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J. J. Brown, Wordslinger

"I Sling Words As I Go Along."

Month

May 2016

So, I recently got cast in a show……..

…….which I’m terribly excited about. I had stage-managed this same show about twenty some years ago, and had convinced my director then to allow me to be the shadowy killer so as to maintain the air of Whodunnit. The play in question is a mystery, there’s a juicy murder or two, a cast of suspicious characters and, of course, the Reveal. This is another form of collaborative creativity – by working with other actors, director and stage crew, you enter another world and invite the audience to join you.

Acting, like writing or music or dance or any other artistic expression, is hard work, whether it’s on stage or on film. It requires discipline just as much as talent. An actor learns about the craft through reading of scripts, observing other actors work, and taking classes to enhance their skills, ranging from accents to stage combat.

As with writing, I’m always asking myself questions. In this instance, why did my character arrive at this particular destination? Was it tied to the past? Was it a meeting place? There was an incident that involved my character years earlier – did present circumstances come about because of guilt from a tragic decision? This is the behind the scenes work that goes into each role that is seen onstage. If done well, it looks easy. If done poorly, it looks not so good. 

Is there a fun part to all of this work? That’s simple – yes. The fun part is working with one’s fellow actors and discovering the relationships the characters have with each other. The fun is finding the rhythm of the play both as an individual actor and as a group. The fun is feeling that energy as it is shared with the audience, which is then bounced back to the actors. The fun is knowing that, for two hours, you took a risk and performed live in front of people you know and people you don’t.

The fun is living as someone else, with their history riding inside you.

*****
Editor’s note – this blog post is published concurrently on Citizens Journal Ventura County.

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So, I have my favorite tools of the trade……

……for writing, some of which are easy to throw into my backpack and some that require a little more planning before leaving the house.

What will you find in my back pack? Typically, a couple of notebooks or blank composition books, loose leaf, college-lined paper in a folder and a couple of paperbacks (fiction or non-fiction or both) to escape into when the words fail to materialize. Open up the smaller pocket of my pack and there are pens of various colors – I use black or dark blue for writing the story. The other colors I use to insert notes or questions in the margins about what I’d written, which makes it easy to see. When I travel, I take my laptop or netbook to transcribe what I’d written in longhand to the manuscript I’m currently working on.

Because I have a budget, I tend to find my pens, notebooks and composition books at any local dollar store. They work the same and are easy on the wallet. Occasionally, however, I will indulge and buy some really nice blank books at places like Barnes & Noble. Those usually end up as gifts to fellow writers or to those who had expressed a desire to write.

I prefer writing in longhand, as I find that I tend to sink into the world of my story and characters a little faster. The downside is that I can’t keep up with my thoughts and my hand pays the price in stiffness and cramping. Unlike Bobbi Anderson in Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers, I haven’t found a way to write via telepathy to my typewriter (or computer, for that matter).

What are your favorite writing tools?

Left to right - Laptop, blank book, netbook, pens, typewriter, composition books.
Left to right – Laptop, blank book, netbook, pens, typewriter, composition books.

So, when you tell someone about a dream……

……….or a goal and they come back with “Let’s be realistic”, don’t listen to them.

Whether or not you actually achieve that said dream or goal is irrelevant – that you have a dream or goal is the point.
By sharing the dream or goal, you’re showing them that you have a vision of your future that isn’t stuck in the same place as this present moment, that you aspire to greater.

The doubters know this and feel intimidated by it, hence all the dismissive down-talk.

So when someone actually does tell you to be realistic, reply with joyous determination,

“Dream big or go home!”

So, one of my favorite creative past times…..

……is theater. I grew up acting in school plays, then college productions and local community theater, with an occasional dabble in building sets, costumes and make-up. I even did extra work on a TV movie, which is another story entirely. Theater, like film and TV, is a collaborative effort. You need each person to fulfill a role or task to make the final product work smoothly (technical, sound, lighting, effects, other actors, writers), even if it’s a one person show.

This is true of every creative endeavor. Granted, you are the only one doing your work (whether it’s learning lines or creating a sculpture or any other artistic expression), but the act itself is a collaboration of all that you had learned up to that point. Look at any acknowledgements page in any book and you will find the word “collaboration” or its sibling “collaborative”. There will then be a list of names or groups the author then gives his or her thanks to – because while the act of writing is solitary, the process of putting a book together (from research to final edits to publication) is not.

There is the stereotype of the writer as being an odd creature, solitary, slightly disheveled and not quite fully present in the moment. They are distracted by their thoughts and scribble madly on a pad of paper, relying on copious amounts of coffee (or, in some cases, alcohol) to keep the pace going, finally producing a perfect manuscript. What no one sees is the relentless edits, the hours of researching a particular historical incident, the mapping out of the plot and the creation and naming of characters.

None of this is done in a vacuum – writers groups, editors, beta readers, other writers are there to help give an objective opinion and offer support when the going gets tough. What theater teaches us is that in order for a production to work smoothly, there has to be teamwork. For an author to create her best work, she has to have the teamwork of her editor and beta readers and groups to encourage necessary changes within her story. The same goes for a photographer, her crew and the model. It is all a team effort.

The more creative endeavors you try, the more you’ll realize that it’s this teamwork is where you gain your greatest strength.

*****
Editor’s note – this blog post is concurrently published on Citizens Journal VC

Musings on imagery, metaphor and an unexpected journey…….

The way is shut. It was made by the Dead and the Dead keep it, till the time comes. The way is shut.
J.R.R. Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings

So went the phrase ’round and ’round my mind in January of 2013.

But it wasn’t the hall of the Dead that Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas found themselves in, trying to raise an army that would help turn the tide against Sauron and his armies that I was thinking of.

It was my metaphoric heart, wounded and frightened, that screamed this line every time I tried to push myself past the hurt. No need to go into the cause – suffice to say, it was not a pleasant experience. It left me jumpy, terrified of my own shadow, distrustful of even my nearest and dearest.

Still, I wanted to be past that pain, beyond it, free of it. I purged the bulk of it into one novel – while a great step forward, it was only the first step in a long journey. I wanted to skip the journey and speed up time so that I could just be me and whole again. Of course, it takes time for such wounds to heal properly. In January of 2013, I wanted to be healed, right then.

I had begun revising and editing my third novel that same month- although a mystery, it was, at its core, also a story of that self-same metaphoric heart. I began with re-writing the ending, which at the time, was a Debbie Downer. I mean, it was sad and angry and hurt. It worked, it was a great ending, but it just didn’t work for the characters. So I re-wrote it with a much more upbeat and optimistic tone.

And this is where the heart imagery really began to show itself.

I kept finding places in Novel #3 to insert a new scene or flesh out an old one, or replace one altogether. I called the act cracking open the story. The image that came to mind was of the cracking open of the chest, as if for open heart surgery. Gruesome image, yes, but how else do you begin to repair an injured or broken heart? Looking back on it, that’s exactly what I was doing – prepping to repair and heal my heart.

At around the same time, I had also begun taking care of some horses, where I met an equine I came to call Best Bud Mare. Horses have, on more than one occasion, saved my soul. I would even go so far as to say that they have saved my life. Not in a dramatic fashion, the way Trigger or Silver or even The Black Stallion would, but in quiet and calming ways. They allowed me to just be, without demanding anything of me, which is what I so desperately needed. One even offered a shoulder for me to cry on when I was feeling overwhelmed with hurt and grief. I had never felt so loved than in that moment.

When I met Best Bud Mare and her equine companions, I was starting to come out of that space. I wasn’t ready to deal with people except in the most minimal of ways. I rarely left my house, except to see the horses. I remember I was wearing a crystal charm in the shape of a heart. One day, over the summer, the charm disappeared. I had literally lost my heart. I have no idea where or when. I noticed only that it had fallen off my necklace.

Converging on my third novel and my care-taking of horses, another passion, theater beckoned in the form of a question: “When are you going back to acting?”

To which I flippantly replied, “When I’m ready to put my heart back on my sleeve.”

And, after a couple of years and three plays, I am returning to the stage by deliberate choice and am currently in a local production of an Agatha Christie play. I also have my eye on another production, Shakespeare’s The Tempest as the powerful and humble sorcerer Prospero.

My heart is singing, my blood is racing and I have goosebumps every time I interact with my fellow actors on the stage as we rehearse.

I have followed my heart.

Follow yours and see where it leads.

So, this little mystery of mine…..

……seems to have evolved into a quest. Quests mean travel, which requires planning and budgeting. Now that I’m back from Ireland, getting a sense of the country my great-great grandparents had emigrated from, the time has come to map out my next move.

This means, of course, I have to re-think my approach to this wonderfully tangled puzzle.

In other words, what would Sherlock Holmes do?

Very simply, he would take what verified facts he had, categorize the ephemeral ones in order of importance before either eliminating or verifying them, then follow the threads on a chase to see what resulted. Whatever remains, he believed (as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote), no matter how improbable, must be the truth.

The game is afoot!

With deerstalker cap firmly in place, I take up the mystery with Holmes as inspiration.
With deerstalker cap firmly in place, I take up the mystery with Holmes as inspiration.

So, the topic of voice-overs came up at work the other day…..

……… A manager from another department at my place of work said he’d been told that he had a great voice that would lend itself to voice work, like commercials. This pleased the manager very much…..until he was told he should take some classes.

The manager was dismissive of this suggestion – if his voice was so good, why did he need to take classes?

Excellent question.

Given that my background is primarily theater (I hold a Bachelor’s degree in the subject), I attempted to explain to him that taking a class in voice work would actually benefit him, that it would give him tools in how to use his voice and diaphragm correctly. I added that actors, singers, writers, dancers, etc. take classes in order to keep their body (which is their instrument) in shape and capable of stretching beyond their comfort zone. This aids them in continuing to strive for their best work.

This notion was immediately dismissed by him and my co-worker. If you’re already good, then you don’t need to take classes, was their opinion. I was actually surprised by my co-worker’s attitude, since she does physical training to get into her target weight range. Does she think that once she gets to her target, she needs to stop training? Or that with one work out class, she knew all there was to know and should therefore quit? I didn’t think so at the time and I don’t think so now. Unfortunately, I was not able to draw a parallel to her workout regimen with that of an actor or dance or singer or musician.

The egos of my co-worker and the manager would not allow them to conceive of the idea that anyone with talent in the arts needed to have training.

Because that’s what those classes are – they are your workouts, your training sessions to exercise your muscles and learn new methods so that you can stretch and grow in ways you didn’t think possible. And when you’re not in your ‘workout’ class, you maintain what you’ve learned by practicing on your own.

The class, the workshop, the training you take in is only half of what you need to cultivate your creative talents. Practice is the other half to maintain it, improve it and grow it.

There’s an image of a ballerina’s feet that I’ve seen a number of times online. I like it because it’s a visual of how much hard work you have to put in to make your art look beautiful and effortless. One foot is encased in a pointe shoe, perfect and beautiful. The other foot is bare and shows the bruises and calluses and wear it has endured. What a ballet dancer does to make his or her movements graceful and effortless is reflected in that bare foot. It is hard, demanding work to be a ballerina. It is also symbolic of the hard work that goes on behind the scenes to create a novel, a film, a painting, a play, etc.

Going back to the manager and my co-worker – they don’t understand that creative work is actually work. That to get skilled in it requires not just talent, but determination, training and practice. They seem completely turned off by the idea that they would have to do any actual work to become even decent.

So, no, they won’t pursue it. That’s fine. They’re enamored of the end result, but they aren’t willing to put in the hours or the discipline it takes to get there.

If you wrote a 400 page novel, a romantic song ballad, a poem, or painted a portrait or landscape or completed anything artistic, give yourself a round of applause. You did that. You sweated and worked and made something tangible out of the intangible.

Ignore the doubters and nay-sayers – they don’t have what it takes to do what you did.

Now go do it again.

*****

Editor’s note – this blog post is also published concurrently on Citizens Journal Ventura County.

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