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.

Expertise actually matters

Friday, May 24th, 2019

When you’re an historian, or present yourself as one, it’s expected that you know what you’re talking about. But it turns out that Naomi Wolf’s new book, Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love, is premised on her misunderstanding of a Victorian term.

Not only that — but Wolf learns of her mistake live, on-air, during a radio interview.

OUCH.

 

Fred Willard 2 Night

Monday, May 20th, 2019
Fred Willard plying his trade with Jimmy Kimmel

Fred Willard plying his trade with Jimmy Kimmel

 

Here at the headquarters of leewochner.com, we’re big fans of the comic actor Fred Willard, dating back to adolescence.  As an early and longtime fan, I just about passed out when Mr. Willard himself came to see a comedy of mine 20 years ago. He sat through it like an Easter Island statue, but then went around telling people it was the funniest play in town. (If only he’d told the right people. But anyway….) It’s difficult to express what a great tribute that was.

The first place I saw him was on Fernwood 2 Night, in 1977, a syndicated satire of small-town talk shows that was supremely important to the 15-year-old me because it was so utterly divorced from the overly slick and rampantly unfunny “normal” offerings on regular network television.  Its gimlet-eyed take on false glitz mirrored my own skepticism. Willard played Jerry Hubbard, a none-too-bright sidekick/announcer with a flair for the obvious, paired against the disdain of the host, Barth Gimble, played by the multifaceted Martin Mull. Since then, I’ve enjoyed the work of both men; I’ve got all of Martin Mull’s solo albums, and as for Fred Willard, I loved him in “Best of Show” and so many other things over the years, whether they were little guest appearances or sitcoms, or voiceover work on King of the Hill or wherever.

I used to know his wife, the playwright Mary Willard, in passing, and went to one of her plays in the 1990s at the Company of Angels Theatre, up the street from Moving Arts (which may have been why we were seeing each other’s work; that, plus our mutual membership in the Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights). I had heard that she died last year, but hadn’t given it much thought. Then, somehow or other through social-media networks, a couple of weeks ago I came across a howlingly funny appearance by Fred Willard in a clip from The Jimmy Kimmel Show, a show I have generally found not-howlingly funny and have avoided like a traffic accident. Fred Willard was his usual deadpan self, and Jimmy Kimmel’s transparently radiant joy at having Fred Willard to work with lit up the entire bit.

All of this is by way of saying that I was delighted today to discover a piece in the LA Times about Fred Willard, and about his personal renaissance under Jimmy Kimmel. (Here’s a link to it.) Fred and Mary had been together 50 years, the piece says, and when she died last year he was left unmoored and wondering if he felt like doing anything at all. Since pairing with Kimmel, they’ve done about 20 sketches together. I’ll have to hunt those down. It’s nice to know he’s still out there making people, including me, laugh.

Lasting impact

Sunday, April 14th, 2019

 

ScrewIranColoringBook

You see above you the legendary “Screw Iran Coloring Book,” written and published by me and my then-business partner, in 1980. Back in 2007 on this blog, I shared the story of how this came to be created (you can read it again here) and how we were unable to sell it at the time.  Since then, the thing was listed in The Official Underground and Newave Comix Price Guide, has somehow wound up in the collection of the Michigan State University libraries, gotten identified  as a “Head Comix” (which it isn’t), and is the subject of periodic unsolicited emails and phone calls that I get from strangers asking if they can buy a copy — which they haven’t been able to do for almost 40 years.

Well, as you can see from the photo above, I found some of them. Actually, while looking up in the “Anne Frank Room” (my wife’s name for a hidden storage space in our house) for something else, my 16-year-old came across them and asked me what they were. I had him bring them down, I held onto the four above, and I contacted the people on my decades-long wait list to see if they still wanted them. They did — and so yesterday I started shipping them out.

My wife Valorie’s immediate suggestion was to put them on eBay for $25 each. I told her that one of the people on the list, who’d waited more than 10 years for a copy, had already immediately sent me $25 via PayPal as soon as he got my email. That seemed like too much — I was just honored by the interest of people who wanted it — but he insisted on sending it. (And I’ll tell you in a minute what I spent that on.)

I’ve got those four copies above remaining. If you don’t already have one coming to you via express mail from me, and really really really want one because you just can’t get enough of the chuckles sure to be brought to you by this 40-year-old hostage drama, let me know — I might part with another one or two. Side note:  the art by Rich Mayone, whom I’m back in touch with via Facebook, really holds up; I think his Jimmy Carter (seen on the back cover above) is lightyears better than Neal Adams’ version in that artist’s Jimmy Carter coloring book from the same period.

So, what did I spend that 25 bucks on?

JamesWarrenBioTwo weeks ago, I finished reading the new biography of comics publisher James Warren, written by Bill Schelly. (You can learn more about that book here.) I was interested in the Warren biography because I’m always interested in the business aspect of the arts (being an artist who is also a businessman), and because as a teen I had read my share of Creepy and Eerie, and had lusted over the horror- and comics-related merchandise I couldn’t afford in the back of my neighbor Donny’s copies of Famous Monsters of Filmland. The book was just about unputdownable for me, partly because of Warren’s story (determined climb from poverty and obscurity to publishing success; major setbacks; big rebuilding; then a final bankruptcy and the mystery of what had happened to Warren, and why he hadn’t even tried to save his company), and partly because so many people I’ve known in my life were name-checked:  comics conventioneer and distributorPhil Seuling, artist/writer Walt Simonson, Famous Monsters editor Forrest Ackerman (upon moving to Los Angeles in 1988, I want to the Ackermansion and spent the morning with him), writer Don McGregor, and many others… including Harvey Kurtzman, founder of Mad (both the comic book and the magazine) and of Help!, an influential humor publication published by James Warren and that, legend has it, led to the naming of the Beatles’ second movie.

In the 1980s, I did a fair amount of writing for The Comics Journal, including reviews and essays, and, when they assigned them, interviews. For the magazine’s landmark 100th issue, I was assigned five interviews, and one of them was with Harvey Kurtzman. The last time I took a look at that interview was 12 years ago — because I found it reprinted, without my permission and without any payment or even notification, by Fantagraphics Books in a big oversize book of theirs about Kurtzman. I alerted my attorney, who sent them a demand letter, we got back a letter from their attorney, and there was a settlement — which included a copy of that book and, finally, more than 20 years after publication, a copy of the printed edition of something else I’d written for them and had been asking for a copy of ever since (as they had promised).

As I was reading the Schelly biography of James Warren, and noting the references to Kurtzman, and then noting that the publisher was Fantagraphics, and then learning on Wikipedia that Schelly had also written a biography of Kurtzman himself, I got a strange feeling, one that Google confirmed.

Yep. I’m listed three times in the index of the Kurtzman biography.

So I spent the 25 bucks, plus a little more, on ordering that. I used the money from a 39-year-old writing and publishing project of mine to get a copy of a book referencing another three-decade-old writing project of mine.

In my life, I’ve written filing cabinets full of stuff:  plays, essays, book reviews, short stories, news stories, interviews, opinion pieces, and lots of corporate writing. At this point, it’s clear what will last:  the stuff related to genre. The books that have survived the millennia are those that were most cherished by adherents; monks fleeing fires or infidels grabbed what they thought was most important. Well, nobody loves their stuff more than fan boys. My good friend Larry Nemecek is this universe’s foremost expert on Star Trek; he’s a bestselling author and international lecturer on the topic. Given my own experience in my little corner of the comics world, where people will wait decades to lay hands on an obscure underground coloring book, or will endlessly reprint a brief, bad interview of a major comics figure conducted by a callow youth, I now believe that of all the well-known people I’ve known in my life, Larry will be the one with the most lasting impact. His maps of the Star Trek universe, and his many years of magazine coverage of every rivet and bolt on all the various incarnations of the Enterprise, will live on and on. As will, I hope, my writing about comic books.

 

last request of 2018

Monday, December 31st, 2018

I just got another email request for “The Screw Iran Coloring Book.”

I couldn’t give these away in 1980. Now that they’re relics, there’s low but persistent demand.

 

 

Critical response

Saturday, November 10th, 2018

Tonight, my wife Valorie and I went to our friend Amy’s 50th birthday party at a club in Sherman Oaks.  Because our lives have been intersecting for more than 15 years, Amy and her husband Ross and Valorie and I have a lot of friends in common.

Still, there were some people there I didn’t know. One guy, Bill, asked how I knew Amy and Ross, and I explained that Amy is my business partner. I’ve also done a lot of theatre with Ross, who is a fine actor and director, but I didn’t go into that because the club was loud and it was a chore to have a conversation.

Bill said he’d known Ross for a long time, ever since they lived next to each other 32 years ago. Then he ventured that he saw Ross in “Cabaret” some years ago, and laughed at the memory, then added that he saw Ross in a show he did last year “across from Paramount.”

“Oh, what show was that?”

“I don’t know. Something with three people,” he said.

I remembered this play. It was called “Triptych.”

“How was it?” I asked.

“Not good. But you couldn’t blame Ross. It was the script.”

I didn’t tell Bill that I too had seen that play.

Because I wrote it.

Assorted good news

Thursday, October 11th, 2018

We’ve all heard the bad news. Occasionally, I like to share some good news here in a vain attempt to balance it out. Here goes.

  • Last month, the California Department of Motor Vehicles fined almost 500 not-disabled people for using parking placards reserved for disabled people. Those who were caught had their disabled parking placards taken away and now face fines ranging from $250 to $1,000. This makes me absolutely delighted. My late brother-in-law was in a wheelchair his entire life, my mother now occasionally uses one, my brother is fighting Parkinson’s and has difficulty walking, and I have several friends in wheelchairs.  That’s who those placards — and parking spaces! — are reserved for. They’re not meant for people who just want to park a little closer while they run in to buy coffee — they’re meant for people who face real challenges getting into and out of vehicles and need to park closer and in wider spaces. I wish the DMV great success in finding and fining even more of these thieves.
  • On a personal note, my new play is moving along nicely. I knew you were wondering. Plus, my back is, well, back to fully functioning.
  • Earlier this week, the great band Devo was nominated to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. While this is not as momentous as if the even more revolutionary and distinctive band Pere Ubu had been nominated, this is still well-deserved, and I rejoice in their nomination. Their rendition of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” remains the superior version, far outclassing the first version, by those Rolling fellows. I hope they get inducted and only wish that Bob 2 had lived to see it, but I’m glad I got to see him and the rest of the band while he was still around.
  • Incredibly, another band high on my list was nominated at the same time. I have every Roxy Music album and listen to them endlessly. Ditto for Bryan Ferry’s solo disks — every one of them, except that one where he covered his own songs in a precious 1920’s style (no thanks); I’ve also got five or eight of Brian Eno’s albums and one of Phil Manzanera’s. The later Roxy Music albums are filled with beautiful yearning; the early Roxy Music albums are raucous and twisted, stuffed with songs that started fake dance crazes,  proselytized the delights of anonymous post-midnight pickups, and pledged love to a blow-up doll. When you can deliver an anthem built around lyrics like “Plain wrapper baby, your skin is like vinyl … deluxe and delightful, inflatable doll,” you deserve to be in a hall of fame.

So: There. It’s not all bad in the world.

Surveying my health

Sunday, October 7th, 2018

For four days last week, I was in the Mojave desert, parched, wandering, and bedraggled. The Mojave may have changed somewhat over the past hundred years, but in other ways it remains every bit as treacherous as ever. Luckily, in my travels there, I was able to find friendly watering holes when necessary, as well as the rejuvenation I desperately needed.

At a watering hole in the desert.

At a watering hole in the desert.

On Friday, freshly returned and physically replenished, and with a full day’s reacclimatization to the pleasant climes of Los Angeles, I opened my mail to find that someone had sent me a crisp two-dollar bill. The letter that came with it explained that I was free to keep the two dollars (as though they could have gotten it back from me!), but that the senders hoped I’d agree to participate in a health survey with the goal of better understanding the health needs of Californians and how to provide better care. I read the fine print to see who was behind this survey, and recognizing all the affiliated organizations as being in no way associated with Donald Trump or the Grand Ol’ Trump party or others who are hellbent on better understanding how to reduce the health of Californians, I decided to participate.

My reasons were several:

  1. Again, trying to be a good sport
  2. Hoping it’s in some way a middle finger to Trump and his co-conspirators
  3. I trust UCLA, who is conducting the survey, and I know people at First 5, which is one of the other organizations
  4. I actually had nothing scheduled for that half hour
  5. I was curious to hear what the questions would be and how I’d respond. Just participating, I figured, would give me a clue as to how I rank

What was not one of the reasons? The $2. Except for some poor unfortunate sleeping out on the sidewalk, I couldn’t imagine anyone exchanging half an hour of time, as warned in the letter, for two bucks. So… why send it? Because hard currency in an unsolicited letter gets attention, that’s why.

So I called the number on the letter, and then the people on the other end called me back to verify it was me. The survey did indeed require 30 minutes and went without a snag. I answered some UCLA student’s questions completely truthfully, including how many times a week I get exercise (seven, because they were including walking), how frequently I eat fresh fruit (every day), do I ever vape (no), how many cigarettes I smoke (zero), if I didn’t smoke cigarettes then did I smoke cigars and how many per month (two or so), how much heroin I’ve ever used (zero), and whether I use prescription drugs such as oxycodone without actually having a prescription (I don’t), and when I had my last physical (6 months), and whether I’ve had blood work and a range of other tests (yep, as part of that physical), and so forth. They asked me everything except what I thought of the season finale of “Fear the Walking Dead,” which was truly awful and about which I would’ve liked to give them an earful. I got off the phone feeling incredibly fit and incredibly lucky.

The next morning I was still radiating peace and joy. I’d gotten out of that tricky out-of-state den of iniquity whole and healthy, and now I was back here eating my fruits and vegetables and being responsible and healthy and fit. Some of it is habit, sure, I reasoned, but a lot of it is also luck:  not being genetically at risk for the sorts of addictions that too many of my friends have had; not having (so far) been so unlucky as to have rolled snake eyes at the cancer table; having gotten hit at full speed and with high impact in a car crash on a freeway some years ago, yes, but having gotten out and walked away.

I was further savoring this moment in that next morning in my bathroom while brushing my teeth. I bent over the sink to rinse the toothpaste from my mouth, coughed — and threw out my back. I heard a *pop* and felt a harpoon of pain shoot up the lower right side of my spinal column. I grabbed onto the sink before I could fall over, felt my legs go weak, and steadied myself as the realization hit that I’d have to leave in five minutes to drive to Silver Lake to sit in a chair and teach my playwriting workshop for three-and-a-half hours… and then, after that, drive back.  I did make it, but almost all the rest of the weekend was spent lying in bed gobbling down Aleve, with the next day (today) being even more painful than the first.

Good thing it was on Friday night that I took the survey.

This episode, of lying about all weekend doing no writing, called to mind Margaret Atwood’s 10 rules for writing. Rule Number 5 is:  “Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.” Yet again, Margaret Atwood is right about something.

So much writing (so little posting)

Sunday, September 30th, 2018

I wanted to get one last post in for September before ringing out the month, so this is that post.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing, just not a lot of posting.

Sometimes — frequently? generally? — I can do both. But lately I’ve been trying to finish a draft of my new full-length play, a play that I have been working on off-and-on for years, and what has helped me make real progress has been staying in the universe of that play. That means:  restricting my writing to being writing about that play. About those characters. About their overall situation. Even when I’m writing scenes and bits and pieces that I suspect won’t wind up in the play. So, in addition to the play itself, I’ve got a notebook full of scenes, and monologues, and notes, and other bits… and I think they’re adding up to something.

For most of my writing life, I’ve written more than one thing at the same time. Sometimes, I’m writing three plays at the same time. I’ve written my share of short stories, a couple of abandoned novels, dozens of terrible poems, innumerable essays and book reviews and blog posts and what-have-you, as well as about sixty plays of varying length and plenty of folderol and also lots and lots of advertising and marketing copy. I’m always writing something. So it’s been strange to restrict myself, as much as possible, to this play, but it’s a play I’ve wanted to finish for a while and I decided to make this change.

You know what else consumed some time? Well…. Last week I had promised to send a director friend the pages that I had so far. That means about 60 pages plus scattered notes and a general structure, with lines in the play that sometimes read “Scene 5. Missing.” or summations like “in this scene, X will do Y.” In other words, not a finished draft. I opened the file on my laptop to work on it and started to read it from front to back just to check that structure and see if it would be clear what was going on to someone unfamiliar with the project. When I saw what state it was in, I was alarmed:  What was this? It was a mess! I thought I had straightened all this out, and toned down the embarrassing lapse I had committed in presenting one of the characters as an obvious, unsympathetic, antagonist; not only was he clearly a two-dimensional villain, but things seemed to be in the wrong order everywhere. How had this happened? So I spent an entire evening two Fridays ago fixing all of that, smoothing out that supporting character and letting him have a fair point of view; moving scenes around; clarifying the general arc of the play; and then adding several pages of new copy over the course of the play. Satisfied, finally, I went to save it back onto the laptop into the directory where it should be…

And I found another version of the play, from earlier in the week, in that same directory.

And when I opened that version, I found that in that one, I had indeed fixed that character, and straightened out the arc of the play — and also had written eight new pages that now weren’t in this new draft. Which also had five pages of new copy.

So, in other words, somehow… I have been working on this play in two different drafts. Updating them both. Adding to them both.

Am I busy? Sure. Distracted sometimes? You bet. But I don’t think I have Alzheimer’s.

After that discovery, which as you can imagine was not a happy one, I spent further hours straightening all of that out, at least preliminarily, so I could send the pages to my director friend. When you find you’ve got two separate suits you’re tailoring and then realize that really they should be one unified piece, it takes some ripping and tearing and redesign to make that work.

My goal is to finish a good strong draft of this play by the end of this year, and then have a reading in January. I should be able to do that, so long as I don’t start working on a third version of it.

In the meantime, now that I’ve written all of that other stuff going on in it, I should feel more secure in that universe, and able to post here more frequently.

A better Comic-Con, and the usual Harlan Ellison

Wednesday, July 25th, 2018

This year the San Diego Comic-Con, which I returned from early Monday morning, seemed better planned than ever:  Although the event was as sold-out as ever, with an estimated 150,000 people packing the convention center and environs, there was a remarkable easing of the crush that has been squeezing all the attendees. How do you accomplish getting just as many people, but alleviating the sort of throngs we’re used to seeing in big-budget zombie flicks? You start by moving to RFID badges and requiring that attendees scan in, and out, of every passageway — thus eliminating all the counterfeit badges that, evidently, had been turning up. You move more and more events into adjacent locales, such as the Hyatt and the Marriott and the downtown library, thereby splitting up the horde. Finally, you work with the city to get the main thoroughfare closed to vehicles, and you restrict the main sidewalk to people with badges, thereby creating easier and more orderly passage for everyone who is there for the convention.

All tolled, it’s truly impressive how well-managed and well-organized this event is.

Because it was so much better organized, I was able to get into every panel and event I wanted to attend. In the past 10 years, it’s more of a crapshoot:  How early should I line up to see if I can get in? (Thereby missing other potential panels because I was in line early for something else.) This year? No problem. The result is that I went to more panels than ever, learned a lot, and had an all-around terrific time sampling from the wide variety of very well-programmed offerings.

I might want to go into detail here about some of those offerings later, but in the meantime, given my recent post here about the recently deceased Harlan Ellison, I thought I’d say that I went to his hastily organized tribute at the convention. I do not mean to poke fun when I note that the moderator spent much of his time choking back tears over Harlan’s demise (while noting that Harlan “hated crying” and would strenuously object were he there), and then devoted the first 23 minutes to an extremely mopey video from Neil Gaiman on the subject of how much Harlan’s writing meant to him. I am less of a fan, and didn’t enjoy my encounters with Harlan Ellison, so, as they say, your mileage may vary. Before arriving, I had been tempted to go to the mic during the inevitable Q and A and point out that Harlan spent a lot of time deriding fans (a visit to YouTube will help you verify this), fans being precisely the sort of people who were now attending this little tribute panel. But when I found out that his widow was seated in the front row, I thought better of it. She put up with him for 30 years; why add to her misery now?

What I will do, though, is link to three recent posts about Harlan Ellison on Mark Evanier’s blog.

Here’s the first one, in which Harlan insinuates himself front and center into someone else’s lifetime achievement award.  It seems like Mark thinks this is cute; I think it’s self-centered and childish.

Here’s the second one, in which Harlan runs around naked in front of other people because he believes he’s written the best sentence ever.

Here’s the third one, in which Harlan blows up a simple misunderstanding into an incident in which he’s physically threatening to beat someone, and urging the crowd to assist him. In this one, Mark, like some others, decides he’s had enough and keeps his distance thereafter.

I have a friend who suspects that Harlan Ellison was manic-depressive. That’s easy to say and impossible to prove. What it does seem fair to say is that he was a drama queen, and sometimes that was fun, and lots of times it wasn’t.