Dig with courage.
UPDATE: This call for submissions is now closed. Thanks to everyone who sent in a script!
So Rebecca De Ornelas and I are looking for some help with a fun project that we think could also be a cool way to spark some quick and easy collaboration.
I can’t release the specific details publicly, but here are the basics:
- We’re looking for several original one page monologues (screenplay format) that tell a difficult story in an honest, perhaps even semi-comedic way.
- We would like to see a strong cross-section of diverse voices submitting (and please feel free to spread the word on that front).
- We would like to see a strong cross-section of diverse characters (in terms of age, gender, background) in submissions
- There is no compensation, however…
- Selected scripts will be produced and delivered to a few different audiences (including mine on this site).
- Selected writers must be willing to sign a release that grants us the right to distribute the finished product only within the parameters of our project (you’ll get details).
- Selected writers will be given a final copy of the video and will retain all copy rights to the produced and written material.
Please do not send any scripts at this time. If you are interested in submitting, or would like more detailed information, let me (Michael) know via Private Message on Twitter or Facebook, or via this site. Twitter and Facebook will get to me faster. Please include your email address at this stage. That is how I will get in contact with you.
The deadline for submission is June 30th.
Let’s be clear from the start: I have very little idea of what I’m talking about in regards to this subject. But I’m learning. So, consider the following more of a report on a work-in-progress, than a presentation of any definitive framework.
Only someone like me would view the ability to rest as a work-in-progress — but I know there are some of you out there who have the same problem. Maybe more than a few.
It’s better than failing spectacularly at it, I suppose.
As I have mentioned on various social media channels, I’ve been sick. Again. For over a week. Again.
It could be worse, and I understand that. But it still sucks.
Anyway, for better or worse, as obvious as some of these may be, here’s what I’ve learned about what works — when I follow through. Maybe all of this is obvious to a sane person, but that’s not always me.
1. Accept it.
We all know how this works. The interior monologue:
“Something doesn’t feel right.”
“You need to do X, Y, Z. You’ll be fine.”
They key is to listen to the “but”. Ears between the cheeks.
“But I’m really not feeling well.”
This (hopefully) allows one to have compassion for oneself. Even begrudged compassion will do.
“Okay. Fine. I guess X,Y,Z will have to wait.”
“It will be okay. I promise.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“You don’t have to — you just have to trust me.”
2. Stay in bed (and/or stick to couch).
I’m historically bad at this. But it’s important. This week I’ve been much better about it than I have been in the past.
I’ve (luckily) been able to establish boundaries with myself in regards to my bed. I don’t work in bed. I do very little web surfing in bed. I really only sleep and read and watch TV and snore in bed.
But I’ve found that even moving from bed to couch has a debilitating effect on my levels of relaxation. It opens the floodgates of distraction. Once I’m out of bed I tend to sit and not lay down. Or I stand, battle myself about standing, and then sit again. I’m also able, from my couch, to view most of an apartment’s worth of “stuff that needs to get done” rather than just one room. So, my solution this time around?
At night, I’ve stacked my bedside table with the basics of what I’d need in the morning to stay in bed for at least a few hours after I wake up. Lately, this has been a stack of comics/graphic novels (fun reads), a bag of cough drops, water, tissues, etc. It’s worked.
After a certain point, though — and as I’ll discuss this more in a moment — it helps to move around. That’s why after a few hours I do a few minor things (with a focus on rest or healing related tasks, such as the brewing of miracle teas) and then I move to the couch.
It gets you out of your head. Sickness can magnify feelings of isolation, loneliness, worthlessness (a good American produces and consumes and does not rest in between) — to a spectacular (not so spectacular) degree.
Reading also passes time and dulls pain by distracting us in an immersive way that’s a bit different than when you watch movies (next on the list) or talk to people (farther down on the list). Reading fiction in particular, when the stories are doing their job well, can be like wrapping your mind in a blanket. That’s not the say the below methods have less value. It’s just different.
4. Watch movies.
If reading is a warm blanket, a good movie is a hearty bowl of chicken soup. What?
It’s strange, and I don’t know how to explain it, but, for me, the magic of cinema is that, even when you’re watching something alone in your apartment on your TV — the experience is comfortingly communal. Some people might argue that point. They’d be wrong.
There’s something about watching characters struggle/explore the worlds they inhabit on screen — which, again, if the story is well told — that gives you something you can’t get anywhere else. Fiction may warm me but film reminds me, and all of us, I think, that we’re not never alone in our loneliness. And it does this in a more direct, and more immediately observable way, than books can. You can turn away from text, or avoid it. It’s less easy to turn away from even recorded images of human beings, with humanity shining through their eyes.
The benefit to the sick is similar. Loneliness is temporarily assuaged, time passes, pain can be momentarily forgotten. All this together — and the same can be said of books — can also help contribute to a belief that the problem of the illness will eventually resolve. At the very least, some temporary relief can be easily won.
5. Move — a little.
For me, this mostly took the form of short walks down the main drag in my neighborhood. If and when it’s possible, even when you’re sick, it helps to get fresh air. Sometimes, it can’t be done. I wasn’t contagious and a few open windows weren’t cutting it for me, so on most days (but not all) I rested up for a few hours after sleeping a long sleep — and then ambled to the pharmacy or a bodega for supplies.
This helped the loneliness, too. Just fifteen minutes outside, after a day (or days) of riding the couch — it can also (obviously) provide a reminder that you’re not alone, even in your illness. Further, especially in a crowded, punishing city like New York — you also may see people whose current or long-term plight is much worse than yours. Unfortunately true, but this is also an opportunity to take hold of a little gratefulness and/or exercise a little humility.
6. Ask for help.
Ugh. I know. Right?!
I’m not great at it. Getting better. And I have been lucky (more gratefulness on the way).
My wife took over some of my household responsibilities while I was laid up. Sometimes, as I would have had to do with anyone else, I had to ask for this help. No one knows what you can or can’t handle, for the most part, unless you tell them.
Sometimes, our nearest and dearest know us better than we know ourselves — and we don’t have to ask. Still, I’ve found it helpful not to make too many assumptions in regards to this point. This is particularly true when it comes to work.
For the most part, even for those of us whose jobs technically overlap with others in terms of responsibilities — we all specialize in some way. If not, we at least still own responsibilities that are ours only, in terms of workload. Work life, as it should be, is more officious (duh) than home life, at least in such terms. It can be easy to convince ourselves to push through with work while ill because the process of explaining how to do what we do, exactly how we do it, seems daunting.
This is understandable. But temporarily letting go of responsibility can also be treated as an experiment in trust and in leadership. These are two aspects of life where daunting is often the word of the day, but which also can deliver rich rewards to those willing to confront fear and hesitation.
Sometimes asking for help means that someone else has to cover for you — and that you, in turn, need to cover for them, now (in terms of communication and guidance) and/or in the future (in terms of fairness). This all takes a little bit of acceptance and some patience. I’ve found that it can help to have a plan, as well.
Anyone can take the time, when they are healthy, to summarize (on paper or through conversation) the basic and/or most important day-to-day responsibilities that they own — especially when it comes to actionable tasks. Not only does this leave you with a manual to help people help you, it can also serve as an informal self-assessment for judging your own efficiency, and/or finding areas of responsibility that can be streamlined, and/or work flows that can be updated.
7. Talk to people.
This is another hard one for me, because, basically, it’s another form of asking for help. More than a couple of days in bed will leave anyone feeling lonely and miserable. So, sometimes, we need cheering up. Again, I’m lucky to have a spouse I can talk to, and who continually asks me to talk to her (ugh). Still, it helped when people checked in. And even though I sometimes didn’t feel like talking — or reaching out — I did. A little. I know I can still be better about this.
No one gets worse by communicating. Even brief, random discussions with neighbors, on my short walks, made a difference to me. When we feel we are at our worst, sometimes it takes the reflection of another’s impression of us to realize that it’s not as bad as all that.
8. Look on the bright side.
But there always is one. For me, this time…
I had been trying all month to rest. Even before I got sick. I was doing an only-okay job of it. Now I’m being forced to rest, and, honestly, despite all of the above — it hasn’t been that bad.
I’m not saying my body hit the shut down button just because my brain wasn’t playing ball. It’s a possibility, but it doesn’t matter. I’m sick and it sucks. But I also got to read some books and watch some movies that I probably would have found a reason not to watch under “normal” circumstances. And part (or most) of what’s ailing me has been a sore and swollen throat. Enter excuse for copious amounts of sorbet and ice cream.
Yes, I have gotten a little fat. But I’ll handle that.
This time off my feet has also allowed me to do some healthy thinking. It’s always a pleasant surprise, and an interesting development, to find myself sick of body and then, suddenly, simultaneously, mentally thriving. It’s almost as if my brain relents in terms of self-flagellation, temporarily, out of respect for some amorphously defined threshold of pain and uneasiness that it feels it should back away from when my body is picking up more of the slack.
The thoughts slow down and they get less dark. This is more of a recent development, now that I think of it. Sickness used to make me very angry. But I question most of my initial impulses towards anger, most days, now.
There’s probably a lesson in there somewhere. Right?!
Yes. Do it.
I’m telling you. Let it all out.
You have a right. Don’t go crazy. Don’t assume you also have a right to be public and unrelenting about it — but complain.
Someone will listen to you. You may exhaust them. This is understandable. Move on to someone else, if you aren’t done. Someday, very soon, someone will complain to you. Maybe as soon as tomorrow. Maybe its me, right now.
Oh, but don’t listen too much to other complainers if you’re still sick. Wait until you’re better.
And one last, important note. Don’t listen to people who complain about complainers.
You know who I’m talking about. That one or two (or more) folks who troll Facebook or other social media channels griping about how annoyed they are at other people who are simple expressing their emotions.
Can it get to be too much? Yes. Anything can. Everything within moderation. There are lines.
But, sometimes, if you’re sick, or if something shitty happened, or if your life sucks…it can feel good to just cast your despair into the world. No one has to do anything about it who doesn’t feel so compelled. Contrarily, they can also tell you to shut up — and then it’s up to you to decide if this is okay or not.
All of it, though, is better than bottling up that despair. Despair is real and it’s tangible and it’s got to eat somehow. Don’t let it eat you. Send it out in small doses to your friends!
For real. We’re hard-wired to sympathize, even if these days we need to click a link to some inspiring video to be reminded of the fact. Getting the complaints out starts killing them before they even reach your friends. Despair doesn’t fare well in the air.
So, there. Claire.
This final step is more of a catch-all of all the others.
Rest isn’t doing nothing. It’s doing something non-stressful, something other than working. And I say that using a loose definition of the word “work” — because even thinking can be a lot of work. In fact, as I hinted above, it often is.
Taking time to rest requires us to do something that has become dangerously taboo in contemporary America, and that is to acknowledge our humanity. Our frailty.
We’re surrounded and infected by so many rules. Some of us, people like me, even have some rules — some unhelpful and corrosive rules that make no actual sense and only cause more damage — twisted into our DNA.
But the thing is, as we all know very well — life does not follow rules. Sometimes we get sick. Sometimes, people die. At other moments, everything in the world appears to come to us easily, and it feels like we’re riding a wild unicorn on a beam of white light (or some other metaphor).
The point is that we can never know exactly what to do, and how, or when. We can only listen to our bodies and our minds and our hearts, and do our best.
In between, we rest.
Like my style? Subscribe to my list for advanced/exclusive (and free!) access to new (creative) content produced by yours truly. I send one email per month. Sometimes, they’re even funny. At least, I hope they’re funny.
It’s been a bit of a struggle, lately, getting ready to make my new film. The jump to a feature from shorter content is a big one. Not that the small films have felt small. Things have a tendency to feel big to me no matter what size they actually are — this is a default reaction I have to sometimes work to temper — but with something as potentially overwhelming as the planning and implementation of a complete feature film, there’s no arguing the facts.
This is big.
That being said, I know that I can’t allow the size and weight of such an endeavor (or any endeavor) to overwhelm me. I know, as I have mentioned before, that I can only put one foot in front of the other.
I also know that a story is a living, breathing thing that can’t only be built, brick by brick, like a house.
What I mean to say is that I do not believe the successful execution of a film rests completely in doing a little bit of work, day by day, until it’s done.
I would think there are very few forms of artistic expression that work in this way only. A screenplay, yes — but a screenplay is not an end format. A novel, perhaps. But in the prevailing terms of success, the work of novel is not finished just by its completion. There must be readers, and, by this measure, more novels and then more readers.
The same can be said of almost any artistic endeavor, any product-consumer relationship (the artist/patron relationship is a product-consumer relationship), the end result of which is a desirable level of distribution or sales. The painter paints each day until he or she is done, and may keep painting for as long as the desire is there. But, invariably, there must be an audience. The alternative is obscurity and to me, in the long term, however unfair the presumption may be under certain rare circumstances — obscurity represents failure. A failure not just to “sell” but to truly connect, which is almost always the reason we start making art and telling stories in the first place.
So I have spent the last several years learning. I have written script after script until I got to this place, where I feel like the measure of the success or failure of any one film of mine is going to be owned more by the appropriateness and accessibility of its themes — and my own exploits to find people who wish to consider and discuss such themes — than the execution of its story. I’ve similarly spent enough time behind the camera, by now, to be able to say the same about technical execution and world building on set with select cast and crew.
I know I can do this. Still, obviously, there are doubts. Just this morning, I woke up, got out of bed, and the first coherent thought that passed through my mind was:
“Fuck. There’s no way I can do this.”
I learned over time not to listen to that voice. Actually, that’s not entirely true.
You would think ignoring the voice of doubt would be the way to go, but the best approach (in my experience) is actually to nod and listen and then refute. The fear behind the doubt is real. But so is the determination and the confidence that does return if and when the opposite is reasonably voiced — with compassion.
“I can do this.”
What this has to do with the majority of the above is simple: I am finding that, as with most things — there is (must be) a middle.
I do have to take small steps, every day. But I also have to respect the film’s need for overall guidance. This is especially true for ground-level independents like me. I’m not entering into this project with any goal other than to do my best and share it with you.
You, specifically. The kindred of The Furious Romantic. You are the people I truly care about — whoever you are, wherever you’re from, however we know each other or whether or not we do. That is another truth I have to constantly remember, and could do a better job of remembering. It gets hard sometimes, with all the noise we are constantly surrounded by (or that we surround ourselves with). There’s a loneliness that comes with sourcing out, alone, what a story needs. There can be a further loneliness in shepherding a film through development and preproduction until everything crests beautifully with collaborative energy on set — and then ebbs and flows with diminishing energy as distribution runs its course and the first and most vibrant (perhaps only) lifetime of the endeavor fades away.
So, last weekend, I was thinking about all of this and wondering what to do. As you may know, I’ve determined to pursue a balanced life in parallel with this project. And perhaps it’s a testament to just how far I’ve come in my own personal and artistic development, but I was able after a few days to temper most of the aforementioned fear (there will always be some, and it will always come and go, ballooning and shrinking and ballooning again) by jotting down the following three steps.
They didn’t come from nowhere, and they aren’t original, but I’m sharing them because I believe they can be universally helpful in their simplicity:
- Have a plan.
- Keep working.
- Adjust as you go.
Is this list overly simple? Not really. I could easily slot in a few more steps (test, measure, analyze were candidates) but the point isn’t to form a prescription so much as an ultimate guide that begins with the presumption that — this is important — the film is going to and must happen regardless. The planning and adjustment are the protective flanks to the work, which is not usually a problem if you’re making films for more than a few years. It’s always going to require a lot of work.
The script for my film — which I’ll name for you, soon enough — has been done for about two weeks (until I dive into it again for another quick draft). I’ve spent the time since steeling myself for what is sure to be a hell of a ride, but also steeling myself to remember these three simple steps.
I believe that implementing the wisdom contained within these guidelines, from many different standpoints but one base, will take me (and my eventual team) a long way towards the successful completion of our goal — to not only make something great but get it to you, and as many more additional kindred that may be out there as is possible.
Exemplary quality (in no specific terms) and an eager audience. These are the twin challenges for today’s independent artist — or even today’s artists in general. They aren’t unique to our slice of history, and perhaps it’s time we stop pretending that they are. We must make good art, and we must get it “out there” if we are to do it all again. The process must be arranged smartly, to the benefit of all, within the constraints of reality but with an eye on a better tomorrow in all terms. For this to all go well, again, work must be done. But just as it must be done in one direction, with one guiding voice, in order for the film itself to flourish — so too must this be done from the standpoint of career sustainability. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the filmmaker who holds this responsibility but it should be somebody who cares about him or her and the vision he or she serves from project to project.
Translation: It’s not enough to just have a film anymore. And perhaps it shouldn’t be. There must be a plan, for any filmmaker or artist who wishes to keep working and to perhaps become increasingly empowered, and it must wrap around the entire life of the project and, in a way, across projects. As long as we keeping working and adjust as we go — and do this in almost any way but a blind way — progress will be made. Step by step, yes. But in a unified direction with ultimate touchstone goals that do not contradict the artistic process but, rather, ideally, help it flourish.
It’s a strange — but exciting — time to be creating. I have said this before. Much has been observed, much more needs to be tested. It can be done. I’m going to try to do it.
There is, as they say, only one way to find out whether what I have planned is going to work.
So, soon — we ride.
Like my style? Subscribe to my list for advanced/exclusive (and free!) access to new (creative) content produced by yours truly. I send one email per month. Sometimes, they’re even funny. At least, I hope they’re funny.
This January, for essentially the first time, I made a New Year’s Resolution. Two, actually. I decided to set two goals for myself, both of which were born out of my primary obsessions for most of the second half of 2013.
I want to finish at least shooting a feature film before the year is done, and I want to maintain at least a semblance of a balanced, healthy lifestyle while I do it.
Anyone who makes art — or who does any sort of project work in particular — could and would probably tell you that these are ambitious goals. Independent filmmaking in particular, with our lower budgets and our seemingly always empty pockets, puts a great deal of pressure on the human mind, body and spirit. It does this all the time, but the toll is especially great in the months leading up to production. Production itself is often a matter of pushing limits in ways that are perhaps sometimes celebrated, and which we can of course be proud of in retrospect, but which simply are not healthy in either the long or short term. And then there’s the post-production period, which often leaves us facing long recoveries. Physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually — even the addict’s rush that comes with having created, it doesn’t last. The truth is that making art depletes us.
Much of this is unavoidable, especially in the earlier years of a career, as we’re learning the ropes the hard way, as we invariably have to do. But, speaking as someone who has pushed myself too far in the past, I have to honestly say that I have come to the conclusion that, without balance, even art that has been hard-earned — it invariably suffers as we suffer by it, if and when we aren’t careful with ourselves. Limits can be pushed, but they also have to be respected.
For Example: One of The Times I Kinda Lost It
I arguably risked my life one day, for one of my films. Matters of budget and inexperience had led me to a place wherein I had to get my sound mix from New York to my editing bay (basically, a laptop set up in my old childhood bedroom in Rhode Island) — after 12 hours of work with our re-recording mixer. The film was set to premiere in a few days and wasn’t finished. I ended up making the drive alone, after having been awake for almost 24 hours. Towards the end, despite a surplus of caffeine, I couldn’t keep myself awake. It was three or four in the morning when I called my parent’s house (where I was living while making the film) because my fast-asleep fiancee wasn’t answering her cell. My brother picked up. I told him I needed someone to talk me through the last 45 minutes or so of the drive. It was that close. I had caught myself falling asleep at the wheel a few times.
Should I have pulled over to sleep? Possibly. There were a lot of things I should have done. Either way, when my phone battery died after about twenty minutes or so of conversation with my brother, I got desperate. I started talking to myself — loudly. I blasted the radio and opened all the windows and sang loudly. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know any of the words to the songs that play on the radio at three in the morning. When I couldn’t sing any more I came up with a sort of mad mantra, and repeated it and repeated it and repeated it. I rolled down all the windows in the car to let the cold November air inside. In short, I lost it. I went a little crazy. It’s perhaps a little funny now, but at the time it scared me — even if I didn’t admit it scared me.
How To Avoid This?
You can see why I’m eager to not repeat the same mistakes I’ve made in the past, when it comes to navigating the difficulties of making good stuff on the cheap.
As has been pretty well-documented here, I’ve come a long way as an artist and as a person since those days. I’m not even sure I would get to that bad of a place again even without my goal of balance. But I’ve come to treasure what I’ve built for myself these past few years. I still struggle with the repercussions of continuing to fight the good fight, and I still have to wrestle incrementally with my demons. I just lost a small battle to fear and doubt last night. Today, I’m all right, even though I know it will happen again. The key is to take things in stride and to avoid an avalanche.
I can’t afford to fall to madness, at any point, as I get closer to initiating my plans for making my new film (which you’ll hear about soon enough). The endeavor as a whole is going to be hard, and at times it’s going to be a legitimate struggle. I know that. But it’s also something I have to do. I have to make this film. I can’t let this need destroy me.
So, what can be done? What can I do — what can we do — to protect ourselves and our projects from the sometimes debilitating effects of long-term creative pursuits? Similarly, what can be done to protect our long-term creative pursuits from their own debilitating effects on our lives?
I think the answer is no different on the project level than it is on the macro level, as we strive continuously to live another day as artists in the real world.
Here’s what I came up with. Most of this is borrowed.
Since the beginning of January, I have asked myself the following five questions at least once each day. Lately I’ve been trying to do this two or three times.
- Am I taking care of myself? It took my years to realize that I’m not good at self care. It took time and some outside help and it’s still sometimes a struggle. While everyone is different, I do believe that Americans on average — we don’t take great care of ourselves. Additionally, artists tend to be born out of complicated circumstances — not always, but much of the time. It’s important to my well-being and to my productivity to take care of myself, and to remind myself of the importance of self-care, everyday. How do I do it? Through reflection, meditation, and action. By action, I mean I try to do nice things for myself, no matter how small. Most of the time, this means taking a break or a walk or stopping everything to drink a cup of tea (it works). On a larger level, it means eating healthy on most days and getting enough sleep on most days. Sleep. Is. Huge.
- Am I avoiding the important? This is adapted from Tim Ferriss, who recommends in The Four Hour Work Week that we ask ourselves a variation of this question a few times per day (“Am I inventing things to do to avoid the important?”). I have long had my phone set to ask me Tim’s version of the question in the morning, the afternoon, and early in the night. It helps me keep myself focused. A lot of times, I ignore the reminder, because I know I’m on track. Sometimes, I growl at my phone, because I am not on track. Usually, this means I am afraid of something. However understandable the fear may be, it’s almost always in the way of “the important”. That won’t do. Also, an additional note: while this may not align perfectly with the spirit of what Ferriss advocates, sometimes, for me, “the important” is not a project. Sometimes, it’s self-care, or my relationships, or –more on this below — enjoying life.
- Have I taken a step towards my goal of making my film? I don’t care how big a step. Every day, I make sure to do one thing to move my current project forward. Sometimes, it’s just sending an email. Sometimes, it’s research. It doesn’t matter. Any tiny thing I do on any one day brings me one step closer to the larger realization of my ultimate goal. This can be easy to forget, when fear creeps in and all we can think about is the overwhelming list of tasks that must be completed to make a film, that are standing in the way of it being finished. This point of view doesn’t work. Trust me, if you aren’t already nodding your head. It’s a trap set by self-sabotage. However a big task gets done, and by whoever — it’s always a matter of steps. We don’t magically float to the top of a tall flight of stairs by staring up at them worrying how we’re possibly going to walk all steps at once. We get there, in time, by putting one foot ahead of the other until it’s over.
- Am I being open in my relationships with others? This is perhaps a question that’s aimed more specifically at where I am in my life right now, but I’m sharing it anyway in case a few people might benefit. Also, the question itself necessitates I mention it. Basically, I feel I’ve spent too much time holding back certain parts of myself (again, out of fear) as I’ve interacted with other people, throughout my life. Life goes more smoothly (and my work goes more smoothly) when I kick this propensity and endeavor to just be me. Focusing on openness, I have found, also helps hasten decision-making. I don’t labor over decisions or create as many scenarios in my head when I’m being open with myself and others. I’m able to more fully live in the moment. Daily meditation and informal studies of mindfulness and Buddhism have helped me immensely in this respect. Openness has numerous benefits. There’s room for tact, of course, because not everyone needs to know everything about everyone else, and we all need to protect ourselves sometimes — but I think we’ve suffered enough as people and as a society from the effects of leaving feelings unspoken. The repression isn’t healthy.
- Am I taking time to enjoy life? Save the best for last, right? I unfortunately need to remind myself to stop and enjoy life. I tend to work too hard. I tend to brood, when I’m not working. There is not much room for naked enjoyment in either of these default states. Even work that makes me happy — it’s still work. So I have to ask myself this question, at least once per day. When the answer is “no”, I do what I can to correct the situation. Sometimes, again, this means a cup of tea, or maybe a soda or a snack. Many times, it means taking time to read some fiction, watch a movie, or listen to a podcast. Anything that isn’t work and gives me pleasure. That includes going out. I will force myself to go out when I don’t want to, because I know by now to mistrust the feelings and thoughts I get that tell me to do the opposite and stay home and work or brood. Balance has to include joy, for me.
So, there you have it.
Hopefully, some of the above has been helpful. I’d be interested to hear what others are doing to maintain some semblance of balance while working through large projects (I include life in this category). Hit me up in the comments if you have anything to add, or any further questions about how I came up with this list in particular.
Like my style? Subscribe to my list for advanced/exclusive (and free!) access to new (creative) content produced by yours truly. I send one email per month. Sometimes, they’re even funny. At least, I hope they’re funny.
Hello, Furious Faithful.
Welcome to the Inaugural Guest Post on mdibiasio.com. I’ve got a busy couple of years coming up (mischief is in the making) but I want to keep up a dialogue in between potentially more sporadic posts from me — so you may see some more entries from guests as the year continues. I’m especially busy for the next month (planning of the making of the mischief), but will still chime in now and then and I’ll probably do what I’m doing now and introduce and comment briefly on guest material.
Now, some info on our guest writer, Liam Billingham.
Recent posts about navigating life as an artist and indie filmmaker have been popular here, so when I noticed the below-mentioned conversation on Facebook — and read and enjoyed and agreed with many of the points made — I reached out to Liam to share his findings and his thoughts.
I first met Liam during a Seed&Spark Twitter chat, which, incidentally, you should check out if you’re a filmmaker and if this sort of material is of particular interest to you. Seed&Spark has been bringing great energy to the discussion and growth of a rising movement towards empowered, sustainable and self-directed indie filmmaking, offering support that ranges from crowd-building to funding to distribution, and their momentum and influence seems to really be growing. I’ve enjoyed becoming a part of their #FilmCurious community (the hashtag used during chats). Anyway, Liam is an indie writer/director living in Brooklyn, who recently finished a short film and is developing his first feature. Since I’m in the same position, more or less, we realized we had a lot in common and have become friends.
All of the below came out of an informal poll Liam took on Facebook, asking for some added insight from other seasoned artists in regards to providing advice to college seniors in the arts who will be graduating this year. I agree with all of what came up in the conversation, and believe many of the observations and advice shared by Liam’s friends can be of value to emerging and established artists as well as those who are nominally in more of a beginner’s position.
I’ll leave it to Liam to contextualize his specific findings. The reasons why I asked him if he wouldn’t mind sharing them, for the benefit of all, should become readily apparent as he works through each.
In spots, I’ve made some personal notes, which appear in italics and are tagged in the front with my name. All remaining text is from Liam unless otherwise indicated by him.
Just before Christmas, my former undergraduate theatre professor at the University of New Hampshire asked me to Skype in to a class of graduating seniors and talk about my experience as an artist since graduating. Specifically, the topic was ‘What Next?,’ and dealt with looking at the journeys alumni took that led to where they are right now.
The morning of the talk, I decided it was best to poll a group of friends and fellow artists who had been making art since we graduated. I didn’t want to restrict the poll to UNH alumni. I wanted to cast as wide a net as possible. I didn’t want to just ask theatre people only, either, since I don’t really work much in theatre anymore. For these reasons, I turned to all my Facebook friends in asking for advice for seniors.
The post got a lot of traction, and we got about 40 comments, most of which were incredibly useful. Reviewing what was sent in, a few key ideas popped up that I thought I’d share:
The More You Know…
From Stage Manager Natalie Lynch: “Do as much as you can and learn as many skills as you can. The more you know the more areas you can work. And you never know what may be asked of you…”
From UNH Student Engagement and Young Alumni Programs Director Megan Hales: “…ask as many questions and talk to as many people as possible. Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know and the only way to make progress is by talking to people!”
The More People You Meet…
When I was at UNH, I had an intellectually challenging professor named David Kaye, who turned me on to Anne Bogart and the SITI Company. I read Anne’s book and applied to train with them. At their month-long training program in Saratoga, I met Jean Ann Douglass, whom, years later, introduced me to Nicholas Nelson and Jared Mezzocchi. Nick has been a constant collaborator, and Jared introduced me to Ben Jaeger-Thomas, who has been a client and collaborator for the past few years. Both Jean Ann and Ben comment below on how to make it as an artist. They’re lifers, fully committed to making art a part of their lives.
The more people you meet, the more you learn, the more experiences you have, the more these wonderful people will feed you. (MICHAEL: And you, them. In my experience, after I have summoned up the courage to “butt in” on someone, particularly online (though I do it in person as well) and open up to how I’m feeling about whatever they said or did (in a positive and/or constructive way) and then offered help — down the line, they’ve offered to help me too. A simple and obvious lesson but one that can be easy to forget). You’ll also meet assholes. You need to meet those people too, so you know you don’t want to be around them. (MICHAEL: This is a very good point. There are unfortunately a lot of negative people, in every industry. Negative artists can be particularly damaging to your progress and momentum. I should know. I used to struggle against one who used to live in my head, and still does — behind a series of locked doors).
From actor Jesse Presler: “…foster artistic relationships outside of your comfort zone. It can be an artistic hindrance to only spend time with people who speak the same artistic language in which one is indoctrinated. It can be a hindrance to personal growth to only spend time with and hide among one’s recently-graduated friends. College comrades are very important, of course, but part of being an artist is growth — growth which is and should be uncomfortable, painful at times even.”
So, find your people.
Carve Out A Life Course
From Seven Stages Shakespeare Company Artistic Director Dan Beaulieu: “Go out and see as much as possible. Now that classes are over, take 15 hours a week and carve out your own “life course”. Shows, concerts, movies, art exhibits, artisan craft fairs, anything creative. And read! And read. And read.” (MICHAEL: This is fantastic advice, that I whole-heartedly agree with. To me, it speaks to the importance of immersion. Personally, I long struggled with a tendency to explain away reasons why I don’t have the time (or, worse, don’t need to take the time) to do my due diligence as an artist and do as Dan says and “go out and see” stuff. A few additional added points: 1) Don’t wait for perfect circumstances when choosing what to do or not do, just be open and experiment and allow yourself to be led from there; 2) Be wary of the line between immersion and avoidance; 3) Apart from reading, mix in a healthy dose of private creative consumption. There’s even a difference between seeing a movie or a play with friends, and experiencing it privately and then talking — and doing the same thing but having another hour or more to process before the conversation.)
From Artist/Fractured Atlas Insurance genius Jean Ann Douglass : “Also, don’t kid yourself that you’ll be able to make rent off your art. There are lots of ways to make money, and they all have trade-offs. Irregular paychecks may be more stressful than the confines of working 9 to 5. Or vice versa.”
And, again from Jean Ann: “Don’t burn yourself out before you’re 30 years old. Taking care of yourself as a whole person is the most important thing you can do.”
From Voice over Artist/Actor Ben Jaeger-Thomas: “Really think about what it is realistically that you want to do in the arts. Being famous isn’t specific enough. Are you going to be okay
being on tour six months out of the year, every year, to piece together a living? You aren’t 20 forever.” (MICHAEL: Another good point. I’ve been trying hard lately to not only focus more on “the work,” but on how my work fits into reality. Accepting reality and adapting to it can be so much better for us as artists than we may think when we are following fear-laden trains of thought that tell us conditions need to be perfect).
From artist/musician/graphic designer/filmmaker Ken Nash: “If it doesn’t scare the hell out of you, it’s probably not worth doing. Set a goal each year to do one thing you’re completely terrified about doing.” (MICHAEL: He’s right. I would add that, invariably, what scares us the most can often produce our best work, if not directly — in some way or form at least).
Don’t be a dick
From filmmaker Chris Ungco: “People will respond better to good ideas from people who seem like good people. You get more, and you live better by not being a dick. Good luck.” (MICHAEL: This can be a hard piece of advice to adhere to, as time goes on and the (understandable) propensity for bitterness grows. Adhere to it anyway. Toxic people invariably release their poison to disastrous effect, even if they succeed in a short term way. Further, while we of course always want every single project to be the best it can be, acting monstrously towards collaborators (or worse, to or in front of potential audience members) endangers or destroys future prospects. Finally, in my opinion, no piece of art is worth the cost of dehumanization — in terms of what damage you could do to yourself or others. “Don’t be a dick” could also be translated to “be human”.)
So what did we learn?
- Being an artist takes time, and it shouldn’t ruin your life. Have a life.
- Constantly go out and meet new people, learn new things, and find a new niche.
- Treat people right. Seriously, don’t be a dick.
I think the most important lesson is to really evaluate where you are right now. If it isn’t where you want to be, don’t beat yourself up. Make changes, slowly but surely. Once you’ve started making those changes, you’re doing it right. Being an artist isn’t a race. It’s a long, slow walk forward.
Liam Bilingham is a filmmaker and media educator in Brooklyn, NY. He’s currently developing his first feature film and working on several short-term projects. He’s just starting up his own blog, ‘Somewhat Suspect’, on his website, liambillingham.com.
Enjoy this post? Please Subscribe to my list. I send one email per month that highlights popular content on this site and provides updates on my film work and other projects. I also give presents to my list, in the form of advanced/private access to new content.
I’m not even sure where to start. I went half-blind last week. I don’t mean that I went blind in one eye — although that happened (twice). I mean I mostly lost my ability to see for several hours-long stretches at a time, once for about a day and a half total.
It was hard. I was alone for much of the worst of it, while my wife was away on a business trip. It was frightening, even after I figured out that, if I kept my eyes completely closed, and tried to relax and let the pain take over for a while, I would be “rewarded” with the ability to open them back up and see well enough for a literal second while I felt my way around. It was especially frightening, though, when I had to go out and walk my dog. I can’t imagine how the truly visually-impaired do it.
The first walk in this state was tough. I took almost twice as much time as normal to get through it, taking my time and spacing out my intervals of rest to get the most out of the brief moments of sightedness. Still, I worried for myself and for my dog at points because it truly was very difficult to know if or when a car or a bike was crossing our path.
But you know what? I figured it out. I braved through it. And then I adapted.
The next time I had to take the dog out, I realized I could just choose a direction, left of right, and repeat it block by block. If I ended up walking in circles (something I usually loathe), so be it. A little bit of circling, to ease the fear and probability of injury, isn’t actually that bad at all. In fact, it’s preferable.
I got sick about a week and a half ago and I didn’t do a good enough job of resting. I took a few days off but should have taken a few more. Then there was a work obligation I couldn’t put off. Then I got carried away trying to force myself to complete some of my own work with Multiverse because I was in denial of the fact that I was quickly getting worse, instead of better.
Well, I write this now having been humbled. Illness will do that to you. You’d think I would have learned this lesson by now.
In the end, what started as a mildly sore throat turned into a violent cold that knocked me onto my ass and then spread first to one eye and then the other. That’s where the temporary blindness came from, a bad case of double pink-eye that left my vision blurry at best, and pretty much absent at worst.
Strangely, in retrospect of course, I’m fine with what happened. I have learned, a bit, over the years. I would never have been able to accept something like temporary blindness before now. It would have put me into a rage.
Keeping calm was almost as hard as dealing with being sick. At many points, I felt compelled to fight the facts of what was happening to me. I couldn’t possibly be actually blind. And in truth I wasn’t. I had the benefit of those stretches of sightedness that the actually-blind don’t get. This even made me feel guilty, occasionally, because I didn’t feel it was right for me to say that I couldn’t see. But I had to push back against the guilt, too, especially for that bad stretch, because I really couldn’t keep my eyes open.
And it didn’t matter. My anger, my fear, my guilt — none of it could or would change the fact that I was dealing with a natural course of events that was going to work out in time. The only power I could have exerted would have been negatively charged. I could have only made things worse for myself.
Even sleep was difficult, for most of last week. I spent the majority of my days and nights wiping my eyes, blowing my nose, washing my face and hands.
I took refuge in audio. I listened to podcasts in the dark. I listened to music. When I started to get better, I watched a little TV through one open eye, because reading and writing was too difficult and I could deal with the blurriness and just close my eyes and listen when it got to be too much.
In short, I made the best of a bad situation that could have been worse and which I knew with reasonable certainty would eventually resolve itself — especially if I didn’t fight.
So why am I sharing all this? Partially, out of compulsion. It was still a difficult experience, and it feels good to write about it. But I also wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on the advantages of approaching the ordeal (mostly) in terms of its own reality rather than through the prism of my impossibly idealized default mindset.
My default mode is set to fight. That shouldn’t be a surprise to regular readers. My “instinctual” reaction is to try to actively fight a viral infection that I can’t do anything about, past following doctor’s orders and letting my body do the real work of getting things back to zero.
I don’t know how alone I am in this default. I feel as if many of us try to barrel through difficulty, rather than temporarily alter course until the difficulty has passed.
Sometimes, it can be an advantage to fight, to barrel through. I won’t deny these responses and won’t completely forsake the benefits of knowing they can be leaned on — both abilities have served me too well in the past to do that.
At the same time, though, I’m here to suggest that perhaps there’s much more merit, sometimes, in relegating fight and bull-headed perseverance to the background. I’m starting to believe that their benefits only exist in the realm of rare use.
Ours has become in many ways a cutthroat culture of survival of the fittest, in terms of attitude if not in truth. Bold individualism reigns. We must always push forward, in order to not only keep up but to better our chances for success — whatever that may mean.
But what if we’ve come to a point where this compulsion towards pushing has outlasted its usefulness? Where do we end up, if we push forward for the sake of it, without taking the time to survey the terrain and choose a direction — if we don’t take the time when we need it to rest and recharge and to recall the reasons for pushing in the first place? Quite apart from my personal experience, I think there’s plenty of evidence out there of how and especially where this sort of approach to life has long been failing us as a society and as individual people.
How fit are we “survivors”, really? Physically, on average, not very, if we’re talking about Americans. Mentally and spiritually — again I have to say that evidence proves we’re deficient. Even the healthiness we do have, I’d argue that much of it is performed or engineered more than it is actually felt and lived.
I don’t want to do it anymore. I guess that’s where all of the above was leading. I’m working to switch out my default. I’m not going to say that we and I don’t still have plenty of fights on our hands, as we work to build a better future. I’m not going to say we don’t and won’t have to continue barreling through, when things get difficult, when we find ourselves weakened or momentarily defeated. But if and when we are temporarily blinded, it helps nothing to defy the darkness. We really can only feel our way through it, can only listen and wait, so that we’re ready to do as much as we can when sight returns.
I’ve been thrown off for much of this month, so far, for obvious reasons. But I’m back now. I’m feeling good. I’m charged by regained healthiness, and refocused by the gracious perspective afforded by a comparatively tame — if still difficult to me — experience of powerlessness.
So, again, I remind myself — and you, if you’ll allow it — to fight smart. Play the long game. Let’s take care of ourselves. Let’s pause, at those moments when we know in our hearts that a time for pausing has arrived.
I think, if we get better at this, more good things will follow. Perhaps we’ll suddenly look around and realize that we aren’t alone, that we’re surrounded by other bewildered soldiers who have also taken a moment to pause, to try to make some sense of this crazy world.
Thanks for reading, and I wish you well.
Enjoy this post? Please Subscribe to my list. I send one email per month that highlights popular content on this site and provides updates on my film work and other projects.
Not too long after I wrote my post about Creative Productivity, I saw this Tim Ferriss blog post titled: “Productivity” Tips for the Neurotic, Manic-Depressive, and Crazy (Like Me).
The post itself is interesting and pointed, and I recommend it. But it’s the quote that Ferriss leads off with, from the incomparable Neil Gaiman, that has my noodle noodling today.
“The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself. That’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.”
– Neil Gaiman
University of the Arts Commencement Speech
Reading that again — I’m pretty sure I read or heard it already, but it was wonderful to re-encounter the words — struck me as appropriate, in terms of where I’m currently at in my development as an artist. In short, I’ve spent most of this past year “struggling” with and against a feeling of nakedness.
That being said, I’m the one who took all my clothes off.
I’ve written plenty about how things began to change for me, when I decided to make Multiverse and especially after it was in the can. I’ve been even more up front recently, here and in person during various conversations with friends old and new, about the struggles I was going through before deciding to make the film. I’ve also discussed some of the process of continuing the work of watching my own back as I go about seeking to sustain several significant changes I’ve made in my life over the past year or more.
But I haven’t talked much about how I’ve been feeling about this turn towards sharing more of myself, and/or the prospects of eventually introducing Multiverse to all of you and the world at large (which I’m eventually going to do).
In a word, it’s been scary.
Like so many (if not all) other artists, I believe I turned to storytelling, at a young age, as a means of introducing a safe arena of artificially-constructed order into a world that I found to be at least incrementally dangerous and chaotic. What evolved naturally over time into a “career” (quotes to be removed at time of financial solvency) began from these simple, delicate origins. To get to where I am today, where I can (somewhat) comfortably introduce my work en masse (to anyone who cares to see it) and sometimes even seek out attention for it (which I’ll likely be doing to an even greater extent in the future) several conditions had to be met.
These conditions, taken together, helped me get naked. Getting naked has helped liberate me, for the most part, from the constraints of doubt. It’s what’s allowed me to embrace productivity as a new norm in my creative life.
Many of us have donned many layers, of clothing or armor made out of a mix of materials permeable and impermeable, over the course of our lives. This is normal and even necessary — to a point. Artist and creators, due to individualized compulsions similar to what I just discussed, are driven by the creative process to remove these layers. It can’t be done at once, and it can’t be done quickly. Getting naked is delicate work, as it should be. It takes time and patience. I say this in the hopes that it might help anyone who is not like me. I’ve been very impatient over the years. It didn’t help anything.
This may seem like an obvious choice as a condition for artistic “success,” but it becomes less obvious when considered on its own, outside the realm of its symbiotic nature with the other items on this list. I’ve always worked hard. I’ve often worked too hard. I’ve sometimes worked hard to keep myself away from the real work of getting naked and being myself. Work must be a constant element of any journey towards long-term, authentic artistic expression.
I spent a good two or three years (arguably, many more) metaphorically thrashing my brain against a series of metaphorical walls, before I started breaking through with my work to the point where I could write and make Multiverse and begin developing subsequent projects that are similarly “more naked.” I worked a lot, and I put in time, but courage — real courage, to dive deep and go after what I really needed to go after, in order to reconcile my work with my realistic needs as a person — was hard to come by, for a long time. Somehow (perhaps due to the next item) I managed to build up enough of it, in fits and starts, to break through and accept what needed to be done. It was messy and the process got dark at many points, for long stretches. In so many words, meeting with real progress took throwing myself into the void. It took many painful, lonely nights. Me against the page, me against myself. It wasn’t pretty. Often, it was sad. I’m sharing these details because a lot of that behavior probably wasn’t necessary. The methods sprinkled throughout the aforementioned post on creative productivity are healthier ones — they take more courage to embrace and implement than those that are more in line with a standard “tortured artist” approach.
Peer support engenders courage and helps strengthen work ethics and “pressures” us to put in the time. This has been proven, so I’m not going to go much further into it. Asking for and leaning on peer support is how we test the waters. We get naked in front of our friends — or like-minded strangers that share the interests and passions that drive us to create — and we see what happens. Maybe we react by rushing back into our clothes. Maybe, on certain occasions, this is necessary for the moment, until we return to try again. Alternatively, maybe we decide we’re okay to show more people our goodies.
I don’t think I ever would have reached an inner layer of creative expression without a consistent dedication towards focus. At times, I have perhaps been too focused. Sometimes, it’s important to lay back and let the eyes go hazy. For the most part, though, focus is an essential condition for gaining the perspective needed to find your voice over time. It can be a challenge, here and now, to maintain focus. There’s frequently a lot going on around us, and there’s more available to use in terms of distraction or procrastination than there has perhaps ever been before. That only makes dedicating ourselves to The Pursuit all the more crucial. Testing and developing systems is what’s working for me at the moment. I’m not always perfect about sticking to them but I’m starting to get good and always coming back to them as a penitent after I’ve strayed.
Conclusion: It’s Simpler Than We Think
I know this is a very simple list. That’s intentional. My own progress has historically suffered from a bit of ping-ponging between advancement and retreat over the past several years. More often than not, this happened because I was complicating the artistic process, and/or refusing to accept how simple all this really can be, if we have courage, put in the time, seek help and remain steadfast. As simple as it all is, it’s not easy. It’s not supposed to be.
Life often wars with art. In the rush to survive to keep on creating, we can become bogged down by necessity, smothered by doubt. But the beauty of true creativity is that it does not return life’s blows. Creation, in all of the above terms, is a regenerative process. That is the most important lesson I’ve learned in recent months.
Once all the clothing and the armor has been stripped away, once we are naked and vulnerable to whatever may come — it is then when we find our power. Because there’s little left to fear, no where else to hide.
At this point, we can’t help be anything but ourselves and no one can truly touch us who hasn’t brought himself or herself to a similar state.
If we become hurt in our exposure, there’s always the option of re-covering and re-armoring ourselves. But, in doing this after reaching a vulnerable state, we gain an immense advantage of knowing that can lead to remarkable accomplishment. We also always have the option of mobility — we can not only strip but we can also run naked through the streets if we are chased.
This, at the very least, should draw some attention.
It’s remained quieter here than in recent months (but — look! — new site!), and by now I want to dive a little deeper into the reasons why.
Life’s been full.
We walk along many fine, intersecting lines, as we seek to find and maintain the right balance in life, between work and play and leisure and purpose. Sometimes, life looms over all these constituent parts with a largeness greater than the sum of its parts. Because, sometimes — often — life surprises us. Therein lies much of the beauty and the frightfulness of being alive.
I’ve been quiet because I’ve been busied by life, in ways that have sometimes been difficult. Generally, I’ve been okay with this — even in times of anxiety and concern — because, as they say, not many things of worth are necessarily easy to manage or attain.
The difference has been my shifting response to difficulty. I’m not fighting it as much, because I’m starting to see that my default modes of fighting were exhausting me, with little to show for my efforts. This isn’t to say I’ve begun capitulating, instead of fighting. It only feels like I am getting better at following my own advice, and am lately fighting smarter.
What I mean to say is that I’ve been taking better care of myself, while at the same time working to strengthen my resolve to keep up with efforts aimed at self-care as well as creative growth. Rather than push everything out to the page (or screen), I’m giving my thoughts and feelings some time and some room.
It’s been working. I’ve always said that I wanted (needed) to live my life directly, instead of, say, placing a monomaniacal focus only on producing — but today I’m not ashamed to say that I often haven’t done a great job of actually doing this. Invariably, I have lived — increasingly so, since I met my wife — but I haven’t often gone all-in on the full experience of living. By this, I mean that, in constantly fighting off that which I decided I didn’t like or want in my life, by defaulting to this reaction rather than a fuller experiential reaction, by living in constant fear of imminent death — I was regularly missing out on a part of reality.
I’m not exactly censuring myself for this, but I bring it up because I’m not sure it’s a necessarily unique experience.
The difficulties of life are just as real as its pleasures. Both need to be experienced, if we’re to interact and react with others and the outside world in a true, honest way. That is another thing I’ve often said I’ve wanted. I’ve said it to myself and I’ve said it to others, who often claim to want Truth as well. But you have to look at something first, have to touch it and listen to it, before that can really begin to happen.
Related to all this, I’ve also been locked on a rich vein of productivity lately. I don’t remember ever being this productive. I’ve been churning out pages like a champ. Some of the writing has been hard, and has taken a toll on me emotionally, but overall I cannot and will not question this development past the point of making sure I take my health and happiness into account while I ride the wave.
Last month, in particular, was mostly chaotic — in my head. Many were the days when I got plenty of sleep, ate well and took care of myself, but woke up the following day exhausted. To quote my wife, who at points could only watch and attempt to help: “Your mind is exhausting you.”
She was right, about that and the fact that something had to be done — but I think I was also right to let things ride for a bit, in an attempt to give myself the time and space to identify what was going on and attempt to channel the energy.
A lot of that process involved asking myself personal questions about personal matters that required careful, thoughtful, heartfelt attention. But I have, thankfully, throughout a life that has been frequently jolted towards chaos for long stretches of time by an “exhausting mind” — I’ve learned how to balance myself out at such times by abandoning myself to my need to keep writing and creating.
My point is that I now have more clarity and experience than I used to have, in terms of having patience with myself as the complicated dance between life and art plays out in the way it must.
So, finally, I want to share some insights into what I have specifically learned through all this, in terms of how to press forward, not only in times of upheaval and growth but most of the time. Many, if not all of these lessons, can be found in many others places on the web, in some form or another. Because many appear to be universal truths of self-care and creative productivity.
That isn’t to say I’m writing this only for creatives, or that productivity itself is the goal. As I have mentioned once or twice before, I believe we as human beings are fundamentally creative. It’s damaging to all of us to reserve sole use of the word as a descriptor of artists and art and art-like-things only. For better or worse, we all create — and/or share in creation — every day. Every imagined circumstance, every hope and fear, owes its existence to an intrinsic creative impulse. Creativity is fundamentally human.
Similarly, regarding productivity — we are all of us, always, producing. We just don’t always exercise much judgement in deciding what to produce, or take as much responsibility for what we’re already producing, as we otherwise might. Many times, we react more than we act. We produce new and wider roads away from our fears, rather than seek the tools we need to turn around and face them. These lessons essentially reflect some of what I have learned (and am seeking to remind myself) in my own eternal battle between fear and action.
Finally, you’ll notice many lessons appear to contradict each other, when taken in pairs. Exactly.
Here we go:
- Get healthy. This lesson is first on the list for a reason. It’s the most important one, and perhaps the hardest to implement and maintain over the long term. Getting truly healthy takes work, dedication, and perseverance. For me, it took a series of fits and starts before I finally got on a real, sustainable path to healthfulness. Unsurprisingly, this lesson also brings the biggest, most life-changing results, once you learn it and apply it. Where to start? I can’t really tell you that. Before we can get healthy, we need to arrive at an accurate, realistic, perhaps unsparing (but not necessarily judgmental) assessment of how we are faring — physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally. It takes testing, reflection, introspection. It’s not an overnight process. It’s a lifelong process. But major changes can be made over the course of months and years. Some parts of healthiness are simple. Many Americans are overweight and out of shape. I have been both, many times, for long stretches. Currently, I am neither, and being fit has not only boosted my confidence and self-esteem (significant pluses), it has left me more energetic and more equipped to fight off sickness and fatigue. I also stopped drinking alcohol entirely, except for Saturdays and special occasions. I cut my caffeine intake by 70%, as an experiment, to see if doing so would reduce daily anxiety (it did). You don’t have to do any or all of these things, but dedicating yourself, perhaps one step at a time, to areas of your life that you know in your heart could use some attention in terms of healthiness, or to similarly test changes — the results begin to cascade through everything you feel and do. Finally, note that I mentioned mental and spiritual health as well. Excluding the introduction of some sick, horrific scientific experiment, and/or divine intervention, to the process — we aren’t able to see our hearts and souls. That doesn’t mean an idea of both shouldn’t be sought after, and similarly assessed. The pursuit of these sort of deepest personal truths are essential to pure creativity. We can’t produce true happiness in our life when starting from a hurt or damaged place. I’d argue we can’t completely produce genuine, heartfelt contributions to society from such a starting place either.
- Always be doing something — and actually do things. This is definitely one of those lessons that’s already out there, in many forms, but it’s been worth it for me to constantly remind myself of its importance. I tend to brood. I used to think it was just part of being me, part of being a writer. It’s not. Brooding, often, isn’t very different from doing nothing. And doing nothing, in such a way, is not only of no real use (to anyone) — it’s also paralyzing. The mind fills the space created by do-nothingness without your permission — and it doesn’t always choose what you would want it to choose if you were taking any control over the process. Staying active, and focusing as often as possible, time after time, on one task (or experience) that we sincerely want to do (or have accepted we must do), keeps us aimed in the right direction. Starting small, and breaking tasks up, helps immensely. Starting early helps immensely — it sets a tone of relaxed accomplishment that can last a whole day. Don’t have enough time? That’s a lie. Give up something that’s really not important to your life or happiness. Cut TV time in half, or by an hour (to start). Or stay off social media for a predetermined stretch of time. But you have to actually do things. Repeatedly. That’s why it’s good to start small and simple. Set up manageable patterns that make you feel good and learn to love being active. Find a system you love, that made to work for you.
- Plan, at least once per day, to do nothing. Nothing. For at least a few minutes. I’ve been meditating, as a means of accomplishing this. It’s not as hard or as confusing as it seems. There are free podcasts on iTunes that include guided meditations. I’ve been using this one. It truly helps to jolt the mind out of less-than-helpful, unproductive patterns. For a quick video about the value of doing nothing for a few minutes per day, click here.
- Go out into the world and stay in it. About a year ago, I started to realize that I was hiding myself from much of my own life. I was spending too much time alone in my apartment. If not for the incremental presence of my wife on certain nights (we were working opposite schedules at the time), and the necessity of getting up and going to work (which was truly a struggle on most days), I’m not sure I would have left the apartment except to get food and essentials. When I did leave the apartment, it hurt, and it exhausted me. The story of how I got to this place is complicated and multi-layered and I’m still working some of it out. However, with some help from my therapist, some more help from other resources (including Marc Maron’s podcast, which I’ve written about before), and a personal dedication to battle the unhealthy pattern — I was able to accept my condition at that time and make some changes. I don’t think what happened was necessarily uncommon for a writer (and I did come out of the stretch with a ton of pages). But, thankfully, I am a filmmaker as well. So I wrote Multiverse, one day, around the time when I was working on this particular issue. Making the film proved to be a means of not only coming to terms with this exact lesson but owning it. So began a long, ongoing journey to get myself — as myself — out into the world physically (New York City presents an opportunity to this about a hundred times every second) that has changed my life. I’m happier, now that I get out more. I feel more connected to people and to life. These two developments, taken together, have contributed greatly to increases in the quality and quantity of the work I’ve been producing. This blog is evidence of the shift (and has helped me bridge the process). In a few months, it will be a year old. And I’m enjoying the existence of this ongoing connection with you, even if it’s not exactly the same or as good as interacting in person.
- Respect the solitary impulse, then embrace it when it comes. I did say there would be contradictions. What I mean by advocating solitude, immediately after admitting a struggle to escape it, is to point out the importance of being comfortable with ourselves, and taking the time to feel and to think deeply about our own lives (more of that part later). The differences between falling to isolationism and embracing solitude only when the desire for it comes naturally — are many. First, while we think and feel all day, we don’t always (or often) do so actively. Many times, we’re reacting to outside circumstances and stimuli. This is okay, and perhaps even necessary when out in the world — but there are many other worlds inside the human imagination as well. These inner worlds are just as complex as the outside world (if not more so) but frequently more elusive in terms of seeing them clearly (if at all). They are also in a constant state of interplay with the outside world, and the people in it. To strike a proper balance, as this interplay continues in perpetuity, I believe it’s essential to take time, when you need it, for yourself only. I have to do this on a daily basis, at this point. I need to be alone, for long stretches, at several points throughout the day, on most days. I can’t be a writer without solitude. I can’t figure out what I’m feeling, or why I’m feeling what I’m feeling (which affects what we do and how we do it) without taking many moments to pause. I’d argue, similarly, that none of us can be full, complete, healthy and productive versions of ourselves unless we constantly take time the amounts of time we need alone — and no longer — to get comfortable with, feel compassion for, and better understand ourselves.
- Reach out and be vulnerable. This lesson comes from smashing the previous two together. It’s not enough to put yourself out there, and to also spend time alone figuring out what’s inside that person you are launching into the world. As far as you are comfortable, which can perhaps be figured out by taking small steps — as a means of protecting your core self to the degree you feel you must on a case by case basis — it helps to begin introducing some of what you learned and observed about yourself, in quiet moments alone, to the people around you. First, obviously, it helps to surround yourself with those with whom you feel comfortable but who also excite you — people with whom you share interests and/or experience. For some people, this is very easy. For others, it’s hard. For me, it’s both. However, I have come to believe that reaching out and being more honest and open (sometimes even to the discomfort of others, within the realm of respectfulness) is essential to well-being and productivity. Being open about your feelings, wants and needs — it halves the available arsenal of Fear and Doubt. Fear and Doubt are normal elements of life with their own part to play in how we act and interact with others. But, oftentimes, to me at least, they seem to be dominate too many of the considerations and decisions of the average American. Think of how and when you came to love and to trust those people in your life who became your closest friends and family. Shared experience and common interest and chance all probably played a part in each story of each relationship. But what do you remember about each story? I bet it’s the feeling of sharing, of a true and special connection being formed as you traded “secrets” over a drink, or shared some adventure that can never be duplicated, etc. Such stories don’t happen if we don’t offer a part of ourselves. Often, this must be done in spite of fear of rejection or judgment.
- Lean on your defenses, when you absolutely must. But then get back on your feet, when the threatening moment passes. This is a tricky lesson. For me, it took (continues to take) a lot of patience. Defensiveness has a reputation for being “a bad thing”, and to a great extent that reputation is earned. However, at the end of the day, despite everything that has happened to us both in and out of our control, we have to deal with the lingering consequences. With limits set at the threshold of rudeness, disrespect, and reactive antagonism, I’ve found it can be healthy to defend myself against people who have no real idea or concern for what I need or am going through at any given moment. Again, I believe this is a useful lesson, on average, for many people. So many of us frequently default to absorbing blows rather than deflecting them — even as we are bombarded daily by the attacks or encroaching needs of others. This has a very large impact on what we are able to accomplish during a given day. It can have an even larger effect on what we believe we can accomplish on a given day (or at all). Leaning on defenses, in instances wherein we are doing so to protect our own intentions, can help get us from those intentions to the completion of a goal. In the past, I’ve made the mistake of swinging too fully from total defensiveness (which is isolating and unhelpful) and total immersion and vulnerability (which cannot be sustained over any long term in a healthy way). It’s been helpful to realize that short breaks from a total commitment to say, putting yourself out there, reaching out and being vulnerable, constant motion — they can help keep you inoculated against a reversion to unhappiness and poor productivity by introducing a bit of the old poison back into your blood now and again. What I’m saying is: don’t be afraid to return to old coping mechanisms and “vices” that have served you well in the past — so long as they aren’t harmful in moderation or addictive. If you don’t know the difference, err on the side of caution and fall back on defenses you know you can safely lower when you’re done with them.
- Think, and be discerning and forgiving. This final lesson is somewhat of a broad catch-all for wrapping up all the rest. But it’s almost as important as the first one, if not more so. As contextualized at the top of this post — life is messy, unpredictable, and complicated. Much of the above is about managing the conditions of life while at the same time attempting to impose a touch of order in places where such order can help. Honestly, none of what I have shared has worked for me perfectly, all the time. Sometimes I fail to stay true to my own advice, sometimes life gets too overwhelming for it to be possible to manage anything other than “eat and drink and sleep and fulfill only your core commitments”. To be able to weigh and differentiate between good choices and bad, to know what is healthy or helpful or what isn’t, to figure out how to adjust what and how, it takes not only a desire to be well and to produce but a commitment to discerning thoughtfulness. I used to be very frightened of making decisions. Luckily, seven years as an independent filmmaker has mostly cured me of that fear. Forgiving myself, say, for lapses in dedication to my own well-being, or for a “failure” to realize that it’s time to “just chill” — this I am still working on. But it’s going okay. The point is to aim the brain at what really matters, which is probably a mix of productivity and simply…living.
This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list. It is, however, a representation of what has definitely been working for me, lately. If any ideas tickle you, give them a try. It can’t hurt.
Well, it can hurt. But life ain’t a daydream written on a cloud. It’s not a horror show either, most of the time.
Life is real and tactile and yet elusive and mysterious. For myself, I guess I’m trying to settle more comfortably into this greatest of paradoxes. There’s not much any of us can do to actually affect the balance in either direction, anyway,
We can only ride the waves as they come, and do what we can with what we have and with what’s around us.