Bill Hader hosted Saturday Night live this past week, and, surprisingly, ranked historically low ratings. Despite Hader’s status as an SNL favorite and his new movie, The Skeleton Twins (with fellow SNL favorite Kristen Wiig) out in theaters, even I didn’t watch it. I like Bill Hader, particularly for his bizarre portrayal of Julian Assange.
The one character that seems to resonate most with the zeitgeist is his adorably esoteric nightlife pundit, Stefon. His mannerisms- the face-covered giggle, the sleeve plucking- remind me of my nephew, and his love of surreal entertainment usually cracks me up.
Honestly, I think I’ve been to some of those parties, particularly when Vince was playing with The Absinthe Drinkers. Preponderance of guests with mechanical arms? Check. Improvised jazz theramin? Check. Woman using a live python as a hair ornament? Check. Three witches making out under a giant paper-mache tree? Check.
Two things bother me, though. Hader’s inability to keep from laughing on camera rubs me the wrong way. I don’t find it as endearing as the character. It’s wonderful to be reminded that this is live, and chaos can happen, but it just seems like whoever’s operating the teleprompter is playing a joke on the audience.
The other bothersome thing is when Stefon’s love of the freak-show element becomes the disturbing recurring gag about human machines, which inevitably turn into some kind of riff on dwarf-tossing. If it were a woman being shaken until she says “ask again later,” it’d be rapey; if it were a person of color, it’d be censored. True, Stefon’s descriptions are lavished with variance in ethnicity, gender and age, but a person being used as a machine seems less consensual and more cruel.
Peter Dinklage has appeared on SNL’s Weekend Update, as a Drunk Uncle, and he was no stranger to cruel humor. It’s surprising that SNL’s writers would continue to make the human machine joke, if the popular, award-winning and really fucking smart Dinklage is a friend of the show. What I’d really, really, really love to see, is for Stefon to get started on one of his explanations of human traffic cones/fire hydrants/boom boxes/suitcases/kites/piñatas/Magic 8 balls/whatever, and have Dinklage slowly, deliberately, roll up right next to him, just out of his line of sight.
I mean, come on, writers. If you’re going to do rough comedy, do it in an interesting way.
SEO (Search Engine Optimized) Writing seems to be the main topic of interest that anyone ever comments about here on this little blog of mine. It’s fascinating. With all of the writing that I and sometimes my husband do about pop culture, music, theatre and the occasional recipe for canine cuisine, the one weird trick that always comes through in the Comments section is something like this:
Good morning writer and hello to you your website should have more traffic driving it I can make with SEO content your website traffic increase by one thousand and ninety seven percent, SEO is the wave of the future just like jetpacks and flying cars SEO Writing is a rare and highly specialized skill to use SEO keywords optimized to bring the highest Google results and increase your market potential my SEO experience and background in writing fluentest English extensively can bring SEO to your website now and make lots of more big dollars for you and myself huge potential contact me now sir more info about SEO Writing.
To which I say, wow, thank you for the word salad, and hit delete.
I’ve done a fair amount of SEO writing, and I’m not a bad SEO writer. A client contacts me, because they want some content on a particular topic for their website, and they want someone to do the research and write about it in an accessible way. They tell me how many words they want, usually around 300-500 per article, and what topic. I research it, write about it, rewrite it again to make it more concise and reader-friendly, and send it. They pay me, and everyone’s happy. They get clear, concise, accessible, researched website content to explain more about their product or service, and I get paid to do something at which I’m good and that I enjoy.
The difference between SEO writing and other kinds of writing is the search engine optimization. In order for the article to rank highly in search engine results, it has to use the same keyword as many times as possible. So, if you write an article that used the phrase “SEO writing services” once in the entire 500-word article, its page won’t have as high of a rank as, say, one that includes the phrase “SEO writing services” seven or eight times in those 500 words.
Now, when I was a wee lass learning to write out on the Quaker farm, where we still used paper and pencils, we were taught that repeating the same word too many times is tiring to a reader. And of course, since it was a Quaker school, wasting paper and graphite was a terrible sin. We learned not to bore our audience by repeating the same word over and over again. Sadly, the Internet was a gleam in the eye of a developer, and “page rank” was never discussed in seventh-grade writing classrooms.
But now, in the writing marketplace, repetition is good. However, a good SEO writer has to find inventive ways to make sure that the finished product is a clear, informative, helpful article with genuine information. It can’t just be a string of keywords, like a pattern of colored beads.
Currently, on Elance.com, writing is the second most high in demand skill, second to Web design. You’d think that a good SEO writer would be working 9-5 every day and making $40 an hour. Unfortunately, the offers are very strange, relative to the expected product and service an SEO writer provides.
As I write this, mostly based on experience, my current word count is 618, and it’s taken me roughly 20 minutes. I’ve barely done any research on this topic, other than a few quick glances at Elance. If I were to write an article with citable examples and footnotes, it would have taken longer. Furthermore, a shorter article takes more time, because of the thought process involved in condensing a topic. There is a reason that the haiku is an art form.
Most clients offer, for a 500 word researched article, using SEO writing, less than five dollars. I have been offered as little as six-tenths of a cent per word.
I have been fortunate, in that clients I’ve worked with have paid more, and they’ve been happy with my work. Unfortunately, these clients are few and far between. It’s really sad that the ability to write well is so undervalued, and it sincerely makes me wonder what I’m doing with my life sometimes. But, I’m really good at this, I can’t stop doing it, and this is what I want to do for a living.
In other news: The search terms used to find this blog, relative to the actual content, are often interesting. I think of this as a place for us to write about our music and theater projects. The most popular search terms used to find this blog are as follows:
Only one of the search terms used to find this blog was phrased in the form of a question, and it’s a good one. I’ll try to answer it.
I am 16 do I need pat smear
Pat Smear is, of course, a guitarist in the ubiquitous Foo Fighters, and was occasionally an additional live guitarist for Nirvana. Both bands are and have been among the most popular music in America, and I’m sure that if you turn on any rock or college radio station in America and wait a few minutes, you’ll certainly hear “Learning To Fly.” I’m not saying that this is a bad thing, it’s just that it’s everywhere. So since you phrased your question in terms of need, I’m not sure that they answer is yes.
Could you benefit from Pat Smear? Sure. But do you need to seek his work out, like a signed first edition of To Kill A Mockingbird?
If you’re going to do that, I recommend starting with work more indicative of his particular style than the latest Foo Fighters album, or Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged In New York album. I think it’s time that you catch some Germs.
Okay, you’re sixteen, which means that the Los Angeles punk scene’s heyday was long before you were born. The Germs, however, are widely considered to music historians as one of the most influential bands in punk. Pat Smear played guitar, Lorna Doom played bass, Don Bolles was the drummer and their lead singer was Darby Crash. Joan Jett produced their one studio album, (GI), in 1979. Despite critical acclaim for this album continuing to the present day, the band broke up following Crash’s suicide in 1980. You may want to get your friends together to watch Penelope Spheeris’ documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, as well as the biographical film What We Do Is Secret.
As you’re watching this, take a look at how these individuals were able to rebel against corporate capitalism without using the Internet (to say nothing of cell phones or Pitchfork), as well as how women presented themselves as agents of their own fortune and/or victims of male rebels. Ask yourself, what is victimization, and what is power, and how do these individuals make use of these systems of domination and control? Do they win or lose? How and why? Then pick up a copy of (GI), and congratulate yourself on confusing the hell out of your parents by embracing an important part of American history.
At age sixteen, do you need Pat Smear? Yes, but you also need Joan Baez. You need music that will fan the flames of your adolescent curiosity and ambition and fuel you to make the most out of your life. Go for it.
I realize that it is entirely possible that what you meant to write is “I am sixteen do I need a pap smear,” in which case, that is a personal decision you should make with a doctor or nurse practitioner.
However, if you are really concerned about cervical cancer, here are some resources which may be helpful.
Earlier this summer, I was browsing through different lists of playwriting opportunities, and I found one that reached out to me like a beacon in the dark.
TEATRO MOZ, sponsored by Real Women Have Curves Studio, is sponsoring a short play contest. Do you have a dramatic memoir about the first time you fell in love with this Charming Man? Do the lyrics or title of a Smiths/Morrissey song inspire a story in your soul? Submit a short MOZ-themed play for a chance to win prizes and a staged reading of your piece by professional actors later this year!
I thought, that sounds so crazy it has to be fun. I know next to nothing about Morrissey, but I bought “You Are The Quarry” when it first came out, and loved “Irish Blood, English Heart.” I listen to The Smiths’ older hits quite a bit, and the sense of desire and longing, maybe desire for desire itself more than fulfillment, speaks to my inner gay man. Usually themed play contests and showcases are about heavy topics, but I’ve never seen anything like this before. I thought, I love this.
So, I sent a quick e-mail to my friend Rhienna. She is a DJ and creative connector (as DJs tend to be) in Portland, and every year she runs the annual Morrissey Mobile Disco bike ride as part of Pedalpalooza. Basically, a lot of people get together and ride a pre-planned course, with decorated bicycles, Morrissey look-alike outfits, and, of course, music, music, music. I thought if anyone knows anything unique and fun about the phenomenon that is Morrissey, she does.
We had a cross-country confab. Oddly enough the deadline for the play contest was immediately following the next annual ride, so she had plenty of fresh material. We talked about Morrissey, his cancelled tour dates, loving him from afar, how his appeal transcends boundaries of sexuality and gender, and how the ride is a really fun time. and how riding bikes with a group on a gorgeous summer evening is a fun young and in love or in love with love thing to do. Their course’s goal was the Joan of Arc statue in Coe Circle, and since it’s beautiful and Philadelphia also has a Joan of Arc statue, I had to work that in.
She gave me a lot of information, helped me sort through ideas, and I typed it up and sent it.
Today, we got an e-mail from Teatro MOZ that Pretty Petty Things was picked as one of ten finalists! Which means it’ll be in the showcase!
Not only am I excited about this, I’m excited about what this means. Basically:
Someone in LA loves the phenomenon that is Morrissey and his music to say, “let’s put up a short play festival about this thing I love.”
And a professional theatre said, “Sure. This is new, this is different, yes, we’ll back it.”
And they sent a call for entries out.
Meanwhile, in other cities in other parts of the country, two women said, “You know what, that sounds like fun and it’s something I know a little bit about, I’ll work on something and send it in and if they like it, they like it.”
Basically, once again, as Lorna Howley said, what is theatre but a big party?
I love the idea of people getting positive ideas and putting them together to make something bigger and better. which, in my opinion, is what theatre is all about.
and I can’t wait to find out why the celebrity judges are. I’m secretly hoping for Thomas Lennon.
There’s a weird error in my coding here. This is my punishment for blogging while away from my laptop. My point in the unavailable image was, be sincere and honest, and take notes afterwards in the margin of your program in a pub where no one from the show can see you do it. Have a cocktail, get some rest, post it later.
‘Tis the season for complaining about the heat, and keeping our mouths shut about one of the least fun by-products of summer: Other People’s Odor. Sure, a little bit of someone’s musky personal scent is nice if you’re intimately involved, or would like to be.
Unfortunately, this time of year means that more often than not, you get exposed to an awful lot of the following:
Or, at least, I seem to get exposed to an awful lot of the following, so please consider this a PSA from myself and most of the people who work with the general public during the summer. There’s something about my workplace’s “movies and air-conditioning available at no cost to you” policy which attracts a lot of Pungent-Americans.
Being introduced to you in an olfactory way, before I can see or hear you, is not fun. Sometimes it’s like having your open palm plastered up against my face without warning. Other times it’s more like your foot. In urban environments, with a lot of car exhaust, open trash containers, and so on, bacteria in the air will be more likely to stick to your skin and grow smelly, without your being aware of it.
I’ve known a lot of people who say that deodorant and anti-perspirant are toxic and harmful. Another thing that’s harmful is not being clean. I don’t care what kind of magic crystals or baking-soda pastes you want to rub all over your tender parts, if you don’t start the day with a clean slate, you’re going to smell disgusting. Even if you live on a diet of home-grown shredded carrots, alfalfa sprouts and springwater, and are directly descended from Saint Bjorn of Liliodeur, the bacteria on your skin will mingle with your nice healthy sweat and turn it into The Army Of Stink.
Which brings me to my next point.
It seems that the warmer and more humid the weather in this magic valley between two rivers becomes, the more people think artificial scent will cause a cloud of welcome to manifest itself around them.
Remember how I said that if I smell you before I can see you, it’s like introducing yourself to me by booting me in the face? Okay. If I can smell your cologne, perfume, rare Arabian body oils, or what have you, it’s like having a pot of warm mystery chemicals dumped on my face. Some of you are so generous with your application of mystery chemicals that it leaves a trail behind you.
If your smell precedes you and leaves a wake, that is not good. It’s gross. It’s as if you’re an animal marking its territory. It’s gross if you’re dirty and smell like it, it’s rude if you’re spreading a chemical hangover, and it’s double plus creepy and sickening if you’re mingling bacteria, body stink and chemicals.
When I was but a wee lass, I remember reading in Cosmopolitan magazine, “Use scent to invite, not repel.” This is an odd thing for a magazine to have printed in it when it was full of paper cards painted with enough perfume samples to choke the censer department of the Vatican during Easter Week, but I digress. Further, it said that if you could smell the perfume, you were wearing too much, because we can’t really smell ourselves generally. True, by that point, it’s too late. (Yes, I read Cosmo when I was a kid. I learned early about the war on women.)
Applying scent to your pulse points intensifies the chemical reaction, because your veins provide heat. (Oh, wait, what was this whole thing about already? Not choking other people to death during the warm season?) Even if the label says “body spray,” that doesn’t necessarily mean you should spray it all over your whole body. He also suggest applying the scent to spots lower on the body, such as the back of one’s knees, further from the general population’s nostrils, to give it time and distance to dissipate. I apologize to the vertically challenged.
Layer. Verspoor suggests layering a favorite cologne mist over a scented body wash or lotion. In my opinion, be aware of what you’re adding and how they mix. If you’ve added Marlboro smoke, Budweiser and garlicky pizza to your body on a hot day in the last hour, no quantity of Hugo Boss will make you smell good.
A little dab’ll do ya, just like Brylcreem and Chinese Five Spice. Give the scent an opportunity to mix with your body’s chemicals and make a unique smell, don’t shove everyone’s nose into the bottle. You don’t need to re-spritz throughout the day.
Please, out of kindness to your fellow summer-sufferers, bathe. The Axe Effect is (mostly) a lie. Hosing yourself down with a variety of unguents won’t hide your stink, it only makes it worse. We know you know where the nearest public restroom is. Neither deodorant nor cologne should be a substitute for water.
Actually, nothing should be a substitute for water. Remember; hydrate, bathe, don’t overdo it.
For more information about How Deodorant Works, James May has a straightforward explanation for you.
Last night, Dominic D’ Andrea sent out the e-mail explaining the groupings of scripts and pairing with directors, and just reading it feels really, really good. Dominic D’Andrea is one of the hardest working men in show business: he produces these One-Minute Play Festivals all over the country. They’re not just specialized by city or state; INTAR Theatre has partnered with the OMPF to create the One-Minute Play Festival of Latina/o Voices twice. The focus and energy of last year’s Philadelphia show was contagious enough to sell out all three performances. Remembering how much fun it was to watch and be part of, and looking forward to this new show, is making me feel all twitterpated.*
One of the goals in writing a piece for the One-Minute Play Festival is to reflect or explore a issue or trait unique to the host city, in a simple, powerful theatrical moment. So, basically, it’s a living haiku about our experience right now. They take longer to cook up and picture in your brain, than they do to actually write. When you write them, you have to write them so they’re actually much shorter than a minute, to give the actors room to breathe and be aware in the experience.
This is why we write plays, so we can take a plan and hand it off to other artists and see what they do with it.
Anyway, I’m excited, and based on the names and information I’ve seen so far, this promises to be a really good show. It takes place on August 3, 4 and 5 at 8pm, at the Adrienne Theatre. Yes, they’re school nights, it’s summer, deal with it. All the good stuff happens on weeknights anyway. I get more excited over new plays than babies or jewelry. This is going to have over a hundred new plays. Whee!
Come see my show, come see my show, come see my show, eh? Oops, I just got fined a million dollars.
In Moses Avalon’s recent article about Canada’s new anti-spam law, called CASL (pronounced “castle”), he describes a Kafka-esque or Orwellian nightmare in which bands who use a web-based form to gather their fans’ email addresses can be fined a million dollars for each e-mail they send to a Canadian recipient. Avalon focuses on the impact this legislation has for musicians, but this can apply to theater companies and any business owner, small or large, who needs to be able to reach a lot of people at once, on the cheap. Basically,
-if you have a super-cheap or free website, coded in HTML with a text box labeled, “fill in your e-mail address to join our mailing list,”
-and the user’s address is put on a list without a second opportunity to confirm that
-yes, they do want to join your mailing list,
-then, if you send them an e-mail, and they are a Canadian Citizen,
-you just bought the Canadian government a new library. Or something.
So, what are artists supposed to do to avoid this? Avalon says:
“The CRTC demands that every recording artist get “express consent” from each Canadian member of their mailing list before July 1, 2014. This requires figuring out who on a mailing list of potentially hundreds or thousands of opt-ins are Canadian, extracting their names, and then sending them another double opt-in permission email before proceeding to email them further. A task that experts on the subject agree will be impossible to do by the deadline. For the most part there is no way to tell which emails on a list belong to Canadians without expensive tracking services.”
Essentially, he implies that this law is an unnecessary and tiring burden on musicians, to pick through their e-mail lists with a fine-toothed comb, extracting the Canadian addresses and getting a second opt-in permission from the users in question. Furthermore, Avalon points out more about how this is all part of the vast government conspiracy to kill off every last independent artist with sweeping legislation;
“Or, or for the poor-man’s approach, if you’re a US band, you could simply stay out of Canada. And if you’re a Canadian band, you could move to the US.
I cannot think of a more bone-headed move on the part of our sister country. And all this time I thought they were supposed to be the kinder more polite America.”
I don’t think the government wants to kill artists off in one fell swoop. They wouldn’t enjoy that anywhere near as much as hunting us individually for sport.
So, before we all panic, let’s find out a little bit more about what this really means and what we can do about it.
Again, CASL states that e-mail recipients must have provided express consent. Generally, most businesses use what’s called a DOI, or double-opt-in method. You have probably seen this if you’ve signed up for any newsletter or social network in the last few years. Jeremy Moskowitz, who is a sharp mind among Internet technology people, describes DOI as:
1. They fill out a form on a website.
2. They get an email to confirm.
3. They confirm.
4. It’s registered as confirmed.
Jeremy said that e-mail list management systems such as Infusionsoft can show an e-mail list manager immediately if an address is confirmed (a human got the confirmation e-mail and responded) or unconfirmed (that hasn’t happened and you might want to remove that e-mail from your list). He said, “If you plan on running a business of any kind, you should consider using something that does this for you.”
Using a double-opt-in method allows you to be confident that your e-mail is actually going to humans interested in your work, not people who’ve been pranked, mis-spelled versions of the e-mail addresses of your fans, or bots.
“If you send out commercial e-mail, then you have to make sure that
(1) the recipient consents to receiving it, expressly or impliedly; and
(2) the sender/originator is identified, the sender/originator can be contacted, and
(3) the recipient can unsubscribe.”
So, basically, your e-mail list has to be based on a conscious and consensual exchange of information. (I can hear you now. “Oh, that sounds hard. Being a rock star isn’t supposed to be hard.”)
This is not a hassle, it’s an opportunity. Seriously. Remember when you were little, and your mom sent you to clean up your room, and you didn’t want to do it, so you shoved all of your books and stuffed animals into one pile at the end of the bed and said, “Okay, all done, Mom!” and she wasn’t too thrilled? Now, remember when she sent you to clean up your room, and took all your books and put them on the shelves in the order in which you knew they would get along with each other best and lined up your stuffed animals and dolls under the window in the order in which they best got along so that they wouldn’t fight, because really, that’s how all this trouble got started?
What? Was that just me?
Basically, you have to engage with your audience. Your e-mail can afford to be fun, as long as it’s clear and concise. Use your sense of play. That’s what got you into being an independent artist in the first place, right? Grant points out that the government provides a FAQ devoted to the intricacies of the new anti-spam legislation (really, they don’t want outsiders to stop doing business in Canada completely), but it can be about as simple as, “You’re receiving this commercial message because you signed up on our mailing list. Do you really want to be on our mailing list? If so, click here. Thanks!” and making sure that every e-mail you send out clearly states, “If you no longer consent to receiving these e-mails, ‘click here’ to unsubscribe. Thanks!” Think of this as a way of keeping your relationship with your audience engaged and active.
You might be saying, “But I have, like, dozens of fans on my mailing list, and I played a show in Wildwood last year while the Alliance de Surf Internationale de Quebec was in town, and they loved us! How do I reach them, legally, when I want to sell the new EP I spent my last dime recording and pressing?”
Okay. So, first of all, you get yourself a cheap e-mail list manager. Moskowitz recommends MailChimp, which, along with d0uble-opt-in gathering methods, can give you 12,000 emails to 2,000 subscribers for free. Send an e-mail out to your current homemade list BEFORE JULY 1, 2014, telling them that you want to make sure that everyone on the list is getting the email because they really want to. Give them a link to your page with the link for a double-opt-in option to join the new mailing list (this is where Mail Chimp comes in). While you’re at it, throw in a perk for joining the list: a free download of a secret track you’ve recorded, a pdf of a connect-the-dots puzzle, some kind of incentive for joining, to remind them just how terrific you and your craft are.
Look at managing your e-mail list as an opportunity to connect with your fans in a different way. You’ll clear out the old e-mail addresses that no longer function, and reconnect with your listeners in a way which shows them that you’re responsible as well as entertaining.
Moses Avalon is a guy who knows a hell of a lot about the recording industry. His books are chock full of good advice, not only for businesses, but also for anyone who wants to make their music, art or craft without being financially punished for it. In the case of his article about CASL, his opinion and description is fair, but slightly alarmist. Sometimes anxiety is a good thing, it can jolt you out of complacency and get you to try new things. Use this opportunity to change things for yourself and your audience.
Some years ago, Maya Angelou gave the commencement address at the University of Delaware, where I was an (itinerant) undergraduate. That year, many of my friends were graduating, so I wanted to attend the giant commencement ceremony to see them, but getting to hear Maya Angelou speak was A Very Big Deal.
I can’t remember her entire speech, word for word, obviously, but one concept stood out for me most. She said that every single person there had achieved what they had today, because someone else had “been a rainbow” for them; given them a hand, a leg up, written them a letter of recommendation, offered a second or third chance, paid a bill or packed a lunch. She said that because of this, it was now their responsibility to “be a rainbow” for someone else, and pay that help forward.
I think of this all the time and try to incorporate it in my life. Sometimes it means saying no, and sometimes it means saying yes.
Dermatologists hate me! Mortgage lenders curse my name! Why? Because I know the one weird trick that will help you, yes, YOU, pay off your mortgage, get rid of your wrinkles, reduce back and belly fat, and crack your script into shape to ensure total and immediate Hollywood screenwriting success in just minutes!
All of this is a gross exaggeration for comic effect, but you knew this, Gentle Reader. However, it’ll be interesting to see if my SEO skills result in some interesting search engine terms leading readers here.
Once upon a time, I knew a struggling actor, beginning playwright, and reasonably successful waiter. Just one? This one in particular, let’s call him Phil, had some bad networking habits. He was a schmoozer, and he was pretty good at getting into conversations about the business of making art with people more advanced in their career than he was. If you’re in any aspect of art-making, this will probably sound very familiar to you.
Inevitably, once some cheap wine or craft beer was flowing, and people were warming up, he would find whoever it was in the room that seemed to be the most advanced or successful in their career, corner them, and interrogate them, asking, “what’s the one thing, the one thing, the one piece of advice you can give me?” By then his interrogation had driven away anyone else, and the interrogated would be shuffling and hemming and hawing, until finally they muttered something about perseverance, and said anything Young Torquemada wanted to hear so they could slip out of the conversation.
What was never clear (to me, anyway), was whether:
A) he only wanted to know one thing, because he didn’t intend to take up too much of their time with his request for professional guidance
B) he thought there was one secret to success, one ring to rule them all, which could be easily summed up in one simple weird trick, task, or dance move.
The reality, as anyone with half a brain knows, is that there is no one weird trick that will get anyone where they need to go. While it’s true that someone’s life can be ruined with one weird mistake or choice, getting where you want to go takes many steps, lessons, and actions over time. Very few people get this until they’ve learned it the hard way (myself included). That’s why I’m using a bold font.
This past Thursday, I graduated with my Master of Fine Arts degree in Playwriting from Temple University. It was crowded and hot and fun and thrilling, and a big vindication of all the hard work I’ve done over the past four years. Now I have a bunch of scripts, an MFA, a rail pass, and a copy of Writing Movies For Fun And Profit. I can take the train anywhere I want (at least through Sunday at midnight, and as long as I’m not planning to go past more than 2 SEPTA transit zones).
I also have a lot of new neural pathways burnt into my brain, from a four-year regime of writing, rewriting, reading, reciting, reiterating, re-reading, re-rewriting, researching, rehearsing, late nights, early mornings, too little sleep, too much coffee, and occasionally too much bourbon. I’ve built some good habits and learned a few things. Which means I think now is the only time in my life that it’ll be fresh in my mind to address the question I was asked, back at the beginning of this process:
“Why do you need to go to graduate school to be an artist?”
It can be assumed that art is subjective, originality is more important than craft, that meaning is in the perception of the beholder, and maybe learning too many of the conventional rules of art-making can destroy creative impulses. Therefore, graduate school could, effectively, stifle real originality and creativity. There’s the NYC vs. MFA debate (as if New York is the only city in the world where anyone does creative work and gets paid for it), where some people feel that rather than attending grad school, young people should get a job in their preferred industry and do it until they become successful.
Some of this is true. Some of this is not. I would make the argument that work and education need to co-exist. The ivory tower can insulate and stifle, and the working world can make you honest, but wear you down as well. You need both to improve as an artist.
Prior to applying to graduate school, I had a pretty good cultural education. I had worked in a lot of theaters where I had the opportunity to see world-class plays, music, dance, and whatever the Flying Karamazov Brothers are, for free, as long as I didn’t mind standing in the back. I heard Randy Newman play from the trap room underneath his piano, I saw the first production of Anna In The Tropics from 8th row center in a 300-seat house, I’ve been hugged by Dael Orlandersmith and kissed on the cheek by Tom Stoppard. For ten years, I absorbed all the culture I could, read tons of scripts, and sold probably thousands of tickets and subscriptions. Through this experience, I learned a lot about playwriting. Some of it I learned in weekly writers’ workshops and self-producing. Some of it I learned by seeing what shows were selected every season and where, and what wasn’t.
The biggest thing I learned is that if you don’t clean up real pretty, you don’t get asked to the dance. The competition for what I wanted to do was so fierce that if I didn’t have the MFA making me stand out, anything else that would was probably The Sarah Kane Solution.*
Right before I started graduate school, I was asked, “How is going to graduate school going to make you a better artist, something which relies on originality?” and I finally said, “I don’t know, but I have to try, because I can’t work the overnight shift at the big-box craft store for the rest of my life.”
So, here’s what I did learn in graduate school, how it changed me, and why I would advocate a mix of graduate school and “real-world” work in order to improve as an artist.
First of all, as Polly Carl said, it’s a terrible idea to go directly from your undergraduate years into a graduate writing program. You need to go out and make mistakes and get scared in order to fully understand risks, stakes, consequences and motivation. Many playwrights who come from Ivy League universities produce scripts which suffer from the consequences not of the stakes needing to be higher, but the consequences of your protagonist not reaching their goal be a fate worse than death. If you spend your summers playing piano and tending bar in Brooklyn or Prague while reading poetry, or using the word “summer” as a verb in Cape Cod, you don’t know what a fate worse than death is. You need to get lost in very bad neighborhoods, and find your way home all by yourself. You need to run completely out of food but still scrape up enough change to buy enough kibble to keep your cat alive. You need to work double shifts for a bad boss and too many customers and ache like you’ve been beaten with hockey sticks with no end in sight. You need to get so broke that you will do anything to get enough to eat, and then do that anything. You need to let time and tide and experience work on you. You need to learn the hard way who your real friends are. Then, when you do get a good job, survive the night, see the sun rise, sink your teeth into that excellent meal, you need to let yourself feel real, heart-warming gratitude and pay it forward. After all that, you’ll have something to write about.
Secondly, it is true that graduate school insulates you from the “real world,” but this is a good thing. Effectively, it is a safe space to make creative mistakes. If you make mistakes in a job, you get fired, so you learn very quickly not to make mistakes. What you’re really learning is what your boss, client, etc. wants to hear or see. So, you might not create the most meaningful or affecting work, but you might create what gets you paid. Then you’re making the work that makes the groupthink happy and innovation doesn’t happen. Next thing you know, you’re buying up creativity books and going to seminars on “Five Highly Effective Ways To Think Outside The Box And Move Their Cheese.”
So, okay, yes, in grad school you get some playground time, and this is necessary in order to learn new ways of thinking.
When I wrote plays back in 2009, I used to type drafts directly into my computer, maybe very rarely handwriting if I had to.
Now, I storyboard and collage through idea generation, use a whiteboard through organizing my thoughts and structure, type in Final Draft, and scribble throughout the process on paper. I also listen and talk out loud. I’ve traded various iterations of the same sentence back and forth with director Liz Carlson to find the right blend of craft and intention. We had a great time trying to figure out which was better, “lie back with your bed full of cupcakes,” or “lie back in your bed full of cupcakes.” I’ve done improvisation and used puppets to find new ways of telling a story. I learned from the most powerful brains in art-making fields, all with widely varied perspectives and methods. If I had been in a for-profit work world, the opportunity to learn from leaders, make mistakes and try again would never have happened.
It’s true that Mark Foster of Foster The People honed his skills in commercial jingle writing, and John Hodgman sharpened his scholarly sensibilities as a literary agent. However, these artists also were able to use grassroots and non-traditional media to create their own sandboxes. “Pumped Up Kicks” garnered its initial success via a free download on Foster’s website. Hodgman wrote a column for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and now hosts his own podcast, Judge John Hodgman.
Were I cornered at a beer-and-cheap-wine fundraiser, by someone like Phil, and badgered for the “one weird trick to ensure success” (See how great my SEO skills are? You guys can stop spamming me now), there would be a lesson I learned the hard way, to which I would refer.
In my second year of graduate school, I was working on a docudrama, which I grew to loathe. It dealt with a brutal murder, a woman falsely convicted via the court of public opinion, and her exoneration. The source material was so savage it gave me nightmares.** Writing this play was Not Fun Anymore.
Now, if you have a situation where you work nine to five and make your art on the weekends and in the evenings, you can, and probably should, walk away from it when it’s no longer fun. If you’re doing it for love, and the love is gone, don’t stick with it. If you’re making a project for money, and you don’t love it, you’ll take the path of least persistence and do what the money wants. Client wants a beagle with mustard-colored ears on the label, you’ll make the beagle’s ears mustard-colored, even though you know caramel would be better. But, in this situation, failure to take this painful situation and not give it the honest illustration it required, would mean disappointment from people I admired, and in myself. It would have been failure without honor. I needed to rely on craft to carry me through the emotional pain of this project.
So, I dropped back, took a good look at the project, and thought about what it was that brought me to this project more than anything else. The idea of being tried in the court of public opinion was the one thing of which I could not let go.
I invented a new character, Lucky Moskowitz. Lucky is a 35-year-old lesbian who wears a lot of black, has black spiky hair, big blue eyes, and runs Lucky’s Gas n’Gulp out by the Interstate. She comes from a Chicago family of cops, but moved to the heartland to get away from a painful past with a mob-related former girlfriend (none of this ever came up in the play, but it sure is fun). Lucky gave me a means to tie together the disparate strands of the play and move the plot forward. Everybody comes through Lucky’s Gas n’ Gulp, and everybody’s got an opinion. Lucky’s presence allowed me to look at the story in a new way. The point is, eventually, you will hate a project so much that it is impossible to continue in the same way you always have. Then, you have to get perspective, and either find or invent a new personal point of entry into the work.
Then you have to do it again and again and again, using the right tools and with the right people, until it becomes second nature. Then you have to forget all that, back up, take a good look, and just do it.
I don’t think an MFA alone is superior to real-world work, or vice versa. Neither is superior or inferior to building one’s own sandbox and using new technologies to find an audience. I think all these components have to work together. I do know that I’m definitely a better, more confident artist with more tools and techniques for play writing and screen writing now, after four years in the playwriting trenches at Temple University, than I was in 2010, left to my own devices.
I believe that the one weird trick for absolute success is going out there and finding it for yourself.
That statement may seem like an oversimplification, and I don’t mean it that way. I could not have the portfolio of scripts, confidence, or neural pathways burnt into my brain without the teachers I had at Temple University, or the colleagues. I am deeply grateful every day for their work, skill, and talent. What I mean is that the journey is the destination, and the goal is the work is takes to get there.
*Which would make a brilliant band name.
**I dreamt that I was employed by a tourism board to find all the haunted houses in a given area, witness the ghosts living out their own murders, write them down, and make it into a book to sell ghost tours. After describing the dream to my prof, Bob Hedley, he suggested I take a couple of days off from the work.