“New and…” Complete the sentence. You know how it goes: “New and Improved.” You’ve heard it in countless ad campaigns. Newandimproved. New is always better, so we’re told.
But recently, at a nice dinner party, a gentleman from Kyoto, seated at the table to my left, and a man from London, to my right, both agreed that the pressure to be new is an American obsession. The British gentleman added, what could they expect from a country that isn’t even 250 years old? In the medieval town outside London where he grew up, “new” means untested. People believe someone else should try a thing first, and once it is proven to work, it might be worth their interest.
The Japanese man bested him with a story of a town meeting where he grew up, outside ancient Kyoto. A resident had stood to speak and the Leader asked how long he’d lived there. “Fifty years,” the resident responded. “Sit down!” commanded the Leader. How dare he speak when he was a newcomer? Then this dinner guest said he rose to speak also. “How long have you lived here?” the Leader again inquired. “Three hundred years,” he answered – not meaning that he was a vampire but that’s how long his ancestors inhabited this land. “Well, you may speak, but only briefly,” the Leader conceded, noting he, himself, had been there a thousand years.
Context forms reality. Conforming to that context defines our potential. Unless we don’t let it, of course.
For us, what are the contours of “new?” Is it a synonym for young? In “Hollywood,” you hear that your chance of being valued as a writer, actor, musician or visual artist diminishes with each gray hair. So I joked to one of my MFA screenwriting classes at USC, “don’t turn 30.” I was kidding, of course; many were already in their 30s when they entered the program with life experiences that gave them stories. Two had served in the military. Ten years younger, they could not have written with as much insight.
But one woman – Jennifer – took the advice to heart. She’d just had her 30th birthday when she phoned for an appointment with a producer who was staffing up. The producer’s secretary asked Jennifer how old she was. Gamely, Jennifer proclaimed “29.” “Oooh, I’m sorry,” the secretary emoted, “Our ceiling is 26.” When word got back to school, the administration made a fuss (age discrimination being against the law and all) and Jennifer was hired despite her egregiously old age of “29.”
Ok, let’s posit that age bias is Hollywood’s zombie -- supposed to be dead but walking around eating brains – and move on to think about “new” apart from chronology.
As I researched The Future of Television, every executive, producer and writer talked about “The New World,” and what they told me occupies more than half the book. In fact, though, most of the emerging shows are similar to existing shows, just adapted to fit new technology and online platforms. Sure, they move the art form forward a bit, but something truly new didn’t surface until I arrived at interviews for the final chapter on “transmedia.”
I never liked that term, “transmedia,” because it’s been used to describe a marketing ploy that involves placing teasers and ads for shows (and other products) all over the web, on phones, and on twitter -- material that is developed as ancillary and not intrinsic to the show itself. Being annoyed by multi-media marketing is certainly not new. Then I interviewed Emmy-winner Jay Bushman who was working on re-framing television drama while keeping all the classic story telling elements and letting them stretch out into a contemporary space.
First, let’s back up to meeting him because it reveals something about who is out there on the edge. A current student in one of my writing classes, who is 22, mentioned that she had a part time job as a transmedia editor. I asked for an introduction to the guy she was working for. So he and I arranged to meet at a local café. There I was scanning the room for what I assumed would be, essentially, a male version of my very young student. Or maybe he’d be someone with tattoos and piercings and a shaved head, or dreadlocks. I waited and waited. Did he ditch the interview? Finally I realized that only one other person was here alone: a man with graying hair. That was Jay Bushman. So much for stereotypes.
Jay told me, “I approach transmedia from a different perspective. I use multiple channels, multiple formats, multiple media, and have each piece part of a larger whole but none of the individual pieces stands alone. By putting them together you create something larger than the whole. It’s a singular experience. I’ve taken those ideas and tried to apply them to making dramatic fictional series, starting with Lizzie Bennet Diaries. Everything is scripted – one cohesive story that takes place on YouTube and on your Twitter feed and on your social media feeds and I place it in the world.”
Now take another step to three dimensions. No, I don’t mean wearing those creepy cardboard glasses so things seem to jump out at you. More like inhabiting a round space where actors who would be hidden can be seen if you move behind a barrier, so the meaning of “off screen” changes, more like experiencing stories in a holographic environment. Think about how much more information has to be created for screen once you can see more area. Consider the impact on TV’s parallel storytelling. We’ve experienced some of that in any performance in the round. But what if these characters were around you in your own room?
We’re not there yet, technologically or in audience appeal. But the take-away will be a challenge to expand the basic skills of story-telling. That doesn’t mean abandoning or even changing them. It’s the opposite: a firmer hold on what propels a narrative forward and why people care about characters is required as more story becomes available. That’s something new.
As I drove home from the conversation with Jay, my classical radio station broadcast a work I didn’t know. As it played, I was entranced by the intricacy, how melodic lines wove together in a way that strangely seemed to complement the interview. It must be some sort of experimental music, I thought. The instruments sounded electronic, which I usually don’t like, but these built to a dense tapestry. Too far out for today’s listeners, I concluded, too new; this composer is never going to make it.
Then the announcer said the composer’s name: J.S. Bach, born in the year 1685. My son-in-law, composer Bear McCreary, explained the “electronic” sound was because some 18th century harpsichords had a tone similar to today’s electronic instruments. Talk about things coming around.
So what makes an art form “new?” If it doesn’t have to do with the youth of the creator, or the technology, or even when it was created, what’s left? The answer is the impulse towards exploration that has nothing to do with time. It’s why Shakespeare’s plays from 500 years ago, and paintings from Kyoto a thousand years ago, are as inspiring today as they were then, and why so many people in America, a mere 238 years old, feel driven to find out what’s next.
A few weeks ago, students from my TV Thesis classes gathered around my dining table and talked about what happened when they graduated in 2012 and 2013. One phrase rang in my ears: “silent summer.” Two years of intense workshop feedback on scripts at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, winning contests, and learning how to build shows was over. The next morning some of them woke up with nowhere to go. One man confided he was scared.
Actually, the emptiness is not true. A few of the students got jobs on shows quickly, some signed with managers or agents, and five months out of school, this same man is now represented by an agency and in a development program. But first came the summer of silence.
It got me thinking about the space between facts and possibilities. A Japanese term for it is “yoyuu.”
It’s a combination of two characters meaning “in excess” and “abundant/fertile/rich.” Dictionary equivalents are something like “margin,” “allowance,” “surplus,” and “reserve capacity.”
Before your head starts to hurt, here’s a simplified version: Picture a glass of water that is filled ¾ to the top. The remaining ¼ can be considered yoyuu. It’s the unfulfilled potential.
Dr. Lawrence Nakano, astrophysicist and Chief Scientist at Astrocamp, explained that to me when I visited this summer. Located 5000 feet up a mountain in the woods of Idyllwild, California, Dr. Nakano devotes himself to education, mostly inspiring busloads of school children. Wearing his ever-present safari hat, he makes his way on mountain paths in the rarified air to telescopes that have clear views of other planets. He lives in his van, though he was offered a house, preferring to simplify his life, monk-like, and prepares a book of essays contemplating yoyuu. To him, this concept is “a requisite for learning, creativity, and any development of real freedom.”
Above all, he considers himself a teacher. That’s a much undervalued term, as complex as yoyuu. We may think we know what “teacher” means, but when we realize teaching is really about playing “unused potential” as if it’s an instrument, the artistry comes into focus.
I thought about teachers who had influenced me and when I took up this calling … at 7 years old. That’s when Mrs. Kosso, second grade teacher, assigned me to spend reading time at a tiny round table in the back of the classroom helping a fragile child named Ann, also 7, who couldn’t read. I don’t know what ever came of her, but I do remember that she got through one whole page in a picture book under my care. And that day in a cold and leaky New York City classroom, I was a kind of hero.
What was it that I really taught Ann? Everyone had been harping on how to pronounce the letters all year to no avail. I think I taught her courage. Every teacher who mattered to me taught me something that was not the assigned subject; they taught yoyuu.
One day in the art studio in college, I stood staring at a blank canvas. And staring. And staring. And painting nothing. The teacher kept peeking into my area and walking away. And coming back and discovering nothing was still happening. Finally, he walked up behind me and threw black ink on the canvas. The lesson had nothing to do with painting. It had something to do with being daring enough to break out of preconceptions. And with starting somewhere.
Dr.Nakano talked about figuring out the right amount of yoyuu for each student. If you fill up the glass too close to the top (with information or direction), creativity has no room to grow. But if you don’t have enough material to start – too little water in the glass – all that yoyuu is going to bounce right out and sprawl senselessly in every direction. Creativity is not lack of purpose or shape.
Among my teachers, I also think about a grotesquely disfigured woman who ran the Shakespeare class in college. On the first day, with the students arrayed around a seminar table, she said anyone who had difficulty with how she looked was free to drop out, no questions asked. She’d contracted mouth cancer from smoking cigarettes and implored the students not to smoke, indicating the scars where her mouth and neck once were. No one dropped the class. And she never mentioned it again, speaking only about Shakespeare’s plays to the day she died at the end of the term. I don’t remember anything she taught about Shakespeare. But I’ll never forget what she taught the young students, all so conscious of their appearance, about where a human being’s true potential resides.
Finally, I think about the former teacher I visited in her New York apartment soon after I graduated. Though I was barely 20, younger than my current MFA alumni are now, I felt a little like they do, just out of school and unsure of the future. This woman was struggling as a painter. It’s tough to make a living as an artist in New York, then and now, and she was bitter about being alone and how to pay the rent with a scattering of classes and too few buyers. She sure couldn’t help me start my career when she was hardly hanging on to her own, and that day she spoke about things I wouldn’t understand for many years. But one comment stuck with me: “As you go on to do many things, know how good these early paintings really were, that the potential was always there.”
She was talking about that strange term yoyuu. It’s all about possibility.
So, to my recent graduates, and students past and future, you are not traveling into the void, but through the space between what is and what can be. That is the source of all creativity.
A Peek at the Introduction to
The Future of Scripted Television
Next year around this time you’ll be able to hold my new book in your hand (or on your screen). Now, I’m still in the midst of writing the book; it’s due to the publisher in April (yikes!). But I’m so excited about it I want to share a preview.
Here’s an excerpt from the Introduction to The Future of Scripted Television.
What Is Television?
Consider the ancient Persian legend of Scheherazade. The tale begins with a King who married a new virgin each day, and sent yesterday's wife to be beheaded the next day. He had killed 1,000 women by the time Scheherazade volunteered to spend one night with him. You see, she knew something…
Once in the King's chambers, Scheherazade told a story as the King lay awake and listened with awe. The night passed, and Scheherazade stopped in the middle of the story as dawn was breaking. The King asked her to finish, but Scheherazade said they were out of time. So the King spared her life for one day to finish the story. The next night, no sooner did Scheherazade finish the story than she began a second, even more intriguing. Again, she stopped halfway through at dawn. You guessed it: The King spared her life for one more day to finish the second story.
As time went on, the King kept Scheherazade alive day after day, as he eagerly anticipated finishing last night's story. At the end of 1,000 stories, Scheherazade said she had no more tales to tell him. But during these 1,001 nights, the King had fallen in love with her. Having been made a wiser and kinder man by Scheherazade and her tales, he spared her life, and made her his Queen.
Now, what did Scheherazade know?
Well, she should’ve known not to consort with a murderer. Putting that aside, she knew sex sells only temporarily. But she knew something more important: the power of serialized stories.
The ability of episodic story-telling to lure audiences into a fictional world, and the power to make that world seem real runs deep in human history. It reaches from cave-dwellers around a fire to Scheherazade to House of Cards, and runs throughout television including The Sopranos, Mad Men, The Wire, and teen shows online and off. Always, compelling characters have created compelling relationships with their audience, and the more honestly, more insightfully people’s true motives and feelings are written the more deeply the audience commits to them.
That kind of intense, personal serialized story-telling is the strength of television today and in the future.
I hear some people confusing television with pieces of equipment. Television shows have never been limited to the wires and tubes inside a box. Programming long ago passed from analog to digital, from antennas to cable to Internet, and from broadcast to everything else. So if television is no longer defined as a box in the living room, what is it now?
I posed that question (and many more) to each of the television leaders I interviewed for the book. Stay tuned for the answers when the book is out next year!
Openings and Closings
Openings are fragile.
They bring intimations of mortality because each beginning moves us nearer to an end.
That inevitable cycle is on my mind as I take out my current art show. The Life of Air: Paintings on Silk was installed at TAG Gallery at Bergamot Station on September 1, and, as I write, it comes down today, September 28.
I loved making these paintings, maneuvering inks and metallic dust and paints to seep through multiple layers of silk. I experimented with transparencies where the motion of air flows through abstracted imagery, exploring the subtle power within an invisible energy.
But then they moved out into the world.
TAG Gallery is beautiful with high and wide white walls where my eleven paintings in this show looked breathtaking. And the gallery is encouraging.
Still, showing original work is an act of faith. You have to let people know you’re vulnerable. You care how they respond. Artists who say they don’t are probably lying. That’s why my favorite moment occurred on an off-day when the gallery was mostly empty. I noticed a woman on a bench just staring at one of my paintings. She sat looking at it for so long the gallery director nudged me to go over to her. Quietly I approached. That’s when I saw tears running down her cheek. She later told me she was moved by where the painting took her. That’s what it’s all about, or what it should be about, I thought.
But then came the Reception.
At the beginning, a pony-tailed man in jeans and sneakers stationed himself in front of me and started asking for details – what techniques did I use, what materials exactly and where did I get them, how long does it take this or that element to dry, how long did it take to make this piece, how many hours a day do I paint, how long have I used this style, where do I paint, on and on and on, blocking my view of anyone else. Ok, he was interested, right? And, as we all know, jeans and sneakers don’t tell you about someone in Los Angeles – he could be a billionaire collector from Silicon Beach. Ever seen Mark Zuckerberg? So finally, it was time to ask about his wall space for this painting he was certainly acquiring. “Oh, I don’t have any walls,” he said; “I live in my car.”
Next, you just had to love the woman who wanted to cut holes in the paintings so she could wear them. And the one who was looking for the perfect painting and having difficulty, she said, because she didn’t like blue or red or white or black or pink or purple or green. And then came a hundred art students wanting to show me their work on iPads. And the party-goers, especially the women in impossible stilettos whose interests were clearly not art. There was the man who invited me to his studio after the show to experience his “works.”
Of course, I appreciated seeing my thoughtful collectors, and the director from a museum that has exhibited my work, and my dear friends and fellow artists (thank you all, truly, for your support).
But at the end of the Reception I’d stood for four hours dressed up in heels in a crowd that the clicker at the door counted as 850 visitors between 5 PM and 8 PM.
And after it all -- Why?
The answer may lie in a story from long ago in a city 3000 miles east of Los Angeles, where I finished my last can of ravioli. In my one-room apartment, my phone was about to be cut off, and as they say in Game of Thrones, winter was coming. Recently out of grad school, my writing job at a tiny community newspaper had ended when the paper went under. And there was the matter of the eaten ravioli. To a 23 year old these were end times.
I walked out onto the barren street, no idea where to go. At the end of the block, the local Crazy Lady was ranting into the wind, as usual. This day, as I passed her, she looked straight at me and said, “Life has corners. You can’t see around ‘em.”
What did that mean? Nonsense, no doubt, I thought, but the words stuck with me until I understood.
One year exactly after that day when I had no more food and couldn’t even get a call about a job because I was about to have no phone – one year later I had an executive office on the 14th floor of the black tower at Universal Studios and a gold Mercedes convertible. It didn’t happen by magic or coincidence. The year had been rife with struggles to survive, including moving to Los Angeles. And I learned:
You can’t see around corners but that doesn’t mean something isn’t there. And what is ahead is astounding.
Coming back to the end of the art show, I’ll pack up the pieces today. Most are going onwards to the Palm Springs Art Fair at the Convention Center in February, a couple to a collector, and another museum has gotten in touch. The press was excellent. And next June, I’ll hang a new show at TAG. But those are just details.
What’s the real answer to “why?” What do I take away from greeting 850 people at a reception? What have I learned from the Crazy Lady?
To be like the silk, where colors pass through like whispers of possibilities, at once mutable and strong. And to be immersed in the process where neither openings nor closings matter any more.
Flying out of Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, 10,376 miles away from home, I feel the good people I met in Africa still with me. For three days in August, professional writers, producers, media educators and broadcast executives came from South Africa, and as far away as Nigeria, Ghana and other African nations to learn about creating their own scripted television series.
But images also cling to me of rows of one-room houses on the outskirts of the city that have no electricity and no plumbing. For toilets they use “long drops” – extremely deep holes in the ground. Yet, each tiny house – every single one – has a TV dish on its roof. They run on car batteries, I was told. The pay television service costs around 400 Rand per month, roughly $100. That may be a quarter of a month’s pay for some of these families. But it’s the way to access quality shows – many of them American.
I asked my insightful guide, Natasje van Niekerk, “Why are they willing to pay for television when they can’t afford a toilet?”
“Priorities,” she answered.
The stories they watch allow them to escape into worlds they’ll never really experience. The best ones also help them frame the lives they have, as the best shows do for people everywhere.
Natasje drove me drove past fine houses behind high gates topped by coils of barbed wire. I saw a new high-tech cosmopolitan city, and I saw people not fortunate enough for the one-room houses with dishes on the roofs who are living in hand-built shacks. Maybe they watch the free TV run by the government.
Everyone I met in Joberg was passionate about good television, and frustrated with the limitations they feel their own systems have put on them. A gifted man from Nigeria told me he orders scripts online and reads whole seasons of the best American dramas. Almost everyone in the seminar was current on HBO, AMC, and the networks, and though Netflix doesn’t yet stream to Africa, they raved about Orange is the New Black that they managed to get anyway … I didn’t want to know too much about how.
South Africa is a country in transition, and the evolution of television programming there tracks the changes in society. Under apartheid, television was banned for fear it would unleash ideas of revolution under the white regime. No one even heard of I Love Lucy.
When apartheid fell in 1994, the Mandela era of freedom produced an artistic flourishing and the first original South African TV dramas were created along with films. The love for Mandiba seemed palpable to me because he achieved the impossible: peace, and a path forward.
Since Mandela retired, I’m told, the country is still reeling from centuries of repression. For example, the government-owned and operated free television system uses broadcasting for social engineering aimed at building a Black middle class. (The Cosby Show is endorsed.) At the same time, in the attempt to mold behavior, it is forbidden to show a couple kissing on screen. A producer told me a door has to close in time to block a view of the offending behavior. This from a President with five wives.
It’s a time of dynamic change there, and contradictions.
The Guardian newspaper from the U.K, said of South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp who made District 9 and Elysium: “Given his South African upbringing, divisions infuse Blomkamp's work. Like District 9, Elysium deals with segregation, although this time the metaphor is not racial but financial. He believes the increase in population and decrease in resources means the whole planet will become one big Johannesburg of fortified communities nestling next to slums. ‘Then we'll go beyond that timeline,’ he says, ‘and it'll either be a singularity discussion or this Mad Max fuckin' group of savages roaming on the horizon, a Malthusian catastrophe.’”
Well, in my limited experience as a visitor, the divisions didn’t seem as stark as Blomkamp’s movies. In my workshops, the population was equally white and black. Nor is it that simplistic. One man’s family was from India, someone else has Lebanese relatives, a few mentioned they’re Jewish, and the people from Nigeria, Ghana, Mozambique, the Zulus and those of other African ethnicities easily sat intermixed and offered their stories.
More than a thousand languages are spoken in South Africa – 23% Zulu, 16% Xhosa, 14% Afrikaans (a cousin of Dutch). For 10%, English is the first language, though English is everyone’s second language. Television channels are divided according to languages and cultural groups, so narrowcasting is normal.
The creative challenge is to discover the universals. Among the inventive series pitches, I heard multiple-viewpoint structures from all the cultures. One was set among university students in the midst of the 1990s anti-apartheid revolution, crossing lines of race, age and nationality. Another was a Roshomon-type of crime dramedy, whose cast represented the range of Africa.
And I kept hearing the term Pan African. People of South Africa that once was considered a European island in a Black continent referred to themselves as Africans. A film crew who interviewed me emphasized they broadcast to all the sub-Saharan countries. This consciousness wouldn’t have happened even three years ago, I was told.
Some of the roots of the new Pan African identity may arise from the threats to the land from Chinese mining. The first day I arrived, I heard about the Chinese copper mine that poisoned the farms in the Congo. The animals have died, and the people who fed themselves off the bounty of the earth for thousands of years are starving. One woman told me she looked at a hilltop and noticed a big rat running across. Moments later, she saw a group of men racing after it. They weren’t chasing it away; they were trying to catch it to eat.
With those stories (and many more) in my thoughts, I left Joburg. I drove past the fine homes behind tall gates topped with loops of barbed wire, and again I passed the one-room houses each one topped with its own TV dish.
Imagining the Future
I was charmed by the streetlights. How quaint, I thought, that they still had them in this time. Oh, wait. I’m in this time. A momentary time-traveler’s panic swept me: how will I get home? Of course, I reconciled myself that I actually do live in this era, and I was standing at my own front door.
No doubt I’m influenced by research for my new book The Future of TV: A Journey to the New World of Scripted TV Series that will be published a year from now. All summer I’m interviewing heads of programming at both new and traditional platforms ranging from Netflix to YouTube channels, from Premium Cable to newcomers like DirecTV, and individual show-runners and writers. Television today feels like the moment after the Big Bang with creation spinning out at near-infinite speed. And the new crop of TV executives sound like they’re riding these atomic broncos shouting “whoopee!”
Translating all this down to earth: more quality dramas and comedies of more kinds in more lengths will be made in more ways on more venues.
It’s part of “The Great Convergence,” long-anticipated and now arriving. In theory, it comes from melding television with the Internet, but in practice it’s so much more because this is not a mere technological change.
Someone asked if I think the new TV shows and outlets will kill each other off, if competition will inevitably whittle them down to a top few, as happened with traditional networks. Apparently not, at least from what I’m hearing. It seems that the entities are defining niche audiences and other ways to identify themselves in the crowd. In the past, the only option was to reach the broadest audience with material that would offend no one, and that mandate may continue on the “legacy” networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox). But the freedom to program for distinct and passionate interests has freed writers and producers to make series elsewhere that would have been impossible in the past. That’s been happening on cable for years, and it’s amplified with the growth of fully professional digital platforms.
As for ways of succeeding, when people ask is it this way or that or some other way, my answer is simply yes. It’s all of them. Everything is happening at once and everything is possible.
That’s not the future. That is now. But it’s such a new “now” that many people are still catching their collective breath.
And many are afraid.
Try this: Picture the future. I don’t mean your job or family in the next couple of years. Imagine whatever sounds “futuristic” to you, maybe 2050 or 2100. What do you see in your city? Burned-out buildings collapsed and overrun with ravaging animals? Bizarre insects that survived a catastrophe? Carcasses of cars that don’t run? Skies too dank for sunshine? The crown of the Statue of Liberty on a deserted beach? Tattered remnants of the Hollywood sign? Humans beaten back before civilization or enslaved by machines?
Whether those dystopian images result from environmental disasters – fires, floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, polar shifts, falling meteors – or wars or disease or alien conquest or, let us not forget, The Zombie Apocalypse – this horrific future has been relentlessly portrayed in movies, games, comics and on TV.
I wonder why. Who gains from persuading the general public to believe the future is to be dreaded? Who profits from people who feel hopeless or terrified, overwhelmed by forces beyond their control? To whose advantage is it to create a narrative that the way to survive is by finding a hero with super-powers to lead or save you, or by attaining magical powers yourself, thus bypassing an actual path to power in current time?
Think about it.
Certainly the message has been well sold. Every single term at USC a few screenwriting students pitch dystopian post-apocalyptic stories in my classes. The cliché-ridden fantasies are usually the same. They used to mostly be knock-offs of Buffy, but I established a rule against shows about teenagers with super-powers who save the world, so those pitches have found other ways of imitating visions of the end of the world.
When I challenge those students to find other subjects some of them reply “but that’s what they’re buying.” Ok, who are “they?” Sure, in our time of abundance, someone somewhere is buying more dystopian futures (Sharknado anyone?). And tent-pole movies that rely on special effects are continuing to push these out. But I’m telling you, at least in television, I’ve been interviewing “them” for my new book and most of them are buying character-driven stories. The apocalypse is old fashioned, guys. Not happening.
Just today, a group of scientists were at my house talking about issues facing colonists on Mars. They were meeting with my husband, John Spencer, who is President of the Space Tourism Society. I wasn’t part of it, but I couldn’t help overhearing references to 2020 as the past, and hearing them describe a future full of possibilities.
So what better future can we screenwriters imagine? That’s difficult, right? A positive view is partly uncharted because it has rarely been done and risks falling into saccharine wish-fulfillment. And since drama requires conflict, if you are deprived of external disaster, the writer has to work harder to discover drama between characters.
As a beginning writer I worked briefly on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Long before my time, Gene Roddenberry had created a universe where humans would be essentially moral. As far back as the original Star Trek in 1966, characters were to be beyond bias against anyone’s racial, gender or even species background; everyone’s motives were to be pure as they “searched out new worlds.”
Perfection is really hard to write into stories. In fact, to find dramatic conflict Next Generation sometimes resorted to infecting characters with a virus or depriving them of sleep or inhabiting them with an alien in order to change personalities enough to drive a collision.
I’m not suggesting answering dystopia with utopia. But I am urging courage to look forward.
We are in a vortex of change where all times are simultaneous. That’s not only because we can download 13 hours of House of Cards at once, or binge on 60 hours of The Wire new-to-us eight years after it went off the air. And it’s not Battlestar Galactica’s “all this has happened before and all of it will happen again” that assumes a circular pattern. And it’s not only that we can instantly be on Mars through a rover’s lens.
The future is an eternal now. If you try to picture the streetlights extending into infinity, the possibilities go all the way to the stars. Go with them.
In My Garden
I’m in my garden looking at Artie who has five heads. She had seven but I ate two. Actually she’s the great-grand choke of the artichoke planted seasons ago. The first year she died I was sure the dried out trunk and rotted bottom was the end. That’s how incarnations tend to go, which is a reason not to be too attached to them. But the next year, Artie returned – she’d been dormant, not dead.
Artichoke Flower Timelapse Video
For us as artists, images, songs, richly-peopled scenes perpetually exist, as accessible as anything online or in the universe. The stars don’t get used up because you watch them, as bright as if their light had not gone out millennia ago. Help yourself to the source.
In my book Writing the TV Drama Series, I quote a favorite story I’d written in college: “…Trumpet at his lips, he listened to the notes bounce from brick rooftop to rooftop until finally he knew the rhythm of the echoes. He’d based his music on those intervals. People called him a genius, but he knew what they could not understand – that he had merely listened.”
Chapter 4 in my book goes on, “I believed music exists before it is played, that a statue is inside the marble block and the sculptor cuts away whatever is not the statue, and that for writers …characters exist beyond what is written, with larger lives than fit on film. They’ll talk to you. You merely have to listen.”
With that in mind, I asked my son-in-law, Bear McCreary (composer of Battlestar Galactica, The Walking Dead, Sarah Connor Chronicles, Divinci’s Demons and many other TV shows, games and movies) if he “hears” his music before he writes. He answered:
“Creativity is the uncontrollable element in any artistic career. You can't control when you have it, you can only hang on for the ride for as long as you're lucky enough to feel it. My job is writing music for dramatic narrative, so in some ways there's already an emotional scaffolding in place by the time I start any new project. Creativity plays a crucial role in writing anything memorable and worthwhile, of course, but I'm fortunate that I always have these elements on the screen to inspire me and rely on.
“When I watch a film or a scene I'm going to write music for, I start seeing music almost as architecture. In this regard, I don't ‘hear’ the music in advance, because what I'm imagining isn't even sound yet. It's comprised of shapes in time. So, a more accurate term might be that I ‘visualize’ the music first.”
Some forms of art have an assist – in Bear’s case composing for existing film. As a painter, I also enjoy an assist. The materials make my paintings, literally of course, but also in the process. Bear “sees” his music. I “hear” my paintings when I’m truly tuned in. Sometimes I move to the rhythm of the inks and paints on the canvas as if it’s actually a beat. If the form doesn’t speak, it means I’m off the channel.
As a writer looking at a blank screen, though, I am alone with the universe. I think this timeless, placeless consciousness is the next evolvement of humans. (Though cats might have gotten there already.) And for you as artists in any form, that’s the path to creating.
This is a glimpse of what I’ll be blogging about once a month. Sometimes I’ll talk about visual arts; sometimes I’ll post stories about growing up in New York City; sometimes I’ll deal with the new book I’m writing, The Future of TV: A Journey to the New World of Scripted TV Series. I’ll take you along to a staged reading of the musical drama “North of Sunset West of Vine” by Raya Yarbrough (www.northofsunsetwestofvine.com) at the end of June, to my Master-class in South Africa in August, and to my art show “The Life of Air: Paintings on Silk” in September. Welcome to my world.