Monday, February 28, 2011

Guest Post: Confessions of a Closeted-Writer Jock

The wait is over. For the first time in Challenging the Gnome's brief but illustrious history, we get to hear from a very rare breed of guest poster: a dude. Here he is, my brother, Mike Langer.

For the past year and a half I have been a part of the screenwriting program at the University of Utah and also the Writing Academy in Los Angeles. These are two very different screenwriting systems with Utah’s program being run by an independently-rooted Paul Larsen and the LA program being run by the studio-driven Max Adams (Excess Baggage, Nicholl’s Fellowship).

In Utah you write to shoot, in LA you write to sell. In Utah, if you can’t make it happen yourself, you don’t write it in a script. In LA, if you can actually make it happen, you better think of something else or it won’t be interesting enough to sell. The point of this little recap is to demonstrate . . . I am conflicted. I write as one suffering from a multiple personality disorder. Tearing down my own grandiose ideas for lack of funding while at the same time pumping up my simpler ideas for the sake of being interesting. Really, I’m screwed.

A couple of weeks ago I was sitting in my screenwriting class here at the University of Utah. We are a tight-knit group. Like a family of brothers and sisters who, like real families, spend a decent amount of time bickering and being annoyed with one another while maintaining a healthy amount of love. Each Thursday I sit for four hours amongst my peers, some of which have mentored me, others of which I have mentored. Our ages range from 32 to 18.

On this particular night, for the first time (ironically), the question was posed “Why Do You Write?” Now just to preface this, I am someone who becomes extremely uncomfortable and awkward in moments of self-declaration of purpose or belief. I am not void of purpose and belief, but I am deeply cynical, and I feel any form of declaration of self should be reserved for that special time consisting of you and a mirror. Any vocalization of purpose to others, in my opinion, usually just ends up reflecting just how “in denial” somebody truly is. If you truly believe you have found your purpose, I imagine it really doesn’t matter if everybody else hears it too. Anyways, cynical tangent over. I also love puppies, so I am not all cold-hearted.

On this particular night, which quickly turned into the liberal Salt Lake City version of a testimony meeting, emotions began to run high. As we went around the room discussing the various passions and motivations for writing screenplays (in this crowd, most of them drug- related) I found myself sinking deeper and deeper into my chair as my eyes grew increasingly fatigued from the constant rolling. Somewhere in the depths of my discomfort and the endless variations of “I write because I have something to say,” I heard my name. Paul, our Jedi Master, had noticed my unusual silence (I tend to be a very loud presence in most situations) and took this to mean I was deep in thought about my own purpose.

Being one of the two Mormon kids in the writing family alongside the fact my feature script is a retelling of the Old Testament, I imagine most thought I would have plenty to say on why I write. But truly, in this moment, I had an epiphany . . . as all eyes centered on me I realized I have never thought of myself as a writer. I sincerely could not answer the question . . . I had no idea why it is that I write. Oops.

As I got home that night, I sat down in front of my computer. You see, I have been writing for as long as I can remember. Most of it was closeted. Growing up a jock, in a group of jocks, you can imagine that having a secret stash of poetry instead of Playboys was kind of a secret. A secret that I desperately overcompensated for.

I needed to figure out why it is I write. How could I spend so much time doing something yet have never even stopped to think . . . why?

This is the point where I’d like to recount some epic moment self-discovery. Like some angel of writing came down in a vision and revealed the truths in my soul. That would be nice. But . . . didn’t happen. I clicked on a file I have entitled “Back in the day” in which I store all of my stuff written as a youth. The first file listed is one started back in high school in which I would type random thoughts I had had throughout the day. As I opened the file, I found my answer sitting right at the top:

“I’ve decided that I am constantly scribbling down words because I am not capable of comprehending a single thought I have in my head. My word throw-up is my thoughts wanting to get out.”

There it was. Written when I was 16 years old. My answer. While incredibly non-poetic, my “word throw-up” a.k.a. my body of written work, was my way of understanding. Understanding the world around me and understanding myself. Everything I have ever written, fictional or not, has been an attempt at interpreting my own life and how I view the world.

I write to understand.

There it is. Both my answer, and my hypocritical statement of purpose.

I’ve spent my life writing, throwing up my words on paper because I am not capable of understanding anything without it. The super cynic has uncovered a passion and is for the first time declaring this to the world. I am out of the closet. I am a writer and I do it because I can’t understand life without it.

Just don’t tell any of my jock friends. I am closeted after all.

Here is to all of us who seek to take that which is indefinable in the world around us and translate that into words on a piece of paper.

Without us, we writers, the world is void of a mirror in which to view itself.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Hi! It's Me Again . . .

Below is the rather self-aware and slightly nauseating first version of my Friday post. Not that Friday's ended up brilliant, but, well, in the spirit of accepting ALL of my efforts, I decided to throw it out here. Stick it to my gnome of despair (who plays the bagpipes of doom): Darkspume. (If you're wondering what the heck that means, you could check out:


Fear not. It will all make sense. And forgive me in advance for what follows below.


Dusty And Dirty On The Road To Inspiration, Part Deux

Inspiration is wonderful when it happens, but the writer must develop an approach for the rest of the time... The wait is simply too long.
  - Leonard Bernstein

I'm climbing up a mountain, and it's early, you know, because I want to beat the other hikers. I want the climb to be my climb. And I'm totally on it. Like I saw that peak in the distance, and I know there's a lake right beneath it--cold like snow and clear like glass. Yeah, I've heard there are leeches, but I don't care. I'll jump out so far I won't touch the rocks. And the splash? It will be phenomenal.

The sun is perfect, warms my skin. And a slight breeze comes at just the right time to skiff the heat off my body when I start to sweat. It's okay. I'm making it up there--probably before noon. No footprints in the dirt, so I'm the first one here. And I've got plenty of water in the bottle sloshing at my back, which means I could probably jog a little.

I'm not even out of breath.

Then the sun hits its zenith. Sweet Mary-Francis on buttered toast! I'm melting! But it's okay. I've got water. And trees for shade. Yep. Plenty of tr--rocks. There are nothing but rocks here! What happened to the trees? And slap! What the hoohah? Did you see the size of that thing? How can a thing that size even fly and not be a bat? I wipe a trail of slime from my face and keep going.

Well, I'm getting tired all right, but it's okay. I'm almost at the lake, and no one's up there. It's just going to be me and all that wa--

--and then I hear the crowd. I mean there is a crowd of people coming down the trail toward me. And they're scampering all over the rocks like they're so many pebbles. Everyone's laughing and their hair is wet. Water droplets glisten on fresh faces. No leeches on them.

So I stop. Okay. A few got up before me. That's all right. I can still do this. But that peak sure looks far away. Really far. Like, have I made any progress? I can't tell if I have. And I'm sick of no trees. Plus my water's gone. I shake my bottle and there's just air. I don't know.

But I started this thing. I'm going to finish. So I keep going. I pass the people passing me. Scrabble up rock and get a few scrapes, but I don't care. I'm getting up to that lake, no matter what. And then I'm jumping in! It's just a little way now. A few more switch backs. I can almost see it! There's the water! There's the wat--


The water's gone. They used it all. And stretching out before me is a long trail. Further up and further in. Ohhhkay. I look back at all that distance I've come. No way I'm turning around now. There's still the peak up above. And it's a better goal than the lake anyway. You can see everything from up there. I'll have to work harder, But I'm pretty sure if I pace myself this time, and calm down, I'll hit those second and third winds, no problem.


Here we go.

Friday, February 25, 2011

*Guest Blogger Alert!*

Pssssst! Be vewy vewy quiet! Look over there. Yes, that's right. Look over to Monday. You see that? It's a rare and special kind of guest blogger. Don't make any noise! Vewy soon the guest blogger will begin typing, and words will come out. If we close our eyes and act like it's not here, the guest blogger might even leave a LONG post. Shhhhhhhh! It's almost Monday . . .

Dusty and Dirty and On The Road to Inspiration

Inspiration is wonderful when it happens, but the writer must develop an approach for the rest of the time... The wait is simply too long.
  - Leonard Bernstein

See those legs up there? Yeah, the ones covered with dirt and dust and sweat. The ones that, given how stinkin' tired they were before we left, came this close to going unshaven. Yep. Hair long enough to French braid. THOSE legs.

Those grimy babes had been through it. Spent the day wandering across rocks and dirty trails, back tracking through thorny brambles. Slogging across beaver dams, dodging little kids who were going faster than they were, scrambling to the edge of a cliff to prevent a WAY too enthusiastic eight year-old from tumbling off  when he wanted to pick a flower, dragging nieces away from leech-filled water, then watching as their older sister went in anyway, and finally tumbling back down the whole way only to get pelted with pine-cones by boys who had run down and hidden out on a ginormous rock waiting for just that moment.

See that path those legs are staring down? That's the path that the owner of the legs thought was the end of the trail. Surely we were at the top. Surely it couldn't be THAT much further. Holy smokes. It was like we were at the beginning again.

Does this sound familiar, like, at all? Because I'm pretty sure this describes the creative process. Or at least mine. I've restarted the book I'm writing at least eight times. Then I got sick of that and started writing the middle, slipping and stumbling, saving my protagonist from near-death over and over again. I was sure each time that I'd found the beginning of the trail, only to round a bend and discover a new trail. Same thing happened when I thought I'd come to the end. And then I got pelted with pinecones.

I think Mr. Bernstein up there was onto something. You've gotta find a process for the times when you're not inspired, so you don't spend all your time running around in circles getting your legs dirty. And I do believe that process, once you grab onto it, will eventually lead you back to inspiration

Or maybe all that running around is the process--the thing that builds the inspiration in the first place. The thing that leads you to the moment when all the disconnected work and reasoning finds a common thread, and a beam of light appears, and a heavenly chorus sings, and suddenly there is clarity, and you have it.

Maybe it's really about just embracing your process. Embracing you. And not worrying about whether it's pretty, or organized, or makes sense, or matches everyone else. My legs were dirty, but they got me to the top of the mountain. And maybe next time I'll have learned a thing or two, and there will be fewer smudges. Or at least a shorter path.

The approach you develop for "the rest of the time"? I think it's accepting YOU.

(Tune in tomorrow when I bravely post the nauseating piece that I ran around the trail being inspired with before I gagged and wrote this instead. It's all part of the process, right?)


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

ICY HOT and tears do not mix

I am learning, when chasing a dream you have to know your limitations. Sometimes a skill is just out of your range. Doesn't mean you can't acquire that said skill with hard work, it just takes time to get where you want to be.

It's 3am, I should be sleeping but instead I'm riddled with a sharp pain in my shoulders. A few days ago, I helped my parent's move out of my childhood home and into a condo. I should have helped my sister organize the new kitchen but nooo, I had to prove that I had the strength of Xena the warrior Princess. I'm paying the price of my ego.

On a more random note, check out these shoes from 1999 that I found in the small garage. I'm 6'2, all leg, so, you can tell how freaking tall I was in these babies. I wore my 3inch wooden platforms religiously.

Check out the cat, Bebe who's poking her head around the bend. S'up Kitty.

This year has been full of changes. My parents moving and my Uncle is really sick. Mom says he's probably going to pass away soon. I'm realizing that life never stays the same. The trick is to embrace the change. Roll with the punches, if you will.

And if those lessons are not learned, at least remember to chuck your ego out the door when seizing your dream.

*We are pleased to announce that a special someone will guest post on Monday. You won't want to miss that day.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Writer's Time

Creativity is a funny thing, because it's such a personal thing. It's hard to peg one book on writing as The Book, the one with all the secrets, the one that illuminates the best way to compose a novel, poem, thesis, blog post, love letter, what-have-you, because what works for one person doesn't necessarily work for the next. Another danger of devouring books on writing without ever actually, you know, writing something yourself, is that you get lulled into thinking you're making progress because, look! I'm reading about writing! I'm learning the craft! We all know the best way to learn something is by doing. And then doing it again. And again.

That said, I think I've discovered my favorite writing tome so far: A Writer's Time by Kenneth Atchity. My writing Yoda, this book is. Favorite highlights:

1. It used to be there was a constant war going on between the creative and analytical halves of my brain. The analytical side would be all, "Okay, we've set a goal to finish the draft by the end of the year, which means we need to write a chapter a week to get there. Onetwothree, go!" But the creative side was like (nose in the air), "Neener neener - I'm not talking to you!" It was exhausting. But then A Writer's Time introduced me to yet another side of my brain, called the "Managing Editor." (Imagine that - a whole piece of my brain I never even knew about. I love finding pieces of my brain!) The Managing Editor is the mediator. If the analytical and creative sides were a couple on the brink of divorce, the Managing Editor would be the therapist. They still fight, but it's less noisy inside my head now.

2. Writing anxiety is not only completely normal, it's good! (In which case, I have a whole heap of good going for me.) It's all in how you use it: anxiety can be the Gnome that keeps you from writing, or it can be the pressure that forces you to write in order to alleviate it. If you channel anxiety right, it actually becomes your Muse!

3. Find your ideal amount of writing time, what Atchity calls "compartments." I used to devote 3 or 4-hour blocks to writing on my days off. I'd spend most of this staring at the screen, listening to another shouting match between the halves of my brain. Essentially trying to squeeze blood from a rock. Now I've figured out that 90 minutes is my ideal compartment. If I set that limit for myself, there's no time to sit and stare, because I make myself quit at the end whether I feel like I've accomplished something or not. Then I walk away and let the anxiety build until next time.

4. "[Writing] requires determination more than self-confidence, the commitment of your will to the dream." Indeed, Mr. Atchity. Indeed.

Read this book you must, my young writing Padawans. Find wisdom within its pages, you will.

*Appearing next Monday surprise guest post will be. Greater wisdom than even Master Yoda he will impart.*

Friday, February 18, 2011

Enough IS Enough. Really.

How do you know enough is enough already? Like, if you keep working on the thing you are making/baking/creating/writing/composing/whathaveyou, will it get better or just devolve into the primordial sludge of dis-inspiration? How do you know when to stop tweaking and leave well enough alone? 

When I was thirteen years old we moved from our German village of Katzenbach into military housing on Ramstein Air Base. The dollar had fallen precipitously against the Deutschmark and our rent had doubled over night.

My grandmother, widowed for a few years and getting up into what I thought was older-than-dust-ville, had never been to Europe, so she came to live with us for a few months. This was all fine and dandy. G-ma was a funny old thing: she used to call "Wyatt Earp"--an ancient western we got on the one English-speaking TV channel available over there--"Wild Burp." Hi-la-rious to a thirteen year-old. But Gram had a few funky quirks; one of which involved cooking.

One of the great things that happened when my mom's mom moved in is my brother and I had snacks waiting for us after school. This hadn't happened since we were really little. Awe-some! Grandma was the Snack-inator! And she was good at it too. At least at first.

On Monday she made this amazing bread. Don't even know what was in it, but it was delicious. We raved. She beamed. Tuesday she made it again. FABU, Grandma! We spread it with butter, jam, peanut butter. Yum-city. 

Then on Wednesday the bread took an interesting turn. There were raisins in it. And some sort of grainy thing. Ohhh-kay. Still good. Thursday, there seemed to be more grainy stuff, and it was a bit damp. Plus I think there might have been some leftover corn in there. I swear I saw yellow specks. Um, ew. By Friday it wasn't bread so much as glop, with, I promise, some sawdust stirred in. We had to eat it in a bowl. With a spoon. I asked what it was and she was offended. "Bread! Don't you know what bread is? You've been eating it all week!"

So. Grandma had a good thing going. Then she went all Goldilocks on it and wasn't satisfied until the bread attained that je ne sais quoi-ness. Except it never did. It never got to "just right." She had us at Monday. Should have left it that way.

I think the key might be this: If other people like it, leave it. If you feel yourself hacking at it, leave it. If you're in a hole with it, leave it. If you feel the giddy urge to go all experimental, back away from the bread, honey. 

Give it some time to rest. Then revisit it with fresh dual orbs of sight, allowing your native passion to run like the wind, bullseye, and elevate you to supplementary eminence.

(You may use that last sentence. After I revise it some more.)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Tips From My Black Heart

Recently, I hinted at my deep dislike for all things Valentine's Day. But my black heart isn't completely shrivelled. I'm a sucker for a good love story. I thought I'd share a few of my favorites, in case anyone needs some last-minute ideas for a romantic Valentine's Day activity.

Boy meets girl. Creepy priest likes girl. Creepy priest casts a curse. Boy becomes a wolf. Girl becomes a bird. Matthew Broderick saves the day. I tear up just thinking about it.

Inspirational story about liking yourself just the way you are, and stuff. (But really James McAvoy.) (And Russell Brand.)

Or, as I like to call this one, "Lord of the Rings on Acid." She's a beautiful princess. He's the Lord of Darkness. Somehow, she still ends up with Tom Cruise in the end. Yeah, I don't understand it either. But at least there's unicorns.

Listen up, guys. If you really want to impress a girl, jump in front of a hungry T-Rex. Or at least take her ice skating in Central Park.

If you're worried the T-Rex thing won't work out, you could always try impersonating her dead husband.
*Note: This only works if you're an alien.

No list of romantic movies would be complete without this one. Before he was a pirate, Mad Hatter, candy-making genius, murderous barber, headless horseman hunter, stop-motion groom-to-be, Peter Pan author, or 1930's bank robber, Johnny Depp was just your average, misunderstood emo with a heart of gold and scissors for hands.

You're welcome. Happy freakin' Valentine's Day.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Unbearable Lightness of Baking

I'm very particular about my domestic pursuits. Cleaning? You bet. Cooking? Not so much. I can do cookies. Brownies. The occasional cake. But I'm not much for actual food.

Two friends in our writers' group are collaborating on a bread baking book. Caleb and Melissa asked us all to try out a couple of their recipes to see how they work. We'd also need to take care of the live yeast starts they would provide for us. I wasn't sure about the whole yeast start thing. But then Melissa explained that a yeast start is kind of like a pet. You feed it, clean its container, generally keep track of it like you would a dog. I thought, cool! I love pets! I have several. What's one more? Even if it lives in my fridge.

Then I got my start.

Even so, no pet of mine will go without a name. Having recently acquired a Captain Kirk, I figured "Mr. Spock" was appropriate. As per the instructions, the first thing I did was transfer him into a more substantial home.

Mr. Spock is easily the most low-maintenance pet I've ever had. He eats flour and water. That's it. Cleaning his cage is super easy. I just scrape him out and drop him into a new jar. No problem. After a few days, he'd grown into the half-cup amount the bread recipe called for.

I'd never baked bread in my life. It's kind of intimidating. In other words, it's one of my Gnomes. I whipped out the recipe and prepared to challenge it. Step 1: Resist the urge to giggle every time I read "shaggy mass" in the directions. I mixed the ingredients, including all of Mr. Spock (poor Spock, we hardly knew thee . . .), until my dough looked sufficiently "shaggy."

Then it was time to knead. Clearly, Caleb and Melissa's book is geared for an audience that already knows what they're doing. I'm more like "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Bread-Baking" crowd. Having never baked bread, I'd never kneaded either.

I google "bread kneading" and click on a result at random. It says the dough will look "shiny" and "silky" when it's been kneaded enough. I can handle this, I think. So I start kneading. And kneading. Time passes, I'm still kneading. But it's okay, because Hancock is on FX so I'm not bored or anything but man, this sure seems to be taking awhile . . .

My mom comes into the kitchen. "You're still kneading?"

"It's not silky yet," I say.

"I've never kneaded bread dough that long. Stop kneading already! It's fine," she says.
"Good enough for me," I say.

The next morning, I roll the dough out. I fold it over. I roll it again. I put the dough into loaf pans and leave them on the counter to rise while I procrastinate working on my book by playing on Facebook. I stick the pans in the oven and twenty-five minutes later, success!

Janiel is totally jealous ;)

I enjoyed the first slice with peanut butter and nutella. Really, is there any other way? Oh yeah, I got this bread baking thing down.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Dear Saint Valentine: Shut Up.

February Challenge: I think the title pretty much speaks for itself.

Seriously. I am the old-chick on this blog. Russo and Maegan could be my dau . . . um . . . much younger sisters. I can't even remember Valentine's Days from the early blooming youth of my fluttery heart. Well, there are a few vague memories. Like making a little foil covered valentine depository, in whose box top I carefully cut a slot for the notes of love and candy to be slipped into. And then doing some funky thing with watercolors and glue to make designs on the outside.

There was staying up all night hand cutting little red construction paper hearts and gluing sticks of Wrigley's Spearmint gum on them for the arrow-through-the-heart-thing, and hoping the little dude I had a crush on would just know I'd done it for him. He had curly red hair and freckles. And he was quiet (the sad opposite of me.) He was also stupid-smart. Boy could spell every word in the third-grade spelling bee. Every. One. Including "Cavalcade." (Yeah. Words were different back then.) He knew all of his times tables, and a goodly share of his divisions too. He could recite the names of all of the U.S. presidents, and knew "Myself," by Edward A. Guest, by heart. What was not to love?


Sadly, he did not love me back. Never said a word about my Wrigley's Spearmint gum-through-the-heart-valentine, or my awesomely tricked out V-Day box.

But a few good memories are fading in for me now. Like the boy who gave me a rose as he asked me to the Sweetheart Ball in high school. That made my month. And the young man in college who gave me a pair of fuchsia hose with a little line of hearts up the sides. That was . . . awkward. But also . . . sweet. And romantic. And weird. Made my legs look like cherry-flavored candy canes. I loved them.

And then there was the boy who married me because I said yes. Also because he had a wicked crush on me. And I him. I've had years of roses and chocolates since then. Not hugely imaginative, but I happen to love roses and chocolates, so who cares, right? 

There've been some years where Saint Valentine was completely smacked-down; like when the boy with the crush joined a non-profit whose annual retreats were held during Valentine's week every year. Yeah. They were that retarded. But then so were the wives, because it took us as long as it did to say, Um, No. Reschedule.

But the most memorable year was the year that I was three days from delivering my last child, and Oh My Holy Heart what was I doing having a FOURTH child at the age of thirty-freaking-eight! And I was so far beyond waddling that it could only be called road-grading. My belly looked like I'd duct-taped a torpedo to my hips, and I swept every flat surface at belly-level clean as I walked by. Oh yeah. As I road-graded past my husband on Valentine's Day that year I shot lasers at him with my eyes, making it clear I wanted NOTHING to do with romance. Like EVER. I was dilated to a 4, fully effaced, the baby was bobbing around at my knees, and I swear he was hanging onto my ribs by his ankles, because there was NO REASON he shouldn't have fallen out by then. Nothing was holding him in.

I was finally relieved of my darling yet burdensome burden by watching the figure skating competition during the Salt Lake olympics. The French judge had accepted a bribe from the Russians, and voted against the Americans. Made me so mad I went into Labor.

Um. Sorry. What were we talking about? Oh yeah. Valentine's Day.  I'm not pregnant this year. I'm fully married. There's no non-profit retreat going on. Nobody holds Sweetheart balls anymore. And the heart-hose are long worn to death. I've survived a lot. I'm pretty sure the boy with the crush needs to get me a twenty pound box of Mrs. S's chocolates and a trip to Ireland this year. For his Valentine gift? He can come with me if he'd like. I might even kiss him.

Here's my funny Valentine saving me from aliens. If you look at the scores you will see why evolution made him the husband and me the wife.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Dear St. Valentine: Shut up.

February challenge: V-Day Horrors

There are certain things you should not say to someone you are romantically involved with-
Please note that sadly, I have uttered each line to a lover.

1-Before I kiss you, I have to ask, do you have herpes?
2-You must have a small . . . ego because you sure do overcompensate.
3- Sorry, Darlin' but you are officially one of those crushes who have been crushed.

My mouth gets me into trouble, which is why I don't celebrate Valentines.
Let's see, worst gift ever? A relish serving tray from 1978. Seriously, I wasn't even born when this gift was made. Plus, the gift was stolen from the miserable meathead's mother.
Why put up with this horrid gift? Three words, animalistic makeout sessions.

Best Valentine's gift ever would have to be from my dearest devilish dude-Sorry, ladies, he's gay. Every year, Jameses buys and frames a printed portrait for me to inspire my writing, or so he says.

Here's hoping everyone has a gaggingly perfect February. And if not, I have serving tray you can re gift. C'mon, I know you want it.