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33

Ah, yet another year closer to death.

Recently, I turned 33. Like any creative with ambition, every birthday I wonder about what I’ve achieved and the impact I’ve made on the world. And every year, if I’m honest, I don’t feel like I’ve made one. I also believe that’s not a particularly good mindset to have. I’m naturally cynical, especially about my own work and place in the world, so for this year I don’t want to focus on that type of negativity, even if it comes more naturally and more easily to me.

Instead, I decided to write about 33 positive things in my life, big and small. These might be things I’ve done well, things I’m proud of, or just things I enjoy. I’m sure somewhere in here is something impactful and meaningful, but I’ve always held the belief that one shouldn’t ascribe those characteristics to oneself. That would be narcissistic. Anyway, here’s the list:

  1. While I say I don’t believe in luck (there is an idiom I like, “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.”) I do have to give props to circumstance. We’re all products of circumstance, and circumstances have led me to some cool shit. Like meeting my wife. At the time, the circumstances were just right for us to meet. It’s the closest I’ll ever come to considering myself lucky.
  2. I haven’t had much success as a writer, but I’ve done quite a few writerly things I’m quite proud of. Wrote and made a movie when I was 22. Run multiple blogs. Wrote science quizzes for a non-profit. Interviewed athletes for a sports magazine. None lucrative or with a wide readership, but all informing who I’ve become and all things I can point to with some pride.
  3. In my senior year of high school, I spent a night in jail for stealing old computers from a closet in my school with some friends. (They called it grand larceny, which was then and will always be bullshit). I’m not particularly proud of this fact (although I do have an anti-authoritarian streak in me that smiles when I think about it), but I am proud of what it taught me about myself. After being searched, fingerprinted, and otherwise processed I was put into a holding cell with other “criminals.” Not knowing what to expect, and only having what I’d seen in movies and been told by the cop that picked me and my accomplices up from the school, I was prepared for the worst. Verbal and physical violence. And I was ready for it. Which, in hindsight, is a relief. Nothing ended up happening, and in fact most of the guys in the holding cell that night were fairly pleasant (guys were in for things like public drunkeness, or loudly arguing with their girlfriends, and would be released without issue), but walking in with preconceived notions of violence and feeling prepared to face it head-on showed me that I don’t panic easily, and I’m tougher than I give myself credit for.
  4. I’ve struggled with social anxiety most of my life. On my first day of college, for example, I nearly didn’t get out of my car to go to class because I was afraid. Throughout college I avoided participating in groups like the school paper because I was scared. This was a trend into adulthood, like when I was hired for my first job after moving to DC. I nearly didn’t get on the metro to go because it felt like my chest was going to explode and my legs were stuck in wet concrete. Over time, with some work, I’ve been able to control the anxiety and now don’t struggle as much to try new things or meet new people. I still won’t be the one to start a conversation, though. So if you see me out and wonder if I’ll come say “hi” I probably won’t. You’ll have to initiate.
  5. When I was young, I thought of myself as having leadership qualities. High school and college taught me that just thinking you have those qualities isn’t the same as exhibiting them. That said, in my day job I’ve grown into a leadership role within our department and enjoy it.
  6. This year I decided to put myself out there and really make a push toward becoming a full-time writer and building an audience. No idea how it’ll turn out, but I’m actively walking that path, which is itself a small victory.
  7. I’ve learned that the best way to get people’s attention and, sometimes, to make friends is to demonstrate a skill that has value to them. I discovered this by being a pretty solid hockey goaltender.
  8. Similarly, I’ve learned that people will gravitate toward you if they believe you’re dependable. I do my best to be dependable.
  9. In college, while sitting in my car drinking, a friend told me that he respects me because I wasn’t necessarily exposed to art, literature, or other pursuits as a kid, but I discovered and pursued them on my own. I appreciated that he noticed my drive to be the best version of me possible.
  10. While volunteering, the director of a non-profit (Learning Life, for those interested) told me that I was the most “generally competent” person he’d ever met. Like 9, that sort of compliment means the world to me.
  11. Throughout my life, I’ve done a very good job of choosing who to be close with. If I have one skill, it’s finding good friends.
  12. I waited for years to propose to my wife because I wanted to be sure I could support her. Happily, while she finishes her doctoral degree I’m doing just that.
  13. I was an angry child and would often fly off the handle for small reasons. My father enrolled me in Tae Kwon Do, where I learned discipline and how to regulate my emotions. I’m probably on the opposite extreme now, as my lack of an emotional reaction is often interpreted as uncaring, but I prefer that over the alternative.
  14. I’ve always been something of a picky eater. Over the last ten years my wife has introduced me to all sorts of new foods and my palette has expanded quite a bit. Back then you wouldn’t have seen that from me.
  15. I wrote a novel. I never thought I’d be able to do that. Maybe one day you’ll even get to read it.
  16. Similarly, I built this website on my own.
  17. Discipline and responsibility are closely linked in my mind. Hard to be one without the other. I try to be both, and I think people recognize that in me.
  18. Working for Americorps was a life-changing experience. First, it taught me that I actually enjoy kids. Before doing Americorps they confused and frightened me. I also learned a lot about teaching and communication that has helped me in every aspect of my life. Oh, and I met my wife there.
  19. My cats are awesome, and my wife and I are excellent pet parents.
  20. My parents divorced when I was young and mine and my sister’s relationship with my mother was left in a bad place, leading to a three-year period of silence. One day, I decided to drive to my grandparents house, who we had lost communication with when we lost my mom. By some coincidence (miracle?) the entire family was there, including my aunt who lives multiple states away. That was the beginning of repairing our relationship. Eventually, my sister also salvaged her relationship with our mom, and things have been pretty great ever since. Now if I miss a week where I don’t call her she gets mad at me.
  21. Year after year I’ve slowly tried to ramp up my reading. Last year was an adulthood record for me in books read, including some mammoth ones like Chuck Wendig’s WANDERERS and Joe Hill’s THE FIREMAN. It helped me to alternate between epic novels like those with novellas like Victor LaValle’s THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM, Ellen Klages’s PASSING STRANGE, or Paul Tremblay’s THE LAST CONVERSATION. This year I’m trying to read more short stories to allow myself more bite-sized reads that I don’t need to carve out a significant amount of time (in my life that means anything more than 15 minutes) to read.
  22. I have a pretty finely-tuned bullshit detector. It’s saved me from some sketchy situations and people, like when I was desperate for a job after college and almost got sucked into a multi-level marketing scheme. Going back to 11, this skill has helped me to quickly decide whether or not I should put effort into a potential relationship.
  23. While growing up in blue collar Buffalo, I thought that I wanted to work within an office, with my own cubicle and everything. Seemed safe. When I first moved to DC, I was able to find an office job within a month. It was writing-based and had a good salary with benefits. I finally felt like an adult. I was also terrible at it. From the job itself, to wearing a suit and commuting everyday, none of it was what I had thought it would be. I was fired within ten months. After a long stint of unemployment I found another office job doing the same thing. I lasted four months. Eight more months of unemployment I thought, “Well, third time’s the charm,” and applied to a proposal writing position that allowed me to telecommute. I’m now on the cusp of my sixth year with the company and lead our small division. In short, it wasn’t the job I was bad at (although the learning curve was steeper than I had expected at the time), it was working in an office.
  24. I do my best to be as honest as possible, even when it gets me in trouble.
  25. I’ve won a few awards for various things throughout my life–mostly athletics, but also public speaking and some workplace stuff. But in hindsight the most accurate award I’ve ever been given was “Most Helpful Boy” in third grade. I like helping others.
  26. As a straight white guy I recognize that I was born into privilege, even if I grew up poor. That said, I’m also very cognizant that even though you might recognize your own privilege, that doesn’t mean you’re culturally aware or not subject to ignorance. It’s something I actively work at and luckily have a wife that isn’t afraid to call me out when I’m being insensitive or ignorant.
  27. I enjoy most housework. Throwing on my headphones and cranking a podcast while I do the mindless task of cleaning is a break from living in my head. My wife appreciates it, too. Don’t ask me to cook, though.
  28. My father is proud of the person I am. I’m not sure whether or not he ever had doubts of me (maybe when I was arrested?), but he genuinely takes interest in most of the things I do.
  29. Maybe more importantly, I think my father respects me. He’s a complicated man, often stubborn, and much smarter than he lets on. But when we’re talking I can tell he makes an extra effort to really listen to what I’m telling him, good, bad, or otherwise, and engage with my thoughts more than superficially.
  30. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve only gotten more curious and more driven to learn new things. That’s exciting.
  31. I’m not a money-driven person. Sometimes this has been a bad thing, like my inability to negotiate for salary or raises. Recently, though, I’ve gotten better about recognizing that money is important (even if I hate it) and have taught myself how to be financially responsible. This led to my negotiating a promotion and raise recently. Guys, I even bought stocks. It’s crazy.
  32. Considering things like climate change and the general wastefulness of our culture, I try to live as sustainably as I can. This year, for example, my wife and I decided to only buy clothes from sustainable places. It’s been fun learning about the different products you can buy that are safer and better for the Earth. And, aside from costing a little bit more money, it hasn’t really affected our lifestyle much.
  33. I think, after much difficulty through my adolescence and early adulthood, I’ve become a decent man. Still lots of work to do, but I’m motivated to continually improve on myself.

So, that was actually pretty difficult. But as someone that can get hung up on the rejections and failures and mistakes I’ve made throughout my life, I think exercises like this are important for perspective, if nothing else.

Separation of Author and Work

With today’s release of Ender’s Game, a whole shitstorm’s been a’brewin’ about what a terrible person Orson Scott Card is. His virulent homophobia has been recently widely publicized, leading to people calling for a boycott of the movie so as not to support any project Card is even tangentially involved in. I’ve fallen on both sides of this argument before. For example, when the Tom Cruise being crazy stories were breaking left and right, and people were up in arms about his beliefs in Scientology and his treatment of Katie Holmes, I was able to differentiate between the man and his work. It helped that A.) he’s really never been in a bad movie, B.) he’s always seemed like a genuinely nice guy, regardless of his beliefs, and C.) most of the rumors seemed unfounded or inconsequential.

That may be a poor example because Card is a homophobic activist, which can be argued is much more harmful than Tom Cruise and his Scientology beliefs. So where do I fall on this spectrum? I think Card is an awful person. I think his beliefs stem from a place of ignorance and fear, and that actively trying to prevent people from expressing something as pure as love is absolutely ridiculous.

However, as it relates to Ender’s Game (or the Ender series as a whole, extending to the Shadow series) I’m torn. I very much enjoyed what I’ve read of both the Ender series and the Shadow series, but I do feel a little icky reading, and supporting, something from such an awful person. What it comes down to, for me, is how much of Card is in his writing. This is tricky because every author leaves a lot of him or herself on the page. That’s just how it works. But the truth of the matter is, neither the Ender series or Shadow series have even hinted at anything homophobic. The themes and messages in the books I’ve read up to this point have been centered on the morality of war, and the way children relate to one another as well as adults.

The conflict, then, lives in a gray area for me. While I wholeheartedly disagree with his believes regarding gays, I don’t disagree with his views on wartime morality. I find his writing engaging, and his ideas interesting enough to make me think. If I were to pick up a book that was laced with his intolerance, I wouldn’t read it. But I would drop a book preaching intolerance from any author. It is well within any person to have beliefs both good and bad. For Card and his writing, I’ll choose to focus more on the good beliefs than the bad ones until I read or hear something that convinces me otherwise.

Even though there is a lot of an author in each thing he or she writes, I think that any good author (and Card is a good author) can separate themselves enough from their perspective that a reader can afford them the benefit of the doubt.

Writing Characters that Maximize Your Story

I realized recently I have a bit of an issue with my writing: I keep conceiving of characters that hurt the potential of my stories. I don’t know if this is a problem other writers have, or if it’s something that writers often think about, but I’m beginning to realize it’s very important.

The best storytelling is the opposite of life: It’s clean, tight, and closed-ended. Of course there are exceptions, but from a strictly technical standpoint stories that have those attributes tend to have a more lasting impact. Why this is, I’m not sure. Maybe because a strong structure allows a reader/viewer to more easily follow the emotional peaks and valleys of the story. Regardless, there is a two-way street in these stories. One in which the story serves the characters (these events can only happen to these people) and the characters serve the story (the story can only play out the way it does because of these people). Spiderman only works because Peter Parker is the type of kid that would be in a position to be bitten by a radioactive spider, and his personality was such that he used his powers in that specific way. If he were a bit dumber, no spider bite. If he were a bit lazier, no superhero. If he were a bit bigger of an asshole, he’s a villain instead.

This leads me to my problem. I’m having an issue creating characters that fit well into my stories. Because of this I’m not maximizing the potential of the stories I want to tell. For example, in The Time Bubble I wanted my character to be an everyman. Someone not too smart, not too strong, not too interested. An unbiased bystander, so to speak. But when I wrote the story that way, my themes got lost. There was supposed to be discussion on the Government’s role in people’s day-to-day lives, but the character wasn’t the type of person who would have those types of discussions. And if he did, he wouldn’t have the capability of speaking about it intelligently. All of this led to my breaking one of the cardinal rules of screenwriting: Your protagonist should be proactive, not reactive. If he’s reactive, he’s boring. He’s not the one doing anything, things are happening to him.

On more recent rewrites I’ve changed the character to fit in better with the world I created and the story I want to tell. He’s become someone that was in the military, giving him reason to be away from home (theme – homesickness) and have an opinion on the Government (theme – how much is too much Government?). The story is stronger for it, but I lost the everyman I conceived the story with.

The lesson is to be sure that your characters are married to your story, and vice versa. Otherwise you’ll run into a lot of problems delving as deeply into the story as is necessary for it to be most effective. Then you’ll have lots of rewriting to do.

Pulp Fiction, Tarantino, and Artist Intent

As part of a freelancing gig I recently had to write an essay about the techniques Quentin Tarantino uses in Pulp Fiction that makes Pulp Fiction a neo-noir film. Here’s the thing, Pulp Fiction isn’t really a neo-noir film. Not by technique, anyway. It’s essentially a gangster film, and can only be considered neo-noir insomuch as gangster films and neo-noir films often share the same themes and stock characters. While researching and writing this essay, it got me thinking about artist’s intent and how often people looking for deeper meaning in film, or literature, or art find what they want without it necessarily actually being there.

Pulp Fiction has a perfect example of this phenomenon with the “What’s in the briefcase?” debate. Tarantino has gone on record as saying that the briefcase is essentially a MacGuffin and that there was never really any intent behind it. Yet the theories abound. Is it Marsellus Wallace’s soul? Is it the gold from Reservoir Dogs? It’s neither. Tarantino said as much.

I’ve had several experiences with these strange occurrences in college and with Granted. Sometimes people would give me their theories on things in my stories that I thought were better than my actual intent. Other times I was dumbfounded at their theories. Personally, I don’t believe in trying to guess an artist’s intent, regardless of the medium.

That’s not to say there is no room for meaning in ambiguity. That’s the fine line Pulp Fiction walks that Tarantino ruined with his candor. I think artists should leave certain aspects of their work ambiguous so patrons can find their own meaning. It’s the overthinking that bothers me. Some works are meant to be enjoyed on a certain intended level, and overthinking or overanalyzing something can harm one’s overall enjoyment and the overall enjoyment of the artwork for other people.

Understanding intent takes context, which is something people lack for most artworks. To properly appreciate artists’ intent, you should also understand when it was made, how it was made, and why it was made. In most cases, these are impossibilities. I think that’s why people ascribe meaning to things they shouldn’t. They are adding the context of their own lives to the artwork. Again, it’s hard to find fault with this. We should all be able to enjoy our favorite movies, books, or artworks because of their personal meaning to us. I think where it becomes a problem for me is either when that meaning is no longer personal, or the artist reveals their intent and people ignore it in favor of their interpretation.

This does beg a certain question, though: Is there a wrong interpretation? Because any form of artwork can only be enjoyed within the context of personal experience, would that make an artists’ intent wrong if it doesn’t match with Joe Shmoe’s interpretation because the artist lacks the context that Joe Shmoe is viewing the artwork in? Or is the original intent of the creator the final word on the subject?

In many ways, this debate is similar to religious exper… Shit, I fell into my own trap.

Welp, I guess overthinking is a part of human nature. My arguments are invalid.

The Question of “Good” Writing

The director of Granted posted on his Facebook wall today that he would trade half of the actors and directors currently populating Buffalo for just ten talented writers. This got me thinking, what is good writing? How do we recognize it? What standards are there for good writing?

While he didn’t specifically use the word “good”, nor did anyone in any of the comments (except me), that for some reason is the word I latched on to. I think it’s a solid starting point, simply talking about why one thing is good as opposed to something else. Why is the script for The Godfather good, and the script for From Justin to Kelly bad? “Apples and oranges,” you might say if you were the type of person to use such a cliched remark. My point is, though, is there a way to break down the elements of a script, regardless of genre or intent, and label it in such a way?

Let’s try:

Grammar – One of the first things I’ve read in each screenwriting book/blog/forum/contest I’ve frequented is that scripts are frequently judged on the grammar and spelling of the author. This is understandable, as it is a mark of professionalism and can be a solid indicator of quality. If someone doesn’t care enough to make sure the grammar and spelling of their baby is close to perfect, then why would they care about their story or characters being close to perfect? However, there are exceptions to the rule. Tarantino is often pointed to as someone with imperfect grammar and spelling, and I think it’s pretty generally accepted that he’s a spectacular writer. For amateur screenwriters that don’t have such clout, easily fixed mistakes can really hurt.

Format – There is a bit more lax in this than grammar and spelling, I think. Amateur screenwriters routinely get away with mistakes in this area simply because they’re amateurs and are (assumedly) still learning the craft. One of the Nicholl Fellowship Award winners, and eventual Black List scripts, was like this. The story was unique, characters well drawn, but the formatting poor and sometimes hard to read. Again, if a story isn’t formatted properly it can work against a script from being considered “good.”

Marketability – I hesitated to include this, because many of the best scripts are ones that aren’t considered “marketable,” but I think it’s also an important concept to understand for screenwriters. Who are you writing for (yourself doesn’t count as an answer, because then you would be keeping a diary and not writing screenplays)? If you hit you hit your target, is your script automatically good? If you miss is it automatically bad? It’s tough to say any of the Transformers movies were very good, but they were certainly popular and (mostly) achieved what they set out to achieve. In some circles, that would make them very good.

Structure – Stories in general, but especially screenplays, are supposed to have a three-act structure. But most screenplays with perfect structure probably aren’t considered good. Nor are screenplays that shun a three-act structure necessarily bad. Shane Carruth’s latest, Upstream Color, I heard plays with structure. Tarantino’s own Inglourious Basterds had a five-act structure that he helpfully outlined for his audience. Perhaps that handholding is what made his rule-breaking acceptable.

Story – Are the stories that are unique and well-thought out better than those that are familiar? Was Inception better than True Grit because Inception was a more unique idea? Writers are often judged on their loglines alone, so it would make sense that amazing stories have been skipped over because they sounded too similar to things that were already out there.

Characters – Is it better to write characters that are unique, or characters that are familiar and relatable? What makes a character that is, say, an FBI agent relatable to a farmer? Sometimes I can’t get into stories just because I can’t find anything relatable in the main characters. Evil Dead is a good example, as they tried to give you an emotional attachment to the characters by giving them intense flaws. It’s just, the struggles those chose for these characters were struggles I couldn’t relate to and I never found myself attached to them when shit went bad. Can we judge a screenplay based on how well-developed the characters are? Do we learn their backstory? Are the relationships developed? If we check yes for these, is it an indicator of how good a script is?

Intangibles – Football ranks players with “intangibles” sometimes. Extra little things that a player does that increases his worth to the team. Leadership skills, strategic knowledge, field awareness, things of that nature. Each script is also judged on certain intangibles. Turn-of-phrase, metaphor, emotional impact – these are just a few of the intangible thing someone reading a script might take into account without even realizing it.

Now that we have an idea of how a screenplay is made up, can a determination be made? I would still argue no. Writing is too subjective, I think, to be sure. While all of these parts are good indicators of the whole, it’s hard to judge a screenplay by just one, two, or even a few of these criteria. This is why looking for “good” writers is a difficult thing to do. Judging talent is a talent unto itself, and one that isn’t quantifiable.

So, I guess, good luck to my friend back in Buffalo. Judging talent and what’s good or bad is an unenviable task.

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