Everything changes at the holidays. Even seminal works of literature.

(Gatsby in his mansion, alone, disconsolate.)
Gatsby: Daisy chose Tom over me. It can’t be. It can’t. (The phone rings. Picks it up.) Daisy?
Gatsby’s Wise Yet Hitherto Unmentioned Uncle: Well, it’s been a long time since anyone’s called me Daisy. No, it’s your wise but hitherto unmentioned uncle.
Gatsby: People used to call you Daisy?
Gatsby’s Wise Yet Hitherto Unmentioned Uncle. Now never you mind, nephew. Come home to your mysterious home in the Midwest, the town of Christmasville, for the annual Christmasville Festival.
Gatsby: It’s early September.
Gatzby’s Wise Yet Hitherto Unmentioned Uncle: Which, if you recall, is when the Christmas season kicks into gear here in your previously unnamed hometown of Christmasville.
Gatsby: I suppose there’s nothing for me in the East but further corruption and dissolution. But, no, I MUST stay. For Daisy.
Gatsby’s Wise Yet Hitherto Unknown Uncle: Just for a few days. You said she’s in Europe, anyway.
Gatsby: No I didn’t.
Gatsby’s Wise Yet Hitherto Unmentioned Uncle: Oh. Um…
Gatsby: All right, I’ll go, but I promise myself that I won’t be sucked into the small-town dead end provincialism I made a point of escaping early in life.
Gatsby’s Wise But Hitherto Unknown Uncle: What?

Cut To:
(Christmasville, USA. Gatsby’s home town. Gatsby takes it in.)
Gatsby: I’d never noticed how beautiful and Christmas-like Christmasville is. Or how generically beautiful everyone here seems to be.
Generically Pretty Hometown Girl: Hey – Aren’t you James Gatz?
Gatsby: I’d normally deny it, but your kind and innocent hometown ways have already broken down that line of defense.
Generically Pretty Hometown Girl: I’m not sure I follow. For as you can see by our eerily picturesque Main Street, life is simpler in Christmasville. Especially come Christmas. Not so much in February, of course, when the seemingly endless winter spikes our suicide rates appreciably. Anyway,I’m glad you’re back in town, even if you have put on some big city airs, James Gatz. I can’t wait for you to meet my implausibly sweet daughter. Her father died tragically in the Great East Egg Nog fire four years back, adding just the right amount of pathos to my backstory.
Gatsby: I’m sorry to hear that. In any event, I won’t be here long. My life’s based on the greed engendered by corrupted American values and goals, thus driving me to want all the wrong things.
Generically Pretty Girl: Whatever! Just help me put up this tree, eat these cookies, and join me and my irritatingly twee daughter tonight as we listen to the town choir sing Christmas carols at the tree lighting, as they do every weekend of the year.

Cut To:
(Choir singing. Gatsby and the girl hold hands discreetly)

Cut To:
(Morning, Christmasville Town Drug and Soda Shop. Gatsby, having just established a bootlegging operation there, emerges.)
Generically Pretty Girl: Hello, James! You know, there’s some canoes down by the dock, right near the green light, and the weather’s lovely. It won’t snow until nightfall, because that’s more atmospheric. I was hoping maybe we could go for a boat ride.

Cut To:
(They’re on the river. Gatsby paddles.)
Generically Pretty Girl: You sure are a mystery, James Gatz. You’ve sure changed.
Gatsby: Did we even know each other when I lived here?
Generically Pretty Girl: Who knows? Anyway, let’s get out of the boat.
Gatsby: Yes, despite all my paddling, we’ve seem to have been borne back ceaselessly.
Generically Pretty Girl: You say the funniest things sometimes, Old Sport. Say, you’re not going to miss the town tree lighting tonight, I hope.
Gatsby: Wasn’t that last night?
Generically Pretty Girl: There’s one EVERY night! Isn’t that creepily wonderful? Incidentally, you should know, my barely mentioned daughter has suddenly clung to you as a paternal figure, which complicates this plot further. I think it was all the brightly colored shirts you inexplicably threw at her.
Gatsby: Yes, she did cry stormily into them.
(They look at each other a long, lingering moment).
Generically Pretty Girl: I’ll see you at the tree lighting! I’ll bring hot cocoa, because at this point it would be weird if I didn’t!

Cut To:
(Tree lighting ceremony. There are Christmas carols being sung quietly in the background)
Gatsby: Who’s singing?
Generically Pretty Girl: No one knows! It just happens every night between early July and mid-June. We’ve just sorta roll with it.
Gatsby: You know…I’m awfully embarrassed, I never got your name.
Generically Pretty Girl: It’s probably something like Ashley or Dakota. Let’s go with Ashley.
Gatsby: Fair enough. You know, Ashley, Christmasvile seems immune to the corruption endemic to American capitalism somehow. In fact, the more problematic aspects of our country’s rapacious and brutally Darwinian ethos seem entirely absent here.
Generically Pretty Girl: What?
(Just then, a Colorful Town Character runs out of the drug store in which Gatsby has established his new bootlegging empire)
Colorful Town Character: Mr. Gatsby, there’s a “Daisy” on the line, here voice full of…well, money, is the only way I can describe it, breathlessly begging to talk to you.
Gatsby: The name’s Gatz. Tell her I’m not in.


Author Interview: Amy Long

Amy Long is an award winning author whose non-fiction book of essays, “Codependence,” of which noted author David Shields raved, “Against all the easy recovery narratives, against all the Opioid Crisis Hand-Wringing, stands this heart-stopping book–ferociously written, powerfully felt, absolutely persuasive in its extraordinary nakedness, bravery, and gallows humor. Brilliant.” Her writing has appeared in the Best American Experimental Writing 2015 anthology, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere, including as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2018. She was kind enough to talk to me about her work, her process, just generally wax winningly in general.


When did you know you when you were, like it or not, bound to be a writer?

I don’t know about “bound,” but I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer. I’ve written fiction and poems and stuff since I was, like, six. Since I could write. But I veered off course a little in college, and I really thought I was going to be a feminist media studies professor (I have a Master’s in Women’s Studies that I got right out of college and had planned to do a PhD). Then I was working for nonprofits, which I liked, but something felt missing. So, I took a night class at NYU with Amy Shearn, who is wonderful (she just put out a really gorgeous novel, Unseen City with Red Hen Press, which makes such good editorial decisions), and she encouraged me to take classes at Sackett Street, which is this great program run by Julia Fierro in New York and, I think, LA now, too. Emma Straub, who is a great workshop instructor, said “If you apply to 20 MFA programs, you’ll definitely get into one,” so I applied to 21, and she was right. I got into a couple, and I ended up at Virginia Tech, which was a perfect program for me. I’d have these lovely conversations that I call “serenity talks” with my advisor, Matthew Vollmer (he’s the best, and his work is amazing), and I think the way he talked to me about my work and my life made me realize, like, “Oh, I can actually do this. Wait, I am doing it. I am a writer.” So, forever and then when I was maybe 27.

Tell us about your award-winning book, Codependence?

Codependence started out as an installation sort of project thing I made in Matthew’s creative nonfiction workshop. I narrated my drug history in a medicine cabinet. Like, I made detailed pill-bottle labels and rolled up stories inside them or designed motel keys and used the instructions on the back to tell a story—those ended up in the book almost unchanged—and then the medicine cabinet became an outline (I can’t work from outlines; right now, I’m writing an album that is the outline for Book Two), so a lot of the book is me trying to figure out how to get all this 3D stuff onto a 2D page. I alternated between the more experimental essays (the book includes an essay in the form of a glossary, one that’s shaped like a map and has this amazing actual map that goes with it that my friend Silas Breaux made for it—basically hermit-crab essays) and more traditional braided essays that let me flesh out and ruminate on things and kind of wander around my life and my subjects.
I had the manuscript written and revised around the beginning of 2017, and I’d started sending it out to agents and small presses at the same time. I kind of knew it would be a small-press book. It’s formally weird, the subject is so specific, it doesn’t have that redemptive memoir arc that’s common to drug and illness narratives, it’s not hopeful, and I wouldn’t have changed that. So, I saw that Brian Blanchfield, whose essay collection Proxies I’d just read and loved, was judging Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s annual Essay Collection Competition, and I had this weird moment when I thought “I bet Brian would like this book. I really feel like I can win this.” And I entered, and I waited, and I’d come up to New York to see your play about Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, and I got the email telling me that I did win! It was weird. Like, I had a good feeling about it, and I was right! I remember we were walking around near Central Park after I’d called Matthew to go “What do I need to ask this press?”and I made you sit at an intersection on the sidewalk while I talked to my editors, Caryl Pagel and Hilary Plum, who were really wonderful and really got the book in a way I hadn’t expected anyone to get it. Their cover designer, Sevy Perez, did a beautiful job with the cover (and I did not make it easy!), and the book is just, like, this gorgeous object that sometimes I look at and can’t believe is really mine, you know?

I remember. It was exciting to see you as you were finding out the news. What are the some of the technical challenges specific to writing autobiographical essays? What drew you to the form?

What drew me to the form was how easily the story came out when I used it. I’d written a glossary essay in Matthew’s workshop, and it was maybe the first personal essay I’d ever really written, but all this story just fit so easily into it. Often, the form felt as if it generated the content, or the constraints inherent to a form were generative for me. I’d been trying to write it as a novel, and it was so boring. It was boring to write. I’m pretty sure it was boring to read! But the essays felt so natural. Like I wasn’t even really trying. And I find myself inherently interesting, so there’s that. 

A lot of the challenges come in part from other people—like, how much of this person’s story is okay to use? Or will my sister be mad if I write about that? Does using this story that involves someone else serve my story? But I think I’m missing a privacy filter that other people have. I don’t have trouble revealing things. In talking to other essayists and memoirists, I’ve found that the privacy aspect, questions about memory, and revisiting trauma give most of us the majority of our troubles. But, for me, writing the book was fun and like a puzzle, and at a certain point, I did become a kind of character to myself, and it got easier when I thought of myself that way. I think Matthew kind of instilled that in me.

Like, it’s all fiction once it’s on a page. When I write, I watch the scenes like a movie in my head. It’s not like dissociating or anything. It’s just how I remember. So, a lot of it was, like, “I see this in my head, and I’m missing this…,” but one of the really freeing things about nonfiction for me is that I can say “I don’t know. I don’t remember.” I love that. I value honesty a lot, which is I think what allows me to bypass that “I don’t want people to know this” filter, so the ability to admit that I’m not sure if X happened in Y way or Z way is really more about honesty than my stoner memory. I have a great long-term memory, but if I watch a movie tonight, I won’t be able to tell you the plot tomorrow (but I will be able to tell you who played what character on The Americans, The Wire, or Grey’s Anatomy).

When do you know you’ve got something to write about? Or are you one of those lucky writers who has a notebook full of ideas?

I think in books. So, it’s usually a “big” idea, and then I have to figure out what goes in the idea. I do have a notebook of ideas, but I rarely use them. I just know. It’s intuitive, I guess. But I kind of can’t go further than, like, “chronic pain drugs and fun drugs” or “loneliness and relationships.” Like, I need an idea that can contain a lot of experiences and doesn’t dictate to me, if that makes sense. 

What kind of writing really gets you excited?

Any form used in a cool way. Noor Hindi wrote these poems that were published in Hobart a few months ago in the form of a multiple choice quiz, which I’ve been trying to do forever, and it always ends up, like, an actual quiz! I was so impressed, and then we figured out we met each other when I read at CSU in Cleveland last year! I’m also always up for a good drug story.  

Are you a redrafter? Let me rephrase: How much do you revise.And when do you know it’s time to let it go?

I do a lot of revising as I go, so it’s hard to say. Like, usually when I sit down to write, I go over what I wrote the day before and spend an hour “fixing” it. My drafts end up pretty clean. But sometimes it takes longer to get there. 

I know you’re working on a few different pieces at the moment, including a novel. Tell me about the differences in doing that? What’s easier and/or more challenging for you about the form?

I don’t know if I’m still working on the novel! Every couple years, I decide I want to write a novel, and I love it for the first couple months, and then I want to write about myself again! I think fiction is way harder. It’s the getting from one place to another without feeling like you’re just going from one place to another, I think. But I love the description and the character planning and the way that anything can change with a sentence. It’s just not really my form. 

What writers would you say have influenced you most? And who are some of your favorite writers (I’m assuming there may be an overlap, but not necessarily) 

Joyce Carol Oates is a forever favorite. For Codependence, my main influences were Maggie Nelson, Elissa Washuta, Leslie Jamison, and Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. But no book had a bigger influence than Amy Berkowitz’s Tender Points. It was the first book I’d read in which the pained narrator does not get better, and it’s a huge touchstone for me. She’s a friend, and she’s incredible at community building, and I’m so stoked for the novel she’s writing. Rob Roberge’s Liar was an influence, too; it’s all in the second person, and I use the second person kind of a lot, so I went back to it to look under its hood a good bit. And Joshua Mohr’s Sirens got me interested in drug narratives again when I thought I was sick of them. I also always go back to Matthew Vollmer’s inscriptions for headstones. It’s such a good mixture of the mundane and the profound, and that’s hard to do. 

Karen Havelin’s Please Read This Leaflet Carefully, Sonya Huber’s Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and Carlyn Zwarenstein’s Opium Eater, which all center on chronic pain, were important to me when I was revising prepublication, and I’m really looking forward to finally starting Sarah Ramey’s The Lady’s Handbook for Her Mysterious Illness. There’s been a kind of pain-book boom lately, which is exciting. 

I’ve been reading a lot of friends’ books lately. I’m loving Nick Jaina’s novel Hitomi. I just finished Sarah Vap’s Winter: Effulgences and Devotions, and I was struck by how perfect it was for my pandemic attention span but also just how much it has to say about bodies and love and the state of the world. Lee Klein’s Neutral Evil0))) is a lot like that, too. I love my friend Tatiana Ryckman’s novella I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do) and her novel The Ancestry of Objects (I tweeted about how much I loved the former, which is how we met, and now we write songs together!). Reachel Anne Jolie put out an amazing book last year, Rust Belt Femme, that I love in part because we’re the same age, and she references a lot of the bands I also loved in high school, but it’s also just so well done. I loved Jeannie Vanasco’s latest, Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl, and Sejal Shah’s essay collection This is One Way to Dance. I also really loved David Shields’ The Trouble with Men. I know this wasn’t the question, but if I had to go back through my whole reading life, we’d be here all week! 

Alexandra Naughton’s a place a feeling something he said to you has been important to my writing and thinking lately. I did a reading with her a while back, and I bought it and fell in love with it. I’ve been gravitating toward relationship books because that’s kind of where my writing head has been. Tatiana’s books are huge resources for that, and Sarah Kasbeer’s A Woman, A Plan, an Outline of a Man and Melissa Mathewson’s Tracing the Desire Line are calling to me from my TBR pile. 

Do you have a set regimen for your writing?

Kind of. It depends on how my pain is that day. With ideal pain management, I start writing around 11am and stop at 5pm or 6pm. With the actual pain management I have now, I have three specific hours during which I might feel good enough to write, so I have to use those. But, if I can, I like to write all day. Maybe take some breaks.  

What was the best piece of advice about writing you ever got?

From Trysh Travis, my advisor in Women’s Studies grad school: “There is no such thing as writing. Only editing.”

What advice would you give to other writers?

Write about what obsesses you. Don’t worry about whether it will obsess anyone else. If it obsesses you, readers will feel it. And don’t let your book tour depend on anyone else!  

Amy Long is the author of Codependence: Essays (2019), chosen by Brian Blanchfield as the winner of Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s 2018 Essay Collection Competition. She holds a Master’s in Women’s Studies from the University of Florida and an MFA from Virginia Tech’s Creative Writing Program. She is a contributing editor to the drug history blog Points. Her work has appeared in Diagram, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere, including as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2019. She is on Twitter and Instagram @amylorrainelong

Get Codependence from CSUPC (http://www.csupoetrycenter.com/books/codependence) or Bookshop (https://bookshop.org/books/codependence/9781880834121), or patronize her favorite indies, Bookpeople (https://www.bookpeople.com/book/9781880834121) in Austin, TX, where she worked as a bookseller, and Sundog Books (https://www.sundogbooks.com/book/9781880834121) in Seaside, FL, the porch above which adjoins Central Square Records, where Long worked on Codependence during her MFA summer breaks.


Recently, I had the chance to sit down with the year 2020. We talked about 2020’s accomplishments, its regrets, its future, and what it might have up its sleeve its last 6 weeks.

Q: 2020, welcome.

2020: Thank you, Jack. Glad to be here. And by here, I mean in 2020. So I guess I’m saying, it’s great to be with me.

Q: Of course.  Well, I have to say, a lot of people wouldn’t share that sentiment.

2020: Ouch. Starting right away with the tough questions. I can respect that. After all, I hit the ground running, too.

Q: That’s an understatement.  The calamitous fires in Australia in January, for example.

2020: Right? (Laughs) Doesn’t that seem forever ago?

Q: Exactly. And at the time, I think a lot of us thought that may be one of the big news stories of the year.

2020 Dishes Out a Scoop!

2020: Well, I’ll give you and your readers a bit of scoop: that was totally deliberate. Diversionary tactic til Covid was ready to really take off. Now, let me share some credit. I didn’t invent CoVid-19. That was all 2019. Was it maybe a little too much, maybe you could even call it tacky to put its own name on the damn thing? That’s not for me to say (Chuckles) But I kid 2019, we’re like brothers, really. 

Q: Right, so he started the Coronavirus.

2020: Yes, that’s true. Absolutely But, and this going to sound maybe a little…I don’t know.

Q: No, please.

2020: Well, I think was the one who really saw its potential pretty early on. So right off the bat, pardon the pun, I decided to go global.  Looking back, you gotta admit it was a helluva gamble for a young year just trying to find its footing. But go big, I always say.

Q: Did you expect it to take off like it did?

2020:  Well, you always hold out hope, one can always dream, of course. But I’d be lying if I said I knew it would explode like it did. And let’s face it: I owe a lot to you guys.

Q: Who?

2020: You guys! I mean, you’re still split on basic science! Which is such a gift, I have to tell you. We haven’t been given the chance to work with that sort mass, pig-headed ignorance since.…well, it’s been awhile (chuckles).

Q: Right.

2020: I mean, and again, credit where credit’s due: I can’t thank 2016 enough. 2016…well, it was sort of a legend around the office. It set a mighty high bar.  And its trajectory that just kept gaining steam, 2017, 2018, 2019 – I know it’s hard to remember, but people bitched nonstop about those years as they were happening.  So, I don’t mind telling you, the pressure was on! 

Q: Indeed.

2020 Gets Real

2020: But ultimately, Jack, and this is a message I really want your readers to hear, is that I had to go to some pretty dark places inside of myself, confront my demons, really do the work, to speak my truth. And that is so empowering. In October, 2019, I made a vision board – I know, I know that sounds so, whatever. But it helped – it gave me the gift of believing in myself. (Becomes teary-eyed)

Q: You want to take a break?

2020: You’re kind, but no. I think it’s important for people to know the real 2020, warts and all.

Q: Warts and all? You created a pandemic that killed over 1.4 million people

2020: So far. 2020’s not done yet.

Q: That’s true. You’ve got about a month left.

2020: (A wry smile) I wouldn’t be quite so sure about that yet.

Q: How do you mean?

2020: Well, time’s kinda lost all meaning in 2020, right? Everyone’s saying that.  People are saying it. It just all seems to run together, am I right?

Q: I guess, but –

2020: I’m saying that there’s doubt – real doubt – that this is even November. In fact, there are experts who – I hear people saying that it’s probably late August at most.

Q: Well, the calendar quite clearly –

Calendars: Fake News?

2020: (Rolls eyes) Calendars? OK, OK: let me ask you something: you believe everything the liberal calendar lobby tells you? Think: who stands to make the most profit off of a new year? Big Calendar, that’s who. Follow the money. 

Q: With all due respect, that sounds a little –

2020: There are people looking into it is all I’m saying. The best…we’ve uncovered substantial evidence of widespread fraud in month-counting.

Q: But that’s….I mean, it’s getting cold out. The days are getting shorter. Surely –

2020: Let me ask you something, and I’m not trying to sound – you know – but ask yourself – with the way I’ve gone so far, you’re saying it’s not possible that I could make that happen in August?

Q: Well, I –

2020: I think your readers know better. We’ll see. We’ll see how it plays out. What’s your next question?

2020 Reflects…On 2020

Q: What’s your proudest accomplishment?

2020: Oh gosh, so many…and again, it’s a team effort, you know? Without the last ten years at least that came before me, I couldn’t pulled this off all by my lonesome. I mean, the Pandemic would be such an obvious answer. So, besides that, I guess I’d have to…gosh it’s hard to pick one. The Increase in racial tensions in America is certainly something I’m proud of, um, I mean, um, Q-anon has just blown up under my watch. I think I’m doing a good job picking up where the last few years left off in terms of escalating right wing racist tendencies in Europe.

Q: What about the election results in the U.S.?

2020: I try to stay apolitical, sort of like , you know, the Queen or Susan Collins. But – and here’s the beauty of it: it didn’t matter. Either Trump would win, and well, I mean: great. But Biden winning just means vast swaths of the American people are gonna buy into conspiracy theories that will…well, I don’t want to steal any of 2023’s thunder. 

Q: Any regrets?

2020: Well, looking back, I think the Pandemic was such a runaway train, it just sucked all the life out of everything else. (Chuckles) Let me rephrase. There just wasn’t much room for anything else, you know? I’ll give you an example: I think my celebrity deaths didn’t get their due. Kobe Bryant. I mean, that was the last one we got a lot of mileage out of before the Pandemic. But I mean, Sean Connery, Eddie Van Halen, Alex freaking Trebek? I’d stack that roster against anybody’s. Also, the whole Killer Hornet thing. Amazing idea, just, there was just too much going on for it to stick in most people’s heads like we’d hoped.

He Did NOT Just Say That!

Q: Let me ask you: when did years become so evil?

2020: Whoa, whoa, whoa there.  We take our cues from you people. Assess the general trends. Play into the zeitgeist. You were all feeling pretty angry and divided. Don’t get me wrong, the Coronavirus was playing hardball, sure, but it could have been a chance for you all to come together, you know. I didn’t force you people to become even more fractured. 

Q: Yes, but –

2020: I mean, masks? Masks? In my wildest dreams, I wouldn’t have thought you guys could’ve made something ugly out of that. George Floyd’s murder? I mean, it’s recorded! Don’t blame me if you guys found a way to be divided on that one. 

Q: Still…

2020: And where’s my thank you for getting Steve Bannon arrested? Where’s the thanks for that? I would’ve tried to pull some shit on Stephen Miller, but, honestly? Dude scares the crap out of me. And Giuliani? I gave you Rudy frigging Giuliani ranting like a vampire off its meds all year on cable news and topped it off with a press conference between a dildo shop and crematorium? And that, that press conference with the leaking –

Q: Hair dye, yes. That was good.

2020: See? Thank you. And, FYI: not hair dye.

Q: Really?

2020: A common misconception. It was simply the last remnants of his soul leaving his body. That’s what it looks like, sometimes.

Q: Interesting.

2020: Right?  And, two words: Queen’s Gambit. Pretty great series. No? So, you can’t say I didn’t do anything right by you.

Q: I think I speak for all our readers when I say, “2020, fuck off.” 

2020: It’s been a pleasure.

My 10 Iron-Clad Rules For Writing

The Unshakeable Writing Code I Live By

  1. Know what you want to say.
  2. Say it is honestly as you can.
  3. Find a quiet, comfortable place to write.
  4. Have some music on softly in the background.
  5. Is that Three Dog Night?
  6. Or maybe it’s…no, it’s definitely Three Dog Night.
  7. Wait, what’s the other band I’m thinking? With that guy?
  8. You what I’d LOVE right now? An egg roll. Or two. Two.
  9. (Rifles through desk drawer for Chinese menu, comes across a scorecard from a 2004 Yankees-Twins game, spends rest of day googling old Yankee player stats).

Ok, my list obviously demonstrates my overt suspicion of “How To” books about writing. Or most “How To” books, actually. Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure there are many that are truly helpful to many people, and, as John Lennon wisely counseled, “Whatever gets you thru the night.” Suffice to say, I would never write one (Full disclosure: no one, absolutely no one. has ever asked me to do so. And while I’d still say no, it would feel nice to be asked. for God’s sake).

I believe manuals that purport to teach one how to write, or undertake any artistic endeavor, by definition erase the one thing that makes actual art: the artist’s unique mind, shaped by his/her/their unique chemistry, life-experience, etc. I do think some of these books (and courses) can teach one the basics: the nuts and bolts, the carpentry, the technical aspects. And that’s not nothing.

But We’re All Snowflakes, Remember (In The Good Way Our Kindergarten Teachers Taught Us, Not The Right-Wing Twitter Way)? Or Something.

But I’d also argue that those lessons are better absorbed by doing vast, diversifed, steaming great, heaping piles of reading. Read and read and read (or listen to the equivalent amounts of music, or looking at paintings, or whatever you’re trying to pursue). I’m also an immense fan of re-reading, especially stuff you adore and stuff you abhor to try to figure out why you do.

If you read enough, a lot of those answers about the basics will seep into your brain through osmosis, into your subconscious. I’d argue that’s ultimately far more valuable, and that seeking out a formula is not only a cheat code, it’s bound to make your art, well, rather formulaic.

Hang On A Sec, Jack, You Ruggedly Handsome Bastard

Hmmm…for a guy who is openly cynical about anyone telling people how to write, I’ve spent a lot of time the last two paragraphs telling people how to go about doing things. But I’m not. I’m just telling you what’s worked (sorta, to varying degrees) for me. In art, like life, others can help, but you’ve got to figure it out, I think, for yourself.

10,000 Hours Of Practice To Mastery: Yeah, Yeah, Yeah

Malcolm Gladwell has famously argued that it takes 10,000 hours to master any craft. I generally find myself agreeing. But that’s not all it takes. Let’s use one of his most well-known examples: The Beatles. While still young (George Harrison, was in fact, underage), they were not held in high esteem by their fellow Liverpool rock musicians to say the least.

Then they gigged in Hamburg. And gigged and gigged and gigged. Six nights a week, usually eight hour sets. It not only forced them to hone their craft, but the sheer number of stage time to fill forced them to turn to broaden their minds and look to other genres to fill the hours: show tunes, improvisations, Country & Western, comedy songs, standards. And when they came back to Liverpool, the town went crazy for them, and well…you know the rest.

But here’s the thing: Lots of bands gigged like that in Hamburg. Tons. Only one came back as THE BEATLES. Also bear in mind, John and Paul had been writing songs at a steady pace and the best they had to offer for their first release was “Love Me Do” (I’m not knocking it, but that was the highlight of their five years of writing).

On The Other Hand, You Can’t Always Get What You Want

The Rolling Stones, on the other hand, saw Lennon-McCartney literally sit in a corner of a studio and write the Stones their first hit (“I Wanna Be Your Man,” for you trivia fans). After that, Stones’ manager Andrew Oldham locked Jagger and Richards in a room and basically said: “Right: you two do that.” And that worked out OK.

More On Those Iron-Clad Writing Rules

My point is there no magical formula. It’s not like building a stool (like I have ANY idea how to do that. The sight off me trying to build stood, if recorded, would be part physical comedy routine worthy of adulation from the French, and part searing commentary on the futility of human existence). But my guess is, once you’ve learned how to build one, you can practice and get progressively better, You can even get fancy, but you’re still building a stool, because it’s a skill you’ve learned.

Writing, for me anyway, isn’t like that. Every time I start to write a new play, TV script, or blog post, I feel as if I’m starting from scratch. I haven’t clue one what to do first: the legs or seat (metaphorically, although, I have to admit, sometimes literally, too). Moreover, I have no idea if my writing will be better than the last effort or worse.

70’s TV, Once More, Teaches as It Entertains: It Takes Different Strokes To Change The World, Yes It Does.

There are brilliant writers who outline every detail before they write a word. There are not so brilliant writers who do the same. There are brilliant writers who start off with a spark, or an idea, or sometimes even just a line (or sometimes not even that much) and see where it goes. Also, not so brilliant writers do that. As the great playwright Sir Tom Stoppard once observed, “If I knew how my plays were going to end, why would I bother finish writing them?” My point it there are NO universal rules (Which sounds suspiciously like a universal rule).

I know, I know. I’m writing a post whose thesis is not to listen to anything or anyone but your own experience, and yet posting this is, by definition, asking you to listen to me. I majored in irony and minored in hypocrisy in college, so believe me, I do get it. So disregard this post. Or don’t. Whatever you feel is best for you. Dammit, more advice. There seems no escaping.

OK, No More Iron-Clad Rules For Writing. Just A Few Incredibly Un-Iron Like Suggestions

So let me get out of this corner I’ve painted myself into by just saying my general approach, which may or very well may not work for you (and, sometimes, doesn’t even work for me).

I try not to confuse facts with truth. I try to write something I think I’d want to read. I often find myself writing in order to figure out what I feel/think about something, not to prove what I think is necessarily correct. The less I think I know to begin with, the less I have to let go of when it turns out I was wrong. I try to be utterly without judgment when I’m writing, and ruthless when editing. For me, my gut always maps out the way better than my head. I try to be prepared to discover, accept, and trust what I think I was writing about is actually not about that at all.

But don’t take my word for it.

President-Election Biden

Personally, Biden wasn’t my first choice for president, based on policy issues. But, as I repeatedly argued during the primaries with many of my younger friends, Biden stood the best chance of uniting the country. I still believe that.

People smarter than I am will be able to analyze this better, but I believe deeply that Joe Biden won the election not because of any policy positions. It’s because he is – agree with his views or not – a good man. He is demonstrably empathic, and that’s ultimately what stood in starkest contrast to the incumbent.

We can haggle over politics and policies later. And I hope the “better angels of out nature,” to quote Lincoln, talk us out of gloating to those who are seething and saddened by the result, as hard as that might be.

But the bottom line is, I believe from the bottom of my flawed and battered heart, and with every synapse of my admittedly limited mind, that goodness has prevailed. I’m often a critic of America BECAUSE I love it, and no doubt I’ll continue to be so, but today, I am proud of my country.

We chose goodness and empathy over cynicism and cruelty.

Decency won the day in America. Anyway, that’s what I think.

You’re Not Alone In Feeling Alone

As The World Is On The Precipice Of…Something, It’s Hard Not To Feel Alone.

When the American Revolution seemed all but lost, Thomas Paine wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Imagine if he also had to deal with Twitter and Cable News.

First, let me reassure you: this is not a post about politics. At all. Rest assured. Zip. NADA. I PROMISE. Not even a little.

Well, I Mean, It’s A LITTLE Political. Obviously.

That goes without saying. But not, you know, political political. Because the flood of toxicity streaming from Washington, D.C. would never have been possible if we hadn’t placed it there to begin with. It seems these days, more than any other in my life, we are drifting further and further away (an insight into my neuroses: I struggled mightily between farther and further here, as it’s a potential gray zone. People are clustering, it seems, more and more, by physical distance. So, farther would be apt. Conversely, it’s also a question of degree, hence further, and in the end I figured that was more pertinent. I hope you agree. Welcome to one of the many dark quarters of my unquiet mind:)). Perhaps, we were never that close to begin with.

A House Divided Against Itself Has Very Poor Resale Value

It used to be that liberals and conservatives used to disagree about what issues we needed to prioritize and how to tackle them. Now, they disagree about the nature of reality itself. It’s hard to find common ground when you live in different worlds.

We’ve been gradually but inexorably sorted into not only competing, but antithetical narratives about the world. I’m not going to get into all the reasons and theories why this has happened. For one thing, they’re too numerous, speculative, and detailed to examine fully here. Moreover, I’m hungry, and so I need to wrap this up pretty quickly and put food in me.

The point is we have become not only aggressively tribal, but have increasingly come to see the other groups not only as competing factions, but as enemies. In some cases, not even human. Perhaps the only commonality among all these tribes is that they’re angry and appalled all the time. For most of us, it’s become physically and psychologically exhausting. For those broken souls for whom anger, resentment, and a sense of grieving disenfranchisement are the only nutrients they’ve been fed, these are boom times.

I Don’t Just Fell Alone. I Feel Alone And Pissed, And It’s Killed My Golf Game. And I Don’t Even Play Golf

I’ll admit it: I find myself looking at many of my fellow Americans with bafflement and even, at times, horror. And to my dismay, I’ve found that the more I find myself alienated from others, the more foreign I become to myself. And all of it, from all sides, is born in and sustained by fear. We are the United States of Fear. Worse still, we’re mostly afraid of each other.

In my view, America has always been a Petri dish for loneliness. Composed as we are by citizens whose origins hail from all over the world, it has never been very hard to stoke division (consult you local library for more on this topic. “The more you know” (insert rainbow animation)). Throw in the American myth of Rugged Individualism, and it’s easy to see why often find ourselves feeling, amidst the White Noise of our daily lives, adrift and alone.

Feeling Alone: As American As Apple Pie And Gun Fetishism That Verges On The Sexual

I don’t believe America lacks universal healthcare for financial reasons, nor because Americans endemically lack empathy. My belief is that we have been taught to view interdependence as weakness; many of us view requiring help as a fundamental moral failing.

Now, I want you to prepare yourselves for this next part. I’d advise sitting down. Here’s something that might, nay, most likely will shock you: despite what my boyish good looks might indicate tenth contrary, I’m smack in the center of middle age: a Gen Xer. I’ve observed a palpable acceleration of that individualistic, cutthroat ethos over at least the last 20 years. Also, things are getting a bit blurrier. I don’t mean morally (although maybe that); I mean things are literally getting blurrier. That’s more an ophthalmology issue, which I probably should look into. But I digress.

I, for one, have seldom felt more intrinsically isolated and disconnected from my fellow person than I have these last few years. Because of Covid, some of this is tangibly true. But that feeling of distance and alienation that I’m sure the Germans have the perfect word for was there long before the Pandemic hit.

Counting My Blessings (While Also Nursing My Grievances)

I’m one of the lucky ones. I have been blessed with great people in my life whom I love enormously. And yet the gnawing alienation persists. Even grows. I sometimes want to shout out, “Don’t you all feel it? This aloneness? Can’t we all at least by admitting that? And whatever happened to the original MTV Vee Jays? I feel like if we had more input from J.J Jackson, I’d somehow feel calmer.”

Oh God. J.J. Jackson Died. Now I Feel Extra Alone. Why Don’t You People Tell Me These Things?

He passed in 2004. This both grieves me and sheds some light on our current cultural swamp. In the meantime, someone call Martha Quinn’s people (I know, I’ve totally lost everyone born after 1975).

I Am Spartacus. Assuming Spartacus Can Be Used As A Metaphor For Alienation And Lonelieness (And Why Can’t It)?

Anyway, I’ll start the ball rolling. I feel isolated. In a O. Henry-like twist, reconnecting with long lost friends and acquaintances on social media often makes me feel more alone. I don’t mind admitting I’m scared these days, both for myself, and for the world at large. I try to do my paltry bit, but am just as often overwhelmed by how paltry that contribution is. Then I remember the words of the Talmud:

“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” There’s not only wisdom in that, but an intrinsic sense of connectedness, of community. Of having purpose. Mattering.

And here’s another piece of irony that is O. Henry-like in its fiendish, um, irony. Those of us who feel that marrow deep isolation: there are legions of us! The last thing we are is alone. Loners of the world, in spite of the inherent oxymoron, unite! It may be harder than ever to find commonality and community, but it’s there. Even those whose worldview we find repugnant and alienating are, deep down, coming, too from a place of fear and alienation. I try to remember that. And that’s at least something in common.

Maybe that’s something, eventually, to build on. We’re all human, for better or worse. I was recently reminded of this when I read an extraordinary book, Codependence, by the supremely gifted and tragically underexposed author Amy Long. The author’s experiences and what she writes about have almost zero relation to my life experiences, but every page glows like a lantern, shining a light on our essential sameness, just like good art is supposed to.

OK, I’m REALLY hungry now. Let’s Wrap This Sucker Up.

Work for kindness and sanity in our communities to whatever extent you can, and I promise to do the same. Find solace in art, music, film, theater. In your friends. In your family (maybe). Most of all, in yourself. For me, that’s often hardest to do. But it’s there.

Regardless of the election results, a large cohort of Americans are going to feel honest to God devastation. Uncertain times are bound to ensue. Let’s try, as best we can, to be there for each other and ourselves. Vote. Be strong but kind. And stay safe. Til next time.

Depression/Despair: 2020’s Prom Theme

Love In The Time Of CoVid-19(Or, Alternatively) Fear And Loathing In Trumplandia, You Know, Depression/Despair, Whichever You’re Feeling More At The Moment

I get it. I totally get it. Whatever you’re feeling at this point in 2020. Anger? Sure. Fear? Totally? A seemingly intractable sense of existential depression and despair you can’t quite name but nonetheless is the ambient soundtrack of your days? Depends on my level of meds at the time, but oh my God, yes, absolutely: 100%.

I do not believe a sense of loneliness and despair is endemic to the human condition writ large, but I do believe that it is for many of us. I have struggled with depression virtually my entire life – before I knew there was a word for it, and well before I knew not everyone felt this way. At times  – sometimes long stretches – it has dominated me; at other times I’ve been able to hit back hard enough to force into a strategic retreat. 

Cheer Up: It’s Not All Bad, Even When It IS All Bad

To be fair: I think Depression has helped me develop some of my better qualities: an appreciation for kindness, a striving for empathy (some days I do better than others), and whatever meager talents I may possess, I feel sure they’ve been whetted by my depression. Most critically, it dissuaded me in the late 80’s from making any serious attempt at break dancing, which I think turned out to be a blessing for us all. 

But this post is not about me (which is odd because, as a writer, I tend to assume most things are), but rather an attempt to share with those of us who are both lifelong members of this club (our coat of arms is a person lying in bed, with a half eaten box of donuts lying on the adjacent pillow), and those who may be experiencing it for the first time, or at least more intensely, during this annus horribilis (believe me, for obvious reasons, I took great pains to make sure I had that spelled correctly.

We Have Nothing To Fear Except More Or Less Everything. Including, If We Can Believe FDR, Even Fear.

No matter your politics, I think we can agree that there is something despair-inducing about seeing America, and indeed much of the world, so riven with seemingly intractable hostilities. Most of us have lazily on some level bought into the old bi-partisan saw that “What separates is smaller than what unites us.” The past few years have made it harder and harder to believe that.  There are a million reasons why, and we’ve all heard them, and most of them aren’t new.  Some have argued that we’ve been acceleratingly alienated form one another and ourselves since at least the Industrial Revolution.

I’ve long held to this belief in theory. But to see it take full bloom in the hothouse of media-induced chaos – both of the corporate and social varieties – has driven that alienation and corresponding rage and sadness with a despairing regularity. Perhaps, worst of all, we have no sense of when we will return to a sense of normalcy, whatever that word implies. As master pop-craftsman and de facto philosopher Tom Petty long ago instructed us, “The waiting is the hardest part.” 

A Lot Of Our Despair Is To “Return To Normal.” And I Hate To Be That Guy, But…

What, and who, get to define “normalcy”?  For many of us, “normalcy” has meant a persistent and exhausting struggle, marginalization, and fear. Whatever happens in the next year or so, I feel confident about this: the world will have shifted, at least slightly, in a new direction. Could that be a direction more tolerant of hate, vulnerability, and so-called “otherness” than ever before? That’s certainly possible.

But I’m optimistic this ugliness, this despair we’re all embroiled in to one degree or another, is a tragic but necessary step to take towards improve. In one, very, very small way, I’m glad racism and prejudice have felt free to come out or their dark corners and into the open these last few years: we, especially privileged White guys such as myself, can no longer pretend in good faith that everything’s fine. 

Memo To The Founding Fathers: Less Time With The Slavery, More With The Grammar!

I’m also hopeful that, eventually, we’ll get a little closer to forming that “more perfect union” (the insufferably pompous writer in me despair’s of the Constitution’s phrasing of that: surely perfection is an absolute state, therefore one cannot become a more perfect union. But then I remind myself of the wise words many friends and family have counseled me with: shut up). America has always been an aspirational society, an idea. An idea, which it has never, not once, lived up to. But in general, we tend to move a bit closer to it, albeit, as these last years have shown, not in a straight line. 

Winston Churchill once remarked (and I’m paraphrasing, and my God, Google is but a keystroke away), “America always does the right thing, after it has tried everything else.” While, like all pithy remarks, it’s reductive, I believe that’s true of humanity at large.

Anyway…Despair and Depression in 2020

I don’t pretend to have the cure for ending despair. Hell, I can’t even figure out how to program my DVR. But I strongly suspect part of at least reducing this pain lies in looking for the good in people in moments like this: and, as usual, there is no shortage to behold. Heroism, kindness, and empathetic action abound. You don’t even have to look that hard for it. Try, to whatever extent you can, to be a part of that. The amazing thing about that is that it not only makes the world a little better, it will bring you some degree of relief, too. 

I know we’ve all heard this stuff before. That last paragraph was a carnival of clichés. But clichés become so for a reason. There’s something irreducibly true about them.  Find a community: family, friends, and like-minded souls. A sense of belonging, along with a sense of meaning and purpose, has always been a balm for me. 

A Frank Capra-esque Ending? From Me? A Bit. And Anyone Who Doesn’t Cry When Harry Bailey Toasts His Brother George In “It’s A Wonderful Life” Is History’s Greatest Monster.

I think the good people out number the bad. I believe why the forces of hate and disenfranchisement have been screaming louder than ever: they can hear the evolutionary tock clicking, even if they don’t believe in evolution. Or even clocks. 

That’s all for now. Stay calm and kind, even to yourself. Or at least try to. I promise to do the same.

John Lennon: A Brilliant & Troubled Icon

How To Pay Tribute To A Man You’ve Never Met, Yet Managed To Save Your Life Anyway, While Still Acknowledging His Flaws.

I doubt I’d be here without the Beatles. I don’t mean I’d be dead (though I don’t discount that possibility), I mean I wouldn’t be me. The Beatles are among that most exclusive of cohorts: people without whom you literally cannot picture what the world today would look and sound like. The difference is, most of that cohort achieved that distinction through violence or the exertion of political power. The Beatles, uniquely, did it through the sheer genius of their music and the force of their personalities.

And the most forceful personality of all was John Lennon’s. The acknowledged “leader” among a band of erstwhile equals (at least during their early years), Lennon quickly established himself as a man to be taken seriously with his intelligence, razor-sharp, zero bull wit, one of the great singing voices in rock history and, above all (with a little help from his friend and fellow composing genius, Paul McCartney), his unique and prodigious gifts as a songwriter.

The Impact Of John Lennon On This Boy (And A Few Million Others)

I was younger, so much younger than today (11) when John Lennon was assassinated on December 8th, 1980. I remember the next morning, my school bus driver was visibly shaken as she drove us to school. “Imagine” was playing on the radio. “What’s the matter?” I asked. “John Lennon was killed.” “Oh,” I said solemnly. After what I felt was a respectful interval, I asked, “Who’s John Lennon?” The look on the driver’s face was among the saddest faces I’d ever seen.

But at 14, I discovered The Beatles for myself, and, to borrow from video game parlance, it was like the Universe had suddenly leveled up. I became obsessed, and though I’ve learned to partially control that obsession in most social interactions, it’s never really gone away. For a 14 year old of a certain disposition, John Lennon was everything you’d ever want to be. Brash, talented, funny, rebellious, suffering no fools and taking no prisoners. That many of these traits stemmed from childhood trauma didn’t concern kids like me. In fact, the more I read about him, the more hooked I was. He was the only Beatle who grew up comfortably middle class. And though he suffered several severe psychological blows in his childhood (the likes of which I was certainly spared), it showed to me that being angry was an acceptable response to the world. In fact, when viewed from certain angles, it was the only authentic response to it. Any of my perfunctory efforts at homework quickly yielded to practicing guitar.

Most of all, of course, it was their music that got to me. Music of immense, indescribable joy that sometimes also managed to have just the right sized thread of loneliness and sorrow running through it simultaneously. Music that said that the world was made for discovery and taking chances: that there was always something new ahead to explore, delight in, and learn from. It made me feel more alive and less alone. It still does.

John Lennon: Bigger Than Jesus? Maybe Not, But A Lot Funnier.

A man like Lennon wasn’t going to enjoy the scrutiny and monotony of adulation and attention without some bumps in the road. Nor could it erase his past. He’d always been angry, and on occasion violent. He was a cruel, cutting drunk (and in the early days, he drank a lot). He was cruel and cutting when sober at times, too. On at least one occasion, he hit his wife, Cynthia. He was serially unfaithful (I mean, rock star). He was, charitably, a largely indifferent father to his older son (Paul was far more a father figure to Julian than John was).

I think there was a time when most of us, including myself, just sort of brushed past those things because we wanted to like him so much. These days, there’s no doubt a cohort of people who advocate “cancelling” him (and good luck with that). I think both approaches are misguided, largely because, for all of his flaws, Lennon never pretended not to be flawed. In the largely McCartney penned 1967 song “Getting Better,” Lennon contributes the following lines: “I used to be cruel to my woman/I beat and kept her apart for the things that she loves/Man, I was mean, but I’m changing my scene/And I’m doing the best that I can.”

Do I believe he deserves a medal for this, or even praise? No. What I do think, though, is he lived his life, especially from that point on, with an honesty that at times verged on the embarrassing. He was willing to let us see his struggle to become a better person. He was willing to let us see him often fail in that pursuit. He (usually) admitted his mistakes.

Oh, Yoko!

I won’t delve into the whole fraught and nuanced role of Yoko Ono in John Lennon’s life, but give her this much: she helped open his eyes to the oppression of women. For a man who once quipped, “Women should be obscene and not heard” to actively campaign for feminist causes shows an admirable willingness to learn and try to evolve.

On a far less serious point, the churlish and childish interview he gave in 1970, “Lennon Remembers” set in a motion a narrative that he was the only serious artist in the band, and was personally disparaging of his former bandmates, especially Paul. Any serious student of the Beatles knows the idea of Lennon (or even Lennon and McCartney) being the only reasons The Beatles were the Beatles knows this is hopelessly wrong. Lennon later dismissed many of his comments from that interview, but he never shied away from the narrative that he was the genius of the Beatles, a view which only picked up steam after his death. But it just isn’t true.

Instant, Or At Least Cosmically Speaking, Relatively Quick Karma

I’ve outlived John Lennon by 11 years. I like to think I’m a little more evolved than I was then. And I have no doubt John would’ve continued to grow wiser, too. I also think he would’ve gone overboard at times and looked foolish sometimes, because he did that, too. I don’t think anyone, especially Lennon, would nominate him to be canonized (except maybe that week or so in ’68 when he thought he was Jesus. Ah, acid).

But one of the things I’ve learned in my 51 years is that a person can do bad and foolish things, and still have wisdom and leave the world a better place than he found it. In fact, I’ve realize all of us have done bad and stupid things. Some of us take that as an excuse to compromise with our best intentions. John Lennon, for all his flaws, did not. He did some ugly things in his life. He tried to learn from them. And, like few others in history, he left the world a remarkably richer, wiser, happier place than he found it.

I, and millions of others, owe him a debt for that. So I’ll be listening to him all weekend, and although he was taken far, so absurdly far too soon from us, I’ll be grateful we had him, warts and all, as long as we did.

Writing’s An Act Of Hope. Got Any?

2020 For The World Is Like That One Semester In College YouTry To Forget Ever Happened. But With A Lot Less Parties And A Lot More Death.

What terrifies me most about 2020 is that we’ve still got a third of it left. White Nationalism is showing its ugly, empty-eyed face throughout America and much of Europe. In much of Eastern Europe, in fact, it’s gaining a stranglehold. Not a wellspring of hope. CoVid-19 seems here to stay for now, abetted by the 1/3 of America who can’t decide if it’s a hoax, a harmless flu, or deadly liberal synthesized virus deliberately given to those who tend not to wear masks, which of course robs us of our liberty. Duh. No hope there.

And yet, I can smell the faint aroma of hope on the horizon. To quote noted public intellectual Sarah Palin, “How’s that hopey changes thing working out for ya?” Actually, maybe not so bad, I think. And what reservoir of optimism have I tapped into? Apart from my meds, I’d say it’s because this past week finally Trump and the Right have proven that old adage by Marx (Zeppo, actually, startled historians have recently discovered) that historical events repeat themselves, “the first as tragedy, then as farce.” Trump and his enablers have been streaming the crazy on full speed for the past for years that they’ve actually managed to condense history a bit and move it from tragedy to farce in the span of a few months. Last week, most of America became, undeniably, unabashedly, aware it was in the middle of a door-slamming (if those doors opened into rooms with ethical scientists, attorneys, and diplomats)farce that easily outpaced anything by Feydeau.

Yes, Trump’s performance was disgraceful and unhinged. But the difference is this time we had 90 minutes of it nationally broadcast. Lo and behold, the polls, every bit as stable as Trump is not, finally started to lurch inexorably towards Biden. People by and large no longer thought of him as an “outsider” who’ll “drain the swamp,” but as someone you wouldn’t trust to run for pizza, let alone run for president.

Emily Dickinson Wrote that, “Hope is The Thing With Feathers,” Which, We Now Know, Was Also True Of Velociraptors. So That’s Cool, Too.

Who better to turn to for wisdom and hope during a time of mass isolation than the famously reclusive poet? Her famous line has been taken to mean by most that hope is a metaphorical bird residing within us, that takes flight and sings it song regardless of weather or clime. Easier said than done, at least for me. But she was right in implying that hope is critical for people to function meaningfully. By the time this week came, and The White House literally had more cases of Coronavirus than New Zealand, I think we’d reached the point of no return, and each new poll seems to reflect this.

Can something go wrong? Not only can it, but I feel confident it will. I believe the time between Election Day and Inauguration Day will be, to put it mildly, fraught. Let’s face, our Cal Ripkenly impressive streak of peaceful transfers of power is very much up for grabs. So, how can I not be nervous and despairing. I totally am. Sorry if I gave you the wrong impression, there. I’m teeming with worry. But, for the first time in a while, hope has gained a toehold, too. And really, sometimes, that’s all the room hope truly needs. It energizes and inspires, it activates imagination and shores up courage. It gives stamina and takes heart.

As I Am Wont To Do In Moments Of Doubt, I Turn To The Early Work Of Sylvester Stallone for Counsel

I’m sure I can’t possibly be the first person to make this analogy, but, 2020 has felt a lot like Rocky II: largely unnecessary, an unlikely vehicle for Burt Young, and, most vitally, 2020 has doled out an Apollo Creed in his prime level beating on us to the point of collapse. But, like the often paired Rocky Balboa and Maya Angelou, “Still I rise.” We are rising. I think. I hope.

Wait: Isn’t This Supposed To Be A Blog About Writing Or Depression Or Both?

True. But I think this qualifies, because if you were to draw a Venn Diagram involving mental health and writing, hope would be the overlap. Like I said, writing is fundamentally an act of optimism: why sweat over every word and comma if it won’t one day be seen? And how can we face the world without at least a scrap of hope clinging somewhere to us?

So here’s to hope. Now, I’m going to fill a soup tureen with vodka, put on a pith helmet, and watch the Vice Presidential Debate.

On Collaboration

My Experiences With The Perks And Pitfalls of Collaboration

Theater, film-making, and television are different in a multitude of ways, but they all depend intensely on collaboration. Like most contemplations on collaboration, I will begin with a quote by tennis great Andre Agassi:

“If I didn’t play at the same time Pete Sampras was, I’d have won a lot more championships, but I also wouldn’t have been nearly as good a tennis player.”

To me, that’s a fascinating insight. It speaks to core values: do you want to “win” (which, in the arts, is at best a nebulous concept), or do you want to maximize your potential? Of course, the line between collaboration and competition often blurs, but I don’t see that as an inherently bad thing. To quote someone who I’m willing to bet was not a very good tennis player at all:

“It was a good competition. Paul would bring something really good, and so that would kick me into trying to come up with something good, too, which would then do the same for him.” – John Lennon

John and Paul helped each other out far more often than has until recently been generally perceived (who would’ve thought it was Lennon who suggested the lovely horns in the decidedly McCartney-ish song, “Mother Nature’s Son,” or that it was Paul who helped John with some of the surrealist imagery in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (Newspaper taxis arrive on the shore/Waiting to take you away” was Paul’s). Not to mention it was an uncredited George Harrison who came up with “Ah, look at all the lonely people” for “Eleanor Rigby.”

Anyway, my point is, I think collaboration is often a wonderful thing. In TV and film writing, it’s a given that there will be dozens and dozens of fingerprints all over your script. That’s why they pay you a relatively large sum of money: to stop you grumbling about it.

You Never Give Me Your Money (Seeing As I’m Now In a Beatles Frame Of Mind)

In theater, however, large payouts are rare, to put it mildly. What theater does afford as a compensation, however, is TOTAL CONTROL OF YOUR TEXT. Not a word, not a comma, can be changed without your explicit imprimatur. Does that feel good? Dear God, yes. Is it something I tend to invoke a lot during the rehearsal process? Very seldom.

Why? Because, if I feel I’m working with gifted and intelligent professionals, it seems an act of self-defeating arrogance to not listen to the input of others. This doesn’t reflect a lack of confidence in my writing. It reflects a faith in my collaborators (and if you don’t have that, well, the production’s probably not going ever gel anyway).

Any semi-smart playwright will tell you that you learn an immense amount about your play when you hear it aloud. For many – certainly for me – I often realize that I’ve over-explained and/or over-written. These are not necessarily the same thing. Over-explaining is the reiteration of a point I’ve already established (often something I’m guilty of). Over-writing is taking a little too much pleasure in the sound of your voice (something I consider myself guilty of until proven innocent).

You Must Kill, Or At Least Temporarily Brutally Imprison, Your Darlings

I think we’re all familiar with that axiom, and I think it’s a good rule of thumb. But who’s more likely to arrive at an emotional attachment to your words – you, or your director/actors/crew? Sadly, it’s almost inevitably they who’ve the clearer eye with such things. But it’s a fine line, right? Hemingway said to write your story, then take all of the good lines out. Then you have your story. Certainly a good warning to not fall in love too much with your own voice.

But what if Fitzgerald had taken all the good lines out of The Great Gatsby? What a tragic loss that would’ve been. One of the most important things the two legendary authors had in common was a brilliant collaborator, the editor Maxwell Perkins, whom they both trusted to simultaneously respect their individual voices and yet maintain a sharp critical eye. What a gift to have someone like that in your corner.

I don’t think I’m diminishing the genius of either Arthur Miller nor Tennessee Williams when I observe that in the span of three years Elia Kazan directed, in succession, All My Sons, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Death of a Salesman. Both Williams and Miller were on the top of their game, but so, clearly, was Kazan.

I Try To Be Very Forgiving Of My Flaws When I Write, But At Least Equally As Merciless With Myself When I Edit. Also, When I Have A Say With Whom I Work.

I’ve been very, very lucky in terms of people with whom I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate. People who’ve unquestionably elevated the quality of my writing. But because I consider a good collaborator to be so essential, I choose them carefully and make my best efforts to show how much faith I have in them. This isn’t to say I’ve always agreed or acquiesced. In one play of mine, I make a joke about Leni Riefenstahl. You know, like you do. Both the director and actor pleaded with me with increasing desperation to cut the joke. “People won’t get it,” I was told. “Many people won’t,” I’d always respond, “but enough will.”

The first preview, I sat next to the director, and when joke landed beautifully, I looked over with a no doubt unbearable smugness on my face which, to his everlasting credit, he didn’t punch.

Having said that, if an actor is telling you a line doesn’t feel right, either in their mouths or for their characters, you’d better listen carefully. After all, it’s their character now, too.

I’d mentioned in the intro about the “pitfalls” of collaboration, and to be sure, they can exist. Working with people whose vision of things doesn’t jibe with yours. People who demonstrably don’t like your work, not just have an issue with a particular part of it. People who – and they’re usually pretty quick to spot – are in it just for themselves. And sometimes, despite them being good, kind people, collaborators whose work, if you’re honest with yourself, you don’t hold in high regard. Those are all dealbreakers to me. Collaboration is so important, is such a valuable thing, that you have to be as scrupulous as possible when picking your partners (on those rare chances you have control over that).

Hey Gang, We Can Do The Show Right Here!

And after all, collaboration, to me, is one of the joys of playwriting. It affords me the perfect ratio of solitude and company. I got into to the theater to be with people I trusted and who generally saw the world the same I did. That’s why I still do it. I’d list all the collaborators who’ve added qualitatively to my plays, but the list would be too long, and inevitably I’d forget someone. Moreover, there are people who’ve done so whom I’m sure I’m not even aware of. Playwrights can be pretty self-involved during rehearsals (and all other waking hours).

I don’t feel especially qualified to advise anyone on what to do. About anything. Even picking heads or tails. All I can tell you is the two things that have helped me the most by far: Read and write as constantly and relentlessly as you can. And then, judiciously but consciously, when you find an artist you trust, finagle a way to get them as involved with your work as possible. Theater is a team sport. Find the smartest, kindest, most open-hearted people you can and keep them close. Probably good advice off-stage, too.

In both cases, boy, have I lucked out. I wish you the same!