acting, creative inspiration, Life in General, New Novels, writing

Leap of Faith

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Jumping in.

And so…I find myself beginning a new book, which leads me to the question, “Where does inspiration come from?”

The truth is I don’t know. I don’t know who the characters will be, what they will say or do. I don’t know the plot yet, I don’t know if the message I want to get across is worth a plug nickel. Hell, I don’t even know what a plug nickel is.

Which means that the simple answer is— The best place to find inspiration is to start with what I don’t know.

Powerful words. “I don’t know.” That simple phrase means that the world is open, that you are ready and eager to learn. It means that you have questions and curiosity, that you are still open to be filled with wonder, to be surprised, delighted, to not judge, to wait and see.

To take a leap.

If you already know everything, or pretend to, you can learn nothing.

In truth, those words, “I don’t know,” have been a game changer for me. Earlier in life it seemed so important to know everything, to be right, to be knowledgable, to appear wise. Which meant, I wasn’t. “I don’t know” set me free.

I know of one author who titles every new work, “Shitty first draft.” This gives her license to just get it all down, then she can go back and make it an ‘acceptable first draft’ and finally, ‘a really good first draft.’ After that, well, as we writers know, the editors will have at it.

I don’t label my drafts, I’m still too timid to put the word ‘shitty’ at the top from fear it might seep down into my work. Silly, I know, but there it is. Words mean something, they have power, so when I start listing ideas for a new novel, I put them in a file titled, “The Best Book Ever.” A girl can dream.

I learned so much from the acting process about improving, enriching and ‘fleshing out’ characters that I don’t fear my first tentative, feeble efforts will not improve. As I learn a part, let’s say, Viola in Twelfth Night, I begin to understand what the words that were written by the great bard really mean, to me anyway. As I go through the rehearsal process, I absorb the emotions and feelings of the other actors and as their characters come to life, they inform mine. My homework and history inform me, the stage informs me, the words themselves inform me, and mostly, the emotion takes hold.

It’s the same with writing. Though in this case, it is the emotions that are finding the words and story to express themselves. Either way, I must leap, dare, jump and throw myself into the ether, from which all things come. And I trust that, while I might hit the ground really hard and roll, I’ll probably land safely, in a new place, unknown to me before now, and if it’s a good place, a place worth visiting, I will share it with others.

This is like life, whenever I think I need to change or try to understand someone and their (to me) bad behavior, I have to remind myself that I haven’t lived their childhood, I haven’t woken up from their nightmares, I haven’t listened to whatever abuse was heaped upon them, ergo…I cannot, ever, understand them. All I can do is honor their journey, understand that their limitations are not the same as mine.

We all want to connect, to be understood. It’s why most of us write, or act, or play music. We want to connect, to be heard and understood. But in truth, we don’t. We relate, we appreciate, we sympathize, but we do not ever fully understand. Our adventure belongs to us, it is unique, and so is theirs.

And that’s okay. It’s better than okay, it’s brilliant. It’s what makes us unique and more than that, it’s what makes us need each other. Our journeys and our paths are different, but our need for other humans binds us all.

We are alike, but we are not the same.

Isn’t that wonderful? It feels like it to me, but then I don’t know how you feel about it.

Shari, October 15, 2014

Acting & Experiences, creating character, creative inspiration, mental illness, writing

Trigger Happy

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Did you know you have pathways in your brain? Learned reactions to physical and mental stimuli? Isn’t that fascinating?

Here’s how it works. When your senses perceive something, (and perceive is the operative word, as we all perceive things differently) Certain chemical and electrical responses trigger in you brain and receptors open up, creating a kind of path that becomes the path most traveled. These receptors create different physical results, fear, tension in the neck, nausea, well-being, whatever it may be. We learn these responses, in fact, we memorize them, and if we don’t alter them, we loose the ability to take the path less traveled.

Now, I’ve reduced this to a ridiculously simplified version of the science, but being neither a physicist nor a neurosurgeon, I have to use the cliff notes, as it were. And here’s where it gets interesting for writers, actors, and well…humans.

For both writers and actors, these reactions to stimuli are what we would call ‘character traits.’ As an actor, you can use this to develop a much more rounded character to fill out your role. As a writer, you can actually explain, or intimate how past reactions control your character now.

For a human, to change those patterns we have to un-program and retrain ourselves. And this is difficult, we’re dealing with long term chemical and behavioral training. Pavlov’s emotions, let’s call them. In the case of the famous doctor, he would ring a bell, and the dog salivates. In someone who was abused as a child, the sound of people shouting may trigger an intense panic that has nothing to do with the actual situation at hand.

Our triggers are many, but every once in a while, we hit one that rests at our core. For me, the idea that I never can do enough, be good enough, that I should have to take care of everyone and everything that comes up, and if I don’t, I’m not good enough, that I’ve failed, is a biggie. Of course, it’s impossible, I’ve set the stakes too high to ever win at that one, so that particular ‘bell’ is no longer useful to me. This response is too ingrained to fix with conscious reasoning, knowing I have this issue doesn’t stop the reaction. I’m a puppet and the strings are tight.

So I went to someone who could help. I worked with a woman who does a procedure called ‘tapping.’ She is a therapist, and versions of this therapy are used to help soldiers with PTSD and people with childhood traumas. We talk about what the frustration or feeling is, identify where it is in my body, name it, and then she proceeds to talk about it, by having me repeat and reaffirm a different thought process while ‘tapping’ at different random spots on my face, hands and arms. The tapping interrupts the programmed response, allowing new pathways to open.

It was amazing. And I think it helped me quite a bit. But the point of this blog is to talk about those pathways and how they define characters, just as they define us as people. Isn’t that what we want from our performance or our fictional characters? I know I want them to ring as true as possible, and to be distinct from each other.

Let’s take some examples. Let’s say I’m playing a character who has a certain phobia, say, fear of dogs. Now, something, at some time, triggered and trained this character to behave that way. So, when I create my history of the character, (and this is acting homework, it has nothing to do with what is written in the script) I would include one or more experiences where I was bitten or other wise frightened by canines, and my body learned the response of breaking into a sweat and tensing for battle every time I hear a dog bark.

Or…let’s say….I’m writing a character in a book who is loving and motherly. I create a history for her where she grew up around lots of siblings and extended family and there was constant laughter and noise. This woman would sit at a restaurant and hear children bickering at the next table and it would create a real warmth in her chest because her conditioned response to the sound is happiness and safety.

Those are simple examples, but do you see how this kind of thing is influencing your life? How can you use mental triggers to round out your characters? Try an exercise where you have two people meet, and they both have very different reactions to something that happens to them. If you stick with the ‘why’ they behave this way, you will find that they are distinct from each other, and it will open new avenues of how they understand, misinterpret, or relate with each other.

This process will also help you deal with difficult people in your life. On of the hardest things to do is to not take it personally when other people treat you badly. But it isn’t about you, it’s about them.

When people can sense the restrictions that their emotional past puts on them, they can sometimes, through exploring it deeply and feeling it fully, change it. This is called an epiphany, and it is one of the peaks of a character driven story. And that is a very useful tool. But stay aware, it’s not going to happen just because someone else tells them they are wrong. Oh no. People will die rather than be wrong, so they will fight to justify and prove they are right, even if it means continuing to be deeply unhappy. People have to come to life-changing revelations on their own, from inside.

So for today, be quiet for a moment and feel what’s going on inside, then ask yourself what that is, the first answer will not be the one, keep asking, and you’ll find it. Then notice how that reaction, physical sensation responds to different situations as you go about your day.

Fascinating stuff. I love acting and writing, but mostly I love being human and connecting with others. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we all understood the strings that bind and control us, because only then can we cut them and braid a stronger connection with ourselves and others.

If you stick with this, not only will your characters fill out, but you will begin the process of understanding that greatest paradigm in your life. You—and all that has gone into making you unique.

Hey, maybe you should write your story!

Shari, September 11, 2014

Acting & Experiences, Entertainment, family, Life in General, men, New Novels, parenting, Theatre, writing

Who am I NOW?

As the evil disney queen in a book video a few months ago. It suits me.
As the evil disney queen in a book video a few months ago. It suits me, fantasy and literature.

Who am I now?

I haven’t been on my website for a week or so or posted anything new, and so I was surprised to see that I had 3000 hits in a single day hits a few days ago. This was, to quote Zoolander when his message machine tells him he has 12 hundred messages, “A little above average.” and I wondered why.

Sure, I have a new book out and “Invisible Ellen” is doing pretty nicely, but that couldn’t be it. And then I remembered that my girls told me my ex had done this show called “Celebrity Wife Swap,” and I thought, “Oh, it must have aired.” I knew about the show, but only because he and his wife had wanted the girls to be on it, which caused some friction, but my daughters had the sense and the backbone to refuse. Neither of my daughters are fans of ‘reality’ TV, and—though admittedly I’ve never watched CWS—that show seems…uh, let’s just say…not exactly creme of the crop, and they didn’t want to be associated with it. Bless their classy little hearts.

Now, I didn’t see the show, don’t ever intend to, so maybe it’s a steaming pile of art and I would be sorry to have missed it, but my instinct tells me no.  I have never once looked at either my ex’s or his wife’s websites and I definitely steer away from anything involving them in social media, (I know, I know, I’m writing this, but I’m trying to make a point!) I know I won’t like what I see, so why go looking for it? To be honest, I don’t really know them, and have only the barest of contact since he announced with a smug smile that he wouldn’t be contributing to college, then drove away in his Porsche. He tells a different story, no doubt in his public version of himself and has an image of himself to maintain, as many people do, but I deal with the reality, usually damage control, and that’s plenty. I do my best to disassociate from that whole, publicist-generated, artificial world version 2.0.

So it interests me that people would see that wife swap show and look me up. It’s a weird interconnected web out there. It feels remote to me and my everyday life. I think of how I’ve tried to focus my life away from that kind of negativity and on doing work that is worthwhile to me. That’s not to say I wouldn’t work on a show for the money if i really needed it, the key to avoiding that is to keep your cost of living down so that having to prostitute yourself is kept at a minimum. From someone who once starred in “Death Spa” that may seem a bit bogus, but hey, things have changed.

You see, at first you want the things that everyone else envies, I don’t know why, but that’s often what our society teaches is desirable. You want to be sexy, and famous, and beautiful and rich, and then you grow up and want to be valued for something real. Well, some of us do anyway, others get caught in the cycle. For me, after living by my looks modeling in New York and ending up a cocaine addict, which I beat myself at 22, I had to come to terms with the fact that being valued for what is on the outside is very, very lonely and untrue. Then I wanted to be famous, because that impresses people, right? But when I got a dose of that, It just felt just strange. When many people meet someone they’ve seen on TV or film immediately there is a veil, an artificial wall, that separates you because they think you are something you are not and, falsely, feel different from you. I hated that. You give up privacy and often even the ability to spend time in public with your family comfortably. I’ve had people put their kid in my lap while I was eating at a restaurant and start video taping. I love meeting new people, but that was just invasive, (especially since I was eating spinach). Now I have many wonderful friends, who I first met as ‘fans’, don’t get me wrong, but there is a difference between meeting people on an equal footing, and people wanting to document meeting you as a trophy for being on a show or in a movie that you don’t even think is very good.

That didn’t feel right to me. It’s lovely to have people like and respect your work, and name recognition as a novelist is important as well as for an actor, but when you have to constantly pretend to be what you’ve created, meaning some kind of public persona, it is, for all but a few, confusing to the point of soul-crushing. Egos get all out of whack. But I did love acting, the art of it, making an audience breath together or laugh as one, and since the film and TV roles of quality weren’t coming to me, I turned to theatre where I’ve done my best work, respected the writing and myself, and felt the joy of working with an artistic community that betters the many, instead of the few.

And writing has always been my first love. Though I’m proud of all of my books, I don’t think there’s any question that “Invisible Ellen” is the kind of book I’ve always wanted to write. Hopefully, it’s original, funny, heartwarming, and uplifting. Those are qualities I feel good about.

So, one day soon, maybe I’ll get thirty thousand hits on my website because my new book, “Emerging Ellen” is hitting the stores. I certainly hope so, but for me, that’s a different kind of attention, one I can spread around and share. Oh, and it would go a long way toward helping me pay for private school and college, which would be lovely, and for my charity as well. Meanwhile, I’ll drive my used Ford Escape Hybrid, give what I can, and laugh and love with my girls and my family, support my friends’ many endeavors and try to create something new and worth reading or watching.

Because that’s who I am now.

Who do you want to be? Go get ’em baby.

 

Shari, July 25th, 2014

 

 

 

 

creating character, creative inspiration, New Novels, writing

Building with Words.

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Searching for clues.

 

It’s great to have “Invisible Ellen” out all over the country, it’s great to have the sequel to that book written, turned in and accepted by the publisher. But now comes what I call the dreamy-between time, when I wonder…what do I write next?

I am asked quite often where I get my ideas for my books. I have no easy answer, but I understand the question, it’s an infinite universe, but that doesn’t mean we can see all the stars. Sometimes we need a telescope to find what’s out there, or turn it inward on our own thoughts. Sometimes vague thoughts for a new book sort of alight on my shoulder and mumble in my ear, but it’s only wisps of ideas, characters calling from some far away place for my attention, fragments of lines and scenes. Suggestions in the ether, that I put down and try to connect into something coherent and interesting by linking them with snatches of conversation, observation, imagination, and memories. Inspiration can come from many emotional sources as well, rage at hearing of a horrific and pointless crime was the primary motivator for my first book, but I was surprised to find that I had played that out by the end of the first chapter.

Before I start mixing my metaphors into a frothy lilac, sardine, purple chai latte, I think a better way to describe this unborn stage of a new novel, or any creative endeavor, is that it’s much like constructing a house without a blueprint.

The funny thing about this creative process is, I’m committing to a place I will live for at least a year, but I don’t know yet what I’m buying. I don’t know exactly how much work it will be, I’m not even sure what materials I’ll need, and what portions of the structure will need extra support or will have the best view. I’m building blind at this dreamy-between time.

The fact is that it takes a good amount of concentrated effort before I even begin to construct that house. And it doesn’t always come foundation first. Sometimes the first thing is a claw foot bathtub say, (a character for instance) which may be, ultimately the most important part, or something that gets thrown in the construction dumpster. A room or two (plot lines) may take shape before the plywood framing goes up. The truth is, I don’t keep track of where the ideas come from, but I know this, just as when building a dream house, it must fulfill several criteria.

First, as I said, I have to live there, and it will take a year of my life, so it must be worth building.

Second, It must be original with touches that are unique, exclusive to me.

Third, The inhabitants must have something to say and an original voice to say it in. They must take a journey, either physically or emotionally. There must be change.

Fourth, This house is entirely new, but it must have history, secrets and layers, basements and dark spaces.

And last, Those who eventually come to visit my finished house must leave feeling that they gained something they didn’t have before. It could be a new friend, a fresh point of view, a glimpse into another world, or a good laugh. It could be many things, but they must take away something!

So, today, and tomorrow and tomorrow, I will watch and think, and rest, and sort, and sleep, and let the fledgling ideas find some purchase. I will introduce them to each other and watch how they interact. I will stack them in my building site. From the heaps of raw material, I will choose bricks and beams and fixtures. I will build in doors and windows that offer different vistas and then I will go back in and take out extraneous space or discordant features, (plot lines that didn’t work, for example) then I will add the curtains, or the dust, and the subtle colors of afternoon light or leaky plumbing. And I will be certain, no matter what, that this house enables those who visit there to see far, very, very far, either in to, or out from, its many windows.

I don’t know what I will write yet, I don’t know what that house will look like when it’s done, but I do know that I will inhabit it fully, I will have lived there as surely as any of the homes my corporal self has lived. It will be part of my own history.

We all do this. We all create our new story, build our homes and our lives every single day based on fragments and thoughts and impressions. We might not know it, but we do.

What will you build today? Whatever it is, I hope that it empowers you to see very, very far.

Shari, July 10th, 2014

Continue reading “Building with Words.”

Acting & Experiences, Life in General, New Novels, writing

Hiding Behind the Real Me.

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The lady behind the ARC’s of Invisible Ellen

So…last Wednesday, I’m booked to do a radio show. It’s been set up by the Putnum publicity department in NY, and communicated to me by email. The show, “Connie Martinson Talks Books” is ‘taping’ in Santa Monica at 11:00 and she’s featuring me and “Invisible Ellen.” So, I put on some jeans and a comfortable, very wrinkled shirt, throw on some mascara at the last minute, (I hate makeup, but I don’t want to offend anyone) and make the drive. Parking is tricky, and I go the wrong way, and have to run back to make it to the studio on time. I rush in, sweaty now, and look around.

Cameras. In the back of my mind, a little buzzer is going off, Not Radio. Television.

I look down at my wrinkled shirt and almost clean jeans, realize I’m pale and shiny, will be totally washed out by the lights, my hair is frizzy and snatched back with a plastic clip, and all I can think is…. Perfect. As I’ve said, I’m an everyday philosopher, meaning that I say, ‘Oh well,’ a lot. And this one has an exclamation point at the end.

Oprah has her “Aha” moments. I have my ‘Oh Well’ moments. So I get miked up for sound, sit in the hot seat, chat with Connie, who, it turns out, shares an ice skating past in Lake Placid with me, (small world) and then we roll. We have a delightful thirty-minute conversation about my new book. She’s so complementary, has me read a page, ‘to show how well-written it is’ which is delightfully flattering, and then asks me to sign a book for her at the end.

I couldn’t be happier. After years of soaps and movies and modeling, to appear on a TV show where nobody gives a crap how I look, but is interested in how and what I write, is a major milestone for me. Not because of my attitude. I have always preferred to not wear makeup and be liked, or disliked as the case has often been, for who I am. I have spent a life time with idiot men telling me I was “smart for a women” and thinking it was compliment when I was twice as smart as them. And too much time dealing with and diffusing  women  feeling competitive with me because of how I looked. Insanity. Unworthy. Ridiculous.

We count as people. Our actions must speak louder than the surface. They don’t call me Shari Action for nothing. If something needs to get done, I’m usually the first to pitch in. Be it as a mom at school, or my charity, or speaking up for someone who can’t, I’ve just never been able to stop myself.

So much for that. But there is more to this story. As soon as I saw her, I realized that I had been on Connie’s show once before, years ago, and thank goodness, she did not remember either. It was for my third book, “The Man She Thought She Knew,” and the only reason Connie had me on was that she was friends with the publicist. I answered her incorrectly when she asked about a character, telling her that they weren’t in this book, (wrong) thanked her at the end of the show by calling her Colleen, and she definitely didn’t ask me to read from the book. Shhhh. So when she asked me this time, before filming, if this was my first book, I answered, “No I have two series, one is a woman named Calla-….uh, it’s a crime series.” Cutting myself off because I’m embarrassed that the light will dawn and the flattering, soft-filtered veil will fall.

It always does, eventually of course, but sometimes we find a few moments of forgiving grace. Yep I’ve got a past, and it’s back there,but as one friends said to me, “That’s what pasts are for.” We don’t need to wear our learning curves, but we can use them for traction.

‘Oh well’, and ‘Aha!’ They make a good combo, and both are welcome in my life now. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for those other moments, those mistakes, those embarrassing scenes, those times I fell on my butt on the ice in front of twenty thousand people. But you know what? I’m glad I did. I lived to tell the tale, as it were. And most likely, as it shall be.

So embrace your fundamental imperfections. Be human, let the wrinkles on your shirt and your face show. You earned them. And if, in spite of all that, you can hold up your book—or better yet, your life—and be proud, then you are a success.

In my case, it’s a success with some pretty scathing memories behind it. That’s me, Shari Action. If my life were a race, I’d look back and see lots of hurdles laying on their sides where they were knocked when I didn’t quite clear them. Look closer and you’ll see my cartoon outline in the brick walls I sped into and crashed through. You’ll see the indents where I gave up for a while and curled into a ball to rest.

The more I think about it, the more I think that the word ‘imperfect’ describes me best. It describes us all.

And isn’t that wonderful?

Shari, June 19th, 2014

Acting & Experiences, creating character, family, Life in General, writing

I’m Write and You’re Wrong.

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Backstage at “Much Ado About Nothing” with three women who are terrific friends.

As the publication date of “Invisible Ellen” looms ever nearer, and the premier screening of “Scream at the Devil” is less than two weeks away, I find my focus turning to two things, reworking the book’s sequel, “Emerging Ellen,” and making time for my neglected friends.

I’ve been in a work frenzy for the last year, and I have a rather large family, who must, by needs, often come before friends. But now I find myself longing for that simple shared laughter and warm support that only a long time friend can offer. And friends, I realize, could sometimes benefit from some attention from me!

As for the new book, I am doing something I’ve never done before, (though that, in itself, seems to be a theme in my life!) I am removing one complete story line and replacing it with another. Not because I don’t like it, not because it doesn’t have it’s value, heart and excitement, but because I think I’ve gone one plot point too far, and I want to spend the wordage on the building of character.

Sound familiar? They are both the same thing, aren’t they? I could continue to focus on work—which is to say, plot, story, complexities, etc—or I can balance it with time spent with friends—character, laughter, tears, and the arc of developing relationships. As always, I choose both, but my focus, and therefor my time, will be split more evenly.

There’s no right or wrong way to live your life, there’s no ‘supposed to’ or ‘rules,’ there is only what you can do with the strength and passion you have. There are only the choices you make. Do you spend your time seeking ‘success’? Money? Fame? Or do you give to family until there’s nothing left for you? Do you know that there’s a place in between? For us all, there are times, times of great sadness or stress, when we have nothing left to give, and that is when, hopefully, we can turn to others, for a little while, to cast the net that keeps us from falling. And sometimes, we are the ones who need to ‘spot’ our friends, to catch them when they fall.

One good friend just had a baby. She was not trying to get pregnant, did not particularly want children, but it happened and she embraced it, but now finds herself overwhelmed. She said to me, “I don’t really know who I am right now.” Everything in her life is being redefined. I will do what I can to be there for her, to take the baby for a few hours so that she can breathe and remember who she is. I will take her for walks in pretty places so that she not only remembers who she is, but also discovers the magnificent new person she is becoming. And I will devote some of my attention to lauding her for the strength it takes.

I have another friend whose husband passed away a month ago. He drank himself to death, and in the process of his destructive behavior, he left her in a legal and emotional battlefield which she must now face alone, deserted by him. I cannot bury my face in my computer and ignore her pain and need. I might not be able to fix all that, but I can remind her of her grace and class, buoy her up to face the legion of lawyers and the nightmare of uncovering the depth of her husband’s betrayal. I will talk to her as often as I can, I will take a day off to visit a museum with her and remind her that life is bigger, that there is more, that the future holds beauty.

These things take time and energy to do well. That time and energy will come from other areas of my life that will have to slip from fevered pitch to low idling hum. But I feel lucky all the same.

What more can we do? I cannot live others lives for them, they must do that, I am only a character in their story. Writing a book, I can change the story, I can effect the change that brings about the ending as I want it to be, and I truly believe that it is the same in life. We create our friendships and relationships in a different way, and to a different degree, but we can rewrite our story, we can be a strong supporting cast in the dramas that belong to others. And this, we must do, not because it’s the ‘right’ thing to do, but because it makes us complete.

I decided long ago, or perhaps ‘realized’ is more the mot juste, that I need balance to make a real life and be happy. Success to me, equals happiness, not fame or money, or the envy of others. I needed something besides the pursuit of stardom and big houses, that is to say, the things that other people tend to envy. What I needed was to contribute sometimes, and sit back and revel other times, in sunlight on leaves, on the victories of others. What use is a life lived only for how it appears to others? The greatest danger there, in this world of social media and constant exposure, is that people invent themselves to look good to others… and then they begin to believe it. And then they can’t live without that approval and admiration, because they have nothing else.

It reminds me of Michael Caine, when we were working on “On Deadly Ground.” We were sitting in the makeup trailer and I was laughing about a story I had read about myself in an Italian rag magazine that stated that I had been institutionalized for mental illness, overwrought with jealousy. I said, “It’s crazy, the Italians just make stuff up and print it!”

And Michael leaned around his makeup artist and said in that charming cockney accent, “The Italians have got nothing on the British. In England, they make it up…and then they prove it!” We laughed about it.

So, make up your own story, but live it honestly, and make the story about you, not about someone else. Do it for you, not for what you think others see. Give because it makes you better, spend time supporting and cheering for your friends, and even strangers, because it fills your heart and reminds you that we are connected and that without that connection, we are unfulfilled and no trip to the mall, no McMansion will ever fill that frightening void of separation. Remember only this, other’s lives belong to them, yours to you. Own it, fill it, live it, share it, and do it for love and joy.

Write your own story, so that when you read it back, you smile.

 

Shari April 23, 2014

Acting & Experiences, creating character, Entertainment, writing

Walking on Water.

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So, you want to write a book or make a film? Welcome to two of the world’s most popular clubs! We’re so pleased to have you as a member!! Ours is an inclusive club, one where the process means as much as the result. Where the novices are every bit as respected as the ‘successful.’ Are you ready?

Did you know that water represents the subconscious in your dreams, and in this blog, by the way.

If you just want to be famous, well, that’s a different organization. Not much value in the process there. I do not belong. You will pay dues for this club as well, make no mistake, though the monthly newsletter, “Pay Attention to Me!” is unreadable for anyone with creative aspirations. But, I digress.

There are two perspectives on ‘creative success’, at least two. The first is how we define ourselves to others, and the second is what brings us contentment.

So, if you are just starting out in…say filmmaking, you will probably be more focused on the world view of you, being recognized and lauded. Outward gratification. If you’ve been in the business for 30 years, you are more likely in a position to pursue projects that truly mean something to you, you may have more freedom to express your uniquely creative voice and not care as much how the world will perceive it. Inward gratification.

Ironically, perhaps, it is almost always those pure expressions and visions from the inside that strike us as an audience with the most force, and go on to stand as classics or examples of the highest quality.

If you want to make a film, write a novel or a screenplay, produce a play, or any number of other creative projects, what’s the first place to start?

Precisely because you are starting out, the tendency is to look out. What is popular? What will people like?  What will make me look good?

Whoa, put on the breaks, screech to halt, back up and let the engine idle for a minute. If it were possible to  know any of those things, every single book, film, play, and song would be a smash best-seller.

But they aren’t. Mmm…it’s a mystery.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. All you have to offer is you. The only thing that you can give—that no one else has to offer—is your voice, your vision, your work. Trying to reproduce someone else’s style, art, or visual expression will only create a cheap, and most likely inferior, imitation.

Obvious, right? So, how do you begin? Some of the best advice I ever got when I was first writing was, “Write what you would like to read.” Frankly, I didn’t have the skill to write what I truly loved at first, because I loved some of the very, very best. A good goal, but a difficult place to begin. So. As a warm-up, I chose to write what I loved on a lighter, entertaining level. My first books are designed and written to be fast-paced, exciting, funny, and page-turners with complex characters.

Now, what I want to write is different, I want it be original. I want to get into the brain of my characters and share their lives, thoughts and feelings, their very unique view of the world with you. And I want to do it with language that speaks beyond the definition of the word. I want to write mountains and tantrums and storm clouds and fits of laughter. I want to express the embracing arms of your own bed after a difficult day, the screaming inside when a bully gets away with it, a feather caught in an updraft.

So what is your goal? What do you want to read, see, hear? And more than that, how do you want to say it? I’ve offered exercises for writers, on starting characters, scenes and stories in different blogs, and some of them really work for me. Just scroll through my past blogs and you will find them.

Screenwriting/filmmaking is a different beast by nature of outlay. By that I mean both monetary expense and group participation. You need equipment to make a film, you need a crew, you need to feed that crew, you need to rent expensive editing facilities and experts in color correction, the list goes on and on. And, you may have a very clear vision of the shots you want and how to put them together, but you will still have a director of photography and an editor with brains and visions of their own. To ignore their contributions would be wasteful. Qualifier— though there must, on any film, be someone with final say. Too many cooks…. But be careful, very careful, not to let your ego deprive you of what your team has to offer.

You begin the film process by  writing—or finding—a script that resonates somehow for you, something that offers, maybe not a new or unique story, but at least a unique point of view. Next, you interview people until you find the ones who understand your vision and will support and add to it. That’s how you begin the long road of film production. And when you find those people, keep them close, pay them fairly, let them contribute, and  give them the credit they deserve. Conversely, if they moan, complain, talk behind your back, or otherwise hamper the overall production, cut them loose—with blessings. Just like in your life.

Both the arts of writing and filmmaking begin with a vision, one that should be your own, not a compilation of other’s people’s ideas. Learn from, borrow suggestions, and practice examples of the greats in your chosen field that you admire, of course!! If it weren’t for Tom Robbins, P.G. Wodehouse, and Jane Austin, I wouldn’t be a writer, because I wouldn’t love books and words so much. But I can’t be them, I can’t write them, I can only admire and gently reflect some of the things I learned from them.

Study your favorite filmmakers, directors, photographers, writers, set designers, and include them all!! Of course.

Then let it go and see what bubbles up. The ideas are there,  as is all your attention and research, under the water you’ve peered into so intently, but you need to be above that, walking on the water. You are an amazing creative force, the Great Spirit, (however you define that, Creativity, the Universe, or that somewhat polymorphic entity, ‘God’) made you unique and it is your journey. If you choose a creative life, your path is to unleash your power and your talent. So that we can all revel in it, and thank you for sharing it with us.

It’s all there, just below the surface, trust it, swim in it, and let it hold you up.

Shari, October 20th, 2012.

Acting & Experiences, Entertainment, Life in General, New Novels, writing

A Legacy of Love.

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The fourth book in the Callaway Wilde series, “Legacy’ will be coming out in ebook soon. This one is a slight departure from the first three books because I break the first person narrative and visit the past. The subject is one in which I am very interested, war crimes during WW11. My uncle was one of the senior officers who was actually present at the surrender of the Germans to the Allied forces in Milan during that fateful war, and he worked for years before that undercover with the Italian resistance. So, much of my information comes from real letters and stories of people who lived it.Though my uncle is gone, his son sent me copies of letters, reports, and files that have been declassified now. The stories they hold, the drama revealed even within the factual, military reporting are inspiring and humbling. My uncle made it through that war unscathed and went on to become a Senator and then an Ambassador, but too many did not. We know this, but when we pay attention to the real stories we are reminded of what our current lifestyle cost, and who paid the price.

Which is why I do not think much of people who take from the world and give nothing back. No matter how talented, wealthy, beautiful or famous. When you go through that door, as our first lady said, you do not slam it behind you. You turn around and help others through.

Writing this book really got me thinking about the people that I admire in my life. While there are certainly actors or musicians whose work I adore, it is the intentions and contributions of people that matter most to me. There are artists who also do a great deal of good in the world, this separates them from the crowd of the self-serving to whom being ‘famous’ is the life goal.

I admire them and others who have made a choice to be of service to someone else. People  like Ileana and Bernie Geestman who founded the Desi Geestman Foundation. I have served on the board of this charity for 13 years and in that time we have assisted the families of children suffering through the cancer journey in so many ways. But what I do is small, it is Ileana and her family who truly perform the mission. To have lost a child, and then dedicate your life to helping others who are fighting that battle takes more strength of character and is far worthier of our admiration than any star of any TV show.

People like the doctors and nurses at City of Hope, where our charity is primarily instrumental. In my years of helping out, I have seen again and again the sheer relief of families when they know that  they have the full support and commitment of so many devoted professionals. There is a place on the grounds of City of Hope, the meditation garden, where the staff sometimes go when the stress and the sadness become overwhelming. And then they go back in. I am in awe of the hugeness of the human spirit in these people. Yet no one will ever write them a fan letter.

And so it was that in my research for this book, I came across stories of so many people, forever unnamed and un-lauded who acted with such bravery and selflessness. All across Italy, including in the Vatican, Catholic priests and nuns hid the hunted Jews, often at the cost of their own lives. How remarkable. This book tells some of those stories.

If I were asked what the most important traits a person could have my answer would be simple: Kindness and Courage. Those two things both compliment and balance each other.

Most of us will never have to face the horrors and heart-rending decisions that even the common citizens faced during that war or many others. We would like to think that we would act with courage and honor, but we don’t really know. I think though, that sometimes it is good to stop and ask yourself, would you help? Or would you save yourself and even, possibly, profit from the suffering of others? And if your own family was starving, could anyone blame you?

These were very real questions in that horrible time, often on a daily basis, but I believe that they are applicable even now. If only we would all reach out a hand, help in one small way, the world would be such a kinder place.

So, I like to remind myself, I always have a choice. Will I spend my life acquiring ‘things’ and glorifying myself? Or will I do what I do for the love of it, and include as many others in my success as possible?

I choose the latter. Here’s  my hand, take it. Now reach back and offer yours. See? We are chain, stronger than we are alone.

Shari, February 3, 2012

New Novels, writing

The ‘Twenty Questions” Writers’ Exercise.

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This photo has nothing to do with this little exercise, it’s just me looking like a know-it-all which is, of course, perfect for a writer deigning to give advice to other writers.

So, let’s play Twenty Questions.

I’m not talking about how you come up with your ideas for a whole novel, or even your characters, but how to make an encounter or any ‘scene’ in your book work for you. It’s simple, but one of the most functional exercises I’ve found. It’s actually from a screen writing class I took, long ago, which means that it’s designed to create the best picture for both your scenario and your characters.

So let’s get started. You have your idea, you’ve done your homework on your characters, now you need them to encounter each other or perhaps some other obstacle that will forward your story. The very best books and screen plays establish their characters distinctly the first time we meet them. My favorite example of this is in “The Professional.” Jean Reno plays a hit man. The movie opens with him getting to his mark who is highly protected in a hotel room. About 19 people die, very creatively, and then, this ruthless killer, goes home to his empty apartment, sits alone at his table, and drinks a glass of milk in silence.

And we feel sorry for him.

What a great set up. Now, how the heck did Luc Besson pull this off? How in the heck did he create a ruthless killer, and then make us relate to him and feel for him, before he ever speaks a word?

I think it’s pretty clear that he didn’t just go with the first thing that came to mind. But it can be confusing to sit at a desk and try to force yourself to be interesting.

Try this: You have two characters who need to meet, your romantic leads, let’s say.

Your first idea, is, they should meet in a bar. Great.

You are not done. Write that down. Now, make a list of twenty other ways that they could meet, and do not stop until you reach twenty, no matter how stupid they get. You will be amazed at how many mental doors this will open for you. Even if you decide that number 12 is terrific, finish your list. They meet at a bar. They meet at a funeral. They both have kids in the same playschool. They are both given gift certificates to go sky diving, and one is afraid of heights. Etc. Don’t stop, get to twenty.

But perhaps you are writing characters who really should meet in a bar. They are alcoholics, say, or desperate singles. Fine. They meet in a bar. Now make a list of twenty ways they can meet in the bar.

He spills his drink on her. She forgot her wallet and tries to nab his change to pay for her drink. He accidentally goes into the ladies room, and she is in a stall, thinking it’s another woman, she asks if he has a tampax in his purse. She sees an old boyfriend and tries to hide under his table. Etc. Don’t stop until you have twenty!!

Now you have choices, mostly choices that will help you establish your character and story. And I’m willing to bet that you’ve opened up opportunities for dialogue and emotional exchanges, ways to show your character’s traits and not just tell us.

I.E. Instead of saying your male lead is preoccupied and not very observant, his going into the ladies’ room can be a repeated action that defines him. He’s always going through the wrong door, walking into closets at home and kitchens at restaurants. This tells your readers quite a bit about him without you writing down, “Bob was absent minded.”

Which is boring.

Which you don’t want to be.

It’s a simple, but effective technique and best of all, it’s really quite easy.

So there you go!! I’m going to wrap presents now. Unless the ceiling in my office is leaking, or the dog gets into a fight with a skunk outside, or all the gifts have been stolen by the UPS man, or…

Well, you get the idea.

Happy listing!!

Shari. December 12, 2012

Acting & Experiences, Life in General, New Novels, Theatre, writing

Want to Write Well? Learn to Write Badly!

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Here’s a shot of me singing ‘Mein Herr’ in Cabaret a few years back. I know, I know, I didn’t write that. But, I did have to sing the part, and here’s the thing; I’m not a singer.

Sure, I can carry a tune, and have a ‘nice’ voice, but compared to those who work at it, I’m weak. So, I had to work my solar plexus/abdomen off to get myself up to belting-it-out level.

It took about eight weeks with a vocal coach and a minimum of an hour a day practice, not counting the actual rehearsal times, to get there. When I was asked to play this part, I auditioned for the music director, the dance choreographer, and the director. Acting? No problem. Dancing? Done enough with my ice skating to fake the lead, (it’s the chorus that really dances). Singing? Wasn’t quite so sure.

However, when the musical director, who was blind, said I could handle it, I agreed to take the part. And I’m so glad, it was one of the best theatre experiences I’ve ever had. One of the best overall acting experiences actually.

But I had to start with an average talent and work on it until I could hold the solos and bring down the house. It took weeks of cracking notes and perfecting technique, and if I had only been as good as my audition, the show would definitely not have been a hit, in fact, I would have let a lot of people down. There was pressure to be, not just good, but exceptional. A pressure that all to often, writers put on themselves too early on.

We don’t start off being perfect at anything in life, especially not when creating the first draft of a new book. You don’t know yet if the idea will be good, if you’ll be up to the challenge, if this is an idea that will flesh out into a full-bodied epic with pith and wisdom and sentences that make you weep. Most people, I’m guessing, begin a book with little more than a basic idea and go from there. If we expected our first draft to be the opening night performance, (i.e. finished novel) we’d be so terrified, we’d never even start.

So here’s my first advice, go ahead and suck. Be bad, let the typos and the spelling, and the over-writing and the rambling go. Get it down on paper, or at least, in a computer, then you can go back, work it, get advice, have an editor work with you. We do this in every other aspect of life, we learn as we go, we improve and we step up, it’s the same in writing.

Don’t forget, you’ve got the rehearsal to perfect it, to get better, to polish and fluff and fill. If you are afraid to put something down that isn’t good enough or might need to be thrown out, you won’t have the joy of writing, of the process. And if you don’t love the process, do something else.

I mean, look at it this way—you might not be Celine Dion, but does that mean you can’t belt out one of her classics in the car? Of course you can, and I’ll bet you sound good in there!!

So start that story, create those characters, dream up scenarios and whole other worlds, because it’s fun!! And if it isn’t quite right, change it, start over, twist and shape it into something you do love.

Just remember this, don’t do it the way you think it should be done, do it from your heart and use your own voice, because it’s all you truly have to offer.

I ain’t no Celine, but with a lot of sweat and more than a panic attack or two, I pulled off Sally Bowles, and loved the experience, even if I wasn’t good when I started.

So just write it down, get your idea out of your head and into some workable form. Your idea will evolve and improve, I promise. Your words will smooth out, and the discordant notes will strengthen as you work on them. Have the courage to cut and change when needed. In a month or two, or six, or twelve, each to their own tempo, you will have a finished work that you can hold up proudly and say, “I wrote this!”

And if nobody else likes it, so what! Nobody can predict that, but like singing in the shower, it’s still really fun!

Shari, November 13th, 2012