What do the season finales of Lost and American Idol and stand-up comedy have to do with my writing? Okay, they’re all distracting me from writing, that’s the obvious one, but hopefully by the end of this post you’ll be able to see the deeper connection.
I’ve watched Lost since it premiered. I’ve struggled with it, and been sucked in by it, all along because of its approach to storytelling. The characters, established very well in early seasons, were unique but also maddeningly stereotypical. The plot was convoluted (I was occasionally lost) and yet still engaging. At times the dichotomy has been maddening for me. During this final season of answers I’ve found myself dissatisfied and uninterested because the answers given are still vague. As a scientist to the core, I find comfort in the concrete explanation, and many of the “answers” this season are more esoteric than science, closer to religion. In my writing, and in my reading and watching, I like a tidy package, resolution, and clarity. So despite feeling a little ripped off and confused by the last two seasons of Lost, I also feel like I’ve learned something that will help improve my writing: I need to find a balance between my desire to be precise and specific and accepting that not everything in my writing needs to be so tidy and perfect. There needs to be room for philosophy, and other things that don’t have firm explanations and definite answers. I’m using this paragraph as my first exercise. I’ll leave this paragraph the way it is now, without meticulous re-editing at least three times, and instead, leave it be, in hopes that the ideas are fine just as they are.
American Idol was only so-so all season (I’ve also watched it compulsively, and yet a little reluctantly, for many years). But the season finale last night was impressive with performances by Joe Cocker, Michael MacDonald, and Alanis Morrisette, and Ricky Gervais. I’ve always been a fan of the Joe Cocker version of “Give Me a Ticket for an Airplane”. Who knew Michael MacDonald’s hair would hold up so well? And that Joe Cocker’s wouldn’t? When Mike made a comment about MacDonald’s hair being so white, I told him he’d wear it that way too if he had so much of it. Doesn’t it seem like when rockers get old, they tend to maintain the clothes, hair, glasses, whatever of the time in their career when they were most popular? Hall and Oates seemed to look simply like an older version of them. It seems ironic that these supposedly creative people choose to stick with a 30-year old look rather than embracing a modern personal style choice that might reflect where they are in their lives right now. Maybe that means they’re still living in the past? Ooooo. That would make a great Ph.D. thesis on psychology, anthropology, and modern culture.
During the many roasts and tributes to the farewell of Simon Cowell, Ricky Gervais, the brains behind the original “The Office” in the UK, shows up. He’s a brilliant comedian, but sometimes I just don’t get him. Some of his work leaves me spinning with admiration, and sometimes I’m just confused. He started getting me thinking about the overlaps between writing personal essay and stand-up.
Lately I’ve been feeling torn about my improv performing and my writing. I’ve been asking myself if I should continue to dedicate time to learning and practicing improv, should I be spending that time on writing instead? Which leads directly too: what are my goals related to improve? Improv has been helped me build more self-confidence, further quell anxiety about public speaking and networking with strangers, and taught me how to get out of my head and into the moment more often. Should I take more classes, perform more often, or take a break altogether? Am I plateauing (whatever that means)? Hanging around the theater has also exposed me to people who practice stand-up comedy (one of my life-long loves). I grew up watching Eddie Murphy, Steve Martin, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, and Rodney Dangerfield among many others (yes, I grew up on too much TV—but I’d like to think I had good taste).
Lately in my brain, writing personal essay/memoir and stand-up comedy seem to be closer and closer together. Some people write memoir as therapy, some for money, and some to share their story with the world (of course I’d like to do all three). The motivations for writing stand-up comedy seem to be the same. In both cases, the method is to observe the world all day long, dissect it in the context of previous experience, memory, and wisdom, and then write about it as much as you can. Stand-up is just a more succinct form of presentation of potentially the same material.
My current improv teacher, Morgan Grobe, told me that writing for stand-up comedy should include three short steps over and over. 1) Set up the audience for the joke. 2) Really set them up for the joke. 3) Knock them down with the punchline. Even if I tell a humorous story on the stage, there needs to be a punchline. A crescendo. An orgasm. Doesn’t writing non-fiction seem to follow the same rules? Even when I’m telling a 10-page story, it seems that “punchlines” are required throughout. Personal essay needs to knock you down here and there to keep you awake, interested, and involved. Some of my favorite books leave me with a positive overall aftertaste that keeps coming back here and there for days, months, or even years afterward…kind of like a great burrito. I think that some of my writing to date has been focused on recording the facts, getting the bones of the story out, but not necessarily focused on cadence, rhythm, and setting them up and knocking them down. I’m ready to take it to the next level, and so far, I think exposure to community theater is helping.
I’m still planning to take on a modified version of NANOWRIMO this year and now have at least two fellow writing friends that will join me. [It’s National Novel Writer’s Month (November) where you are encouraged to just get it out, the goal is to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30.] Any other takers?
I had another article accepted for publication this week, this one about “Staying Connected to Your Partner”. It should appear on Neighborhood-Kids.com in the next week or two. My current goal is to publish 12 articles local and regional outlets. Now I’m up to seven and have ideas for at least two more that I just haven’t had time to write. I better go pay attention to my husband, he deserves it, and get some more on the page.