Sunday, May 31, 2009

Tokyo Red Eye - What we can learn from a night flight to Japan

Years ago, when I was more readily able to fly around the world at the drop of a hat (not that I took advantage of it very often), I flew to Japan to visit two friends who were teaching English. One friend was in the heart of Tokyo, and the other was living a somewhat lonelier existence farther south in Marugame, Kagawa, the home of most of Japan’s fan (uchiwa) production and the tastiest soba noodles I have ever encountered.

In order to add a visit with a friend teaching in England on my way back, I had to fly the same route both ways, starting with an Atlantic crossing from Toronto’s Pearson Airport to Heathrow airport, in London, England. The second leg consisted of an overnight flight across Europe and Asia to Narita Airport, near downtown Tokyo.

My trip came upon me much faster than I’d intended, lost as I was in the flurry of activity required to meet a story-board deadline… which I didn’t quite make, sadly. I’m not sure the director has ever forgiven me. But the result of all this work was a number of late-night work fests and a final all-nighter, right before I was due to leave. I hadn’t left my apartment yet but after being up for about 36 hours straight I had taken care of that nasty jet lag all on my own!

I dropped off my board, then rushed home, threw clothes in a suitcase and hurried to the airport to catch my plane. By the time I got through customs and checked my bags I had pretty used up any reserves of energy I had left after my extended deadline push of the days preceding my trip.

The flight to England was about eight hours, and I tried to roll up a jacket for a headrest and push my seat back to get some shuteye. It was then that I discovered the main drawback to British Airways’ vaunted service… it never stops. I was seated on the aisle and was consistently interrupted with offers of tea (always yes), snacks (always no) , meals, magazines, blankets and headphones. And when the hyper efficient staff wasn’t offering me yet another creature comfort, the other people in my aisle were squeezing past me to use the facilities.

Suffice to say, I got very little sleep in my up and down, upright position and was one groggy, bleary-eyed world traveler as we touched down at Heathrow for my five- hour stopover. It was then that I discovered that Heathrow is, indeed, the world’s most expensive airport. A single cup of coffee and a scone cost me over13 pounds! Holy %$#!!!

So I was 46 hours awake and dead on my feet when I finally boarded my night flight to Tokyo, which was to take something like 11 hours. Thank heavens this flight seemed more conducive to napping. There was some actual legroom to stretch out my gams, and they had dimmed the lights to create a pleasantly soothing, sleep-supporting atmosphere for me and all the Japanese travelers surrounding me. I managed to score two blankets so I could roll one up to support my neck.

Sadly, I had officially passed exhaustion and was well into my “too tired to shut my brain off” stage. So I simply closed my eyes and tried to fool my whirling brain into thinking it might actually be drifting into slumber. The wonderful thing about the flight to Japan was the fact that a number of the meal options were delicious Bento boxes, much like those available on the Shinkansin bullet trains that link Japan’s islands at super speed.

My body was thrilled to be facing real food as opposed to the vacuum-packed muffins and plains sandwiches at Heathrow. By now I had not only crossed several time zones, I had passed the 50-hours-awake mark, and I needed all the nutrition I could get. I was lost in the pleasant stupor of dinnertime, smelling the aromas and thinking about, well… not thinking at all, actually. That’s a polite way of saying I was completely exhausted and my brain was pretty much flat-lining by now.

As I sat with my dinner in front of me I felt a tug at my sleeve.

Across the aisle and one row back, a Japanese man was holding out his plastic-wrapped knife, fork and napkin combination with a supportive smile on his face. "Mistah! Hey Mistah! You use!" He smiled at me and shook the utensils.

I smiled and shook my head back, thinking, "He must think I'm some kind of silly Gaijin who can't use chopsticks." But the man, and his wife beside him, kept trying to foist their spare utensils on me. After all, what did they need with silly Western knives and forks?

As the pair continued to plead with me to take their cutlery I felt myself growing more insulted. It was pretty rude of them to assume I couldn't handle chopsticks on my own just because I'm not Japanese. I smiled as graciously as I could muster and shook my head "No" a final time. Then I indignantly turned back in my seat. Seriously, the nerve of those two, right? After much shifting in my chair in a losing effort to make myself more comfortable, I finally settled down with my meal.

Then I looked down at my tray…. and at my hands.

And all was revealed.

I suddenly realized that while I had picked up the chopsticks I had not yet taken a bite. And all this time, my slack fingers, barely holding the chopsticks upright, had been listlessly dragging the chopsticks back and forth across my plate. Back and forth. Back and forth. Baaaaack and forth. It was quite hypnotic to watch, actually.

I had not picked up a single grain of rice.

I had not lifted a single morsel of teriyaki salmon to my mouth.

It had been not doing all of that utterly independent of my conscious brain.

Back and forth. Back and forth. It was still happening.

And I had no idea how long I've been doing this.

That poor man and his wife had been watching me fail to take a single bite of my much-needed nourishment for who knows how long until they were finally driven to their cross-cultural mission of mercy! Would no one give this poor, idiot, western man a knife and fork?

I surreptitiously placed my fingertips on my food, taking a quick temperature to help me determine how long my hands had been making a fool of the rest of me. The food was still lukewarm, which meant, thank God, that I likely had not been making my sweeping motion for more than, oh, ten minutes or so.

For some unknown reason, that gave me a feeling of quiet dignity.

I gathered myself, mustering all the willpower at my command and stared at my hands, ordering them to clench around the damn chopsticks. With intense effort I managed to steady my hand somewhat and position my fingers correctly. Shakily, I directed my wooden utensils toward the salmon. Picking up rice would have been too much to ask of my poor extremities just yet.

Narita Airport, Japan.

It was amazing how difficult it was to do something I do without thinking any other time. The stress of the moment, and some of my embarrassment, faded away as I lifted the teriyaki salmon to my mouth. I quickly took the bite, worried that somehow it would explode out of my quivering hands if I didn’t act right then. My mouth full of the delicious salmon at last, I turned and smiled broadly at my Good Samaritans.

Determined to complete my return from the depths of embarrassment and restore my tarnished dignity, I held up the chopsticks clicking them triumphantly in a salute to my would-be benefactors and displayed the international symbol for yummy by rubbing my tummy in a circular motion.

The man and his wife smiled back, evidently relieved that I would neither starve nor force them to watch me disgrace chopsticks any longer. They joined together in silent round of applause for the big, stupid Gaijin learning how to eat. Their job was done.

If you teach a man to fish and use chopsticks he will always have food.

There are several morals to this little story.

One. Just because you think you’re doing something right, doesn’t mean you aren’t fucking it up.

Two. If someone offers you help, guidance, or even a little constructive criticism, they could be seeing something you’re too close to see.

Live the adventure.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Responsibity to Ourselves

"Every one of my books has killed me a little bit more."
-Norman Mailer
As I mentioned in my last post, I've been in a responsibility frame of mind. I've talked about fan expectations. This time let's discuss self-expectations.

A Facebook friend recently sent the link to Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert's talk on a different way to think about Creativity. Gilbert suggests that before the Renaissance creators and artists felt that the spark of all their creative ideas came from the heavens. This idea, suggests Gilbert, spared them the pain of fearing failure and the danger of getting a swelled head from any success they acquired.

Elizabeth Gilbert and her best-selling memoir.

The Greeks called these Muses daemons and the Romans called them genius. Not a brilliant person... but rather a spirit guide. This allowed for the artist to have a distance from their work.

The Renaissance gave rise to the idea that the artist is the sole creator of the work. "Let's put the human being at the centre of all creation." This resulted in artists being put on a pedestal as the sole vessel of the creation. Gilbert goes on to say this is the first time we begin to see the modern usage of genius and she thinks this is a bad idea.

"It completely warps and distorts egos and creates all these unmanageable expectations about performance. And I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years."

The idea that an artist requires distanc e from their work to do the work seems valid. There is a point where you need to immerse yourself in creation and let the it flow. But holding something too close, or being too deep in it removes perspective. Every time I see someone bristle at criticism or get defensive about comments, I know they're in too deep to see the comments for what they usually are: genuine interest and potential insight into the work.

But while we do need to dive deep into the waters of creation to explore an idea thoroughly, we also need toperiodically come up for air. By doing so we, we remove ourselves from the creative process briefly to eye the work as a whole. That critical distance helps us to shape and hone the final product.

As Gilbert points out, that's tough on the psyche when it's just not working and you have no one but yourself to blame. And even if you do succeed, you may have to confront the fear you will never create anything as good again. In other words, if your first book is the Catcher in the Rye, your ego is screwed tyring to live up to it for the rest of your life.

If the inspiration came from God or the universe, then you have someone to share the blame with with. "I have a lame Muse." or "My Muse was hungover that day." On the other hand, you can't get a swelled head if your book is a bestseller or your painting launches a bidding war between art galleries. "Your Muse was working overtime tht day."

Gilbert suggests a return to thinking the way the ancients did because it's as accurate a description of the maddening capriciousness of the creative process as anything. Sometimes it can feel "downright paranormal".

Many of my artist friends found Gilbert's talk extremely inspiring. It seemed to encapsulate how they felt about their artistic process. But the magic of is less about the presenters themselves but rather about conversations they create in those watching. That's why I got more out of the comments section below Gilbert's chat.

Ruth Anne Harnish was "comforted, encouraged, educated, and inspired by the content of this talk." Others feel the metaphorical nature of the talk is useful but people taking it literally is dangerous. But that's up to the viewer, not to Gilbert. She's expressing a theory. How people use it up to them.

Gilbert is not suggesting an artist should be absolved of responsibility for thier work. She's saying, this is a way of reclaiming the slight distance from a work that you need to stay stable and focused without raking your psyche over the coals. "Don't be afraid. Just do your job. Show up and do your part. If you dance... dance."

Oddly, by letting go of a small piece of the responsibilty for creation to the universe, collective unconsciousness, Allah or whatever you refer to a higher power as, Gilbert is not saying you absolve yourself of responsibility. She's telling you to take responsibility for your own self. Your physical and psychic health. On her website's Thoughts on Writing page, Gilbert suggests that discipline is less important for a writer than self-forgiveness.
As for discipline – it’s important, but sort of over-rated. The more important virtue for a writer, I believe, is self-forgiveness. Because your writing will always disappoint you. Your laziness will always disappoint you. You will make vows: “I’m going to write for an hour every day,” and then you won’t do it. You will think: “I suck, I’m such a failure. I’m washed-up.” Continuing to write after that heartache of disappointment doesn’t take only discipline, but also self-forgiveness (which comes from a place of kind and encouraging and motherly love). The other thing to realize is that all writers think they suck. When I was writing “Eat, Pray, Love”, I had just as a strong a mantra of THIS SUCKS ringing through my head as anyone does when they write anything. But I had a clarion moment of truth during the process of that book. One day, when I was agonizing over how utterly bad my writing felt, I realized: “That’s actually not my problem.” The point I realized was this – I never promised the universe that I would write brilliantly; I only promised the universe that I would write. So I put my head down and sweated through it, as per my vows.
We can't create if we ignore our bodies needs to eat and sleep and relax and have. We have nothing to draw from if we don't explore our world and share friendships and experience family. You owe it to your art not to work all the time, to read about things you know nothing about, to have experiences and unexpected moments of confrontation or bliss.

Werner Herzog.

Gilbert's web essay goes on to tell of a independant filmmaker friend who wrote to his hero, director Werner Herzog, when he was feeling defeated. Herzog's reply is priceless.
Herzog wrote back a personal letter to my friend that essentially ran along these lines: “Quit your complaining. It’s not the world’s fault that you wanted to be an artist. It’s not the world’s job to enjoy the films you make, and it’s certainly not the world’s obligation to pay for your dreams. Nobody wants to hear it. Steal a camera if you have to, but stop whining and get back to work.”
Gilbert takes as much inspiration those words as her friend did.
I repeat those words back to myself whenever I start to feel resentful, entitled, competitive or unappreciated with regard to my writing: “It’s not the world’s fault that you want to be an artist…now get back to work.” Always, at the end of the day, the important thing is only and always that: Get back to work. This is a path for the courageous and the faithful. You must find another reason to work, other than the desire for success or recognition. It must come from another place.
You owe it to yourself a chance to recharge and gain perspective. ou owe that to your art. You don't have to acknowledge a higher power to do that if you think that's ethereal and artsy fartsy. But you do have to find a way to step back and forgive yourself.

Then get back to work.

Live the adventure.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Responsibilty to the Audience

My new laptop is up and running and I'm in the slow process of digging through old file back-ups to restore myself to my fomer disorganized glory. So intermittent posting returns at last to and hopefully, my other blogs. So here goes...

My recent online reading has put me in a responsibility frame of mind. There are many levels of responsibility writers and creators come up against in their.

Let's start with Neil Gaiman, author of DC Comics highly successful Vertigo Sandman comic series and books like American Gods and Coraline, the source for this season's animated, 3-D movie.

Author Neil Gaiman.

Gaiman is one of those writers who manages to maintain an impressive web presence for his readers while still getting an incredible amount of work done. But being available to your fans can be a messy business. It's difficult not to get drawn into discussions and try to convince people why a choice you made or the show required is right and their bad or worse, dismissive, opinion of it is wrong!

That's a no-win situation. For every question you answer, a host of accusations and follow-up questions are hurled at you. Often with a increasing level of invective and blame.

For every creator like Greg Beeman, a director and producer on Heroes who's behind the scenes blog was a popular destination for fans of the show until he was.. er, let go, there are twenty creators who avoid being drawn into discussions of the work. It often ends up with writers feeling like they have to defend things the fans don't like, even though there are likely dozens of story and production reasons things went the way they did.

You don't win those conversations. Blogcritics had a terrific post by Diane Kristine Wild last year that explored the problem from the perspective of showrunners at the Banff Television special.

Martin Wood, currently executive producing and directing the upcoming science fiction show Sanctuary, reflected on the number of fansites and social networks his previous series, Stargate SG-1 and Stargate: Atlantis, spawned. "You learn that the majority of your audience is not responding on those things," he warned in our interview. "So a relatively small number of people are being very loud about what they want. If you respond to it the way you think you should, it's not necessarily the best thing for the show."

House writer David Hoselton echoed those comments during his festival session on the craft of writing in response to an audience member question. "(House creator) David Shore doesn't care about what people say on the Internet. He doesn't want to hear it; he doesn't want to know about it. He doesn't want to pander to that audience, whatever it is. The idea is that out of an audience of 20 million, I don't know what that represents, half a million or something like that? He wants nothing to do with it."

However, Hoselton confessed he has to browse forum comments the day after his own episodes air, sifting through the "three pages on Chase's pants" to find the insightful ones... until he has to back away when they turn into online fights. Still, "there are these incredibly intelligent, observant people who catch every mistake you could possibly make," he laughed.

I love it. Hoselton embodies that need to please all writers have and the creative confidence (or arrogance) we require to do our job when he admits to avoiding the discussion but still trolling the forum for feedback and praise.

In his recent post, Entitlement Issues..., Gaiman responds to Gareth, a fan of writer George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire books who is annoyed to find Martin blogging while he's waiting breathlessly for the next book. Gareth asks Gaiman...

1) Does an author have a greater responsibility to write his book than blog and well, have a life?

2) What responsibility does Martin to a reader to finish his dang story. Is it unrealistic to think Martin is letting his reader's down?

Gaiman's response is priceless.
My opinion....

1) No.

2) Yes, it's unrealistic of you to think George is "letting you down".

Look, this may not be palatable, Gareth, and I keep trying to come up with a better way to put it, but the simplicity of things, at least from my perspective is this:

George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.

This is a useful thing to know, perhaps a useful thing to point out when you find yourself thinking that possibly George is, indeed, your bitch, and should be out there typing what you want to read right now.
Gaiman goes on to state that Martin has met his commitment by producing the Song of Ice and Fire books that are already out. Gareth paid his money for those books and got his money's worth. He liked the books enough to want more. While he waits and hopes for the next book to appear, he should essentially "get a life".

A Song of Ice and Fire images from

In short, readers, viewers and fans need to take responsibility for themselves. They can chat up the show and hope for more or disagree with directions. But ultimately, getting to watch a show that engages them so much is the extent of their contract with the creators. Anything else is gravy, and completely up to the people involved.

Similar posts pop up from time to time on television writer Denis McGrath's blog, Dead Things On Sticks. The most notorious are insightful posts on fan fiction (as well as an interview about his views on CBC Radio's blogcast, Spark. Download it here.) and his must-read Emily Post's Guide to Save Our Show Campaigns.

The fans who comprise Hardcore Nerdity seem to keep the conversation on a level of appreciation and real discussion. They are one of my main stops for Sci-Fi news and geek speak now. They take responsibility for what they post and are generally an intelligent, polite, if extremely opinionated bunch.

In return, writers take responsibility to write the best freakin' script or book they can under whatever the circumstances happen to be. That means, you write the best thing you can, while taking into account producer notes, budget, time constraints and story requirements, et al.

That's the only true contract between artist and fans.

Next time we get a bit more personal with responsibility to ourselves and to our art.

Live the adventure.