And even more distractions

Still chugging along on revisions to Closure. And by chugging along, I mean the engine on this jalopy shuddered as I barely pulled it over to the side of the road in time. I got some good editing done,  and started writing an outline for the new second and third acts, when I entered Distraction Land. It’s a beautiful place, Distraction Land. There is much to do and so much time to do it in. It’s like a turducken of locales, as if Las Vegas was stuffed inside New York City, which was then stuffed inside Hawaii. I could live here forever! It would be so much fun to wake up at 70 and say “wow, I didn’t accomplish anything, but I had a lot of fun. A LOT of fun.”

distraction

But that wouldn’t be a good idea.  I have a friend who is living this life. He is in his 40s. He worked for years at a company in which he had an ownership stake. The company was sold. So…he sort of retired. IN HIS 40s! Now he travels, goes to events, and does whatever the hell he wants. Because he can.

But I can’t do that. And not just because I don’t have the money. I have the burning desire to write, and while I’ve ignored it for large chunks of my life, it’s been there almost my entire life. I wrote my first play when I was in third grade:

It’s called August: Osage County.

But seriously, I was pretty proud of my 2-page masterpiece. And I am writing now more than ever, for both jobs that pay and jobs that do not pay (yet).

But there will always be distractions. Some are good and healthy, others are just distractions. I’m not going to beat myself up over it, but by assessing how I am spending my time, I can budget my time better. So why haven’t I been working on Closure in over a week?

* Was hired to revise and punch up a screenplay (good distraction)
* Watched the super bowl with friends (once a year distraction)
* Went to a concert (fun distraction)
* Watched a few of the Oscar nominated documentaries on Netflix (bad distraction…I should prioritize)
* Started a new script collaboration (good distraction, but find the balance)
* Binge watched Family Feud on GSN (BAD distraction, don’t judge me)
* Writing this blog entry (necessary distraction)

Time to leave the cozy confines of Distraction Land. Today I have cleared my calendar. Nothing, not even exciting Olympic coverage, will take me away from doing some solid work on the script. It’s back to work.

Sprinting through Sorkinland

I want to live in an Aaron Sorkin world.

Not pictured: me

Not pictured: me

Not any particular world. I was a fan of Sports Night and The West Wing. I enjoy The Newsroom. And I firmly believe that Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was a television show.

But I don’t want to live in any of these particular worlds. I don’t want to produce sports television, cable news television, or run the world from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I don’t need all my conversations to be filled with witty banter or confusing sexual innuendo.

But what I love about those worlds is the urgency. Things are always happening and things need to get done right now and if these things don’t get done right now then the world will either stop spinning or explode into dust or wait did you kiss me what does that mean and I don’t know if I feel that way about you but Congress is about to shut down and this network is about to shut us down and she’s about to quit and he’s going to get fired and we need to keep this scandal buried and we need to expose this scandal and it all needs to happen before noon or 8pm or tomorrow or RIGHT NOW.

People either thrive in this environment or they run away, screaming. If my personal life was filled each day with the DRAMA those characters endure, I’d long ago have jumped off a bridge or moved to a fishing boat in Central America. However, as a freelance writer it is difficult to maintain the urgency. If you are working on a network TV show, then certainly there are deadlines always looming. But for those of us who are not (at the moment, of course) it is difficult to stay on track without the clock constantly ticking overhead. Projects get sidetracked by other projects, by life, by errands and chores, or by a West Wing marathon on TV. I can fool myself and say that watching and deleting 20% of my DVR catalog is being productive, but we all know it isn’t the truth.

In the two weeks leading up to the table read of my script Closure, I worked harder on the script than I had in months. The final three days were frenetic…I had to get it done. There was a deadline. And this deadline was arbitrary; no one was making me finish the script. After all, this particular project is one I want to do myself. But because I had given myself a deadline and invited people to take part in it, there was now a need for urgency. I got it done. It may not have been 100% exactly what I wanted, but it was definitely progress.

In the days following the reading I could feel myself sliding back into laziness. I spent less time at the computer and more time in front of the TV. I knew that to nip that slide in the bud, I had to take a page from the Book of Sorkin: deadlines. Right Now.

So I did. I noticed that the deadline for the O’Neill Playwrights Conference was in a week, and I had wanted to submit Little Black Boxes, the play I presented at The Actors Studio this summer. But I hadn’t done the rewrites, even though I knew sort of what I wanted to accomplish. So now was the time. Deadline! And it helped. I dove back into the script, completed revisions, and filled out the application online and submitted. In a Sorkin sense, I failed: I filed the application with nearly 48 hours left until the deadline. In Sorkin’s world Dana Whitaker or Mac would be screaming “5 seconds” as I ran down the hall with the paperwork, sweating and swearing under my breath. And again, this deadline is arbitrary. The world would not stop spinning if I didn’t submit. The laws of percentages say I won’t get accepted. But still, I took my script to a new level, and that alone is victory.

And now I’m addicted to the adrenaline high. I don’t want to slide back into a DVR-induced coma. I need another deadline. So here’s my newest goal: in addition to the other writing work I have to do (because Sorkin characters can multitask) I will finish the outline of another play I’ve been working on (and sat on for months), do the revisions on the first act, and complete the new draft. Then the next week I will send it to a director who expressed interest. The time is now.

Queue to Cue

My wife and I currently have 79 movies in our Netflix DVD queue. At the rate we watch DVDs, provided we do not add any more movies to the list, we will not get around to watching the last movie on the list (Kon Tiki) until July…2016. Please, no one spoil the movie for me (or spoil who the presidential nominees are likely to be).

Of course, like any normal person, the queue is filled with movies that I have very little intention of seeing. When I first got Netflix, back in 2006-ish, I added movies that were recently out that I might want to see. One of those was Lord of War, a Nicholas Cage thriller about illegal arms dealing. Sounded interesting to me. I like the director, Andrew Niccol. Put it on the list. In the six-ish years I’ve been a Netflix subscriber, that movie has never been in my top 20. It is currently nestled at number 53 on my list, just behind The Changeling and just ahead of Spartacus.  Of course, like any normal account, when something new or intriguing is released, it magically jumps to the top of the list. Nic Cage and Angelina are going to live in purgatory for a while. After further review, Spartacus will move up the list; it deserves  a spot in the top 40.

Don't be sad, Nic Cage! Many others will watch your movies.

Don’t be sad, Nic Cage! Many others will watch your movies.

I thought of the Netflix queue when assessing my own writing career. I am very fortunate in that some people believe I have the skills to create a worthy script. Since landing in Los Angeles I have been very busy, and getting busier each month.  It is exciting to be considered for varied and interesting creative projects, and I am hesitant to say no to anyone at this point of my career. Knowing I can only work two scripts at a time without my brain imploding, other projects are now lining up in a to-do queue. However, not all the jobs presented to me are equal. Projects have to be prioritized, and here is how I decide where on my queue projects will land:

1) Money jobs. That’s easy. If you are paying me to write, then you move to the top of my list. The two current projects at the top of my list are paying gigs.  A no brainer. Daddy needs to keep caviar and lobster on the table.

2) Passion projects. Ideas that I have had, for film and theater, that I want to see realized completely and, at least in the writing phase, without collaboration. The reason for this blog, for example. Plus, there are two plays that I am working on, one needing revisions, the other needing a second act. While I may not direct or produce these plays myself, they are important to me and need to get out of my head and into the world.

3) Scripts with a mission. Not a political or social mission, but the person bringing the project to me has to be on a mission. It could be a director I respect who is looking for a new project. Or a producer who has the means to get a project made. Or a slightly famous actor looking for the right vehicle.  Or a co-writer who can get the script read by important people. I’m sure there are dozens more examples that will fit into this category, and I look forward to discovering them.

4) So your cousin’s best friend’s wife’s nephew has a great idea for a script and he’s looking to break into Hollywood.  His grammar is terrible, and he has never held down a job, but can you help him write it? Maybe. Never say never…but here’s my warning: it might get Nic Caged.

I’m not being passive or taking on projects and then giving them the runaround. I am open and honest with the people who want me to write for them. They know my priorities, and they know that when their project comes up in the queue, I will be ready to give it my full attention and create the best script that I can…

This script ain't gonna write itself.

This script ain’t gonna write itself.

…and Nic willing, I’ll keep getting great opportunities to write great scripts.

Stay on target…

It has been a busy few months with multiple script deadlines.  The August 1st deadline for It is Done was met, and the August 15th deadline for my next script will be met on time. I should enjoy this temporary oasis. I have a meeting next week to get going on rewrites for It is Done, and a few other meetings on potentially new projects. All this aside, the script I am writing to make myself, the reason for the creation of this blog, sits there, staring at me.

And it should; I’ve neglected it. I keep coming up with excuses to avoid working on it. They are legitimate excuses, as I have other paying projects, family visiting, etc., but at the end of the day they are just that: excuses.

So it’s time for another self-imposed deadline: in September I will hear this script read aloud.

A scary prospect. So far only one person has read it, and there needs to be some major rewrites before I can unleash it on others, but there is no point in waiting. I need to dive back in and damn the consequences, which will likely be extra work on top of my workload.

But being ambitious shouldn’t scare me. I learned a valuable lesson on multitasking during the first semester of my senior year at Skidmore College. That semester I took on a large course load, plus I co-directed a musical in the theater department. Plus I executive produced the National College Comedy Festival, which would take place early in the second semester. Plus I worked a part time job as a campus tour guide. Plus I had my first serious girlfriend. Plus I spent plenty of time partying like the average college senior (take that however you like). Clearly I had a LOT on my plate. But here’s the interesting twist:

That semester was the ONLY semester in college that I made the Dean’s List.

Multitasking isn’t technically correct, as it is not really possible to do two major activities at the same time (I’m not talking walking and chewing gum, folks). Instead, when I had a lot to do, I became hyper-focused. If I only had 30 minutes to study that night, then that 30 minutes was used fully and efficiently. There is no time to waste time.

I’m not advocating overextending myself, but I can certainly push myself harder. Sure I have multiple projects going at the same time, and hopefully even more on the horizon, but that’s no reason to stop working on the reason for this blog.

It’s not like I have to study for any midterms or finals.

Do I have a short attention span, or…hey, look at that puppy!

Last month I wrote a post about time management, and how I could improve my productivity. I singled out my biggest time wasters and how I would address them, thereby increasing my productivity. I’m happy to report that I have taken my own notes, and getting more done in less time. I am nearly 30 pages into a script I started less that two weeks ago, have taken notes and done revisions on another, and am about to start work on a third script. Problem solved. The end.

However, now that I have addressed my time wasting habits, I’ve noticed a muscle that is extremely out of practice…my attention span. And I’m sure I am not alone. How long does it take for you to be doing nothing to check your phone, or your Facebook, or change the channel on the TV, or stop what you are doing and do something else? How long is the lull in conversation before you go to your phone? My guess is not long. We’ve been bombarded our entire lives with stimulus, and that increases more and more. TV shows have more commercial breaks than they did 10 years ago. Movies are generally shorter, and when they go over two hours it’s an event, and it’s noticed. Even theater has quickened the pace, as 90 minute one acts are becoming more and more common over two act, two plus hour evenings. We need and crave visual stimulus. Now.

Wait where are you going? I’m not finished.

You may have noticed that this post doesn’t contain any pretty pictures, so if you are still reading this, then you don’t suffer from attention disorder as bad as most of us.

So what’s the point? I’ve noticed that I cannot sit still for too long without getting restless or moving around. There are always dishes to do, bills to pay, shiny objects to lo0k at, etc. There is always something to take me away from the monotony of what I am doing, even if that initial monotonous activity has only lasted a few minutes.

When I worked at a law firm, I noticed that lawyers log their time. It’s natural, they get billed by the hour and each precious second they work for someone should be billed; that’s how they make money. They would log it to the 10th of an hour, so every six minutes is a new block. They would rarely clock in only six minutes on any particular case, but you never know when there is one short phone call to be made. There is always a distraction, and I would guess the lawyers, on an average 12 hour day, would log in 8-10 hours of official business.

I took that model with me, logging my time when I work, breaking my day into 15 minute blocks. The good news is that it forces me to stay on task. I can’t stop working and check email if I want to stay on the clock. The scary news is that often, a 15 minute block of time seemed to last a while at times. I rarely go 30 minutes without breaking, and on occasion (once a week or so) I could make it as long as an hour without checking the clock.

So what’s happening to me? Am I not an artist like those in the past who slaved over their works and emerged, 18 hours later, exhausted but victorious in battle? Can I really create something of value only working 15 minutes at a time? Sure, a little each day is better than nothing, but how much better?

So, I’m going to stretch myself. Ignore the phone and other distractions. Work on those muscles and get back into fighting shape. After all, when I get back on a movie set or in rehearsal for a play, it’s going to be high levels of concentrated work, for hours at a time. I’ve done it before. It just takes a little training.

By the way, I was “interrupted” while writing this entry. Three times. I have my work cut out for me.

And congrats to you for finishing this post. You earned that game of Candy Crush.