Writing Pad

I took a seminar on pilot writing yesterday. It’s the first class on writing I’ve taken in seven years. The last time I did, I left those courses with an MFA in Dramatic Writing from New York University. It was taught by a couple of dramatic and comedic writers, and I mean “couple” in every sense. They’re engaged to be married next year.

They really knew their stuff. I picked up a few personal pointers for attacking problematic pilots. Most  of the content I knew - root your plot in your character, applying the “Story Circle” technique, avoid writing about writers. But what you don’t know - and maybe the most valuable information you can get - is how and why some writers do things they way they do.

As an artform, one of the toughest things to embrace about writing is that every time you do it, something about it changes. Some have found an assembly-line way of doing it that works for them. But for the most part, an individual project will have individual needs. Some you have the life experience to tell a relatable story as soon as you sit down at your keyboard. Others require weeks, months, years of research just to wrap your head around let alone crafting into a narrative.

I was looking for a fresh take on tackling a new concept and I got that. Now, I have to apply it. Here we go....

Micro-Fasting, Macro-Furious

My stomach has been aching off and on. I know what’s causing it and I have to keep reminding myself that it’s a good thing.

Micro-fasting as a trend makes me sick in a different sort of way. Personally, I started doing it because of a long-running research study that found people who skip breakfast tend to live longer, healthier lives. That, and because Terry Crews does it. It will probably be the only physical what that Terry Crews and I are similar.

But it’s caught on as a weight-loss fade. And to be clear - I could use some loss of weight. But it took me a lot of therapy to get as comfortable with my body as I am, which is to say not very. So I do it try and keep diabetes and all the other maladies that have haunted my family as far away as possible. My looks will be a byproduct of any dietary and exercise successes or failures.

The truth is most of us in America are suffering from success. The success of human progress. We live in one of the only times in history where you could not know how to cook and still live a fairly normal life. There are companies like Simply Fresh that have been built on significant portions of the population never learning how to scramble an egg.

I love to cook as much as I love to eat. I through dinner parties to entice my friends and colleagues into coming over and reading my newest plays, pilots, and screenplays. The best part of it is seeing them surprised by something. I made an herb rice with saffron last week for a reading of THE BEDTIME GIRL. Over the chicken wings and the charred sprouts, the rice was the sleeper hit of the night. I get a good amount of joy from seeing that. Not as much from writing, but enough that I would do it with or without new work.

The moral of all this rambling is that I needed to write, but my stomach got in the way. So I started writing about that, which lead to a rant about diet trends which turned into humble bragging about my cooking skills. But here we are at the end of a blog. I found something to write about not despite the obstacle of my hunger, but because of it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s finally after 2pm and I need to eat the next them I see.

That Dog Won't Run

Right when we get up is the only time he likes to cuddle. I adopted an Australian Cattle Dog, so it’s not that cuddling was high up on my list of wants from a pet. But it would be nice to have that kind of reassurance. A way of them telling you, “I really, really appreciate you making me a part of your life.”

But our quick morning nuzzles have always been followed by a brisk, invigorating jog. Starting my day off with a few miles under my feet makes the rest of the day’s challenges seem a bit more surmountable. And Aussie as a breed are supposed to like running constantly. The name tells you straight out what humans have breed them to do; herd cattle. They’re supposed to be a working breed.

Of course what they often don’t highlight is bred along with that instinctual desire to make sure every living thing is moving in an orderly manner comes one of the sharpest minds on four legs. They work for a purpose. Get the cows in the pin. Retrieve any wayward stragglers. Fetch as needed. They’re as goal-oriented as they are active.

So when Grayson, my dog/roommate, started to just stop in crosswalks at about mile 3 of our 4-milers, I was concerned he was injured. I took him to the vet and explained what had been happening over the course of a few weeks. And his doctor couldn’t find anything amiss with him. He had high energy (up until he stopped.) He’d play fetch to the point of dehydrating if I let him. His samples came back clear.

“He just doesn’t want to,” his vet told me. Up to that point, that had never even occurred to me as an option. They’re supposed to be your best friend and faithful companions. They aren’t supposed to have wishes other then treat, ball, scratch, repeat.

“What if someone forced you to do a physical activity that you didn’t want to do. Would you go through with it?” the vet asked me. When put into that context, it was clearly understandable. I have good friends who live only five miles away. But five Los Angeles miles which depending on the day, time, and events happening here could take anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour and change to get to and I bail on them. Running without the incentive to round up something or the pay off of toys must seem like a form of punishment to him.

So now my new goal is to run while finding a way to spice things up for him. I take different routes along the way. I make more frequent stops for him to pee and smell the other dogs and coyotes that came before. I’ve even reverted to playing Tug-of-War with his leash as I run, a habit I trained out of him as a puppy.

Seeing the individual in my dog has made me more aware of the individuality in people. We all have things we do for the ones we love that we’d rather not. And we all have things we love to do that we’ll never give up. What’s important is finding a way to keep yourself open to the needs of others. Even if it only gets you a couple of minutes of cuddles.

Read More

Fighting Physics

Accepting "Writer's Block" as a natural part of writing is one of the hardest things I've ever tried to do. I took to writing the same way I've taken to playing music as a child or studying the history of classical music in college. I had to do it, so I put my shoulder down and pushed my way through. Of course I gave up playing music in high school and I couldn't tell you a single fact about Bach or Prokofiev an hour after I pasted my Performance & Culture final that was required for a B.A. in Theatre Arts.

Having to play an instrument or graduate college were different kind of necessities then having to write. My mother was a musician and that class stood in the way of my degree. Duty and obligation were my main engines to getting through those challenges. I was - in all things - a stubborn, working-class kid who hated two things above all; being told I couldn't do something and failing at the things I did.

That attitude has gotten me through most of my artistic working life, as well. But the longer I do it, the more I realized my need to tell a story comes from an obsession with understanding people better. Why they believe in things that do them little measurable good. Why they stay in relationships and situations they hate. Why they hate at all. Exploring these issues is a life goal. There will never be a marching band competition to show off at or a degree that says, "A. Zell Williams: People Understander, Ph.D." There's the occasional commission or production, but the reason(s) I would write the thing being made comes months or even years before any opening night or season premier. And whatever that reason was is usually the thing I've lost sight of when I get blocked.

It happened recently this summer. I've been waiting on word from producers about a project I fell in love with in the winter. The reasons I wanted to work on that loomed massively in my brain, so much so that I found it hard to move on to other projects. As I waited and struggled to make other things, I grabbed onto topics that had absolutely nothing to do writing. One of which is physics.

I sucked at science. It may have taken me until late in my teenage life to discover drama as a passion, but it was always clear to me that the marriage of math and chemicals were two horrible punishments that combined, equaled torture. But now that my drive to push out stories has reached a denser wall then I'm used to, science a subject of relief. I owe physics nothing. Professionally, at least. In fact, I'm sure physics doesn't want what I'd have to offer it, which is mostly self-doubt and frustration. The freedom that comes from looking at a field so far removed from drama is like a bolt cutter to the restrictions - self-imposed and otherwise - put on my process.

Particularly, physics' rigid laws are a comfortingly nihilistic reminder of why writing, ultimately, can feel great. I'm thinking of the second law of thermodynamics: objects in the universe will always decrease their level of entropy over time. Everything wants to be in disorder. Everything wants to stay away from an orderly outcome. That's why it's amazing when your team's well-executed strategy leads to a score, or why the hardest recipes (usually & when done properly) taste the best. There are endless ways for things to go wrong and seemingly few for things to go right. Everyone's fighting against universal laws to make things happen. The "work" of a story is its structure.

I could and have made family, friends, and agents sit through ramblings of my early ideas. I spit out words that excite me like "trauma surviver" or "every human is a star" or "the equation proves love is definitely harmful" without having much else I can tell them. Literally, those thoughts I've grabbed and shot at someone is me reaching into the mess of what could be a script. "Writers' block" is hard because anyone who does it is going up against the natural order of the cosmos. My nurtured instinct to muscle my goal into submission, while still a core part of me, can't fight something as bedrock as thermodynamics.

Which, interestingly enough, made it a bit easier to come back to writing. The escapism I found in short YouTube clips from Hank Green and the theories of Dr. Michio Kaku took my eye off the ball of scriptmaking long enough to give in to the 2nd Law. And once I did, I started to see that to even begin to challenge entropy (writers' block,) I needed to know what order (question) was. What did I want to explore? What story was important enough to wage war against chaos? Questions in a story are like a picture; by the end of every story the audience should know what they're looking at. And most writers will tell you that at the start, their "questions" are messy. If they weren't, we'd just walk away from them. Clarifying that image is what should happen by the end of the story. That's a writer's antithesis of entropy. Answers.