Ants and Bears: Encouragement For Writers Living in a Filmmaker’s World

Oh… the plight of a writer, watching others take the spotlight as the audiences cheer. It’s a lonely and often underappreciated job. This is especially true in this world where attention spans are shorter while movies and tv shows become more grand. How are the writer’s words supposed to compete? 

What we forget is what it takes to make a movie. A movie is a mammoth production that involves many many people with many different jobs, skills, and responsibilities. It’s not right to compare the construction site of a movie set with the desk of a writer. Additionally, a movie can cost millions of dollars, while all a writer needs is a piece of paper and a pen. 

Nevertheless, with only words, a writer can do alone what a filmmaker will need a cast and crew of hundreds to accomplish. In that way, how can we not be impressed by the power that a writer wields? 

In Writing Dialogue by Tom Chiarella, there is a chapter that encourages writers to watch tv and movies in order to learn the nuances of effective on-screen dialogue that doesn’t translate to prose. At the end of the chapter, Chiarella urges writers to not feel discouraged by the magnitude of the film and television industry in a section called Ants and Bears. The following is an excerpt: 

Ants and Bears

One final word on these people: actors, directors, editors, producers, grips. Think about how they work. They are like a colony of ants. That’s how they work. Ants — limitless in their numbers, each performing a task for the benefit of the colony. Operating efficiently, with a sense of almost military precision, circling around a generally indifferent queen. Now, I admire ants greatly. But in general, ants are 

  1. everywhere
  2. hard to get rid of 
  3. important to the ecosystem.

That’s truly the case with movie people. They are everywhere and our culture tends to champion them. But remember, fiction writers and screen writers alike: You are the writer. You are the bear. You work alone. You travel great distances. Bears are messy and dangerous. Bears are scary! You see many things. They — producers and the rest — they are ants. To them, what a bear does is fairly unimportant, though they do eat a bear’s scat, so there is something to be said about their relationship. Remember! Bears are bigger, stronger and more awesome than ants (except when taken in toto). Don’t get your sense of value from what movies can do. You are a bear! One bear can do so much more than one ant. Bears rock! Ants bring home the dead bees and make sure the tunnels are wide enough. They tend to be rich ants, true. But still — ants. 

What do you think about Ants and Bears? Do you think that is an accurate comparison?

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The Saturday Story: Overcoming The Weekend Distractions

Has this ever happened to you? All week you look forward to Saturday, a free day for you to work on your project. You don’t have to attend any meetings or go to any appointments. It’s finally time for you to catch up or get ahead. You can write, you can read, you can finally make some progress. 

But then — suddenly, it’s Sunday night — and you realize, you barely did any of that. You didn’t catch up or get ahead. You feel discouraged and exhausted because you know that another grueling week is ahead. You eye the next weekend. Yes, the next one will be different. But will it? 

There’s a reason why your free days can often be less productive than the days where you have to squeeze your project into a busy schedule. On those busy weekdays, you may need to wake up early to do a bit of writing or edit a draft during lunch or stay up a bit later to outline. On busy days, you don’t get a lot done, but you do a little. However, on Saturdays when there is nothing to anchor your day, you may find yourself drifting away from your desk, only to return when the weekend is over. 

Why is that?

When we have a free day to do anything, we may put things off. We may wake up and decide, hey, it’s a beautiful day, let’s go get breakfast, once we come back we’ll do some work. When we come back we realize that we haven’t vacuumed in a few weeks. We should probably attend to that first. Then we feel a little tired from our breakfast and chores, why don’t we take a power nap, and as soon as we wake up, we’ll tackle the project. We take a nap and when we wake up, our friend calls and we talk for an hour. Suddenly, it’s dinner time, so we’ll eat, and it just so happens that after, the better halves want to watch this new movie. We can’t miss that. In a flash, we successfully had a day off. However, we failed in doing anything productive with our personal project. 

This issue occurs when there’s no schedule. On workdays, you do have a schedule, you clock in, answer calls, attend meetings, take lunch, return for the afternoon pow wow and then sign off. However, on Saturdays, you can do your project whenever you want. Whenever you want may sound like total freedom, but it actually creates friction within, or as Steven Pressfield calls it, resistance. 

Saturday is the day we have all to ourselves, we can make the rules. The thing is, there needs to be rules. There needs to be at the very least a schedule for when you will work on your personal project, it’s something you need to be accountable for. Whether it’s first thing in the morning, immediately after lunch, or before you do your chores in the afternoon, you need to put down on paper or on your calendar or tell your spouse that at this time, you will be working on your project. You need to set the time aside to do it. Not wait for the perfect time, because the perfect time will be swallowed up by distractions. 

Scheduling it in is about making a promise to your Wednesday self. It’s about making the person you are on Monday proud. The weekday versions of you are working hard to pay the bills, but the weekend self is for the soul. Don’t waste it on frivolous activities, there will always be time for that stuff, but there will never be enough time for the work you really need to make, the work nobody else can do, the work you must practice on, the work that comes from your heart. So don’t waste time when it’s available.

Procrastination comes in many forms and there’s no magic solution, but setting a schedule, a chunk of time, where you sit down and work, shows the world you’re serious. There will be distractions on Saturdays, you know this now, so be prepared, don’t let it catch you off guard again. 

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How Aaron Sorkin Beats Writer’s Block

Aaron Sorkin, the writer of A Few Good Men, The Social Network, and The Trial of the Chicago 7, is one of the greatest screenwriters of our generation. Best known for his snappy, fast-paced dialogue, Sorkin treats conversations like musical arrangements. Yet, today, we’re not talking about Sorkin’s writing style, today we’re talking about one of his funny writing quirks. 

Interviewed in 2014, during publicity for his upcoming movie Steve Jobs, he was asked a variation of the question that creatives are familiar with, “What do you do when you get stuck?” 

To the surprise of some, Sorkin gave a genuine answer, and said that in order to feel as though he was getting a fresh start, he would take a shower. On the more challenging days, he could end up taking six to eight showers. This might sound wild to some — perhaps even a little wasteful — but what Sorkin did was an effective way of clearing his mind and getting the creative juices flowing again. After all, don’t great ideas come in the shower? 

Because today, we’re writing everything digitally, the act of crumpling up a piece of paper and throwing it into the wastepaper basket no longer exists. We don’t get the gratifying feeling of resetting. We hit the backspace, continue to stare at that blinking vertical line, and wait in agony for the next word to materialize. It’s as painful as it sounds. 

Stop. Do what Aaron Sorkin does — it doesn’t have to be taking a shower — but do something that refreshes your mental state. Do something where your mind gets to settle down, focus on something else — or nothing at all — and wander. 

Physically remove yourself from the computer chair. Don’t just scroll Instagram or watch a YouTube video (unless it’s this video), actually get up and go to a different room. Go to the bathroom and splash some water on your face if you don’t want to take a shower — or if you don’t have the luxury of Aaron Sorkin, who has a shower installed in his office. Don’t want to splash water on your face? Maybe bring a change of clothes and change into something more comfortable, which is another one of Sorkin’s resetting tactics

One of the greatest screenwriters of our time admits to constantly being in a state of writer’s block. Yet, he is clearly still producing. The key is to recognize when is a good time to step aside and take a break, to rip the paper from the typewriter, crumple it up, and toss it into the trash. To take a hot shower and change into something comfortable. Don’t allow yourself to sit at your computer and continue feeling discouraged, draining yourself of your energy, trying to plow through only to then delete everything you wrote. When it feels futile, take a breather, change up your physical state and refresh your mindset, and return as if it’s a brand new opportunity to write something great without the baggage of the previous attempt. 

Confronting writer’s block is something every writer has to deal with, but confront you must! Don’t let the threat of writer’s block stop you from writing, instead, learn how to take it’s punches, regroup, and most importantly, come back fresh every time for another fight. 

Want to start a habit in writing? Here is a 30-day writing challenge that can get you going!

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10 Great Cathartic Movies (for Dudes Who Need to Feel)

It’s not easy being an emotionally stunted man. Maybe it’s parenting, maybe it’s societal pressure, maybe it’s some primal instinct to suck it up, but whatever it is — it makes sharing the bruised parts of ourselves hard. What we need is a primer. Something that opens a crack in our window of acceptance, something to allow a cold external breeze to enter. Something like a cathartic movie. 

What is Catharsis?

While a comedy can distract us from the pain, a tragedy encourages us to confront it, accept it, and brace for it. 

What you need, is a tragedy. Because a good way to cope with the troubles of our own lives is to start by empathizing with those of others. 

If you are feeling a little blue — and communicating it with a loved one or a trusted friend feels too brutal — here are 10 movies that can ease you in. These are 10 Cathartic movies for Dudes who Need to Feel. 

Trees Lounge: (Amazon) 

Trees Lounge

Whether you’ve stolen money from a friend or had a buddy steal your girl, you never come out the same after a betrayal. Steve Buscemi knows betrayal well. How else could he have written, directed, and starred in the 1996 comedy-drama, Trees Lounge?  

Trees Lounge is a story about Tommy, his addictions, and a little bar that acts as a landing mat at rock bottom. At the core, Trees Lounge is about someone self-destructive, someone beyond help, for helping would be to get sucked into their little black hole. Chloe Sevigny, Mark Boone Junior, Debi Mazar — and Samuel L. Jackson, give sincere performances that heighten the disgust we feel for those whose reputation is beyond repair. Tommy is someone who has nowhere to go but up, but can’t seem to move. It’s hard to recover from a betrayal, on both sides, and sometimes we deserve second chances, but that doesn’t mean we’ll get it. Trees Lounge cautions us, letting us know that we too can become worthy of pity, but also gives us company like a stranger at the bar. 

Dead Poet Society: (Amazon)

Dead Poet Society

Pressure makes diamonds so they say — but pressure can crack and shatter. Dead Poet Society set in a prep school, Welton Academy, tells the story of a group of boys, inspired by their English teacher, starring Robin Williams, to seize the day and make their lives extraordinary. 

For anyone who is currently held hostage by someone else’s expectations, know that Dead Poet Society is one of the purest portrayals of how tough love can backfire. It reminds us that having a strong belief that any one thing should happen, especially when it comes to another person, is ultimately going to lead to disappointment, if not tragedy. You’re in control. Dead Poet Society doesn’t release the weight from our shoulders, but it encourages us to acknowledge it, and ask whether we’re carrying something that might not even belong to us, and perhaps we can drop it. 

The Wrestler: (Amazon)

The Wrestler

As we fade, as it becomes clear that the glory days are over, as we cling ever longer to keep the light lit, we confront life fully. We start to take stock of what actually matters. In The Wrestler, directed by Darren Aronofsky, we learned that our choice in what matters can be perfectly selfish. It’s our right to ride out the end of our days holding onto the illusion of what we ourselves deem successful. However, The Wrestler wants us to be completely honest — and to accept that our choices are not without ripples. 

Mickey Rourke gives a poignant performance as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, where he used the fall of his character as the comeback for his own career. The Wrestler acts as warning and encouragement, as disappointment and pride, as mercy and hope. Wherever you are in your own comeback know that even though your body may give up you, you can fight until the last breath. 

Mystic River: (Amazon)

Mystic River

The damage of trauma lasts a lifetime, it’s a scar that never fully heals, and if you’re unlucky it’s something you can leave hidden. Mystic River, directed by Clint Eastwood, with heart-wrenching performances from Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, and Kevin Bacon is a visceral experience that forces us to meet face to face with the words justice and punishment, and what that means to us.

In this unjust world, we can feel that we need to take matters into our own hands. We are rather preys or predators. There is no one here to help us. In this way, seeking justice becomes the punishment — like handcuffs we put on ourselves. We often call this demand for justice, revenge. What is done to us, we’d do to others. Eye for an eye. Mystic River balances the tragedies and what people would suspect of us after such an event. This is not an inspirational story, it’s a dreadful tale of how retribution can backfire — and, as reactive animals, more often than not, that is what we need. 

The Elephant Man: (Amazon)

The Elephant Man

Every day we look into the mirror and face who we are. Our face is how we show ourselves to the world. In these digital times, it’s easy to hide away, hide behind an avatar, hide our flaws, hide our deformities. Hide the things we think will bring us shame. The Elephant Man, directed by David Lynch, is a story about a man who cannot hide, about a man who is cursed from birth, a man who yearns for kindness as much as he yearns to lay down to sleep.  

John Hurt portrays John Merrick, the Elephant Man, based off of a real person from the late 1800s who was born with severe, yet mysterious deformities. While it’s easy to pity Merrick, what the movie really asks of us is not pity, but rather simple humility. Regardless of how others appear, understand that we aren’t seeing the full picture, and so it goes with ourselves when we look in the mirror. While we put ourselves out there and receive others in return, The Elephant Man reminds us not to let vanity be the measurement of our worth.

Inside Llewyn Davis: (Amazon)

Inside Llewyn Davis

Life is full of possessions, things that belong to us, things that don’t. As we move through this song of ours, we realize how little we have and even the things we have are usually temporary. And the things that matter can rarely be replaced. Inside Llewyn Davis, perhaps the Coen Brother’s most introspective movie, follows a folk musician as he attempts to salvage his life after the death of his musical partner. 

Oscar Issac gives a touching performance, showing how the world can kick us even when we are down and how easy it is to take advantage of us when we have nobody else to protect us, to stand up for us, to give us a place to stay. Outside, the unsympathetic world, in our desperation, gives us a worse deal, and it rushes us — before we are ready — to get over what we know we never can. Inside Llewyn Davis is a story about recovering, about trying to do better, and how hard it is when we have to go at it alone. 

Lost in Translation: (Amazon)

Lost in Translation

What happens when we get everything we dreamed of? Well… life continues and from that new normal we can rather chase more or hang on bitterly to what we have for fear that we might recede and lose it. Lost In Translation puts us in the epicenter of the bustle of Tokyo with a couple of aimless foreigners, Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannson, who are both unable to visualize what the next milestone looks like in their stagnant lives. 

We often feel as though we have to make some big decisions in our lives and that if we don’t pick the right ones, we will regret it. But what Lost in Translation tells us is what philosopher Soren Kierkegaard understood all along, regardless of what we do or don’t (get married/don’t get married, quit our job/stay forever, laugh at the world/weep over it), we will regret it. No matter how big our decision may feel, no matter how paralyzing it becomes, Lost In Translation encourages us to accept the inevitable regrets, and make them, for in our insignificance that is the only control we have. 

Good Will Hunting: (Amazon)

Good Will Hunting

We know everything — at least, more than people give us credit for — but when it comes to life and this mysterious journey, we have to accept that at best, we know as much as anyone else, regardless of what a genius we might actually be. Good Will Hunting, the Matt Damon classic, is the pull and tug we often feel from the communities around us. The communities that offer the lure of belonging, the lure of comfort, the lure of accolades, or rather a distraction from what we really are. 

Robin William’s powerful performance reminds us that amidst our stubbornness, we are as lost as everyone else. Yet, regardless of whatever blessings or curses we are given, when an opportunity comes along, it is still our job to recognize and potentially learn from it. When we think we know it all, we push away, when we accept there is more to know — that there are experiences out there — we must chase. 

Manchester By The Sea: (Amazon)

Manchester by the Sea

 We’ll make mistakes, we’ll hurt others, and life continues — the question is, what’s the cost of the guilt we carry? How long will we carry it? Like hoarders, keeping garbage to remind them of the past, how can we ever let it go? Manchester by the Sea tells the story of a man whose negligence proved costly, and how the greatest damnation is the one we impose upon ourselves. 

Casey Affleck gives a compelling performance as Lee Chandler, a man who will never recover from his past. Even as we the audience have long absolved this person, he cannot forgive himself. We can find ourselves in Lee’s shoes, unable to let go of the guilt we carry, even when the rest of the world is telling us it no longer does anyone any good. The pain, like a concussion, remains. Perhaps we need to look upon ourselves in the third person, like we are watching ourselves in a movie, our character haunted by the past. Maybe viewing our uselessness in this manner can help us see that forgetting might not be possible, but the pain we can keep to ourselves, we don’t have to inflict it on others. We can be the sacrifice — a sacrifice for another person — and that can be the way we find forgiveness. 

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: (Amazon)

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

At the end of a terrible day, sometimes all we want to do is forget. But what Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind shows us is that erasing our memories doesn’t leave us free from the pain of those we’ve forgotten. No, instead, it leaves us with an empty void, it leaves us in a sunken pit, wondering how we’ve got so down. 

Charlie Kaufman’s imaginative story with the melancholy visuals of Michel Gondry’s directions, paired with the moving performances from Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, makes Eternal Sunshine a triumph in catharsis. For all of us who are currently in the midst of heartbreak, for all of us who’ve experienced regret, shame, and disappointment, for all of us seeking a tangible solution when there will never be one, we can be free for a moment, lost in someone else’s world, and understand that what we are experiencing is indeed a little surreal. 

Big conversations are hard to have, especially when they are on a heavy personal topic. You may find yourself creating a barrier between yourself and your emotions. A cathartic movie can offer you a bridge to cross that chasm, to see your feelings up close, to accept that you can express yourself. By using a story as the vessel to reach your emotions, you can for the time being bypass your own pain. That’s the power of storytelling. Sometimes it is entertaining, and other times, it’s soul cleansing. 

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How to Stay Motivated in Creative Projects (ft. Progress Bars)

If you’re a Millennial like me, you’d remember a time when downloading anything took forever. Downloading music, downloading tv shows, and downloading movies. Computers weren’t that powerful back then, the bandwidth — if it wasn’t still connected by dial up — was overall pretty weak. Occasionally, a large file, like an HD movie, would take hours if not days to complete. 

I would sit at the computer and stare at the progress bar and watch it slowly edge along, telling me how many percent was left and how many kilobytes it was receiving per second. Looking back, I wonder how many cumulative hours I’ve spent sitting there watching that bar. Now and then, it would move so slowly that I would have to put my mouse cursor right by the edge just so I could see if it was actually moving, even by a pixel. It’s an old technique, you can use it too. 

The most infirurating part, which happened more often than not, is when the download would be going really fast, reach 98% and then… stop… I felt so helpless. Still, I was always grateful for the existence of that progress bar, because even though it was sometimes glitchy and inaccurate, it kept me from canceling my download. 

A progress bar is a good design. It helps you see how much has been done and how much is left to do. It works brilliantly for downloading software, but progress bars work for other things in life too. If you are painting a room, the progress bar is the paint on your wall. When you are reading a book, it’s the proximity of your bookmark to the back cover. These are things that tell us, “Great job! You’re doing it! Keep going!” 

Progress bar

But what about things that don’t inherently have progress bars? For example, writing a book. Writing a book is a multi-step task that doesn’t have a clear progression. Is finishing the outline 1% or 2% of the project? Is finishing the first draft 50% done? You don’t know. With creative projects, you can often feel as though you — like my download — went really fast at the beginning and then got stuck at 98% complete. You’ve been at 98% complete for months now on that novel. What the hell!? 

While progress bars are great for measuring projects with completions, creative projects aren’t always clear, especially if they are more personal projects, so you as the creator gets to decide where the end is. And to avoid ending up stuck at 98% for infinity, it’s good to create this progress bar from the very start of your project. Actually draw out where the 25% line, where’s the 50% line and where is the finish line is. 

For example, let’s say you are working on a novel. Great! You could just start writing and see where it all ends up, but God knows where that will take you. Instead let’s break it down. We can even do that with the different stages. 

Outlining: Outline 1st act will get me to 25%, Outline 2nd act will get me to 50%, Outline 3rd act will get me to 75%, and reviewing it 3 times will allow me to complete the outlining stage. 

Progress bar for outlining is filled. Then we can move to Drafting. 

Drafting: Writing the 1st act will get me to 25%, act 2 will get me to 50% and so on like that. 

Then there is Editing, Publishing, and Marketing. All these sections can have their own progress bars. So even when your larger progress bar feels like it’s stuck on 98%, you can look down at these smaller ones and see what actually needs to be done and work on it until you can reach the next milestones. 

Whenever you are stuck on a project or feel unmotivated to continue, think of your task in relation to a progress bar. If you at least know where you are going, then when your work and effort are only delivering minuscule improvements, 0.001% of progress each day, at least you know you are still on the right track and that, even though you may be stuck at 98%, you know you’re not completely frozen, and progress is still happening. 

We live in a time where a lot of things are instantaneous! Tv shows, movies, and music to name a few. I haven’t downloaded anything that took over a few minutes in years. Yet, creating meaningful work still takes time and the results might not be visible if you’ve been staring at the progress bar for so long. But as long as you keep moving towards the next percentage point, as long as you know where that is, then eventually, you will be done. 

Keep going! Before you hit cancel, look at the progress bar. It might not look like it each and every day, but you are making progress. 

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What Is The Difference Between Cheesy and Corny?

It’s comedy night at the Fridge, and you are ready to laugh. On the stage are two performers: Chester Cheeseman and Cornelius Cobbs — and they are in a comedy battle. 

Cheeseman opens with some crowd work. “A lot of beautiful people here tonight! Especially this lady here. Lady, if you were cheese you’d be GOUUUDA!” 

The crowd chuckles lightly. Your girlfriend, who kindly joined you for this evening of comedy, leans over and whispers, “Well, that was cheesy…” 

Then comes Cornelious Cobb to the mic. He pulls out a cue card and reads, “What does a corn say when it gets a compliment?” “What?” “Aw shucks!” 

Your girlfriend rolls her eyes and stares at you wondering if the two of you could sneak out of this disastrous show. “Let’s get out of here and away from the corny jokes.” 

While you stare into your girlfriend’s face one part of your brain contemplates sneaking out of the show, but another part is computing something quite complex: the two words she used to describe the comedians (Cheesy and Corny). 

You’ve heard these adjectives used before, but what are the differences between the two words? It’s true, the two comedians were not telling brilliantly clever jokes, but what about their jokes made them bad? And did being cheesy and corny have something to do with it? 

Let’s start with Chester and his cheesy pick-up-line-styled joke. The word cheesy is often used to describe something that is overly dramatic, exaggerated, or forced. In addition to pick up lines, songs can also be cheesy such as a love song that makes outrageous promises like “Never Gonna Give You Up, Never Gonna Let You Down!” 

The way Chester presents himself — a bombastic caricature, saying a line that was so clearly rehearsed in a tone that begged for attention — is undoubtedly cheesy.   

Then there is Cornelius Cobbs and his corny joke. Simply put, something is corny when it lacks creativity and originality, and feels as though it was taken from an overused source. Anyone who had ever thought of the phrase “Aw Shucks” had most likely associated it with the shucking of a corn. The mental leap taken for that joke is quite short. The cleverness of the joke is perhaps at a Grade 3 level, where one may be old enough to understand the concepts of corn, shucking, and the phrase evoking flattery. Any adult — you and your girlfriend included — would feel a little cheated when hearing that punchline. It was predictable. You could have told that joke yourself. It’s like going to a restaurant and knowing you can cook the food better than the chef. It’s disappointing. 

When using these two adjectives, at the core, what you are describing is something that is cliché, overly emotional, or sentimental. These are the traits that these two words share. They are both predictable and excessive to a point where it becomes boring, if not painful to endure. 

What a good story, song, or joke does is establish a pattern for your brain to follow, but if the pattern as it progresses is so predictable that you end up knowing who the killer is, or how the next rhythm goes, or how the punchline lands, you end up feeling robbed of a promise of entertainment, pleasure, and laughter. That’s the feeling you get after hearing or watching something cheesy or corny. You feel like a good feeling you should get from art was taken or blocked. You worry that you might never feel the feeling of being properly entertained again. It is this sudden pulse of panic that makes so many of us detest anything cheesy and corny. 

So to clarify, let’s draw a quick venn diagram: 

On the left we have Cheesy and on the right we have Corny, and in the middle we have similarities. 

Something that is Cheesy is exaggerated or forced and something that is Corny is boring. In the middle, we have cliche, unoriginal, and cloying. Cheesy is often seen as being more contrived and Corny is often seen as being more lazy. 

But what feedback can we give these two comedians? You wonder as your girlfriend is getting up from her seat. Perhaps their failing is that you didn’t get to know the true characters behind Chester Cheeseman and Cornelius Cobbs. They are just vessels for bad jokes and you don’t know what they love and fear, you don’t know how they actually see the world. You didn’t hear any raw stories or feel any strong emotions. They didn’t challenge your beliefs or make any stances. They are replaceable, interchangeable, and expendable. If you could give them one piece of feedback, you would tell them to say something real, say something true, and perhaps in the truth there would be originality and in the originality, there would be humour. 

“Can we go?” Your girlfriend asks, grabbing her bag off the back of the chair. You look at her and then once again to the two performers on stage. 

Chester says, “I’m on a new diet, you know what it’s called?”

“What?”

“Curds and weigh.” 

“Wow! It works, you look a-Maize-ing!” says Cornelius. 

You grab your girlfriend by the hand and rush out of the Fridge together. Once outside you exhale. All the way home, the two of you make jokes and laugh at Chester and Cornelius, and how horrible they were. A thought strikes you, perhaps there is some entertainment value in their performance after all. 

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The Key to Succeeding in a Bureaucracy: Dealing with Boredom

Whatever you want to do in life, if you want to make money from it, you will need to jump through some hoops. That’s adult life. That’s how it’s different from a movie. There is no way to cut out the boring parts: the parts where we’re in line, on hold with customer service, or waiting for a form to come in the mail. Taxes! Let’s not forget about taxes. Life is filled with these little hurdles that don’t define a life outright, but if you allow yourself to trip over enough, discouraging you from continuing, then ultimately, it will. 

If you want anything, say… to write a best selling book. What you are really saying is, “I want to start a business.” And with all businesses, there is bureaucracy involved. 

One doesn’t write a book or start a blog and earn instant fame and wealth. It takes work, it takes time — and strict adherence to the rules of money. 

And what is money but a game with many players. 

You need to access platforms, request different assets, and perform administrative tasks. You’ll feel like you are going in circles, wasting time doing things that aren’t “important.” After all, if you’re a professional writer, you should be writing, not messing with some sales page or negotiating with contractors. 

This always reminded me of the game Zelda, where you need to accomplish minor tasks, talk to characters you have no desire to talk to, buy material you don’t really want, smash open a few pots here and there so that you can reach your real goal, which is to save the princess or something. When you have a professional pursuit, you will find these mini-tasks at every stage. 

It’s tricky, because these hoops and hurdles make you want to stop and say, “I don’t need to do this for work, I can just do this for fun.” But that’s just an impatient part of you talking. Writing is fun. Creating your art is fun. Jumping through hoops and dealing with beaurcratic bull shit is not. But great things happen when you are able to support yourself and reach more people. 

A lot can be done alone in your office as a writer, but as soon as you need to reach a wider audience — and you want to make money from them — you’ll need to interact with people and be a part of society, the same way plumbers, bakers, and teachers are. Unfortunately, society operates like an old clunky machine, it’s slow, it malfunctions, it jams and freezes. It’s frustrating. But that’s the way it is, and a little surprising that it even works at all. Even if you repair one part, there are so many others on the verge of breaking. Attempting to fix this machine will only distract you from your purpose, and so we must learn to live with it. 

There is this great passage from David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel, The Pale King that has helped me a lot whenever I was stuck behind a hurdle, too drained and impatient to jump over. It goes like this: 

“I learned that the world of men as it exists today is a bureaucracy. This is an obvious truth, of course, though it is also one the ignorance of which causes great suffering.

“But moreover, I discovered, in the only way that a man ever really learns anything important, the real skill that is required to succeed in a bureaucracy. I mean really succeed: do good, make a difference, serve. I discovered the key. This key is not efficiency, or probity, or insight, or wisdom. It is not political cunning, interpersonal skills, raw IQ, loyalty, vision, or any of the qualities that the bureaucratic world calls virtues, and tests for. The key is a certain capacity that underlies all these qualities, rather the way that an ability to breathe and pump blood underlies all thought and action.

“The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air.  

“The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable.

“It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.”

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Why “Lemon of Troy” Is The Best Episode of The Simpsons

Lemon of Troy, episode 24 of season 6 of The Simpsons, written by Brent Forrester is a masterpiece in storytelling, joke delivery, and cultural criticism. While it’s debatable which episode of The Simpsons is the best — you can leave your pick in the comments — I would say that Lemon of Troy would have to be in consideration just for its writing alone. 

As a writer, I look to this episode often when I consider how I introduce conflict and establish the structure of a story. This episode is loaded with literary devices and while it still follows the traditional 3-act structure, it is so concise, and the jokes are so economical and funny, that it should be shown to anyone who aspires to write a story of any length. 

While I’m passionate about this episode, I often have a hard time communicating everything I love about it. There is just so much! I get overwhelmed and I trip myself up. This episode links so perfectly that one thing I like immediately connects to another. So I decided to make it easier for all of us and break it down to 10 aspects that make this episode great — and it’s also something writers can acknowledge and perhaps even gain some inspiration from. 

Okay, so 10 things that make Lemon of Troy the best episode of The Simpsons: 

1) The MacGuffin: Lemon Tree 

Let’s start by talking about the MacGuffin. Is it a Scottish person? No, well — it could be — but not really. A MacGuffin — a term coined by Alfred Hitchcock —  is often an object, device, or event that acts as the motivation for the characters but is typically simplistic in and of itself. For example, The Maltese Falcon, the suitcase from Pulp Fiction, or the jade sword from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, are all MacGuffins. 

The lemon tree itself has no significance, it’s not magical or anything, but it is the importance that the people of Springfield puts on it that gives the story stakes when it is stolen by Shelbyville. 

2) The Catalyst: Marge’s Speech

While the lemon tree is important, what actually slingshots the story forward is Marge’s passionate speech about being proud of Springfield.

“This town is a part of who you are. This is a Springfield Isotopes cap.  When you wear it, you’re wearing Springfield.  When you eat a fish from our river, you’re eating Springfield.  When you make lemonade from  our tree, you’re drinking Springfield.

A catalyst, or an inciting incident, can sometimes be a major event, but sometimes it’s as simple as a character being influenced to evoke change. Without this speech, Bart wouldn’t have the desire to protect the lemon tree. He wouldn’t have pride that sustains itself for the full duration of the episode. Thinking about it as a chemical reaction, Marge had mixed her ideology with Bart’s spontaneity, which in less that a few minutes of screentime, we already get. All we need now… is something bad to happen to the lemon tree. 

3) The Perfect 3-Act Structure

Writing a three-act structure story sounds easy to anyone who’d never tried it, but it can actually get messy. Certain events need to happen at certain times and — in this case, if we are talking about a televised sitcom — we need to do it all in approximately 22 pages. But Lemon of Troy does it so effectively that if you ever get assigned with a task to write a three-act television show, you can literally use this episode as a template. 

Act One: The Lemon Tree

In the first act, we get to know all the characters involved and most importantly, we understand the significance of the lemon tree. It’s not only a metaphor about what life gives you, we also know what it represents to the protagonist, Bart. With that, we are also introduced to the antagonists, the kids of Shelbyville. We know who the heroes are and who the enemies are. The stage is set. 

Act Two: Entering Shelbyville

Here is where it gets exciting, as the characters cross the threshold, or as Bart intrepidly announces: 

“And now, the time has come to cross this line into mystery and danger — to step out of childhood and become men.”

It’s the progression of danger that makes the second act so effective. The deeper and deeper Bart and his crew get into Shelbyville, and closer they get to the Shelbyville kids, the more risky the venture becomes, until eventually it turns into a mission not to find the lemon tree, but just to merely survive. 

Act Three: Escaping Shelbyville

To conclude the third act and wrap up the story in a satisfying way is not an easy trick to land. But what Lemon of Troy does — that makes it so great — is capture moments that tied back to earlier in the episode: from the Roman Numerals joke to the Milhouses finding common ground to the RV gags that don’t disappoint to the cheeky line by Homer “Hee hee hee, no one in history has ever done anything this clever,” a line that makes the title “Lemon of Troy” just another joke in an already multi-layered episode. 

Not only does the third act conclude with Bart and Homer “saving” the lemon tree, it ends with the lore of what the episode was — another nod to the legacy of how stories and misinformation passes through time, and instead of wrapping it up completely, it opens the discussion to what will happen between Springfield and Shelbyville in the future as the next generation matures. 

4) Genre: Capers/Heist

Familiarity and originality. When a story can give us a good balance of both then it becomes a novel experience for the audience while still being approachable, and Lemon of Troy does this by grounding the story in a specific genre which is the capers/heist genre. 

I often think of this genre as The Reservoir Dogs or Ocean’s 11 genre, because there is this ragtag crew where each member with their own unique set of skills — “I’m the leader, Milhouse is my loyal sidekick, Nelson’s the tough guy, Martin’s the smart guy, and Todd’s the quiet religious guy who ends up going crazy.” — will trespass, break in, infiltrate, and eventually steal (what is often money) but in this case the lemon tree.

5) Types of Jokes:

When you watch other sitcoms on television — I won’t name any names —, or even later seasons of this one, you’ll often find that the writers would get lazy and reuse the same joke styles and structures in the same episode. For smart audiences, this can get repetitive and predictable, and result in fewer lols. 

Lemon of Troy, in just over 20 minutes, delivers such a wide range of jokes that even after all these years, having seen this episode so many times, the humour still remains fresh. The variety in what the set ups are, which characters are delivering the jokes, diversity of what the joke is referencing, and when the punchline actually hits in the story keeps the pacing and the energy of the episode going the way a song with a really good beat does, where you can play it back and it just doesn’t get old. 

It wasn’t easy categorizing the jokes or even qualifying what a joke was, and in respect for your time and for fear of potentially ruining the jokes, I’ll just highlight a few that I think are notable. 

  • Instant Payoffs:  
    • A part of us all… repeating in Bart’s head immediately after the speech. 
  • Call Backs: 
    • Roman numerals 
    • Flying motor cycle
  • Recurring Jokes: 
    • Milhouse thinking he’s being copied
    • Shelbyville citizens finding their cousins attractive
  • Sight Gags and Audible Gags: 
    • The lemon shaped rock
    • Homer cooking multiple turkeys and showering in the RV
    • Milhouse’s camo outfit
    • The fire hydrant is yellow. 
  • Pop Culture and Historical References: 
    • Rocky Movies
    • Trojan Horse
  • Irony: 
    • Lisa being sarcastic when explaining to Marge where Bart is, and she believing every word. 
  • Madcap: 
    • All this talking had made me hungry. 
    • Shake harder boy

If you are writing comedy, take this lesson from Lemon of Troy, don’t just keep throwing right hooks, you gotta jab, you gotta throw some kicks, you gotta have some headlocks, that way, when you get to the punchline it won’t be predictable because anything prior could’ve been a setup. 

6) Character Arcs: Bart/Milhouse 

It’s hard to believe that there are any character arcs in this jam-packed episode, but two characters actually go on a profound journey. 

Bart goes through a somewhat conventional hero’s journey. He gets a call to adventure from his mother, he crosses the threshold into Shelbyville, he encounters challenges (friends, allies, and temptations) along the way, faces tremendous turmoil and defeat, but refuses to quit — and in the end, returns to Springfeild not only as a proud member of the town, as his mother had wanted, but as a hero. 

Milhouse, insecure and lacking a sense of self, is the deuteragonist, a confidant to the protagonist, but with a different character arc. Milhouse’s character arc is more personal. He is self conscious when he sees the Shelbyville kid copying the way he’s holding his backpack or when he says “Radical”, it becomes this possessive thing he struggles with for the whole episode.

We get some back story for why Milhouse may react this way and it’s perhaps his parents — his mother actually being from Shelbyville — that cause some self-hate that lingers inside of him and it comes to the surface when he sees the Shelbyville kid doing what he’s doing. What annoys us the most are often the same things we do that are done by others. For example, if we commonly forget people’s names, what might annoy us most is when other people forget our names. Yet, in the end, Milhouse and the Shelbyville Milhouse find common ground; they can open up and be vulnerable for the first time. 

Bart and Milhouse went on the same journey but went through two different changes to their characters. 

7) Character Relationships: Martin and Nelson

Perhaps my favorite aspect of this entire episode is none other than the relationship between Martin and Nelson. These two when partnered together act as a contrasting comedic pair, Martin playing the stooge and Nelson the straight man. From “Team Discover Channel” “Your wussiness better come in handy” to “Spring forth burly protector and save me”, their chemistry is so delightful that it simply adds another flavour to the already diverse combinations of jokes. 

8) Antagonists: Shelbyville 

Every good story could use a good antagonist that is both despicable and empathetic. The Shelbyville kids are clearly bullies and we have no problems cheering against them, but it’s their lack of better judgement, wasting their energy stealing a lemon tree with little but bragging rights to gain, we understand that they live in a community that is suffering as much as Milhouse is emotionally. 

They live in a taboo place, after all, where it’s cool to marry your cousins. As messed up as that is, you kind of feel bad for them, because these kids didn’t choose to live there. They were just born there, it was the luck of the draw, the lemons they were given. The Simpsons could have as easily been living in Shelbyville. And because of that — and their taboo culture — no wonder they feel so insecure. But even with all that empathy, at the end, we can’t help laughing as they shook their fist harder to no avail. 

9) B-Story: The Parents: 

In some episodes of The Simpsons, the A story and B story are completely different, but in Lemon of Troy, they aren’t. The A story is the kids entering Shelbyville to find the lemon tree and the B story is the parents going after them. Only when the parents find the kids do their storylines converge, which is what a good A and B story should do, it should link together in the end in a cohesive way. 

While the B story isn’t a particularly significant aspect of the episode, it is that restraint that is worth commending because the danger of writing a B story so similar to the A story is that the B story can easily become the A story. 

Whenever we focus on the parents in this episode, it never overshadows what Bart and the kids are doing, it only increases the stakes and supplies some backstory. It’s not repetitive even when Homer, like his son, takes initiative by volunteering Flander’s RV. When you need to jump between characters from A story to B story, you don’t need to think of them as different tracks, but instead as an expansion of the A story, supplying the details necessary for the characters to eventually connect in the third act. 

10) Theme: Tribalism and how history can be misinterpreted

Lastly, Lemon of Troy is a brilliant observation of societal behaviour between neighbouring communities and how tribalism can both unite and divide us. This episode addresses how natural resources, historical events, and cultural rituals can create animosity that drives two groups to engage aggressively to one another. 

Tribal wars have existed since the beginning of human history and Springfield and Shelbyville are no exemptions. But what this episode highlights is how pride can turn into radicalism and how the two sides — regardless of the facts — can tell their own separate stories, casting themselves in a better light, both manipulating their youth and continuing a tradition of disdain. This type of behaviour is of course still happening today, whether it’s neighbouring countries or roommates in a two-bedroom apartment. 

There are many things that make Lemon of Troy great, but it’s the theme that seals it for me, because it reminds us of the importance to respect those around us and to acknowledge what’s causing the negative emotions to rise to the surface. Are we like Marge simply encouraging town pride to prevent our children from vandalizing? Or are we telling our children stories of glory that didn’t happen to harbour a sense of superiority? 

If you think Lemon of Troy is the best episode of The Simpsons let me know, it’ll be nice to know that other people out there feel the same way, but if you have another favorite, please let me know as well!

For more writing and editing inspiration and stories, please consider signing up for my mailing list. You won’t receive emails from me often, but when you do, it’ll include only works that I’m most proud of.

What If Nobody Cares About What You’ve Created?

I remember being in school and working on a project for hours and hours. I’d hand it in. The teacher would read it or I’d present it in front of the class — and then… it’s done. What I had spent so many hours researching, producing, and polishing was essentially made for one person. And even then, that person who saw what I made was paid to be there. If my classmate saw it, well, they were forced to. 

I think about that experience often when I do anything creative, because — unlike school — I know that the audience is not guaranteed and the work I put into it might not yield any returns. 

Yet, today we focus so much on creating something that will be seen by hundreds and thousands and millions of people. Reaching a large audience is great! That is how we measure success, right? By the number of eyeballs and thumbs ups we get. However, this is a dangerous treadmill we’re running on if we constantly chase numbers. 

This mentality stops us from sharing our work. We have an expectation. We worry that when other people do see it, and they notice the lack of views and engagement, they will think of it as unworthy. It’s like inviting the world to your party and it’s just you, your mom, and maybe a couple of people you knew from high school. It’s embarrassing, I get it. Why aren’t people watching it? Why aren’t people reading it? I put so much work in, why doesn’t anyone care? 

Whenever I’m working on a project today, as an adult, I remember those horrible years in school, where I worked hours and hours on a project only to hand it in to the teacher — but now, instead of sitting back and waiting anxiously for the grades — I feel grateful that I’m not there anymore. When I’m working on my creative projects, it’s not an assignment and I’m not being evaluated. I’m creating something I want, and because I’m doing that, there is no guarantee that even one person will notice, because it’s for me first, and nobody is being paid or forced to see it. The people who will come and see my work are making that choice themselves. That makes what I’m doing now so much more important. A person who chooses to see your work is worth much more than a person who is forced to see your work.

Before you’ve built an audience, nobody cares what you’ve made. And that’s freeing. Be creative. Break rules. Try new things. There are no teachers stopping you! And when you’re ready, and when the time is right, people will start to care. Keep doing it and people will notice. Anybody can hand in an assignment to the teacher, but on their own, without self-discipline, not everyone can keep creating. It’s going to be pretty impressive when you do! So enjoy this period when nobody cares, because just like the classroom, it’s not going to last forever. You’re going to look back and be glad you went through it. But you gotta graduate first. Good luck! 

Need a break from your work, but still be productive? Here is an article about 5 productive ways to procrastinate.

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Kurt Vonnegut’s 10 Best Writing Quotes

Kurt Vonnegut, author of SlaughterHouse Five, Breakfast of Champions, and Cat’s Cradle, is a master of using humor to make sense of this crazy world. He takes complex subject matters — that are often grim and hopeless — and interprets them in his writing with a style that is concise, conversational, and witty. 

As writers navigating our own absurd world, there is a lot we can learn from Vonnegut. Here are 10 writing quotes from the author that had made us laugh at the bleakness of reality. 

1. “Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.”

2. “When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaningless of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”

3. “Jokes are efficient things and they must be as carefully constructed as mouse traps. And so for me to write a page of a novel is a very slow business, because the whole thing has to be rigged in order to snap at the end. My books are essentially mosaics, thousands and thousands of tiny little chips all glued together, and each chip is this thing I learned to do—this thing I learned to make as a child—which is a little joke.”

4. “Novel writing doesn’t breed serenity. It is lying, you know, and the novelist has to spend a lot of time during the course of his writing worrying about whether he is going to get away with his lies. If he fails to, his novel isn’t going to work.”

5. “I get up at 7:30 and work four hours a day. Nine to twelve in the morning, five to six in the evening. Businessmen would achieve better results if they studied human metabolism. No one works well eight hours a day. No one ought to work more than four hours.”

6. “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they’re made of.”

7. “Novelists have, on the average, about the same IQs as the cosmetic consultants at Bloomingdale’s department store. Our power is patience. We have discovered that writing allows even a stupid person to seem halfway intelligent, if only that person will write the same thought over and over again, improving it just a little bit each time. It is a lot like inflating a blimp with a bicycle pump. Anybody can do it. All it takes is time.”

8. “I’m simply interested in what is going to happen next. I don’t think I can control my life or my writing. Every other writer I know feels he is steering himself, and I don’t have that feeling. I don’t have that sort of control. I’m simply becoming. I’m startled that I became a writer.”

9. “I believe that reading and writing are the most nourishing forms of meditation anyone has so far found. By reading the writings of the most interesting minds in history, we meditate with our own minds and theirs as well. This to me is a miracle.”

10. “The proper ending for any story about people it seems to me, since life is now a polymer in which the Earth is wrapped so tightly, should be the same abbreviation, which I now write large because I feel like it, which is this one: ETC.”

For more writing and editing inspiration and stories, please consider signing up for my mailing list. You won’t receive emails from me often, but when you do, it’ll include only works that I’m most proud of.