The Arc of 2016: Fight Smart and Do Less, Better

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I knew Donald Trump was going to win.

At least, a part of me knew it. A part I didn’t want to hear. I suspect there are more than a few of us out there, who knew and yet couldn’t — desperately didn’t want to — believe it.

There’s a friend of mine, out there right now, who might still have a voicemail from me, that I left a few days before the election. I remember knowing what was going to happen, even then, as I clung to the belief that it couldn’t possibly happen, and did my part to avoid the result.

But it did happen. It has happened, hasn’t it — despite any recurring, sudden seizures of bewilderment. (Today, I heard someone say the word “trumpet”, and winced.)

We all know this, by now, that Donald Trump will soon be our President.

Some of us have even begun to accept the fact, as reality, if not on any further basis of principle (more on this later). Others haven’t yet accepted it, may not ever. And I suppose that is their right.

For myself, I was quick to accept the results of the election. They make, in retrospect, a perverse “sense”, at least to anyone who has been paying attention to the mood of the country and the world for the past decade.

This is not to suggest either that I am happy with what has happened (I’m not, if that hasn’t already been made clear) or that I am currently without hope for the future.

But it is a complicated, difficult time for sourcing out hope.

I can remember the day I left that voicemail more vividly now, as well as the scattering of others, occurring more recently, wherein I was similarly seized by anxiety, anger and sadness — when confronted with that sense of knowing what was about to happen, what has happened.

I can remember them more vividly because now I’m looking at those moments for what they were, as opposed to fighting against the knowledge that this is reality, as were the factors which led to (and now sustain) this unfortunate reality (for now).

Most of all, I remember the inner conflict. The sense of sinking dread.

This can be avoided. This can’t be avoided.

I refused to believe it. Still, sometimes, I can’t believe it. Perhaps that’s my sin, shared with countless others on both sides of the political spectrum. Certainly it is the sin of our media, which did not see this coming and, in fact, most likely contributed to this mess in a major way, by validating the theatrics of a bully via their mere “serious” attention.

Make no mistake, a time of reckoning has arrived in America.

People are going to suffer. The arguing will continue. The fear will continue.

Justice, fairness, equality — all supposed bedrocks of our democracy — will continue to absorb blow after blow. And we very well may wonder, soon, finally, if any of these crucial aspects of this contemporary brand of civilization can survive.

But they will survive, ultimately. We will.

I believe that. I can see and feel this belief clearly. The shock of Donald Trump’s Presidency has, at the very least, thrown our failings as a country into sharp relief against the task of safely securing a future — for all our citizens — about which can (eventually) be proud.

My acceptance does not make the pain or the sadness at our plight any lighter to carry, but it does imbue the carrying with a much-needed charge of hope.

So, what does this all have to do with my annual recap, as an artist, as I deliver it here once again? (That is, incidentally, nominally, the reason for this post.)

 

This site, the central hub for my work as an artist and activist, is now four years old.

When I started it, I was still struggling with anger, resentment and fury — against the injustices of the day. I was ready to talk about the issues, but not yet strong enough to truly engage them — or myself.

The year after that saw progress. I re-discovered a consistent creative voice, and I got to work. Along the way, I found myself heartened by the number and quality of like-minded people also working to make this country a better, more accepting, more equitable place.

Then, last year, I found peace. I began to feel capable of showing patience, of practicing faith. I’m still working on this, every day.

And, now, here is a great test. And a pressing question — how to conduct myself as an artist and a citizen during the presidency of Donald Trump?

It is a question, and a crucial one, whether its reality shocks me or not.

I have been turning this question over, regularly — but in a non-obsessive way — in the many days since I shared my initial thoughts on this deeply disappointing turn of history.

As I mentioned in that post, unfortunately, this sort of reaction comes more easily to me by nature of my demographic reality.

As a straight white male, the likeliest form of suffering in store for me has to do with my economic class — the same one I am in now, that I was born into over thirty years ago — even if I am sure to suffer by proxy as I watch friends and loved ones shake with anger and fear, and legitimately suffer, over the next four years.

And yet it is in this fact, in my similarity to Trump, that I find a point of access for the decision and announcement I am about to deliver.

 

The reason I knew this was going to happen is because it was inevitable.

I don’t mean that in a fatalistic way. I’m not being cynical or conveniently revisionist. This was inevitable because of how straight white people like me are handling the type and rate of change currently sweeping through the world — in a word, poorly.

But that is not to say that this is entirely their fault.

If there’s any justice left in the world, Donald Trump will in later years prove to be nothing more (or less) than the last gasp of a fading American power structure owned and engineered disproportionately by straight white males.

He is the face of our enemy, of our collective oppressor, not due explicitly to his whiteness or his straightness of even his maleness, but, rather, based on how he conducts and employs the power and privilege that come part and parcel with these things.

Once a bit of a misogynist, a bit of a racist and a homophobe, but always a skeptic of bureaucratic power — I now state plainly that I pride my contemporary self on being the polar opposite of someone like Donald Trump, despite our shared demographics of gender, race and sexuality.

Personally, at the very least, no matter what I do from here, I can move forward knowing that I struggled through change, learned and trusted in the goodness of people who looked and acted differently than me, and acted out of decency and courage rather than fear and hate.

It is no secret to regular readers, to anyone who saw The Videoblogs, or listeners to the podcast, that I have now absorbed goals of fairness, representation, and economic equality into my mission as an artist and a human being. However, I believe this all bears repeating for one very important reason.

 

While Donald Trump has provided a face to our enemy, he alone is not our enemy.

It is what he represents, and how he came to power, that we must understand and combat.

Politically, the answers might seem clear. And, in fact, they are.

Truth itself is under attack. It has been for a long time. I think the main reason I knew this was going to happen (despite my disbelief) is that I had already been fighting against men like Donald Trump for most of my life. Many of us have been.

Except, oftentimes through no fault of our own, we’ve been distracted from this truth, and this fight. By the machinations of the powerful, we have been bent, manipulated, and pushed away from Truth.

Our lives are not our own, in many respects. We are controlled by a power elite that, despite certain vestiges or illusions of democracy, care very little about the average American.

These people mostly only discriminate in regards to race and creed, insofar as it benefits them financially and politically to do so. They have very little actual faith in anything, apart from money and power, which are themselves faithless things.

These sad, desperate people know all this, and it destroys them inside — but they know no other way to behave, in the face of their own fears. And so they continue to hold fast to that fear, thereby, by virtue of the reality of our contemporary crony-capitalist economics, squeezing us.

And while they squeeze us and misdirect us and distract us, even to the point of their own continued and dangerous disillusionment, we turn against and fight one another, despite the overwhelming commonality of our fears and concerns as citizens. In this way, democracy (rule by the people) remains perpetually arrested, and plutocracy (rule by a wealthy elite) continues to maintain its grip on the throats of the everyday citizen.

Donald Trump may be the face of our enemy, but we must be very careful in the next several years of civil combat not to focus the majority our energy squarely on him and his administration. True deliverance from this plight requires us to go deeper, and fight longer.

This is what I have come to understand in these past few weeks.

My own distractedness, my own fear and faithlessness, have been my failure. I don’t say this to diminish the gains I and we have made over the last several years. I only mean to point out that there’s much work left to be done.

 

Trump is the symptom, not the disease.

The disease is the faithlessness, the dejection, the weariness, of contemporary America — and much of the world. We (the people) are angry, we are depressed, we find ourselves fundamentally exhausted and estranged from true hope. We have been beaten down and driven insane by the elite, confused and harried by the speed of innovation, and neither the tyranny of the elite, nor the advance of machine-dependency into our lives — show any signs of letting up.

There is no other way to explain how someone like Donald Trump can win office by claiming to represent the will of the people, while lying through his teeth about his intention to fight against the very elite that he wholly (and vulgarly) represents.

All that our cowardly, selfish, greedy President-elect intends to do for the next four years is consolidate money and power among his elite.  That much was clear all along, and has been proven by his cabinet appointments. When he’s done he’ll abandon the destruction and foot us with the bill and — barring a miracle — carry on with his greed and destruction until the moment of his lonely death.

To be clear — to repeat — in actual reality, there is no one less-representative of the average American than Donald Trump.

That millions of people either do not understand this, or refuse to believe it, that our political and economic system all but excludes the possibility of an actual champion of the people successfully reaching office (or at least one empowered by a consensus of reasonable political allies on all sides of the political spectrum) — this is the sickness from which we desperately need to recover.

 

For this reason, for myself, I find that this year has brought with it a lesson in focus.

I cannot afford, or tolerate, anything less than fully-committed, principled conduct and expression from myself. I need to fight smart and I need to move quickly. The only way to do this effectively is to put out work of real depth, that is of a larger scope, and work smartly and strategically to get the work out to as many people as possible.

To be clearer, I intend, beginning in 2017, to do less — better.

This site will remain online indefinitely. But this is likely the last blog post for a while, although I might chime in on occasion and will continue to run my email list. Beginning next month, Coffee with Creatives is going on hiatus, indefinitely. My presence here will be sporadic, as compared to previous years.

I have big things to do, in regards to the main areas of battle central to this essay. I intend to go at these things, full tilt. I’m ready to — truly, passionatelly — fight.

Are you? Because we’ll need you.

 


profpic_squareMy name is Michael. I am a Writer and Filmmaker 
of hopeful stories for complex people. My first film, The Videoblogs, about mental health in the age of tech, is available on iTunes. I’m currently working on my next film and also a novel. Once per month or so, I send a special note to those on my email list. They get exclusive and advanced (sometimes free) access to my work. You can join this special group here. Thanks for reading.

 

Show What’s Inside: Musician Mike O’Malley

Mike02I met Mike O’Malley in a bar. I was having a Sunday afternoon pint, he was working his sweet musical magic. I liked that magic so much, that after putting some bread in his jar (always put bread in the jar when you like the music!) I decided right then and there to try to write him into The Videoblogs.

He agreed to the proposal, I became a fan, and recently I asked him to come on the show to talk music, songwriting, and:

  • The virtue of impatience, in the learning process
  • How awful men can be (combatting “bad masculinity”)
  • Getting attention on your terms
  • The taste of that first free burger, given in trade before a gig
  • Touring with six dudes in a sweaty van, or six sweaty dudes in a van
  • How anger can become a way of avoiding conflict (and growth)
  • Attending the craft (do the boring stuff)

Check out Mike’s music here. Look out for his upcoming Indiegogo campaign.

As reminders, you can also subscribe to Coffee with Creatives on iTunes and/or support the podcast on Patreon.

 

Lost in Stories: Writer/Actor Vanessa Shealy

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Today’s Coffee with Creatives interview is with hyphenate Vanessa Shealy, a Writer and Actor (and Producer) fresh off a successful (but still ongoing!) Kickstarter for her co-created indie comic, Couri Vine.

We had a great conversation about:

  • Falling into acting as a release11828619_10153272990012284_7680790401937617824_n
  • Getting lost in stories (in a good way)
  • Dreams as composite maps of experience
  • The usefulness of having something to prove
  • Preparing to enter a new medium
  • Imbuing superpowers with character, just as often as you go about doing the opposite

If you enjoy what Vanessa has to say, and want to grab yourself a copy of Couri Vine, head over to the Kickstarter page for the project. You can also find Vanessa on Twitter.

This episode is also on iTunes.

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Tell That Story: Filmmaker Minhal Baig

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I first “met” Writer/Director Minhal Baig on Twitter, when several people whose work I respect started recommending everyone follow her — a ringing endorsement in today’s tech-enabled climate. We connected shortly thereafter and I invited her to come on the podcast to discuss her new project, Hala.

Our discussion was multi-pronged and, in my opinion, full of a lot of great lessons. Minhal works hard, and has already absorbed several big lessons about life as a creative despite only being a few years out of college.

Topics discussed in this episode include:

  • Entering the post-collegiate market as an artist
  • The hard work before and around the creative stuff
  • Sourcing out a more direct creative path (make your own work)
  • Storytelling as a personal need
  • The difference between trying to sell a script and trying to make a movie
  • The difference in scope between shorts and features
  • The importance of working on material that you love
  • Throwing out the good stuff to get to the great stuff
  • Supporting the movies you want to see
  • Personal vulnerability as a storytelling necessity

Minhal’s a smart and talented filmmaker. We also talked about how she began to hone in on some of the above lessons as one of the inaugural fellows in the Blacklist Screenwriter’s Lab.

This episode is also available on iTunes.

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Not Dead Yet: Ten Years of Filmmaking

CWC_Patreon_01Today marks the ten year anniversary of the beginning of a near-death experience I had when I was a student in college. For a long time, it was hard for me to talk about that period of my life. Since around the time when I wrote this essay, however, I’ve been able to do a better job of discussing both what happened, and how it has affected me.

In the intervening years since writing that post, I’ve gotten to the point wherein I can talk even more openly, in person, about what happened — without becoming re-traumatized. Years of therapy, the natural erosion of pain via time, and the process of carefully opening up about it, more often, in trusted company over the years, has led me to a place where I can (gratefully) say that.

But something else happened ten years ago, too. Immediately after.

At the time, it was perhaps not the healthiest (sole) reaction to the fears I felt after my hospitalization, but, regardless — today I have come to view it as one of the two best things to have ever happened to me.

I started making films.

As soon as I was (somewhat) recovered from the experience, I began stumbling down a winding and staggered artistic path that continues to this day. Today’s bonus episode of the podcast, among other topics, is meant to explore this journey a bit.

The reasons I decided to talk about the relationship between my work and this incident in my life are many.

  • I wanted to take a life-affirming view of the anniversary of my illness, to focus on the ten years of (hard-won) health and happiness experienced since that time, that I can now identify as essential to my growth as an artist and a person — rather than the first five to seven years of prior intense dread.
  • I have come to view what happened to me not with fear, but with gratitude. I feel a discussion of my evolution to this point of view could potentially be helpful to others who might be struggling as I was at that age (early twenties). It wasn’t just the one thing that happened, which kept me somewhat blocked as an artist, and definitely struggling harder than I needed to struggle, for many years. Arguably, all the experience did was force some stuff to the surface sooner.
  • It seemed a good way to close the book on the lingering anxieties I still sometimes feel when I think about how it felt at that time to be so unsure of tomorrow — despite that fact that we NEVER know what tomorrow is going to bring

So, here’s that episode.

And I realize that my mention of how stumbling into my life as a filmmaker was one of the two best things that’s ever happened to me might naturally lead to questions seeking to identify the other.

Well, she is the guest host for this bonus episode of the podcast. I hope you like it and thank you for listening.

This episode is also available on iTunes.

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Just Make Films: Coffee with Creatives “Bonus” Episode

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I scare the quotes around “bonus” (did it again!) because my talk with Sundance award-winning filmmaker Diane Bell has already been released in text form.

I decided to re-release it as an extra podcast episode in case anyone missed it the first time around, wants to revisit some of Diane’s great advice, and/or feels like hearing my side of the conversation.

As I said when I published the text interview — I think Diane is great. If you haven’t yet listened to what she has to say, particularly about focusing on process (as opposed to results) and about not waiting around for permission or (certain forms of) outside validation to make films (or any art) — I would recommend you do so.

Thanks to everyone listening! If you’re getting something out of the interviews, please consider contributing to my Patreon campaign for the podcast.

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Why Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking is Essential Reading

I highly recommend this book, especially if you're an artist. Read on to find out why.
Highly recommend this book, especially if you’re an artist. Read on to find out why.

 

I am stingy with the word essential.

It and so many similarly strong words, especially in American popular culture today, are wildly overused, and too often leveraged outside the narrow subjectivity with which (in my opinion) they could otherwise more appropriately be applied. I’d call all this an epic bummer, but in honesty it’s an easy thing to shrug off.

Still, I bring up the point to help introduce my recommendation of musician Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking…because rarely have I felt so compelled to “drop the e-word”, with confidence, outside the realm of eating, drinking, sleeping, and luvvvvv-making.

Obviously, not everyone is going to agree with my choice. But, speaking primarily to the aforementioned audience(s) of art-makers and art-lovers, here are my personal reasons for advocating for the book — and Palmer herself, since she’s an interesting personality on her own and identifies first and foremost as a singer (I have been also listening been listening to her music for weeks, which I similarly recommend).

The Art of Asking provides an unparalleled level of context for the contemporary relationship between art and people (or art and life)

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We raised enough money to shoot The Videoblogs by asking our audience for help. Photo credit: Liam Billingham.

Early in the text, Palmer remarks upon how what we’re witnessing right now, in terms of the relationship between art and artist (especially in tech-equipped indie circles) is in actuality a return to The Way it Used to Be. Artists create, put their work (and themselves) out there, and the audience returns the favor by giving some part of their own selves (be it in the form of money, time, etc.), simply and directly — if and as there’s an authentic connection made in the process.

That’s how it used to go early on, and for a long time, in human history. Various forms of progress and change shifted that relationship, such that several intermediary systems rose to prominence, which weren’t (and aren’t) necessarily bad but, nonetheless, today, can cause complications, introduce impurities, and/or create distance in the otherwise mostly direct artist-audience relationship. Today, now that individuals on the whole are much more broadly and immediately connected than ever before, and now that new (relatively) cheap funding, distribution, and communications systems exist than ever before, it’s not only once again possible for the artist and the audience to remain in a more direct, on-going relationship — it’s also easier to cultivate and keep up that relationship than ever before.

That doesn’t mean that, on the part of both artist and audience, that we aren’t still (on the negative side) facing challenges posed by the still-dominant machinations and gate-keeping fears of the aforementioned intermediaries, or (on the positive side), that there aren’t mutual advantages to those sort of relationships (and plenty of good people working, in various capacities, for intermediaries) — it just means that everyone today can perhaps be kept more honest and more focused on what’s important.

I’m paraphrasing Palmer there, possibly with a little bit of my own beliefs and observations sprinkled in, but the important point is to recognize and accept that, with the right attitude and a lot of work and patience, things can be better — for independent artists and their audiences in particular.

Within this context, Palmer embodies (literally) and carefully guards Authenticity and Trust as the most crucial elements of the artist-audience relationship

This is generally how I feel about everyone who watches our films.
This is generally how I feel about everyone who watches our films. Photo credit: Alexia Adana.

The Art of Asking is mostly written in the style of a memoir. Longer-tenured admirers of Palmer than me probably already know that she doesn’t shy away from getting (literally) naked in front of her fans (given certain conditions that she takes careful pains to point out in the book, while also providing context for such decisions). Such occasions don’t always go well, her courage in this aspect does not come without its share of suffering, and in the text she frequently (and with typical transparency) gives voice to the doubts such “bad” stories spark in her mind.

Still, Palmer does a much better job than I ever could ultimately deconstructing not only why such “setbacks” (I’ll let the book itself substantiate my repeated use of scare quotes) are necessary (and illuminating). She provides much evidence for — and a lot of useful commentary on — the observable truth that, after opportunity, the next thing we all need for this sort of arrangement to work, in the best possible way, is an unyielding commitment to trust not only in the work but each other.

Palmer never claims that things will always go perfectly, even in filling in useful back-story to her successes. But she does do an excellent job consistently reporting on the dialogues she has had both with herself and trusted friends in sourcing out the right thing to do, as often as possible, as she stumbled through especially her early career on the way to a better and more comprehensive understanding and respect for how this all ideally might work on a regular basis. The stories she tells in relaying this process are not only intellectually accessible, but emotionally so as well — which sets Palmer apart especially in today’s unfortunately less-emotionally forthcoming social landscape.

Palmer’s narrative provides an accessible road-map for success

Multiverse Screening and Videoblog kickoff
Hint: It’s about People. Photo credit: Alexia Adana.

Riding off that last point, it can be tempting in this environment (I’ve been tempted myself) to take an honest goal like that of Palmer’s book (which to me seemed to be: “teach and attest to the benefits of trust, kindness, and vulnerability”) and warp it into something more broad and self-serving.

Especially in what sometimes seems to be rounding out into The Age of Tech, advice of the “road-map” sort, nudged towards gathering greater numbers (versus forming real connections), seems to proliferate further every day.

That’s not to say that all the lists and guides out there aren’t without value, or that they’re all guilty of crossing some arbitrary Authenticity Line, or should be faulted for failing to see that most of what provides value to people begins by engaging with them on an honest, emotional level. It just means that, for instance, when Palmer maps out her path as herself, in context, while constantly guarding and respecting The Point — it becomes that much easier for a similarly minded, or near-similarly minded (I’ll probably never get physically naked for you) individual or small group to internalize her journey and absorb her lessons in a much more useful way.

This road-map is revealed to be (and simultaneously evidenced by) the aforementioned Authenticity and Trust

This is indie musician Mike O'Malley -- in real life. After seeing this set, we asked him to appear in The Videoblogs.
This is indie musician Mike O’Malley — in real life. After seeing this set, we asked him to appear in The Videoblogs.

Obviously, I admire Palmer’s approach with the book, and her execution, as much as the content. I bring the sort of cyclical nature of her testimony up as a separate point because of how accurately it mirrors how important both authenticity and trust are to the artistic lifestyle (or to living a fulfilled life in general).

It took me so long to build up the courage to begin sharing more and more of my actual self in my work. As documented here, it’s also been frequently terrifying, sharing more and more of that work, more widely.

I’m eternally grateful for my audience. I hope you know that. I hope you also know how essential you have been (continue to be) to my work and my own growth. We’re in this together. I’ll keep trying to keep it honest.

For anyone still struggling to build up the courage to start down a similar path, or who could use a boost (I needed one) — read The Art of Asking.

Palmer makes it clear that indie success takes not only talent but (a fuck-ton of) hard work

I held at least six separate positions during production of The Videoblogs. Why? Because it had to be done to keep things moving.
I held about six positions on the crew of The Videoblogs. Why? Had to be done in order to keep things moving.

While this definitely isn’t a criticism, Palmer often speeds quickly through commentary about how much work things took, at many different stages in her career. She seems to take it as a given — which really isn’t a bad thing, for the most part, especially since she clearly also “plays hard”.

Most of the useful stuff delivered by the book in this regard arrives while Palmer is monologuing or dialoguing with friends, not in a direct way but more often reflectively, in the wake, for instance, of first sharing an anecdote centered around a particular challenge, or a normally-occurring instance of doubt.

Again, possibly, this is because she’s just that used to the amount of work it takes to succeed in the way she has. Reflection may also be a healthier approach than the more typical American, “process and power-driven” work approach (I can tell you from experience that adopting this approach as an underfunded indie will burn you out). Her attitude appears gentler, more patient, and more directly caring or forgiving of how hard it can be than someone like me, who might allow lingering faulty programming to relay a similar lesson via more a blunt admonition like “you better be ready to work”.

That caution is in fact true, but because Palmer is so forthcoming and thorough in her testimony, she doesn’t have to address the reader so directly in these terms. As I said, she does detail her struggles, and it does become very clear how hard she works — in the book this all just happens in the process of her telling her story.

Especially to today’s entitlement-prone younger generations, her approach provides not only a valuable lesson but a valuable method of delivering that lesson.

The book does not shy away from pain, even in mostly relaying stories of wonder

This is actually just the result of cooking some beets. But it could be BLUD!
This is actually just a result of cutting some beets. BUT IT COULD BE BLUD!

I hinted at this above, but it’s worth mentioning more specifically.

One of my favorite recurring patterns in the book is Palmer’s willingness to share the bad with the good. She utilizes the space provided by her narrative, in addition to whatever she did in the moment (usually talking to a friend), to find a way to come to terms with why pain is part of the artistic process, just as it is part of the process of living.

Again speaking personally, I’d add that this is a hard lesson to learn, and one that arguably never stops asserting itself. Still, I have found in recent years that doing exactly what Palmer does — talking and sharing and avoiding isolation or self-pity as often as possible — works wonders.

I believe it’s particularly important that we exhibit patience throughout each instance/cycle of this process as well.

The pain of others screams at us, every day, from the headlines, in real life, and even on our social media feeds. As artists (and as people), it can be hard to remember that our job isn’t only to absorb and soothe such pain. Neither does it help anyone to focus solely on ourselves, in this respect.

The healing comes from the sharing, and the connection.

The central narrative isn’t just the titular subject, or Palmer herself, but the vulnerability and love that must be shown in order for art, and art-relationships, to work in today’s socioeconomic environment

Laughter without voices.
At the time we made Multiverse, I was struggling to see people — and to feel seen.

Long-time readers of this site are probably used to me harping on the following point — but I’m going to keep repeating it for as long as I feel it still needs to be made.

More than any other crisis we’re facing, here and now in America, the gap or decline in empathy — between any of a number of (sometimes arbitrarily) defined groups, and within and across the individuals that make up those groups — seems to me to be hurting us the most.

Empathy is the basis from which all progress begins. Even when it seems incomplete, even when finding it seems to take forever, any progress on this front, at any level — is good for everyone.

No matter what sort of progress or social change an artist or an individual is compelled to chase, empathy will always be the most powerful vehicle we can “employ”. It is that authenticity, that trust, that connection — all wrapped up into one mysterious-but-essential universal concept.

I use the scare quotes around the word ’employ’ there, because (especially now that I’ve absorbed Palmer’s book), I believe it’s more helpful to think of ourselves as vessels, in this respect, than as an agent.

Conclusion: How The Art of Asking has Affected Me

Things get intense during Margaret (Rebecca De Ornelas) and Vee's (Phoebe Allegra) first meeting.
The Videoblogs is about leaving isolation behind, opening up — and trying to connect.

I’ve written quite a bit, so I’ll wrap up, but in support of that last point I wanted to end with some personal testimony on how The Art of Asking has affected me on a personal level.

First, as I mentioned, it has strengthened and renewed my gratitude towards anyone who has supported one or more of my projects, who has ever visited this site, who has even taken a moment to click through to anything I’ve done and given it a quick glance. As I have said before, I simply would not be here, making art and chugging forward, without all of you.

I also emerged from my read of Palmer’s book with a greater sense of clarity, in regards not only to the worthiness of the path I am on, but also the necessity to continue to be transparent and supportive of the artistic and personal communities to which I belong.

And, finally, I have been acting with more kindness, just in general, as I have gone about my day-to-day life.

I don’t feel more kind, as a result of reading The Art of Asking. I’ve always been a fairly kind person. But reading the book — particularly at this stage in my life, wherein I’ve been putting so much effort into both “cleaning house” and being me — has helped me slow down and act upon feelings of compassion, much more often than I have otherwise done in recent years, without hesitation or judgement.

There have been plenty of available reasons, for me, in the past, to remain guarded, to follow the lead of any of a number of fears, and/or to keep barreling forward in pursuit of The Mission.

It can become especially easy (sometimes, unfortunately, even necessary) to do this while living and working in New York City. There’s just too much going on, everywhere, constantly, to remain vulnerable for too long of a stretch, or in certain environments wherein to do so at all would be potentially too damaging to the self. There are times when you simply need to establish and respecting healthy boundaries to protect your health and general happiness.

But, still, lately, I’ve been realizing (and, to be truthful, finally listening to the pleas of others in this regard) that it’s time to slow down again. The Mission isn’t a career level, or an accomplishment, or even the realization of a specific project. It’s not even the work itself, or the drive to keep doing it and sharing the result.

The Mission is serving others. It’s chasing that empathy, by showing — and showing faith in — the kindnesses we mostly all feel, but might for so many, often understandable reasons, hesitate to show.

So, I’ve been doing what I can. I’m trying to support other artists, more often. I’m trying to keep up on taking care of myself, more consistently, so that it’s easier to approach others without agenda. I’m making eye contact with strangers and asking how they are, and I think they can tell that I actually care about their response.

Mostly, I’m doing little things that take a minimal amount of effort even if they cost me a bit more in terms of vulnerability and trust. I’m realizing, as Palmer’s book and life story definitely sets out to prove, that The Art of Asking is just as much about giving — and meaning it, and being unafraid to keep on meaning it — than anything else.

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After the lab, we will set our sights on completing the film and gearing up for next steps.

The Videoblogs: Why We’re Doing It (10 Reasons)

It's on.
It’s on.

My first film was a crime drama about a thug whose past mistakes catch up to him. My second? A crime drama about a two detectives and a confessed murderess who go up against a corrupt district attorney. Multiverse is as much scifi as it is drama — although as you can hopefully see there’s a lot more going on under the surface than what is presupposed by constraints of genre.

My point is that, if I wanted to, I could go out tomorrow and make something that pulses and thrills. But I don’t want to do that. Not yet. Very soon, I may want to do that, but not now.

Here’s why I want to do something else. In ten reasons, boiled down.

Here’s why we’re making a tiny, quiet film about mental health and reaching out through The Screen — about starting off painfully alone and ending up surrounded by friends — instead:

  1. This is how we feel. Feeling is everything. I used to be someone who professed this, a bit pretentiously, but I never actually believed it before now. There is what we do, and then there are the feelings behind what we do — which, for better or worse, dictate the whys of our life. Why we are who we are. Why we are where we are (and, to circle back, why we do what we do). Sometimes, in reflecting on all this, we view what we are and, dissatisfied, we seek change.
  2. We seek change. We face challenges of racism, sexism, faithlessness, hopelessness, and institutionalized injustice, here and now, today, in contemporary America. These challenges, in my opinion, are rooted half in denial or despair (on the part of the populace) and half in apathy or willful subjugation (on the part of those in control).
  3. We seek clarity. Despite all this, we believe people are inherently good — or at least inherently neutral on a moral scale. We believe much of the collective pain that blocks us from progress is obstructing paths to awareness.
  4. We seek awareness. There is no point to yelling into the crowd. The crowd is not listening. Instead, we must engage. We must dialogue. We must share our fear, our anger, and our pain.
  5. We seek a dialogue. There can be no progress without understanding. Everyone must feel heard, and all expressions exhausted, so that the paths to redemption may be cleared of obstruction, confusion, or deceit.
  6. We seek redemption. Raymond Chandler once wrote: “In everything that can be called art, there is a quality of redemption”. We believe art, and particularly the medium of the moving image, via it’s dominant position in cultural communications — is the vehicle by which redemption can be sought.
  7. We seek to make art. This is, in all honesty, all we know how to do. To quote the inimitable Marc Marc: “There is no Plan B“.
  8. We seek your patronage. This is a fact of the artist-audience arrangement. Ours is an interdependent relationship. We make films so that we can share them with you. This takes a great deal of hard work and sacrifice. We’re asking that, based on past results, you trust us enough to pre-purchase advanced access to a copy of our film so that we can get it made and then get it to you, as quickly as possible. Just contributing at all guarantees that you can watch it eventually on Seed and Spark. For $10, you can own a copy. We appreciate any and all contributions.
  9. We seek your help in growing our message. No large undertaking of note can be undertaken without participation in large numbers. If you like what we’re doing, and especially if you’re interested enough to pay for advanced access to our artistic product — we ask that you tell any friends and family who you think may be interested.
  10. We seek the grail. Partially, this last note is a test to see who lasted all the way to the bottom of the list. But, in all honesty — no matter how brazen or stupid the aspiration may sound — we do seek the grail. We believe in the possibility of an America where artist and audience remain in direct contact first and foremost, beholden only to each other, with few middlemen in between to dilute or corrupt messaging. We aspire to be able to participate in such a relationship in a sustainable way, wherein we may someday soon be able to make a living from doing our job, which is, again — making movies for you.

And that’s the story of this story. Hopefully this is all the beginning. Regardless, we do appreciate your time, your contributions, and your help in letting the world know that we aren’t completely satisfied with the status quo.

But we do have hope for change. Don’t we?

Thanks for being you. Please help us make our movie if you can.

liam_sscamp

3 Simple Steps Towards A Successful Indie Film

A production still from Multiverse, our current short film.
A production still from Multiverse, our current short film.

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:

  1. Have a plan.
  2. Keep working.
  3. 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.

via www.cracked.com

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This is a terrible To Do list for an artist. But a perfect one for cold winter days.

How to Make Art in The Real World

This is a terrible To Do list for an artist. But a perfect one for cold winter days.
This is a terrible To Do list for an artist. But a perfect one for cold winter days.

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.

What’s Next

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.”

Adaptation

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).

Take Risks

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 Billingham
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.

 

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