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”

Starting Over

Thirty years ago I attended the Grammy Awards when John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Double Fantasy” won album of the year and I  watched as Lennon’s widow and sometime collaborator, Ono, walked across the stage to accept the honor.  The irony of the moment was not lost on us attendees or the many millions of people watching worldwide.  The monster hit single being played from the recording as she made her way to the podium was Lennon’s “Starting Over” and its message of new beginnings was especially poignant.   Lennon had been murdered a year before at point blank range in front of his NYC apartment building right after the initial release of “Double Fantasy” and his death required that not only his wife but his legion of worldwide fans would somehow have to heed the advice of the song and begin to finally and fully absorb the shock of living in a world where one of the most iconic artists of that time – or pretty much any time – was gone.

Click for full video

As the very petite and very soft-spoken Ms. Ono stood at a clear podium that seemed to engulf her very presence amid thunderous applause that definitely engulfed the very room, I remember thinking three things  – a. “how is she doing it?”  b. “she’s so much smaller than I imagined” and c. “it’s sad that this is what it takes for people in this business to forgive you for some large perceived misdeed (in her case it was  the lingering unjust accusation that she had caused the break up of the Beatles).

As for part b. —  well, most very famous people are not as “larger than life” as they appear to be – both physically or in any other way – and in terms of part c. – human beings are often much more comfortable if we can blame a person or an institution for something we didn’t want to happen instead of blaming ourselves, life or the fickle finger of fate more commonly known as bad luck.

But as for part a. —  I’m still trying to figure that out, though I’m much closer to the answer than I was in 1982 – a time when I was sure I’d be spending the rest of my life with the music industry person I was dating whose personal history did not include one long term (or even short term) happy relationship. What was I thinking?   Hell if I know.  (Though if you really think about it you probably can guess).

But what John Lennon knew at that time and probably before most of the rest of us did, is that starting over is a way of life – a state of being – something indigenous to the human condition, and often to the sometimes inhuman condition, known as show business.

This week a student who was about to graduate college and venture out into the world for the first time without the safety net of academia came to me fairly terrified and only a little excited about the prospects that lie ahead.

“I feel like it’s going to be like starting college all over again, only different and scarier,” said the student while trying not to fidget.

“It is,” I answered, all smiley and knowledgeable, “except instead of paying with money you’ll pay in a lot other ways.”

Okay, I didn’t say that last part because I’m not that cynical and I try to be encouraging in the same way I like to think John Lennon would be.  But part of taking on any new project; stretching yourself to try or be anything you never were before; or even reinventing that which is already there, means a change in strategy.  It means looking at it with fresh eyes.  It means pulling out a blank slate and pretending you’re brand new at it.  Or – if you’ve never, ever done it before – it’s asking yourself the basic questions that all aspiring people, especially creative ones, need to ask.  What is my goal (nee objective) and what is the best, though not necessarily fastest, way to get there?

the evidence of hard work

This question is at the core of teaching in the arts.  As a screenwriting teacher it often comes down to what does your hero want; what are the obstacles in his or her way; and in the end, does he or she get it or don’t they get it?  Really good actors know that they’re reading a really good part in a play, movie or TV show if their character is actually DOING something about GETTING something, rather than just thinking about it, and that even though this thing they’re after might be difficult or near impossible to get, what the audience will be mesmerized by is the journey that this actor will personify.  They know, as do writers, that what’s really interesting is not so much the ending but the struggle to get there.  If something is too easy to get then it’s not worth watching.  If the goal is not worth pursuing or not particularly mesmerizing (which doesn’t mean it has to be lofty), then why are we wasting our time anyway?  And what all writers and all actors need in order to make the goal, the obstacles and the ending convincing is -– drum roll –  you guessed it – a beginning.

give yourself the green ight

The actor and writer always need to start somewhere in order to do their jobs.  It’s the question every creative person must take on and forge through in the fictional world of the “story.”  And just as each new story starts at some point so do the many and various cycles of our lives.

Certainly, this territory has been covered before in numerous:

  • a  Self-help books
  • b. Oprah episodes
  • c. Places of worship and
  • d. Psychiatrist’s couches across the country.

But for some reason it’s easy to forget this simplest of facts when dealing in our real lives.  It’s normal to be uneasy when you’ve never done it or lived there before but it also has the potential to be more exciting than anything you’ve ever experienced.  (Note:  I believe this applies to every situation except death and bungee jumping).

  • Start a new job?  Oh God, what if it sucks?  Or worse yet, if I suck?
  • Begin a new relationship?  I’m getting nauseous at the idea of letting one more person in my inner circle who is going to screw me over unless, well…they really know how to scr…I mean, fit into my inner circle.
  • I can’t move to a new _______, begin a new __________, or even venture into another ________    _________ without some kind of assurance that I won’t be met with failure, hurt or disappointment once again.

Well, as Samuel Beckett once advised, “Fail.  Fail better.”  Or as an acting teacher once proclaimed to me, “do you know what FAMOUS MALE MOVIE STAR and FAMOUS FEMALE MOVIE STAR had in common?  They BOTH loved to audition.”  On this last point, I didn’t believe it about the movie stars either but I have since had it confirmed by several sources so I’m fairly confident that it’s true.

Long before he co-created “The Simpsons” but long after he created the seminal 1970s TV situation comedy “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” James L. Brooks wrote the screenplay for a film called — wait for it —  “Starting Over.”  It was a sort of comedy/drama about a divorced man who falls in love but somehow can’t get over his ex-wife.  Candace Bergen, who up to that point was consistently cast as the beautiful but not terribly three-dimension female heroine in various films, played the unforgettable, somewhat twisted ex-wife and it was with one specific moment of reinvention that she redefined herself as a comic actress, the kind she will forever be known for, like in the hit series “Murphy Brown.” But before “Murphy Brown” there was —

No one had ever seen Bergen like this – foolish, off tune, and, when it came down to it, real and funny because she was bold enough to play a crazed ex-wife as…well… kind of crazy.  By all accounts it could have been pretty crazy career-wise…

As crazy as it probably seemed to many a decade later for someone with the pedigree of James L. Brooks (who had since become a double Oscar winner for writing and directing a little film called “Terms of Endearment”) to spend his time co-creating a TV cartoon series that started as a sort of throw away segment on an early half hour Fox comedy series called “The Tracy Ullman Show.”  Something three generations of college kids (and counting) have grown up on called – “The Simpsons.”

And he’s got a sense of humor to boot…

That’s high class starting over but in no way imagine that on some level it wasn’t the same blank page or screen or new life chapter we all face many times over.  When you begin you don’t know what your “Simpsons-like” ending will be – or if you’ll even come close to having one.  All you know is the blankness of the beginning and that you’re scared shitless.

To put it another way – and as crazy as it might seem — sometimes the secrets of life can be simplified to a half century old voiceover from an old 1960’s TV show like “Star Trek.”

“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

I’m no Trekkie but those are, I think, our marching orders.  Over and over again.  However, if you do run into any tribbles, it’s probably best to not say hello and just keep walking.