I wasn’t even supposed to be in the class. I was a sophomore at the University of Alabama and I was taking a creative writing class that was supposed to be reserved for seniors and grad students.
The instructor was a stern older man with a long history as a published literary author. I had been required to get his permission to sign up for the class — and he was dubious about whether I was ready for the work. It turned out he was right and I was wrong.
There are basically two kinds of writers, to oversimplify quite a bit. There’s the literary kind, the type who write fiction and creative writing that leaves you feeling as though you’ve had an experience with art. And there’s the kind who are really good at communicating information in a straightforward way. That includes journalists and most essayists and even technical writers.
The instructor was the literary type. I was the informational type.
My newspaper training had made me really good at writing clear and concise accounts of events. I could even write opinions well. But I was terrified when given the chance to take a chance on literary writing. After a few sessions of the class, I got scared and dropped the course.
I’ve realized recently that I am at the point in life at which I have to make the transition — from glorified copy boy to making actual art — that I was afraid to make back then. It still scares me.
I’ve been having to ask myself some difficult questions lately and I’m not entirely happy about that. In a way, this is just the next necessary turning point, but in another way, it’s something bigger. The more I learn about myself, the more I see mistakes I made in the past — mostly out of arrogance or fear — that have left me having to make changes today. It’s hard not to feel resentful about that.
I’ve told you the story before about how I went through the horribly uncomfortable experience when I was about 30 years old — when I was in the midst of depression about the collapse of my newspaper company — of realizing that I was really an artist instead of a businessman.
I’ve struggled with that, confused about how to move forward. I know how to conduct business. That world makes sense to me. I understand it very well, but I’m not really at home there. I can fake it and it’s the world in which I’m operating now, but I simply hate every single day that I’m doing it.
On the other hand, I’m not entirely sure how to let myself make art, but I’m never happier than when I’m making the attempt. I believe I have some talent, but I get spooked easily when I realize that I might make a fool out of myself, so I keep stopping myself from taking chances.
With all that as background, here are the questions I’m asking myself this week.
▼ How can I express my ideas as art rather than as exposition which will be read by few people?
When you read the things I write today, the words are rather straightforward. I tell you what the idea is and then I develop it in some way that’s reasonably orderly. When you read something like that, you might agree with it or disagree with it, but it’s more like a reasoned argument. It doesn’t usually move you in the ways that art does.
But when you see a movie or read a book — the kind that moves you and leaves you thinking about something important afterward — there’s never a place in the movie or book in which the director or writer says, “Hey, this is my point. This is what I want you to see.” Instead, they create worlds and characters and situations that leave you feeling strong identification — and something about it makes you feel, at some point, an exhilaration that’s a kind of, “Ah, ha,” moment.
When you see Wes Anderson’s film, “The Royal Tenenbaums,” there’s not a single point in the movie at which it tells you this is a dysfunctional family or what you’re supposed to feel about the characters. But when I left the theater from seeing that movie for the first time, I had to call one of my sisters and say, “Metaphorically, that family was us.”
Even though they were an exaggerated version of a family — and those events wouldn’t really happen — it made me feel as though I understood myself and my world better. I had experienced art — but Anderson hadn’t told me what he wanted me to see. He just presented the art and let me figure that out for myself.
All of my work until now has been straight exposition. I’ve simply told you what I want you to see. I’m reasonably good at that, but I have to change.
Even with my one short film, I did a variation of straight exposition. I chose satire and then proceeded to solemnly tell people what to believe, as I made it obvious that you were supposed to believe the opposite of what I said. It was a reasonably clever trick to make my creative experience work for a film, but if I want to connect with a larger audience — in a deeper way — I have to do it in a more artistic and symbolic way.
I’ve had two ideas for the last few years — one for a short film and another for a feature — that would achieve that if executed properly, but I haven’t been able to let myself take chances on these. As I’ve struggled to figure out how to make these films, I’ve let lack of budget money be the excuse that stops me, but the truth is that even if I had the budget, I’ve been scared to let myself go — to trust myself to tell a story without explicit exposition.
But if I want to connect with people on a deeper level — and in far greater numbers — I have to make this transition. I have to set aside the comfortable methods I’ve been using for decades and let myself grow. Only then can I hope to connect with an audience — or to have hope of being commercially successful.
▼ What is it going to take for me to make this transition from essays to art?
I’ve told you the story about how I made my short film. I honestly didn’t have any idea how to do it. I didn’t even realize how little I knew. In fact, if I had realized how little I knew, I probably wouldn’t have done it.
But I wanted to do it for a woman I had met. I had told her I wanted to make a film. I showed her a couple of scripts I had written. She was excited and selected the one she wanted me to do. I wanted to please her and impress her, so I made the film. That sounds ridiculous in retrospect.
I trusted that I had a little bit of talent. I trusted that I could ask questions and find people to fill in the gaps of what I didn’t know — people to handle the other functions. I merely had to know exactly what I wanted to create and then manage the efforts of a team to create that.
It was a mess at times, but it eventually worked.
I have to do something similar now. I have to find a way to do what I am afraid to do. I have to just trust that I can do it. Then I have to put together a creative team to do the parts that I don’t do. I’ll write it and direct it. But I’ll need a producer to work with me. I’ll need a director of photography. I’ll need a production designer. I’ll need a sound designer. I’ll need a casting director. I’ll need a production manager. And more.
I know the process. I know which pieces go together to create the film. Being a director is a lot like being a company founder. You have a vision and then you put together a team to create what you envision. The difference is that with a film, you have a producer who manages the business functions and a director to manage the creative functions — and then you disband the company when the project is complete.
I have to find the money to make a couple of shorts pretty quickly. I have to somehow find a way to make a living that leaves me with the time and emotional energy to make these shorts. For the first short, I need about $30,000, which is very cheap as far as films go, but it sounds like a lot of money for this. Somehow, I have to find that money — and then start doing what I fear I don’t know how to do.
▼ Why I am alone? And how does that affect what I need to do?
I’m alone in life because I haven’t been able to give up the last shred of hope for a woman who’s not ever coming back. That’s brutal, but it’s true. I haven’t been able to give that up — in my heart — and that’s left me turning away other women who’ve been interested in me for six years.
I fell in love with a woman six years ago — and I fell in love with our vision of what our life was going to be like — and I’ve been stuck in neutral for all that time since then. Every time I’ve started making progress in an area, I’ve had the nagging thought in the back of my mind — sometimes in the front — about how she would see this. What she would want. How it would affect us.
I’ve been obsessed with someone who decided she didn’t want me. Even when I’ve convinced myself to move on — and thought I was going to — I soon slid back into that holding pattern.
Wishing. Hoping. Needing.
Six years ago, I saw so clearly how we could fit together. Today, I really know better. A woman who wanted what I thought she wanted wouldn’t have acted as she has. I have no choice but to conclude that even if she did show up for me now, I couldn’t trust her. And it’s insane for me to even have a remnant of hope for someone who I can’t trust.
But I also know that I work best when I have a woman for whom I want to achieve things. Since it can’t be her, I need to find someone else — someone who fits my needs and criteria better than the one who I lost. Someone I can trust. Someone who believes in me. Someone for whom I am willing to do anything.
When I’m honest with myself, I realize that finding someone new — someone who really matches what I need, which is incredibly difficult — is important to me right now. But that kind of woman isn’t the sort who can be ordered from Central Casting. She’s very rare — and she has to believe in me, too.
Somehow, though, I have to find her, even though I’m honestly heartbroken about realizing I have to start from scratch emotionally one more time. I had put every bit of my hope and faith into this one woman — and it was misplaced faith. It’s hard to accept that. And it’s hard to start over. But I have to.
▼ Last question. Am I emotionally prepared to start over one more time, both creatively and emotionally?
This might be the most difficult question, if I’m honest. I hadn’t understood until recently just how defeated I’ve allowed myself to feel. The turning point for me was realizing that I was miserable without the status and respect which I used to have. (I wrote about that recently.)
Ever since I realized those things, it let me connect with something from my past, at least enough to know just how miserable I’ve been — and why.
I hate every day of my life right now, especially my working days. I do what I have to do because I have to be responsible and make a living, but I am absolutely wasting my life. I know that. And I’m miserable enough that I hate the world around me. I’m angry with where I am and that makes me even more frustrated with the world itself.
That might not make sense, but it’s true.
I have a very clear mental picture of what my life needs to look like. Achieving that life is a form of rebellion against this dysfunctional culture. It will take extraordinary partners — romantic, creative and business partners — to join me in my rebellion. But anything less than living in those ways is a path toward misery for me.
I can’t live as other people want to live — and I can’t have partners in my life whose standards are that low, either.
As I think about all of this, I realize that I am emotionally prepared to start over. To fight again and to win. I don’t have a clue how to do these things, but I know that spiritual death is the only alternative for me.
I don’t want to start over. I don’t want to start from scratch to find someone to love. I don’t want to have to figure out where to get the money to make a first film. And I definitely don’t want to face the challenge of figuring out how to scrape by financially while I make that investment of time.
But there’s no alternative. I’ve been basically dead for six years. I have to be reborn — to fight and grow and create and love one more time. And I somehow have to have the faith that it will all work differently this time.