Category Archives: Write On

My First Wife

Facebook isn’t good for a whole lot, but one thing it’s great at? Alerting you to the fact that your junior high crush got hitched over the weekend. And no, I don’t mean that in the abstract. Amanda Corfman, she of the bewitching seventh grade smile and sexual precociousness, is a married woman now…

…or again, depending on how you look at it. Allow me to explain¹.

(Oh, and before I forget: Congratulations, Amanda!)

***

News of my imminent plunge into fatherhood came as quite a shock and had me second-guessing all I thought I knew about sex. Here I was on the precipice of pubescence about to become a dad, and yet I was at least another presidential term from separating myself once and for all from my virginity. What exactly had happened in that cave?yosemite-spider-caves

Squeezing through the jagged insides of the pitch-black Yosemite Spider Caves earlier that morning, I had accidentally touched Amanda Corfman’s arm. Along with a red face full of embarrassment, this mistake had also apparently made me a father. Well, at least according to Amanda. Only a few months removed from my first official course in sex education², I had to at least consider for a brief, terrifying second that she was telling the truth.

However, soon logic and the condemning words of Nick Moore stepped in.

“You can’t knock a girl up like that.”

Of course not, and deep down, I did know better. Sure, I’d never touched down on Planet Ecstasy, but god knows I’d collected enough data running test flight, solo missions to know that sex was supposed to feel a lot better.

Regardless, my mind was racing and my legs felt weak as the news sunk in, although I blame the latter on a strict diet of trail mix that had been imposed for the hike. I suddenly felt distant from my fellow Woodside Elementary 7th graders; once they caught wind of the news, I would be just another statistic.

As Amanda came up along side of me, I nearly had the first 13-year-old heart attack. Her stomach had swelled to more than three times its normal size. Luckily, it was at that moment that I spotted her backpack, worn backwards, peaking out from underneath her “GUESS?” sweatshirt.

“So, are you going to ask me?” she pleaded, her usual mind-bending smile creeping to the edges of her mouth.

“Huh?” I replied as eloquently as I could manage.

“You’re not going to leave me to raise this child on my own, are you?” she asked rather dramatically, which is to say about normal for a 13-year-old girl.

“Well…” I began, before she cut me off.

“Of course I’ll marry you, it’s the only thing to do,” she beamed.

And with that the charade was in full swing.

The wedding came swiftly just a few minutes later when our trail group stopped for a break a mile from the top of Nevada Falls. The ceremony was nothing if it wasn’t efficient, with Justin Brown serving as chaplain. He married us with the power vested in him by his status as a senior in high school and adult chaperone on the trip. I think I said, “I do” although it’s hard to say. Amanda, my blushing bride, controlled the proceedings from beginning to end.

This should have come as no surprise; Amanda Corfman had an uncanny ability to control me, and any other middle school boy with a pulse. I think most girls figure out at some point during the course of their life that if they play it right, they hold all the cards when it comes to their male counterparts. For most women, this epiphany occurs somewhere around college or the early real world years. Amanda Corfman, it seems, figured it out sometime between laying in her hospital incubator and her first word, which I can only assume was “Is that a roll of quarters in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”

Her grasp of the male psyche can perhaps best be explained through a life-altering exchange that had taken place just a few weeks before back at school. Sitting across from her on a wooden bench in the courtyard, she did a complete splits in mid-conversation. And as my jaw plummeted to the ground she offered with a look and smile that transcended suggestiveness, “You never know when that could come in handy.” In my own little 13-year-old world it was like living the interrogation scene in Basic Instinct. Part of me is still reeling to this day.basic-instinct-scene

Lyndsay Hayes Maloney was “born” late that afternoon as our trail group began its trek back towards the Village. She was named after Amanda’s oldest, and she told me secretly, favorite sister (with all apologies to Cate, the middle Corfman goddess). The middle name was a salute to the 3-year-old girl my mom nannied, who Amanda had taken a liking to during her many visits to school. Amanda had even gone to the trouble of naming Hayes an honorary 7th grader; needless to say, Hayes was beyond pleased.

The birth itself was decidedly less gory than the one I’d been unfortunate enough to witness in Sex Ed. It merely consisted of Amanda moving the backpack to the outside of her clothes. Our bouncing, bubbly³ baby girl weighed in at three pounds, six ounces and had two extra front pockets perfect for carrying pens and pencils.

Word of our nuptials spread quickly that night when we joined the rest of our class at the Village dining hall. A secretly jealous group of well-wishers approached me throughout the evening offering congratulations. I greeted each one with an embarrassed smile.

My wedding night proved rather disappointing, however, as Amanda spent the night flirting up a storm, bouncing between Jeff Millichap and John Foret—the two resident doctors of cool in the 7th grade. Each one had served as Amanda’s off-again, on-again, off-again boyfriend since I had known the trio. Jeff and John, of course, always remained good friends. It’s one of those love triangles that only works in middle school.

Later around a campfire, I learned that Todd Shields, my best friend, and Lilli Milton, the girl I’d spent the last two years holding an inescapable crush on, had just been married. It might have been the first “reactionary” marriage in history. But what is junior high really but one long tug of war for attention?

It was supposed to be the greatest night of my life. Here I was married to the prettiest and most sexually suggestive 7th grader on the planet and I had just become a father of my first make believe child since kindergarten. But from what little I could tell, all I’d really gotten out of it was a brush against Amanda’s arm (which I couldn’t even see) and a shotgun wedding that I’d been guilted into. It had become plainly obvious that the entire production that day was a ploy by Amanda to enjoy her two favorite activities: have people shower her with attention and make me squirm uncomfortably.

While Amanda was off gallivanting with John and Jeff, I was left lying in bed listening to Nick Moore get acquainted with his obnoxiously loud REM breathing pattern in a tented cabin that was rumored to be infested with every arachnid known to man.

As Nick let out another rumbling snore, I turned over in bed and placed a pillow over my head. And as I did, one last thought passed through my head before I passed out from exhaustion that can only come from hiking 15 miles in a stiff pair of new jeans. It lingered for quite a while.

I’d been hosed.yosemite-wedding

Amanda and I didn’t really talk much after the Yosemite trip and when we did Lyndsay Hayes was never mentioned; I guess my fifteen minutes were up. But when I was leafing through my seventh grade yearbook a few years later, after I’d moved away and on to high school, I found a note on the inside cover that she had written:

Mikey,

How is Lyndsay Hayes? I love you!

Your Favorite Person,
Amanda Corfman (I mean) Maloney

I don’t think I realized it at the time, but Amanda Corfman was that girl.

The girl that when you pick up a 7th grade class photo you can pick out right away. And it’s not just because of her smile, although it does seem to radiate, even sandwiched between an overweight science teacher and a garish olive knit sweater that Nick Kromat probably should have had the better fashion sense not to wear on Picture Day.

She stands out because she’s out of place. 44 faces and bodies, all made overwhelmingly awkward by the harsh effects of puberty. And there’s her, the only 13-year-old girl with any semblance of grace. The Audrey Hepburn of the junior high set. I’m always kind of baffled that her name and face have stuck so vividly in my head all these years until I run across that picture.

It was five years later when I saw her next. The Woodside Class of ’94 was holding an informal reunion and I think in a lot of ways she was the only reason I showed up.

She arrived fashionably late and didn’t stay very long. I don’t think we even acknowledged one another when we first made eye contact. These things sometimes happen when you run into your first ex-wife.

But after everyone had eaten and dispersed throughout Greg Fontana’s backyard, she found me sitting alone in a lawn chair and promptly sat right down in my lap. Five years earlier, as an awkward and squeamish 7th grader, I probably would have fled. But, of course, time has a way of making you more comfortable with yourself and even the Amanda Corfmans of the world.

We didn’t really look at each other, and only a few words were exchanged. We just sat there, staring off into the distance contemplating questions like, “How can five years pass so quickly?”

After a long silence, we looked at each other and smiled. I came this close to asking her about our pride and joy, but I thought better of it.

Today, Lyndsay Hayes Maloney probably sits half-buried in a closet or hidden in the depths of some dusty garage. Perhaps it’s too cruel a fate for the one true relic of my first marriage. Maybe.

But hey, it’s cheaper than day care.

-MPM

¹This piece was originally published in 2007 as part of Memoirs Ink’s annual writing competition (I placed second). It marked the first time I’d been paid for a piece of creative writing. So, you might say that Amanda Corfman was my first muse.
²Of the non-playground variety.
³Okay, maybe not bubbly.

The West Wing of the Playground

In terms of political impact the annual Roy Cloud Elementary School student council election ranks right up there with the New Hampshire primaries. And knowing full well that securing a seat as one of my class’ third grade representatives was a one way ticket to (at the very least) a gubernatorial position in one of our 50 great states, I decided to run.

I launched my campaign inside the cozy confines of Mrs. Scheppler’s third/fourth classroom, announcing to my classmates that I wasn’t just seeking their vote come Election Day, I was starting a revolution!ELECTION-DAY-QUOTES

“We can’t keep standing idly by, as the income inequality in this school continues to spiral out of control! I mean, did you know that the teachers at this school make infinity times more dollars per year than the students?!?”

Cheers emanated from every corner of the room, although it should be noted that my bombast was overshadowed by Mrs. Scheppler’s simultaneous announcement that a party was to take place on Election Day. Cupcakes were thought to be involved.

For my opponents, the campaign trail proved rather straight forward: they simply signed a sheet of paper stating their candidacy and waited two weeks until the vote. (Sad). I, however, realized through some early polling data that I needed to improve my standing with girls who played on the swings at recess—a pivotal portion of the electorate I affectionately referred to as “swing voters.” To win them over, I did what any great politician would do: I made promises, and then I made hats with those promises printed on the front in big, easy-to-read letters.

“This school thinks it can shorten our lunch recess by 10 minutes and get away with it! Well, not on my watch, ladies! Elect me, and we’ll make recess an hour again!”Make Recess an Hour Again

One of the girls was particularly taken by the free headwear. “Look,” she beamed, “I can put my ponytail through the hole in the back.” “You’re goddamn right you can!” I said. One campaign event and my approval rating was already on the rise!

In the days that followed, I spent most of my time grandstanding in the classroom and glad-handing around the lunch tables. Though a few days before the election, the glad-handing was momentarily derailed, when Michael Verducci reached out with an intriguing proposal from across the aisle (of the cafeteria).

“I’ll give you my vote and this Capri Sun… if you can get them to stop teaching science in the classroom. I hate science, man! It sucks!”

And there it was. The first potential flashpoint of my political career. Verducci’s vote was important; he had lots of sway with the kickball crowd (yet another key demo). But could I compromise my morals for one Maui Punch? And if I did, would the smart kids in my class think I was in the pocket of The Dumb Lobby?

“Sorry, buddy,” I said, holding on for dear life to both my principles and the chocolate milk in my hand, “can’t do it. Some things just aren’t for sale.”

“Okay, fine. My Capri Sun and these Oreos,” he countered.

“I’ll do everything I can,” I said, shaking his hand, “you have my word on that.” (Hey, judge me if you will. But this is politics, man! Everybody has a price!)

When Election Day rolled around, each candidate was given two minutes to present their platform to the class. I found this hardly enough time to stress the importance of family values, narrowing the income gap, and keeping our military strong, while still leaving time to make outrageous promises like more field trips and “free Brownie Fridays” (or the “Brownie Bill” as it was called by my campaign staff). But being the trooper that I am, I rolled with the punches and did what I could in the time allotted. In the scope of political speeches given during the past century, it would probably come in a close second to when Roosevelt said that stuff about “fearing fear” or whatever.Obama speech

Finally, it came time to vote. Naturally, I checked my own name on the ballot, and just as quickly, I also voted for the girl I’d held an inescapable crush on for the better part of that year: Liz Dalrymple. The way I saw it, there was no better aphrodisiac than the potential for a sordid political affair between student council representatives.

After a short time, the votes were tallied and Mrs. Scheppler announced that we would need to hold a runoff, as five kids had tied for the two seats available. It seemed that under school code 31-L, only those tied in the election were able to cast runoff ballots. So, in the fifteen minutes before the vote, I did what came naturally: I lied and cheated my way to assure victory. I told each one of my opponents that I’d vote for them if they’d vote for me, knowing full well that the only non-Maloney getting a vote from me wore Guess sweatshirts and had a beautiful, braces-laden smile. #ImWithHer

But the ploy backfired, and Liz was instead joined on the winning ticket by my hated rival (and known Liz-crush), Nick Nardini. I did everything I could to stop it. I called for a recount. I filibustered like a madman. I even questioned Nardini’s birth certificate (I mean, since when do third graders have biceps?) But in the end, each and every one of my appeals were denied.

“I’m sorry, Michael,” Mrs. Scheppler said, “this is a democracy, and I’m afraid that the people have spoken.”

And so, that was that. Just as quickly as it had started, my time in politics was over. I was left to toil away in obscurity; and worse, I had to watch Nick and Liz become the student council’s unquestioned “power couple”. Not only that, Michael Verducci made me pay him back for the Capri Sun and the Oreos he’d tried to buy my influence with. In short, it turned out to be the worst year of my life. Thanks, Obama!

Should I Keep Writing?

When I was six years old, I spent countless hours alone in my room playing this game I’d made up. I’d take one of those small plastic “bubbles” – the kind that held those cheap little treasures that you’d get for a quarter at the grocery store – and throw it onto my bed. A second later, I’d launch all of the stuffed animals from my sizable collection onto the bed after it. See, the “bubble” wasn’t a bubble; it was a football. And my many stuffed animals were football players involved in a free-for-all to recover the game-clinching fumble. (Obviously).

The moment the dogpile was complete, I’d slowly sift through the (adorable) wreckage and see which stuffed animal had prevailed at the bottom of the pile¹. That lucky “beast” would be hoisted into the air triumphantly, as I announced the results to the “crowd”. (Although, full disclosure: the fix was in. Kermit the Frog, a.k.a. my favorite stuffed animal, won at least 90% of the time due to his long green arms…and the fact that I always threw him on the bed first.)Kermit the Frog celebrates 50 years in show business

Now, obviously my childish antics were far from unusual. I mean, show me a little kid, and I’ll show you a tiny crazy person who talks to themselves non-stop and gets lost in their imagination. But the thing about me is, well…

…I never really grew out of that phase. It’s 30 years later, and while I no longer have a stuffed animal collection, I still spend an inordinate amount of time talking to myself², as I drift off into an imaginary world of my own creation. Sure, life (and responsibility) can get in the way sometimes, but chances are, if I’m driving, showering, lying awake in bed, or just staring off into the distance, my mind is somewhere else. It’s trying to envision a world that isn’t but could be. It’s trying to figure out how Kermit (or more likely, the current “hero du jour”) is going to emerge victorious this time. It’s trying to tell a story.

For the longest time, I saw this as a quirk — an amusing glitch in my programming. It’s only recently that I came to realize: it is the program. It’s hard-wired into the way my brain processes (and makes sense of) the world. As you might expect, this has had some rather far-reaching implications when it comes to my life…

…but the reason that it’s been coming up for me a lot lately is that it answers a nagging question:

Should I keep writing?

If you read last week’s post, you know that it hasn’t exactly been non-stop hookers and ice cream around here lately. In fact, it’s gotten pretty dark. Writing for an audience that hasn’t really materialized (yet) can do that to a person. You can start to feel like you’re tilting at windmills.tilting at windmills

So, you start to wonder… Am I wasting my time pursuing this? Am I delusional about how talented I am? Is anyone (outside of my family and friends) ever going to give a shit about what I write?

If you think about these questions long and hard enough, you can’t help but fantasize about a world where you don’t have to answer such difficult questions. A world where life is unburdened by ambition and expectation and hope. But that’s about the time that you have to face another question:

Well, if I didn’t write, what would I do instead?

And that’s where things get a little bit clearer. That’s when I remember Kermit the Frog and the pile of stuffed animals. Or writing and performing a “Wayne’s World” sketch at Lilli Milton’s 13th birthday party. Or spending all of my free time in college sitting on the floor of the bookstore reading interviews with great filmmakers. Or going five straight days without speaking to another human being, but never noticing because I was so engrossed in a rewrite of my script.

“Being” a writer? It isn’t something I do. It’s something I am. I mean, shit, an alligator can stand on its feet and ring your doorbell all day long; that doesn’t mean it’s gonna stop being an alligator.

The reality is I don’t get to know if I’ll ever be Kermit and emerge from the pile victorious. But I do know one thing. I can’t imagine a world where I ever stop playing.

-MPM

¹“Prevailed” is probably a pretty generous term to describe part of a stuffed animal touching a plastic bubble. But the stakes felt pretty high at the time.
²Although I have gotten just a LITTLE bit better about keeping that dialogue INSIDE my head.

It’s Always Darkest

I didn’t want to write this. And honestly, that shouldn’t come as any surprise, because for the past couple of weeks, I haven’t wanted to do much of anything.Depression_2014_Types_10-22-14_5PM-img_1280x720

The explanation for this malaise really depends on your point of view. A medical professional would probably diagnose me with a case of situational depression. A philosopher (and/or “The Prince of Denmark“) might suggest that I’m experiencing an existential crisis. But I’m a writer, so all I can think is, “we have now entered the ‘dark night of the soul’ portion of our story.”

Even if you’re not familiar with the terminology, you know what I’m talking about. It’s that 10-12 minutes near the end of the second act when everything – and I mean everything – goes to shit for the main character. Their significant other breaks up with them, they get fired from their job, their dog dies, their favorite sports team loses Game 7 of the NBA Finals¹, and their latest Facebook update gets zero fucking likes.

Hope is lost. Existence is questioned. And shit gets dark. Basically, it’s this song playing on a loop in your head all goddamn day²:

So, yeah, I’m having a tough time. And while my favorite team did choke away Game 7, and I have gone through a breakup recently, and I’m still not sure what will happen with my career, the thought I keep coming back to is this:

How can I be 36 years old and have so little to show for it?Dubs lose GAme 7

To be clear, by “show for it” I am not referring to material possessions like a house, or a sports car, or even a bank account with lots of zeroes in it. I’ve never really been motivated by those things³. I’m talking about the impact I’m making / have made on the world around me.

There’s a reason I became a writer. And it’s not because I was talented, or because someone in my family did it and I looked up to them, or because I wanted to trick people into thinking I was smart. I became a writer because I spent the vast majority of my childhood by myself, and I had a deep yearning to connect with other people. Writing was like a siren’s song: here was a way that I could connect with lots and lots of people simultaneously…

…and you might say: I’ve been crashing into the cliffs ever since in pursuit of that feeling. Or at least, that’s what it can feel like sometimes.

The summer before I started film school at USC, I took an old professor of mine (from my undergrad days at UCLA) to a baseball game. As we were walking back to the car, he told me the story of another former student of his who went to film school. “He spent his two years there, he wrote a bunch of scripts, and then nothing happened,” my old professor said. It was a cautionary tale. The not-so-subtle subtext was, “Just because you’re a good writer, and you’ve gained entry into the best film school in the country doesn’t guarantee you anything.”

Obviously, he was right. And I knew that, even then. But I don’t think you can set out to be successful in anything (be it the creative arts or business or anything else) without being a little delusional — without believing that, on some level, you just might be exceptional. And life, of course, has a way of leaving you just enough bread crumbs to keep you walking down such a path.

If I was some talentless hack, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this right now. Because I wouldn’t have gotten into USC in the first place. Or secured representation. Or sold a few projects. Or had a few others that came oh so close to becoming something that you actually saw on a movie or television screen.

But that old cliche about talent and hard work being the only two things that you need to succeed? It’s starting to feel like another siren’s song. A “promise” that’s lured me to where I find myself now, more than 10 years after I started this journey: dead in the water and lost at sea.doldrums

I’m standing on the deck of a ship, staring up at the sails, waiting for the wind to pick up. Because it doesn’t seem to matter how hard or how long I blow, my lungs just don’t seem capable of getting the damn thing to move on their own.

I’ve been here before, of course. Because our lives aren’t really a single narrative so much as they’re a series of stories told over time. There was that time in college, for instance, where in the span of 10 days, my girlfriend broke up with me, my car died (for good), and I got laid off from my (then) dream job of writing for FoxSports.com. Or that time I spontaneously broke down in tears at a stop light, because I was feeling so profoundly unfulfilled by my 9-to-5 job in marketing. Or that time after grad school ended, a different girlfriend and I broke up, and I spiraled into such a long and miserable depression that I ended up betting a thousand dollars on a football game just to feel something.

Having survived those experiences, I know (on an intellectual level, at least) that there is one cliche that can be believed: “this too shall pass.” But when you’re in the middle of it, when the night is its absolute fucking darkest, you can tell yourself that until your blue in the face, and it still won’t feel that way.

All nights end eventually; it’s true. But the sun doesn’t rise on command, you know?

-MPM

¹Too soon!
²Except you substitute in your name for Peter’s, because otherwise shit just gets confusing.
³Although I’d certainly enjoy having them.
Technically, I bet 500 on the game against the spread (which I lost) and 500 on the Patriots money line (which I won). So, all tolled, I probably lost about 250 bucks.

Storytelling 101: The Debrief

This, my friends, is a story without a whole lot of suspense, I’m afraid. Once upon a time, there was a teenage boy who discovered his passion for writing thanks to the encouragement of three high school mentors¹. And then, almost 20 years later (a.k.a. this past Thursday), said boy (now a man) walked back onto the campus of said high school and did his best to help 29 seventh and eighth graders discover if they might have a passion for it, too. A good time was had by all.a-good-time-was-had-by-all

So…yeah, the class went well. In fact, if first and second-hand reports are to be believed, the kids absolutely loved it². And me? Well, I had a blast. Which doesn’t make for much of a story, of course³. But there were a few fun anecdotes and details that I thought were worth sharing…

First Period

In the syllabus I’d laid out, I’d planned on having the kids introduce themselves by sharing their favorite movie (and then using those movie titles for a game). But instead, I decided to streamline things and have them introduce themselves by telling the class the story of their favorite movie — until someone could guess the title. This worked quite well, and it also let me learn a little bit about their collective taste.

Many favorites were not surprises (i.e. Finding Nemo, Shrek, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, etc.) A few were, none more so than Madea’s Witness Protection. The funniest/saddest moment came when one girl prefaced her choice by saying it was “an old movie”, and then proceeded to describe the plot of 2001’s Ocean’s 11. Great taste, but damn did I feel old. Another girl’s “old movie” actually lived up to its billing: West Side Story.

I think the biggest surprise, however, was the movies they didn’t pick. Nary a one of them named a comic book movie (no Avengers, No X-Men, No Deadpools, No Dark Knights) or a Star Wars film. Who’d a thunk it?

Second Period

From there, we segued into the definition of a story. And to pound this point home, I showed them the epic opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The verdict: it may be 30+ years since that movie came out, but that shit still holds up. They were all captivated.

I doubled-down on the movie clips by showing them the opening sequence from Up (to illustrate the importance of making the audience care about your characters). Up, of course, they recognized before I even hit play on the clip, and it was met with a chorus of groans that would’ve made you think we were about to do geometry proofs.

“But this is like the saddest thing ever!” they said in almost collective unison. But, of course, that was the point. And they were every bit as responsive to the clip once I pressed play.

Third Period

Next up was the Vernon Hardapple game, where I gave each group (4-5 kids) a picture and asked them to tell me the story of what was going on in it. This was the picture:main.original.640x0c

What they didn’t know (at least up front), was that they all had the same picture. So, it was fun to see the many versions of the story that they came up with. In retrospect, having a photo with a gun involved painted them into a bit of an imaginative corner, and the result was some dark fucking stories. There was enough death, secret agenting, and tragedy to make for a pretty good art house spy film.

The hilarious part was that the only two groups who told a story with a happy/redemptive ending were made up of all girls. But I have to say that the redemptive turn at the end of their stories was far more compelling for at least this audience member.

Break

I spent the break doing what any good teacher would do: investigating their snack choices. For those scoring at home, there was a preponderance of “bars” and a bit of fresh fruit here or there. Two other important things I learned: they were (genuinely) having a great time, and the boy who smuggled an Area 69 joke into his improv story, and was decked out in all Warriors gear, did not want the team to sign Kevin Durant.

Fourth Period

In what was undoubtedly the most successful/fun game of the day, the kids really brought it during our modified version of The Tonight Show staple, “True Confessions.” My favorite “truth or lie” interrogation centered on an Alex P. Keaton look-a-like, who was wearing an argyle sweater (on a late June day no less), and told the story of meeting former President Jimmy Carter at a book signing (no shocker: the kid was telling the truth).maxresdefault

The game’s big winner was Nicole, however, who told the story of having her finger broken at a community pool, when someone dropped a large piece of concrete on it. 95% of the class thought she was telling the truth (myself included), but that little rascal: she was lying through her braces-laden teeth. I’ll tell you one thing right now: I wouldn’t want to be that girl’s parents over the next 5-6 years, because she’s going to get away with murder.

Fifth Period

Due to time constraints (and me having a decent feel of the room by that point), we ditched The Moth-esque storytelling exercise I’d had planned. Instead, we finished off the day with some “Build a Story” improv’ing. We started with longer intervals between storytellers, and then brought things to a crescendo by having them piece a story together one word at a time. I’d assumed that the one-word-at-a-time version would be more difficult, but it actually proved much easier for them, as the pressure of only having to come up with one word (rather than multiple sentences) was far more manageable.

Bottom line: they had fun and actually learned something. For me, it was a great opportunity to engage with the creative process in a new and collaborative way. And while I think I’d likely prefer (moving forward) to work with kids a little older, I’ll definitely be back next year to do it again…

…assuming they’ll have me, of course.

-MPM

¹Many thanks to the Murder’s Row that was/is Lippi, Navone, & Thompson.
²More than a few of these reports included the words, “favorite class of the whole program”.
³At least for the blog’s sake, a major crash and burn might have been fun.
Remember, we were in Marin County, CA – a.k.a. The Whitest Place on Earth.
Sorry, kiddo, it happened! And it’s fucking amazing!
Which was confirmed when I had them rattle off the key points I’d made throughout the morning.

Storytelling 101: The Syllabus

So, there’s this eccentric billionaire, who decides to throw the most lavish party the world has ever known. Guests fly in from all over the world to attend. We’re talking celebrities, foreign dignitaries, titans of industry, you name it. And the only thing more impressive than the guest list is the spread the billionaire puts out from them: the freshest lobster, a sushi bar manned by Jiro himself, caviar, champagne, you name it.splashd-fitzgerald-withtitle

Once the party is well under way, the billionaire asks everyone to join him outside, and the guests gather around the Olympic sized swimming pool in his backyard. And this isn’t just any swimming pool; it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before: it’s filled with every kind of dangerous aquatic creature you can think of. There are piranhas, and crocodiles, and even a few sharks swimming around in this pool. It’s like a nightmare come to life.

Once he has all of his guests’ attention, the eccentric billionaire, who’s had a few flutes of champagne at this point, makes an announcement: “I will give anything to the person who is brave enough to jump into this pool and swim to the other side.”
A buzz goes through the crowd, as all of the guests begin whispering to one another about this crazy billionaire and his crazy proposition. But, of course, no one steps forward to take him up on his offer.

“I’m serious,” the billionaire says, “anything you want in the world will be yours: money, a new car, a house. You name it!”

Suddenly, there’s a loud splash, and everyone looks over to see a man swimming for his life across the pool. Miraculously, the man manages to dodge the sharks, fend off the piranhas, and out-swim the crocodiles to the other side. And somehow, he makes it out of the pool in one piece. The entire crowd is awestruck and erupts in a huge cheer. They’ve just witnessed the impossible.

Delighted, the billionaire rushes over to this brave man with a warm towel and a huge smile. “I can’t believe it,” the billionaire says, “you did it! And because I am a man of my word, I will give you anything your heart desires. So, what will it be, my friend? A briefcase full of cash? My house? My beautiful daughter’s hand in marriage?”

The man, still visibly shaken, finally manages to get to his feet and catch his breath. And when he does, he looks the billionaire dead in the eye, and he says, “All I want is to know the name of the asshole who pushed me in the pool!”

*

It never hurts to start with a joke, right? Though in this case, the joke in question isn’t just meant to grab a quick laugh or curry favor with my audience. It will hopefully help to illustrate the subject at hand: storytelling.

As you might recall, I’ll be teaching a four-hour workshop on storytelling this week for a group of 30 high-achieving middle-schoolers¹. And as Pixar wizard Andrew Stanton so artfully points out in his TED talk on the subject, storytelling is joke-telling. Everything you’re saying is servicing a singular goal. In the case of a joke, it’s a punchline, of course; but with a story, it’s a theme or idea that confirms some truth about who we are as human beings (even if that truth is being personified by fish).FINDING NEMO 3D

This class I’m teaching is no different. It’s my (very meta) opportunity to tell them the story of storytelling. To (hopefully) have them come away with a better understanding of why we tell stories, what makes a good story, and how they can tell one that might actually hold an audience’s attention.

Obviously, this is a rather ambitious objective when we have just four short hours together (especially since I’m dealing with the collective attention span of a class full of 13-year-olds on a warm summer day). But, I hope that the syllabus I’ve come up with (laid out below) is fun and fast-paced enough to keep them on their toes, while at the same time exposing them to the most fundamental tenants of effective storytelling.

Storytelling Syllabus

First Period: Getting to Know You
We’ll follow up my introductory joke/mission statement with a getting to know you exercise. We’ll go around the room and everyone will introduce themselves and tell the class what their favorite movie is.

As we do this, I’ll write down each movie on a scrap of paper. And when we’re done with introductions, we’ll start our first game of the day: Movie Password. The game is simple. Each volunteer “contestant” will have 60 seconds to get the class to name as many movies as possible (written on the scraps of paper) based solely on their description of the story. No character names. No words from the movie’s title. Just the story.

Second Period: The Definition of a Story
When we’re done with the game, I’ll choose a few of their favorite movies and use them to illustrate what all stories have in common:

A character wants something badly. But they’re having difficulty getting it.

And to really pound this point home, I’ll show them as classic and clear an example of this (in scene form) as there’s ever been: the opening from Raiders of the Lost Ark:

Indy’s goal couldn’t be clearer: get the gold idol. BUT there’s (literally) one obstacle after another standing in his way. So much so that, eventually, his goal shifts from “get the gold idol” to STAY THE FUCK ALIVE!

Of course, as important as a goal — and obstacles standing in the way of achieving that goal — are to a story, there’s something else that’s every bit as necessary: the audience has to care. Whether it’s emotionally (preferred), intellectually, or aesthetically (or, in a perfect world, all three), you have to make your audience care about your character and the pursuit of their goal.

And what better example is there of a movie getting us emotionally engaged in a character’s story than the opening of Up? And to think, they do it without a single word of dialogue²:

Third Period: Character

After a quick exploration of how the filmmakers made us care about Carl, we’ll talk about what makes a great character. We don’t have to like the person, but we do have to understand and relate to them.

To get some practice creating characters of our own, we’ll play the Vernon Hardapple Game. What’s that? You’ve never heard of the Vernon Hardapple Game? Well, allow Michael Douglas, Iron Man, and the o.g. Spider-Man to demonstrate how it works (starting at the 1:25 mark):

The kids will be separated into small groups, and I’ll give each of them a picture of someone. Their job will be to construct a story about that person: who they are, what they do for a living, what their family might be like, etc. And when they’re done, they’ll share their character’s story with the rest of the class…

…but what the kids (hopefully) won’t know until their presentations is that they’ve all been working off of the same photo. So, we’ll get to see how the same photo can produce lots of (great) stories.

Fourth Period: It’s All in the Details

So, what makes a great character? It’s the same thing that makes a great story: the details. The difference between a great movie or book and a forgettable one always comes down to the details. In other words, specificity.

And, of course, in our own lives, a great example of this is when we get in trouble with our parents. If you don’t have a good explanation for why you broke curfew, or why you didn’t clean your room, or why you got a D- on your history test, you’re going to get in trouble. But the story can’t be TOO crazy, of course, otherwise, your parents will see right through it. Just like Goldilocks’ favorite bed, the story has to be jusssst right.

To have some fun with this idea, we’ll play a modified version of The Tonight Show’s “True Confessions” game. Like the one played here by Jimmy Fallon, John Oliver, and J-Law:

We’ll take a few volunteer “contestants” from the crowd, and have the rest of the class ask them questions about their “confession” before deciding whether they’re telling the truth or not.

Fifth Period – Telling Your Story

In an effort to start piecing together what we’ve learned (and loosen them up a bit more), we’ll play a classic improv storytelling game called “Build a Story”, which you can see executed by a group of kids and they’re incredibly enthusiastic instructor³ here:

And this will lead us to climax of our story: a mini-version of The Moth (not to be confused with this version of The Moth), where the students will take turns getting up in front of the class, and telling a short story from their own lives (based on a few possible prompts). Kind of like this one:

My hope is, that by waiting to force them into the role of storyteller until the end, they’ll hopefully be comfortable enough with each other to be a bit more forthcoming. But we shall see…

For a full report on how it all goes, check back next week. Until then…

-MPM

¹And ironically, I’m about as nervous as I was for my first day of middle school.

²Definitely have some tissues at the ready before watching this clip. It’s gonna get a little dusty in here…

³I can assure you that I will be nowhere near this enthusiastic.

The Truth (and Myth) of “Write What You Know”

If you’re a writer (and even if you’re not), you’ve no doubt heard the maxim, “write what you know”. But as is the case with many pithy sayings, taking these words too literally can lead to disastrous results. I mean, let’s be honest, for most of us, the list of things we’ve experienced first-hand (i.e. “know”) would amount to one or two interesting books/movies/puppet shows at the absolute most. The vast majority of our lives are spent sleeping, sitting in traffic, eating unremarkable meals, staring at our phones, working, and having conversations with our friends and family about all of these mundane things. In other words, if your everyday life was the plot of a story you were reading/watching, you’d be fast asleep in less than 10 minutes.Calvin and Hobbes comic on write what you know

But I’m not saying that we should take “write what you know” and throw it off the end of a pier. Because there is great wisdom in the maxim if we use a much less literal interpretation. In fact, the saying might even benefit from a small re-write¹. Something like:

“Write what you know…emotionally.”

Or better yet:

“Write what you’ve felt.”

It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a stream of consciousness novel or the next Marvel movie, the writer’s job is to explore what it means to be a human being. And the human experience is – and always will be – defined by our emotional response to the world around us. Our ability to feel things – or sometimes: our inability to avoid feeling things – is what separates us from everything else on the planet (e.g. plants, animals, mountains, oceans, Styrofoam cups, et al.) In fact, our emotions/feelings are such an indispensable part of what it means to be alive that we often project our emotions/feelings onto plants, animals, Styrofoam cups, and perhaps most famously, volleyballs.

But we don’t have to have been stranded on a desert island for four years to know what loneliness feels like, anymore than we have to be a mutant with superpowers to know what it’s like to feel alienated.Xmen poster

Because people (often) seek out stories to escape the mundanity of everyday life, writers need to construct plots that are dripping with imagination and ingenuity. Plot, after all, is what gets the reader/viewer “in the door”; whether it’s through a movie trailer or the blurb on the inside cover of a book. But aside from the occasional paint-by-numbers mystery or trashy-for-the-sake-of-being-trashy romance novel, plot is never going to be what holds the viewer/reader’s attention. Whether they’re conscious of it or not, the two things that truly engage an audience are relatable characters² and the relationships those characters share with one another.

And that’s where “writing what you know” comes into play. Because the only way to write relatable characters and character relationships that feel authentic is for the writer(s) to draw on their own emotional history.

Whenever I think about this subject, I’m reminded of screenwriter Bob Gale’s impetus for writing Back to the Future. He didn’t set out to write a time travel epic or to explore the differences between being a teenager in the 50’s versus 80’s. The idea came when he was flipping through his father’s high school yearbook, and he thought to himself, “God, there is just no way that my old man and I would be friends if we went to school together.”³

And sure, if you think about BTTF today, I’m sure the first things to pop into your head are the DeLorean, or Marty disappearing in the family photo, or Doc’s favorite two words in the English language. But I would argue that the reason that movie still holds up today (more than 30 years after it was made) is the universality of its emotional core: a boy trying to understand what makes his father (and mother, for that matter) tick. Because while none of us have ever traveled back in time, we all have parents, and I think I speak for all of us when I say that we’re still trying to figure them out.

And this, of course, is just one of about a million emotional chords that resonate within all of us. Our job as writers is simply to choose one close to our own hearts and pour it out onto the page. After all, you know what they say:Quotefancy-4904-3840x2160

-MPM

¹Just as nearly all writing can.
²Notice I didn’t use the word “likeable”.
³Of course I’m paraphrasing here.