Category Archives: Write On

Storytelling 101

In a few weeks, I’ll be leading a one day workshop filled with 30 middle-schoolers at my old high school¹. I’ve been given four hours to teach them something (hopefully) worth knowing about the only subject I’m even remotely qualified to speak intelligently about²: storytelling.How Storytelling affects the brain

Because I’ve spent the last decade-plus pursuing a career as a professional storyteller (as this blog can attest to), and I hold a masters degree in the subject from the best film school in the country, you’d think I should be able to come up with at least a few nuggets to share with them. But the task is harder than you’d think given that my audience is made up of kids who are incredibly bright³, but likely have little experience studying the subject matter (unless you count the snooze-fest that is a junior high English class). And let’s face it: 240 minutes isn’t a whole lot of time to delve into such rich and nuanced subject matter…or, more importantly, to convince a room full of pubescents that I know what the fuck I’m talking about.

Anyway, after some careful reflection (and intermittent panicking), I think I’ve settled on an approach that just might work. Broad enough to appeal to a group of varied personalities and interests, but hopefully specific enough to, you know, actually teach them something worthwhile. Here’s the blurb we sent them to set the stage:

“Life is made up of stories: everything from your favorite movie or book to the long, boring stories your parents tell at the dinner table. But what makes a good story? And how do you TELL a good story? We’ll figure it out by watching clips from great movies, playing improv games, and sharing our own stories. And don’t worry: it won’t be long or boring. Promise.”

As you can see, in an effort to get them on my side, I’ve relied on two battled-tested tactics:

1) Frame the whole thing as fun, rather than educational (by mentioning movies and games).

2) Make fun of their parents.

Ostensibly, it’s the teaching equivalent of doing crowd work as a stand-up comic. Sure, it may be a little hacky to talk about the shitty weather in [insert city with notoriously shitty weather here], but when you prove to people that you can speak their language, they’re a hell of a lot more likely to listen to what you have to say next.

Because I have such a limited amount of time, I figure it’s in my best interest to keep my message simple. And what could be simpler, really, than spending our time together trying to define what a (good) story entails?

Now, there’s a couple of different ways that you can go with this. One way, which we’ll call “The Overcompensating Grad Student”, is to wax philosophically about the intricacies of artistic expression. To talk about things like subtext and tone and point of view. To use phrases like “an exploration of the human spirit” and/or “trying to make sense out of a senseless world”. You know, kind of like this pony-tailed jackass:

But I don’t need Will Hunting to tell me not to do that. My lack of a pony-tail and regular ski trips as a child pretty much preclude me from taking that path. So, I’m left with the alternative: boiling things down to their essentials. To quote one of my favorite film school professors:

“In every great story, somebody wants something badly…but they’re having difficulty getting it.”

Reductive? Possibly. Irrefutable? Absolutely.

Go ahead, take a second to think about your favorite movie, book, play, puppet show, whatever. If we’re talking about a narrative, it always comes down to that same unassailable truth: somebody wants something badly…but they’re having difficulty getting it.

In the interest of supporting evidence, here is a one sentence breakdown of three randomly selected books and movies currently sitting on my shelf:

BOOKS

The Martian by Andy Weir
A U.S. astronaut fights to stay alive…after being stranded on Mars.

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
A high school freshman refuses to participate in the school’s chocolate sale…despite escalating threats from the headmaster and the school’s secret society.

Paper Towns by John Green
A high school senior tries to piece together the cryptic clues left behind by his life-long crush in an effort to find her after she disappears.

MOVIES

Back to the Future
After traveling back in time to the year 1955 and interrupting history, a young man has to figure out a way to get his mom to fall for his sad-sack father before he gets erased from the space-time continuum.

* Rain Man
In order to get his rightful inheritance, a man has to get his estranged, autistic brother across the country by the end of the week.

* Ocean’s Eleven
A recently paroled thief recruits a crew to help him rob three Vegas casinos (while he tries to win back his ex-wife).

Clear want. Something(s) standing in the way.

And the same holds true of the stories we tell around dinner tables and on dates and around campfires. I mean, we all know a terrible story when we hear one. What do they tend to have in common?Campfire story

In order of likelihood:

1. The lack of a clear goal or objective (i.e. “Is there a fucking point to this story, or what?”)

2. A lack of sufficient detail (i.e. “I am not following this at all / Who the fuck is Julie?”)

3. A lack of organization (i.e. “I’d ask you to start over from the beginning, but I lost interest 20 minutes ago.”)

4. A lack of conflict (i.e. “That’s it? That’s the whole fucking story?”)

5. It’s about someone’s fantasy football team.

So, there you have it. A simple objective for my four hours of instruction: teach them what a (good) story entails, and (hopefully) save an entire generation from telling stories as boring as their parents.

And if I should fail? Well, at least it’ll make for a good story, right?

-MPM

¹As part of a summer program not-so-covertly designed to brainwash impressionable junior high achievers (and their parents) into thinking that paying $30K a year to attend said high school is the only logical choice if they want to secure a notable future.
²Unless you consider A Few Good Men minutiae to be a worthy topic of conversation. And if you do, can I interest you in a little something I like to call A Few Good Minutes?
³Basically they’re the best and brightest from the surrounding area’s parochial schools.
Also, let’s face it: most parents DO tell the worst stories!
Ah, the irony, of pursuing a career as a writer. You’re living this truth every fucking day.
What’ya want from me? I was reading a bunch of YA books as research for writing one of my own!
With your mouth (ideally) full of S’mores.

Chapter Two

Back by popular demand¹ this is the second (and final²) installment of my free book preview³. So, first thing’s first, if you haven’t already, check out Chapter One. And with that out of the way, it’s on to the next chapter…

-MPMVintage Inscription Made By Old Typewriter

“We live in an age when unnecessary things are our only necessities.”
– Oscar Wilde

*

They’d escaped with only a few minor scrapes and bruises, but the car was totaled. And not even the Jaws of Life could extricate Liza from the wreckage she’d made of her senior year. It was an SAT analogy she could finally understand: trying to have a social life without having a car was like trying to finish a marathon without legs. You’re basically screwed unless a friend agrees to pick you up.

Months had passed since the accident, but Liza still replayed the infamous afternoon on a loop in her head. With hindsight, the entire scene played out like a bad public service announcement warning teenagers about the dangers of texting and driving. Well, Instagramming and driving, if you want to get technical about it.

The idea of “kissing yellow lights” started with Amanda Frazier, the unspoken but unquestioned alpha of Liza’s friend group; though, in truth, the superstition actually dated back generations. It works as follows: when running a yellow light, a driver must touch their fingers to their lips and “raise a kiss to the sky” as they pass through an intersection. By doing so, the driver not only acknowledges the good fortune of their yellow light timing, but curries continued good favor from the traffic gods.

Liza was riding bitch in the backseat of Amanda’s pristine Beamer en route to off-campus lunch when she saw her do it for the first time. And from that point forward, she — and the rest of “The Amandments”, as they were known around school — adopted the practice with an almost religious fervor.

But just as Icarus flew too close to the sun, Liza raised the yellow light bar too high. Driving home from school one Friday, immersed in a joyous, pitch perfect sing-along with that overplayed, but irresistible pop anthem (yes, that one), Liza got the bright idea to Instagram her performance. And rather than caution her against such recklessness, Liza’s co-pilot, duet partner and fellow “Amandment”, Vicki Pao, delighted in the hash-tagging opportunity.

“Do it! You have to do it!” Vicki squealed. #itstooperfect

And so, the moment Liza’s Corolla rolled to its next stop, she hit repeat on her iPod and readied her phone. By the time the light changed, the chorus kicked in, and Liza had one hand on the steering wheel and the other recording the moment for Internet posterity.

“Cause we’re young and we’re reckless,” the two girls sing-screamed with their windows down, “We’ll take this way too far!”

As they cruised through the intersection at Jefferson and Birch, their prophetic words gave way to “Amandment” dogma, as they both blew kisses to a yellow light.

“Make a wish!” Vicki squealed. #makeawish

Liza wished, as she always did, for Kevin Millichap to ask her out. It was the wrong wish.

A second later, her car plowed into the back of a UPS truck. Its brake lights had gone unnoticed amid the frenzy of documenting her Taylor Swift sing-a-long for Amanda, Kevin and her other 87 Instagram followers. On impact the Corolla’s front end crumpled like an empty can of Diet Coke, and the driver’s side airbag put an end to both the video and Liza’s iPhone.

“Ohmygodohmygodohmygod!” #omg

Vicki breathlessly strung together another twenty “oh my god’s” before the reality of the situation finally sunk in. Liza’s car was totaled. Her life was over. And Taylor Swift refused to shut her big, dumb mouth:

Cause we’re young and we’re reckless
We’ll take this way too far
It’ll leave you breathless
Or with a nasty scar

The hour that followed only rubbed salt in the wound. For starters, the UPS driver, some mustached guy named Dennis, was a real drama queen about the whole thing. He kept yelling things like, “do you know what happens if I don’t I get these parcels delivered by close of business?” and “some of us are out here trying to make a living!”

“I’m sorry,” Liza kept repeating, as she fumbled for the insurance card in her glove compartment.

When a cop car rolled up a few minutes later, Vicki’s freak out reached Defcon-4, and she started blabbering about “being an accessory to the crime.” Liza wanted to strangle her. If anyone should have understood having a brain fart behind the wheel, it was Vicki. This was the same girl who’d once ran over her leg with her own car! (The short version: in the parking lot after school, Vicki hopped out of her car to say goodbye to Amanda, but in her excitement she a) forgot to put the car in park and b) tripped on her seatbelt. Before she could get off the ground, the back left wheel had rolled into her leg, stopping the car but leaving a black tire mark that covered half her thigh. Once she realized that she wasn’t hurt, Vicki laughed so hard that she got the hiccups. #fml #smh)

Officer Fontana, who proved only slightly less condescending than Dennis, interviewed Liza in plain sight of everyone commuting home. Each car that passed got a good long look at her, including a Jeep Grand Cherokee full of four senior cross country runners, one of whom (Dustin Donlan) happened to be best friends with Kevin. The moment they recognized her, Jeff VanDis stuck his head out the back window and yelled, “Hey Liza! What can brown do for you?” #ups #logistics

The Jeep erupted in laughter as they drove off. And Liza could’ve sworn she saw Officer Fontana crack a smile at her expense.

When she finally got home that afternoon, all Liza wanted to do was curl up into a ball and cry. But even that had to wait, as her mom made her suffer through a tedious lecture about responsibility and consequences. The long and short of it was that there would be no replacement car (or phone) on the horizon and all driving (and social media) privileges were revoked until further notice. In other words, Liza would be relegated to the life of a 12-year-old Amish girl. #theamishdontusehashtags

Not having a car turned out to be the least of Liza’s problems. Life without a cell phone, and the “radio silence” that came with it, proved far more devastating. Her foothold inside Amanda’s inner circle slowly crumbled. At first, she’d just be in the dark about some inside joke that’d originated in a group text amongst the girls. Pretty soon, though, she was being left out of plans altogether. Liza knew it was never malicious, but that didn’t make it any less frustrating when she’d hear Amanda say things like, “I feel like I never see you anymore”, even though they had first and second period together four times a week. Every second Liza spent without an iPhone and every day she went without posting on Facebook or Instagram, her social standing eroded a little more. And by the time her mom finally lifted the ban on social media six weeks later, the damage was done. Liza felt like a ghost roaming the halls. A ghost with a flip-phone. That’s right: a fucking flip-phone!

Liza had used every last dime of her summer savings to pay for her now totaled car. So when her punishment finally ended, instead of a new iPhone, she’d settled for her recently deceased grandfather’s cell; the one he’d used as a glorified Medic-Alert system whenever he took a tumble in his apartment. The phone came with three numbers programmed into it: Liza’s mom’s cell phone, 9-1-1, and the deli down the street where he’d ordered a turkey and tongue sandwich from every Saturday for 28 years. It was easily the most depressing piece of technology that Liza had ever held in her hands. #ripgrandpalou

In essence, Liza had traded exile for purgatory. All she could do now was wait for Amanda to let her back into the inner sanctum. Wait for Kevin to see her the way she saw him. Wait for her idiot brother to get home from his driving lesson, so that she could beg her mom to borrow the mini-van. God knows rolling up to Devon Clark’s pre-graduation party in a Honda Odyssey was far from ideal, but it beat the alternative: a bus ride/half-mile walk combo that would have Liza smelling like she’d just crawled out of a Taco Bell dumpster by the time it was over. Surely, sweaty pits and a bus pass weren’t going to pave the road back to social relevance.

And so, Liza stared at her pathetic little flip-phone, willing it to ring. Maybe Vicki would take pity on her and offer to pick her up on the way to the party. Or maybe her mom would call in a good mood to let her know that they were on their way home. Or…

What if her mom and Caleb had died in a tragic accident? #whatif

On the one hand, it’d be incredibly sad. (Obviously). But she’d also (probably) inherit a bunch of money. (Definitely) enough money to buy a new car. Hmm…

Maybe she’d get a BMW like Amanda. Or a Tesla. With built-in GPS. And a sunroof. That’d get everyone’s attention.

And really, in the grand scheme of things, what was more important? The love of a mother and a brother? Or a shiny, new car and the social adulation that was sure to come with it?

Liza had to at least think about it for a minute. Or five. #dontjudge

To be continued…

¹Shut up.

²I can’t very well let you read the whole thing for free, now, can I?

³Almost as exciting as that free HBO preview you’d get once or twice a year as a kid. #pleaseletthismoviehavenudity

Chapter One

Dearest reader,

There will come a time (very soon I hope) where I’ll have the opportunity to share my book with you in its entirety. But in the interim, I thought I might commemorate the holiday weekend by giving you just a little taste.

Printed below you will find the first chapter. Here’s hoping that it whets the appetite… Because an entire five-course meal is on its way.

Please to enjoy,

MPMchapter one

“‘For a while’ is a phrase whose length can’t be measured. At least by the person who’s waiting.”
– Haruki Murakami, South of the Border, West of the Sun

*

Caleb Worthington was so sick and fucking tired of waiting. He’d been a teenager for going on four years now, and he’d spent nearly every waking moment waiting for something. There was the abstract, big picture stuff like “waiting to become an adult” (whatever that meant) or “waiting for the day he understood girls” (if that was even possible). But it was the smaller, more incremental stuff that really got to him.

Like take his first pubic hair for example. It took 13 years, three weeks, and six days for it to finally appear. And that wasn’t even the worst part. He had to wait an additional three days before the second, third, and fourth pubes decided to show up, which meant that he’d spent an anxiety-ridden 72-hour period wondering whether he’d be known for the rest of his life as “The Genetic Freak with One Pube”.

And that was just the beginning. He’d waited (quietly) for his voice to stop squeaking like a dog’s rubber chew toy. He’d waited (and waited) for a growth spurt, which had finally come the previous summer, thereby rescuing him from life as a Hobbit and (temporarily) preserving his fantasy of one day playing in the NBA. And he was still waiting for the day when he’d be able to grow a thicker mustache than his grandmother.

His life was a giant calendar that extended infinitely out into the future, each day filled not with appointments or plans, but with question marks. How long would he have to wait to kiss a girl for the first time? Or to touch a boob? Or to finish inside something other than an old gym sock? The only way to find out was to wait.

More than anything, though, Caleb waited for the day when he’d be free. Free of the daily mounds of homework his teachers threw at him. Free of a social ecosystem that he neither fit into nor understood. Free of his mom’s proprietary blend of over-protectiveness and nagging. Free of, well… All of it.

He knew it was just a pipe dream, of course. Being a teenager was like living in a totalitarian dictatorship. You went to school when you were told. You did your chores when you were told. And you spent half your fucking life waiting for the bus.

It felt like Caleb was always waiting for the bus. And today was no different.

There he stood with all the other pathetic, license-less freshmen and sophomores, watching the upperclassmen whiz past in their cars, blaring music, smoking cigarettes and reminding him of everything that he wasn’t.

And the waiting was only made worse by the relentless, late afternoon sun. Caleb’s ash-gray T-shirt featured pit stains the size of Lake Tahoe, and there was a reservoir of sweat slowly pooling in the boxers beneath his black jeans. It felt like he was standing in a tide pool.

But just when Caleb was about to reach his breaking point… Just when it felt like he couldn’t wait another fucking second… It happened.

He heard it first: the sound of the motorcycle’s engine ripping through the parking lot like a chainsaw. And then there he was, idling in front of him on his jet black TT 650 Triumph: his dad flashed a half-smile, his beard inching up the right side of his face.

“What’ya waitin’ for, kiddo?” he said. “A written invitation?”

Caleb turned to the braces-riddled freshman standing next to him: was this really happening? Her awed, metallic smile suggested that it was.

“Sh- Shouldn’t I wear a helmet?” Caleb asked, hesitating ever so slightly.

“Not unless you plan on ratting me out to your mother,” his dad smirked.

It was all the reassurance the boy needed. Without another thought, he hopped on the back of the bike and wrapped his arms around his father’s midsection. And just like that, the waiting was over.

The motorcycle shot out of the parking lot like a missile. A moment later, Caleb’s dad was weaving the bike through traffic, passing the many cars that had passed the boy just a few minutes earlier.

Caleb felt the wind in his face, and the life-force of his father radiating in front of him. And suddenly, he was transported back to his childhood. Back to when he’d sit atop his father’s shoulders – on top of the world – weaving through the crowd after a 49ers’ game.

A red light turned green, and the motorcycle took off down the Alameda in a blur.

This must be what it feels like to be a man, Caleb thought. This must be what it feels like to

Suddenly, Caleb heard the screech of the bus’ brakes, and he was right back at the bus stop:

Backpack weighing him down. Sweat pooling in his boxers. Waiting.

The bus’ doors folded opened, and the herd of the car-less began to push past him, as he stood there in a daze, trying to stave off reality for a few more seconds. He could still hear the roar of the motorcycle’s engine in the distance.

“Hey! You comin’ or what?” the bus driver shouted, stamping out the daydream once and for all.

“Yeah,” Caleb said, “sorry.”

There was no motorcycle. Of course there wasn’t. Caleb hadn’t seen his dad in almost five years.

* * *

“Did you check your mirrors?”

“Yeah.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

With each question, Caleb felt his body grow tenser. He fidgeted in the driver’s seat, avoiding eye contact at all costs. As a teenage boy, the only thing more emasculating than being given a driving lesson by your mom was being given a driving lesson by your mom in an empty parking lot – in a mini-van. It was like driving a boat. With a vagina.

“So, what’s behind us?” his mom asked.

“Huh?”

“I want you to tell me what’s behind us.”

Instinct took over and Caleb turned 100 degrees in his seat to look out the back of the car the old fashioned way. Given his mom’s tone, he half-expected to see a pack of wild dogs behind them. But all he saw was more parking lot and a few unoccupied office buildings in the distance.

“In the mirror, Caleb! Look in the mirror.”

Caleb wasn’t sure which mirror she was talking about, so he tried to look everywhere at once.

“I have a glob of mascara in the corner of my eye,” she said, leaning in to get a better look. “And you know how I know that? Because the rear-view mirror is pointed directly at me. So, I’ll ask you again: did you check your mirrors?”

Janice used a tissue to stamp out the rogue mascara. It didn’t matter whether she was in an abandoned office park or at a restaurant sitting across from (yet another) first date, Caleb’s mother always wore eye make-up. “Show me a woman with a smoky eye, and I’ll show you a man who burns with desire for her,” her stomach-curdling motto went.

“Well?” his mom said, her “smoky” eyes back on him.

Annoyed, Caleb yanked the rearview mirror in his general direction.

“There,” he said, the parking lot now stretching out behind him in the mirror’s reflection – only slightly askew.

“What do I always tell you, honey?”

Janice leaned over and tweaked the mirror another quarter of an inch. Caleb’s entire body clenched. He was ready to explode… But he said nothing.

“Caleb, what do I always tell you?”

Caleb mumbled something unintelligible through gritted teeth.

“I can’t hear you.”

“Safety is no accident.”

“Exactly. Now, let’s put the car in gear, but remember to keep your foot firmly pressed against the brake, okay…?”

Instead, Caleb closed his eyes in the hope that he might re-open them and magically find himself somewhere else. Anywhere else. It wasn’t just his mom breathing down his neck. Or the mini-van. It was simpler than that: he was scared shitless. He was probably the only 16-year-old on the planet who wanted no part of learning how to drive.

“You are such a pussy, Worthington.”

The words of Caleb’s long-time nemesis, Bryan Byrnes, echoed through his head. Bryan took every opportunity to remind Caleb of his “pussy-dom”, and he’d had more than a few chances, as the two had been classmates since junior high. Over time, the sentiment gradually drilled down deeper and deeper into Caleb’s psyche until it was no longer just a childish insult; it was an accepted reality.

“Caleb,” his mom said, “are you listening to me?”

“Yeah.”

“What did I say?”

“You said to keep my foot on the brake when I put the car in drive.”

But even that didn’t satisfy her. When Caleb finally reached for the gear shift, Janice pressed her hand against his knee to ensure that he maintained sufficient contact with the brake pedal.

“Mom, I can do it myself.”

“Go ahead. Put the car in gear, honey.”

Caleb shifted the car from Park down to Drive.

“Let go of my leg.”

Caleb’s eye-line moved from the parking lot down to his lap, as he bucked against his mother’s grip. He pushed his knee into her hand causing his foot to come off the brake pedal. The car began to roll forward.

“Put your foot back on the brake!”

“Let go of my leg!”

The moment his mom’s hand came off his knee, Caleb’s right foot rushed back toward the floor and connected with a pedal… The gas pedal.

“Caleb!”

The mini-van lurched forward with a screech. As the car picked up speed, a strange mix of adrenaline and terror rushed through Caleb’s body. A panicked Janice reached over and grabbed the steering wheel, causing the car to swerve wildly to the right.

“Brake! Hit the brake!”

But Caleb couldn’t hit the brake. His foot felt like it was super-glued to the gas. His vision was starting to blur. And all he knew for sure was that there was a baby tree encased in a cement planter rushing toward him at warp speed.

“Caleb!”

To be continued…

Rewriting Step Twelve

There’s this parable a mentor of mine once shared that has always stuck with me. It goes something like this…

A man is walking down the road holding a gold coin in each of his hands. The man worked hard to earn his coins, so he grips them both tightly to ensure that a) he doesn’t drop them and that b) no one can take them from him.

A little further down the road, however, the man comes upon a field that is littered with gold coins. I mean, we’re talking like a Scrooge McDuck swimming pool of wealth¹: gold coins as far as the eye can see.scrooge swimming in money

There’s only one problem: the man’s grip on the two coins that he already has is so tight that it’s impossible for him to pick up any new ones. [Insert Price is Right loser music here.]

So, yeah, you probably don’t need me to tell you the moral of the story, but just in case the links above sent you down a YouTube click-hole that ended with five consecutive installments of Carpool Karaoke, I’ll make it simple for you: you’ll never be able to acquire more (wealth, love, opportunity, et al.) in life if you spend all of your energy trying to protect what you already have.

Sure, it’s possible that if you loosen the grip on what you have, someone might come along and take it from you. But if you trust (yourself, the world, the universe, et al.) enough to let go, you open yourself up to even greater possibilities.

I’ve been thinking about the story (and its underlying message) a lot lately, though not because I’m holding any actual gold. As a matter of fact, it’s the exact opposite: it’s what’s out of my hands that has it on my mind.

As you might recall, I’m in the familiar position of waiting to hear back about a project I’ve recently completed. And the longer I go without a substantive update, the more I can feel myself tightening. It’s not just my grip around some metaphorical coins, either; it’s my entire body slowly curling up into the fetal position, closing itself off from any potential danger or harm.fetal-man

Ashamed as I am to admit it, it’s a feeling that I’ve become well-acquainted with over the years, as it’s the twelfth and final step in “My 12 Step Creative Process²”:

Step 1 – Out of a sudden burst of inspiration (not unlike The Big Bang) comes a new idea, around which a universe of possibilities can form.

Step 2 – That universe (i.e. all of the characters and story details) slowly comes into focus over time. (*Note: this process typically proves most fruitful when I’m showering, driving, people-watching, actively brainstorming with a friend, and/or in the moments immediately after I walk away from my computer or before I fall asleep.)

Step 3 – I excitedly pitch others (i.e. friends, managers, rando’s on BART) on my semi-formed idea in order to gauge interest. (*Note: only proceed to Step 4 if Step 3 isn’t met with crushing silence and/or the phrase, “Huh?”)

Step 4 – Open a new document and immediately save it (even though it’s still blank) under the project’s working title and let a sense of accomplishment wash over me.

Step 5 – Stare at the blinking cursor atop said document until drops of blood form on my forehead³.

Step 6Masturbate furiously to help alleviate the intense anxiety I’m feeling about “having to write something extraordinary”.

Step 7 – Slowly but surely get a few sentences down on the page. And very slowly build from there…

Step 8 – …once momentum is (finally) achieved, do everything in my power to keep my ass in the chair until said momentum is extinguished (and I hopefully have some pages).

Step 9 – Finish the fucking thing.

Step 10 – Pretend to be excited about the notes given to me by others…and then very slowly let go of the idea that my story is “extraordinary”, before using said notes to help make the story better. (*Note: this will typically involve repeating Steps 2 through 9, but particularly Step 6.)

Step 11 – Release the finished product “into the wild” to see what people think and immediately commence Step 12.

Step 12 – Curl up into the fetal position to ward off any potential passes, criticism, or negativity.

It’s taken some time (and plenty of tissues), but I’ve slowly come to accept the fact that at least 10 (and probably 11) of these steps simply come with the territory. I’ve just heard too many other writers describe their processes similarly to think I’m abnormal (at least for a writer, which granted, isn’t saying much).

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Step 12. Because the truth is, if we were to personify Step 12, it would look an awful lot like the man from the parable: so worried about the bad things that could happen to him that he closes himself off to the good things that may be just around the corner.

I mentioned this a couple of weeks back, but it bears repeating in this context: we all acknowledge that creating anything of value requires an openness and vulnerability on the part of the creator; what we often forget, however, is that we have to remain open and vulnerable even after we release our creations into the world. For me, this second part has always produced far more anxiety, because it can feel an awful lot like leaving your face exposed during a heavyweight fight…or a Ted Cruz concession speech. I mean, you’re just asking the world to cold-cock you, aren’t you?

 

…or are you?

Sure, it can feel that way sometimes, especially when you’ve endured your fair share of rejection. But do I really believe that my dreams are Millhouse (weak, feeble, and pathetic) and the universe is Nelson (just waiting to beat the shit out of ‘em)? I don’t know, man. That sure makes me sound like the schizophrenic homeless guy who’s always marching up and down my street, screaming that the world is out to get him.

Isn’t it possible that the world is just a tiny bit more receptive than that? That the decision-makers in Hollywood and the publishing world, who could be reading my material this very second, are looking for a reason to say, “Yes”? That they want nothing more than to read the byproduct of “My 12 Step Creative Process⁸” and fucking love it?

Maybe I’m just falling victim to the rhetorical nature of the questions, but you know what? I think the answer to all three of them is a loud, resounding “Yes”. And if that’s the case then Step 12 has to be re-written.

It should probably go something like this…

Step 12 – Exercising as much patience as is humanly possible, slowly let the audience for your story come into focus, never forgetting to stay engaged, excited, and open. Be prepared to share even more of yourself when the time comes. And in the meantime, resort to Step 6 as needed.

-MPM

¹I’m taking some creative liberties with the parable to allow for some sweet YouTube linkage.
²Trademark pending. (But I’m confident that it’ll come through, because I have to be be the first person to ever come up with a 12-Step Program, right?)
³Shout-out to Ernie Hemingway, who I’m paraphrasing here.
Redacted for confidentiality reasons.
Also redacted.
Pun not intended, sicko.
Okay, it was intended that time. #sorrynotsorry
Trademark still pending. I’m really starting to get worried, you guys…

What Steph’s Taught Me About Writing

“Everybody’s given a certain skill set, a certain talent, a certain passion… Find what you’re passionate about in this life and work at it every single day.” – Stephen Curry

Long before he was a two-time MVP or a world champion, Stephen Curry was just a scrawny kid who found that life made a little more sense when he had a basketball in his hands. He was never The Chosen One. He wasn’t anything like Mike. And nobody – not even his own mother – thought he was destined for greatness in the NBA.Stephen curry as a kid

When he was a senior in high school, a grand total of one Division 1 school offered him a scholarship to play college basketball. Yes, you read that right: the greatest basketball player currently walking the Earth was ignored/passed over by 346 college basketball coaches, because they thought he wasn’t/wouldn’t be good enough. And this was a kid whose dad played in the NBA for 16 seasons!

But Curry refused to let rejection or disappointment slow him down. Instead, he took the sole scholarship offer extended to him (by tiny Davidson College) and continued to work his ass off. Three years later, he was the seventh player taken in the NBA Draft. His struggle, however, was far from over.

Not only was he selected by a moribund franchise (the Golden State Warriors), he spent the first chapter of his professional career hobbled by ankle injuries. Despite his talent, it was an open question whether he’d ever be able to stay healthy long enough to make an impact in the league.

But not even Curry’s own body could keep him from greatness. He just kept working. And working. And working…

…and now? Well, here we are:Steph 2 MVPs

It’s easy to get distracted by the shot-making and the ball-handling and the downright fucking wizardry, but the most amazing thing about Curry is his work ethic. His relentless drive to get better. And while you and I may never know the rarefied air that he’s reached in his profession, that doesn’t mean we can’t draw inspiration from his story. Because if you’re anything like me, you know what it’s like to have a dream; and you also know what it’s like to struggle (and struggle and struggle) to achieve it.

When I was a senior in high school, I wrote my first humor column for the school newspaper. Even now, I can still picture the faces of my classmates as they walked down the hall reading what I’d wrote, laughing their asses off. It’s probably the closest I’ll ever come to feeling what it’s like to dunk a basketball¹, because all I could think as it was happening was, “Holy shit! I did that!”

It was the moment that I found my passion.

Ever since, people have told me that I’m incredibly lucky, because some people — maybe even most people — never do. And while they’re probably right, there’s something they overlook in that calculus: just because you have a passion doesn’t mean the universe is going to wrap its arms around you and support it. Quite the opposite, actually.

The universe is like that friend we all had in college who smoked way too much pot: it doesn’t give a shit about anything. It’s not for you or against you. It just is, man.

So, when you have a dream – especially a big dream like playing in the NBA or writing a hit movie or best-selling novel – the odds are stacked against you, because there are a million other people out there dreaming the same dream. I mean, shit, most of the time, it can feel a lot like this:batman climbing out of pit

And it’s not like passion and talent provide you with some magic potion that teleports you to the top; they’re merely the two hands that can help you climb in that direction.

But there are no guarantees. No matter how much you want it. No matter how much you believe in yourself. Ascension is — and always will be — an open question, because you never know if your next foothold will support you…

…or if you’re destined to reenact the opening scene from Cliffhanger.

You may rise or you may fall, but in the end, it doesn’t matter whether you string sentences together for a living like I do or toss an orange orb through the ole basketball ring like Steph. All you can control is the work.

And if you keep working, who knows? Maybe one day you’ll fire up a (figurative) 40-footer with six-tenths of a second remaining and…

-MPM

¹Unless you count that 8-foot hoop in my backyard.

Judgment Is Calling…

I’ve spent the better part of the last two years thinking and plotting and writing and revising and editing and obsessing my way to the 330 pages that make up my first novel.

And I’ve spent the better part of the last five (ever since my life caved in on itself) in regular therapy, reflecting and conversing and soul-searching and journaling my way to becoming a person not only capable of writing an emotionally vulnerable 330-page novel, but a person whose self-esteem won’t be entirely predicated upon that novel’s success or failure¹.

Or so I thought. But then the phone rang last week, and all that hard work and self-care flew right out the window.Flew right out the window

When you’re a writer (or an actor, or really anyone working in Hollywood), your phone is like a loaded weapon: every time it goes off, there’s a chance you might die (or, at the very least, your dreams will). The phone isn’t just a communication device; it’s a career barometer. Did that producer like your pitch? Did that showrunner like your energy? Did the studio like your re-write? You’ll never know for sure until your agent or manager calls, because trust me, nobody in this town will ever give you a straight answer face-to-face².

And when you live in a world where a few chords of Marimba can signal a life-altering phone call or (another) painful rejection, you can become quite the Pavlovian pooch.Pavloian drooling dog.gif

Instead of drooling, my conditioned response typically involves some mild tachycardia³ and an adrenaline kick from my sympathetic nervous system. I also answer the phone as fast as humanly possible.

(Quick sidebar: I’ve learned that the urgency with which I answer a phone call is inversely proportionate to how secure I feel about the relationship I have with the person calling. For example, when my mom calls, I am often more than happy to let it go to voicemail. Whereas, if a girl that I’ve just started dating calls, I will answer immediately, i.e. thereby eliminating any chance of her having second thoughts, hanging up, and never calling me again.)

Needless to say, when my manager called last week (on the heels of reading my post about waiting), I answered on the first ring. And before we’d even exchanged pleasantries, my head was already spinning with the countless ways that I could improve my book. The same book that we had both decided was ready for public consumption (after the aforementioned two years of revising and editing and…)

He wasn’t calling to ask me to make changes, of course. He just wanted to give me a quick update: he’d sent the book to a well-regarded lit agent, who he thought might be a good fit to help shepherd us through the publishing world. As it had only been a couple of weeks, he hadn’t yet heard back from her, but it was a first step (on what will surely be a long journey — no matter how it turns out).

But my mind couldn’t focus on the journey; all I saw was my ship (a.k.a. my book) sailing off into uncharted waters. And I wanted more than anything to dive into the water and try to drag it back to the safety of the harbor.

“When an agent or manager reads something, they’re not expecting it to be perfect, right? I mean, they’re looking to see potential, obviously. But you’d never read something and not wanted to give the writer notes, right? You wouldn’t expect it to be, like, a finished product right out of the gate, would you?” I somehow managed to ask in one breath.

“Uhh…” my manager said, clearly unprepared for my avalanche of insecurity, “it- it really depends, ya know?”

What he didn’t know (what he couldn’t know) is that earlier that morning I’d received a text from my cousin, who’d had a chance to read my book over the weekend. His feedback was overwhelmingly positive, but he did have one small criticism: he felt like the story took a little while to get going. And, of course, me being a writer, all I could focus on was the criticism.

Distracted by work for most of the day, I was able to sweep the critique under the rug. But the moment I heard that an important decision-maker now had the opportunity to arrive at that same conclusion and tell me that she had zero fucking interest in ever representing me as a result, well… That’s when I started to panic a little.Beaker panic

Look, there’s no getting around it: when you work in a creative field, there comes a point where your work has to be judged (whether it’s by decision makers, collaborators, or audiences). But I don’t care how many times you’ve gone through it, it’s never easy. You think asking someone on a first date is a leap of faith? Try asking them to spend their time and energy (and quite possibly their money) on a story you cooked up in your imagination. That takes some serious chutzpah. Because let’s face it: no matter how great you feel about the work you’ve done, there’s always a question dancing in the back of your head:

Why do I deserve an audience? Or more to the point…

What makes me so fucking special?

Answering these questions can be a tricky bit of business for two reasons:

1) They’re inherently rhetorical, and even more to the point, self-flagellating.

And…

2) They present a false choice. The authors and screenwriters of the most successful books and movies aren’t “special”, and their stories don’t “deserve” an audience; they just find one.

Among the many prerequisites of writing anything worth sharing is an openness: to your ideas, to your emotions, and to a potential audience who might one day share the journey with you. In other words, there is no art without vulnerability.

But the thing I think we sometimes forget is that we have to remain open even after the creating has taken place. (Even when our only impulse is to curl up into a ball and protect ourselves).

We have to march right back to the edge of the cliff and leap. Again. And again. And again.leap leap leap.gif

-MPM

¹Of course, as all of that therapy and soul-searching has taught me, the definitions of “success” and “failure” are always self-imposed.

²Basically, if “The Industry” was someone you were dating, they’d break up with you by sending a text…to your friend…and have them do it for them.

³a.k.a. an elevated heart rate.

a.k.a. butterflies in my stomach.

The Waiting (Is the Hardest Part)

There’s an old axiom in Hollywood: actors aren’t paid to act; they’re paid to promote the movie. The calculus is obviously different for writers, because — let’s face it — we’re about as powerful a promotional tool as this guy. But if you broke down the money we’re paid based on the time that we actually invest in each stage of the creative process, it’d look like this:writing-waiting pie chart

In other words, writers aren’t paid to write; we’re paid¹ to wait. And if you have two ears and a heart, you already know that the waiting is the hardest part. Hit it, Tommy!

So, yeah, waiting sucks — we know this. But it’s also an unavoidable reality, because guess what? That agent / manager / executive / actress / director / producer / publisher / editor that you’re waiting to hear back from? They’ve got a shit-ton of other scripts/manuscripts that they have to read in addition to yours. And, I mean, come on, just think back to college for a second: was there anything you hated doing more than required reading?Student-Overwhelmed-Books

But enough sympathy for the reader(s) in this equation; this is a writing blog, after all: we care about writers. So, let’s talk about what we can do to make this “unavoidable reality” a little less awful.

To start with, we need to take a minute and think about why waiting to hear back about your work can be so soul-crushing. I suspect that if you’re anything like me, the thing that really agitates you is the not knowing. And if we drill down a little deeper, just beneath the surface of that “not knowing” is something even more unsettling: a loss of control.

When people² ask me what the hardest part of being a writer is³, my go-to response always includes the central irony of being a writer:

When you’re writing, you have God-like control over every detail of your story. But the moment you’re finished, and you put the story out into the world, you relinquish all control.

And when you think about it like that, it’s no wonder that the waiting drives us so crazy. Our stories are our (word) babies, and the moment we birth them into the world, we have to cope with the fact that we can’t protect them any longer. In other words, we’re basically this guy:

(As a side note: I guess I can understand why my mom is still calling to “check in on me” despite the fact that I turned 36 last month. Babies – both figurative and literal – are hard to let go of…)

So, given this unsettling and deep-rooted psychology, what’s a writer to do? Well, for me, it starts with communication. (Hi, Mom!)

If you’re fortunate enough to have representation, it’s very likely that any response you get to your material will come through them. This can often be problematic, however, as the only thing agents and managers hate more than required reading is breaking bad news to their clients. I know this because my manager and I had a conversation about this very subject just a few months ago. It went something like this:

MPM
What’s the worst part of your job?

MANAGER
Having to call clients with bad news.

MPM
Yeah, that would suck… But hey, at least you’re not the one  being rejected, right? I mean, when you write something, it’s  hard not to take a “no” personally since you’ve poured so much  of yourself into it.

MANAGER
Sure, but when you’re with the writer every step of the way, you become really invested in them. Plus, I have lots of clients, so I’m hearing “no” all day long.

MPM and his MANAGER both nod solemnly, feeling each other’s pain.

The thing I failed to mention at the time, however, is that there is something worse than hearing “no”: hearing nothing at all. It may sound counter-intuitive, especially if you subscribe to the old adage that “no news is good news.” But if we walk the “stories are our (word) babies” metaphor out to its logical end, writers are like the parents of a missing child when our work goes out into the big, bad world. Every second that passes without an update is another chance for us to assume the worst.

We writers are an anxious, insecure lot (who also happen to have incredibly active imaginations). Envisioning a doomsday scenario isn’t just easy for us, it’s practically a default setting. So, trust me, there isn’t a “no” on the planet that can make us feel worse than the cocktail of shame and self-loathing that we’ll surely pour ourselves if left to our own devices.

Look, I don’t care who you are (writer, actor, agent, manager, circus clown), hearing “no” is never easy. But you know what? At least a “no” provides a sense of closure and the ability to move on to the next step in the process. And at the end of the day, until we get that call that changes everything, we’ll settle for feeling like we’re (still) engaged in the—

Hold on, my phone’s ringing…

…Yeah, I should probably take this.

-MPM

¹And that’s only if we’re lucky enough to get paid at all.
²And by people I mean Uber drivers.
³Besides all the unwanted sexual advances from supermodels, of course.