"I am trying to check my habits of seeing, to counter them for the sake of greater freshness. I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I'm doing." - John Cage

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Writing Great Stories: Notes from Chris Millis' Talk at Sierra Nevada College 11/6/15

Chris Millis presented a dynamic and powerful talk on what makes good story and especially a good screenplay.  He played excerpts from movies that model this structure such as Moonstruck, Star Wars, Boogie Nights, Ali, and his own hilarious anti-hero film Small Apartments. Here are my notes from his talk.  I find that rewriting my notes into a post helps me assimilate the knowledge into my own work.  

What follows are Chris' talking points:

Chris started with setting up some context on story by quoting Toni Morrison, my newest hero (as I've just finished reading and teaching The Bluest Eye), from her essay The Site ofMemory.      

Excerpt from The Site of Memory – Toni Morrison:

I consider that my single gravest responsibility (in spite of that magic) is not to lie. When I hear someone say, "Truth is stranger than fiction," I think that old chestnut is truer than we know, because it doesn't say that truth is truer than fiction; just that it's stranger, meaning that it's odd. It may be excessive, it may be more interesting, but the important thing is that it's random - and fiction is not random. Therefore the crucial distinction for me is not the difference between fact and fiction, but the distinction between fact and truth. Because facts can exist without human intelligence, but truth cannot.

Humans need story to reveal the meaning of our existence

Plot is character revealed by action – Aristotle

·         Syd Field – Foundations of Screenwriting
·         Robert McKee –  Story
·         Blake Snyder – Save the Cat
·         Creativity, Inc
·         Andrew Stanton – TED talk on Story
·         The Site of Memory – Toni Morrison essay

Average Screenplay is 110 pages total

Act 1: 9-10 scenes (1-30 pages)
            Presents thesis, Ordinary world

Act 2: (31-84) (page 55 is the midpoint)
            Strange new world, Presents anti-thesis

Act 3: 85-110 pp
            Wisdom, Synthesis

More on Synthesis:
Hegel: The only way a battle could cease between a thesis and an antithesis was through the construction of a synthesis that would include elements from both sides and transcend the opposition, a transcendent “third” that is a new entity in which both are included.

Jung: The individual is faced with the necessity of recognizing and accepting what is different and strange as a part of his own life, as a kind of ‘also-I’.

How the subject has to recognize in the foreign power it fights the misrecognized part of its own substance – reconciliation of the subject with its alienated substance

We must see the character at work/home/play – play includes some special skill that can come to its full flowering – important in the synthesis

Movies as models of this structure:
  • ·         Moonstruck
  • ·         Star Wars
  • ·         Small Apartments
  • ·         Boogie Nights
  • ·         Ali
  • Toy Story (all of 'em)

Act 1:

Significance of opening image: metaphor of thesis

5 minutes into the movie: present a statement of theme, the basis of all decisions and the bigger idea of the movie

“Save the Cat” moments – you have to make people care – they need a problem they have to solve

Catalyst – the inciting incident 12 minutes in

Refusal of the call – individual vs. systemic problem, a period of indecision – character must leave Act 1 of their own accord, a decision is made!
·         Who will be the sounding board?
·         Who will be the mentor, supernatural aid?

Act 2: 25-30 minutes
·         Antithesis is presented (about 10 scenes)
·         B-story line begins (love story?)
·         The promise of the premise is given to the viewer in first half of second act
·         Characters bond and are tested, make friends and enemies
·         Introduce a new character just before the midpoint (p 55) – often there is a reversal of momentum here, tangible vs. spiritual goal conflict

Second half of Act 2: 9-10 scenes
o   Ideas fail, desperation grows
o   Friends abandon the hero
o   Consequences from earlier actions happen
o   Walls close in on hero (trash compactor in Star Wars)
o   All is lost – p 75 – called the Death Beat just before end of Act 2
§  Also death of mentor, loss of sounding board                       
§  Usually a “false” victory or defeat here – rock bottom
·         At 75-78 minutes
·         Visualizing moments – characters stare off into the distance, internal reflection, to go inward

At the end of Act 2 – what am I going to do? Find the courage to be the hammer, not the anvil – once this decision is made, it’s the breakaway from Act 2!

Act 3:
·         desire for wisdom to be achieved
·         To transcend opposition
·         A triumph of integration and wholeness
·         Combine knowledge and mistakes to succeed

One more thing: 5 final steps! Stack the odds against the hero and make the ending surprising as well as inevitable
·         Urgency -  beat the ticking clock
·         Surprise
·         New new plan
·         Crossing return threshold
·         Climax – falling with style

Coda? Denoument – not Deux ex machina!

If you have a problem making your plot have what it takes for the audience to care, go back to the beat right before the midpoint (at p 55) – find something there to be addressed or assimilated or overcome in the climax

Final image – opposite of opening image?

Why write story?
·         Contribute your own myth – make new mythologies!
·         You get a little window to tell your stories – what will be your story?

Friday, October 30, 2015

Update: 100 Poets for Change at Sundance Books!

You whom I could not save
Listen to me.
Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.
I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.
I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree. – Dedication, Czeslaw Milosz

With these words, poet Melanie Perish opened our open mic in celebration of 100 Thousand
Poets for Change at Sundance Bookstore in Reno September 26. About 35 people, readers and writers, gathered for our first annual event which included a panel discussion of poetry  and change followed by an open mic reading.

Reno Poet Laureate Gailmarie Pahmeier and UNR professors and scholars Ann Keniston and Steve Gehrke discussed how poetry can enact change as well as be the change itself. The words of Juan Felipe Herrera, the US Poet Laureate, set the tone for the panel:

“Poetry is a call to action and it also is action. Sometimes we say, "This tragedy, it happened far away. I don't know what to do. I'm concerned but I'm just dangling in space." A poem can lead you through that, and it is made of action because you're giving your whole life to it in that moment. And then the poem — you give it to everyone. Not that we're going to change somebody's mind — no, we're going to change that small, three-minute moment. And someone will listen. That's the best we can do.” - Juan Felipe Herrera

Gailmarie Pahmeier encouraged the audience to read widely.  She read from a new edition of Kim Addonizio’s Jimmy & Rita and the poem Instead of a Shotgun by Carey Salerno, promoting caring for animals and the homeless.

As each reader stood at the podium to share a poem that spoke to them personally of change or political awareness, I relished the experience of being in a room of people busy with paying attention to the poem and sharing a compassion for others.

Steve Gerhke read The Nail by CK Williams:

it’s we who do such things, we who set the slant, embed the tip, lift the sledge and drive the nail,
drive the nail which is the axis upon which turns the brutal human world upon the world. -  The Nail, CK Williams

Poet Ann Keniston read Dedications by Adrienne Riche and spoke about the tension between the wish to change people’s minds via poetry and the sense of the difficulty of doing that—as something that energizes and animates a lot of recent poems by herself and others. 

What I love about a reading at Sundance Books is letting my eyes wander the spines and titles of books surrounding me as I listen to the reading. Outside Sundance Books roared Reno’s leather-studded motorcycles and their riders.  A gust of wind blew leaves off the trees in the courtyard outside the Victorian building that houses Sundance.  When Michael Branch read these lines from Stephen Dobyns’ poem How To Like It, I wondered at how this poet could write so well about my own unsettled desire and restlessness:

These are the first days of fall. The wind
at evening smells of roads still to be traveled,
while the sound of leaves blowing across the lawns
is like an unsettled feeling in the blood,
the desire to get in a car and just keep driving. – Stephen Dobyns, How To Like It

I realized that the poems we had heard, poems of change, political poems, shared this restlessness, dissatisfaction, and sincerity while resisting cynicism.  Everyone who participated in Reno’s Poets for Change event is already brainstorming ideas for next year’s celebration, excited to see where we can go with 100Thousand Poets for Change.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Poetry as Change, Refugees, our new Poet Laureate and 100 Thousand Poets for Change

“Poetry is a call to action and it also is action. Sometimes we say, "This tragedy, it happened far away. I don't know what to do. I'm concerned but I'm just dangling in space." A poem can lead you through that, and it is made of action because you're giving your whole life to it in that moment. And then the poem — you give it to everyone. Not that we're going to change somebody's mind — no, we're going to change that small, three-minute moment. And someone will listen. That's the best we can do.” - Juan Felipe Herrera

I met my friend at Coffeebar this morning – it was our first opportunity to catch up since she had returned from her first experience of Burning Man (see her beautiful article in The Tahoe Weekly). After she filled me in, I was surprised that she hadn’t heard about the horrible situation refugees in Europe were experiencing as they escaped war in Syria and other places. She'd been in another world. The news has pressed on me daily – and their helplessness in the face of brutality makes my own helplessness seem that much more insignificant.  What is our responsibility to stay informed on international updates?  How can we live a life that does not reinforce the inequalities that cause these problems? My friend asked “how can we live open to love? That’s the problem. No one wants these people who aren’t of their own tribe.”  I feel that I can’t make a turn without needing to reprimand myself for a choice I make on how I live.
Last weekend I was in Texas at my uncle’s memorial service.  He died suddenly last Tuesday.  How would I want to be spoken about by friends and family at the end of my life? What is important is what we do, actions we take, how we reach out to others, how we impact each other.  That’s what I took away from a weekend of reconnecting with cousins and relatives I hadn’t seen in over a decade.  They were open and welcoming to me and my brothers and family.  That’s what matters.

That’s why our new Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrerra inspires and comforts me as much as he does.  I met him last year when he came to the Writers in the Woods reading series at Sierra Nevada College to read his poetry with Jane Hirshfield.  His voice is soft and sure and listening to him read his poems made me want to sit down and free my own voice in the way he has let his voice free.  He was interviewed on NPR a few nights ago and spoke about poetry as action. A call to action, yes, but writing the poem, and the poem itself, is action. This is an antidote to my helplessness.

This idea of poetry as action and even change is the foundation of 100 Thousand Poets for Change, a national event happening September 26th. I’ve helped organize a local event at Sundance Books in Reno from 3-4:30 pm that Saturday afternoon.  A panel discussion will explore the idea of change and how poems can take on the idea of change.  An open mic will feature poems of change.  If you have been feeling helpless, come to our event on 9/26 and tend to the actions you take each moment. As my friend says, every small gesture makes a difference.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Drought, Missing Out, and Writing

We are always haunted by the myth of our potential, of what we might have it in ourselves to be or do... We share our lives with the people we have failed to be. – Adam Phillips 

Recently I hiked out to Prosser Reservoir via the Sagehen Creek trail with Stoli. The water was a sunken blue meniscus in the dirt surrounding it, the area it used to fill, what it used to be, and what defines it now. I was thinking about the quote from Adam Phillips, that our lives are informed by the lives that got away from us, what we feel we are missing.

I just returned from a road trip to Colorado to reconnect with who I was in my 20's, when it was easier to stand still, listen, and breathe in beauty. I am surprised there is any water in the reservoir today. The Manzanita leaves have begun changing to yellow and Cottonwood leaves have fallen golden to cover the winding trail. That person I was - where is she now?

As Phillips wrote in Missing Out, "we may need to think of ourselves as always living a double life, the one that we wish for and the one that we practice; the one that never happens and the one that keeps happening." When I write I sense this same gap between what I want the shape to be and what the shape becomes. On the page is the double life of the piece - what it becomes and what it could have been. I think forgiveness in writing is saying this is who I am. I want to bring this forgiveness into my writing this fall, to take this windy path towards an original expression.

I'm really excited about the new series of workshops starting mid-September in Fiction and Non-Fiction. If you are working on a book project and want to ready it for publication (or finish it), these workshops are for you. The Tuesday night workshop is a fun and generative workshop for beginners as well as experienced writers who want to learn new methods to be creative and develop a variety of writing tools. All of these workshops are particularly effective at breaking through writer's block and building a sense of community.

The Literary Arts & Wine reading series at Coffeebar every third Sunday of the month is taking off! Great readers and a relaxed venue has made this a fun event where you can listen to talented regional authors. Don't miss the new open mic series at Darkhorse Coffee in Truckee every 2nd and 4th Sunday at 7 pm. Untitled: a word jam is a place to read your own words or the words of another who has inspired you. We start each open mic with an interactive prompt writing at each reading to generate new work.

I'll be reading from my poetry chapbook Bite and Blood at the Sacramento Poetry Center October 17th. The book is now available at Bookshelf in Truckee ,Sundance Books in Reno, Bespoke in Downtown Truckee, and Trunk Show in Tahoe City!

I'm always available for individual coaching, content editing and manuscript review. I find this work incredibly fulfilling for myself and productive for writers who want to develop and complete a writing project. I work with adults and students of all ages.

Happy Writing!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Young Voices: Part 2

Here’s the follow up to my last blog about 6th grader Cody Wilson, the thoughtful, original and witty writer I’ve been working with since he was in second grade.  

At first we started writing comic books that he also illustrated – action adventure stories with elaborate battle strategies.  As Cody developed his skills, depending on the mood of the day, we alternated between exploring what makes a story a story and the fundamental yet not so fundamental variety of ways to use the tools of writing such as image, sentence structure, and figurative language.  Along the way we discussed what he was reading and practiced levels of interrogation of that material.  Each writing session involves combining recent experiences with a focus on a theme and a prompt. 

I’m so excited for his first publication, a one page spread in our very own Moonshine Ink!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Young Voices: Writer and Inventor Cody Zachariasen Speaks Loud and Clear

Cody Zachariasen is a 5th grader at SELS in Lynn Akers’ class, a pitcher in Little League, and a writer. He’s been writing with me most Wednesday mornings for the past 3 years.  Together we explore what is a story and how to tell stories in different genres and points of view, how to connect what we are reading to what and how we write, and play with craft such as metaphor, leaps in association, writing dialogue and character development. 

On May 3rd Cody participated in his first open mic at Darkhorse Coffee in downtown Truckee.  The Untitled: a word jam is a gathering of people reading works written by themselves and others on the second and fourth Sundays of each month at 7 pm.  It’s a place for people to read, listen, and be inspired. I had the opportunity to ask Cody a few questions about his experience.

TRW: What are you interested in?

CZ: I’m interested in reading adventure books and making movies.  I especially like the Warriors series and I like to make movies because I’m a creative person. I like the Warriors series because the cats act a lot like humans in their conflicts, rivalries and relationships, also the way they are too proud to admit they need help.

TRW: When you read at the Untitled: a word jam open mic, where you nervous?  How did you handle it?

CZ: Uh, Duh, What do you think, of course I was nervous and I handled it by standing and being nervous for a little bit and then reading without looking at the people.

TRW: Why do you write?

CZ: I write because there’s no better way to get ideas out of your mind and onto something other people can read. For example, let’s say a guy named Billy wants to share his Idea about a solar powered plane.  Now obviously he could draw a picture, but that doesn’t cover several important things about an idea for an invention.  Those things are: What it does, how it does what it does, and why it’s useful.  Now Billy could write an essay – like 1-2 pages where he simply states his idea, what it does, how it does what it does, and why it’s useful. Or Billy could write a story about his idea that includes what it does, how it does what it does, and why it’s useful.  Well, that pretty much covers why I write.  Oh, and one other thing; it’s fun.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Possibilities in Collaboration of Words and Visual Art

"Seeing comes before words" - John Berger

“Visual artists must use words to accompany their work in the form of bios, statements and titles, not to mention presentations.  And those words are deceptively important to the success or failure of their works” – Jennifer Garza-Cuen


"Book in the Sky" by Xu Bing:

"A writer continually struggles for clarity against the language he’s using or, more accurately, against the common usage of that language. He doesn’t see language with the readability and clarity of something printed out. He sees it, rather as a terrain full of illegibilities, hidden paths, impasses, surprises, and obscurities." – John Berger

"I know of no other visual Western artist who has created an oeuvre that visualizes with living colors the silent space that exists between and around words. Cy Twombly is the painterly master of verbal silence." – John Berger 2002

"Ligon is a conceptual artist who is known for his large-scale paintings.  In his series How it Feels to Be Colored Me, he uses texts about his identity as an African-American man laying them on top of one another until they blurred into ambiguity." - Risdworkworks.wordpress.com

 Claudia Rankine used this image in her most recent book Citizen as part of her discussion of race:

"Tracey Emin is known for her notoriously candid drawings revealing some of her deepest personal reflections on her relationships.  Often graphically sexual, her work is filled with witty autobiographical comments. Additionally, Emin has completed a series of neon phrases; some lengthly and thoughtful while others delve into intimacy in just a few words." - Risdwordworks.wordpress.com

"Extended Captions" are works that combine prose and image:
In that place there is for knowing he knew he was not yet a man, but he didn’t feel it. He could recite enough life for twenty lifetimes and he knew where the exits were in the dark. Every Wednesday at 7pm she came. And every Wednesday at 7:05 she bought a small popcorn and a large soda. It didn’t matter that she looked right through him. It didn’t matter that she didn’t notice him noticing.  It just didn’t matter.  In that place there is for knowing he knew it was just a matter of time. And he was patient.
Jennifer Garza-Cuen –  MFA  Photo 2011
Modern ekphrastic poems have generally shrugged off antiquity’s obsession with elaborate description, and instead have tried to interpret, inhabit, confront, and speak to their subjects.

The Great Figure

Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
fire truck
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city

William Carlos Williams

To challenge yourself to respond to art, see Rattle's monthly ekphrastic challenge: http://www.rattle.com/poetry/extras/ekphrasis/

Letterpress Broadsides:

A fascinating study is how Emily Dickinson possibly used the medium of paper as a shaper of form for her poems:

I learned so much about my own poem by collaborating with Andy Cline of Roundwood Furniture in King's Beach: 

My writing process has taken advantage of drawing to explore deeper into a poem in progress:

I've also used paper itself as a medium to move words, lines, and language around into varying juxtapositions in my revision process: