As I continue to take my guitar and my protest song around town (and the state) I have been deep in what I’m calling my “First Drafts Summer.”
I don’t know about your writing process, but I very often get mired in the ‘notes’ stage where I keep gathering more and more information and ideas, then stashing them in too many different spots: a Scrivener file, in various folders on one of my three computers, in the ‘Google Keep’ app of more than one email address, in the ‘EverNote’ app on my phone, on scraps of paper scattered around my home… you get the idea. So many notes in so many places (all for the same project) that just organizing those is a process all by itself. A classic example: I have discovered I have 120,000 words of ‘notes’ for a novel that, when completed would probably only be about 80,000 words.
To that end, I spent a good part of the spring organizing notes & info on several projects and have spent most of this summer launching re-writes and “official” first drafts. So far I have managed to finish one new half-hour spec pilot that has needed a page one rewrite for at least 2 years, I have started drafting a long-delayed short film script and, finally and at long last, an official ‘1st draft’ of that novel with the 120k-worth of notes.
Stay at the keyboard, everyone.
…well, probably not this kind.
The year is almost over. It was a long & tricky one for nearly everyone I know. My year certainly didn’t go according to anything even vaguely resembling a “plan.”
Like a lot of (American) people, I’ve been troubled by our current political situation. The constant stream of bad news and shady “leadership” has made it difficult to be “creative.” When Democracy itself is hanging in the balance, it is tough to free the mind, climb to that creative place and try to be “funny” or “dramatic” or anything else. The news has been that bad, and constant. Like everyone else, this time around I felt like just voting, signing online petitions and posting angry tweets wasn’t going to be nearly enough to make a difference and, equally important: make me feel like I was doing all I could to effect change.
So what do you do? A couple of things:
- If you’re an old punk rocker and wannabe Billy Bragg -esque troubadour, you plug your guitar back in and take your outrage to the people. For the first time in about 15 years.
- If you’re a professional writer, you offer your services, for free, to anyone who is running against the current administration and needs your skills.
I spent the past year doing both.
This former punk rocker started playing his guitar in front of audiences again (for the first time in probably a decade and a half,) because I am once again feeling the need to be active and have my say in the world. So I wrote an anti-trump song and loaded it with all the humor and bile I could. Then I posted it on youtube under the slightly assumed name of “Tom Patrick” (two death threats so far) and started playing anywhere that would have me. It was weird playing guitar in front of people again – and without having a ‘band’ to hide behind either. Since anger doesn’t really sell all by itself, the song is a Bob Dylan-y “talking blues” that saved me from the embarrassment of trying (and likely failing) to sing on-key, and it gave me the room to vamp, improvise and connect with the audience. I’ve done a million improv comedy shows, I’ve done stand-up, I’ve done theater… but nothing makes a person (me anyway) feel more exposed, exhilarated and terrified than making noise with guitars in public. Adding music is always a good way to connect with an audience in a way that is different from stand-up or ‘essay reading’ etc. Music carries an energy all its own that people can tune in to… even a simple, “borrowed” G-C-D chord progression helps to carry your message.
I also mentioned that I spent the year volunteering my writing skills. It took some doing, but I got connected with the Dems on a National level and through that connection spent most of the past year helping Blue candidates for state offices in very Red states with their websites, “meet the candidate” videos and even a few stump speeches. I had done some of this kind of thing back in Boston, but that was a long time ago. Working with candidates was actually very exciting and I learned a lot in the process. I wouldn’t run for office myself in a million years, but I now know I am an effective political/media writer.
Of course, doing all this writing work and these shows for free means it was a challenging year cash-wise, but really, for a “creative” what year isn’t challenging? Doing the right thing is always worth it. I slept better knowing that I was doing all I could and using whatever skills I possess to get involved and try to do my best for the country.
…and sometimes, amazingly fun stuff happens. Like the show on November 3rd, just a few days before the election. Sometimes you arrive at a gig assuming you’ll just be playing guitar in a half-empty 60 seat theater with a funny ol’ tuba player, but when you get there you find it is a sold-out 60 seat theater AND you’re told that another guy will be sitting in and playing your song too. No big deal, just Laurence Juber – lead guitarist in Paul McCartney’s band, and former lead guitarist in Wings. That’s all. That is a pretty intense and intimidating situation for an old 1-4-5 punk rocker who hasn’t played any chords in public for a decade and a half, but Mr. Juber could not have been nicer and kinder. Obviously, he is used to playing with lefties. lol. If you want to see how that particular show went, click here.
Changes are coming in 2019. Hopefully that will be good news for America.
Was thrilled to see that “Ogre Stone,” one of my spec sitcom pilots that got a staged reading last summer, sponsored by the WGAw, did well in yet another contest. This time we finished in the Top 25 for spec sitcom pilots and in the Top 5% Overall, for ALL entries in the highly competitive Launch Pad contest sponsored by The Tracking Board.
I have been typing a lot lately. Luckily it is something that I enjoy doing. Even when “the writing” itself isn’t going well, I get a certain, specific pleasure from sitting down, staring at the screen and typing; my fingers can pretty much keep up with the speed of my thoughts, which is pretty handy because, believe me when I tell you, even on my best day, my left-handed pen scratchings are slow, uncomfortable to do, and painful to try to read. What I’m saying is: If you want to be a writer, take a few weeks/months and really learn how to type. No matter what kind of writer you are, it’ll help to speed up and streamline your “process.” I learned how to type back in High School, in a three month class designed for college-bound Seniors. It is the one thing I learned in High School that I still use every day. Sometimes I think my 65+wpm typing ability is my most marketable skill.
Why am I telling you all this? Because today I finished yet another first draft. This time it was a low-budget “thriller” feature that no one asked me to write, except for the nagging voice in my head that demanded I do it. Where does this urge come from? I’m not always sure. I just know I start feeling a special kind of miserable when I’m not actively writing on something. Let me put that another way, not just writing on “something,” but actively plowing through confusion, self-doubt, dead ends and ennui to actually complete drafts of these projects. Finishing things is important. I know because I have digital folders full of started projects that couldn’t hold my interest, or lost their luster when a shiny “new idea” floated into my head. New ideas are easy to come by. Finishing your work is what separates writers from people who think they would be good writers. That idea that is still “in your head” might be better than Chinatown, or even The Great Gatsby, maybe, but as long as it exists only in your head then it isn’t nearly as good as my completed first draft of ANYthing. You don’t need a new computer. You don’t need $300 worth of “writer’s software.” You don’t need an office. You just have to start stringing words together. Prove me wrong Silent Bob.
By any measure, 2015 was a challenging year for me, you and pretty much everyone we know, but here we all are – still standing and looking forward to the new challenges and excitements of the new year. Before I completely plunge into ’16 though, I’ll take a quick and final look backwards at just a few particular measurements from the last 365 days, because I’ve been keeping track (sometimes my minor OCD-ish tendencies come in handy.)
I wrote a lot of words this year. The writing, both paid and un-paid, took many forms: short stories, screenplay drafts, monologues, ghost-writing, re-writing, long-form novel-writing, my weekly cartoon, some attempts at poetry (stop laughing) and other multi-media art/word projects. Some entire days were spent hammering away at the keyboard while other days I managed to make only my minimum self-imposed word count. In the end I averaged 525 words per day… which might not sound like a lot, but it comes to 191,625 words for the year (for reference, that is about one-quarter of The Bible.) If it still doesn’t sound like a lot of writing, all I can say is: Try it. …oh, and that total doesn’t include my 100’s of personal journal entries which, believe me, are even more long-winded than my blog posts. It also doesn’t include the extensive ‘notes’ I wrote for 23 friends who asked me to read & evaluate their scripts, monologues and short stories.
I performed in 18 shows this year. These were nearly all storytelling/monologue shows at various venues all over Los Angeles, but there were also a few attempts at straight “stand-up.” Some shows went great, a few times I tanked. That is to be expected. ALL shows were enjoyable on some level, and I was always happy to meet other writers & friends and hear their stories too. I am working on new stories for the new year.
I did a little of everything improv-related this year: I was hired to do some private coaching for a few very funny groups. I took a class at UCB to see what their system is all about and I did a few informal improv jams with old friends. All of it was fun, but it wasn’t nearly enough. I’m determined to do a lot more of all three things in the coming year because, for me, it always comes back to improv. I’ve actually been missing it terribly.
I had a good year. I did a lot of hiking, I ate more plants, a little less meat and a lot less sugar. I lost 15 pounds. In spite of a jacked-up knee, I managed to run a 5k in 35:45. I also meditated semi-regularly – just enough to make me realize I need to do it more regularly. I tried some new things this year too, such as banjo lessons, which were harder than I expected, in spite of my years of guitar playing. I even learned a little more html & CSS coding with the help of Codecademy. Career-wise, well, some years are slower than others, but I’m entering the new year with a lot of new, polished material and some interesting ideas.
…and hey. I hope YOU have a great year too. GOOD LUCK!