True That: Fiction vs. Nonfiction

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I can’t believe how much this issue has come up in my life and work.

Acquaintances and distant relatives of mine still say, “Yeah, I prefer nonfiction because it’s TRUE!” And I wince.

Sometimes our kids ask, when they read a book or watch a movie: “Mom, is this real? Is this true? Did this really happen?”

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Or in the wonderful film Sideways, when Paul Giamatti’s character meets his friend’s future in-laws (Armenian, I’m embarrassed to say) and they tell him they prefer nonfiction to novels like his, because nonfiction is true, based on real life.

And fiction isn’t based on life?

What is true about anything a writer writes?

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Go There.

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If there’s a place that has inspired you in the past — to write a specific story, or to revel in a great life experience, a place where you somehow feel free and most yourself, a place that you always come away from refreshed, better than you were before, then guess what?

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The Journey of An Idea

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It’s now been exactly 30 years since I got a story idea that still occupies much of my creative heart. I wrote this blog post to show how long it sometimes takes for a story to reach its moment, its fullest potential, and how to never give up.

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Stories in Storage, (Re)discovered

storage2 Among other summer projects, I’m revising a script I’ve been working on for years and years — in between other projects and life events, of course, but longer than any other.

I first conceived of it 30 years ago, as a teenager.  I outlined it that year and drafted it as a screenplay five years later, in college.  After graduation, I decided to re-write it as a television miniseries. Since then I’ve written it as a novel (currently under editorial review) and have re-written the miniseries countless times (including a current rewrite I just submitted to an industry professional this week). I have outlined and drafted two sequels.

We all have a project we don’t want to give up on — but we still wonder what the heck is ever going to happen with it.

Taking a break from a few writing deadlines this past week, I visited our storage space over the weekend to do some overdue summer purging of ‘stuff’ in general — yes, I’m ashamed to say we have a storage space for endless old files, supplies, decorations, tools, and household items.

It’s also where I keep a lot of old writing drafts, manuscripts and notes.  Some of the papers I uncovered this weekend were of outlines and ideas I had completely forgotten about — and I was excited to think about their possibilities going forward.

Then I found something else.

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What We Storytellers Do

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“George Banks will be honored.

George Banks will be redeemed.

George Banks and all he stands for will be saved —

Maybe not in life, but in imagination.

Because that’s what we storytellers do:

We restore order with imagination.

We instill hope, again and again and again.”

 

In the memorable film, Saving Mr. Banks, the character of Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) has just shared a series of painful memories to help author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) understand that producing a film version of her novel Mary Poppins (borne of her own painful family memories) would be meaningful not only to him, and to audiences everywhere — but also to her.

Walt Disney concludes his moving monologue with the lines above. I had to replay it several times when I first saw it. It is a remarkable moment in the film and a moment that likely resonates with anyone, but particularly with those of us who consider ourselves writers or artists.

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Why I’ll Never Win an Oscar™ (And Why That’s Okay)

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No, I’m not trying reverse psychology so that the powers that be will one day reverse course and give me one.

This is not a lament. I’m just sharing a series of recent, interconnected revelations that have brought me a lot of peace.

I’m never going to win an Oscar, and in addition to the fact that I’m a far-from-perfect writer who’s still trying to get my ‘big’ works produced, here are the other reasons why it’ll never happen — and why it’s okay:

1. I’m not in the “In” crowd and don’t want to be. Sure I have great contacts, have had some things produced and published, have had representation, but it’s an insulated industry. Even with the more democratic tools like The Black List, conferences, film festivals, and online submission services now available, there are still few insiders and many outsiders. There are huge obstacles for every filmmaker to overcome, inside or out. But even in my pre-motherhood days working in the industry, it was still hard to feel “in” when so many of the superficial values and ‘labels’ I saw ran counter to my core. Even when I was “in,” at different points in my life, I never felt “in,” and I don’t plan on feeling differently any time soon.

2. I’m an Indie through and through. My work is not mainstream commercial. It’s a lot of artsy stuff, chick flicks, period pieces, artist biographies, spiritual journeys, smaller stories, all the things that I’ve always been told Will Not Sell. But those are the stories I’m passionate about: the ones that others aren’t telling. So I just have to tell them better, revising and refining them each day, to be worth my salt and to do the stories and characters justice as I seek the right audience for them.

3. I love God first. Alongside my characters’ wayward behavior (which Christians often dislike), faith and redemption will find their way into my stories for at least one character somewhere (which non-Christians often dislike). I’ve managed to bother both ‘sides’, and thus will probably never fully belong with either crowd artistically, and I’m okay with that, because I can’t write any other way. Sure, films involving faith get thrown a bone every once in a while by the Academy (Chariots of Fire, Elmer Gantry, etc.) but for the most part they are anathema, even when they are excellent (which, sadly, is rare). And I don’t always fit the clean, faith-based, family-friendly formula either, largely because I will show sin, sex, abuse, language and lostness of all kinds, when I feel a story calls for them. Somehow I sense that God wants me to be honest about the struggles I see in and around me, so that I can explore Hope and possible paths forward through theater and film, even if I hit resistance. He will always be central to anything I write, no matter what that ‘costs’ me.

4. I don’t have the PR Machine behind me. It is amazing how much that machine can shape popular opinion, how many millions the studios spend “for our consideration” to get people to veer toward their film nominees and vote, vote, vote for them. I truly am happy when a fine and deserving film gets a lot of attention. But I never want to be the person who over-promotes myself — and that alone is probably why I’ll never rush to the front of any industry pack. I want my work to speak for itself and create natural word of mouth, even if it is only to a smaller audience. Talking to audience members over the years, who have come up to me to share what my work has meant to them — those unforgettable moments are the only ones that really matter “for our consideration.” Continue reading

Being a Musician vs. Being a Writer

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In my freshman year of college a few things happened where I felt I had to decide between being a musician and being a writer.

 

I had gotten to the point in the repertoire as a violinist where I’d either have to become a professional or keep it as a hobby. To take the professional route would require me to spend a dozen or more hours a day in practice and let go of most other time commitments in my life. I had concertized; I had been in orchestras, even toured a bit — but I wasn’t sure it was what I wanted above all else.

 

Alongside my musical studies in those years, I also studied theater, acting and playwriting. It just so happened that in this same period of my freshman year, I had entered a young playwrights festival contest and got word that I was one of the contest winners. The prize was to have my play produced professionally.

 

The process of seeing my play come to life for the first time — working with a director and dramaturg, doing revisions, watching actors audition to play my characters, seeing them bring the roles to life — all of it transformed me. My words, my thoughts, my voice were not only coming out but being affirmed by professional artists and by audiences.

 

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As an 18-year old, this took me in a direction I didn’t quite expect. Music was always my main thing; theater was second. But winning that contest and seeing my play performed in front of me that year clarified my decision.

 

I decided to be a writer.

 

Why? For the “glory”? No. There were gloriously satisfying moments as a musician too — performing solo on stage to enthusiastic applause after hours of learning a piece, winning regional or national competitions, touring the country. It required my creativity, my being, poured into the work, just like with writing. I knew that either field would require a lot of un-glorious work, rejection, and persistence, like in any arts field.

 

What was different?

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That Thing We Do

 

When I think of pure joy for our work, our art — the joy we feel when we create something good and it finds acceptance with an audience — I think of one of my favorite film scenes of the last 20 years.

 

In the 20th Century Fox film, That Thing You Do! (1996), a group of teenagers in 1964 Erie, Pennsylvania form a band, work hard to make a record and get the chance to go on tour, tasting a bit of success before conflicting dreams and personalities take them in different directions. School, jobs, military service, marriage, ego and all sorts of other things will divide them soon enough. But there’s one thing, during this one summer, that they all have in common: their music, their ‘thing.’ And as I’ve said before on this blog, we all have to have something that is ‘our thing,’ something that we love to do.

 

In this scene, the group discovers that the song they recorded (titled same as the movie) is on the radio for the first time.

 

 

 

I’d like to think that only an artist — writer, musician/composer, singer, painter, actor — can fully understand the sheer exuberance of this scene. Working and waiting and hoping for a chance. Having certain family or friends who just don’t get it. Having to work the day job while holding onto a dream. Finally getting accepted, getting noticed, getting an audience. (“I am Spartacus!” Victorious!) Despite the imperfect and blurry YouTube clip, the joy is palpable in this simple and sweet film, and I love how this scene captures it more beautifully than so many other films with the same plot (well-written and directed, Tom Hanks!)

 

Ultimately, though, the joy of this scene is not just for artists — anyone with a dream or passion deferred can relate to it.  We all desire such joy in what we do, in living out our God-given gifts.  So:

 

What would make you run down Main Street screaming with happiness?

 

What would you be willing to burst into a department store and announce to the world?

 

What victory would make you feel THAT much joy?

 

Whatever it is, do it. Create it, be an advocate for it, whatever ‘it’ is.  Even if you have to keep the day job forever, get your passion incorporated into the schedule and fabric of your life somehow, even if just in small bits at first.  If you haven’t started yet, start. If you’ve been at it for years and it’s just not getting anywhere, retool and try again. Just don’t stop that thing you do, that only you can do, that you were put on this earth to do.

 

Onward!

 

(Disclaimer: I do not own this film; Posted from YouTube Video Account 1, 2, 3, 4, I declare a dance war… )

Mom’s Job

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My younger daughter’s pre-school teacher told me at one afternoon pickup, early in the school year, that she had asked my daughter if I worked. My then-four-year-old promptly had answered:

 

“Oh, no. My mom doesn’t work. She’s Mommy. She just writes plays.”

 

I laughed. I liked that my girl saw my being her mommy as my main ‘job’ — because it absolutely is, first and foremost. And I’m grateful to my husband that I don’t need to work for financial reasons.

 

But it was also interesting that my daughter didn’t see my creative writing or speaking work as work, like Daddy’s ‘work’. And while that bothered me at first, I eventually decided I liked her response.

 

Because my writing is not work, or a burden, or a requirement. It is a passion I am blessed to choose with joy.  And my girls need to see that such joy in their ‘work’ is possible.

 

Even when the writing/creative work doesn’t always bring joy, it is still my thing. And every woman needs to have something that is ‘her thing.’

 

My daughters have seen some of my plays (not the most ‘grown-up’ ones, they know to say), and they have even appeared in a couple of them. They’ve seen me speak about my work in public. They know all of it as being something I love to do and must do. But they now see that it takes time and effort, just like any other ‘work’ would.

 

Sometimes I tell them about my stories; sometimes I tell them that they’ll find out when they’re older.  Just like I ask them about what excites them, they do the same to me.

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Onward!

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Welcome to my blog! This is certainly long overdue but I look forward to sharing here with you often about what’s going on in writing, film/theater, faith, culture and community – in my life and in the lives of those I admire!

We just finished screening a short film I adapted and directed, “Reflection Day,” at the Los Angeles Women’s International Film Festival, as well as the Western New York Black Film Festival.

Reflection Day’s Trailer on IMDB

The film is about Ms. Johnson, an elderly African American woman in a senior home, suffering from Alzheimer’s, who compels her caregiver Andre to ‘take her to vote’ on what she thinks is Election Day, to have peace with her past.  It’s based on the stage play by Chuck Cummings.

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