The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter


Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Seven Secrets Of Highly Creative Writers

 
     The Lifewriting™ approach to your writing career demands a relatively high creative output. It isn’t designed to coddle people who nurse a single story for years before sending it out.
     But students often protest that they simply don’t come up with many good ideas, and that the ideas they do generate are appropriate for novels. 
     In my opinion, basic ideas have no intrinsic length. The TREATMENT of an idea has an intrinsic length.  The Civil War can be treated in a one-page story, on in a library of books.  It all depends on the skill and intent of the writer.
     Let me tell you a story:
     When I was in college, I knew a woman who wanted to be a writer.  She told me that she was working on a short story, and I said “great.”  A few weeks later, I asked her how the story was going.  She said “It’s getting a little long—I think it’s a novella.”
     “Great!” I said.
     A couple of months later, I asked her how the novella was going.  “Well, it’s getting a little long, I think it’s a novel!”
     “Wow!” I said, although a warning bell was tinkling at the back of my mind.  A couple of years later, I asked her how the novel was going.
     “Well, it seems to be turning into a trilogy,” she said.
     Hmm.  I made optimistic sounds, and left it at that.
     A decade later, I was traveling on the East Coast, and knew I’d be passing the town where this lady lived.  My wife and I stopped in to visit.  Just because I have a masochistic streak, I asked how the trilogy was going.
     There was a pause.  Then, sheepishly she said, “I got tired of it, and put it away.  But just a couple of months ago I started working on a new story.  It’s good!  But” she said, as I knew she would, “it seems to be getting a little long…”
     That is so sad.  And she ran into one of the stealthiest forms of writer’s block: to be able to write, but not be able to finish and submit.  It serves the same purpose to an insecure subconscious: it prevents you from suffering rejection.
     After all, the idea is so bright and appealing when it enters your mind!  The process of actually slogging your way through multiple drafts can be a joy-killer.
     Short stories are a perfect means to combat this.  A short piece employs all the same basic tools that will be used in a novel, with a crucial difference.  In the time it takes you to write a hundred thousand word novel, you can write twenty to forty short stories, and you’ll learn vastly more about your craft in the process.
     Also, because you are going through the complete arc of generating story, planning, researching, writing rough draft, polishing, and submitting, you find out where your technical and psychological weaknesses lie.
     And yet another advantage: if you write a story a week, or every other week, you don’t need to cling desperately to an idea, thinking it is the only good idea you’ll ever have.
     But how to generate ideas?  Here are some suggestions:
1)
Keep a dream diary.  A little digital or tape recorder at the bedside works great for this.  Just tell yourself before sleep that you will briefly awaken after a dream and dictate the essence.  In the morning, transcribe.
2) Search the newspaper.  Make an exercise of looking through the various sections of the paper, looking for odd or interesting stories.  Imagine how it would be to be the people caught up in these situations.  What story would capture the essence of their lives?
3) Read and watch movies.  Imagine grafting the end of one film to the beginning of another.  When a book falls apart, come up with a better ending—and write it.
4) Create modern versions of favorite old fairy tales.  Have fun with this—remember, it’s just practice!
5) At the next family reunion or gathering, get the old folks to talk about their youthful days.
6) Go to a playground and watch children playing.  Really notice the power games, the sharing, the crying, the laughter, the struggles and triumphs.  Every single child, every day, has a story to tell.
7) Mine your own life.  Learning to walk, to talk, to drive, to win, to lose.  Your first fight, your first kiss, your first job, the first time you got fired. 

There is really no end to the possibility.  All you need is a belief in your goals, and the recognition that any individual story is just a step along the way—not some soul-searing win-or-lose proposition.

Have fun!

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Going With "The Flow"

Flow state, that mysterious mental zone where time and the outside world seem to disappear, is one of the keys to peak performance.  Frankly, your ability to harness the limits of your intelligence, creativity, education, or talents will be largely determined by your capacity to remain in flow while under stress.

     Those who cannot suffer “stage fright,” “writer’s block” “flop sweat” and numerous other labels for the same phenomenon—inability to access the deepest wells of confidence and performance in the actual arena.

     The key to unlocking this particular inner vault is to look at   flow itself, separate from any specific usage or application.

     We all experience the “flow” phenomenon.  The last moments before we fall asleep or the first after awakening (also known as the “hypnogogic state”) have this quality.  Ever gotten on the freeway, lost yourself in thought, and only snapped out of it when your exit appeared?  Flow.  Gone running, dancing, or walking and found time dissolving, so that an hour felt like mere minutes?  Flow.  One exceptionally powerful “flow moment” would be the last few seconds leading up to orgasm, when it feels like the barriers between you and your lover are melting away.

     All of these moments share something in common: they all deal with the dissolution of the subject-object relationship.  The painter melts into the canvas. The writer disappears into the book, the reader into the magazine, the lover into the beloved, the martial artist into the flow of throw and punch.   As the song goes, the dancer enters "the danger zone, where the dancer becomes the dance." We stop being aware of “ourselves” and begin to sense a connection between all the disparate parts of the activity, as if we are simultaneously stepping back for a wider view, and sinking inwards to a place of almost impossible intimacy.

     It is a path to genius.  One might take the position that the ability to hold flow under stress is the single greatest key of all high-performing human beings in any arena of life.  What is talent, separate from the focus required to manifest it? 

     There are many disciplines that address flow: meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, prayer, etc.  And there are tools that work terrifically well for familiarizing you with this state: sixty beat per minute Largo rhythm string music (Vivaldi is great!), hot baths, incense, massage, etc.  Distance running or rhythmic walking, dance, gardening or cooking (for some people), playing music, painting, and numerous other activities touch this space.  Just look for the moments when time vanishes.

     One core technique, used worldwide in thousands of disciplines, is breath control. This is key because breathing is the only physiological process both voluntary and autonomic, and is thus a key to the unconscious mind.  Learning to breathe slowly and deeply even under stress will de-inhibit the flow response, allowing you to access your deeper wisdom and creativity even when a project is due by noon, or the baby is screaming in the next room.

     To take advantage of this fact,

1) Learn to breathe deep in your belly.  Lay on your back, and put a book on your tummy.  As you inhale, it should rise.  Exhale, it should fall.  Your chest should move as little as possible.

2) Five times a day, at every hour divisible by three (9, 12, 3, 6, 9) concentrate on your breathing for sixty seconds.  Learn to do this while driving, sitting in meetings, standing in elevators, or walking down the street.

3) Place (or catch) yourself under moderate stress, and practice this breathing.  For instance, in the middle of an exercise class, while public speaking, in the middle of an argument, while caught in bad traffic, while experiencing an anxiety attack.  Learn to breathe calmly and deeply in such situations, and you re-pattern your nervous system’s threat response, enabling you to calm yourself to enter flow.

There are certainly other methods, but this one, modification of breathing, has worked for thousands of year and countless generations of seekers.    It will work for you, as well.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Four Useful Lies About Writing

Most writing “experts” favor a particular way of looking at plot, and will adhere to it for years or an entire career. That’s all well and good, but its important to realize that any way of modeling story is just that—a model, not the depths and living essence of story itself.

     Problems arise when young (or experienced!) writers mistake a  simplified structure for some deep and eternal truth.  It’s much better to examine several structures, see what their strengths and weaknesses are, and try to glimpse the truth they are trying to convey.

     The actual “truth” of story is beyond any structure, but they all point in the same direction, toward that misty, hidden metaphorical mountain all storytellers have been climbing since the beginning of time.  As long as we don’t mistake the finger for the mountain, the structures can be quite useful indeed.

     The worst story model that is at all useful might be” “It has a beginning, middle, and an end.”  Well, yes, but so does a piece of string.

     More helpfully, try: Objective, Obstacle, Outcome.  In other words, a character wants something, and something stands in her way.  She tries various things to resolve the difficulty, leading to an eventual climax.

     This one is even  more useful:

     Situation, Character, Objective, Opponent, Disaster.  Using the classic James Bond film “Goldfinger” as an model (action films are good for this, because their structure is usually crystal clear):

     Situation: When gold is being smuggled from England in large quantities,
     Character: Secret Agent 007 James Bond
     Objective: Is assigned to find out how it is being done.  But little does he know that
     Opponent: Industrialist billionaire Auric Goldfinger
     Disaster: Is smuggling gold to finance his real operation, the destruction of Fort Knox with an atom bomb!

     Can you see how this model helps to clarify the different basic aspects of your story?  The hero must have a goal, and there must be forces in opposition. Moreover, the hero’s initial goal and his ultimate goal may well change over the course of the story, as they grow to understand the situation more fully.  A story structure like this one implies both internal and external motivations, and sets up a dynamic structure that almost writes itself!

     The very best writing structure would be what is known as the “Hero’s Journey” created by Joseph Campbell, and explored by anthropologists and writing mavens around the world.  There are numerous interpretations of it, but in essence, it can be represented as:

1)Hero Confronted With A Challenge.
2)The Hero rejects the challenge
3)The Hero accepts the challenge
4)Road of Trials
5)Meeting allies and gaining powers
6) Confront evil and defeat.
7) Dark Night of the Soul
8) Leap of Faith
9) Confront Evil and victory
10) Student Becomes The Teacher

         This pattern automatically implies the yearnings, fears, obstacles, efforts, deep depression and exultation of actual human lives.  This is the reason that this pattern, more than any other, is useful to writers both new and experienced.  Because it mirrors our lives, a writer can most easily adapt her own understandings of life and the universe into her work.  If you organize your work into this pattern, readers or viewers all over the world will instantly recognize your efforts as “story.”  Whether it is a “good” story will depend entirely on the skill and creativity that you bring to the task—the unquantifiable quality of “art” that is beyond direct description. 

      There are, of course, many other patterns, and an ambitious writer or student would do well to list several of them side by side, and analyze what they are saying.  None of them are “truth,” but all are useful fingers pointing toward that mountain.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Walk The Line (2005)

This musical biopic about the life of the legendary "Man In Black" Johnny Cash, is simply smashing, deeply affecting, superbly performed by all concerned, and a success on virtually all counts.  As portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, the romance of Johnny and June Carter Cash is brought to life in such an affecting way that it is impossible not to suspect that there is truth here, that the movie touches on the essence of these human beings in all of their brilliance and mundane humanity.  Funny, tragic, entertaining as heck, sexy, and simply one of the best movies I've seen all year.  The unavoidable parallels with last year's "Ray" are unavoidable and appropriate.  This is American filmmaking at its best, with a performance by Robert "T-1000" Patrick as Cash's distant, emotionally haunted father that is a revelation.  See it.  An easy "A" for all concerned.

The Golden Hour

Hi <$firstname$>,

During a conversation earlier today, a formerly svelt young lady said that she had given up on the idea of exercise, because to have a body worth the trouble, it would take three or four hours a day.

Novice writers complain that in order to build their careers, it would take six or seven hours a day…so what is the point!

And more times than I could count, stressed-out acquaintances have said that they would love to meditate, but “don’t have the time.”

It is time we explode these falsehoods. The truth is that misconceptions like the above can completely steal your chances for health, happiness and success.

The truth is that you can get started on a fantastic fitness regimen in only an hour a week. Further, a focused writer can create a novel in a year in only an hour a day. And gigantic strides can be made toward stress relief in only five minutes a day. THAT is the playing field: give yourself five minutes, and you can cut your stress in half. Give yourself an hour a week, and you can have health and fitness. An hour a day can jump-start a career.

1) Five Minutes a day. Five times a day, for just sixty seconds, stop and breathe slowly and deeply from your belly. Go to a local yoga or Tai Chi school and ask to learn a relaxation breathing technique. If you can’t find one, then slow down, get quiet, and feel your heartbeat for sixty seconds. Do this every three hours for sixty seconds, and you will halve your stress levels.

2) An hour a week. Three times a week, perform twenty minutes of the right body-weight or weight exercises. Hindu Squats and Hindu Pushups are wonderful whole-body exercises. Do a Google search for them, and you’ll find multiple sites on the Internet selling or giving away the information for free. For faster results, use “Kettlebell” style whole-body weight exercises. These exercise tools look like little cannon-balls with handles, and they are used in a variety of swinging and yoga-like moves that are unbelievably efficient for developing strength, endurance, flexibility, power and athleticism, all at the same time. You can even use an ordinary dumbbell in the beginning. Again, do a Google search, and you’ll find the information, often for free!

3) An Hour a day. This is what I call the “Golden Hour.” You need to accept the idea that one hour out of every day belongs to you. Not your job, not your husband or wife, or your kids—it belongs to you. During this time, if you plan it properly, you can exercise, practice your art, meditate, read—whatever. If you are a writer, I’d suggest that Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, you “flow”—just create rough draft, with no attempt to edit it. Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday you do your editing, polishing the work you did the previous day. If you learn to focus properly, there is no reason in the world you can’t learn to produce 1000 words of rough draft in an hour. That’s enough to produce a novel a year, in just an hour a day.

The “Golden Hour” is a goal, one that might take you a year or two to work toward. But if you will just start with five minutes a day, and a commitment to an hour a week…working TOWARD an hour a day, you have placed your feet on the road toward peace of mind, a healthy body, and a happy heart: a tiny investment for a gigantic reward.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Using Your Body To Strengthen Your Mind

For thousands of years, physical disciplines like yoga, Tai Chi and Sufi Dancing have been said to increase mental and spiritual powers. If this is true, how might one explain this, and even better, how can we use this fact, practically, to enhance our lives as artists, business people, parents, and partners?

First, we have to strip away the mysticism from the activity. Not that these activities have no esoteric aspect, but rather that we have to approach them on the most down-to-earth level. The higher the tree, the deeper the roots. The taller the building, the deeper the foundations. If you want to soar, be certain that your tether is strong. So we need to start with a simple, physiological explanation (if possible!) and then suggest a way that this ties in to advanced artistic accomplishment, relationship skills, intellectual clarity, and spiritual growth.

My own enlightenment in this regard came from studying the work of Coach Scott Sonnon, the first American martial artist to train in the former Soviet Union. While there, this brilliant man met Russian sports and performance scientists who had been studying indigenous health system in the Ural Mountains for a century. There, they found movement and wellness concepts equivalent to anything in China or India. They shared many of these concepts with Sonnon, and invited him to share them in turn with Americans. Over the years, Coach Sonnon has created hundreds of books, videos and essays on his interpretations of this core knowledge.

Perhaps the single most important in terms of Body-Mind is what he calls the “Flow State Performance Spiral.” In order to relate this breakthrough thinking in such a short essay, we’ll have to condense considerably:

1) All physical technique is composed of three aspects: breathing, movement, and structure.

2) Each of these aspects is controlled by the other two (breath is created by movement and structure, etc.)

3) Stress “dis-integrates” this structure. In other words, when you are under stress, the physiological signs will manifest in your breathing rate or shallowness, your posture, your muscle tension. This is why lie detectors work!

Before he died, Hans Selye, the creator of the “stress” concept, said that he had misspoken himself, that it is not stress that hurts us, it is strain. Stress is the pressure we are under. But strain is the degree to which that stress warps us out of true.

Stress is not the enemy. In fact, when handled healthfully, it is the primary trigger for growth. So the key is to avoid strain.

Let’s skip around a bit to a truth about artistic and intellectual pursuits: your ability to utilize your intelligence, education, skills or talents will be in direct proportion to your ability to maintain “flow” under stress. Or to put it another way, in life, we are rewarded for how much stress we can handle without folding. Writer’s block, for instance, is nothing but a poor reaction to performance stress.

Combining these ideas, what we have is that mental and emotional balance under stress leads to excellence. Combine this with the fact that learning to cope with physical stress develops skills that are tremendously applicable to the mental arena. The most vulnerable portion of the “Flow State” triad (breath, movement, structure) is breathing. Proper breathing will be degraded by stress before you can detect it in posture or muscle tension. This is one of the reasons breath control is addressed in most religions and spiritual disciplines, whether this is through pranayama (yoga), exercise, hymns, ritual prayers, dance, or sacred postures.

A good yoga teacher, for instance, will place the student in a posture sufficiently extreme to force total concentration. When the student learns to relax and focus, that posture becomes relatively easy, and a more extreme posture is given. The point is to teach the student to monitor their own internal process. Fine martial arts or breathing meditation teachers use similar techniques.

The student learns to recognize the early signs of strain, and to dissipate them. NOTHING in life creates more stress than lack of oxygen, and learning to remain calm in the midst of oxygen debt will teach you to remain calm when the children are screaming, when your boss is on the rampage, when someone cuts you off on the freeway.

Or when you have a writing deadline, or when insecurity and fear hammers at the door of your resolve.

Deliberately practicing a physical discipline to enhance this quality of calmness and centeredness, while simultaneously working toward goals balanced in body, mind, and spirit, exposes you to the currents of life while helping you develop the skills and strategies necessary to excel. This, over time, leads to excellence, even in a purely mental arena.

There are numerous disciplines that will teach proper breathing under stress, and this article has listed a few. If you wish to reach your maximum potential as a mental, spiritual, and emotional being, seek one of these techniques out, and integrate it into your life. It is one of the best investments you could ever make in your future.

Fitness In Five Minutes A Day?


What is the minimum amount of exercise needed for health and fitness?  While it depends on the person, lifestyle, and goals, the general wisdom is that 20-60 minutes per day of cardio pumping, iron lifting, or muscle stretching is necessary.
While no one could deny that these numbers produce optimal results, it is possible to accomplish great things in a shorter time.
The truth is that most badly out-of-shape people have lost a crucial “body-mind” link, a connection that helps them to feel the physical hunger for healthy movement.  They hate sweating, don’t like walking, and often confuse thirst or emotional pain for hunger. 
For those of us who have to ease our way back into an exercise routine, even five minutes a day can be a life saving door into a healthier world. 
Here are the rules:
1)
In order to get the most out of this routine, it should be spread out over the day.  We’re suggesting sixty seconds of work at 9 am, 12 pm, 3 pm, 6 pm, and 9 pm.  This approach is called “Greasing the Groove” and has an exceptionally powerful effect.
2)
Concentrate on the abdominal muscles. They are the most important group of voluntary muscles in the body, aiding posture, digestion, and sexual function.  Critical to athletic performance, they transfer power from the lower to the upper body.  When it comes to appearance, the abdominals are called “the window of health”—we are judged more often by our belt-lines than any other single physical factor.
3)
It is virtually impossible to tone the abdominals without benefiting other muscle groups.

What exercises are best?  I would suggest a tri-pronged approach: a “killer” exercise, a light exercise, and one that can be done in public—while walking or driving.
1)
A roller wheel.  These are available in any sporting goods store for about five dollars, and are the only ab exercise devise worth your money.  Beginners roll out from their knees, more experienced exercisers from their toes.
2)
Hip lifts.  Lay on your back, brace your hands at your sides, cross your feet, lifting feet and knees from the floor.  Now contract the abdominal muscles and lift the hips from the floor. Relax and repeat the hip lift for sixty seconds.
3)
Power breathing.  Contract your abdominal muscles HARD as you walk or drive.  Combined with proper breathing techniques, this can actually be the perfect ab exercise.  There are many yoga, Tai Chi and martial arts teachers who can teach you proper breathing technique—if you haven’t had training or studied this, don’t assume you already know how—seek out a teacher!


While the “Grease the Groove” technique is powerful (and can be used to develop strength, flexibility, or coordination) it is not intended to substitute for your longer cardiovascular workouts.  It is offered as an addition, or for those days when you just can’t exercise, or as a way for the non-exerciser to begin.  Consider it a doorway to a fitter, healthier world.

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005)

I love Shane Black's work (Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, The Last Boy Scout) and I really wanted to love KISS KISS BANG BANG, his directoral debut.  I'd heard so many good things about it that I thought I was about to see another Pulp Fiction.  No such luck.  This convoluted story, about a thief pretending to be an actor pretending to be a detective (don't ask) is too clever by half, and entirely too cynical to be the fluffy entertainment it yearns to be, too self-referential and aware to be a noir detective film, and too insider-joke Hollywoody to really be successful in the general market.  The setup is that the aforementioned faux actor has a chance to impress his childhood sweetheart by solving a mystery involving her kid sister.  There's a damsel in distress, several dirty dogs, a gay private eye (played by Val Kilmer...and in some ways, this is the gayest film I've seen in a long time for a number of fun reasons), double and triple crosses, and a pretty decent mystery at the heart of it all.  Still, there's no real consistency to the characters--the thief/actor (an excellent Robert Downy Jr.) just isn't streetsmart enough to be a criminal, and acts like an actor, tossing off observations about Hollywood only someone who's been out here long enough to get seriously disenchanted would know.  In fact, the entire movie plays like Shane Black's rejection of the entire ethos that made his fortune in the first place.  The fact that the film sets itself up for a sequel makes me feel a bit queasy...is Shane rejecting action movie formulas?  Embracing them?  Hard to say, but although I enjoyed this, I'm a die-hard fan of both action films and detective novels, so I really enjoyed what he was doing.  It just wasn't the break-through clever movie I hoped for.  Pity.  I'll give it a "B."
##
And by the way--there are only two black characters, and both of them die.  So there.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Writing Twenty Novels In Ten Easy Steps

The Golden Hour


     During a recent telephone conversation, I mentioned having sent off the last revisions for my twentieth novel,  “Great Sky Woman.”  There was a silence on the other side of the phone, followed by the question “How in the world do you do that?  Twenty novels!”
     The truth is that I know many writers who have written far more than twenty novels.  It is not that unusual.  In fact, if you are a working writer, the “perfect” output is very close to a book a year.  Less often than this, and the readers stop anticipating your next book, and wander to another writer’s literary pasture. 
     There is a commonality to the behavior patterns of successful writers, and a commonality to the behavior patterns of writers who just can’t get started, can’t get finished, or stall out at their first or third book.
     Successful writers:
1)
Write every day.  That’s EVERY day.  They sit down, open their veins, and bleed into their computers.  Yes, it can be painful, but if you don’t maintain this kind of regularity, rust creeps in.  The connection between heart, mind and fingers is broken.  And we mistake the struggle for our natural state.
2)
Read every day.  Reading is priming the pump.  It is modeling successful behavior.  It is increasing vocabulary, studying plot and characterization, and entertaining the little subconscious demons and angels who actually do the deep work.  Never neglect this.
3)
They set deadlines and quotas.  There is a certain amount of work to be done, on a daily basis.  It need not be some huge amount—a page a day will create a book a year!
4)
They create a writing space, a place that feels comfortable to them.  This is both a physical space (a desk) and a psychological space (created with music, posters, familiar objects, etc.) It may also be a temporal space—a specific time of day or night that they write.
5)
They have specific goals.  They have committed to being professional writers.  This is how they define themselves, and they never forget it.  If you accept this definition, then you MUST behave as a professional writer, on a daily basis, or it causes emotional  discomfort.  They are willing to accept this friendly prod.
6)
They don’t listen to the negative voices in their heads.  Everyone has them.  The voices tell you you can’t, you mustn’t, it isn’t good enough.  You must find a way to tell the voices to shut up, to ignore them, or to quiet them.  Any flow-based activity will help here: meditation, Tai Chi, yoga, running, Sufi breathing exercises, martial arts…the list is endless.  Find one.
7)
They are committed to the long-term.  They know that if they spend an hour or three a day, every day, for a decade, they will build their career.
8)
They expose themselves to criticism and rejection.  In other words, they FINISH their projects, and then SUBMIT those finished projects to editors and agents.
9)
They involve other people in their “master mind” group.  Successful writers know other writers.  And readers.  And editors. And agents.  They befriend them, recruit them, get feedback from them, and listen to the feedback.  This is their “brain trust.”  Unsuccessful writers hide in their offices, never finish their work, never send it out to risk rejection.
10)
Successful writers have W.I.T.---they will do Whatever It Takes to ethically reach their dreams, to become the best they can be.  They never quit.  They know that success is based less on talent or “who you know” than persistence, hard work, and honesty. 

There are more distinctions, but I’m out of time—got to start working on book twenty-one!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Had a good I.D.E.A. lately?

The most elusive quality of excellence, of peak performers worldwide
and throughout history is that thing called "Mastery." What is this
thing, and is it possible for ordinary people, however committed, to
touch this exalted state?
The answer is "yes," but I've got good news, bad news, and more good
news. The first good news is that the path is deceptively simple. The
bad news is that it is hard, and can be painful. The last, good news
is that those on the path have no real competition-very few people are
actually willing to be excellent in life. They want to talk about it,
and dream about it, but are unwilling to actually pay the price.
And this, as I've said, is very good indeed for those of us who are.

The first thing we must do is devise a useful definition of "Mastery"
whether we are talking about this quality in the domain of writing and
the arts, of interpersonal interactions, of intellectual pursuit. Then
we must throw light on a pathway to this quality that will enable us to
reach our peak potential.
Try this description: "Mastery is the ability to perfectly match
energy and attention to the task at hand." In other words, if every
task has a perfect "profile" of attention and ability necessary to
complete it, if you bring either less or more of yourself to the task,
you may well complete it, but you will struggle and waste energy-or not
perform properly at all.
Or try this description: "Mastery is the ability to perform
instinctively and instantly in the manner you would perform had you a
month to consider your actions." In other words, to have instant
access to your own deepest capacities.
In other words, Mastery is the place where intellectual or physical or
emotional preparation meets pure instinct. The reflexes of an animal,
the emotional purity of a child, the intellectual focus of a scholar.
An incredible goal, designed to create incredible results.
And the achievement of that goal is exactly what I.D.E.A. is about.
Instinctive Designation of Energy and Attention. The deliberate
cultivation of instinct, energy, and intellect to maximize your results
as a writer, athlete, businesswoman, human being.whatever your goal.
The theory is both childishly simple and devilishly difficult, but is
your key to accessing your deepest wisdom.
Basically, I.D.E.A. says that you develop your instincts by giving
yourself deep feedback about the way you are currently operating in the
world. To strip away illusion, and operate in a "truth zone" about the
person you are and the world you live in. As the ancient Samurai
Musashi Miyamoto once put it, "Do not think dishonestly." A commitment
to total truth will tear the blinders from your eyes, possibly for the
first time in your life.
Sounds simple? Just wait. Here's the bad news. In order to be
certain that you are accurate in your assessments, you must take
responsibility for your life, and the results you have achieved (or
occasionally endured!) in all three major arenas of your life: body,
mind, and spirit.
1) Body is fitness and health. Your body should be in alignment with
your own values, or you should be engaged in a daily process of
cultivating the physical health and beauty and performance that WOULD
reflect your values. Want to know if you are? Strip to your underwear
and look in the mirror. If you are attracted to what you see, you are
in alignment with your values. If you aren't, you aren't. It's as
simple as that.
2) Mind. Mind manifests most clearly in our education and career. Any
worm will move away from pain, and toward pleasure. Believe me, if you
aren't working at a career you enjoy, it isn't due to lack of
intellect. In such a case you may have emotional conflicts, value
confusion about safety, freedom, and responsibility, and it would
behoove you to commit to healing them. The core question: if you won
the lottery next week, would you still be at your job next year? If
not, you should accept the challenge of crafting for yourself a career
path that IS that attractive.
3) Spirit. Just as grass bending can signal the presence of wind, the
relationships we have with other human beings in THIS world can help us
understand our connection to the divine. The most important
relationship to address is the one with our most significant other, our
husband or wife, or lifemate. The history of this aspect of our lives
tells us an enormous amount about our inner world. The most important
question: If you viewed your partner (or the average of your partners,
over your relationship history) as being your mirror image, what would
that say about you? And don't protest that they aren't, that there's
no connection between you and the most important person in your life.
What a joke! Our relationships measure our honesty, passion,
intelligence, self-respect and general energy Take responsibility
here. If you're happy with your relationship, pat yourself on the
back! And if you're not.you have work to do.

You need not tell another human being what you learn if you look at
these three arenas, but YOU need to know. You need to come to some
conclusions about how and why you are in the life space you are in.
The answers to these questions must be consistent: in other words, you
are willing to judge other people by the same standards you hold
yourself to. In all likelihood, engaging in the I.D.E.A. process will
give you vast compassion for other human beings: we are all
battle-scarred, we are all magnificent, we have all failed, we have all
succeeded.

And we move on, toward the light. For an artist, and we are all
artists, this process opens the door to a level of understanding most
human beings never approach. If you walk this path, it's important to
avoid guilt, blame, and shame-these emotions have no place in the
evaluation of our lives. They merely cloud the issue. Meditation,
dream diaries, therapy, or talking with good and supportive friends
might be valuable to help move through the pain and confusion. What I
promise you is that if you walk this path, you will be one of the very
very few human beings on this planet who are actually committed to
excellence. Mastery can be lonely.but as you climb that mountain,
moving toward a more and more rarified level of performance, you will
begin to meet the other climbers. And they will extend their hands to
you, and welcome you into an extraordinary family...one bonded not by
blood, but by spirit.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Who is the "Hero" in the Hero's Journey?

During the past thirty years, much has been (rightfully) made of Joseph
Campbell's breakthrough research in cultural anthropology, most
famously published in "The Hero With A Thousand Faces." In this book,
Campbell examines the many cultural expressions of the heroic role
model, and in doing so helped to establish the universality of human
hopes, dreams, and lives.

Hollywood, in particular, has embraced this vision, which powers dozens
of films a year, and has become clich├ęd wisdom in development executive
suites all over Southern California. Of course, the question of the
nature of heroes enters other arenas as well. In the political arena,
shaping doctrine around strong leader figures is one way to promote
ideas to the public. Heroic firefighters and soldiers appear in ads
for one party or another, and our elected officials trumpet their
military service-or are criticized for their lack thereof, or are
called cowards or even traitors if they disagree with the plans or
opinions of an opponent.

Whether one wishes to understand the "Hero's Journey" as a tool for
fiction, or desires to rise above the rhetoric a bit, it's useful to
define just exactly what a hero is. This is, after all, the human face
of the story. If the "Journey" is important, even more so is the
person taking it. If we, as a culture, tend to worship and follow
heroes, it is vital to have a definition of exactly what this is.

Of course, each of us should search our own hearts for the definitions
that help us guide our lives. With that understanding, I'd like to
present a definition that has worked for this writer and citizen for
many years.

"A hero is a man or woman who holds to their deepest values, regardless
of the stress or pressures."

This applies to soldiers in combat, teachers in the inner city, mothers
sacrificing for their children, artists resisting commercial demands,
teenagers resisting the call of drugs or alcohol or premature
sexuality. It demands that the "Hero" understand his or her deepest
values, and often, the entire purpose of a story is to force them to
confront these deeper truths, stripping away superfluous ego-identity.

Culturally, this means that a person of Heroic dimension doesn't
necessarily share our point of view, our political beliefs, even our
morality. To understand this is to understand how an apparent moral
monster can be lionized by his followers. When we disagree with a
leader, and are forced to dehumanize him in order to justify our own
position, we diminish our capacity to understand the human condition.

We must hold to our values, and be clear about them. The entire world
of advertising-whether Madison Avenue is selling cereal or an unpopular
war-is based on anchoring some goal to basic human drives. Those who
are uncertain of their values are like straws in the wind, blown by
whoever plucks their strings. No wonder we cherish those who seem
clear and strong in their identity, who stand by their choices even
under stress. No wonder we respect these men and women even as it
becomes clear that flexibility and compromise might be the better way.
At least they believe in SOMETHING!

If we are to grow beyond sheep needing a shepherd, we must be strong
ourselves. We must know ourselves deeply and honestly, and find the
bedrock of our own morality. From this place it is easiest to determine
when a leader is truly worthy of emulation or admiration or obedience.
When we walk this road of self-discovery, we become heroes ourselves,
experiencing the adventure of our own lifetimes.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Concerning black men, and emotions

In answer to a question following my review of "Get Rich or Die Tryin'"...
 
Question: Since Black men mainly come froma place of strength(or try to anyway)passing by feelings of fear, hopes, dreams, and weaknesses, how can this be made to overcome the lack of these other things?


No faltering, no weakness, no doubts,
just missles locked on target. I found it very appealing and have been wondering the "what if" of a real person like this.
#######
I believe that such a person would be a sociopathic psychopath.  No human feelings, no connection to anything real outside his own fantasy life.  Nothing human or animal can really be this way with even a prayer of sanity and wholeness.  We all have dreams, hopes, needs, and fears.  A strong person can lock them away for a while, as they move toward their dreams.  A strong and evolved person has integrated their personality to the point that those negative voices are clearly understood to be merely voices calling in the woods.  You needn't pay attention to them.
 Mark my words, I DO think that black men face special challenges, and that one of those has to do with an explosive amount of fear and anger that few whites let themselves understand at all.  This isn't surprising: if the historical position were reversed, most of us would be in denial, wanting to believe that whatever we've accomplished in life is purely due to our own righteous effort, and not due to harm done to innocent others.  Fine.  That's human nature...but we still have the responsibility to be good, and moral, and role models for those who are looking for answers.
##
The answer is not to be found in disowning our emotions.  The answer is to be found in loving ourselves, really diving in and embracing our own humanity, accepting our failings while doing our best to rise above them.  Along the way, we must forgive others as a way of ridding ourselves of emotional poison.  To accept your humanity fully is to walk the road of enlightenment.  If you have ever mastered a single skill--and you have--then it is possible to transfer those same skills over to the domain of self-realization.  Just be honest with yourself about your successes and failures in the three main arenas
(body, mind, spirit/emotion) and begin to take responsiblity for both.  Strive to learn a little something new every day.  Self-doubt is a part of life, but you don't have to let it stop you.  While as a man of color you have special challenges, every person, and every group, whether defined by race, culture, sexual orientation, politics, gender, age, physical condition, or whatever, has "special" challenges.  What you are dealing with is the countless subliminal messages you have received your whole life that you aren't as good, as important, as sexual, as smart, as worthy of life.  This is frightening, believe me, I know. And that fear creates anger.  Go to the root of it.  There is energy and power there, but you have to dive deeply.  James Bond-style villains (and heros) are definitely popular because of their single-minded, fearless style.  They don't exist, nor should they be aspired to once we reach adulthood, and want the powers, responsibilities and freedoms of adults.  But that doesn't mean we can't be heros.  That is something we can, and should, aspire to.  A hero can be tough, and ruthless, and smart, and sexual...but they also fear, and hope, and dream, and cry.  That's just us, as human beings.  Try to lose that, and you create a monster. 

Get Rich Or Die Trying' (2005)

I am fascinated by the number of rappers who have crossed over into film.  Never in the history of the music industry have so many performers accomplished this.  Not traditional music, religious music, classical music, R&B, Rock, Country, Jazz...nothing.  But the list of Hip-Hop and Rappers who have done it just staggers the mind.  Queen Latifah, Will Smith, LL Cool J, Mos Def, P. Diddy, Eminim, Eve, Lil Bow Wow, and on and on and on. My theory?  Well, these people (in general) can't sing, or dance, or play instruments, or read music.  They are heavily dependant on their producers (as are most musical performers) for their sound. What, then, exactly are they bringing?  And you'd better consider that the competition has to be incredibly fierce, up to and including lethal levels of physical intimidation. Rap is a CUT THROAT business, so I am forced to conclude that those at the top have more of whatever "success quality" is required than those further down.  And I think that the major components of that are the elusive thing called "star poewr", and the ability to act a role. 
##
Enter Curtis "Fifty Cent" Jackson, a rapper of moderate skills and no real point of view, whose primary claim to fame is having been shot nine times.  Think about that.  That's his claim to fame? The thing that makes him marketable, the fact that he is a bona-fide gangster?  I guess so. And that disturbs the hell out of me.
Back tothe movie
##
The film, a fictionalized version of Jackson's life, is probably best criticised by comparing it to two much better movies, "8 Mile" with Eminim, and "Hustle and Flow" with  Terrance Howard.  Eminim's music, mroe than almost anyone else in rap, is self-revelatory, and deals withhis personal pains, hopes, and dreams, his family anguish, his personal failings and devils.  In other words,his primary talent is honesty.  I am tempted to look at the vast majority of black rappers and wonder what keeps them from being as honest...then again, no, I don't.  Just like black male sexuality is a taboo in American film, any other exploration of genuine feelings and weaknesses and hopes and dreams beyond a narrow "get paid and get laid" is simply not profitable...or not perceived as profitable.  I think that the perception is accurate.  Black men have masked their feelings for four hundred years--to let out the homicidal anger would be suicide.  Fear gets bound up with pain and love and hope and frustration, the kind of emotional ball that is bounced with such wonderful effect in the Blues.  Hip Hop, especially the stuff played on the radio, is NEVER about weakness.  It is all about strength, and lack of real feeling. And this creates a problem in film when companies, looking for marketable black faces, casts Rappers.
##
They can't act, in general. Yeah, Queen Latifah and Mos Def and even Will Smith are exceptions.  But when you see Jackson and Terrance Howard acting side by side, there's no comparison.  In "8 Mile" they surrounded Eminim with real actors for him to react to, and gave him a home life that created INSTANT empathy--his relationship with his mother, his sister, a girl at work, his homies. Far, far beyond the level of humanization in "Die Tryin'." where no human relationships more than paper-thick show up for damned near the first hour of the movie.  Jackson does his best, but he basically has two expressions, and although competantly directed, the film gives us nothing we haven't seen before.  Even a nude knife fight in a prison shower is shot with a curious blandness and lack of intensity.  A love scene late in the film does have a nice eroticism, but it's strange how different it is from most love scenes in film.  I salute the film makers for willingness to do it at all, but in most films, the FIRST love scene between two characters is the most incandescent. If we see a second one at all, it is usually far more demure.  Things are jsut the opposite here, which reinforces my sense that Hollywood just doesn't know what to do with black male sexuality.
##
The movie just doesn't work well, and maybe that's because they couldn't get Jackson to open up the way Eminim can, and I thinkthe difference is racial, I really do.  Nonetheless, "Die Tryin'" is compentant, and an actual effort to tell Jackson's story.  While I can't love it, I don't hate it, and it bodes well for future efforts...the trailers for Usher's movie "In The Mix" actually had me smiling.  I'll be damned if I'm not looking forward to it, and I'm not even into his music.  Maybe it's because he does Hindu Pushups and Squats.
Give "Get Rich" a C+.
 

Friday, November 18, 2005

You said in the blog that you usually write a script first and then the novel. Does that make the work a little easier to visualize? I've been searching for a solid method to emulate and this one sounds like the best yet. If I can see what people are saying and what is going on around them, doing the settings later would be a hell of a lot easier. 
 
I think you just solved a problem for me. 
#############
 
Yes.  Final Draft has an "index card" based outlining system that is also perfect for writers.  I start with FD, then import to Word and finish there!
 
STeve

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Sent Manuscript Off!

Great Sky Woman went out via e-mail to Betsy Mitchell last night. Yes, there is additional work to be done (when I see the copyedited manuscript), and then again in galleys. And the maps willhave to be re-drawn due to circumstances beyond control of my artist.  But Everything now is tweaking, even if it's serious tweaking.
Man oh man, did I make some serious mistakes with this one...can only pray that I was able to correct or undo the damage.  Here's a brief list of the errors and special stresses during this book:
1) Started writing it with contemporary "bookends" to fix it in space and time.
2) Orginally conceived it as a mystery
3) Changed tenses based on point of view
4) Originally believe there were more varieties of exotic megafauna 30,000 years ago in East Africa.
5) Adopted my son during the writing process
6) Moved from Washington to California during the writing process
7) Had my entire plan for supporting my family self-destruct during the writing process...
8) Didn't follow my past pattern (the last six books) of writing it as a script , polishing the script, and then writing the novel based on that "outline"
###
Arrrrrgh.  All in all, I'd say is that I cost myself about a year, one way or 'tother.  Ah well, we learn as we go.  I think it's going to be fantastic when everything's together, though!  Now I'm going to take a couple of days off, and then jump into the next DREAM PARK book with Larry Niven, and start re-writing the BLOOD BROTHERS script, and, oh yes, start working on my next article for my internet business...
 
No rest for the wicked.
Steve

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Countdown

In about seven days, I'm going to start a rundown through all the puzzle pieces that comprise the full "Mastery" system (who knows what it will eventually be called!) that I've been talking about.  Not gonna hold anything back, but some of the things will demand demonstration or illustration, so at some point I'll have to post pictures or video clips.
The reason this is happening is that I'm putting together an internet business to sell the Lifewriting Year-Long program, and there are lotsa separate pieces that all need to come together, including the ability to broadcast to my mailing list, and the ability to create an "auto-responder" series that sends the basic Chakra/Hero's Journey stuff to everybody who signs up.  That way, I don't have to go over it and over it--those two pieces are, with the "Golden Hour," the heart of the system.
##
Let me give you the short version: over the years, I've gathered together every self-improvement technique I could find, with the intent of keeping me on-track in my life and career.  About fifteen years ago, I started teaching the "Lifewriting" method of using Campbell's model of the Hero's Journey to your life.  The Chakras got integrated about ten years ago, but there was still a piece missing, and I believe that (in part) that missing piece cost me my first marriage.  I stopped teaching, figuring that I needed to get my act together better,and it wasn't until three  years ago, in meeting Coach Sonnon, that I got that last piece.  Since that time, everythign exploded. At that time, it began to feel that I could sense the road of the Masters, and in interacting with the most evolved people I could find, that sense deepened.  The question became: what is the most elegant way of presenting this? That's important, you see, because I could be dead wrong.  Dead wrong.  And about something as important as personal evolution, if I'm going to express an opinion, I'd better error-check like crazy.
##
So when I have the Internet stuff a little better together, I can create commentary on the approximately three dozen different aspects, and have them go out to the appropriate lists kinda effortlessly.  Understand: far fewer that 3 dozen pieces are essential.  But what I'm talking about can't QUITE be put into words--I have to dance around it a little, and I'd rather give you too much than too little.  This will be enormous fun, becuase in doing it, I'm inviting you guys to give me feedback on your own experience, and to tell me what you think of the model I've been given (or created.  Or intuited.  Jeeze, I don't know!).  At any rate, it's going to be fun. The next few days I'll ramble on about stuff that interests me, but within two weeks I'll settle down and get more serious, o.k?
 
Steve

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005)

A rather odd stroll through the mind of uber-screenwriter Shane Black,
the creator of the Lethal Weapon franchise. You know, I really wanted
to love this. I wanted to consider it another PULP FICTION--the buzz
had been just that good. But this noir detective film starring Robert
Downy Jr and Val Kilmer (both terrific) just didn't convince me. The
central conceit is that a small-time thief accidentally becomes an
actor, who then pretends to be a detective in order to dazzle his
childhood sweetheart. fine. And tricky, and very, very smart. The
trouble is that there are no recognizable human beings, and even on its
own terms, any fantasy film must convince an audience that these
characters are who the writer (and in this case, Director) says they
are. Sorry, but Downy's character NEVER acts like a street-wise former
thief. At every turn, he acts, and his internal monologue is that of,
a world-weary Hollywood veteran, spouting "wisdom" that is pure
Tinsel-town psychobabble. There is no consistency--one minute he's
getting his butt kicked by an actor, and in the next, he's pulling off
derring-do like Martin Riggs in "Lethal Weapon." All right--that's the
mythic element at work. But I simply didn't buy it, and I really,
really wanted to. I actually met Black about two months ago, nice guy,
and I wish him luck. But he seems to have no knowledge of human
relationships beyond the kind of Moving Violation Hollywood-style
"romance" that leaves both people feeling jaded and fragile. So sad,
because this is one seriously talented human being. I have to give
"Kiss Kiss" a C+, which is, considering the talent involved, just not
enough.

Monday, November 14, 2005

L.A. Screenwriting Expo

I had a deeply emotional experience at the L.A. Screenwriting expo, where I was lecturing on charactrerization and plot.  I was certainly prepared for the usual challenges of teaching, but not for my emotional response when a walking boulder of a gentle giant walked up to me and said: "Hi, Steve...I'm Cliff Stewart."  I almost lost it.  Cliff Stewart was one of the three men who founded the original Black Karate Federation, along with Donnie Williams and my first real karate instructor, Steve Sanders (now Steve Muhammad).  I was damaged goods inthose days (still carry some of the wounds today) due to the lack of my father in the home, a real lack of male energy...when I walked into the BKF school, the testosterone blew me back out the door.  God, I wanted it so much...Steve remains the fastest human being I have ever seen in my life, and a true gentleman warrior.  Now, I didnt know Cliff in those days, but I knew OF him.  I got to know Cliff later, in other contexts, and was amazed at the skill and gentility of this legenday fighter and teacher.  He is a marvel, and moves like a rhino on roller skates, I kid you not.  Hadn't seen him in ten years, and when he approached me, understand, I had recently been wondering what to do with my martial arts practise.  Would I move on to something else?  Go back and practise something I'd done in the past?  Something new?  Just not sure.
##
But one thing I know is that I have unfinished emotional business with the BKF.  You know, we're all wounded by life, and I can still see how some of my wounds ooze, despite the best efforts I've made.  But I have an image in my mind...of completing my BKF black belt, and having it presented to me by Mr. Muhammad.  Cliff (with a black belt in about seven arts), who currently studies and teaches the wonderful Serak art I've been privileged to study over the last decade, could be instumental in helping me understand what requirements I'd have to meet, the training I'd need to undergo, the people I'd need to make contact with.  I see a doorway to completing a piece of my young adulthood, and that happens so very rarely in life. The younger Steve would so love it if I could do that.  I'm gonna have to look into it.  I just have to.
 
Steve

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Jarhead (2005)

An intense, boring, profound, profane, disturbing, enlightening movie about the process of turning men into killing machines, then postponing the actual killing.  What happens to the human soul when this primal aspect, the killer/protector, is sharpened to a lethal edge?  The hyper male bonding sequences, the hallucinogenic images of war delayed, postponed, or missed by the narrowest of margins strikes me as entering the heart of darkness as deeply as anything I've seen since "Apocolypse Now," which "Jarhead" references.  Based on an autobiographical novel dealing with the first Gulf war, "Jarhead" couldn't be timelier.  As the nation debates the cost and appropriateness of our current conflict, as questions of torture and "black prisons" are raised, it is vital to address the psychic costs of battle, and preparation for battle.  There is also a dark and invaluable aspect of the male psyche that absolutely loves the killing, the destruction, the special comeraderie found only between men who put their lives on the line to enter an arena no civilian will ever truely understand.  it is a part of the human character, and we abuse it only at our peril.  There is soul-risking trauma in opening that trap door, and "Jarhead" takes you there, beautifully.  A "must-see" film that asks important questions.  People said that "Fight Club" dealt with the secret hearts of men.  What crap.  Maybe the secret angst of middle-class white guys, but there was nothing universal about that at all.  "Jarhead" gets one hell of a lot closer to a truth we'd rather close our eyes to: we need this aspect of the human heart, even as we are justifiably terrified by it.  An "A."

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

B.B King

Tananarive went to 80-year old blues Master BB King's concert on Universal citywalk last night, while I stayed home to work.  I hated that, but that's the price we pay, folks.  I'd seen the Master at the House of Blues in Long Beach twenty years ago, so the sacrifice wasn't severe, but still...

We have to be willing to focus our time and energy, people. That's the only coin we have in life.  Please...be very clear on the things you want from life, and the costs for getting there.  Then be certain you're willing to pay those costs.  And then pay them.  Me?  I want to finish this book! 

Steve

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Two More Days...

Almost finished with GREAT SKY WOMAN.  The "push" at this point is more important than anything except my health and my family.  There has been such an unbelievable amount of stress associated with this project that I would like to actually enumerate the specific techniques I've depended on to keep that stress from becoming strain.

1) Meditation.  Daily.
2) Yoga. At least once a week.
3) FIVE MINUTE MIRACLE.  Daily.  5X (of course!)
4) Warrior wellness drills
5) Eclipse (now known, I think, as "Flowfit."  Coach Sonnon has promised it will be available by the end of the year)
6) Kettlebells and clubbells. 
7) Lots and lots of yummie sex.  Come to think of it, I should have listed this first!
##
There's more, and it all dovetails.  Being able to vent on this blog has been a life-saver as well.  I want to thank you all  for particpating.  Believe me...it makes a difference. 
##
Remember--it's not stress that hurts you.  It is strain.  May I suggest that each and every one of you make a list of at least five different "stress-busters" that you use in your life, and make damned sure to apply at least one of them, every day.  More tomorrow...wish me luck!

Steve

Monday, November 07, 2005

Ageism in Hollywood

This is for Suzanne.  When my family moved back to Southern California from Washington, the idea was that I would write for television again--even animation if necessary--while we got out roots in place, scoped the scene, and made plans for our career moves.  The move was somewhat harrowing (physically, emotionally, and financially) but we arrived here on Halloween night, 2004, and immediately began to make our plans.  One of the first things I did was set up an appointment with my agent, figuring that we'd lay out a dozen different shows I should watch and generate ideas for, then go to pitch.
Wrong.
My agent, Jonathan Westover, sat me down and told me that in the nine years since I'd been gone, the structure of Hollywood had changed.  Once upon a time, most of the writing was done by freelancers, with a story editor, and maybe a small staff.  Now, that's reversed.  Most of the writing is done by in-house staff, with virtually no freelancing.  And here's the bad news: they don't hire anyone for staff who is over 40!  I'm sure that's not an official policy, just the unofficial truth. 
##
That hit me like a bomb.  My complete strategy for supporting my family while we made our plans went out the window.  I can't even tell you how much stress I was under, fighting to keep from panicking as our war chest dwindled to nothing.  Arrrrgh.  I'm telling you, if it wasn't for the Five Minute Miracle, and Heartbeat Meditation, and the love of my very very good lady wife, I would have been a basket case.  But we came through it.
##
Why is Hollywood like this?  Not certain.  My guess is that under 40 is cheaper, and perceived as being more 'in touch" with the target demographic.  What I learned is that, while I can't write for TV anymore, what I CAN do is
1) write movies
2) CREATE a television series.

So those are the two roads I'm traveling right now, in addition to the novels.  Time will tell, but I'm clear on my goals and working hard.  Keep you all posted!

Steve

Sunday, November 06, 2005

THE BIG THREE

So…over the last ten days or so, we’ve explored the seven levels of characterization: survival, sex, power, love, communication, intellect, and spirit.  Sure can find other aspects, but by tying them into these seven, a writer can create amazingly complicated and realistic characters.  And by examining the impact of damage or progress in each of these arenas on yourself, you can accelerate your understanding of life and humanity vastly.

Where to start?  Well, let’s start with the most basic aspects possible, the simplest model that holds any water at all: Body, Mind/career, and Spirit/emotion.  You can’t get more basic than these three, and if you balance and understand them, you open the door to understanding the Seven.

Body: What are your theories about what a human being’s body means?  Does a person’s physical condition say anything about them?  What?  Why, or why not?  Anyone who has followed the Lifewriting™ theories about this know that my attitude is that our bodies say a huge amount about us.  Our bodies should be able to evade predators, or catch prey.  They should show our secondary sexual characteristics to best advantage. We should have plenty of energy.  If you look at your body in the mirror, you should feel attracted to it.  If any of these are NOT true, trust me, you’ve been damaged, and if you’re honest with yourself, have a clear roadmap to the work you must do to heal and become a balanced human being. 

Mind:  Is your mind sharp and clear?  Do you have well defined WRITTEN goals?  What were your childhood dreams?  To what degree have you achieved them?  Or have you created new, better dreams?  Or have you compromised, sold yourself out?  Are you educated and/or employed to your actual level of capacity?  Why, or why not?  Do you understand the world around you, or do you live in a constant state of confusion, wondering why life seems to be passing you by?  In other words, do you have an accurate map of reality, and can you read and navigate it with aplomb?

Spirit:  Are you easily depressed?  Do you have healthy relationships?  Can you satisfy your sexual and emotional needs ethically?  Do you hold anger toward the people or social institutions that have wronged you?  Do you meditate, or at least have some reliable way of dealing with stress in your life?  Are you pathologically afraid of death or abandonment or aging?  Do you have a sense of the way the universe fits together as a whole—even if you don’t have a clear picture of it, or a belief in a specific deity?
##

Imbalance in any of these three arenas will cause you more trouble than I can possibly say in this short note. Look at the people around you HONESTLY, and see what damage in any one of them, or threats to balance in any one of them, creates in their lives.  Virtually any story you could ever write deals with someone attempting to increase the health or clarity of one or another of these arenas.  If you would be an artist, or an autonomous human being, you must address these questions with courage.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Seventh Level Characterization



The seventh level of characterization ties it all together: Spirit.  This is the level that all world religions play in.  For those without a belief in an afterlife or deity, this level deals with the cosmological questions: the ethical structure of the universe, the nature of our purpose, the meaning of life and death.  Every culture and people on this planet have answers to these questions, and consider the context of our existence to be as important as the actions within that context.  It isn’t vital that a writer have a religious or spiritual belief, but it IS valuable  understand and have empathy for the nearly universal human need to do so.  So let’s look at a few simple questions which, when answered, will help you explore the spiritual dimension of your characters.

1) Do you believe there is a God (or Goddess?) What form does this deity (or deities) take? 
2)
Are there divine beings or forces that interact with human beings? 
3)
If there are, why do you believe their intentions and wishes have been interpreted so many different ways by different cultures?  If not, why do you think so many people of apparent intelligence and integrity think that there are?
4)
Do you think there is “a Way” exclusive of other paths, to approach the divine? Why, or why not?
5)
If you think there is no divine pattern or being, do you think the belief that there is is valuable?  How about the reverse question?
6)
What is the meaning of life?

     Understand that any character you write about will, at some point in her life, address some of these questions. It is hard to conceive of a character that would not—although that statement should be considered a challenge for a good writer!  Can you craft a character of clear mind who has never asked herself any of those questions?  What does that say about her or her culture?
     ##
     There are countless reasons to look into the “seventh level” of characterization, both for the sake of your writing, and your own life (after all—they are inseparable!)
     We will revisit these questions, and many others, in days to come.
     Note, however, that the more spiritual the story, the more important it is to GROUND that story in the first three levels—otherwise it is a tree with no roots.  “The Passion of the Christ” wouldn’t have sold 1/10th the tickets if it hadn’t anchored the spiritual questions deeply in the mutilation of the flesh.  That visceral reality created a link for the audience beyond anything that had been seen onscreen for a very long time.  The higher the intent, the more important the roots are.  Never neglect them

Steve

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Not-so Random thoughts

I have a week to get the book out the door.  Unbelievable stress, but  that's not the killer.  The killer is what happens when stress becomes strain, and I know how to keep that from happening.  Every couple of hours I breathe properly for sixty seconds, as taught in the FIVE MINUTE MIRACLE, and that keeps me sane.  Also, lots of hugs, and naps when needed.  And let me tell you, they're needed!
##
A reader asked me about a sequel to LION'S BLOOD and ZULU HEART.  It's in the pipeline, but for the first time in a long time, I'm actually overloaded.  This is a result of the move to California, with the attendant increase in expenses, and the nasty little surprise of ageism in Hollywood.  We're working around that stuff, but it's requiring some rather slithy moves on my part.  More on that later.
##
another reader asked me to go into greater detail about how I've used the Chakras in my own life.  Man oh man, am I going into THIS in the near future! But first I have to lay out the basic grid of Chakras and Hero's Journey (characterization and plot).  But just as a teaser:
1st chakra interacts with all of the others.  Dealing with core survival, any fear originating in a survival value will screw up your ability to smoothly evolve upward (this is why the "Fear Removal Process" is so incredible, btw).  What kinds of fears am I talking about? Well, here's a short list...
1) abandonment.  As children, we are incredibly vulnerable to the whims of our parents, who  literally have the power of gods. Their approval means everything, and we are genetically programmed to love and imitate them.  This transfers later in life to bosses, friends, and mates, often to our detriment.
2)   Pains or shocks experienced early in life can "anchor" inappropriate stress levels to perfectly normal and harmless activities.  The fear of public speaking is one such, or rejection, or the ability to deal with bullies.  On the schoolyard, we get punched if we stand up for ourselves.  In the workplace, bullies count on the fact that that childhood trauma still controls our behaviors. 
3) Sexual intimacy is incredibly powerful.  We are all vulnerable to rejection, physical control, etc. in the bedroom.  Women often find themselves attracted to the "bad boys" who both excite and frustrate them.  The source of that attraction can be a dominating parent, or a perception of threat that makes our subconscious say: "the world is dangerous...get a dangerous man!"  Only by demanding that we "grow up" and develop the capacity to control our own space can we break those chains.  Men are often endlessly attracted to rejecting women, as they attempt to heal the wounds of a rejecting, distant mother by playing out the intimacy scenario again and again, seeking to gain approval and acceptance denied in childhood.  Survival fear is a powerful force here, as well...men are forever trying to re-create the moments of total acceptance they felt in mommy's arms as a baby.  The result can be devastating.
4) too fat or too thin?  Our bodies hold stress, have their own memories and motivations.  I'm currently dealing with a student who weighs close to 400 pounds, who is dealing with MASSIVE guilt and feelings of worthlessness, stemming from the death of a sibling.  Guilt is fear of worthlessness, of letting down role models, of transgressing in the social arena.  the penalty for such transgressions is exclusion from the tribe.  Often such people find other outcasts, and they cling to each other, "norming" the dysfunctional behavior.  Trying to break free to health often demands that such people leave all known "tribes" behind: the greater social tribe that rejected them, and the current sub-set social group which, while dysfunctional in a few aspects, accepts and loves them.  they must deal with the fear of being alone...and that's a killer.
#####
I could go on forever.  The point is that a single thing, fear, anchored in survival needs, can impact every other level of health and performance in our lives.  Our fears of inadequacy, abandonment, disfigurement, and death need to be addressed directly, not hidden or sublimated, because they will poison everything else, leading to inappropriate relationships, distorted body image, thwarted ambitions, inability to clarify goals, and much else.
###
What is the solution? 
There are many we've discussed here.  A few basic ones:
1) meditation.  Gain clarity and run the "aquarium filter on the fishtank of your soul," so to speak.
2)  Aerobic exercise.  Terrific for improving the brain's physiological capacity to metabolize fear hormones.
3) Yoga.  Designed to break the bonds of servitude to the body needs, yoga has, built into it, some of the finest anti-fear technologies in the history of the human race, far too subtle to explain right now.
4) Prayer.  Faith is arguably the most powerful tool of all.  Find a way to connect to the divine.
##
Fear is a killer of every dream you have.  Confront it directly...which may be painful, but is far preferable to allowing it to fester!

Steve

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

SIXTH-LEVEL CHARACTERIZATION


The sixth “chakra,”
Anja, represents intellect.  Note that this is separate from communication, which also represents education.  They feed upon one another, but intellect deals with our maps of the world, the way we create symbols and philosophies, our cosmology as well as our epistemology. 

There is an expression in yoga that one can awaken the chakras from the bottom up, or from the heart “out”, but never ever from the top down.  In other words, we can develop our understanding of the world by learning to deal with our fears, learning to ethically satisfy our sexual and sensual needs, learning to provide goods and services for our communities, negotiating the reefs of love.  We learn.

Or, we can begin with a heart-space connection to everything around us.  Love will create the bonds that lead to understanding and growth. 

But when we develop an intellectual picture of the world before we have actually experienced life, we stunt our development: the world is larger than our concepts of it.  That said, it is valuable to clarify our relationship with the intellectual world, and use our theories and ideas to inform our writing.
1)
What do you think intelligence is?  Is not?
2)
Do you believe there are multiple “types” of intelligence?  That it is fixed?  Malleable?
3)
Do you believe different groups have more or less intelligence than others?
4)
Is high intelligence an advantage?  A disadvantage?
5)
What are the drawbacks associated with high intelligence?  Low intelligence?  Are there advantages to low intelligence?
6)
Are genius and insanity correlated?
7)
Is the mind more important than the body?

With each question you devise and answer, you are creating your own map of the inside of your head.  Whatever theories you develop, apply them to your characters, helping you to differentiate elegantly, so that conversations and actions are completely distinct based on their history and attributes.  But remember that the more intellectual your characters are, the greater the necessity to “ground” them in the workaday world of flesh and blood.  It is difficult (though not impossible) to create a story about geniuses sitting around thinking, note that a movie like
A Beautiful Mind used sex and the perception of physical threat to anchor the story of a troubled genius in reality.

What, to you, is the world of the mind?  Open that door, and your characters enter a new realm.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Fifth Level Characterization

FIFTH LEVEL CHARACTERIZATION

The Fifth “Chakra,” said to be located in the throat, controls communication. This is the seat of the old “garbage in/garbage out” situation.  Education, verbal patterns--language, vocabulary, slang, clarity, honesty, and so forth.

Our ability to express ourselves is vital to emotional health, and stifled communication can be incredibly destructive.  Think about the missed and mishandled communications in your own life.  Character can be established in a blink through a few lines of dialogue (didn’t we know everything we needed to know about “Rocky” within the first few dialogue scenes?) and a clever writer will contrast a character’s inner essence with his outer communication skills.  “Good Will Hunting” tells of a math genius who hides as a janitor.  No one who speaks to him casually would have had any idea at all—his speech patterns disguise his intellect.  The contrast between his “presenting personality” and his actual personality tells us that this is a confused young man, trapped between his self-image and his potential.  Of such conflicts are drama made.
1)
What was the worst miscommunication of your life?  With your parents?  A husband or wife?  Did you ever lose a friendship because of a lie?
2)
How honest are you?  How did you develop your sense of ethics around honest communication? Are there situations where honesty is not called for?
3)
What are the different levels of communication that have impact on your life? Within a person?  Between two people?  Within a family?  A community?  A nation? The world?  Between Man and God?
4)
What are the primary differences in communication styles between men and women?  How have they caused stress in your life? How have you worked to resolve them?

Every answer you give, or every question for which you have no answer, is the potential core of a character.  Look deeply enough into yourself, and you'll emerge with knowledge of all men and women.  It's worth the effort!


Steve

Legend of Zorro (2005)

Who remembers the original Zorro television series, starring Guy Williams, back in the late 50's and early 60's?  That Zorro was impossibly athletic, the greatest swordsman in the world, and never killed anyone.  A kid-friendly guardian of liberty, fondly recalled.  Well, "Legend" is that kind of movie, dropping from a PG-13 to a PG in one swoop, and reading reviews on "Rotton Tomatoes" one would think this a sin.  Well, I guess I can understand.  Seven years after "Mask of Zorro" Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Zones (both luscious and lithe and excellent) have returned as Mr. and Mrs. De La Vega, the Latino Batman and Robina of 1850 California.  Time has passed since that film, and they have a son who has no idea that his father is a superhero.  Mrs. De La Vega, angry that her husband won't hang up his mask, sues for divorce...and considering that everyone is Catholic, apparantly gets it in record time.  Of course, nothing is what it seems, and all are caught up iin the kind of plot that wil make "The Wild, Wild West" fans feel right at home.  Here's the truth: I enjoyed it, easily slipping into my 12-year-old-boy space and digging the swordfights, the stunts, the incredible Ms. Zeta-Jones (who is a butt-whipper of the first order.  Who knew?) and even the kid, who apparently does at least SOME of his own impressive stuntwork.  And ultimately, I thought of Guy Williams, and watching "The Adventures of Zorro" with my mom, and felt all warm and fuzzy inside.  Yeah, I would have enjoyed a more adult movie, but kids need fun too.  Heck with it--I'm giving the movie a "B."