Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Farm Sex?

Zestful Blog Post #72

Farm Sex?

Anyone who says it's easy to be an objective reporter is certainly not one.

A story on farm subsidies, though they directly affect everybody's tax bill, is far less preferable than a story on a sex scandal, which usually only affects the principals. Why? Sales. Ratings. In two years as a reporter for a small-city paper, the only issue that sold out at the newsstands had the headline "Drug Bust Nails 23", with story and photos (by yours truly) of kids being led to the lockup, jackets over their heads. Stories about the city budget? Federal flood insurance mandates? Hah.

It's a well established aspect of human nature that people like to ridicule others: figures of authority, the rich, the kids next door who get caught with pot seeds in their notebook.


What's that about? Simply envy? A love of trash? An author wonders, late on a Wednesday night, just ahead of a day of helping writers at the Florida Heritage critique sessions, St. Augustine.

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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Gaining Effortless Mastery

Zestful Blog Post #71 

Not long ago I watched a Saturday Night Live skit from 2008 where Kristen Wiig plays the recurring character of Sue, a woman who can't control her excitement when knowing a secret. (This particular skit was the one in the Japanese steakhouse where guest star Josh Brolin tells his friends that he's about to propose to his girlfriend, who then shows up.)

Kristen just took over, doing huge, over-the-top physical and vocal acting, and she completely carried the skit from zero to a hundred. And I realized that the success of that skit wasn't due to the material; it was due to Wiig's total commitment. Nothing held back, everything tried, every stop pulled out. Body, mind, and heart. It reminded me of the great Gilda Radner's SNL performance in "The Judy Miller Show."



[Sculpture by Barry Flanagan, who subverted the sober form of figurative bronze by committing to whimsy. In New York City, photo by ES.]

Something else I saw recently comes to mind: an early music video from the 1960s of the Animals doing "House of the Rising Sun." They were a Brit band led by singer Eric Burdon. The intensity of his performance, his aspect as he sang, was jaw-dropping, way more impressive than if you simply listened to the song. Intense, masterful. He was so young, but came across as so much older and experienced. And he sold that song like nobody's business. (The Animals' unusual, pulsing arrangement also helped.) Total commitment made that song a hit for years, and I'd say it still haunts many of our memories.

Full-on commitment, and full-on confidence. Do you need the confidence to know you can do it before you commit to doing it? Well, you can sure feel confident in your skills. But how do you exercise them? How do you find out how far you can go, how good you are, how good you can be? How do you let your skills run to the next level and the next, how do you find the magic of effortless mastery?

Simply by committing. Full-heartedly. Not stopping to evaluate and wonder, "Is this working?" Because if you're committed, you're confident. It's automatic. That's it. And that's magic.

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Thursday, September 11, 2014

How To Motivate Against All Odds

Zestful Blog Post #70

Just about every child, when faced with a daunting task, has heard the encouraging bromide, "Once begun is half done." For something like cleaning a toilet or putting up a tent, that's pretty true.

However, authors know that's horsecrap. Yeah, tell me that when I'm on Chapter 3 with 29 more to go.

Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher who wrote the Tao Te Ching, the keystone text of Taoism, said, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Literally correct, but the much deeper meaning is that the only step that matters is the one you're taking right now.


[Lao Tzu could no doubt translate for us, if he were here.]

A much better adage for writers! It is true that the only word that matters is the one you're writing right now. How can it be otherwise? If you infuse every word, every sentence with your full attention—not thinking ahead, not worrying how it'll all come out—you'll create a worthwhile piece of writing. And you'll probably have fun along the way.

Embrace that paradox: Just this word, just right now. And see what happens.

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[photo of unknown Chinese signage by ES]

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Key Musts and Must-Nots for Readings

Zestful Blog Post #69

Last Thursday I wrote about how to do a successful reading, with a note on how to be a good audience member. That evening I gave a reading using those principles, and from what I heard (attentive silence punctuated by laughter), it went well. A flurry of folks bought You've Got a Book in You, which I briefly plugged before reading from my Lillian Byrd novel-in-progress, Left Field. I might add that Lynn Waddell did a marvelous job reading a provocative chapter from her book, Fringe Florida, which also sold some copies, one of which is on Marcia's and my on-deck circle. (www.fringeflorida.com.)

I was mistaken in thinking the evening was going to be recorded, so my apologies for not having a link to share. But when it was over, I realized I have a few more bits of key advice for writers facing a reading, the first quite essential.



[photo by Tiffany Razzano of Wordier Than Thou]

1) Apart from doing your 'my book in a nutshell' spiel, tell your audience why your book will change their life. That's what somebody really wants to know before they shell out their twenty bucks or whatever. Samples, which feel free to adopt verbatim:

"This book will give you a new perspective on why families break down."
"This book will show you how to do X better / cheaper / faster."
"If you've ever had a burning desire to learn the meaning of life, look no further than [my title]."

2) If there's a time clock, obey it. This particular evening had an open-mic part, which writers / storytellers signed up for on a clipboard. The MC kept time (ten minutes apiece), and it was uncomfortable for her and everybody else when she had to interrupt a writer for time.

One fellow simply stood in place and said firmly, "I'd like to finish." Well, yeah, buddy, everybody does. What was the MC to do, go up and throw him off the stage? He did in fact finish.

A woman, who when informed that her ten minutes were up, simply stopped midstream. That was considerate, but it was also awkward, as the audience wondered how her piece ended, and she had deprived herself of giving a complete show. (As to the contrast between the two writers and how they handled the time issue, I will refrain from making the first sexist generalization that springs to mind.)

Keeping to one's time limit simply requires an out-loud rehearsal at home, with according adjustments. Such practice promotes good karma.

3) What about a situation where nobody has thought about timekeeping? Keep it brief anyway, and when you come to the end of your selected passage, never under any circumstances ask your audience, "Shall I go on?"

4) I wrote about this in an article WD some time ago, but it bears mention here too. I've noticed that some writers, when they come to a funny passage, will do this thing of barely suppressing laughter at the wittiness of their own material. It is shameless, manipulative, and disrespectful. Eschew it.

5) For best visibility, which matters, wear a light-colored top. I opt for cream (first choice, as in the photo), white, pale blue, or pale pink. White can tend to be too vibrant under lights, but it's better than a dark color.

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