Tuesday, July 26, 2022

One Trick Pony

I know this sounds like a criticism but it really isn’t. Seriously!

Most artists that I’ve met are one-trick ponies. That is, they’re folks with only one special talent, gift or area of expertise.

Wikipedia explains the origin of ‘a one-trick pony’ The idiom one-trick pony is derived from the circus. A circus featuring a pony that has only been trained to perform one trick is not very entertaining. An old joke claims that a certain circus was so bad; the trick that the one-trick pony performed was to play dead.

Most of the writers I know just focus on one aspect of their craft. Novelists write novels. Playwrights write plays. Screenwriters focus on films. The lists can go on and on. Most of them have found their special niche; whether it’s a certain genre, subject matter, or area of interest. That is the norm. That is the average. That is what most of them do. But not me. And it isn’t by design.

Without qualifying, clarifying or apologizing, try as I might, I’m just not able to focus on any one genre, format or area of interest for any extended period of time. Guess you might call it an adult version of attention deficient syndrome.

One of the first pieces of advice I received when entering this new world of writing was to focus on just one genre and stick to it. If I wanted to write westerns, then I was advised to become the best western writer after Louie L'Amour or Zane Gray. Similar advice came from a mystery writer who had found great success in his chosen genre.

Even back then, easily twelve or thirteen years ago, I knew I could never do just that.

When I was first getting started as a writer, in one four year period, I pounded out four novels, four plays and four screenplays. After that, I branched out into blogs, templates for new works, novellas, outlines for future projects, a children’s book and finally a comic strip.

Even though I had written several plays beforehand, I fell in love with the whole creative process of playwriting when I penned ‘Riot at Sage Corner.’ RAAC (the Rosemount Area Arts Council) was kind enough to accept it for their newly formed theatrical troupe called ‘Second Act Players.’ It was a wonderful play that filled the house for all four of its performances. Two more plays, ‘Club Two Ten’ and ‘The Last Sentinel’ followed that initial success. A fourth play ‘Polly’s Amorous Adventure’ debuted in California in 2018. Now another new play will premiere this fall in California.

I have created three versions of ‘Waleed, the Skinny Hippo,’ my first attempt at writing a children’s book. It has been translated from English into Swahili, Hmong and Spanish. Now the challenge will be to get it into the hands of children of all ethnic backgrounds.

Having gone through the gestation stage of creating cartoon characters of my five grandchildren, I have commissioned a sample comic strip of four panels to see how my illustrator (really a comic strip artist) can translate my dialogue and storyline into a visual presentation. If that next step is successful then creating a catalogue of fifty or more storylines awaits me before the next comic strip can proceed.

My first attempt at writing a novella for the new Vella platform on Amazon has been a success. ‘Agnes, Memories of First Love’ has generated a lot of interest. A new novella entitled: ‘Traces Left Behind’ still being hammered out.

The last mountain I want to climb in this writing marathon is a steep one for which I am totally ill-equipped. Nevertheless, songwriting is looming as the next challenge on the horizon. I’ve written the lyrics (terrible at this point) for eight songs I want to incorporate into one of my latest plays ‘PTV.’ But without talented songwriters to help me along this journey I’m still stuck in the starting gate.

Some folks would look at my body of work and see it spread out across multiple genres to which I would answer: ‘Sure it is because it has to be.’ They might say it’s unfocused and I would reply ‘yes, it is, at times.’ We would probably agree that my writing and subject matter is a bit hectic at times and scattered, yet still very prolific.

But with a new play (my fifth so far) to be produced in California this fall (TBA) and ‘Sweetpea’ moving ahead with a sample comic strip, I can’t afford to slow down. In the end, it’s all about choice and I must confess I don’t feel I have any.

This is something I have to do.

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Sweet Pea has Three Mama Bears

It’s still quite early in the game but some rules and guidelines are already establishing themselves in my quest to create a comic strip. Going into this venture, I knew it would be a many-stepped process. The idea was simple enough; to create a comic strip entitled: ‘Sweetpea and the Gang.’ It would be based on the personalities, antics, quirks, and loveable traits of my five grandchildren at a certain point in their lives.

That would be back when Charlotte was three or four years old, the twins and Brennan about six and Maya older at eight or nine.

The first challenge was to find very close facsimile cartoon versions of the five grandchildren. Then create a storyline of three or four panels in a comic strip format. Next find an acceptable price to pay for 50 such comic strips. Finally, have an illustrator or comic strip artist create fifty or more comic strips in a limited amount of time (estimated 3-4 months).

That was just the first part. If completed, I then had to package the comic strips and coordinate a marketing campaign to expose the comic strips to as many eyeballs as possible. It would certainly take months to accomplish with absolutely no guarantee of any kind of financial return.

Budgeting the project was an important challenge to overcome. Neither illustrators nor comic strip artists come cheap. Their talent is essential and thus needs to be compensated. That being said, I only have so much money in my proposed budget for this speculative venture. If associated costs were more than my proposed budget, the project would stop before it even got started.

So why do it? If you have to ask, you’ve never been a parent or grandparent. Enough said.

The first challenge was to find the right illustrator to create cartoon versions of the five grandchildren. My editor and I went back to our fabulous illustrator of ‘Waleed, the skinny hippo.’  Shamina sent us several versions of ‘Sweetpea.’

Shamina’s versions of ‘Sweetpea’ were good but somehow lacking something. Vida found a comic strip artist by the name of Santijury (from Eastern Europe). His first version of ‘Sweetpea’ came a lot closer to the image of that loveable urchin that we had in mind.

Satisfied that this version (on the left) came pretty close to our imagined cartoon image of Sweetpea, we then asked for his cartoon version of ‘the gang.’

Again, he did a pretty good job of capturing the image I had in mind. After several revisions, I thought we were close to our final cartoon version of ‘Sweetpea and the gang’

It was during this initial phase that Sharon reminded me that I had missed one of the most important steps in the creative process. I would have defended myself and called it less ‘missing’ than ’taking for granted.’ But, once again, Sharon was right.  I hadn’t talked to my daughter and daughter-in-law and asked their permission to proceed with this idea. My assumption of their support was correct but it proved a very valuable lesson for me, the creator of ‘Sweetpea.’

Who better to know their own kids than the parents, especially their moms? Add an ever vigilant and watchful Nana and I realized there was a council of elders I had to respect and defer to. And a good call it was.

These were three Mama Bears I had to satisfy. I would not have it any other way. Fortunately, these are very intelligent, savvy, street-smart women who suffer no fools, especially when it comes to their kids. Add legal skills, interpersonal relationships, and social media skills and the trio was a formidable support system to have.

Both Amy and Melanie were most gracious and supportive of this effort. They gave me their full backing. I assured them that ‘if‘ the project actually took hold and I began the process of creating comic strips they would be the first to know. They would also have input into the comic strips as they were created.

Of course, the final judge, besides me, is the one with deep insight and a realistic perspective of this project. While she doesn’t have the final say, I sure do want her backing. Because if Nana says no, it is a NO GO.

I’m just hoping that fifty years of marriage gives me a competitive edge in any negotiation; slight as it may be.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Family Ties

Once upon a time, when I was a very young man, I wanted to be in advertising. I thought I’d make a pretty good copy writer… based on absolutely nothing but high hopes and images of that fascinating world. This was long before ‘Mad Men’ painted a pretty accurate portrait of that cutthroat business back in the 50s and 60s.

Fortunately for me it never happened. I’m guessing that if, and that’s a very big if, I actually landed a job at an ad agency it would have been short-lived. Either my lack of real world skills would have caught up with me or I would have been short man on the totem pole when the first client exodus ended of my Madison Avenue adventure.

Fortunately, I was able to stumble into a career in television with writing as a side gig. It served me well over the years and I’ve always kept my antenna tuned to the pulse of advertising; be it good or bad, real or imagined.

The world of advertising today is nothing like the world I tap-danced around back in the mid-sixties… except in one area. What hasn’t changed over the years is the subtle insertion of catch words, phrases and clichés that are supposed to convey a certain emotion, attitude or cultural icon. Those words play to our emotions, attitudes and pre-supposed prejudices.

It sounds impressive but ‘military grade’ simply means it passed government specifications and the military can buy it. ‘RAM Tough’ means absolutely nothing. Built ‘Ford Tough’ means the same thing; nothing, other than the Ford Motor Company made that vehicle. Now the word ‘Vibe’ has become the latest of those monikers advertisers love to hang over numerous situations, events, and products.

There must be some kind of quota system being used on each and every program on HGTV (Home and Garden Television). The word ‘Vibe’ is either mentioned, hinted at, mumbled into a sentence or thrown out as a thrown-away comment every five minutes or so. It can be referencing a new kitchen, landscaping, home style or furnishings. I had no idea there were so many vibrations going on.

But before ‘Vibe’ became our go-to, fallback, don’t-know-what-else to say cliché, ‘family’ found its way into our lexicon. Fortunately, that bastardization of a homey phrase has pretty much been retired. But before its gradual demise, ‘family’ was the catch-phrase for everything on the planet and in the world of advertising.

It’s easy to understand why family became the most over-used word in advertising for a long time. It conveyed an image that portended to be warm and fuzzy. But its content was really false and empty.

At one time, before they were gobbled up by a New York Hedge Fund, Sun Country Airlines called itself our home town airline; as if they were part of our extended family. Before them, North Central then Republic and finally Northwest Airlines all vied for that same ring toss. When United Airlines filed for bankruptcy protection, it appealed to its family of employees to buy back into their corporate family in order to save it.

Johnson and Johnson, for a long time, called itself a ‘family of companies.’ We have ‘families’ of magazines to buy. The Chevrolet ‘family of automobiles’ wants us to buy one of their own each Christmas season.

WCCO Television was our good neighbor and family friend bringing us all the hometown news. That is until CBS bought them out years ago.

Both the Minnesota Twins and the Minnesota Vikings have tried to glom onto that title over the years, wanting us to believe that the players, coaches and management all live down the block from us and all share the same economic challenges that we, the average fan, do too.

But what is a real family? For most of us it is just Mom and Dad and the kids with maybe aunts and Uncles and grandma and grandpa added to the ranks too. What about the cousins? I think there is a real argument to say that family can be applied to any real bonding experience between people.

This can include a military unit or firefighters or cops. Shared experiences, cause and effect all congregate to create a bonding experience, if only for a short period of time. But during that brief period, all the bonding and emotional-sharing of a family tie comes into play. It is real. It is genuine. It is heartfelt.

In Palm Springs, with its large gay population, there are many groups, clusters and couples that hang together and have each others backs.  For all intense purposes they are a family unit too.

I’ve tried to capture that experience in one of my newest plays entitled: ‘Widow’s Waltz.’ It’s about a single (divorced) older gay man seeking companionship in his later years. There are obvious and subtle obstacles in that quest.

Advertisers will continue to come up with catch-phrases and coin words in hopes that one or more of them will stick in our consciousness. That’s part of their business. I guess it’s just up to us to recognize this and decide or ourselves which matter in our lives.

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

The Women in My Life

An imagination is a wonderful affliction to have if it’s nurtured and used carefully with consideration of others. Unbridled, uninhibited and unrelenting, it can be a vivid force of imagery and thoughts.  I guess you’d need to crawl inside the head of an artist to truly understand what the heck is going on inside there.

Right now, there are a number of women who affect, effect, and impact my life. There’s Sharon my wife, Melanie and Amy, my daughter and daughter-in-law, my wonderful granddaughters, Maya, Samantha, and Charlotte and finally Vida, my editor.

It was much different for me back in the early days. Initially, the silver screen held two of my favorite heartbeats. First came Rhonda Fleming and then as I grew a little older, it was Connie Stevens. At about the same time these manicured, polished icons of the silver screen were tugging at my heart strings, a couple of classmates caught my attention. It was Elaine and Maureen in grade school that provided plenty of distraction from those boring lectures. Granted, it was a total cliché but it fit.

Before finding ‘the one’, there were some wonderful women who came in and out of my life leaving an indelible mark on my consciousness. Diane, Claudia, Joyce, Sheila, Marti, Snow White from Canada, Tina from Denmark, Lorrie, Pat, Susan, and a few others, unnamed but not forgotten.

Now new and exciting women have entered my life for the first time in a long time. Over the past several years, I’ve developed intimate relationships with a number of them. They’ve clawed at my consciousness with their beauty, brains, tenacity, boldness and vulnerability. To me, they’re as real as any woman I’ve ever known.

One of the biggest challenges for any writer is creating the characters that inhabit their world of fiction. It’s often the culmination of trying to reimagine those elusive memories of people, places and events that made a significant impression on them. For me, it’s the art of encapsulating enough of a memory bubble to help recreate an avatar out of my past.

Yet there is always one major obstacle in creating such an avatar. The challenge of separating the reality of who I thought those people were from the reality of who really were. It’s like playing checkers inside my head, jumping from real to fictional, trading imagination for reality. The length of years passed only adds to the challenge of searching through the fog of time to gleam their true identity.

But since mindset often colors personal experience, my recollections about that person tend to be less than completely accurate. Usually they’re reactions or prejudices based on limited knowledge or smeared into distortion by the passage of time and age and past conditioning.

Like most writers, I don’t know how to divorce my past lives, relationships, experiences, prejudices, life-altering incidents, failures and successes from my story telling. That certainly is true when it comes to creating female characters for my stories.

The female protagonist, with all of her inherent complexities, is always harder to create than her male counterpart. Who am I really thinking of when I create a female character? My avatars aren’t always women I have known. They could be a movie character or stage persona that struck me with their unique characteristics, real or fictional.

At times, it might be a compilation of several people that I’ve known or met in my past life even if I can’t identify with whom and or when or what exactly happened back then. But something did happen that scratched a memory scar on my brain that only now, through the creative process, is being uncovered as its multiple layers are peeled away.

It could be someone I never really knew that well but nevertheless left a strong impression on me. Like the dark-haired woman sipping her demitasse in Montmartre, Paris. She looked right through me with distain and disregard. Maybe it was that Canadian girl (I labeled Snow White in her tight turtleneck sweater) whom I meet in a hostel in Belgium.

It could have been Maria from Denmark yearning for her Spanish homeland or the amorous Danish student who wanted to take me away for the weekend. It could have been Tina and our late night cerebral rendezvous in some nameless village in Denmark. A few years ago, it could have been that homeless old woman I met at Starbucks on Times Square.

Photo Credit: Jerry Hoffman

I’ve met a lot of people through a lifetime of living and they’ve all left multiple impressions on my mind even if it wasn’t readily apparent at the time. Yet by wandering those dark dusty pass-ages of my memory alleys and byways, their personality traits/quirks/ flaws or subtle enounces often come to surface once again.

If, in fact, my avatar is someone I used to know then I have to gleam the most memorable incidents that defined that person. Yet that process is never cut and dry. It took me six chapters before I figured out who Katherine really was in my novel “Follow the Cobbler.”  I was a bit shocked at first but then it really made perfect sense that this woman would bubble up to the surface and burst forth on my written pages.

Granted, I realize that this ‘girl of my dreams’ is an enigma. She’s an illusion of times past; a collision of cathartic illusions with fiction writing that propels me through a field of psycho-somatic emotions. It is this strange phenomenon of falling in love all over again that whenever I create a new story and become enmeshed in the lives of the fictional characters who inhabit it. In my reality, these women determine what they say and do, I’m only channeling them.

The genres stretch across the literary landscape. Charlotte and Claire in my western novels. Colleen in my ‘coming of age’ storyline. Feisty Miranda in Palm Springs and Katherine (with a K) in my epic journey around the world.

Then there is Laci, skirting danger with my protagonist, in Big Sur.

It doesn’t happen in just the novels I’ve written. You can also add Sage, Medbh, Brook, Agnes and a plethora of other interesting women in my plays, screenplays and novellas. Together we have surfed the icy waters off Lake Superior, traveled across country on a bicycle, attended a class reunion and had a love affair for the ages.

It’s a new love affair every time I sit down to write. It’s hot and passionate and all-consuming. That is until we come to the conclusion of our story and it has to end. Then I’m left with an empty feeling that something wonderful just happened but now must fade away. Like life itself, the world keeps turning and we must both face a new reality; me as a finished storyteller and her as a lost love. But, as the clichés go, we both have our memories of a love since past. Something we can share together.

Just don’t tell Sharon. She’s not really the sharing kind.