Sheets of Privilege

I’ve watched Tina Fey downing a sheet cake while she excoriated Trump and the white supremacists at Charlottesville EIGHT times so far – and counting. It’s the only thing that’s made me laugh in quite a while.

You’ve probably seen her now viral appearance on Thursday night’s summer edition of Saturday Night Live Weekend Update – the one where she called the neo-Nazi man boys “chinless turds,” referred to Ann Coulter as “yard sale Barbie,” and countered Trump and his supporters with “who do you think drove that car into the crowd – Hillary’s emails???”– as whipped cream and all kinds of other carbs came pouring inside and outside of her mouth.

If you haven’t – here. And you’re welcome.

Sheetcaking, as she called it, is one answer to the post-racial right wing racism (and all kinds of other isms) that is now sweeping our country thanks to the campaign, election and reign of our first bull-in-the-china shop Electoral College POTUS – Donald J. Trump – or Donny John – as Ms. Fey more aptly derides him and his cheaply made real estate.

Still, however appealing it feels to gorge oneself on sweets and carbs in response to the upside down view of the world that Donny John and his white supremacist followers espouse – it is by no means the ONLY response.   It is the comedic response of 2017 so far and, as in any great satire, should not be taken as an absolute. It is wish fulfillment and is borne out of anger, frustration and a penchant for mouthy snideness that many of us “ethnic types” prefer.

It is the contemporary version of the fictional Isaac Davis’ cocktail party retort in 1979’s Manhattan after he incredulously mentions that he’s heard Nazis may actually be marching in New Jersey.

We should go down there and get some guys together, get some bricks and baseball bats and really explain things to them.

Even when one guy counters that there is a devastating satirical op-ed piece in the (NY) Times on the subject, Isaac counters:

Well, a satirical piece in the Times is one thing but bricks and baseball bats really gets right to the point.

Let’s be honest. There is no ONE way to battle the lunacy that is now overtaking our nation. On Saturday morning, I woke up to find that two dozen Nazi white guys marched in downtown Boston but 40,000 people showed up in solidarity to counter the hate-filled rants of a crowd that had mostly dispersed by the time they had arrived.

#BostonStrong

That doesn’t account for the tens and thousands more who were home sheetcaking, talking to their neighbors, exchanging kind words with people of other religions, skin colors or sexual persuasions, or perhaps frequenting ethnic businesses and organizations that didn’t share the world view of the Charlottesville chinless turds.

The Electoral College POTUS response to Boston was classic. The first tweet:

A follow-up one several hours later, presumably after a talking to and some human contact:

Still, it begs the question of which protestors he was applauding – the two dozen or the 40,000. Certainly, it couldn’t be ALL of them.

I couldn’t pretend to know what is in Electoral College POTUS’ heart, mostly because I am sure he doesn’t even have o….well, skip it. Let’s not get sidetracked here.

Just have a good scream…. OK I’m good now #dailyrituals

The point is, you can’t believe anything he says in any given moment. Because at any given moment later – meaning five or ten seconds, minutes or hours – he might say exactly the opposite. Sometimes it’s even in the same run-on sentence.

This requires all of us to be especially aware, thoughtful and conscious about our actions as we navigate what the solutions are to our many problems. As a college professor I’ve learned over the years to avoid the word problem and refer to them as challenges. Yet in these tough times and in this particular instance I’d say problems is the more apt term.

21st century compassion

That being said, let’s not pretend that with all of our PROBLEMS we, who were fortunate enough to be born into this country, are not a heck of a lot better off than those born into third-world poverty elsewhere in the world. Even luckier are those of us born here into a higher economic class, or loving families, or, or, or, or…..

You see where I’m going with this.

There is so much chatter right now about PRIVILEGE – who is and who isn’t and how none of us are going to take it anymore. About safe spaces. About real American values and the lack thereof and who has them and who definitely doesn’t.

Yet it always seemed that the one thing we could agree on is that Nazis were bad.

Pretty much sums it up

And yet – Charlottesville showed not even all of us could agree on that. I hear reports from people I know that outside of the coastal cities and big urban areas that people are hoisting Confederate flags, brandishing their weapons to anyone ethnic — or Jewish or gay like me –- just in case they’re thinking that we’re friends or share any kind of values at all. Of course, that could just be what they normally do on a Saturday.   How would I even really know???

Well, certainly choosing to pretend this isn’t happening is not the solution to all this. Nor is Tina urging us to stay home and away from the white supremacist rallies and choose sheetcaking instead. But neither is Isaac Davis’ idea that we all get together to attend the Nazi rallies armed with bricks and baseball bats.   Two of these are extreme answers to extreme behavior that none of us truly knows the solution to. The other one is just plain dumb. I’ll leave it to you to figure out which is which.

Take your time Elmo

As a teacher whose role it often is to reach compromise I would propose that we need to incorporate not only the extremes but EVERYTHING in between. Unlike the multiple choice SAT there is no one correct answer here – except to rule out the dumb choice immediately.

Therefore, if you want to protest at a right wing, Nazi rally – do it. Yes, this is how they thrive and recruit people – by showing all the people like me and you who are against THEM – but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be continually confronted for their hate (and vigorously).

But if as Tina suggests, you want to stay home and instead frequent an ethnic business – e.g. a bakery – then that is also valuable. So is donating money, being kind to a right-leaning friend or neighbor, manning a phone bank for a cause or holding your nose and trying to talk about all of this with a relative who you’ve always loathed – or a colleague who seems to have values opposite of yours.   We have to do them all and we need to do it quickly. And don’t think the thought of this thrills me either. Though I vow to do it if you will.

We can figure out better strategies

This week I heard a former Neo-Nazi named Arno Michaelis, who runs something called the Forgiveness Project and wrote a book about his days of white supremacy in his teens and twenties, say that one of the few things that managed to change him was the kindness he was shown by a lesbian supervisor at work and a black co-worker.

Now I’m not saying kindness and money is THE WAY to fight Nazis. But please can we refrain from the now empty post liberal phrase this is privilege speaking when one dares to suggest anything else except the method you’re arguing for? We need it ALL – especially the comedy of Tina Fey.

The only act of privilege is sitting it out entirely.

Elvis Costello & The Attractions – Peace, Love and Understanding

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Personal Reboot

Every so often you have to make a fresh start. And not many of us like doing it.

I don’t know about you but starting over and giving up on what you had or thought you had – or even moving on to something else or some new phase because what you’ve done is completed to the best of your ability – makes me alternately anxious, nauseous, angry and frozen – and often all at the same time.

Spock gets it

Think relationships, family, friends, jobs, creative projects or even one particularly troublesome person that involves all of the above. Though never think of yourself. You’re stuck with yourself for all of eternity so you may as well make the best of him or her or you will only make things worse. How do I know? Trust me, I know.

Writers do this all the time. A project eventually comes to an end and you have to put away all the reams of files, pages and accompanying books, papers and other research items in order to clear your mind and officially – move on.

Resist the temptation #BEDONE

This week I took down hundreds of index cards from the wall in my office and put away three standing boards and two dry erase easels with notations that have been there for almost a year and a half. The project I worked on was lengthy and complicated and, given the vagaries of the creative life, who knows what will happen with it. But since it was completed months ago and I was happy with it (Note: Well, relatively. No writers are ever truly happy with anything we do. That’s why we make up the story to begin with, to make sense of it) — I had to not so suddenly and finally ask myself –

Why are these f-cking cards still all over this f-cking wall?

My version of a cleanse

Good question. And what a perfect visual metaphor for everything you don’t want to let go of or give up on.

Imagine a wall full of exes? Or toxic family members? Or sickening workplaces? Or old apartments you loved but were forced out of? Or the shirt, sweater or dress you grew out of? Or the ___________ that never really _____________ while you stubbornly believed _____________ despite everybody else telling you ______________. Well, really, the list is endless.

I don’t know that I enjoy carrying around the recent or distant past with hopes I can change it. It’s more like I want to have it handy in case I can. Or use it to remind myself of just what I was feeling when that moment for revenge or victory or perfection draws near.

My brain is Mary Poppins’ bag. #manylamps

Yeah, right. Like I’ll forget. Or that it will once again happen to begin with. Or that perfection even….   See, already we’re in trouble.

I went to a Writers Guild of America screening of a clever new film called Dean – written, directed, starring and illustrated by Demetri Martin. It’s about a young cartoonist from Brooklyn who finds himself frozen in his tracks after his Mom – his biggest fan – has died.

The tagline says it all

It’s a small gem of a debut with much of the honesty, simplicity and imperfections that accompany first time filmmaking efforts. Which is to say that it is worth seeing for what it manages to simply say about life and death and – (ugh) – moving on.

Mr. Martin is a comedian/humorist best known for his Comedy Central show Important Things with Demetri Martin and appearances on The Daily Show. He also plays music, draws, writes poetry, engages in endless wordplay and has an oddball but not unapproachable take on the world.

Not to mention he’s 44 but looks 24 – or 30 at best. This is partly due to his trademark mop of shiny thick dark hair that falls pretty much across his entire forehead down to his eyebrows.

Don’t even get me started on these four mop tops

Yeah, I hate him too. But not really.

What he manages to achieve in Dean is an 87-minute treatise about starting over. It’s not so much about letting the worst or best go but incorporating the best and worst into whom you are by forcing yourself to put away all the old index cards and start on something – anything new.

Of course, this involves failing – and failing miserably. Then having a few small successes that turn into ultimate failures but give you momentary happiness that’s taken away. And then finally feeling the pain of that and a lot more until you get to the place where the original hurt still does hurt but not as badly because you have allowed yourself to have some new experiences and realize there is some potential to not be miserable – and even joyously happy again – even if, inevitably, it won’t last forever. Well, who or what does?

Ponder that for a moment

Oh, and did I mention he does a lot of cool drawings about it throughout the film, which don’t stop the action but further it. No wonder I (don’t) hate him.

I’m not sure when one of my parents died or a project I loved ended that I’d have put it into movie form where a character based on me travels to L.A., meets some friends, has an affair and continues on. Somehow, it might not have felt like – enough.

Except I recall that the last time I felt this way was when I started writing the script that would become my first produced movie.

Point being – it’s never enough.

Until it is.

Ugh.

John & Yoko “Starting Over”

The Real Millennials

If you want to know what millennials are thinking about become a college professor. And if you really want to know, become a college writing professor.

May is end-of-the-semester time. That means all the original screenplays and TV pilots come in and you spend an intensive two weeks reading them, becoming immersed in worlds of THEIR making – not YOURS.

The majority of these worlds are fantastical, dystopic, and superhero-ish, and suffer from an overuse of social media, technology and the word “I.” Right?

Plus BRUNCH! and AVOCADO TOAST! right??

Wrong.

The majority of these worlds are realistic in origin and deal with themes of sexual abuse, suicide, drug addiction, alcoholism, mental illness, and domestic violence. At least mine, did. And I suspect in thousands of home and college offices across the country, so did a significant majority of many of the others.

Oh sure, there is the usual market share of family dysfunction and unrequited, coming-of-age love. That is a generational constant – a sort of baseline, if you will. But if you think you KNOW what is on the minds of today’s young people by simply perusing the pages of Wired or Seventeen, or by scrolling the tweets of Arianna Grande, Kylie Jenner, and Justin Bieber, think again. Because they have quite a bit more to say about the world and the majority of it is not pleasant.

Exhibit A: Teen Vogue #getit

This does not bother me as much as it makes me feel sad and oddly encouraged. On the latter point, I, too, was not particularly upbeat on the page at that age. (Note: And sometimes not even at this one). But looking back it’s easy to realize that being able to vent what I was seeing, experiencing and imagining all around me from what I was living is what got me through it. I shudder at the thought of what might have happened had I not had that outlet.

Still, what I didn’t have to battle was the mis-characterization of my generation as superficial, unfeeling and selfish. Self-indulgent, yes. But every younger person is thought to be that at some point by their elders – a too large group of whom have way too much invested in wanting them to suffer the school of hard knocks in much the same way they did.

Sad, funny, and true

The baby boomers (even those of us on its tail end) were never at our worst considered unfeeling or lacking depth. In fact, we were often condemned precisely for feeling too much and thinking too hard. (nee bleeding heart liberal).

In retrospect, that was a pretty easy cross to bear as a young person. An older generation will always lose when they essentially argue against the classic teachings of Jesus, Mother Theresa, and Melanie Safka (Note: Look her up).

More than just rollerskates!

But this new group of people moving into true adulthood have all that AND the battle against a perceived superficiality and laziness that, for the most part, I’m just not seeing. Or, more importantly, reading. Because the latter is where the truth really lies.

No one chooses to write about sexual abuse, mental illness or domestic violence because it’s fun or they think it’s going to sell. You can take that to the bank, even if you can’t do necessarily the same with scripts based on those themes.

And yet, how do you argue with brutally honest depictions of neglectful parents, miserable spouses waging part-time war against their kids and full time battle against each other, or a young woman so undone by the pain of a past sexual trauma and the darkly repressive reality of 2017 that she has no other choice but to return to the people who never understood her in the past and will in no way ever understand her in the future. (Note: One astute friend of mine wisely categorized this to me over the years as revisiting “the scene of the crime” and I can think of no better phrase either in fact or in fiction).

… and yet this is what awaits them. #sigh

I’m not sure of what you see when you turn on the news and watch an electoral POTUS who smack talks dissenters in the crudest of language (“nut job” “disgusting pig”) or laments to a class of military college graduates he’s supposed to be inspiring after three months in the Oval Office that he “can say with great surety – no politician in history has been treated worse or more unfairly” than he has.

(Note: Nelson Mandela? Lincoln? Or dare I say it, by His very own birther hand – Barack Obama?) (Note #2: I will leave out #Hillary in the spirit of #TooSoon).

Way, way, way too soon

I was reading a New Yorker profile of the great filmmaker James Ivory this morning (“Howard’s End,” “A Room With A View”) and in it he spoke of Maurice, the gay-themed romance he directed and co-wrote in 1987. It was based on a novel E.M. Forster wrote in the 1910s that was not published until after his death in 1971 primarily because it dealt with the author’s very own homosexual feelings at a time where it was dangerous and illegal to be that or think so/it.

Mr. Ivory noted that at its core the story was really no different than several of his films – “muddled young people living a lie.” Yet what I remember as a still young(ish) single, gay person after seeing it was literally a gigantic rainbow of romantic hope in a perilously sad, repressive time.

.. and yes, starring Hugh Grant.

This is because it was released at the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. This was an age where even a NY Times piece touting the film at that moment took pains to reassure readers that it was about love, not “bathhouse promiscuity” and rightly imagined that skeptics would likely greet its release with comments like “Is so defiant a salute to homosexual passion really to be welcomed during a spiraling AIDS crisis?”

Well yes, they did say stuff like that – and a lot worse – in not only editorial pages but on the floors of the Senate and House of Representatives. And, through gross omission and frequent moral judgments, in our very own Oval Office. And we know, in retrospect, how that went.

I thought I erased those memories!

You write (substitute any creative endeavor) about what you see and experience around you at the time – consciously or unconsciously. There is no other way to do it. From where I sit, and read, there is quite a lot going on that we should be troubled by. Yet what should reassure us is that many in our younger generations are not hiding their feelings but attempting to deal with them by expressing them with some sort of positive actions – by art, or yes, in real life, look around – much like we did.

It might be nice if we paid a bit more attention and listened to what they’re really doing and saying instead of saying and doing exactly what our generation’s elders and naysayers tried with us.

After all, what would (Jesus/Mother Theresa/Melanie Safka) do?

“Beautiful People” Melanie

Ups and Downs

There is a popular new Netflix series called 13 Reasons Why that chronicles the life and reasons a teenager committed suicide via the 13 detailed cassette tapes she left behind.

This sounds depressing as hell – if indeed hell is depressing. My feeling is hell is no better or worse than any of the most awful things we decide we are enduring right now or tell ourselves in any of our most down moments.   So given how dramatic and/or ingenious we all can be when we get into one of our “moods” or down cycles, how much more imaginative can hell really be?

It’s all about perspective

Don’t write in with comments like I never thought it could get worse than Dubya and then we got Trump. Or, I thought it was bad when ‘Crash’ won over ‘Brokeback Mountain’ and then the producers of ‘Moonlight’ barely even got to pick up their best picture Oscar, blah, blah, blah…  

Those are not searing personal affronts, even though they appear to be.

And that’s the point. Not everything is personal or as awful as we can make it. In fact, almost nothing is. Things happen, we respond or don’t respond in kind, and then time marches on. No, the Chair is not getting Zen. The Chair has simply grown more comfortable with time, as all chairs do, and is trying to not waste any more precious little of it left feeling too rickety about just how hellish anything can inevitably get on a given day.

Harshing my mellow, Chairy

We’re living in unusually rocky times, says just about every other armchair psychiatrist and would be philosopher in 2017 with half a brain. That includes yours truly. Certainly, it no longer take an Oracle or a president or even a comfy piece of furniture like myself to realize that nuclear war can happen at any moment, you or I or any one of us can get hit with a car, lose a job, contract a fatal disease and instantly die, and experience all of the above desperate and alone.

If we so choose.

I used to hate when people said this last line to me in my teens. Or twenties. Or thirties. Or even…sigh…forties.

I even hate that I’m stating it now as I’m writing it.

Still, it doesn’t make it any less true.

Yes, it will and can always get worse. Just like it inevitably can and will always get better. These are not bromides. Just facts. Look at your life’s ups and downs or simply travel in an elevator for a while. Okay, dumb analogy. Or was it? I’m not so sure anymore.

… and why not stop at every floor?

Those of us who suffer from mood swings, depression, or simply dwell in the belief that we can actually make a living in the arts, are perhaps especially susceptible to this. More and more there seem to be no rules for success and failure. Certainly, it is less and less anything even relating to a straight line.

You’re too young and don’t have any or enough experience, rightly complain my students and recent grads who are attempting to get their first or second jobs. You’re too old and have too much experience at the wrong things, note colleagues, friends and relatives who fear they’ve been at it too long. And you’re just lucky you were adopted into a family that made you a Chair, says my inner voice to me almost every other day.

Yes, all of this is invariably true.

Luck and timing has way too much weight determining any of this. Ask Hillary Clinton after she’s had a glass of two of wine or beer. She’ll give you an earful now that she’s out of the woods. For the time being.

You know our girl can throw one back #cheersHills

 

But at the same time where any of us are is not solely an accident of birth or luck or timing or even hard work. It is a combination of all of those factors and more – especially when you add in the X factor.

No, the X factor is not the old adage that the cream rises to the top or talent wins out every time or you always get back what you give. That’s ridiculous. Life can be too cruel to some, too generous to others and too random generally for it to be all that.

A wise psychiatrist told me a long, long, LONG time ago that the only thing you can control in a given situation is your ACTIONS. Yeah, I hated hearing this almost as much as I loathe repeating it.   Because I know at any moment I too can hit a down cycle and it would be the next to last thing I’d want to hear – the last thing being – um, too late, you’re dead. Which of course, I wouldn’t hear anyway so perhaps it’s the last thing.

#Priorities

Meaning – there is only one solution to the inevitable existential awfulness of a current situation. And that is to take some small action, and then another, and then even a side step with the hope that your mind will drift somewhere else and you’ll forget just how awful you feel. Or – you might actually create a moment or two that might prompt something else that will create a new and slightly less depressing or perhaps more exciting opportunity for you. At something. Which in turn will then forge something else.

I’ve found this works in romance, at work and even – heaven forbid, at the gym. Right. We’re all jumpin’ to get on that treadmill after a year away. But I’ll bet most of us would if the heart surgeon told you that if you didn’t you’d drop dead in a month.

or channel your inner Lebowski #whiteRussianplease

Don’t mean to be THAT harsh. Or perhaps I do. Certainly, that’s the only thing that’s ever worked with me. Fear of death. But I’m Jewish, from New York, vain and gay. Oh, and I live in L.A. Where none of us believe we’re going to get old or die. Because we don’t look it.

Which is a start towards something positive if you think about it. But not too hard.

Notes from Methuselah

A student wrote about an older couple who were returning to their summer home and carrying luggage where one has a heart attack. We were hashing it out in class and I said, “How old.”

“Oh, they’re really old.”

“Ok, but do you mean like, Gloria Stuart in Titanic old?” (Note: The woman who was in her nineties when she was nominated for best supporting actress).

“No, but old…..I’d say, well, I guess they’re in their fifties.”

“THAT OLD!?” I say.

“Yeah.”

“You’re sure?”

“Uh, huh. People have heart attacks in their fifties.”

Long pause.

Crickets. Crickets. #awkward

“I might as well just kill myself now then,” I reply.

Pause. Then some nervous laughs.

“Oh. Well, it just seems like they’re a lot older than the other characters.”

“That’s fair,” I say. “But this couple. Are you sure they could even lift their luggage enough to move it across the room? I mean, they’re that mobile for that age?”

More nervous laughter. Then the rest of the class catches on and starts to laugh.

“And you imply with their body language that they still have sex. Are you sure that’s safe at their age?   Could they even make it into the bedroom, much less do anything?”

Don’t be fresh!

“You’re not going to let this go,” the student countered, finally amused.

“No, I don’t think so. I’m having too much fun,” I say. “And who knows how much time I have left? I better take advantage of it while I still can.”

And….scene.

Thank you. Thank you very much. #noshame

This is a fairly typical scene these days for me and many of my contemporaries. And for my older friends – not to mention my 88 year-old Dad who assures me it will only get worse. Then again, exactly what IS the alternative?

That’s rhetorical. We all know what the alternative is. So it doesn’t bear repeating.

Too much to ask?

Full confession – there was no reason a student in their early twenties should think that a couple in their fifties is anything BUT an older couple. And after my mini-vaudeville routine I admitted as much.   But what I was trying to convey was behavior and sense of clarity. Just labeling someone an older couple isn’t very specific. Unless, well…it is. But I refuse to go there quite yet. Especially at my age.

The movie Get Out positions baby boomers Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford as exactly this type of older couple – as well as the symbols of phony, middle aged liberalism. Though even middle aged is relative. As Meryl Streep, playing a fictional Carrie Fisher, stingingly retorts to Shirley MacLaine, playing a fictional version of her then sixtyish mother Debbie Reynolds, after Mom tries to claim middle age for herself in Postcards from the Edge – Really. How many one hundred and twenty year old women do You know?

I thought it was hilarious in the nineties.   But now it’s deeply funny. Tinged with a touch of self-righteous irony on the ungrateful daughter’s part.

Regular On Golden Pond over here #helpme #getoutforreal

I think this was part of the issue for me not being a cheerleader for Get Out. The kind of middle-aged white liberal I am bore no relation to the phony Kumbaya relics I was seeing lambasted on the big screen. Not that I minded the roasting. What I didn’t get was the generalities about a group of people and the seemingly unmotivated behavior based on a stereotype.

Oh. Right. That was the point. Turnabout is fair play. Still, don’t you have to BELIEVE IT in the context of the world you as a filmmaker have created? And if you aren’t specific enough to make us believe it, aren’t you no better than the long generation of movies in the past that have so consistently done it to other minority groups?

Hmm. I’m not sure whether two wrongs don’t make a right or many wrongs make a right for a few new and improved wrongs to at least even out the playing field a little. I’m going to have to think about that one.

This might take a while #brb

The trouble is you get to the point, or the age, when you don’t want to have to think too hard about that one. When I heard 76-year-old Al Pacino was going on the stage locally to play one of my favorite playwrights, Tennessee Williams, during his last creative days in a workshop production of a new play, And God Looked Away, I quickly went online and bought my husband and I two tickets at $189 a piece on a Saturday night.

My first thought: I have to see Al Pacino live onstage before he dies and I don’t care if he’s the opposite of gay and southern. It’s called acting, right?

oh, hello.

Well, I thought so. Even though he’s older and far shorter, Pacino managed to thoroughly inhabit a fading, drug-addled Williams. It felt like the essence of a real character.   In much the same way very hunky and very hearththrob-by Hugh Jackman miraculously evoked the very gay and very lithe singer-songwriter Peter Allen on Broadway in The Boy From Oz. Mr. Allen, like Mr. Williams, was one of my faves and is almost as far away from the Wolverine as, well…I am. Though not quite.

Yet mostly what our L.A. Times critic couldn’t resist sneering about in Mr. Pacino’s case was that:

“The privilege of seeing Pacino portray the aging American playwright in a Demerol haze while pawing shirtless male hustlers as reviewers crucify him for his latest flop doesn’t come cheap.”

SHADE

Hell, that sounds good to me, gay liberal that I am. In fact, I’d pay even more to see that performance again if they fix the play a bit more. At least they were on to recognizable human behavior rather than an overworked or too witty social commentary that bears little resemblance to my reality. Or, well, a reality.

Which I suppose is relative, depending on who you are and what interests you. The hope is that what we’re actually living is reality, and what’s created in our individual fictional worlds based on that reality, is actually worthy of our attentions at all.

Though one supposes it beats the alternative.

Open Books

Does anybody really want to be private anymore?  Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and their many future and inevitable iterations would say otherwise.

The idea that each of us can express opinions on a mass scale and actually be heard – well, read and seen, which are close but not exactly the same thing – feels revolutionary.  Rather than shouting in the wind, or to your family and friends, one can literally shout at the world these days and it is entirely possible that a person or mass of people that one’s never met will see, hear, perhaps even listen… but most importantly RESPOND.   Of course, not always kindly.  File that under be careful what you wish for.

Oh days of yesteryear

Still, one could argue the situation these days is a lot more preferable than it used to be.  There was a time not so long ago that one could die in frustration with one’s inner thoughts or angry outer thoughts that the world too often turned away from.  Certainly not everything one has to say or voice is important to the world but what is certain is that it is very much important to that person.

We all, each of us, have at least one thing in common and that is the desire to be heard, and in turn, hopefully, understood.  By someone.  Or many.  Why?  Well, it varies.  Sometimes it’s on an interpersonal issue with someone we know.  In other more existential moments it is on larger topics and what we believe about ourselves.  about the world, and about humanity.  And in loftier but no less meaningful moments it is about a pressing desire to proclaim what is RIGHT AND WRONG in  ALL of the aforementioned orbits.

It really is hard being the smartest person in the room

When we can’t stop shouting about an instance, an argument or an issue, it’s more than pressing.  It’s crushingly personal.  And we can’t shut up about it no matter how much we try or don’t attempt to.  This, in particular, is where a 2017 life comes in handy.  Even if one doesn’t receive a direct response (DM) there is a feeling that somehow, somewhere, someone listened.  And might act on what was said.  By US.

Oh, and by the way and on a very much-related topic – this – more than anything else – is the dirty little secret about being a WRITER.  (Note:  Though certainly, not the only one).

Was someone spying on me? #meeveryday

On a recent and quite brilliant stand alone episode of Girls, Lena Dunham’s emerging writer Hannah Horvath is summoned to the breathtakingly gorgeous and sprawling apartment of a famous writer played by The Americans’ Matthew Rhys.  It seems Hannah has written a think piece for a feminist blog about this man, one of her all-time literary heroes, and his misadventures with a series of four different college age women he mentored and taught with whom he had unwanted or perhaps manipulated wanted, sexual relations.

Hannah tells him she wrote the piece as a means of support to thousands of young women who are forever scarred by a situation of abuse at the hands of someone more powerful.  But the writer makes a powerful case that although her words are brilliantly executed by someone with rare talents, they only tell a partial story of what she merely chose to see based on second and third hand accounts that she read.  For to be a true writer, he tells her, is to not only respect all sides but to dig deeper into one’s subject and understand reality, motivation, connection and situational circumstance in order to truly determine what constitutes the truth.

At which point, Hannah and the author have their own new interaction that EXACTLY mirrors one of the aforementioned circumstances, leaving it to the audience to determine who was right or wrong.  Or if, indeed, such a thing even exists at all.

Oh how I’ll miss you, Girl #hannah4ever

There are all types of writing and each has their individual demands.  But what they all have in common are two very specific things:

1. The truth

and…

2. What the writer believes the truth to be.

Of course, there are few absolutes in the world outside of math and science and lately even those have been brought into question.  Which really only leaves us with #2 and brings us full circle.

As both a writing teacher and someone who annually reads numerous works of writing from all over the country for various grants and scholarships, it becomes joyously and sometimes painfully obvious to me that when reading a writer one learns as much about that person as one does about the issue or subject being presented.  Often more.

You can’t help but begin to wonder – why of all the subjects in the world did this person choose to concoct a story about homeless LGBT youth?  What happened in their background that provoked this individual to pen a story about a 1930s honkytonk in the southwest with such fervor?  Who would choose to devote years to telling the tale of gnome who appears to a young lad in the middle of a cornfield at turn of the 20th century Midwest?

Or a tiny sprite of a girl who loves eggos

I choose these because in the last year all three have been among the most outstanding student and professional pieces I’ve read from young, unknown authors.  And in the cases of at least two of the three (Note: I do not know the author of the third) I know the writers revealed quite a bit more about themselves than they ever intended.  And to their great credit.

I’ve quoted it before but it bears repeating that no less than six famous writers are credited with having once famously stated (and I’m paraphrasing because five of them most certainly did):  Being a writer is easy.  Just open a vein.

And add to that in less witty parlance:  There is no other way to get to the truth.

Perhaps (?) (!) that was what Margaret Atwood was doing in the early eighties when she wrote the now famous A Handmaid’s Tale – a work of fiction in a dystopian world that not only went on to become a best seller which has since never been out of print but has spawned both a feature film and an upcoming Hulu television series where Ms. Atwood herself makes a cameo guest star appearance.

And…… PEGGY!

In her story, a Christian fundamentalist movement takes over the United States -which reeks of pollution and sexually transmitted diseases – and installs a totalitarian regime that subjugates women and forces a particular class of them to serve as the term vessels of unwanted pregnancies to a more powerful group of men forcing their wills on them for what they believe to be the ostensible survival of society.

Well, of course this is a work of fiction!

Fact almost seems more surreal than fiction these days

So much so that Ms. Atwood herself penned a piece several days ago for the NY Times explaining where she was and what she was thinking when she first wrote her perennial bestseller.

As well as what she could offer as to it’s meaning in what has been promised to be a new and improved United States that will once again be great again.

It’s a curious position to be in – addressing the real possibilities of a fictional story written in the past of an unimaginable dictatorial future some believe we are headed towards in the present.  But like any great writer she demurred on how prescient she was, attempting to be vaguely encouraging without providing answers.  In the age of what we’re constantly being told is instant communication, it’s up to all of us to draw those conclusions in the present.  Loudly.  For our futures.  Revealing not only where we stand but real parts of ourselves.  Before that is no longer a possibility.

Sage Advice

screen-shot-2017-02-12-at-2-39-48-pm

Every year I take my students to see a panel of people who wrote the most acclaimed films of the previous year. This time they included the writers of:

La La Land, Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, Hidden Figures, Arrival, Hell or High Water, and yes, Deadpool.

Lil Deady (Pooly?) getting some love.

Lil Deady (Pooly?) getting some love.

These people are all among the current nominees for this year’s Writers Guild of America awards and at the point they speak on the “Beyond Words” panel they are ending an intense series of talks, interviews and other generalized discussions about their process, their work, their careers and their futures.

But what everyone seems to really want from the possible valedictorians of their class is:

THE ANSWER.

How DID you do it? How DO you do it? What can I DO to also do it? And am I FOOLING MYSELF by even thinking that I can do it?

Getting my listening face on! #readysetgo

Getting my listening face on! #readysetgo

The panel consists of writers (or writer-directors) but you can substitute the same questions for anything, really – actors, producers, directors, cinematographers, editors and script supervisors.

WHAT IS THE KEY?

Well, it’s exactly what you think it is. You work at it. And you do it harder and more consistently and with as much abandon as you have ever done anything in your life. In fact, more so.   And chances are, you will GET THERE.

Yes, this is quite encouraging. But then — oh my. You should see the series of scared, young and old DISAPPOINTED faces in the audience.

For here is the real answer they begin to realize minutes, hours, weeks or months later if they do follow that sage advice (Note: If you prefer to stay away from harsh truths stop reading now):

You will definitely get somewhere, certainly a better place artistically. But not necessarily on a future panel that’s before you.

Maybe not in your future... and that's OK!

Maybe not in your future… and that’s OK!

And I would add this nugget of information that perhaps never crosses one’s mind. Certainly it didn’t cross mine years ago.

Perhaps that (panel) is not exactly where you belong or where you would even want to be given the compromises, sacrifices and cost of the single-mindedness it takes to achieve what you think (or may even know) are your dreams. Perhaps the work you do will be honored in some different way entirely.

This is not meant to be any more discouraging or encouraging than anything those writers told the audience of movie fans, aspiring writers or curious industry-ites who had nothing better to do on a Thursday evening than look for hope, information or just plain intellectual entertainment. But I guarantee you it is also the same truth spoken by any one of those same artists, as well as many others, on that night or on any other night on any other year.

You can take away all kinds of things when people tell you to work really hard at what you do, follow some of the rules and break others, and to listen to your inner voice and then dig in deeper.

Inspiration can come in all forms. #sarcasmworkstoo

Inspiration can come in all forms. #sarcasmworkstoo

You can be encouraged and enlightened, buoyed by the brave soldiers that came before you and succeeded.

Or you can become depressed because you know you’re already doing all of that and more and haven’t gotten anywhere close to that result.

And, in some cases, you might even become frozen with fear when you run your entire life around your brain because suddenly you realize you’ve been doing all this and MORE for years (or perhaps decades) and are so much farther away from that place on that stage than you would ever care to admit to anyone out loud, most particularly yourself.

everyone's path is a little bit different

everyone’s path is a little bit different

Well, that’s fine. All of it is fine. Except, it doesn’t mean anything. At all.

There are numerous X factors in life. And in show business, in particular, we all measure art and practicality and talent and then divide it by happenstance. For instance, did you know:

— Damien Chazelle, all of 32 now, wrote La La Land six years prior. At which point it sat around, landed briefly at a studio, was put in turnaround, and then sat around for many years more. Which prompted him to then write and direct Whiplash out of his anger to the system. Which in turn forged La La Land.

Mr. Chazelle... or one of my students? #hardtotell #stillinspirational

Mr. Chazelle… or one of my students? #hardtotell #stillinspirational

— Taylor Sheridan quit work as an actor on a lucrative TV show as he approached his 40th birthday to write what became Hell or High Water, but not before he ran out of money and moved him and his wife and 10 month old kid into a small one bedroom apartment on Sunset and Laurel. (Note: He voluntarily gave the location).

— Kenneth Lonergan got raked over the Hollywood coals when the movie he made in 2000, Margaret, languished in legal battles, was recut and even then barely released eleven years later. And didn’t direct another film until Manchester by the Sea. In fact, his friend Matt Damon said that that he brought him the kernel of the idea for the film to get him out of his funk just so his creative voice could be heard again.

And so on and so forth.

You and I and certainly few of the rest of us are likely reach the successes above with our own projects. For there is always a certain amount of timing, luck, talent, karma and cosmic grace (Note: Not to be confused with Karma) that comes into play with these things.

Sometimes timing is everything

Sometimes timing is everything

But surely if we all don’t bear down and focus in on our work, and continue to dream big – despite our experience, age, economic circumstances or emotional places we currently occupy in our lives, we will never get there.

And if we do – who knows? We could possibly surpass them.

Why does this stuff always seem so trite and cliché?

Because the very nature of clichés is that they are references and expressions of stuff we have heard time and time again that offer nothing new to our view of the world.

Which doesn’t mean they’re incorrect.

What I’ve found to be the key is exactly what WE – you and I – DO with all of this advice. Not the advice itself.

Resist the eyeroll! Stay with me

Resist the eyeroll! Stay with me

It’s the actions we take, the people we engage with and disagree with and love and scream and yell with and the art we make – based on our own reactions and experiences – that comprise the sum of our output.   Which in turn shows up on the page, in the film, on the screen, in the machine and before the next doorkeeper determined to slam that door in all of our collective faces, that can and will make the difference.

I know this because I’ve seen this and lived this. Just look around you and you’ll see it too. And then look within and start working. And let the chips fall where they may.

But if this still sounds a bit too new agey, self-helpish and yes, cliché, don’t take my word for it.

This week I also went to see 84-year-old Broadway legend Chita Rivera do her one-woman show in Los Angeles. She recalled the time half a century ago in the 1960s when another Broadway legend, Gwen Verdon, and her then husband, director Bob Fossse, still another Broadway AND soon-to-be movie legend, asked her to star in the touring company of Sweet Charity in a role created to smashing success by Ms. Verdon herself.

The Unsinkable Ms. Rivera

The Unsinkable Ms. Rivera

Ms. Rivera confesses to at first being thrilled with the offer, which soon turned to total terror knowing she couldn’t possibly fill her predecessor’s shoes. Or even come close. Until finally, she shared with us, it occurred to her:

Chita, just bring your own shoes.

I tell that to all the kids, she added. Just bring your own shoes. And it’ll be fine.