Writer's Addiction

We all know the Internet is an amazing, powerful tool.  With it, we're getting close to that Star Trek onboard computer where you ask it anything and you'll get some kind of answer.  (Trekkie sidebar: I'm really waiting for the holodeck!) However, for all its collective wisdom, cool things to do, read and interact with, the Internet can be a dangerously addictive distraction for writers.

Most times, after you've read your email, tweeted and checked your Facebook account, your most probable foray into the cyber universe is labeled under "research."  And it all starts so innocently.  You tip toe into that Google portal (still don't understand why I should use Bing) searching for a list of Ben Franklin's 13 Virtues and before you can say, heavens to murgatroid, you find yourself spiraling through an Internet wormhole taking you to fifteen new sites that have nothing to do with your "research," reading celebrity web sites and even landing on some order page whipping out your credit card.

So, how to prevent being sucked down the Internet rabbit hole?  Let me offer a few suggestions:

1.  Set your computer clock to announce the time.  I've got mine set at 30 minute intervals.  Oftentimes all it takes is her (yes I've personalized it) shouting the time to awaken me to the fact that I started "research" a half hour ago and I still haven't returned to my script.

2. Close all those open tabs.  The more tabs you have open, the easier it is to just flip into that world rather than working out the mechanics of a difficult scene.

3.  Create an Internet Want To Do List.  This can be a physical pad on your desk or a computer file with bookmarks.  Whatever works for you.  If you find an interesting site, just jot it down and come back  later. Trust me it'll be there.

4.  Fight for Focus.  Look at Internet time wasting as addictive. And like any addict you will oftentimes convince yourself that I'll only look at this one Facebook page, click this one button or read this one celebrity photo. However, you must constantly fight temptation and remind yourself of what you should really be doing with your time at this particular moment.

Don't fool yourself. Admit that you have an addiction; then write.  That's the fix.  And keep in mind that the world, and yes the Internet too, is waiting--hungrily waiting-- for your wonderful work. But you have to get it done first.  Now get off this blog and go write something. I'll be here with something new when you get back.

Want to Make a Good Movie? Beware the Bells and Whistles

When I told a wannabe filmmaker that the focus of Morehouse College's new Cinema, Television and Emerging Media Studies program (CTEMS) was to teach undergrad students the fundamental elements of storytelling through a heavy emphasis on writing, he responded, "Just give those kids some cameras and let 'em shoot.  That's how they'll learn." HE COULDN'T BE MORE WRONG!

For the past several years, much of the work produced by aspiring filmmakers has displayed a whiz-bang gee-doesn't that look cool approach but has been utterly deficient in presenting multi-dimensional characters, unique stories, solid plotting, emotional engagement and direction that doesn't purposely draw attention to the director. Most of these movies are blandly derivative or thinly veiled music videos at best.

And why is that?
Director Seith Mann
Too many film aspirants are getting sucked into the vortex of the toys--the bells and whistles and software niceties that can make your 95-year old grandma look like a filmmaker.  Don't get me wrong. I love the toys. In fact, I use them myself.  But they should never be used at the expense of presenting an engaging story.  These bells and whistles are meant to help the filmmaker to tell the story and not be a story unto themselves! Wow, look at the cool way the picture flashes from one color to the next. Help me Muse.

Allow me to illustrate my point a bit more.  The first is a short film I recently stumbled across from director Seith Mann entitled Five Deep Breaths.  I'll set out the link below. It's an excellent example of amazing storytelling where the bells and whistles serve the movie and the director is not drawing attention to himself. It's gritty, character based, the tempo is right and he takes some cinematic chances (check out the vocals on the jazz score "humm, humm...)

The second example is a short ditty I created during Atlanta's recent snow storm.  It's not a tale of great importance or weight but it's an example of how you can create a story using the simplest of tools.  Except for one panning shot that I asked a stranger to do, I shot this entirely myself  using Cisco's tiny Flip Video camera. I used existing light, in-camera sound and I only used Flip's simple software to do some minor editing.

 It was quick, easy, and told a tale without all the bells and whistles of the toys.

See "Five Deep Breaths" (Part 1)
See "Five Deep Breaths" (Part 2)

Our Golden Voices

A news story this morning touched me emotionally.  Since I am incredibly macho and swarthy, I am loathe to use the word tears. But suffice it to say, I had not been moved in such a manner since mean old Mister dragged sweet little Nettie away from Celie in The Color Purple.  

But this morning's story was no work of fiction.  It was about a homeless man named Ted Williams with an amazing radio-announcer voice.  The story briefly goes like this:

Ted, a Brooklyn native, had a fairly successful career in radio.  Alcohol and drug addiction took hold of him in the mid-80's and life went downhill.  He lost his house, apparently his family too and moved to Ohio.  A few criminal violations ensued resulting in a arrests and Ted Williams quickly became part of the homeless population--one of those guys standing on the side of the road with a cardboard sign.

A local reporter, upon passing by and reading Ted's sign that stated he had "a golden voice," gave him an impromptu audition.  The videotape of that audition was loaded onto the Internet and within days it spread like a California hillside fire. Soon offers from the Cleveland Cavaliers to Kraft Foods came pouring in requesting Ted's golden voice.  It even brought him to the Today Show where he delivered the show's intro and sat down for an interview with Matt Lauer and Meredith Viera this morning. Here's what grabbed me about Ted's story.

After watching an interview of a politician this morning and seeing her shallow dodgy positioning of questions from Meredith, I appreciated Ted's humbleness and honesty.  When Matt and Meredith asked him the what happened to you question, Ted did not hesitate to say it was drug and alcohol addiction.  He took ownership and didn't blame anybody, anything or Bobby Brown.  He was the maker of his own undoing.  But the story doesn't stop there for me. Although chance and circumstance played a big part, Ted Williams was also the architect of his own amazing rebound.

How is that?  He stayed prepared.  Although he was on the street, Ted was always ready to show what he could do, demonstrate that golden voice and be up for any opportunity, including an impromptu roadside audition. On the Today Show when they tossed him an announcing task, Ted responded without hesitation.  And finally, cemented by a newfound faith in God, Ted Williams never gave up hope.

Here's the lesson for us.

1. Take ownership. When I don't write those pages in a given day I cannot blame it on the girlfriend, the kids, the weather, the Internet, or writer's block.  It is me who didn't feel like getting up, who got distracted by Facebook, who had to watch this TV show, or take a nap, or, or... it is me.

2. Be ready. Opportunity is out there, walking the street, randomly knocking on doors. When opportunity knocks, you don't have time to go pack a bag and put on flip-flops because when you return, opportunity will be gone.  Rather, keep the flip-flops on and a packed bag by the door by having a spec script already complete, a treatment written and fully developed ideas ready to pitch.

3. Don't Hesitate.  Years ago, I lost an opportunity to write a commercial for Coca-Cola because I spent DAYS pulling together my "creative team" to help me come up with an idea.  I didn't trust myself to do it on my own. By the time a great idea came to mind (which happened when I was alone!) the opportunity had passed.  When someone wants you to write something or work with them on a story idea do it now.  Those brain cells have to fire up immediately and you have to show yourself as a story, character, plot, cinema, literature, film expert NOW, not later. "Let me think on that" is a comfort zone we cannot not afford to wallow in.

4. Have Faith.  Oftentimes it seems like we'll never get to where our dreams once lifted us. We feel too old, too tired, too busy and just too far behind. Ted in his fifties, was on the street and now, in a matter of days, he's on top of the world. It happens to people everyday.  And it CAN happen for you too.  But you must, repeat, must believe it.  Crossed, the movie I wrote with Heavy D, will be made. Chances, the script  Nia Long and I crafted, will be shot. Alley Cats,  the sketch comedy show, will be sold. Bach, A Monster will be sold and made.  Each day I rise, feeling as if THIS will be the day. And if it happens not to be, then it just puts me one day closer to the fruition of those dreams and work.

It's all a matter of an undying faith in God and a constant belief that if we keep doing all the right things, like Ted Williams, our golden voices will be heard too.

 Watch the video that launched Williams to fame

Are You A "Claimer"?

In this entertainment field I run across people all the time who claim they are something (writer, director, dancer, editor, etcetera) but I rarely see them actually perform what they claim to be.  Well, let me be fair. They may do it sometimes, but they don't do it with consistency.  

If you are dancer, you have to dance--and not just at the shake-booty club on the weekends. If you are an actor, you must act.  Producer, please produce.  And you writers, thou must write. The flip side is this:  If you do nothing and just constantly claim to do something, then you are a "claimer." It's that simple. You are what you do.

"But what if there are no jobs out there for me?"

Do it anyway.

 I didn't say you have to be paid for it. Writing and dancing are the easiest. A writer just needs a pen and paper; and a dancer needs, well, I guess just a solid pair of feet.  (And that's even circumspect because didn't they have a one-legged dancer on "Dancing With The Stars?") If you are an actor, FIND avenues to ply your craft: community theater, backyard productions, cheap commercials--whatever. Directors and Producers: you too-- FIND something to direct and produce.  If necessary use your cell phone's video camera to direct a tiny short video. Perhaps you, the producer and the actor can get together. While you're at it, recruit the writer to pen a script and the dancer to perform in it.  The bottom line: DO SOMETHING.  A cell phone video is beats a zero any day.

Back to you writers. If you truly are a writer, you must FINISH your work.  Don't just crank out a few pages and leave them undone on your hard drive or dusty shelf.  Get to "the end," because then, and only then, can you claim to be a writer. Remember, you are a wordsmith who crafts a beginning, middle AND and an end. Does a car maker only make the front end of car? 

And here's the added beauty in all this. Once you actually do what you say you do, there are people out there who will pay you to do it, and pay you again, and again. I know.  I'm a witness.  Now go write something, or dance, or produce, or design or... claim.