Wednesday, November 18, 2009
A Sheepish Hello, And A Not-Quite-Goodbye
So, uhhhh.... how's it going?
Okay, look, I know: it's been too long. I've been ignoring you, but not because I don't like you. I do! It's just that, well... I think maybe we're done here. With this.
Wait, stop crying, it's not what you think! I still want to hang out with you and be friends and all that kind of stuff, but I also want things to be different
, you know? We've been just sort of dicking around here for, what, five years? And that's been great, I've had a lot of fun, and I've learned so much from you. But we're different people now than we were back then. I don't think I want to be Sister Novena anymore, and lord knows you've changed. The whole world
has changed. And here I am, still sitting here surrounded by elementary-level CSS code in a simple three-column layout, pictures neatly centered in the middle column, as if it were still 2004. Christ, have you looked at the blogroll lately? Half those links don't even go anywhere anymore. It's fucking depressing!
What I'm trying to say is, I'm moving out. I know I've been saying that for a while, but now I've got another little place all picked out. It's not quite ready to move into yet, but I'm working on it, and this time it's real. I just can't stay in this white box anymore.
Of course I'll give you my new address, just as soon as it's settled.
Yeah, I've got other news too. Nothing big, having to do more with plans than events, but also related to a pretty big change. Except that it's not really a change, I guess... I don't know, see what you make of it.
Things are okay around here, but not great. Not what they could be, and not what I moved all the way to Portland hoping to find. Portland is awesome, don't get me wrong, and as far as my personal life goes, I'm very happy here. No plans whatsoever to change that. But work is fucking horrible. It's a bad job for me in the first place, to which I'm not well suited. You'd think being a vaguely grouchy bookseller would be right up my alley as far as disposable jobs go, and you'd be right if that's what my job was. But they don't want book people anymore, they want salesmen, and I am the opposite of a salesman. My job has become ridiculously high-pressure for a crappy, low-paying part time job, and coupled with the high stranger-interaction demands I am now constantly on the verge of snapping. I'm breaking out in hives, grinding my teeth, occasionally breaking down into tears after getting off work. I am far too stressed out for $9/hr., and struggling with mild depression because I can't seem to be able to find a way out.
Oh, I didn't tell you about PCM, did I? Well, to make the story as brief as possible, I truly loved the work, but the place was a wildly dysfunctional, terribly mismanaged clusterfuck. As soon as I started they laid everyone off, and I was converted to contractor status (though I suspect the IRS would have some quibbles with that if they ever had reason to look into the matter.) Once I'd finished that current round of classes -- which, again, I loved -- I was basically just not invited back, nor was anyone else from my group. Which was a fucking shame, because those were some talented, smart people who put a lot of effort and care into their work, and all of their skill and dedication were basically thrown away. So, so much for that.
I continue to scour the city for any other opportunity, and have had some infuriatingly near misses. A good half dozen times now I've been contacted after interviews only to be told that they loved me, thought I was awesome, and knew I'd have no trouble getting hired... but as for them, they'd hired someone else. These calls and emails are the bane of my existence, the one single thing I hate most of all. Most frustrating of all, it's not like these are decently-paying, full-time jobs; most of them are just more crappy, low-wage shit jobs -- not quite a shitty as my present shitty job, but nothing special. With everything I have and everything I am and my best efforts applied, I can't even seem to get hired on as a shipping clerk, and that's fucking demoralizing.
But obviously it's not just about me -- a quarter of this city is miserable, and probably another third beyond that are ready to jump out of their current jobs as soon as it's not financial suicide to do so. I'm "lucky" to have my shitty, miserable job and should be "grateful" to have it, however badly I'm treated while I'm there. And so I stay, grinding out another depressing day just so I can stay here in Portland and wait for better times.
But a situation like this forces you into some very frank, clear thinking. Some of this is difficult stuff to face up to when you've invested so much time and energy and love, so it takes a while. But I think I've made some decisions.
Film isn't really working for me. It's not the technical part -- I am a decent filmmaker, as far as the actual filmmaking goes. And I'm a pretty good, if still very green, film teacher. I still care about it, and still have some hopes of using this hard-won skill set during my life. I still have my little business idea, and I still think it could prove useful. But there's so much that goes along with filmmaking that doesn't work well for me, and it's crippling my progress.
I'm certainly clever enough to do the work; that's not in question. But my basic demeanor is not that of a filmmaker. Filmmakers have to be incredibly assertive, brazen, action-oriented, and willing to endlessly hustle to get their work done. And I have tried -- oh nonexistent god, how I've tried -- to be that person. But I'm not. I'm introverted, quiet, not passive
, but certainly retiring. And that's all fine with me, I like the latter description a lot more anyway. But you can't really be that person and be a successful filmmaker, not even as a documentarian. And after ten years, I'm getting pretty tired of fighting against my own basic nature.
But more significantly, the main realization I've had to come to terms with is that I can't do this work alone. I cannot, I am incapable of solo filmmaking. It's not in me. I need
associates, I need other minds, other hands, some connection that can create more than the sum of its parts. When I'm left on my own, everything collapses; my mind starts feeding on itself, the doubts attack in full force, motivation falls off the chart, and nothing ever gets done. And whatever love I have for film, it's not the kind that can overcome that obstacle. Without a partner or a crew, I'm useless. And as long as I refuse to acknowledge that problem, I'm just wasting time I could be spending on things I might do better at.
And yes, certainly, there have been candidates for partners-in-crime, but for one reason or another, and without assigning blame, they've never worked out. I think incredibly highly of each and every one of them, am so glad to have known them. But a successful collaboration is as intense a relationship as a love affair, and things can go just as wrong, or fall just as flat. And for me, it's never worked out, and I can't afford to spend any more time waiting and hoping.
So, then, what next? That's the question I've been pondering for the past few months. And here's where I've arrived, at least so far:
1) Whatever I do, I have to be able to do it independently.
This whole "waiting for others to give me an opportunity" thing is a huge bust. If my travels through the organized economy have demonstrated anything to me, it's that I'm never going to be able to do my best work within it. I'm not a company person, and while I can certainly survive within that environment when I have to, I'm never going to thrive in it. And then, as before, getting involved in something that requires a partner is probably also not worthwhile. It's not that I want to work in isolation -- I don't, and in spite of my introversion I do like people and like working with others. But whatever my work is, it seems that it would be for the best if it were something the bulk of which I could do on my own.
2) Ideally it wouldn't be physically tied to one location.
I love Portland, but clearly this city can be economically vulnerable. Given that I want to stay, but also want to be able to survive even when things here are not so great, it would be a very good thing if whatever I did was something that could be easily ported around to other geographic locations. It would have the added bonus of leaving me at my liberty if I wanted to travel, which is actually pretty important to me, so it's worthwhile to add it to the list.
3) It has to be in tune with who and what I naturally am, no more fighting against the prevailing currents of my personality.
Look, I'm pretty damn lazy -- I like to stay home, be quiet, sit in a comfortable chair and stare out the window while thinking about stuff, maybe ride my bike up the street for coffee in the afternoon for a change of scenery. Not that I'm unwilling to put effort into things -- I love effort -- but if it involves a lot of running around the city and dealing with a lot of unfamiliar people, I'm probably not going to be that successful with it. Phone calls are fine. Emails are better. Occasional strangers and trips to meet people are cool. I can even do more intensively social stuff for periods of time when necessary. But mostly I expend my effort inside my head, so that's where I have to be able to do my work. I'm not saying I'm proud of that (and I'm not saying I'm ashamed of it, either); I'm just saying, this is what it is.
4) Whatever this work is, it has to be something that I can absolutely, unequivocally master.
All that stuff I've written above is, obviously, a much-lusted-after situation. There's lots of demand to be able to live that way, and certainly I don't assume that I'll get all of it, or even get any of it to the degree that I want. But if I'm going to have any hope of getting any of it at all, I'm going to have to be working at something that I can be really, really fucking good at. It's going to have to be THE talent that I can develop further than any other. Mastery is the only thing people are willing to pay for, and even then, they probably won't pay much. So my only hope is get extremely good at something, and then do it constantly.
So, with all of that in mind: Film is out. Writing is in. Period.
I love working on films, but it's not organic for me; it's always a slightly over-intellectualized pursuit. Writing, though, just happens. It's my primary way of interacting with the world and with myself, it's what I turn to first when I have a problem or a question or a decision to make or even just have some thoughts to analyze and synthesize for my own understanding. It's how I communicate best, how I relate to others best, how I make sense of things. I understand it deeply, I grok it, I get how it works without having to think about it (though I can articulate it when I need to, particularly if I get to write it out.) Writing, for me, is like breathing: it just happens on its own.
And I think I'm already pretty good at it. I have no idea how many pages of prose I've written so far in my writing lifetime, but I can't imagine that by now it doesn't easily exceed 100,000, the quantity popularly assumed to imbue the practitioner with a basic degree of mastery. To put it into perspective, I've racked up just over 1800 posts here on this blog in the last five-and-a-half years, averaging about 1500 words per post, or equivalent to roughly 2.7 million words written here, which is equal to about 9000 standard manuscript pages. That's like seven Stephen King novels, guys.And that's without even really trying.
Imagine what I might do if I stopped fucking around and really applied myself.
Still, there are obstacles to overcome. I think it's safe to say I've got enough practice under my belt, but my writing is not as good as I know it could be, even when I'm working at it and not just casually tossing off text. I need to reach for greater depth, stronger style, much better discipline and consistency. If I ever want to make a living at it, I'm going to need a better understanding the business, and I need a strong source of critical editing so I can figure out what my weaknesses are. I need to build up a basic portfolio and body of work to show to potential employers, and I need a little structure to help me change tracks and get started.
So yeah, I'm applying to grad school for next year. MFA program, nonfiction writing. I don't need it to make a writer out of me, I just need some specialized training. Plus, it gives me some shelter from this economy for a couple more years. Plus, it's cheap to go. My mother knows, and she's okay with it. Assuming that I get in (and I am), the program doesn't start until next fall, so I've still got some time to get through before then.
Which brings me back around, at last, to the beginning of this post. This blog has been great, but it feels a little claustrophobic to me now. It's full of good writing and bad writing, but not a lot of genuine intent. It was just whatever blahblahblah dribbled out of my brain transcribed in real time; it was, to paraphrase Capote, more typing than writing. Much of what I've got here isn't stuff I'd want to hang my name on -- I'm certainly not ashamed of it, and I'm proud of it in many ways, but none of it is the writing I want to be identified with. And that's the writing I need to start doing.
So I'm starting a new blog/website, and eventually shutting this one down. I'm still cobbling the new one together, but my intent is for that one to be a little different, or at the very least fresher. I'll let you know when the move is imminent; until then, this joint is going to be decidedly quieter than it has been in the past.
I do need to ask a favor, though. I need to pull together 30 or so pages of prose for my grad school application, and like I said, I've written about 9000 pages on this blog. Obviously the vast majority is in no way appropriate, but some of it probably is... but this is a lot to sort through. So I was hoping you might give me a hand by pointing out any old posts you particularly liked, or thought were well-written, or even just thinking were the most like me (if you know what I mean.) It won't all be drawn from the blog, but as I've got all of this here, it seems silly not to use whatever parts of it are usable. Subject matter isn't really important, and they won't be going into the submission without first undergoing a lot of review and revision, but it would be a big help to know which pieces y'all thought were most effective.
Anyway, there it is. There's always more to say, but there will be plenty of time for that later.PS
: The word count for this post, including this bit here, is 2,747 words, or about 10 pages. For the record.
Saturday, August 15, 2009
Look, They Can't All Be Great
Whenever I have something I want to write about, I never have time. And then when I have time, I can't remember what I was going to say.
So, instead, a brief summary in list form:
- I have a business idea. A pretty good one, I think, but I'm trying to figure out how the numbers would theoretically work. The short version: biographical films for rich old people. What do you think?
- I also have a film idea, but I don't know if it's actually feasible. I mean, some of it is, but by their nature the subjects won't make for much b-roll, and I'm tired of watching interviews in prisons. Also, I hate shooting in prisons (and yes, I have.) But I really, really like the idea. What to do?
- Last week I went to help out at a stop-motion animation workshop for kids with a few of the Laika animators who worked on Coraline. (Seriously, kids are fucking spoiled in this town.) Met some interesting people, and it made up for having to work with the social justice kids a couple of weeks earlier. I like working with old folks, and I like working with younger kids; not so hot on the college-aged bastards.
- I've got a story -- an actual piece of writing -- almost finished in its second draft. Fucking amazing.
- And lastly, I'm planning for a series of short (very short) interview-based films in the next few months. Really, I just wanted some willing subject who would sit still while I freely fiddled around with microphones and tweaked lights and experimented with different interview techniques -- all the stuff I'm too nervous to do when setting up with strangers -- but in order to use the equipment from the station, I have to produce something for the air. So hopefully, for the first time since I got to town, I'll have some fresh material to show by the holidays.
- I hate my other job so much it makes me want to vomit blood from my eyeballs. Seriously.
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
The Top 7 Ways To Be Hopelessly Naive
So apparently I only post about once a month now. It's not intentional -- I still have things to talk about, I only seem to have less available time to talk about them. Or maybe what time I have, I'm spending elsewhere. Anyway, it's not you, it's me.
I'm in the middle of an unusually busy couple of weeks -- last week was all fun, and this week is all work. The good news is that this represents almost entirely good stuff. The bad news is, I'm awfully tired all the time. And we're currently living through Portland's annual two weeks of obnoxiously hot weather, so even what vigor I have is dissipating in the heat.
A week ago I was having coffee with an older, wiser filmmaker friend of mine -- who, incidentally, just published a book
-- up in NE near the Hollywood Theatre. He's one of the few long-standing professionals I've known who is completely realistic about the business and the process of making a film. He has never said a single word to me that struck me as expedient or false; in an industry full of smoke-blowers, I've never heard him blow smoke. And in spite of his blunt realism in the face of cinematic dreams, he's also one of the most encouraging people I've ever met -- this is some hard shit to pull off, and he has a more-than-passing acquaintance with failure as well as personal success, and knows that doggedness is the best tool in the long run. Which is just my way of saying that I trust him, which counts for a lot.
We'd arranged the meeting so I could pick up my copy of his book, and to catch up in general. While we were sitting outside with coffee, an associate from PCM happened by on his way to the theater, and told me to call another co-worker because he needed help on a week-long course going on at the station. Then, heading back to the MAX stop on my way home, I was stopped again by one of the Hollywood's staffers, wanting to know whether I could pick up a day at PYD. (You'll notice I'm not teaching the program again this summer -- it's been a hard year for everyone, particularly non-profits, and the funding for the New Columbia program I worked last year just didn't materialize this year.) The point being, a week of almost no scheduled work turned into a week full of decently-paid one-off gigs in a matter of two coincidental meetings over about twenty minutes. Best coffee date ever.
And I know, a week's worth of work isn't much to brag about, but it's a lot more than I could've managed six months ago. I'm also getting offers from students for one-on-one tutoring on an hourly basis -- Final Cut Pro is intimidating to a noob, and some of them are willing to pay nicely for a little hand-holding while they figure things out. But I may be holding off on that until the fall. My part-time job at PCM will likely be morphing into a freelance contract-based job when the next session starts up -- a development which promises exciting new vistas of both aggravation and potential -- at which time I believe I will be less beholden to the station and would have more leverage to offer such services without pissing anyone off.
To put it as succinctly as possible: there are a limited number of well-paying jobs on film crews in this town, but there's a seemingly endless supply of people who want to learn how to become Famous Film Directors, and who are willing to pay ridiculous amounts of money to that end. And I enjoy the work for its own sake. That equation suggests some possibilities for the future.
Right now I'm working with college-age white kids who want to make films for "social change." I just picked up with this group today, and the one thing I can see immediately is that I very much prefer teaching working-class, middle-aged folks. These kids' hearts are in the right place, but good fucking lord -- how totally divorced from reality can four purportedly-educated people be? The group I'm working with is making a film about an organization that facilitates home ownership for low-income people in Portland. That's awesome. Alas, not one of these kids has any direct experience with a) buying a house; or b) being poor. The ideas they're coming up with are consistently missing the mark, perceiving the entire exercise from the pity perspective (oh, sad poor people! they need houses!) and have apparently no conception of what the program actually achieves. They keep wanting to go shoot expensive houses in Laurelhurst -- and I keep wanting to ask, would an immigrant family from El Salvador even want to live in Laurelhurst? They talk about the New Columbia projects as if North Portland were Compton. I ask, what's the goal of this project from the perspective of the community at large? And why, really, should a poor family necessarily want or need to own a home rather than rent? They stare at me blankly. So I STFU about their uninformed assumptions and instead focus on trying to get them to focus. They are well-prepared for writing academic papers, but hopeless about planning for a video shoot. And that's fine; that's why they're taking a class. But it's frustrating listening to them continually ramble on about social justice when what they really need to figure out is what and where we're shooting at 11 AM tomorrow so that it's not a complete waste of an afternoon.
I can't bitch much; I've spent my time as one of them. But the naivete, it burns.
Speaking of which: also a week ago, E., my much-younger acquaintance from college (21st cen.) arrived in town. He had two small suitcases, neither of which was fully packed. He had an invitation to two nights on our living room floor, but otherwise no job, and nowhere to live. And look, he's a sweet kid, really. He's not dumb. But his first contact with a major city revealed a depth of naivete that my acquaintance with him at Marlboro had never revealed. It's not his fault -- he's lived a very sheltered life in rural Vermont, but after a few hours it was obvious that he should be regarded as a farm boy newly arrived in the big city. He. Has. No. Clue.
The first day, I took him a full tour of the city, provided him with materials to help him get oriented, tried to explain how the city is laid out and how public transit works. I'm not sure how much of it sunk in. He actually commented on not hearing as many sirens as he'd expected -- as if the city is defined by constant crime and personal injury. There was, on the one hand, an instinctual urge to coddle the poor lost lamb, to give in when he commented on the difficulty of finding a place to stay after just two days and letting him stay on a bit longer. He was creeped out by the presence of prescription pill bottles on the counter of a house offering a short-term room. He disappeared temporarily at precisely the moment when another guest of an evening brought out a bowl and offered it up for passing. He has, it now seems, spent his entire life thus far sheltered in an snowbound eden, with only theoretical knowledge of the real world of good and evil.
But hell, kid, there's really only one way to learn: out you go, and none too soon. Boundaries were drawn and kept. Invitations to stay longer were not extended, even though it likely meant he spent his third night in town sleeping on a towel on the floor of an empty room in a house of degenerate pill-poppers. It wasn't done out of heartlessness or a lack of sympathy, but the moment is going to come sooner or later, and his chances will be a little better this way. I remember my own third night in town, sitting lonely on a bare mattress in an empty room in a strange house in a strange city filled entirely with strangers. I felt lost then, and I'd already gone through that process a few times before; I can certainly sympathize with E. now. But I've tried to tell him that as hard as it is at first, if he can make it stick, it gets better. And it was very encouraging for me, too. I was in his place less than two years ago, and by comparison it's easier to see how far I've come in that time.
Also last week -- last Tuesday was a very
full day -- my best friend from college, R., arrived for a week-long visit. R. has been trodden upon quite thoroughly by life over the last few years, the details of which are irrelevant. Suffice to say, it's been a rough time, and my hope was that a week in Portland might provide a little relief. And anyway, I haven't gotten to spend more than a day or two with him in ten years. We had a fantastic week -- saw the city, spent a little time just hanging out, went to the shore, went to the falls, and ate and drank a little too much. I even managed to win tickets to a Decemberists show for his last night in town -- we are both ardent Decemberists admirers -- which was the best possible ending to a great week. Everything somehow snapped into place for the entire week, and I never get tired of having him around. When he left yesterday morning, I was genuinely sorry to see him go -- we're old friends, but I still miss him when he leaves.
And seeing him again crystallized some things I've been pondering over the last year or so. We each get during our lives, I guess, a tiny number of real friends -- not only the people who are good for drinks and a movie on a night off, but the very few who are still around when you're sad, when you're weak, when everything has gone wrong, and still there when things change again and get better. I still remember the day I met Randy, still remember the shared jokes from a couple of years living in the same dorm. We're not day-to-day friends so much, and we don't keep up on the contents of every lunch or the minor, routine workday incidents that make up our lives. But years can pass, and when I see him again somehow we can pick right up where we last left off. Within a few hours of picking him up at the airport, we might as well have been back in the basement of Marlboro North, cracking sick jokes at the expense of E.'s poor maligned sister.
At the very least, we are bound together by a disgusting sense of humor.
I love all my friends, and still love almost everyone I've ever counted as a friend, if sometimes at an arm's length. My friends mean more to me than almost anything else in the world. And I've struggled a bit recently with some ambivalence -- I honestly wonder sometimes whether the secret to caring about people is to never, ever admit that you do. And then I despair for the sanity of a world in which telling people you care about them is somehow an offense. I finally realized this year that I consistently draw people closer when I pretend not to give a shit about them, and am then rebuffed when I display any warmth or concern. It's a pretty sick joke, I think.
But then there are a few people, a tiny handful of Real Friends, with whom I can -- amazingly! -- just be myself, and say what I think when I think it, up to and including "I love you", and everything is just cool.
And as for the rest of them, those too wounded or too proud or too guarded or just too weak to bear up under the weight of human connections: let them go, let them fall away. And fuck 'em if they can't take a joke.PS
: Riding home on the bus this evening, I saw a young guy with prison tattoos and a wispy little goatee, the word "HATE" inked across the knuckles of his left hand but no corresponding "LOVE" across the knuckles of his right. At one point he leaned across the aisle and asked another man for something -- I couldn't hear what -- and was denied. He asked again, with a hint of pleading, and was denied again. Then he sat back, eyes hidden under the bill of his baseball cap, and started to cry.