Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


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How to never finish anything you write

Sunday, August 18th, 2019

Sit in judgment of yourself while you’re writing it.

Oh, I know the temptation is great. You sit down and soon the questions build:

  1. “Is this as good as that other thing I once wrote?”
  2. “Is this any good at all?”
  3. “Am I any good at all?”
  4. “What’s new on Netflix instead?”

The solution to this is to separate the editing function from the writing function. The editing function is to catch mistakes, or find improvements, but, and here’s the fun part, for that to work you must have written something first. So do the writing function first:  Just free yourself to write what you’re writing; write what may, and leave the editing for later, after you’ve done the writing.

For those of us who write plays, there’s also a fifth question:

       5. “Is anybody actually going to produce this?”

And here’s the answer for that:  Have you ever seen a bad play? I have — plenty of them. If people are going to produce other people’s bad plays, they might as well produce yours. So don’t worry if it’s any good. So just keep writing it the best you can.

Lesser greatness

Sunday, August 18th, 2019
scythed-chariot

Impractical war machines of Leonardo da Vinci

Last Sunday, I went to see the Leonardo da Vinci exhibit at the Reagan Presidential Library not too far from my house. This was the second time in a year I’d been to the library to see a special exhibit — last summer, it was the spectacular Genghis Khan exhibit — and also the second time I breezed through the Reagan section without looking at any of it. (Having lived through it suffices.)

Leonardo has been a lifelong subject of interest for me. When I was a boy, I saw a television special about him that left an indelible impression. Then, I was interested in the gruesome dissections, the high weirdness of writing everything backward, the fantastical war machines and flying machines, and the paintings not at all. As an adult, I’m interested in the exact opposite:  the paintings, and his life as an artist. It wasn’t until reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of the man two Christmases ago that I really came to understand perhaps the most significant aspect of Leonardo’s personal history:  As a left-handed, vegetarian, illegitimate, gay man growing up in the mid-1400’s, he almost had to become a genius — all of the peculiarities otherwise added up to too much. That I got through twelve years of elementary education and high school without being taught that makes a sad statement about how we whitewash history.

The other signal impression left by the Isaacson book was this:  that Leonardo’s genius lay in a heightened curiosity matched with impeccable powers of observation — hence, the hydraulic machines resulting from closely watching how water works; the proposed flying machines emulating the structural flaps of birds, long before the Wright Brothers — and that Leonardo’s fault lay in a perfectionism that too frequently left his works unfinished. According to Isaacson, Leonardo appears to have completed only about 12 paintings (estimates vary) and kept others traveling around what is now Italy with him as he dabbled at improving them; did not publish a book in his lifetime; performed exquisite dissections and examinations of corpses and perfectly illustrated the full interior and exterior of the human body but never published an anatomy, therefore ceding the credit to Henry Gray, for Gray’s Anatomy, published almost 400 years later; and more. What Leonardo was able to accomplish is a testament to his astounding genius; what he left unfinished speaks to the perfectionism that simultaneously reflects that genius and confounds it. In a time that predated the distractions of Netflix, the Internet, video games and more, how much more could Leonardo have achieved had he stopped reworking even the minor pieces?

My son, in reviewing the models and prints of various proposed fantastical and wildly impractical war machines designed by Leonardo, said, “These are like your story about ACC, when you just kept stuffing the ballot box with ideas.”

When I was a student at Atlantic Community College, in the 1980s, the college ran a contest for best new marketing slogan. I zipped off about 50 of these, each on a separate entry form, and stuffed them into the box. Among them:

  • “ACC for me, see?”
  • “ACC — Route 322 U.”
  • “ACC — Harvard on the Highway.”
  • “ACC — A Great Place to Go to School Because Marge Battestelli Works There.”
  • and on and on

I later heard that the administration was rather peeved by this. No award was ever made.

Looking at the war machines, I could see what Dietrich meant. Like my (intentionally) bad slogan ideas, these were reckless whims put forth at speed. One was a floating ship entirely encircled with cannons, somewhat guaranteed to hit one’s own forces as well; another ship had a giant claw intended to swoop down and cleave an enemy ship in two — leaving out the fact that to get close enough for use, everyone on that ship would be shot dead first; a rolling wooden tank of sorts was supposed to cut and gouge people on three sides, ignoring somehow the force (and people!) needed to move it into action.

Dead set on becoming a munitions manufacturer of sorts, as per the Isaacson biography and the sheer volume of wacky weapons of war proposed, Leonardo lost sight of the thing he was actually good at:  reflecting artistically what already existed in nature. With war, he was a dilettante; with painting, he was a perfectionist.

What leads to mass shootings (and what doesn’t)

Sunday, August 4th, 2019

What are the 4 things all the mass shooters have in common? The people who run the Violence Project helpfully tell us in this piece in the Los Angeles Times. I have lots of friends on Facebook who are ready to blame Donald Trump — and, look, I can’t stand the guy either — but his name isn’t on the list of causes.

Con-viviality

Monday, July 29th, 2019

Comic-Con was only four days — July 17th through the 21st — but it was even more excitingly overpowering, so much so that I took a week off blogging just to recuperate. Sure, I had plans to post things here during the Con, but I’m not sure how I would have done that. The event was stuffed — overstuffed! — with things competing for my attention (which isn’t unusual, even though this was the 50th anniversary celebration), so finding the time would have been challenge enough. Add in the fact that, as tracked by my phone, I walked seven to eight miles a day and did it on five or six hours of sleep each night, and you get a frenetic pace that fully required some recovery time.

(Plus, I was pretty busy when I got back.)

A few highlights:

  • Finding many excellent Silver Age and Bronze Age comics at reader’s prices. What qualifies to me as a “reader’s price”? Under the current cover price of (gasp) $3.99. I found lots of great old comics in $2 bins, half-price bins, and even, sometimes, for a buck each. Awesome sauce!
  • Seeing “Shazam!” the first night we got there. It was loads of fun and laugh-out-loud funny, Zachary Levi’s enthusiasm in the role was catchy, and it rather faithfully built on the source material while in plot points and in tone. A real joy.
  • Catching the documentary “Closer Than We Think,” about futurist artist and industrial designer Arthur Radebaugh. I’d never heard of Radebaugh, whose sleek designs and stunning artwork of the 1930s and 1940s made me jump online to buy a book of it… only to discover that no book of his work exists. Somebody:  Go collect this stuff into a book! In the meantime, you can see some of it here.
  • Getting to talk with Eddie Campbell, a comics writer and artist I follow (From Hell; The Playwright; Bacchus) and picking up his new book
  • Hearing comics great Jim Steranko take an hour to share three anecdotes — but one of them was pure brilliance, from his years as an escape artist, when he came up with what promised to be his greatest stunt:  escaping from a moving ferris wheel. Let’s just say that when he was rotated to the top, 80 feet up in the air, he got out of the coiled ropes a little early. “And what happened?” someone asked. “I fell,” he said. Luckily, one of the bucket cars on the wheel caught him after about 15 feet, purely by chance.

I got to see lots of other great things — Scott Shaw!’s “Oddball Comics” slideshow, which never disappoints; the “Quick Draw” live sketch event; lots of clever costumes; and the sheer amazement of my 15-year-old great nephew at his first Comic-Con experience, both at the excitement in the convention center and the near-pandemonium spilling onto all the streets of San Diego for about a square mile — but here, bar none, was my favorite bit of Comic-Con this year:

David Rosing (NASA JPL Mars Sample Return system engineer), Shonte J. Tucker (JPL thermal engineer), Kobie Boykins (JPL Mechatronics Engineer), and Laura Kerber (NASA JPL Mars research scientist) discuss how they go boldly where there’s no one around to fix it. Hear stories from the trenches of the heartbreaks, close calls, and adventures of real-life solar system exploration on the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. Q&A session following.

Yeah… no. That in no way conveys what the panel really was. Here’s what the panel really was:  government-funded scientists giddy with excitement about all the cool stuff they’re working on for the moon, Mars, and beyond, and what those new discoveries and possibilities might mean for us, all of it positive.

I cannot tell you how thrilled I was to hear government-funded scientists beside themselves with glee about science and what we’re learning every day, and about their hope for the future.

So I decided to get up and tell them that.

I got to the microphone and said, “I can’t tell you how glad I am to be here in a room with scientists who are so excited about the future. Usually it’s not you guys in the headlines — instead it’s the anti-science guys from the government. So:  thank you. I’m really glad you’re here!”

That elicited big cheers and applause from the room, which was packed with about 200 people feeling exactly the way I did about it. We were all cheering the scientists.

Then Dr. Rosing noted what a good investment science is, and how careful they are with how they spend taxpayer money.

“Oh, I’m happy to have you get my tax money,” I said. “It’s the other guys I don’t want to fund!”

More cheers and applause from the crowd for that.

As much as I loved the comic-book part of it, and all the costumes, and the great time with family and friends, hearing Dr. Laura Kerber excitedly pitch just how much we’re going to learn when she finally gets to launch her project exploring the deepest part of the moon in a crater so vast it’s wider than a football field and deep enough to accommodate Big Ben… well… that’s something I’m going to remember. If it’ll help, I’ll gladly send her $20 to help with Project: Crater Diver.

The price of freedom

Friday, July 19th, 2019

My 15-year-old great-nephew Brody is here in San Diego with me, my son Dietrich, and my two friends for Comic-Con. He lives in Galloway, New Jersey, where I grew up, and says he’s loving California.

Our first night at Comic-Con when we got back to our room he asked me an economic question that I answered thoughtfully. I told him that history has shown that the free flow of ideas and culture between societies benefits everyone:  that the secret to Genghis Khan’s stunning success was that when he took control over a group he shared with them the technology he’d gathered elsewhere, and let them keep their own culture. This meant that the people Khan conquered generally did better under his rule than under previous rulers, and did so because Khan supported the exchange of ideas and commerce. China, by contrast, had a literally walled-off society that halted progress for hundreds of years.

Thinking about China brought to mind the joys of true capitalism, and the irony that Communist China, with its mandated economy, is working to succeed with capitalism. True capitalism, I told Brody, benefits everyone:  As opposed to other systems where you might wind up stranded your entire life in your current low position, people allowed into the market have a chance to improve their lot, and a stake in doing so. A truly open, free market encourages innovation and the spread of wealth. Unfortunately, our current system, which benefits the massively wealthy at the terrible expense of the middle class, is closer to the rigged economy our elected leaders say they abhor. As we strip-mine the middle class, through taxes and fees, and move toward shrinking benefits in order to continue this massive transfer of wealth upward, we increase economic anxiety, which is fueling so much of the ground-level horror we’re seeing on the streets:  rampant homelessness, enraged shooters, road rage, and an overall creeping psychosis. Want to improve the feelings of everyone in our community? Fix the tax code.

Finally, I said, the further shame is that we’re so indebting your generation — via absurdly high college tuition, expensive student loans, and a federal deficit that will throw a lid onto the economy — that we’re making you pay the mortgage on our current, short-term success. If we really wanted to invest in the future, we’d build out our infrastructure so that we weren’t lagging the Scandinavian nations (!!!) and the emerging Asian nations, and we’d actually invest in young people:  restructure the cost and burden of higher education, and figure out a way to help young people afford homes earlier in their lives so that they could accrue wealth.

At this point, I caught myself and wondered just how far afield I’d wandered from his initiating question. So I looked at him and said, “Wait, what was your question?”

He said, “Do you ever actually find anything good in the dollar boxes of comic books?”

What’s unfilmable?

Monday, July 8th, 2019

Now that Netflix has taken on adapting Neil Gaiman’s Sandman — with Mr. Gaiman on board, thankfully — the internet is once again having the discussion of “what are some unfilmable books?”

Let me settle it:  There are no unfilmable books.

There are also no filmable books. And no bookable films.

These are separate media, and even if you do your best to closely approximate each, it’s impossible.

Last week, I was going on about Dan Simmons’ novel The Terror. The book was excellent. So, in numerous ways, was the miniseries. But there are seemingly subtle differences that dramatically alter the shape of the story, differences of character and motivation — but also necessary plot differences, because of what is lost in a film lacking interior monologue and epistolary exchanges, versus a novel where those literary elements were crucial. (And, also, in a book where we can conjure an image of the devastating monster stalking the explorers, versus the miniseries where the CGI thing just looks silly.)

Samuel Beckett and Nathalie Sarraute, among others, wrote anti-novels. Some form of those could be filmed, but does anyone want to watch a two-hour movie about someone slicing a tomato? (Anyone other than Andy Warhol, who did the same sort of thing with film.)

So the question isn’t what’s an unfilmable book. The question is:  Do we really want to make a film version of this book? Does it add anything, or does it just damage our fond memory of the book?

Weekend revelations!

Sunday, July 7th, 2019

1.

On Friday night at almost midnight, I finally finished humping all those heavy boxes of comic books back and forth. At some point in my past, I weighed some comics boxes and discovered that each one, fully loaded with comic books, weighs about 60 pounds. Did I mention that I was moving 20 of these boxes from the “office” in my house to the kitchen to a staging area to sort, then out to the back yard, and some of them back inside? So that’s 1200 pounds hither and yon for about 12 hours.

My first revelation was:  Maybe I should give up that gym membership and just do this three times a week.

My second revelation was:  My life would have been completely different if I had collected baseball cards instead.

 

 

2.

On Saturday, my playwriting workshop resumed. I started running this workshop, “Words That Speak,” in 1993. Twenty-six years later, it and I are still here, and in the same location. (Moving Arts, in Silver Lake.) We’ve got stick-to-it-iveness.

When you invest three hours most Saturdays for 26 years in going over people’s pages and trying to relate why something is working well in them, or is not working well, or could work better, you dip into not only past playwriting and teaching experience, but also life experience. I heard myself share this, about how your perspective changes as you age:  “When I was a kid, I was always right, and my parents were doing everything wrong. Now I’m mostly a parent, and it’s my kids who are doing everything wrong.”

Driving home, I realized:  Hey, but I was always right!

 

 

3.

Most Sundays, I do the grocery shopping. That’s because I have a budget of $180/week and I stick to it. I mean, If I had extra money to throw around on groceries, I’d rather spend it on more comic books or more theatre tickets. (My wife’s version of grocery shopping is to spend twice that amount and crow about how much she “saved.”) I make a grocery list, yes I clip coupons, I stick to my list, I tabulate the expenditures as they pile up in the cart so as to ensure that I’m within budget, and then I carefully select a preferred checker, one who will ring me up correctly and accept all my coupons. Last year, there was a lady who not only rang me up wrong three weeks in a row but was quite nasty about it even when, I promise you, I was quite nice about her almost costing me six dollars extra. The whole endeavor takes me 45 minutes. You could set your watch by it. I don’t know how the invasion of Normandy was planned, but the weekly incursion of Ralph’s supermarket is plotted to a tee.

My favorite checker is a guy about my age named Raul. I like Raul for three reasons:  He rings me up right; he’s a store manager, so if there’s anything questionable, he never has to call for a store manager; and if there’s ever any question about any of my coupons or any sale item, he just takes my word for it. (As he should; I would never cheat them.)

Today he asked, “Why’s your hair look different?”

“I just left the gym,” I said, thinking momentarily of the dime I’d found at the gym and slipped happily into my pocket. “I took a shower there and dried my hair, but I didn’t style it. If I put in styling paste now, then I’d have to wash it in the morning, when I don’t need a shower — because I just took that shower at the gym. This way, I can just wet it and go. And get 10 minutes’ more sleep.”

“You’re like me,” he said, “always thinking two steps ahead. You have to when you have kids!”

Raul’s always grumbling about his kids. I didn’t know what they had to do with it — but on the other matter, the more I thought about it, I thought he could be right:  Maybe I am always thinking two steps ahead!

In 2006, I took the employee of a client out to lunch so I could learn more about the client’s company. She asked me what I was doing for them, and how it worked, and then when she fully understood, she turned to me and said, “So you think all the time? How exhausting!”

Well, it can be exhausting. (And it sure isn’t helpful for sleeping.) But… maybe… it also helps me stay two steps ahead.

I’ll have to think more about this.

Not Mad

Friday, July 5th, 2019

Worry

No, I’m not happy either that Mad magazine is going under.

But — sorry — here goes:  How many of the people bemoaning its loss were still reading it?

I know there was me, and one good friend, and another friend I know who got it briefly and then I believe let it lapse, and… about six other people. According to reports, before its relaunch about a year and a half ago, it was down to 123,000 readers — and, after that, even fewer. That’s down from a one-time number of 7 million.

I think the time of Mad magazine was over before this announcement.

Let’s look at it this way:  The people before me were into coonskin caps; my generation, not so much. My kids have always had zero interest in reading Mad magazine, and believe me, I tried to get them interested. Lately, my interest in it, even as a subscriber, has been about zero; nothing in it compares with the heyday of Don Martin except, of course, Sergio Aragones — and he’s a holdover from that heyday. I’ve got three of the recent issues waiting for me to read them because I just couldn’t muster the interest. It’s not because I’m no longer 12 (and it’s no longer 1974); it’s because Mad is irrelevant. The Onion is doing a far better job in a far better way — in byte-sized bits, frequently the day-of the thing they’re satirizing — and so are  John Oliver and others on TV.

What will I miss about Mad? The comics from Sergio Aragones, and knowing that 98-year-old fold-in artist Al Jaffee still has a regular gig. That’s about it.

For me, the true upset is this:  the company that owns Mad (Warner Communications) has pulled the plug on a fan-oriented publication with a readership hovering around 100,000. Last month, except for the top five, every comic book published in America sold fewer than 100,000 copies. Batman sold 82,000. Avengers sold 49,000. When the Avengers can’t sell 50,000 copies, the end is near.  (Black Panther sold 20,000 copies. Twenty thousand! On what Earth is that sustainable?) Most of these comics are published by the same Warner Communications or their cross-town rival here in my home town of Burbank, CA, a little company called Disney. The only way these blockbuster corporations are going to keep the lights on for these little comic-book things is to serve as the equivalent of a think tank, supporting new ideas for movies, television, games, merchandise, and licensing.

Barring that, what happened to Mad is going to happen to the equally outmoded comic book.

 

He speaks my mind

Wednesday, July 3rd, 2019

In facilitator talk, “he (or she) speaks my mind” cuts through a lot of time and clutter. When someone says something you utterly agree with, rather than recap it all and tag your reasons for agreeing onto the end, you can say, “He speaks my mind.”

Rather than go into why, I’ll just link to a post from Mark Evanier. In this post, He speaks my mind.

The reason, as you’ll see, is self-explanatory.

And now:  onto brighter perspectives.

The question that keeps me up all night

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2019

No, it’s not about one’s place in the universe. It’s this:  Why can’t I sleep tonight?

For me, at least, it seems completely unrelated to stress — because I sleep poorly most nights, and most days (pretty much all days) are good days.

Some common causes to eliminate:

  • I don’t do a lot of blue-screen viewing before bed (I read for an hour or so)
  • I don’t ingest sugary snacks or things with caffeine late at night
  • I get plenty of exercise: I go to the gym every other day, and do plenty of walking the rest of the week
  • I drink very little alcohol any more, and none right before bed
  • I don’t stay up all night worrying, because Stoicism has taught me that there’s nothing I can do about most of those things anyway

I actually think it’s mostly this:  excitement. Voltaire said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that Man is basically optimistic because he goes to bed every night making plans for the next day. That’s me for sure. There are things to do, and I’m looking forward to them.

That doesn’t feel so great, though, the next morning. This morning I got up at 7:30 so that I could go get some blood drawn. It would’ve been nice to get more than three-and-a-half hours of sleep before that. When you’re getting blood drawn for lots of routine testing, you have to fast for at least eight hours before. So you know what else would’ve been nice? Being able to have a cup of coffee after those 3.5 hours of sleep.

Tonight was going to be my gym night. Now I’m thinking I may have to change my plans — at this point right now, I can’t quite see benching weights later. So, instead, my plan is to read an especially dull book to see if that’ll help.

Except:  Watch me get too caught up in it. And then be up all night.