Monday, March 5, 2012

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

There are two things that always bring the sad: Rejection and The Oscars. Rejection comes knocking any old time and often. Oscar night is mercifully only once a year. Imagine my dismay when they both came the same week.

Working in the theater over the years, I’ve made the disappointing discovery that I’m not a star. I’m not the most gifted person in the talent pool, but that’s not the reason I’m not a star. I could work harder at honing my chops. What makes me not a star is that I care more about the artistic vision than the artist. When you are a star, other people worry about the big picture so you can concentrate your efforts on character, a practice that left me wanting more as a performer. It was a troubling transition to make at first, having spent the first half of my life only being concerned with me on the stage. I had to quiet my ego a bit in order to make the work that was really important to me. Since then, the ‘why’ of what I do is so much clearer and the process more fulfilling.


The Oscars always awakens that childhood voice that whispers with glitter and sparkle, “Be a star!” Nothing makes stardom look so good as award ceremonies, partly because you don’t have to see the behind the scenes work that got them to the Hollywood and Highland Center in the first place. When the awardees talk about how much they’ve sacrificed for their craft, the sentiment is a little dulled by the luster of their Lanvin. All I can see on Oscar night is the glory. No matter how I remind myself that such ends wouldn’t justify the means it’d take for me to get there, I’m still starry eyed—then flooded with ‘what-ifs’ and ‘if-onlys.’ Living in a different time zone, I read about the results after the fact. I watched Meryl’s and Octavia’s acceptance speeches online. I spent the whole day in a dull, aching funk: a precursory taste of what I had coming.

That Friday, I received an email stating that I was not awarded the Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst (DAAD) Scholarship to pursue my PhD research. My PhD program in Germany is cost-free so the scholarship would only be used toward living expenses. I’m in the fortunate position of not needing to quit a job in order to pursue a PhD and the funds would instead be used for enhancing my academic pursuits in the way of books and travel and theatre tickets. Hence, I wasn’t so attached to receiving this money. The PhD can still happen elegantly without it. Also, my research topic has been rejected before and by the much more prestigious Fulbright Grant. Folks are just not terribly anxious to fund a project about German Expressionism and avant-garde theatre, opting instead to give their money to more obviously life altering research. I was prepared to not get this one.


What I could only realize after I’d been rejected was that I’d silently viewed being awarded this scholarship as bonafide validation of my work. The DAAD scholarship is not quite the Performance Studies equivalent of an Oscar, but it would’ve made me feel like a star. My husband tried fruitlessly to cheer me by saying that I’d won the LACF Scholarship (Lennon August Cole Farrell,) making me yearn for a stiff drink. But each day is new and as ill timed as my husband’s attempt, thinking of it now warms me. As far as the Oscars are concerned, listening to Woody Guthrie over a deep pot of coffee reminded me that there is nobility in being scrappy. How full of grace to be a working class hero—a righteous and worthy path.

I don’t want to give the impression that these conundrums have been resolved here, but when I came across the list below, my wounds received some salve. It’s a list of guidelines for how to create appealing stories from Pixar story artist, Emma Coats and it did, in fact, show me how to make my own story appealing—to myself. If I can gaze upon my journey as one extended piece of poetry, disappointments begin to look more like catapults than walls. Of course life is messier than a manicured Pixar storyline and doesn’t always provide a sensible ending, but I never enjoyed spoon-fed, tidy drama anyway.

"Pixar Story Rules (one version)

Pixar story artist Emma Coats has tweeted a series of “story basics” over the past month and a half — guidelines that she learned from her more senior colleagues on how to create appealing stories:

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about till you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

#8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

#17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on - it’ll come back around to be useful later.

#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there."

Photo credit found here.
Emma Coats's list source found here.

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