In The Waste Land Between a Day Job and Dream Job

Wasteland

I work in the wasteland. Not T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land but a literal wasteland: My office is sandwiched between a dump transfer site and a wastewater treatment plant. So, yeah, I’m a writer, whose work manifests somewhere between garbage and shit.

And that’s just the day job — where I’ve been writing about school and prison design, which have more overlap than can be contained in a single joke, so I won’t even try.

Then there’s what I’ll call the Life of Brian-situation, you know, like the Monty Python bit with the warring “Judean People’s Front” and the “People’s Front of Judea.” I’m down the street from the Marin Sanitary Service and the Central Marin Sanitation Agency. Two different entities — and one poor little mail carrier. Someday, someone is gonna complain one too many times about getting the wrong shit mail and the carrier is totally going to go postal, to invoke the term of art.

Now, if this went down in a school or a prison, you could take cover behind a bufflehead, which is architectural parlance for a short, protective wall. It’s also a species of duck — and there’s some architectural wit in action — “bufflehead,” a duck, as in “duck and cover.”

Cheap humor, right? Nah. I just made that up. Or did I? Come back after going down that Wikipedia wormhole and we’ll compare notes.

So, just across the freeway from my wasteland is Kerner Blvd., which is meaningless unless you’re a nth-level Star Wars fan. Then you would know that it’s the thoroughfare where George Lucas moved his Industrial Light & Magic special effects studio — you know, where they pioneered the effects for the latter movies of the original trilogy.

The former, discrete location of ILM on Kerner Blvd. in San Rafael, CA (from The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back by J.W. Rinzler. The former, discrete location of ILM on Kerner Blvd. in San Rafael, CA (from The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back by J.W. Rinzler.

And it’s thinking about that crappy old office park, not unlike the one I do my day job in, that keeps the dream alive for me. Actually, the Kerner Blvd. location isn’t that crappy anymore, it’s been reborn as 32Ten Studios, whose new owner is a Lumavillain like me. And there it is, the hope of Hollywood North just across the eternal traffic of the 580. I think about crossing it everyday, like some existential, mental game of Frogger. Not that I want to work on Kerner but I dig what it represents — all the magic and mayhem of making movies.

But here’s my salvation, in three weeks, we begin production on Pill Head, my first feature film as a writer-director.

And you may ask yourself, well, “How did I get here?”

Nine months ago, I was out of a job, fricasseed by my own wee media market, and generally peeking down the double barrel of “destiny, interrupted.” I was at the lowest point I’d ever been, which is saying something since I was a teenage telemarketer. I was lower than Dante’s Inferno, I was Dante’s Intern, I was his mid-40s intern, filing broken dreams and lost self esteem in Hell’s circular file.

After one of my bipolar bottom outs, my partner and collaborator Karen Hell asked me what I really wanted to do. What did I really want to do? What did I really wanna do? And what did that really mean? I took it at face value…

Well, what I really want to do is direct, I said.

“Let’s do it,” she said. Let’s do it — those are the three, second best words your partner can say to you.

And now we’re doing it.

From “Fade In” to “Fade Out,” this was an act of self-preservation as I wrote myself out of the hole, handhold by handhold, word by word.

Like a cathartic spin on the old proverb, “Physician heal thyself,” as creative people, we already know how to do this, but sometimes we need a friend to come up with a prescription. I gave myself a 95 page dose of Pill Head. (Incidentally, in the movie, Karen plays a pharmacist).
Now we’re making the movie — me, Karen, and our 24 trusty collaborators. And maybe you, if you get behind our Indiegogo campaign, which you can reach via PillHeadMovie.com.

We’re not asking for much, but if you too are somewhere between the garbage and the shit, if you’re playing psychic Frogger, or in need of an imaginary bufflehead to hide behind, or you’ve been demoted to Dante’s Intern and need a leg up to what you really want to do — you’re one of us, you’re our people, my people. Come on down, throw us a few bucks at PillHeadMovie.com, and join the fray.

Because even if you’re in The Waste Land, mixing memory and desire, stirs more than dull roots, and maybe, just maybe with us, you might remember what you really want to do…

It’s Never Too Late to Be What You Might Have Been

I remember when I was first on the periphery of what I guess we could call my screenwriting career and some Hollywood dickhead asked me “What’s your quote?” He meant “what’s your rate, your fee, your market value” — all of which was zero at the time. But what I thought he was after was more akin to “Play it again, Sam,” or “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a fuck” — you know, a movie quote. 

I mean that’s what people quote anyway — the movies.
Except, I have a new quote — and it’s not from the movies. 
In fact, I hate where I got it.

It was the worst. It was a meme — you know, with an image of a sunset, the words hovering there, in all caps, over the shimmering sea as if belched directly from God, like some Wayne White word painting.

It reads: “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.”

First off, fuck you, meme. 
And you too, God. 
And Wayne White — okay, you get a pass, but…
Fuck you to the person who didn’t credit the quote’s author, George Eliot (I looked it up). Which became its own wormhole, since everything I know about Eliot fits in two data points:

A) He was a she. Or, rather, she used a male nom de plume because women writers weren’t taken seriously in the 19th century.

B) She is not George Sand, who was also a 19th century writer and used her pseudonym for the same reasons. Also, names were just plain complicated for her, as she once wrote: “My name is not Marie-Aurore de Saxe, Marquise of Dudevant, as several of my biographers have asserted, but Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin.” And then she probably added, “Screw it, call me ‘George.’”

So, George Eliot writes “It’s never too late to be what you might have been” and a century and a half later, Rebecca Mead, in a New Yorker essay titled Middlemarch and Me tries to find the origin of the quotation, which she first read on a refrigerator magnet. Then Mead observes, “the sentence didn’t sound to me like anything George Eliot would say” and some literary sleuthing ensues. Spoiler alert — it’s made up. Probably by a refrigerator magnet scribe, who hopefully took her own advice and got out of the magnet business.
Which is good advice.

It’s not too late to be what you might have been.

What did you want to be? I wanted to be many things, too many things, surely. But the unified field theory always had art in the equation. I’m not entirely sure how that came to feel so far away until recently but I think it went like this: Art led to entertainment, which led to media, which will probably lead to memes if I’m not careful. I think I caught myself just in time, hence this public psychic striptease I’ve been conducting as I peel away a lifetime’s accumulated bullshit and become what I might have been.

And if you come across a Hollywood dickhead, tell him what happened to me, then tell him that the rights are tied up in with a refrigerator magnet. Then run far, far away and hide — maybe change your name to George? — and then become what you might have been. It’s not too late.

 

Keep the Aspidistra Dying: I’m an Artist Not a Creative Entrepreneur

When you’re a broke-ass-art-person, there’s about million podcasts and blogs and online courses encouraging you to create podcasts and blogs and online courses to help monetize your creative process by sharing it with other artists who, in turn, will create more podcasts and blogs and online courses. 
 
For me, this puts the “meta” in “metastasis” as this sort of thinking has been like a tumor in my creative career. So, Ima gonna take this here buck knife, put back that bottle of what-the-fuck-else-I’m-gonna-do, and cut the goddamn thing outta me.
 
As a career-long writer, I’ve been down this diverting wormhole more than a few times. Every time my industry was “disrupted” or I self-disrupted, I would start selling tours of the rag and bone shop of my expertise. I wrote ebooks, made podcasts, consulted. It worked, until it didn’t, and I’ve come to the personal conclusion that this kind of shit has derailed more than a few of us art peoploids.
 
Remember when we produced writing and art of substance instead of content? That’s what I’m talking about
 
I arrived at this crossroads last week after two incidents: First, I received eight emails from an artist hawking an online “creative entrepreneur” marketing class. After the second email — in an hour — I concluded that the spammer in question was a shitty a marketer and artist.

The second incident was of my own making: I pitched a couple of night classes to the local adult school because I figured I’d burnish my pseudo-professorial pose with some actual teaching. I focused on material that aligned with my own interests — something about Art House cinema, weird media, and then I threw in a ringer, the comparatively banal Podcasting for Non-Techies, a podcast class I’d taught before — a fine how-to that fits in a lunch hour but not a problem the Internet hasn’t already solved for you with thousands of different, cheaper tutorials. Guess which one the adult school booked? 
 
Listen, I’m happy to help, but if everyone wants to do what me and apparently everyone else is also doing, I better double down on the art to remain competitive, let alone sane.
 
I know this isn’t a popular opinion but if I was seeking popularity I’d be more famous by now and not ranting into the void of the Internet. But seeing as you’re here, and I’m here, I’ll presume we’re part of the same band of outsiders. We’re a Bande à part like the Godard film, or Tarantino’s production company, which spelled it A-P-A-R-T because, you know, the 90s. 
 
But what about the skill set we’ve developed? The bullshit corporate skills acquired in newsrooms and boardrooms (and probably men’s rooms)? What of these skills that weaponized my nascent talent until I became an overqualified but underwhelmed part of the very systems I once sought to destroy or at least avoid?
 
Like any Frankenstein monster, I suppose I’ll turn on my creators and destroy the systems that created me. I’ll be the art-guy equivalent of Liam Neeson: “I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a fucking nightmare for people like you…”
 
Of course, this a difficult position to monetize, to invoke the parlance. But I’m gonna strike that jargon from my vocabulary — so what if it’s the secret password to a meal ticket. Maybe I’ll just lose some goddamn weight. And most that, my friends, we’ll probably just be baggage — full of mixed metaphors.
 
I’m done shaming the starving artist, the romantics, the ones we tell that they just have to get their work out there and pray they get the right algorithmic alchemy going so the gates to the middle class open wide. Really, at this point, for me the only reason to keep the aspidistra flying is for target practice.
 
And you know who wrote Keep the Aspidistra Flying, right? Orwell! Will we ever listen to him? Maybe if he had a podcast and blog and online course, we’d pay attention but I dare say we can learn more — and teach more — through art.

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Transmedia, Worldbuilding and Weird German Words

Click to listen to this article as a podcast.

Remember when the entertainment industry was pushing the term “transmedia?” Yeah, neither do I but I do know what it means, because all I really need to know I  learned on Wikipedia. 

Transmedia storytelling “is the technique of telling a single story or story experience across multiple platforms and formats using current digital technologies.”

The entry was first created in 2015, back before the prefix “trans” took on the cultural heft of gender issues and the term “media” became a rapidly deflating political football. Plus, “transmedia” always sounded like one of those meaningless corporate constructions like “multichannel” or “accountability.”

So, how do we refer to the technique of telling a single story or story experience across multiple platforms? Richard Wagner used the term Gesamtkunstwerk but the scope of media at the time didn’t reach beyond 15 hours of the Ring Cycle. Besides, gesamtkunstwerk sounds like something to say after a sneeze.

I bring this up because I’ve been creating an immersive transmedia experience within a self-consistent fictional universe. Think Tolkien’s Middle Earth or that galaxy far, far away. Or the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or even the the Dublin of James Joyce’s Ulysses, or the intertextuality of Kurt Vonnegut’s Midwest and you get the idea.

In my case, the scope is narrowed to my own particular take on Petaluma, CA, where I grew up and, 20 years later, repatriated. I realize that sounds like the premise of a terrible TV show wherein the protagonist lives in the big city, gets knocked on his ass, and returns to small-town Americana and reconnects with old friends, lost loves, and forgotten dreams — and maybe even himself. That’s not my story.  The fictional Lumaville is a sort of psychic space laid over the topography of the places that have long haunted me. It operates as a kind of imagined parallel universe inhabited by a protagonist who is, likewise, a parallel version of its author. But with a far darker world view. 

I like to put it like this:

“I create autobiographical fictions that draw on my experiences as a small town reporter – but with more drinking, danger and death. They’re semantically-engineered to make you feel better than I do. And, let me tell you, I feel just fucking great.”

Conceptually, I consider the endeavor literary performance art and I’ll swear up and down that it’s a true story if asked. Because, depending on your brand of quantum physics, it is – somewhere. In a way, creating this fictional, alternate universe isn’t an act of fiction so much as reporting the history of another reality – one that I call the Lumaverse. 

This is the context in which I wrote my genre novel experiment Quantum Deadline as well as the screenplay for Pill Head, our upcoming feature film in which a pill-addicted young woman undergoes an experimental sleep treatment and awakes wayyy later to find she’s on the verge of a psychic breakthrough …or psychotic breakdown.

“But, Mr. Howell,” you ask, “Besides your obsession with prescription drugs and inability mature beyond the environs of your youth, why do this all this work in different media? Is it just massive ADD?”

Good question. This is how I got started:

Seven years ago, I attended an entertainment industry symposium helmed by Henry Jenkins, Provost’s professor of communication, journalism and cinematic arts, Annenberg School of Communication, USC.

Among other books, Jenkins is the author of Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, in which he describes transmedia storytelling simply as “the art of world-making.” You know, like God. Or George Lucas. Or me. 

Another panelist,  Louisa Stein, head of the TV and film critical studies program at San Diego State University, explained that mythologies are created that adhere to “bibles” which describe the law of fictional lands with an eye to creating an “aesthetic that is specific and archetypal simultaneously.” 

That’s the nut of the notion, right there – the specific but archetypal. Or, as video essayist Kirby Ferguson put it in his piece, Everything Is a Remix: The Force Awakens, “The familiar and the novel both appeal to us, think of them as two halves of a spectrum.” And the sweet spot is in the middle of that spectrum.

And so that’s where I’m aiming with my own private multiverse – a world we didn’t know we knew. Petaluma, with all the psychic burrs it has for me, is a paint-by-numbers American home town. But I’m using my own palette to paint. It’s like that old trope, we correct in art what we don’t get right in life. And sometimes, art is where we experiment with the wrong. And, yeah, I’m sure there’s a German word for that.

To learn more about Pill Head, visit pillhead.org and sign up.

That Time My Fear of Artistic Inauthenticity Met The Fear Doctor

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Before I walked the plank into indie authorship, I did time as a small town newspaperman. As my affiliations grew, so did the amount of press releases I received in my inbox. I still receive them, and one arrived today that served as an ironic reminder of an issue I’ve been facing — a pervading feeling of inauthenticity.

Maybe it’s a Gen X thing, or an artist thing, or a byproduct from all the Fake News we read. Maybe it was because Nirvana’s bassist played a Guild B30E Semi-Acoustic Bass for the Unplugged album, which technically is not totally unplugged.

So, imagine the deep soulful sigh I released when some flack from West LA beamed me a release for a premium, naturally-alkaline, spring water from some nordic country that hopes to inspire individuals to find their own “pure authenticity,” you know, by drinking imported water. 

Side note: When I lived in L.A., I visited the FAQs on the municipal water company’s website. The answer to the question “Is my water safe to drink?” was a shruggy “Probably.”

Fortunately, I was fortified against the pitch thanks to art. Not in the hippy-dippy “art will save your soul” kind of way but rather through an art installation at the stARTup Art Fair in San Francisco last Friday.

The fair took over the entire Hotel Del Sol and each guest room was converted by an artist into their own exhibit space. Situated in the courtyard by the pool was an artist named Hunter Franks, who was in a booth described the event’s organizers as a space to open up to a stranger and share a fear to receive a custom, typewritten philosophical prescription from a certified Fear Doctor. So, I sat down and told the Fear Doctor about my fear of inauthenticity. 

This is my prescription:

Instead of washing up writing press releases for water or drowning in printer’s ink, I’m gonna dog-paddle in those two tablespoons of “faith in the process” until I’m safely ashore. Meet me there?

About Hunter Franks, per his website: “creates art that intervenes in the social and physical landscape of our urban environments. His participatory installations in public space break down barriers and help us reimagine our relationships with each other, our neighborhoods, and our cities.” I heartily encourage a visit. — DH