a moment ago, not to be dismissive of its significance (and there are moments of great significance within), but because reading the book is like meeting a dear friend for coffee. Nothing frivolous, just minute by minute conversation of health and wholeness. If you need something to remind you that there is, as George MacDonald daringly wrote once, "more love in the world than anything else," this is a book to pick up.

As an aside, one chapter is devoted to discussing the book's own writing process and how Bob's friend Don helped him with his craft. Don is the well-known Donald Miller of Blue Like Jazz fame. And if you are familiar with his writing, you will not need this chapter to know that he had a hand in the book. Love Does could cozy up next to Donald Miller's canon on your bookshelf and feel right at home. If you are not a fan of Don's writing style (not sure who would feel that way, but I'm sure someone will), Love Does might not be super fun to read. But the stories stand on their own regardless of comparison. Enjoy.

9.03.2012

In which we mark a turn.

At the spontaneous suggestion of a dear friend, I've started haphazardly going through Julia Cameron's "creative counseling" program (my own term), The Artist's Way. If anyone else feels like joining me in the venture, the book's on Amazon and in most libraries. I'd seen it before, sitting on the shelf at Barnes & Noble, and considered going through it. But the vague spirituality in the book's premise made me go squinty-eyed, and it took the aforementioned friendly suggestion for me to remember my first moment of curiosity and take the plunge.

I say I'm going through it haphazardly, because I'm not remotely faithful to the most basic dictates of the program. I generally journal pretty regularly, but turning what's always been a natural impulse into a daily and regulated practice hasn't worked out as precisely as I'd hoped. If I look at my journal, though, I can see that I've written much more frequently, meaningfully, and helpfully since I started. And I've definitely found myself being more actively creative and internally aware than I was before.

A few other things have coincided with this program. I was introduced to the Enneagram Institute, which might best be described as a holistic approach to understanding personalities. I have always been wary of personality tests for a number of reasons. For one thing, putting yourself into the box of a four-letter typology seems unhelpful at best (and they're easy to manipulate so that you score as the kind of person you think you are rather than the kind of person you are - defeating the whole purpose). Human beings are complex creatures, and naming your personality in such an impersonal way seems to do more harm than good. Especially as it offers self-justifications, creates blind spots, and ignores fundamental aspects of human behavior and feeling.

I'm not suggesting that the enneagram test has somehow overcome all of these limitations, but for the first time after taking it, I felt like a personality test helped me understand myself better. Not in terms of offering excuses or pat explanations, but in reminding me of the ways I tend to err, and offering suggestions for what the reasons for those errors might be in order that I might approach them differently in the future.

This is not meant to be an advertisement for a personality test - or a book, for that matter. What I'm leading toward is the realization that in the last few weeks I've become a lot more introspective than usual. I am introspective by nature, but the last few years have been mentally cluttered with work concerns, and I've let a lot of things slide. I'm also reading another book that I'll hopefully talk about a bit later. It discusses self-accusation, in contrast to self-righteousness and self-hate, as a practice of spiritual maturity. There's a lot more there, but as I said, I'm hoping to talk more about that book at a later date.

Ultimately, I'm realizing more and more that the process of developing the creative self - which is the goal of Julia Cameron's book - is a similar process to the spiritual journey. To develop your creativity, you have to be fundamentally aware of yourself - of your strengths and limitations. You have to be honest about your motivations and impulses. Honest about your failures and successes. About what success means to you. It's a process of honing your vision, not just toward the world around you, but first toward yourself. And this is not a selfish process, because it's a process of honesty and healthfulness - which is ultimately a process of entering the world without blinders. And this is good for relationships, for reaching out to others, for acknowledging brokenness and your own willingness to heal. It's the process between that oft-misquoted verse about removing the log from your own eye. Clear out your junk so that you can help others with theirs.

It's this whole process of thought which has led me to the rather sudden decision to define the purpose of this blog a bit more precisely. I have always written here about my random observations of life, art, and faith, but never with much intentionality. Forgive the length of this post, but it marks the beginning of what I hope will be a clarification. At least for the rest of the year - and hopefully beyond - the purpose here will be exploring the development of the creative self. Both internally and in practice. If that means walking through some of the activities I'm doing from Julia Cameron, or reviewing and article or book on the subject, or whatever - so long as it's directly related to that theme - then you'll see it here.
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