Category Archives: Social Change

Empathic Cavities: Emily Best

emilyThe fact is, the more of the business interest you control, the more creative control you retain. Period. Full stop. — Emily Best

If you don’t already know Emily Best, I have good news for you. Not only is she my guest for the latest episode of Coffee with Creatives, she’s also probably out there, right now, traveling the country and engaging with creatives in-person and online and via her company Seed&Spark.

It’s what she does. As we discuss on the show, Emily is out there working to help create a new creative middle class. She and her colleagues at Seed&Spark have a mission and plenty of ideas, and they’re eager to talk with and help you.

These are only a few of the reasons why I place Emily among the most inspiring and respectable people I know. She’s a force. It was a delight sitting down to talk with her for an hour about the practical realities of crafting authentic art — and how to keep crafting it — in today’s ever-changing socio-economic environment.

Topics covered in our talk include:Crowdfunding class

  • How a college paper on a body modification web site, years spent running restaurants, and more years spent observing c-level executives do their thing — combined to form the foundation of what would become Seed&Spark
  • The challenges of achieving a return on investment (ROI) in today’s film environment, and how they can be overcome in service of a sustainable creative career
  • The fallacies inherent to waiting to be picked
  • How audiences really get built (digging into Louis CK as an example to duplicate)
  • Separating the definition of a fulfilled creative life from dreams of fame and fortune
  • Sitting down with yourself and/or your collaborators to honestly answer the question of what you really want
  • How new technologies can enable storytellers to root out and combat systemic inequalities
  • The dangers of being too precious about your work (process can be product)

I also asked Emily to name one thing that any creative could do in an hour to advance their career. She gave an excellent answer. If you enjoy our talk, please share it on Twitter (I am @MichaelDiBiasio and Emily is @EmilyBest) or on Facebook.

As reminders, you can also subscribe to Coffee with Creatives on iTunes and support the podcast on Patreon.

Through The Fear: Novelist Amy Koppelman

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Amy Koppelman started writing before she had any idea that she would one day become a novelist. Three books and one film adaptation later, she now has plenty to share with Coffee with Creatives listeners, especially about:

  • The cathartic, early-stage creative exploits that often later lead to our larger creative pursuits
  • Waiting for the tools needed to authentically address what we’re compelled to address
  • Learning to parse comments and criticism
  • The importance of learning — and then breaking — the rules
  • The difficulty of letting go after a thing is done
  • How and why darkness doesn’t necessarily suggest hopelessness
  • Humanizing mental illness
  • The importance of perseverance

AMyKoppelman[1]It was great to meet Amy, and to talk shop about fiction and the challenges of being a novelist. Her unflinching portrayals of characters struggling with depression, trauma, and other tough subjects — they can serve as a good reminder of how hard things can get for people who we might know and love but not always fully understand. Her discussion of the hopefulness that can often come out of that process, as well, is particularly moving.

Hesitation Wounds comes out in hardcover on November 3rd. For more information on her other books, and/or the film adaptation of her novel I Smile Back, check out her site. You can also follow Amy on Twitter.

This episode is also on iTunes.

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Coffee with Creatives: This is Who I Am

To learn more about Dior's work,  check out her site.

This bonus episode of Coffee with Creatives is with Dior Vargas, a mental health activist who I met on Twitter after stumbling upon the Kickstarter campaign for her People of Color and Mental Illness Photo Project.

As supporters of The Videoblogs already know, mental health is an important topic to me and to Rebecca. We reached out to Dior to offer some help with her project, and at the same time I asked her to come on the show.

The result was an inspiring (but realistic) talk on mental health in America, nationally, but also specifically in regards to communities that continue to be underrepresented in the media in regards to this topic.

Other aspects of the discussion include:

  • The universality of daily struggle
  • How to get help, if you’re suffering
  • Finding some measure of peace, by sourcing out how you can contribute to the world in a way that is also fulfilling to you
  • The importance of empathy in the fight for progress of all sorts
  • How people who aren’t suffering from mental illness can still help contribute to de-stigmatization and/or help their loved ones cope and thrive

Please note that we do also talk about suicide during this episode.

Thanks for listening. If you support Dior’s mission, I would encourage you to join Rebecca and me in supporting her campaign. If and when it’s over, you can also follow her on Twitter, or connect with her on Facebook, to keep up on how you might help in the future.

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Coffee with Creatives: Be Who You Are

Comedian/Actor/Singer Rick Younger brings the funny (and some fake opera) to Coffee with Creatives.

Comedian/Actor/Singer Rick Younger brings the funny (and some fake opera) to Coffee with Creatives.

As he explains in this latest episode of Coffee With Creatives, Rick Younger identifies first and foremost as a Comedian.

But you may have also seen him in commercials, on The Today Show (as a panelist on Guys Tell All), or on stage in New York City — acting, telling stories, or singing.

Among other topics, Rick and I talked:

  • The importance of finding your own path and voice as a creative
  • The phone call from Tracy Morgan than helped Rick gain new insights into his writing and his act
  • How he and his wife have begun to share their experiences, as an interracial couple, to foster more dialogue (through art) about race
  • The awesomeness of working on a film set with the likes of Harrison Ford and Diane Keaton

I wanted to get this episode out a little earlier than planned, so that listeners in and around the NYC area, who dig what Rick has to say, have time to check out his upcoming show (aptly named The Rick Younger Show) on Friday, July 10th. I plan on being there, so join me and we’ll laugh at Rick and then later we can high-five.

Thanks to everyone who has been listening to the podcast so far. It’s been a fun and rewarding new enterprise. As a reminder, if you’re enjoying the show and want to show your support, you can become a monthly supporter on Patreon, can make a one-time donation via PayPal, or — and this is the best way — you can share a link to this page (or to your episode(s) of choice) via iTunes.

Until next time, Coffee Heads.

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Just Make Films: Coffee with Creatives “Bonus” Episode

diane3

I scare the quotes around “bonus” (did it again!) because my talk with Sundance award-winning filmmaker Diane Bell has already been released in text form.

I decided to re-release it as an extra podcast episode in case anyone missed it the first time around, wants to revisit some of Diane’s great advice, and/or feels like hearing my side of the conversation.

As I said when I published the text interview — I think Diane is great. If you haven’t yet listened to what she has to say, particularly about focusing on process (as opposed to results) and about not waiting around for permission or (certain forms of) outside validation to make films (or any art) — I would recommend you do so.

Thanks to everyone listening! If you’re getting something out of the interviews, please consider contributing to my Patreon campaign for the podcast.

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What I Liked This Week: Gratitude Edition

It took me a few years to realize that the climb can be as good as the view.

It took me a few years to realize that the climb has as much value as the view.

Hello Handsome People.

I’m sitting here trying to think of my list for the week and I’m having trouble because life has been hectic. But I know well enough by now (most of the time), to not fall into The Busyness Trap — and that, further, I can choose to look at the situation in a different way.

Which is why today’s WILTW this week is about gratitude.

Something Collin Schiffli said during our interview has stuck with me. When I asked him what he was most proud of in his life, he answered by reflecting upon the fact that — despite circumstances not yet being “perfect” — he is doing what he loves.

And so am I, really. I feel the same way.

Plain Old Regular Adulthood

That which I feared in my twenties has come to pass.

Most days, I get up, go to work, come home and eat and go to bed and then I do it again. My younger self failed to realize that this is — it’s just life. And while I don’t mean to oversimplify, and could say a lot more about this, the fact remains that this pattern…is mostly it.

This is why I believe what we do (and who we spend our time with) is almost as important as who we are. It’s also why I believe in fighting for better conditions, for more people, to be able to pursue the sort of contentedness that I’ve been able to build in recent years — it’s an alleged “right” in this country that’s been tied down and ensnared by innumerable qualifiers that mostly stem from class, privilege, race, and gender.

So, first, I feel fortunate to be able to say that I agree with Collin. When I get up and go to work, it’s not simple. I have many jobs, most of which I have given myself. But when I do get around to sleeping, it’s a lot easier than it used to be, when I wasn’t doing at least the best I could to keep creating and to make the art-life balance work for me.

The other part of plain old regular adulthood that I like is that I’m sharing it with someone who loves me. And an old lady cat and a young lady dog who the pair of us both love, too. And there are plenty of other wonderful people in my life, from days old and new.

Not everyone has that, though we all deserve it.

Sometimes, lately, I just stop in the middle of my apartment and I think of where I’ve been and where I am now and I allow myself to feel happy. It’s still a fairly new experience but I like it.

Coffee with Creatives

I held at least six separate positions during production of The Videoblogs. Why? Because it had to be done to keep things moving.

What came first, the caffeine or the creativity?

The interviews have been more fun than I expected. And more fulfilling. It’s really great to sit down with people, some of whom I know and some who I don’t, and have an hour-long conversation about — basically what I just wrote above — balancing life with purpose.

Coffee with Creatives will morph into a podcast soon. It’s already costing a bit of money, and I want to do it right, so I probably will have to build some fundraising into the endeavor to keep it viable. We’ll figure out a way.

Feedback on Coffee with Creatives has been very positive so far. Thanks to everyone reading and sharing the interviews. I hope this is just the beginning.

I’m very grateful to my guests as well. They’ve all been great.

The Generosity of Others

I was approaching a street corner in Manhattan the other day, when I passed a homeless woman who was asking for help with getting some food. I didn’t have any, couldn’t give her cash, and wouldn’t have an opportunity to grab something for her on my way back from the errand I was on — which I would otherwise have tried to do.

Privately, I wished that someone else would help her soon. It was a sincere hope, not a means of assuaging guilt.

Then a second, work-casually dressed woman approached the corner, and offered a single-serve box of Cheerios to the homeless woman, who eagerly accepted it, expressed her thanks, opened the package and started eating.

A few days later, a similar scene transpired.

I was running to the pharmacy. As I approached the entrance, I saw three people sitting on the street, against the building, asking for help. I was just making a mental note, to pick up some food to offer them while inside, when I saw a young boy approach each, one by one, with a proffered brown bag lunch. All three graciously accepted.

When he was out of bags, he returned to a small group of women, who must have been supervising the effort, and they gave him more bags and he quickly found a few additional people who needed and accepted the food — people I hadn’t even noticed among the heavy pedestrian traffic of the area.

Do these sort of actions solve the world’s problems? Of course not. Are they humane, and immediately recognizable as kind, good things to do? Yes.

It honestly felt great, to see that, when it wasn’t immediately easy for me to help, that I could still hope for help to be given, and witness that hope quickly fulfilled.

I suspect, as well, that these sort of stories are playing out, in plain sight, all around us, in New York City and beyond, and that maybe we’d notice them more often if we let go at least temporarily of the drama and dread fed to us by the culture via the mainstream media.

I’m finding, more and more as I continue to age, that it can be that simple. And, a lot of the time, it can be enough.

Have a good week.

Why Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking is Essential Reading

I highly recommend this book, especially if you're an artist. Read on to find out why.

Highly recommend this book, especially if you’re an artist. Read on to find out why.

 

I am stingy with the word essential.

It and so many similarly strong words, especially in American popular culture today, are wildly overused, and too often leveraged outside the narrow subjectivity with which (in my opinion) they could otherwise more appropriately be applied. I’d call all this an epic bummer, but in honesty it’s an easy thing to shrug off.

Still, I bring up the point to help introduce my recommendation of musician Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking…because rarely have I felt so compelled to “drop the e-word”, with confidence, outside the realm of eating, drinking, sleeping, and luvvvvv-making.

Obviously, not everyone is going to agree with my choice. But, speaking primarily to the aforementioned audience(s) of art-makers and art-lovers, here are my personal reasons for advocating for the book — and Palmer herself, since she’s an interesting personality on her own and identifies first and foremost as a singer (I have been also listening been listening to her music for weeks, which I similarly recommend).

The Art of Asking provides an unparalleled level of context for the contemporary relationship between art and people (or art and life)

liam_sscamp

We raised enough money to shoot The Videoblogs by asking our audience for help. Photo credit: Liam Billingham.

Early in the text, Palmer remarks upon how what we’re witnessing right now, in terms of the relationship between art and artist (especially in tech-equipped indie circles) is in actuality a return to The Way it Used to Be. Artists create, put their work (and themselves) out there, and the audience returns the favor by giving some part of their own selves (be it in the form of money, time, etc.), simply and directly — if and as there’s an authentic connection made in the process.

That’s how it used to go early on, and for a long time, in human history. Various forms of progress and change shifted that relationship, such that several intermediary systems rose to prominence, which weren’t (and aren’t) necessarily bad but, nonetheless, today, can cause complications, introduce impurities, and/or create distance in the otherwise mostly direct artist-audience relationship. Today, now that individuals on the whole are much more broadly and immediately connected than ever before, and now that new (relatively) cheap funding, distribution, and communications systems exist than ever before, it’s not only once again possible for the artist and the audience to remain in a more direct, on-going relationship — it’s also easier to cultivate and keep up that relationship than ever before.

That doesn’t mean that, on the part of both artist and audience, that we aren’t still (on the negative side) facing challenges posed by the still-dominant machinations and gate-keeping fears of the aforementioned intermediaries, or (on the positive side), that there aren’t mutual advantages to those sort of relationships (and plenty of good people working, in various capacities, for intermediaries) — it just means that everyone today can perhaps be kept more honest and more focused on what’s important.

I’m paraphrasing Palmer there, possibly with a little bit of my own beliefs and observations sprinkled in, but the important point is to recognize and accept that, with the right attitude and a lot of work and patience, things can be better — for independent artists and their audiences in particular.

Within this context, Palmer embodies (literally) and carefully guards Authenticity and Trust as the most crucial elements of the artist-audience relationship

This is generally how I feel about everyone who watches our films.

This is generally how I feel about everyone who watches our films. Photo credit: Alexia Adana.

The Art of Asking is mostly written in the style of a memoir. Longer-tenured admirers of Palmer than me probably already know that she doesn’t shy away from getting (literally) naked in front of her fans (given certain conditions that she takes careful pains to point out in the book, while also providing context for such decisions). Such occasions don’t always go well, her courage in this aspect does not come without its share of suffering, and in the text she frequently (and with typical transparency) gives voice to the doubts such “bad” stories spark in her mind.

Still, Palmer does a much better job than I ever could ultimately deconstructing not only why such “setbacks” (I’ll let the book itself substantiate my repeated use of scare quotes) are necessary (and illuminating). She provides much evidence for — and a lot of useful commentary on — the observable truth that, after opportunity, the next thing we all need for this sort of arrangement to work, in the best possible way, is an unyielding commitment to trust not only in the work but each other.

Palmer never claims that things will always go perfectly, even in filling in useful back-story to her successes. But she does do an excellent job consistently reporting on the dialogues she has had both with herself and trusted friends in sourcing out the right thing to do, as often as possible, as she stumbled through especially her early career on the way to a better and more comprehensive understanding and respect for how this all ideally might work on a regular basis. The stories she tells in relaying this process are not only intellectually accessible, but emotionally so as well — which sets Palmer apart especially in today’s unfortunately less-emotionally forthcoming social landscape.

Palmer’s narrative provides an accessible road-map for success

Multiverse Screening and Videoblog kickoff

Hint: It’s about People. Photo credit: Alexia Adana.

Riding off that last point, it can be tempting in this environment (I’ve been tempted myself) to take an honest goal like that of Palmer’s book (which to me seemed to be: “teach and attest to the benefits of trust, kindness, and vulnerability”) and warp it into something more broad and self-serving.

Especially in what sometimes seems to be rounding out into The Age of Tech, advice of the “road-map” sort, nudged towards gathering greater numbers (versus forming real connections), seems to proliferate further every day.

That’s not to say that all the lists and guides out there aren’t without value, or that they’re all guilty of crossing some arbitrary Authenticity Line, or should be faulted for failing to see that most of what provides value to people begins by engaging with them on an honest, emotional level. It just means that, for instance, when Palmer maps out her path as herself, in context, while constantly guarding and respecting The Point — it becomes that much easier for a similarly minded, or near-similarly minded (I’ll probably never get physically naked for you) individual or small group to internalize her journey and absorb her lessons in a much more useful way.

This road-map is revealed to be (and simultaneously evidenced by) the aforementioned Authenticity and Trust

This is indie musician Mike O'Malley -- in real life. After seeing this set, we asked him to appear in The Videoblogs.

This is indie musician Mike O’Malley — in real life. After seeing this set, we asked him to appear in The Videoblogs.

Obviously, I admire Palmer’s approach with the book, and her execution, as much as the content. I bring the sort of cyclical nature of her testimony up as a separate point because of how accurately it mirrors how important both authenticity and trust are to the artistic lifestyle (or to living a fulfilled life in general).

It took me so long to build up the courage to begin sharing more and more of my actual self in my work. As documented here, it’s also been frequently terrifying, sharing more and more of that work, more widely.

I’m eternally grateful for my audience. I hope you know that. I hope you also know how essential you have been (continue to be) to my work and my own growth. We’re in this together. I’ll keep trying to keep it honest.

For anyone still struggling to build up the courage to start down a similar path, or who could use a boost (I needed one) — read The Art of Asking.

Palmer makes it clear that indie success takes not only talent but (a fuck-ton of) hard work

I held at least six separate positions during production of The Videoblogs. Why? Because it had to be done to keep things moving.

I held about six positions on the crew of The Videoblogs. Why? Had to be done in order to keep things moving.

While this definitely isn’t a criticism, Palmer often speeds quickly through commentary about how much work things took, at many different stages in her career. She seems to take it as a given — which really isn’t a bad thing, for the most part, especially since she clearly also “plays hard”.

Most of the useful stuff delivered by the book in this regard arrives while Palmer is monologuing or dialoguing with friends, not in a direct way but more often reflectively, in the wake, for instance, of first sharing an anecdote centered around a particular challenge, or a normally-occurring instance of doubt.

Again, possibly, this is because she’s just that used to the amount of work it takes to succeed in the way she has. Reflection may also be a healthier approach than the more typical American, “process and power-driven” work approach (I can tell you from experience that adopting this approach as an underfunded indie will burn you out). Her attitude appears gentler, more patient, and more directly caring or forgiving of how hard it can be than someone like me, who might allow lingering faulty programming to relay a similar lesson via more a blunt admonition like “you better be ready to work”.

That caution is in fact true, but because Palmer is so forthcoming and thorough in her testimony, she doesn’t have to address the reader so directly in these terms. As I said, she does detail her struggles, and it does become very clear how hard she works — in the book this all just happens in the process of her telling her story.

Especially to today’s entitlement-prone younger generations, her approach provides not only a valuable lesson but a valuable method of delivering that lesson.

The book does not shy away from pain, even in mostly relaying stories of wonder

This is actually just the result of cooking some beets. But it could be BLUD!

This is actually just a result of cutting some beets. BUT IT COULD BE BLUD!

I hinted at this above, but it’s worth mentioning more specifically.

One of my favorite recurring patterns in the book is Palmer’s willingness to share the bad with the good. She utilizes the space provided by her narrative, in addition to whatever she did in the moment (usually talking to a friend), to find a way to come to terms with why pain is part of the artistic process, just as it is part of the process of living.

Again speaking personally, I’d add that this is a hard lesson to learn, and one that arguably never stops asserting itself. Still, I have found in recent years that doing exactly what Palmer does — talking and sharing and avoiding isolation or self-pity as often as possible — works wonders.

I believe it’s particularly important that we exhibit patience throughout each instance/cycle of this process as well.

The pain of others screams at us, every day, from the headlines, in real life, and even on our social media feeds. As artists (and as people), it can be hard to remember that our job isn’t only to absorb and soothe such pain. Neither does it help anyone to focus solely on ourselves, in this respect.

The healing comes from the sharing, and the connection.

The central narrative isn’t just the titular subject, or Palmer herself, but the vulnerability and love that must be shown in order for art, and art-relationships, to work in today’s socioeconomic environment

Laughter without voices.

At the time we made Multiverse, I was struggling to see people — and to feel seen.

Long-time readers of this site are probably used to me harping on the following point — but I’m going to keep repeating it for as long as I feel it still needs to be made.

More than any other crisis we’re facing, here and now in America, the gap or decline in empathy — between any of a number of (sometimes arbitrarily) defined groups, and within and across the individuals that make up those groups — seems to me to be hurting us the most.

Empathy is the basis from which all progress begins. Even when it seems incomplete, even when finding it seems to take forever, any progress on this front, at any level — is good for everyone.

No matter what sort of progress or social change an artist or an individual is compelled to chase, empathy will always be the most powerful vehicle we can “employ”. It is that authenticity, that trust, that connection — all wrapped up into one mysterious-but-essential universal concept.

I use the scare quotes around the word ’employ’ there, because (especially now that I’ve absorbed Palmer’s book), I believe it’s more helpful to think of ourselves as vessels, in this respect, than as an agent.

Conclusion: How The Art of Asking has Affected Me

Things get intense during Margaret (Rebecca De Ornelas) and Vee's (Phoebe Allegra) first meeting.

The Videoblogs is about leaving isolation behind, opening up — and trying to connect.

I’ve written quite a bit, so I’ll wrap up, but in support of that last point I wanted to end with some personal testimony on how The Art of Asking has affected me on a personal level.

First, as I mentioned, it has strengthened and renewed my gratitude towards anyone who has supported one or more of my projects, who has ever visited this site, who has even taken a moment to click through to anything I’ve done and given it a quick glance. As I have said before, I simply would not be here, making art and chugging forward, without all of you.

I also emerged from my read of Palmer’s book with a greater sense of clarity, in regards not only to the worthiness of the path I am on, but also the necessity to continue to be transparent and supportive of the artistic and personal communities to which I belong.

And, finally, I have been acting with more kindness, just in general, as I have gone about my day-to-day life.

I don’t feel more kind, as a result of reading The Art of Asking. I’ve always been a fairly kind person. But reading the book — particularly at this stage in my life, wherein I’ve been putting so much effort into both “cleaning house” and being me — has helped me slow down and act upon feelings of compassion, much more often than I have otherwise done in recent years, without hesitation or judgement.

There have been plenty of available reasons, for me, in the past, to remain guarded, to follow the lead of any of a number of fears, and/or to keep barreling forward in pursuit of The Mission.

It can become especially easy (sometimes, unfortunately, even necessary) to do this while living and working in New York City. There’s just too much going on, everywhere, constantly, to remain vulnerable for too long of a stretch, or in certain environments wherein to do so at all would be potentially too damaging to the self. There are times when you simply need to establish and respecting healthy boundaries to protect your health and general happiness.

But, still, lately, I’ve been realizing (and, to be truthful, finally listening to the pleas of others in this regard) that it’s time to slow down again. The Mission isn’t a career level, or an accomplishment, or even the realization of a specific project. It’s not even the work itself, or the drive to keep doing it and sharing the result.

The Mission is serving others. It’s chasing that empathy, by showing — and showing faith in — the kindnesses we mostly all feel, but might for so many, often understandable reasons, hesitate to show.

So, I’ve been doing what I can. I’m trying to support other artists, more often. I’m trying to keep up on taking care of myself, more consistently, so that it’s easier to approach others without agenda. I’m making eye contact with strangers and asking how they are, and I think they can tell that I actually care about their response.

Mostly, I’m doing little things that take a minimal amount of effort even if they cost me a bit more in terms of vulnerability and trust. I’m realizing, as Palmer’s book and life story definitely sets out to prove, that The Art of Asking is just as much about giving — and meaning it, and being unafraid to keep on meaning it — than anything else.

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