With the football team

I got into Northwestern. Barely.  Probably because I was a duck.  Part of my agreement, if I were to matriculate, was to enroll in a remedial English class my first semester.

I was with the football team.  And a few other athletes.  They were all big and I was not and we were in a small room.  It was Dr. Smith, I believe. We read Strunk/ White, James Baldwin and Eudora Welty.  See, I couldn’t write an essay.  According to the standard – standard. Maybe because acting at a young age, or staying home from school, pretending to be sick, in order to listen to story-tellers on record and comedians resulted in implicit bias: I never thought of punctuation or modifying my conjunctions, et al.  As an actor, they tell you to cross all that out. And move at the speed of thought and feeling.

Telling people what you were going to say, saying it, then telling them that you said it just bored-the-piss out of me.  It made me feel wrong.  Don’t know why.  I heard that Hank Aaron spent the early part of his career holding the bat the wrong way – what is known as over-handed – till a hitting coach said, “you know, you don’t hold a bat that way there, Hank.”  He didn’t know.  The greatest home run hitter of all time didn’t know how to hold a bat.  For years.  But, the dividend of his ignorance was that his mistakes coupled with his grit made his wrists as fast as they were.  And that speed turned into magic.  And that magic was what he was.

I also hear Sandy Koufax had a similar Come-to-Jesus epiphany… which is amazing, because he was a Jew.  And probably still is.

His conversion was, “Hey, Sandy!  Don’t throw so hard.”

Part of the reason these stories become stories and why we pass them on to encourage the ones coming up the trail behind is because, in case you haven’t found out yet, the trail’s a hard road.  And I’ve done some hard travellin’, don’t you know…

I followed Woody Guthrie ’cause Bob Dylan followed Woody Guthrie and I wanted to be Bob Dylan.  I read Plutarch and Tacitus because he said he did.  And Rimbaud and The Old Testament because John Steinbeck said the answers were there.   I’d catch the fire brand , try not to burn myself on the way to my green hard-shell Imac and scribble. Sometimes on plastic.  Because I figured Kafka would if he had access to Petroleum byproduct.   I was cluelessly on the hunt for something I didn’t know but trusted I would recognize when I found it.  Like a pig for truffles.

But, yeah, I needed schooling.  On the elements of style.  Something to frame my imagination in and a spine to fix it on.  Others had tried.  But it never stuck. My mom was my first grammar teacher.  I would take stories from a typewriter and share them with her and she would give me the hard edit with her red pen.  I was six. Seven, maybe.   But, the rules of language were like a labyrinth to me that only led to a mystery I couldn’t decode.   During summer, we’d sit with those S.R.A. critical reading things and I’d struggle to retain and understand what I read.  She was patient.  I was not. The hours she spent helping me formulate complete thoughts and then sentences, sentences with clauses, and independent clauses.  It felt almost like a second language.  I’ve never been quite able to remember my first.  There’s always a sense of translation from something more primal whenever I sit down to write.  Maybe pure sound.   Who knows.  Above my pay grade.

I used to think there was something wrong with the way I thought, but the truth was, I had to catch up to my hand. My hand, my head, and my heart were all moving at different speeds.  And needed to come into alignment.   Achieving that alignment requires a lifetime of constant adjustments.  To find harmony.  Balance.  And know, intrinsically, what to leave in… what to leave out.

Looking back, I guess, I was inspired.  And didn’t know it.  I had a radar for things unseen and unspoken.  And words came to me.  In no particular order.  And I didn’t know what to do with any of it.  Sometimes I wish I could tell the younger me, “Hey, that thing you got?  It’s going to take some time.”

But, yeah, I couldn’t catch up to my head.  Still can’t.  Which is why I learned to listen to my heart.   And when I do, the punctuation lands where it should. And I get to surprise myself.  And who doesn’t like that.    But slowly, ever so slowly, I learned to correct the way I hold my bat.  And now I am surprised how much easier it is to hold it the right way.

Language is eroding.  It’s what languages do.  And that erosion is assisted by many things.  Like Twitter and all its mutated offspring.   But we’re the number one accomplice in its murder. How none of us could write cursive.  And then there is the day we all stopped looking things up.  But this decay is not new.  Our common tongue evolves.  Mutates.  And we change with it.  We’re just in one of those funky growing periods.  Where suddenly we remember  why we had to learn to write a bibliography and properly cite our sources.    And look at all the trouble that has caused.  From words.  Words have the power to heal, to bridge, to literally change the world; but, they can also be the most dangerous weapon on earth  and be welded against the scared and hungry, and desperate, and ignorant, and blind.  They can get men and women to do unspeakable things.  And at the same time, give us remembrance of things past, resurrect the dead, and give shape to whole worlds not yet born.    They put our kids to bed at night and serve as conduit between what we feel and what we think.  I sometimes don’t know either till I find the words, and then in finding them… know.

I’d like to tell you I learned the rules from Dr. Smith that I couldn’t  hear from my own mother.  But that’s not true.  It took what it took.  I had to field the same note, time and time, till… I got it: the true value of clarity.  The danger in haste and delay, the crypt of confusion.  The lack of action.  And change.  The courage it takes to be simple.  And true.  And employ these things in service of something bigger than me.   But, I finally surrendered and learned the rules.  Now, I can break them.  Which is the real fun part.

For the record

Nothing about creative work is sexy.  Contrary to popular belief or what pops up in a news feed.  So, don’t believe it.  It’s fake news.

Pro-Soccer players grind it out all week,  balancing conditioning with weight training, team exercises, strategy sessions, and recovery time for the chance to let it flow for two 45 minute halves once a week, or so.  The match is the reward.  Anyone who’s ever played a sport knows that.  The rest is what it takes– what famed coach, Pep Guadiola, calls “the privilege of the pressure.”

Fetch wood and carry water.  Rinse repeat.  That’s how you get to Carnegie Hall or Yankee Stadium.  If that matters to ya.  The grace comes from balancing all of that  with a job-job that pays for those eight or nine minutes of playing.  That five-minute open mike.  Or a meeting with junior executives where we can soft pitch, knowing it’s a pass before we walk in the door.  Point is, it doesn’t add up and it never will.  So, that can’t be why we do it.

But there comes that moment.  When you have to push all your chips in.  Because to do otherwise would be to live a lie, and that’s when you know.  Or rather when I knew. Why the root of what we call sacred is the same as sacrifice.  Like I said, nothing is sexy about the true creative life.  It’s actually pretty boring.  And consistent.  And involves a studio in Van Nuys when friends have families and kids and dogs and yards and trips to the Bahamas and more kids and ski trips and…  And you’re forced to dig even deeper till you crack through that last layer and all that is left is this.

It will never be enough.   And expectation is a sneaky thing.  As is entitlement.  And any unfortunate event that  we can be tempted to translate into victim-ese.  But when I finally stopped digging, ran out of people to blame, and finally didn’t need any outside validation to support my claim as a professional, I found the most surprising thing.  I didn’t need it.  I felt like a prisoner freed.  I could finally play the game.  Cause that’s all it is, a silly game.  Kids can play.  Children play baseball.  Soccer.  And dress up.  And the same things give the select few 300 million.  But that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t play; even if  none of the “in- between” is fair, governed more by chance than anything, and is always a game of inches and subject to the trends of subjectivity.  And timing.

The fact that somebody wants to consider paying you or me for it every once in a while, I mean… ridiculous.   And when they don’t…?  Well, that’s when I get to grow.  Return to fundamentals.  Do the real.   Where it really matters.

I don’t have any advice, but, if you want to be famous, maybe consider asking yourself why.  I’ve been famous.  It doesn’t change anything.  In fact, it can make things a lot worse.  I’d do something else if I could, but I can’t.  I’ve tried.  There’s a lot better ways to make a living, but for some reason, I’m good at this.  So, I guess I’ll stick to it till the universe decides to tell me I should drive a truck.

Lately, I’ve been hearing that I’m level-headed and grounded because of my response to certain things.  And I want to turn around and check who these people might be referring to, because it sure can’t be me.  Grace is a gift.  And it don’t belong to us.  It’s granted on loan.  For ours to use for a time. What we can control is effort. And there’s nothing more beautiful and poetic than an effortless foul shot or the way a Nylon string player plucks a Bach etude.  Easy.  As if it is a natural thing.  A natural thing that results from sustained effort.

I had a mentor in college, who just retired to the big black box theater in the sky to critique the angels on their sense of truth and scope, who liked to say, “never let them see the work.”

Which was a bit of a trick.  And a straight up mind-fuck, because he liked to only give us things  that involved… you guessed it- a lot of work.  None of that work was sexy.  Especially in a one piece, dance belt  and in ballet shoes at 8.00 in the morning and you were sweating out the drinking from the night before.

His name was Bud Beyer.  And no one ever handed anything to him either.  Everything about Bud was unlikely and a contradiction.  He was The Master Builder incarnate.  Down to the little church tower he couldn’t  reach to complete.   And subsequently, never rang.

He taught us, before we knew it, the subtle art of … endurance.  What it takes to make it- whatever the fuck that means, is, and always be, one thing– endurance.  That simple.  And none of it is sexy.

So, if you’re waiting for someone to hand out TV shows on the street; you might get lucky, yes, but, you also might get run over.  All great reckonings occur in little rooms. In garages.  When no one is there to see them.  The shift it takes happens long before anyone notices.  That’s the secret to an overnight success, or, in my case, a “Come back.”

“The art of showing up,” as my friend who’s named after Mark Twain liked to say.  Or … simply – outlasting the motherfuckers.  O.T.M.  That same friend would add.  Problem is, there’s a lot of motherfuckers.  Peddling hype.  Clogging up the 405. Who can pitch and are good in a room but crumble when it comes to doing the thing.  So learn to do the thing first.  Whatever your thing is.  It takes longer than you can possibly imagine –  a day longer than you can stomach it – but it is worth it in the end.  Learn to dope-a-rope like The Champ.  To lean on your edges like coach White taught me.  So you could fall.  Because when you fall, you learn.   Hence my nickname when I was  a Duck.  The Grinder.  Like Keith Magnuson of Chicago Blackhawk fame.   Sadly, I sold his jersey a few years back when I was hard up for money and in between gigs.  But it kept me going, and I think The Original Grinder would have approved.

So all that’s to say, that Steven Pressfield is right.  Julie Cameron is right.  Natalie Goldberg is right.  Robert McKee is right.  Jack White was right. Susan Peretz was right.  Martin Landau was right.  Candace Justice was right.  Jason Gansauer was right.  And Bud Beyer was right.  When that many people say the same thing, it is prudent to pay attention.  And put that into action.  That’s what I did.  Still do.

A couple of months back I was waiting to cash a check for a job I completed which ran into some kind of financial hic-cup and then it stalled out and drifted off. It stung.  I threw myself a pity party for a minute or two.  Then, dusted myself off and you know what I did.  Almost got sued for another job and then lost a third.  All after I somehow climbed in through the window and had the privilege of being a Greenhorn after twenty years of apprenticeship.

The world felt upside down.  Groundlessness can be very fertile with the right perspective though.  Because I didn’t know what else to do, I just went back to work.  Even if no one was paying me.  I rewrote one thing in my catalogue. Then since I did one, I figured why not do the others.  Then, since I was sweated like an old horse – I started in on  two other scripts I had been meaning to write.  Finished a series pilot that had been nagging me- simply to make room upstairs and unclog the old chute.  Followed by  a bluegrass musical.  Because three or four colleagues said – “hey, why haven’t you written one yet, you play music, you write, you know?”  And then when I finished that, I set it aside and did a half hour pilot.  Drafted up a pitch for a series bible.  Two more episodes for my anthology series.  An outline. And a note or two on a modern western set in the Grand Escalante Staircase centered around a B.L.A. employee.  One at a time.  Page by page. Day by day.  Then, when my pitch dried up at the one yard line, right when I asked for what I believed I was worth and take it on the chin, I retooled it and wrote another.  Outlined a third.  And now wrote one to a show I couldn’t sell on the pitch.  All for fun and for free.  I must be crazy, right? Maybe I am.  But it’s what I know how to do.   Keep moving, inch by inch.  Grinding.   It ain’t sexy, but it sure is satisfying.

 

Search engine optimizing and the quest for a chair.

My friend Ernie and I had our Newsie hats on and a broken umbrella.  We vaulted up Hilhurst to his nearby Starbucks avoiding the running water squeezing the narrow roads of Los Feliz like clogged veins: two men braving the rain in search of the pinnacle of story emboldened by the fact that it was negative-f–k back in the middle west.

We got caffeinated and started talking fast.  I’m not sure much of it made sense, but one thing stood out above the fray.  It was after the rains let up.

“Yeah, I mean, if a chair gets built and no one sits in it, is it still a chair?”Ernie queried.

We had been dialoguing the nuance of an artist’s life.  It felt like a reincarnation of My Dinner With Andre as our talks often devolve into or from.   I was playing the role of Wallace Shaun, languishing– from  having lost a gig that was a sure thing, folowed by a rejection from one of the top agencies that thought I was too much a playwright and some feedback from a manager named D. who took the time to tell me “yeah, I read your work.  And there wasn’t anything there to turn heads.”  A perfect trifecta.

I laughed about being unfit for the century I find my feet in because I didn’t know how to bake in search engine optimization into my hash-tagging.   “Maybe we’re out of touch.”

“Maybe that’s not such a bad thing,” he countered.

I had even confessed to Ernie that I didn’t want to pick up the guitar too much after completing the record even.  But allowing myself to feel it.  There was a mourning going on.  For something inside.  I’ll call that thing: an agenda.

See, we can’t escape it.  The allure of … well, I’ll let Ernie describe it.  “Yeah, we build a thing, like a chair, and we hope people will sit in it. Maybe we put it up on Etsy so people will buy it, but, you know –

I jumped in as I often do, especially on caffeine.  It’s a bad trait.  My friends mostly tolerate.

“No one can afford the custom rate.  No one will ever pay us enough for what we put in. The years.  Or the materials, if they want a chair that’s not some xerox hand-me-down-”

It was Ernie’s time to jump in:

“Nor should they.”  The reward is in the doing.  Ernie’s a zen dude.  But he would probably laugh at being labeled as such and rip off the label.  He likes to think of what we do as the way, the means, by which, we steadily perfect ourselves.  Not perfect as in that whole mirage of perfection bull shit – but perfect ourselves in the image of what we wish to become.  To aim toward that which we will never quite hit.  It’s the only thing that can sustain a true creative life.  At least one that is lived authentically.  Great works take great effort.  And great effort takes great sacrifice.  And I am learning that one can sacrifice without suffering.  But do so with joy and complete acceptance.

Maybe that’s why Chehkov always returned to the theme of life as a let down but we must work.  In this human comedy, Uncle Vanya, we must work.

Sometimes no one wants what you are selling. No matter how hard you try.  And the great gift from that, for me… is I get to learn about who I am in those moments.  What motivates me.  And make adjustments.  And those adjustments almost always involve me getting that diving bell out and digging in. And chipping away at what I am not, at what no longer serves me… till only the chair is left.  Till there is simply the chair and me.  And then, only the chair.  Of itself.  Whole and complete.

I think whenever I have been motivated by anything outside – either trying to predict what others will respond to, or what might have MARKET APPEAL, I end up with something that isn’t me.  And I pay a price.   Every time, I have paid a price. Sometimes that price is steep.  And it needs to be so in order to, like a Zen slap, correct my course.

In contrast, whenever I involve my heart, and lean toward truth, it always seems to create beauty.  And there can never be enough beauty in this world.

“So what do you do after you finish the chair?” I asked Ernie.

“What do you think?  Build another.”