Breaking Rules

I’ve learned the rules. I’ve learned that characters are supposed to be active. I’ve learned that they are supposed to have a grand objective they either achieve or don’t achieve by the end of their story. I’ve learned three act structure–introduction to conflict, wrestling with conflict, resolution of conflict. I’ve learned that every piece of dialogue is supposed to contribute to an ultimate goal. I’ve learned that it’s been this way since the Greeks crafted their tragedies and comedies and continues to be this way as Hollywood development agencies look over potential scripts. I’ve learned all of these rules over my undergrad career, and I think it’s time to start breaking them.

My project will we a fictional essay “documentary” that follows the story of a filmmaker and his relationship with a mysteriously unavailable woman before she disappeared. It will not necessarily have a goal driven plot–but it will give us information on their relationship that contains narrative movement and change and will end in him making an important decision. Will it follow some narrative conventions, yes. Will it break others, yes. Why am I doing this? I’m doing this because, after our workshop on avoiding what our departments tend to do too often, I find myself wanting to combat the rule of “goal” driven plots. If I worry too much about every scene having “goals” behind it, I think I will make this film something that it isn’t. Documentaries are made all the time in a way that tells interesting stories for the sake of the story or character within it being interesting–not necessarily perfectly structured. I think I will take this from documentary and apply it to documentary fiction. It will be more about keeping the audience captivated by the information rather than the goals. What I think is important about this is that as for the main character, he is captivated by information as well–he is captivated by the visual and verbal information that comes from his love interest. The audience will be in his situation, staring at the screen while analyze what there is to absorb.

 

What rules will your work break and why will they break them? What inspirations will you draw on? What rules do you wish to keep?

A Sure Form with an Unsure Content

As of a month ago, I was fairly certain of the project I would do for my capstone course. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, my opinion on this project reversed, and now I am back at the drawling board. Though I have ideas, I have no sure project in mind, which brings me both anxiety and curiosity.

The one thing I am sure of is the form in which I want to explore a topic. Over the past year, I’ve become familiar with documentary production. Last semester, I became familiar with essay documentary more specifically. It’s my favorite art form because it is an excellent device for an author to show their perspective both visually and verbally, allowing for a dialectic between the word and image. In it, the author of the documentary usually plays a role from behind or even in front of the camera (or both), and uses his voice over to comment on the events that visually unfold. An example of an interesting essay doc is John Bresland’s The Seinfeld Analog. You can also check out a recent essay doc I did (it’s a semi rough version uploaded for class that I haven’t started publicizing–we’re still polishing it in post prod). It’s called Screens and Stages. I also really enjoy work by Ross McElwee, in which he explores his own personal relationships in order to make metaphysical statements often very reflexive of film.

A more radical thing for me to do would be to make a fiction essay doc (meaning script something that the audience would perceive as a non-fiction documentary if they went into it without warning). I love non-fiction filmmaking because of it’s ability to make me go out into the real world, but I’ve always been curious about blurring the lines between fiction and nonfiction through documentary.

So, I have a mode down with several examples in mind (though I could always take more recommendations for inspiration!), but I’m not totally sure on the content. I have several things in mind:

1. An essay doc regarding my family or my home town. I think as a VERY small town raised boy, I have an interesting story on what it’s like to examine your roots before you graduate and finally make a large departure from them.

2. Possibly do a relationship oriented piece–explore the question of how much our emotions for someone is in our control or is determined by timing, place, and physiology.

3. Any interesting doc that can deal with identity in new ways.

 

I’m still very much in the brainstorming process. But I can tell you that I’m most inspired to do work that reflects on identity, relationships, sex, and that act of storytelling itself (especially if I can tie all of these things together). Let me know if you have any advice for finding my muse!

You’ve just got to do it

Alright, everybody, my e-portfolio is finally done!

What I’ve found really interesting about the e-portfolio is the process it takes in making things come together. While we were drafting our e-ports throughout the semester, answering the questions that the sheet demanded of us, I didn’t really take my responses that seriously. That is to say that I was answering the questions merely for points rather than coming up with answers I found genuinely interesting. This stirred anxiety within me because I felt like I didn’t have any answers and my portfolio may turn out for the worse.

Once I started working on my portfolio, however, I started realizing that the answers I came up with were really relevant to creating good work. I just needed to give my ideas a try and put them into action in order to see that they were in fact effective. While I talked earlier in the year about making my work a matter of sScreen Shot 2014-04-29 at 10.41.32 PMelf-character development through the portfolio, the idea of it seemed to abstract to believe in. I couldn’t imagine how to untangle the mystical interweb with its hyperlinks, its countless images, and its unexpected shortcuts. But as I began to do so, I saw that I really could make a portfolio that served to develop me both as a writer and as a character. 

I did this by choosing a template that allowed for many different pages. Every page was a moment of my development as a person or writer (for instance, my origins or my experimental stage were their own page). Under these pages, I posted work that exemplified these stages of development. These works not only reflected how my writing was changing, but how me as a person was changing. The use of media in this way was quite effective because I was able to use my portfolio as a way to do more than just showcase my writing–I could make it into a piece of writing in itself. It was a narrative that used documents, images, titles, and comments to create the long and ever changing story-arch as a writer I have had over the past four years. The work really made me reconsider what writing was because I felt as if every time I dug through the internet or my archives for photos to put on the page, I was doing research for a paper. Every time I changed the way a box looked on my page, I felt like I was tweaking a sentence. In a way, new media made writing a matter of manipulating everything! Screen Shot 2014-04-29 at 10.41.44 PM

Though this portfolio can be considered a personal narrative in a sense, it is not a diary by any means. I kept the audience in mind the entire time I constructed this. One part of my audience is agents or other publishers that may be interested in investing in me as a writer/storyteller. My ability to make my portfolio into a piece of character-driven literature would attract them in itself. Also, if future employers in fields within which I am just now gaining interest (public and environmental health), they would see how I came to these interests over time and could tell that I am convicted to their causes. Overall, I want my audience to see that I think that being a writer is a matter of identity. It is a matter of feeling that your life is deeply connected to your writing and you must cross the two to truly study either.

Okay, so maybe new media is kinda cool…

After spending an incredible amount of time hating new media, I am coming around to finding it quite interesting. This may be because though I once started working on wordpress, I converted to Wix, which has a lot of flexibility. What’s coolest to me are the little things that you tend to discover while working on New Media. You start off totally lost on how to make anything look right and almost have an anxiety attack imagining how you could fit all of the pieces together; however, little by little, you start to get a grasp of how things work and then begin feeling like a pro.

What I personally like the most is feeling like you have control over something online. All of my life, I grew up having no idea how things online worked. I never thought about how one sets up a webpage, or if there were certain formats for a page that sites worked off of. It all seemed like magic to me that I would never need to use. It was fun being ignorant in a sense, but…

Screen Shot 2014-04-29 at 2.14.53 AMignorance isn’t total bliss. It also felt like I lacked agency. I spent a huge portion of my life using websites, but didn’t have any idea how to control them. It not only made me feel out of control, but also made me feel rather stupid. I knew deep down that maybe one day I should learn how something like this work, but also put it off because it seemed so daunting.

The daunting aspect of it has begun to wear off. Thankfully, as I feel like I’m finally getting the swing of things, I’m having a bit of fun thinking of different ways to format my page and how to make a space really my own. When I first chose the theme for my work, the colors weren’t my type of colors at all, the background was iffy, and there was some weird bird at the corner that had nothing to do with the theme. The theme, however, had a great layout that worked well with what I wanted to do. The lack of aesthetics seemed like a simple opportunity cost for having the layout I desired. As I worked on, however, I came to realize how much I could change within this theme. Keeping the same layout, I could change the background, totally change the colors pallet, and even get rid of that dumb little bird at the corner of my page. This was the moment I realized that I could make this space my own, and for the first time I felt like I had some control over the internet.

I’ll be honest, it’s still super frustrating. Things seem to take forever to get correctly, and I can’t even explain the frustration I feel when my computer freezes. On the bright side, however, this has really changed how I view websites and I now feel like I have a practical still I didn’t have before. I do not think this could be my end of learning because the HTML behind this is the total point of coming to understand websites. After having a friend explain how HTML works via tumblr, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever want or need to learn it, but you never know…

How We Tell Stories

I’ve never been one to meditate. I tried once, and I found it incredibly irritating. The idea of silencing my thoughts and replacing it with, I don’t know, the imaginary sound of the ocean, seemed like an abysmal waste of time. But, I’ve heard it works miracles like yoga or whatever fad the mental health community is raving about for the year. Lately, with the buzz of finals and my undergrad education approaching its finale two semesters, I’ve been thinking about trying meditation and a quote from HBO’s Enlightened replays in my mind. Amy Jellicoe (the lead character) states that meditating is about “stopping the storytelling for even for just minute.”

enlightened04_custom-0ce165e9d207a962f7c9ee22bbf1f014d3fa4329-s6-c30
A still of Amy Jellicoe from HBO’s Enlightened

The phrase instantly interested me when I first heard it. Her statement is never really explained, but I think it was incredibly true for the way in which all people, especially writers, don’t just tell stories within the confines of a page, but within the containment of their minds on a near constant basis. I know this is true for me at least. It’s not necessarily that I’m telling fictional stories like most people assume when they hear “story telling.” It’s a type of story telling that is highly personal that reflects both on my present, past, and future.

I remember, as a high school student, I wouldn’t go five minutes without thinking about the characters in a story I was writing, wondering where their paths would take them. As I got older, however, and my life experience and responsibilities increased, I began to think less about my fictional characters and more about creating a story line for the character of Jacob Levi Stroud. The story telling focused on the past. Since sophomore year, I feel as if I’ve been constantly analyzing my life experience as a piece of literature while I try to funnel it into a cohesive storyline. I think of the themes that emerge and patterns in my behavior that serve as motifs. I think about the supporting characters that have come in and out of my life, what their subplots were, and how their stories connected to the overall trajectory of mine. This shift in thinking may have been to shape me as a an actual writer. I was searching for things for stories that could be more real, or even searching for the start of a memoir.

But, I think I was also searching for something deeper, for something more real than a story to put on a page. I was searching for a better understanding of who I was so I control the story I was telling in my present. I think we all do this to an extent. We try to understand why we do what we do by analyzing the tale of our past. Maybe we seek this information out of pure confusion or curiosity. Or maybe we do it to manipulate the story that is our future.

I think for me, over the past year, internal storytelling has mostly focused upon determining the plot of my future. With every month, I develop a new character for myself ten years down the road. In this year alone, I went from being a TV writer, to a dietician, to a health educator, to a health educator/environmental educator, and finally to a health educator/environmental educator/documentarian. With every new approach to constructing my fate, I determine the obstacles my future self will face and the plot twists that may come my way. I imagine the supporting cast I will encounter, and the different scenery in which I will be situated. The fluctuation is frightening yet incredibly engaging at the same time. With anxious eyes, I’m watching a story that has not yet been recorded.

I’m beginning to wonder if writing is my meditation, as if placing my thoughts onto paper is the only way to stop this mental storytelling and take a break while I play upon the concreteness of a page (well, not totally concrete since we now live in the digital era).  In fact, this break may be beyond using words to construct a story, expanding to any form of expression. Maybe this is why many of us from dancers to engineers faced with using creativity in a logical field express creatively, to escape the stories of our minds and meditate in the ones that we can produce.

Writers upon Writers

Paris-Is-Burning-(1990)-picture-MOV_d71bea63_bThis week, I watched a masterpiece of a documentary entitled Paris is Burning. This work, centering on drag “balls” that took place in Harlem in the 80’s, was a stunning piece of visual literature that was bold evidence for the ways in which race, gender, sexuality, and class are constructed by society rather than existing in essence. While critics unanimously applauded the work for being empowering to those within the film and those watching it, some took a very different stance. bell hooks, for one, stated that though the work allows people marginalized by race, class, gender, and sexuality to create their own material, it was edited by someone not nearly as marginalized by them (the white director), which is problematic. hooks compares this to the ways in which slave writings were edited into anthologies by whites, ultimately giving the power to the dominant class.

This comparison made me think about an interesting way in which we could see who the “writers” are of documentary cinema. From this comparison, it seems that the basic writers of documentary cinema are those that are being filmed. Though they do are not seen as auteurs of the work, they do produce the basic text that is created. In fact, the more agency the filmmaker gives the characters (meaning the less the filmmaker relies on voice overs, subtitles, etc. for argumentation and lets what is observed make their own points) the more we can see the characters within the works as writers themselves. Every decision they choose to make in front of the camera becomes a fragment of writing. The way they walk down a hall is a sentence. The flip of their hand is an interesting use of punctuation. Every speech they give is like a paragraph or an addition to the thesis.

In this case, the filmmaker is the anthologist and editor, manipulating what they produce to form the best product; however the agency of the filmmaker can be so large that their manipulation of the text makes them a writer in themselves. For instance, when a writer does a research paper and only restates what they have found in other pieces of literature, are they much of a writer? No. But, what makes them a writer is when they can use what they found to craft a distinct argument, joining the writers that came before them with their own voice. This is the nature of documentary cinema that does not simply use images to support an argument but gives others a chance to create and then compounds upon that creation.

I think that this itself makes an interesting statement for how writers can see all of their work. For everyone who writes, there seems to be “writers” that came before them that either inspired or gave material to fuel their work. A writer must ask: how much will I let the writers that inspire me control the style of my work? How much will I restate what other authors said in their work versus focusing on my unique argument in this paper? How much priority will I place on being true to those that produced my primary materials? These are questions both stylistic and ethical that all writers (not just filmmakers) must ask themselves while crafting important work and I plan on doing just that in my coming creations.

Using the Personal

Tony-Kushner
The advertisement of MSU’s lecture series featuring Kushner.

Attending a lecture in which Tony Kushner spoke was a wish in life I never thought I would fulfill. This year, however, I was lucky enough to receive the opportunity to do so while he made an appearance in East Lansing. His level of intellectual and conversational genius did not surprise me, but his ability to be humorous in both a self-deprecating and racy way was absolutely stunning. Hearing thoughts on writing from the first playwright to ever completely captivate me was incredibly rewarding and his ideas on the history of theater, its current state, the direction in which its going, and the potential for its future was fascinating. The statement that stuck with me the most, however, was not something I found inspirational but something I found disagreeable. When someone asked him how he got inspiration for his writing, either through personal means or through academic means, Kushner replied that a writer shouldn’t just write about what’s in his life, but has to research elsewhere, because “if your life is half-interesting, you wouldn’t want people knowing about it.”

Over the past three years while I’ve been in college, I’ve encountered the exact opposite truth. While I have been interested in a vast amount of subjects all of which I could incorporate into a dramatic text, I found that my strongest writing emerges when there is a personal, emotional core attached to the subject about which I choose to write. Though my characters are usually never complete reflections of me, mimicking my life to a T, I find that if there is a real connection between them and I, my writing will be more compelling. It is also a much stronger challenge as a writer to put personal parts of yourself into a work, yet keep an objectivity from the characters that allows them to flourish as individuals and not just fragmented portraits of the writer who creates them. When I say fragmented, I am referring to the way in which, when I make characters just like me, they tend to be missing a truth behind them because the authorial voice seems too present, as if the writer is only creating the character to state facts about their life, feelings, or experiences. I feel that balancing the line between personal and external is not just challenging, but also incredibly rewarding when done correctly.

Though I do not undermine Kushner’s genius in any capacity, I think that the ability to achieve this balance is one of the strongest gifts a writer can give to an audience. If you can take your personal experience and make it something that an audience can find applicable in their lives and to the human condition as a whole, I think you have given a gift of sharing that takes a level of vulnerability that the impersonal does not. From my repurposing project for this class, I learned that going deeply into the personal and making a personal narrative is the most challenging work I have done because it forces me to share personal information but also only information that I feel can spark conversation on bigger topics.  While a writer who takes a more research/external approach to writing their work must go through very harsh struggles with their writing, I feel that there is a unique truth behind the subjective experience of the author that more writers (including myself) should try to tap into as long as it is beneficial to readers and not merely a diary.

It almost seemed as if this “diary” generalization of using your personal experience to write was expressed by Kushner in a way that wasn’t totally fair. While no writer should blab about their experience without thinking about what it can do for their audience, I believe that the idea of searching your life and having new experiences to enrich your writing is totally valid. In fact, Angels in America, Kushner’s most famous work, was most definitely enriched by his personal life from research I have done. While reading Angels in America and then comparing it to his other work, Homebody Kabul, I found the first to be much more fascinating because it took a more personal, character driven approach to writing than the heady, academic approach that pervades Homebody Kabul.

Though academic, research-based work is definitely an excellent contribution to society, I feel that the writer has a unique gift of delivering their own experiences to an audience in a variety of forms. In the writing minor, I hope to challenge myself to be more personal while always keeping my audience in mind so that I can make work that is both true and beneficial.

 

The Act of Killing–A Review from the Michigan Theater Screening

A serene still from the film.            

Ironically, Oppenheimer’s documentary, The Act of Killing, is truly about the act of living. After attending the screening at the Michigan Theater, I was left pondering the delusions we must live in to allow our mental states to survive—the narratives we must tell ourselves in order to ignore the insanity of the violence around us. The Act of Killing, in which the murderous paramilitary gangsters of Indonesia reenact the executions they performed on the accused communists of their country, seems like it may simply be a gruesome how-to for performing horrid deeds. At its core, however, it is a reflection of the ways we justify, glamorize, ignore, or fabricate the violence we directly perform or in which we are implicated.

The most interesting aspect of the documentary was its fresh and totally unexpected style. The film opens with a surreal scene of people in fantastic costumes in a serene landscape attempting to appear as though they are in paradise while it is obvious that their surroundings are cold to the point of pain. After this scene, another scene occurs in which subtitles state the number of deaths caused by the purge of suspected communists in Indonesia in 1965. It then describes the gangsters who carried out the murders. In this situation, normal Americans would suppose the documentary would interview people who knew the victims or speak to human rights organization within the country. An expository method of documentary making would unfurl and we could come to understand how, why, and where injustices took place and who was implicated and to what extend. The events would be factually presented, and we would be left with a strong understanding of the wrongdoings and that we could never allow such atrocities to happen again.

The director, however, was daring enough to not take this approach.  If he were to end with a message stating, “look at this injustice—we must never let it happen again!” we would surely, in the moment, agree, but the message would not last. These things do happen again, and again, and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. No matter how many documentaries one watches, it doesn’t seem to give them the agency to standup against violence when it actually occurs. How do these things keep occurring? They continue to occur because the citizens of the world doctor their surrounds in order to cope with what is happening. They separate their world from violent realities and ignorance becomes their bliss.

It makes perfect sense, then, for Oppenheimer to take the approach he chooses for the documentary. He interviews the gangsters themselves, and asks them to reenact their murders however they like. The gangsters are receptive, proud even. Their hatred for the communists is clear by how they smile as they talk about the way they exterminated them.  Reenactments of the murders are at first simple: “we wrapped the wire around the communists throat like this…to avoid blood spill and prevent smell.” Soon, the reenactments become surreal. The reenactments then become reminiscent of their favorite American movies with them as the smooth stars. It escalates and strange costumes, bizarre physical humor, and reenactments of guilt-ridden dreams fill the silver screen. Finally, the absurd fictitiousness of the reenactments can no longer be sustained and the reality of the lies begins to sink in with the head gangster. He feels guilt for what he has done and it brings him to tears. By the end of the film, we see him realizing the damage he did to real human beings, but his arch does not bring him to everlasting change but simply a moment of guilt, and then a return to delusion.

Demonstrating the fictitiousness of reenactment and its subjectivity was a highly reflexive mode of documentary making that left the audience pondering the legitimacy of finding truth in this documentary or truth in documentary at all. While telling stories, how does one manipulate the truth to serve the purpose they hold for it? We ask ourselves this question, but then must ask the legitimacy of all of our memories. How can we trust a mental reproduction of a moment when our brains work so hard to manipulate memories for our own sanity? How active are we in our own “factual” narrative making?

In the talk back, I felt the audiences dealing with this very question. They asked how this could be a real representation of the gangsters? How could they be comfortable with making themselves looks so horrible to a worldwide audience? The director surely had to doctor their performance to serve his purpose. The audience wanted facts in order to provide certainty. But the ambiguity of “truth” in a creation remained present, haunting the theater. As commentators stated the people involved were pleased with the film and no harm came to them, audience members still couldn’t believe it. They continued to tell themselves: no, that cant be real, it must have happened differently—I can’t believe this…I won’t believe this. So, then, they constructed for themselves what they could believe.

Character Development

Since I’ve been to college, I’ve encountered a lot of writers who state that they just “love” words. They write for the perfect sentence, stanza, or paragraph. The juxtaposition of two distinct nouns gets them off. Or maybe they love their words–their written skills being the portal for delivering truth to a mass audience. From journalism to blogging to fiction writing and poetry, they phrase away with gusto. It makes me nervous to say it, but I don’t think I’m one of these writers. I love writing, but I don’t think I love “words.” What I love about writing is its ability to explore the human element–to delve into a character, a relationship, the human experience, the absract with the personal, and the personal with the abstract.  Books didn’t inspire me to write, television did. The words I loved the most came in the form of dialogue. Don’t get me wrong, I like dispensing my opinions with my words, but what’s even better is when I can explain how I feel through characters, their stories, and their relationships. Though this love for characters has always been my biggest passion, it now seems like my highest hurtle to jump. How am I supposed to present myself in my e-portfolio if my writing has always been enamored with fictional characters?

Sure, there are parts of me in every script or story I write, but I feel like that can only portray me so much. If I want readers to see the true me, I want to give them something more personal. But how do I do this and still make the writing process enjoyable for me? I suppose I will have to work on crafting myself into a character.

Though this will be a challenge, it’s a quest I’ve long wanted to achieve. In a class I took on memoir, the main instruction we received was that a writer must make him or herself a character in order for the audience to connect. An audience doesn’t connect with just a voice or just words on a page. They connect with the interesting intonation of the voice and with how personality pops from the words written. They connect with a character strange enough to be interesting, yet sane and organized enough to be relatable. Hitting the balance is a difficult task.

I think I’d like to use this e-portfolio as a means of tackling this challenge. I’ve long wanted to write my own experience in an interesting way, and even more importantly, as an interesting character. I think that the e-portfolio will give me a means to do this. Not only do I want to use many writing genres and mediums to build a thread linking different parts of who I am, but I want to do writing that directly explores who I am. I want to find what makes me interesting yet predictable. I want to be able to inspect myself honestly for a purpose. The things I post to my portfolio won’t be just for my reflection–they will be for an audience that will be entertained, engaged, or informed. The goal will be, however, to take these readers on a journey as I discover what makes me tick and the pieces that best portray that.

Committing to a (re)purpose

While exploring my options for repurposing, the most difficult challenge I faced was finding a work to which I could commit over the rest of the semester. What if I chose the wrong piece and ended up hating the entire Gateway course because of it? What if I bit off more than I could chew?

I’m still not certain of where I should truly be going, but I know one thing–it’s time to finally make a choice and commit.

There were three choices I presented my group. One was of a piece I wrote for a writing competition senior year of high school. It was a short performance piece that explored the way a writer can be defined by the characters he or she creates. In this work, there is a writer who announces to the audience that he will showcase himself as a writer through the monologues of his characters. The characters give their monologues as separate scenes, and through these monologues we see how the characters are not only written subjects, but also play active roles as writers in the writer’s mind. I considered repurposing it into a fiction piece for an audience of fiction readers, or even into a speech on writing.

The other option I presented to my group was a play I wrote last year. In this play, one of the main arguments is that the gay community is not a united front, but a divided one with hierarchies of its own, the main hierarchy being that of masculinity with the most “straight-acting” gays being those most impressive or most attractive.

Lastly, I presented a project from my senior year in high school in which I wrote about the relevancy of monogamy in the modern world. This was a research paper for my Honors English teacher to read. For repurposing it, I wanted to focus on one argument that I made that the modern world, though seemingly more “connected” than ever before, has made true connection more difficult than ever before. For this repurposing, I wanted to write a piece that did a more thorough investigation of this specific argument, demonstrating the ways in which social media, texting, dating sites and apps, and a highly individualized culture tend to split us apart rather than unite us, which makes finding an actual connection in this world of artificial connections much more crucial.

I have chosen to do my last idea because I feel most fascinated by its relevancy to today. Instead of it being an academic work meant for a teacher, I would like to change it into a creative work meant for a general audience. I want to make either a short fiction, drama, or screenplay that explores the questions of the modern disconnect in the quest to find connection. I am not entirely sure of what story to tell, but I know the argument behind it should read “it’s harder than ever to connect, and for this reason a true connection is that much more crucial.”