Tag Archives: meditation

Coffee with Creatives: Filmmaker Diane Bell

Inaugural Coffee with Creatives interviewee Diane Bell, on the set of her film Bleeding Heart, with Jessica Biel.

Inaugural Coffee with Creatives interviewee Diane Bell speaks with Jessica Biel, while on set for her film Bleeding Heart.

NOTE: Below is the original text version of my interview with Diane. After our talk, I decided to turn Coffee with Creatives into a podcast. You can now listen to our talk here.

Welcome to the first post of a new, recurring feature here on mdibiasio.com!
To skip straight to my interview with filmmaker Diane Bell, click here.

The idea for Coffee with Creatives came to me while thinking about how to solve two problems. As I mentioned in the introduction to my previous post (the first of another “new” recurring feature), the two main goals I have come to adopt with my work here, and in general, is to push for a greater sense of interpersonal empathy and, related to that, to be a better member of the various communities of which I am part.

In addition to providing testimony about the origins and processes behind my own work, I want to more often use this space to discuss the work of others, not only in terms recommending the work itself but as a way to identify practices, resources, and workflows that might be useful to readers. Over the course of the last few years especially, I’ve met (and have formed friendships with) a lot of interesting, similarly-minded people. It’s a far cry from the pre-Multiverse days, and I’d like to keep it up.

Lately, though, with all the pressures I’ve put on myself, to finish The Videoblogs, and to keep moving in general, despite the ongoing challenges of the artistic lifestyle — it’s become difficult to get out and actually meet people (especially online friends from Twitter), even after forming general plans to do so. This, in turn, has also made it harder to commit to doing my part to build community, and to share information here, in the sort of ongoing and more useful ways that to me would be a good complement to the semi-regular essays I otherwise post in this space.

So, Coffee with Creatives is my attempt to find a way to set aside some time to hang out with some cool people, in real life (as often as possible, some virtual coffee-drinking will go on), as well as to take the opportunity during that meeting to ask questions about their lives as creatives, such that you and I can learn some things, and, perhaps, feel less alone as we struggle to create.

And, as I have said so many times before, I believe all of us are fundamentally creative.

From now on, twice per month, I will have coffee with a creative person (filmmakers, writers, musicians, visual artists, organizational professionals friendly to the arts) and interview them based on the same general list of questions as those asked below. Probably, as was the case during this first conversation, other questions will also come up, as my guest and I begin digging into details. For the beginning, especially, I will probably keep things fluid in an effort to find out what format works.

Today’s inaugural post is with Writer/Director Diane Bell, who I met on Twitter during a Seed&Spark #FilmCurious chat. We quickly became online friends, and then met briefly in person when I caught her sophomore feature, Bleeding Heart, at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Diane’s first feature film (and first film, ever!), Obselidia, premiered at Sundance in 2010, where it won two awards. She’s also currently crowdfunding her third film (on Seed&Spark), and her campaign ends TODAY (May 8th). Check it out when you’re done reading, and pitch in or share the campaign if you feel so inclined.

One last quick note…

After recording my talk with Diane, it occurred to me that Coffee with Creatives may be better suited to the podcast format. Some nice back-and-forth went on at points, that I’ve mostly omitted here, because I was pressed a bit for time in getting this out, and also, for now, I think it’s more important to hear what she has to say only, without me interrupting with information about my work that you may already know or can otherwise find here later. I’ll need some additional time to source the podcast idea out, and to see if and how I could make it happen.

But I hope you enjoy the interview. It was a fun talk. Check out what Diane has to say below, and please feel free to ask a question or add your point of view in the comments.

What’s your primary mode of creative output?

 I still think of myself primarily as a writer. Specifically, a screenwriter. I also direct films.

 What are you currently working on?

The film I’m working on right now is called Of Dust and Bones and I wrote it and am intending to direct it this summer. It came to me really as a reaction to how I was feeling last year. I don’t know about you but I was feeling very depressed about the world. I go through phases. I think the world is getting less violent, overall, compared to the last century, to look on the bright side. But suddenly last year I just felt really like, “This is too much”.

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Diane at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival

The world was so cruel and so sick and it didn’t seem to be getting better. And in the midst of that I was also having a sort of struggle finishing my second film, Bleeding Heart, which recently premiered at Tribeca. I was really having a tough time and I was really questioning everything.

And out of that came this movie, Of Dust and Bones, which is addressing these questions, like: How do we live in a world that has this terrible problem? (Note: The main character of Diane’s film is a woman whose war-photographer husband died in Syria).  And that was the question that was driving me that I felt I had to write something about. For me, I’m definitely somebody who, the things that I write, they always come from that in a sense, like some sort of problem I see in the world that I can’t really process in my own life so I try to process it through a story. So, if all goes to plan, we’ll be shooting Of Dust and Bones in July.

What do you get the most joy out of, and/or what would others say you’re best at, not including the above? Creative or otherwise.

In life in general, I get the most joy out of being present. That is why I write and why I direct. Those things bring me joy because they allow me to access that zone of presence.

I’ve been a longtime practitioner of Ashtanga yoga, for fifteen years now, and that gives me huge joy, as does my meditation practice. And my child. Being a mother. Looking after my little guy, who has given me the greatest joy ever. Because it’s just presence. Children are just little zen masters who wake you up to what’s important in life and what really isn’t, and there’s no doubt that that’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.

How do you balance a commitment to presence with the reality of how hard it is to produce a film? Do you work hard to keep that goal of remaining present trickling down throughout the production?

For me, yoga definitely informs my approach to filmmaking, in terms of how the focus is on the process as opposed to the result. And during the throes of it, I’m really calm. Someone will visit me on set and say: “Wow, you’re the least stressed”. I guess I have a real clarity when I’m in that situation. I think it comes from yoga because I totally let go of the result.

Because I think, whenever we start thinking of results — that’s when we get stressed out. To me, the result, you don’t control it. You’re never in control of how it’s going to turn out. You’re not in control of how it’s going to be perceived by other people. A film can be brilliant — frequently, brilliant films come out and nobody watches them. It’s a terrible business. Twenty years later everyone acknowledges it’s a brilliant film. There’s no control over any of it.

And I think for me, the relief from that is just not being stressed, just to be focused on the process and what you’re doing. One thing at a time, in a sense.

In my last film, there were definitely challenges with some of the people I was working with. They had some very different ways of working than I did. I’m talking specifically about producers. And it was really hard. And it did push me. What it pushed me to, ultimately, was to really think hard about my process, and how I worked best, how I want to work. I said to myself, okay, this was a mistake, we have different ways of working, maybe we shouldn’t be working together. And I think when you realize that, you ask: What do I value?

For me, that clarified my own path. So I’m making a much smaller film this time because I know what’s important to me and what I want to do. I realize that some things aren’t important. How do I tell stories that I really care about? How do I get to work with people who are in a similar frame of mind, where we can push ourselves creatively to take risks — rather than minimize them, which is the typical thing in our industry.

I think that kind of distress — this is the joy of something like meditation. It can give you that little bit of distance from distress, so that you can assess it in a different way and learn. Certain stresses, you realize that they aren’t worth stressing about. And other things, maybe you say, “Well, this is something we can learn from”. None of us are perfect and we’re always going to have anxieties and difficult things on this path — because it’s a hard path. That’s the bottom line of it. It’s really hard. Sometimes I wonder why we do it. What’s the point?

For me, for each filmmaker, for every artist, you have to sit down and think. What is the point? Why are you doing it? What is it about for you? And when you realize, really, what it’s for — and I’m pretty sure it’s going to be something different for different people — for me I think it’s about that process, and about accessing moments of total presence through that process.

Bizarrely, I think that’s why I do it on a personal level. To have these moments of truth. To try to capture one of those on film. To me, that’s the goal, and what keeps me at it, I think. The things that are stressing us are things we just have to look at and say: Why is this causing me stress? What can I do about it? What can I learn from it?

What’s the biggest challenge you have faced, or are currently facing, at this point in your creative career? How have you addressed (or how are you addressing) that challenge?

I think the biggest challenge has been my own doubt and fear. Especially, I see some people who are incredibly confident, and they’re twenty-two or something, and they already feel like they deserve a huge audience. And I would say I’m the total opposite of that, and started out, just, with such an enormous sense of doubt, but still also with a strange compulsion mostly towards writing.

I think I’ve always been drawn towards storytelling. But when I was growing up I didn’t know any writers or filmmakers. It was so far-fetched. It was the opposite of the culture here, which is like: “You can do it!” It was more like: “Who do you think you are”? And I feel like that sort of doubt crippled me for many years. It took a long, long time for me to sort of work through that in different ways.

I’m gaining confidence now. But it’s hard-earned. Now it comes from focusing on the film and getting rid of the noise. Because fear comes, again, when we’re thinking about the result. Thinking about how people will judge our work. What the responses will be. Instead of just thinking about the work itself and being in the flow of it.

I think that’s definitely been the biggest challenge, because once I overcame that somewhat, things blossomed and bloomed and opportunities arose and films got made. But it wasn’t until I crossed that bridge in my own head — and that was a big bridge to cross.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Scotland but I grew up in Japan, Australia and Germany. My dad worked in the rubber industry. My parents are both Scottish, from a very working class background. My dad worked for a rubber company. He started working for them when he was seventeen, and he’s a really bright guy and he ended up, when he retired, the CEO of the company.

But, when I was growing up, especially as a woman, the best you could hope for was: “Go to university and get a good job as a teacher or secretary or something like that”. There was definitely not the sort of mindset that said: “Become a writer and make movies”.

[My parents] are blown away by what I’m doing. They can’t believe it.

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as a creative? What did you learn from it?

I think the biggest mistake I made — and I’ve thought about this a lot over the last couple of years — I made my first film, Obselidia, completely off the grid. I made it completely out of a sense of frustration.

I had sold a script and had been hired to write two original scripts. So I was making money as a writer, but I was getting frustrated by the fact that nothing was getting made. I would see this project that “was definitely going to happen”…just fall apart. And it was totally out of my control.

Out of that I decided to make my first film and it was kind of nuts. It was a crazy thing to do. I had never directed a film before. I hadn’t even made a short film. And suddenly I was going to make a feature. I just took a leap and did it.

And we did it in such a free way. The whole way that film was made was sort of organic and amazing and it was a great experience and the process was fantastic. The end result was incredible because it went to Sundance. It had no stars in it and we made it for less than 140,000 dollars and it was this incredible thing.

So that was the smartest thing I ever did. To have this leap of faith and courage and just do something. Do it without attachment to results. Because I didn’t do it thinking it was going to get me anywhere, just that I was going to learn to make a movie.

After that, then, I got into the conventional mindset. Getting into Sundance was a great thing, and then it was a terrible thing in another way, because instead of “Let’s just make another movie” — suddenly I had a manager and an agent and started doing all these meetings and I got into this conventional head-space again.

And I remember, after Sundance, I had this other script I had written that was very much like a micro-budget movie, too, and I showed it to a couple of people and they said: “Well, you don’t want to do that, because then you’re going to be stuck in that microbudget world,” and I thought, “You’re absolutely right, I have to do something that’s more ambitious”.

So, I shelved that. And I could have made another movie right then. A year after Sundance, I could have had another movie. And i would have learned so much and would have continued to grow as an artist. Instead I got into situations of development. Exactly what I had made a movie to get out of — I was right back in there. It took me five years to make another film.

And, when I made my second film, it was all sort of conventional. I pitched the idea to someone, and they developed it with me, and then the money came from a production company and it was all done in this conventional way and I was really a director for hire on my own project. It wasn’t really my project. From day one, I felt it was developed in ways that weren’t true to my heart, but I felt like I had to deliver to the financiers. The biggest mistake is getting into that head-space of, for me — and this doesn’t apply for everybody because I think it depends on what kind of films you make, and what you’re about — but for me the biggest mistake is thinking that that conventional path is a better one.

I was in that head-space of, I would love for someone to come along and deal with all the money, and take care of all that, and I could just be an artist for the thing. Instead of, with Obselidia, where I drove, and I made it happen.

With my third film we’re doing that again. The conventional path is not where I belong. I don’t think I do my best work there. I realized the best thing for me is to create my own opportunities and make the work I was born to make, the work that’s in my heart and is true to me, and not do this other thing, which doesn’t feel authentic.

I want to keep making films. I want to get better at it. My last film, also, I learned so much. Even though the experience was a difficult one, I learned that I just want to make another movie, right now, and try to learn from that, do other things differently and learn from that. I don’t want to wait another five years and have made a film that’s not the film I wanted to make. I just want to dive right into something where we can apply the things we’ve learned, and maybe this time I’ll get closer to the truth.

What general mistake(s) do you sometimes see peers make, that you wish they’d address?

I live in Los Angeles, and I know a lot of people who want to make films. And a mistake I see repeated, over and over, is this thing where somebody will have a script, and they want to make a film, and they enter into this conventional path to making a movie. Whereas they have a path to make it micro-budget but they don’t want to do that because now they’ve got an agent who says to them, we’re going to get it to the right cast, we’re going to get it to production companies, we’re going to get a real budget, and it’s going to be huge and amazing. And I see friends, they get excited and the carrot is dangling. “We’re sending it out to Meryl Streep and Patricia Arquette,” and stuff like that. So they think, “We’ll, I’m not going to do it, this micro-budget way of doing it. I’m going to hold out and keep sending it to people.”

And six months pass and they still haven’t heard back from these people and then they finally hear that those people passed, because, hey, they have a lot of offers on the table. And then a year passes and now they’re going out to other people. And two years pass. Five years pass. I’m not exaggerating. I know people who have been trying to get a certain movie off the ground for five years now. And it still hasn’t happened. And I think, if you’d just, at the beginning, had just made it.

At this point it’s five years later and sometimes they can’t even remember why they wanted to make the movie. Five years have passed. They’re in a different head-space. They love different things. They’ve written other things.

I understand, on one hand, what that is, why people continue down that path, with that carrot dangling in front of them. It does at least keep them on that particular treadmill. But, I also think: “Is that validation for your work going to come from other people?” Because I think, in a sense, that’s what they’re seeking. If you can attach some star names, you feel validated or bigger in some sense.

I just try to encourage my friends who want to make films to make films. Not to get on that treadmill where you’re going to spend years of your life trying to make a film. Trying to put it all together. That may or may not happen. And then years have passed and you still haven’t made a film. Whereas, the other path — you make it. You take power for yourself and you do it. And, no, its not with Meryl Streep or Patricia Arquette, but you can find fantastic actors, and you’ll make it, and you’ll grow from it as an artist and you’ll have that natural flow and progression we’ve been talking about. You learn from it, you move on, and you do something better.

That’s one of the mistakes that I see very often. Of course, sometimes it does come together for those people, it does work out in the end. Though very rarely, from what I see.

It kind of kills me. Just do it. If you want to make films, make films. Don’t get caught up in all that.

What are you most proud of, in your career or in life?

Immediately, what springs to mind is my family. Is that corny? It’s really true. My husband and my son — I’m just really proud of the life we’ve been able to create for ourselves and for our little guy. Nothing else matters, in a way.

This is a crowd-sourced question. What’s your process? How do you make time to work? Do you have any rituals you hold yourself to, to get things done?

I am definitely an early riser. Since I have that little guy, in particular, I wake up at 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning to write. I definitely believe I work best first thing in the morning. Later in the day my brains cells don’t seem to function with the same amount of clarity.

I like to create that quiet time to work, to access the subconscious in that quiet time. When I’m writing a first draft I absolutely hold to the rules: “Don’t look back”, and “Write four pages a day, minimum”. It’s just something I’ve always done, and it’s the way for me to get through things.

I find first drafts really impossible. It’s like everyone says: writing is rewriting. Until you have something to rewrite, though, you’re in trouble. So when I’m writing a first draft, that’s my rule. Four pages a day, whether that takes me half a day or an hour. It has to be four. It could be the worst four pages written, ever, in the world, and I just give myself license to write dross. The important thing is that I get them down. I really hold myself to that, when I’m doing a first draft, so it doesn’t take too long to get it out.

That’s the writing part of it. And I think I’m a terrible friend. My friends will tell you that, actually. Because when I am writing something, I disappear. I miss birthday parties. I miss everything.

I feel really lousy about it. Because, when I’m in that space, it’s like giving birth. I just have to let myself be with it. Even with what I watch and what I read, I’m really specific and particular about it when I’m working on something. It just takes over your consciousness. I can’t do social things when I’m in that mode.

It’s just focus. As much as you can dim out the noise, the better. Everything is a distraction. Get the distractions out the window.

Production is like that by necessity, I’ve found. It’s just so time-consuming. It’s just your whole life. There’s no life other than shooting, when you’re shooting. I feel like screenwriting is similar to that, in a sense. You could do other things, but energetically it doesn’t feel right.

Having a child makes you far more efficient. I look back to before I had him and I think — all that time! I wrote my second film three months after my baby was born. And he just turned three. I wrote it over the first year of his life. He would nap, and then, for forty-five minutes, I would sit down and write. It was sort of like: “Go!”

Suddenly, you view every minute like that. Having a child makes you much more efficient. Because they take up so much of your time.

Another crowd-sourced question. How do you balance the artistic lifestyle with the need to make a living?

I think it’s challenging. For me, I was lucky, in that I never expected to make a living as an artist. So I’m always in awe when I’ve managed to make it work.

Over the years I’ve learned the art of living an elegant life with very little money. I’ve kind of mastered that art. If I wanted to be rich I would have become a banker. I’ve followed the path of yoga for many years and just feel like I live an incredibly rich life without a lot of money.

Somehow, between my husband and me, we make it work every month. Certainly, we’re very far from rich. I think you have to become comfortable with uncertainty to an extent. Freelance is like that. There’s no big job security. There’s no pension. You have to be someone who is willing to embrace that. And I always have been. It’s just how I’m wired. I’ve always found the most important thing in life is to be doing what I love to do, more than earning a ton of money doing something I don’t like, so I can buy stuff I don’t really need. That’s never appealed to me.

Having said all that, it’s not always easy. It’s not. Since coming to America, unbelievably, I have made my living completely out of writing and making films. Some years have been better than others, and some have been very slim. But it has worked out and hopefully it will continue. I’m interested right now in the idea of this whole question of sustainable living. It’s very fascinating to me for artists. I’m really interested in it — we’ve talked about it a little bit — in how to use these new technologies to create a different way of life, that is not dependent upon the mainstream corporate entities that exist, and getting work from them, but going directly to audiences.

I’m curious about this whole new model that’s evolving. I should say also that I teach workshops about filmmaking and really the whole model of making your own work from start to finish. From developing a script right through to distribution. It’s really interesting, when people come to those workshops, to hear how they are making it work.

I think right now we are in this exciting place, where for artists, filmmakers like ourselves, there’s a new possibility for distributing our work that wasn’t there five years ago. I’m just at the beginning of learning how to make this new model work, but there’s a potential which has never existed, before which is really exciting.

Where can readers find more info about you and your work?

Our website is www.rebelheartfilm.com. That website sort of encapsulates a lot. There’s a page about the projects, the films, and also about the work we do to help other filmmakers.

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5 Daily Questions for Maintaining Creative Productivity

This an example of me acing Question 5: "Am I taking time to enjoy life?"

This an example of me acing Question 5: “Am I taking time to enjoy life?”

This January, for essentially the first time, I made a New Year’s Resolution. Two, actually. I decided to set two goals for myself, both of which were born out of my primary obsessions for most of the second half of 2013.

I want to finish at least shooting a feature film before the year is done, and I want to maintain at least a semblance of a balanced, healthy lifestyle while I do it.

Anyone who makes art — or who does any sort of project work in particular — could and would probably tell you that these are ambitious goals. Independent filmmaking in particular, with our lower budgets and our seemingly always empty pockets, puts a great deal of pressure on the human mind, body and spirit. It does this all the time, but the toll is especially great in the months leading up to production. Production itself is often a matter of pushing limits in ways that are perhaps sometimes celebrated, and which we can of course be proud of in retrospect, but which simply are not healthy in either the long or short term. And then there’s the post-production period, which often leaves us facing long recoveries. Physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually — even the addict’s rush that comes with having created, it doesn’t last. The truth is that making art depletes us.

Much of this is unavoidable, especially in the earlier years of a career, as we’re learning the ropes the hard way, as we invariably have to do. But, speaking as someone who has pushed myself too far in the past, I have to honestly say that I have come to the conclusion that, without balance, even art that has been hard-earned — it invariably suffers as we suffer by it, if and when we aren’t careful with ourselves. Limits can be pushed, but they also have to be respected.

For Example: One of The Times I Kinda Lost It

I arguably risked my life one day, for one of my films. Matters of budget and inexperience had led me to a place wherein I had to get my sound mix from New York to my editing bay (basically, a laptop set up in my old childhood bedroom in Rhode Island) — after 12 hours of work with our re-recording mixer. The film was set to premiere in a few days and wasn’t finished. I ended up making the drive alone, after having been awake for almost 24 hours. Towards the end, despite a surplus of caffeine, I couldn’t keep myself awake. It was three or four in the morning when I called my parent’s house (where I was living while making the film) because my fast-asleep fiancee wasn’t answering her cell. My brother picked up. I told him I needed someone to talk me through the last 45 minutes or so of the drive. It was that close. I had caught myself falling asleep at the wheel a few times.

Should I have pulled over to sleep? Possibly. There were a lot of things I should have done. Either way, when my phone battery died after about twenty minutes or so of conversation with my brother, I got desperate. I started talking to myself — loudly. I blasted the radio and opened all the windows and sang loudly. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know any of the words to the songs that play on the radio at three in the morning. When I couldn’t sing any more I came up with a sort of mad mantra, and repeated it and repeated it and repeated it. I rolled down all the windows in the car to let the cold November air inside. In short, I lost it. I went a little crazy. It’s perhaps a little funny now, but at the time it scared me — even if I didn’t admit it scared me.

How To Avoid This?

You can see why I’m eager to not repeat the same mistakes I’ve made in the past, when it comes to navigating the difficulties of making good stuff on the cheap.

As has been pretty well-documented here, I’ve come a long way as an artist and as a person since those days. I’m not even sure I would get to that bad of a place again even without my goal of balance. But I’ve come to treasure what I’ve built for myself these past few years. I still struggle with the repercussions of continuing to fight the good fight, and I still have to wrestle incrementally with my demons. I just lost a small battle to fear and doubt last night. Today, I’m all right, even though I know it will happen again. The key is to take things in stride and to avoid an avalanche.

I can’t afford to fall to madness, at any point, as I get closer to initiating my plans for making my new film (which you’ll hear about soon enough). The endeavor as a whole is going to be hard, and at times it’s going to be a legitimate struggle. I know that. But it’s also something I have to do. I have to make this film. I can’t let this need destroy me.

So, what can be done? What can I do — what can we do — to protect ourselves and our projects from the sometimes debilitating effects of long-term creative pursuits? Similarly, what can be done to protect our long-term creative pursuits from their own debilitating effects on our lives?

I think the answer is no different on the project level than it is on the macro level, as we strive continuously to live another day as artists in the real world.

Here’s what I came up with. Most of this is borrowed.

The Questions

Since the beginning of January, I have asked myself the following five questions at least once each day. Lately I’ve been trying to do this two or three times.

  1. Am I taking care of myself? It took my years to realize that I’m not good at self care. It took time and some outside help and it’s still sometimes a struggle. While everyone is different, I do believe that Americans on average — we don’t take great care of ourselves. Additionally, artists tend to be born out of complicated circumstances — not always, but much of the time. It’s important to my well-being and to my productivity to take care of myself, and to remind myself of the importance of self-care, everyday. How do I do it? Through reflection, meditation, and action. By action, I mean I try to do nice things for myself, no matter how small. Most of the time, this means taking a break or a walk or stopping everything to drink a cup of tea (it works). On a larger level, it means eating healthy on most days and getting enough sleep on most days. Sleep. Is. Huge.
  2. Am I avoiding the important? This is adapted from Tim Ferriss, who recommends in The Four Hour Work Week that we ask ourselves a variation of this question a few times per day (“Am I inventing things to do to avoid the important?”). I have long had my phone set to ask me Tim’s version of the question in the morning, the afternoon, and early in the night. It helps me keep myself focused. A lot of times, I ignore the reminder, because I know I’m on track. Sometimes, I growl at my phone, because I am not on track. Usually, this means I am afraid of something. However understandable the fear may be, it’s almost always in the way of “the important”. That won’t do. Also, an additional note: while this may not align perfectly with the spirit of what Ferriss advocates, sometimes, for me, “the important” is not a project. Sometimes, it’s self-care, or my relationships, or –more on this below — enjoying life.
  3. Have I taken a step towards my goal of making my film? I don’t care how big a step. Every day, I make sure to do one thing to move my current project forward. Sometimes, it’s just sending an email. Sometimes, it’s research. It doesn’t matter. Any tiny thing I do on any one day brings me one step closer to the larger realization of my ultimate goal. This can be easy to forget, when fear creeps in and all we can think about is the overwhelming list of tasks that must be completed to make a film, that are standing in the way of it being finished. This point of view doesn’t work. Trust me, if you aren’t already nodding your head. It’s a trap set by self-sabotage. However a big task gets done, and by whoever — it’s always a matter of steps. We don’t magically float to the top of a tall flight of stairs by staring up at them worrying how we’re possibly going to walk all steps at once. We get there, in time, by putting one foot ahead of the other until it’s over.
  4. Am I being open in my relationships with others? This is perhaps a question that’s aimed more specifically at where I am in my life right now, but I’m sharing it anyway in case a few people might benefit. Also, the question itself necessitates I mention it. Basically, I feel I’ve spent too much time holding back certain parts of myself (again, out of fear) as I’ve interacted with other people, throughout my life. Life goes more smoothly (and my work goes more smoothly) when I kick this propensity and endeavor to just be me. Focusing on openness, I have found, also helps hasten decision-making. I don’t labor over decisions or create as many scenarios in my head when I’m being open with myself and others. I’m able to more fully live in the moment. Daily meditation and informal studies of mindfulness and Buddhism have helped me immensely in this respect. Openness has numerous benefits. There’s room for tact, of course, because not everyone needs to know everything about everyone else, and we all need to protect ourselves sometimes — but I think we’ve suffered enough as people and as a society from the effects of leaving feelings unspoken. The repression isn’t healthy.
  5. Am I taking time to enjoy life? Save the best for last, right? I unfortunately need to remind myself to stop and enjoy life. I tend to work too hard. I tend to brood, when I’m not working. There is not much room for naked enjoyment in either of these default states. Even work that makes me happy — it’s still work. So I have to ask myself this question, at least once per day. When the answer is “no”, I do what I can to correct the situation. Sometimes, again, this means a cup of tea, or maybe a soda or a snack. Many times, it means taking time to read some fiction, watch a movie, or listen to a podcast. Anything that isn’t work and gives me pleasure. That includes going out. I will force myself to go out when I don’t want to, because I know by now to mistrust the feelings and thoughts I get that tell me to do the opposite and stay home and work or brood. Balance has to include joy, for me.

So, there you have it.

Hopefully, some of the above has been helpful. I’d be interested to hear what others are doing to maintain some semblance of balance while working through large projects (I include life in this category). Hit me up in the comments if you have anything to add, or any further questions about how I came up with this list in particular.

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Ride The Wave: Balancing Life + Creative Productivity

Multiverse Production Still

This is what the production of my last film did to my living room.

It’s remained quieter here than in recent months (but — look! — new site!), and by now I want to dive a little deeper into the reasons why.

Life’s been full.

We walk along many fine, intersecting lines, as we seek to find and maintain the right balance in life, between work and play and leisure and purpose. Sometimes, life looms over all these constituent parts with a largeness greater than the sum of its parts. Because, sometimes — often — life surprises us. Therein lies much of the beauty and the frightfulness of being alive.

I’ve been quiet because I’ve been busied by life, in ways that have sometimes been difficult. Generally, I’ve been okay with this — even in times of anxiety and concern — because, as they say, not many things of worth are necessarily easy to manage or attain.

The difference has been my shifting response to difficulty. I’m not fighting it as much, because I’m starting to see that my default modes of fighting were exhausting me, with little to show for my efforts. This isn’t to say I’ve begun capitulating, instead of fighting. It only feels like I am getting better at following my own advice, and am lately fighting smarter.

What I mean to say is that I’ve been taking better care of myself, while at the same time working to strengthen my resolve to keep up with efforts aimed at self-care as well as creative growth. Rather than push everything out to the page (or screen), I’m giving my thoughts and feelings some time and some room.

It’s been working. I’ve always said that I wanted (needed) to live my life directly, instead of, say, placing a monomaniacal focus only on producing — but today I’m not ashamed to say that I often haven’t done a great job of actually doing this. Invariably, I have lived — increasingly so, since I met my wife — but I haven’t often gone all-in on the full experience of living. By this, I mean that, in constantly fighting off that which I decided I didn’t like or want in my life, by defaulting to this reaction rather than a fuller experiential reaction, by living in constant fear of imminent death — I was regularly missing out on a part of reality.

I’m not exactly censuring myself for this, but I bring it up because I’m not sure it’s a necessarily unique experience.

The difficulties of life are just as real as its pleasures. Both need to be experienced, if we’re to interact and react with others and the outside world in a true, honest way. That is another thing I’ve often said I’ve wanted. I’ve said it to myself and I’ve said it to others, who often claim to want Truth as well. But you have to look at something first, have to touch it and listen to it, before that can really begin to happen.

Related to all this, I’ve also been locked on a rich vein of productivity lately. I don’t remember ever being this productive. I’ve been churning out pages like a champ. Some of the writing has been hard, and has taken a toll on me emotionally, but overall I cannot and will not question this development past the point of making sure I take my health and happiness into account while I ride the wave.

Last month, in particular, was mostly chaotic — in my head. Many were the days when I got plenty of sleep, ate well and took care of myself, but woke up the following day exhausted. To quote my wife, who at points could only watch and attempt to help: “Your mind is exhausting you.”

She was right, about that and the fact that something had to be done — but I think I was also right to let things ride for a bit, in an attempt to give myself the time and space to identify what was going on and attempt to channel the energy.

A lot of that process involved asking myself personal questions about personal matters that required careful, thoughtful, heartfelt attention. But I have, thankfully, throughout a life that has been frequently jolted towards chaos for long stretches of time by an “exhausting mind” — I’ve learned how to balance myself out at such times by abandoning myself to my need to keep writing and creating.

My point is that I now have more clarity and experience than I used to have, in terms of having patience with myself as the complicated dance between life and art plays out in the way it must.

So, finally, I want to share some insights into what I have specifically learned through all this, in terms of how to press forward, not only in times of upheaval and growth but most of the time. Many, if not all of these lessons, can be found in many others places on the web, in some form or another. Because many appear to be universal truths of self-care and creative productivity.

That isn’t to say I’m writing this only for creatives, or that productivity itself is the goal. As I have mentioned once or twice before, I believe we as human beings are fundamentally creative. It’s damaging to all of us to reserve sole use of the word as a descriptor of artists and art and art-like-things only. For better or worse, we all create — and/or share in creation — every day. Every imagined circumstance, every hope and fear, owes its existence to an intrinsic creative impulse. Creativity is fundamentally human.

Similarly, regarding productivity — we are all of us, always, producing. We just don’t always exercise much judgement in deciding what to produce, or take as much responsibility for what we’re already producing, as we otherwise might. Many times, we react more than we act. We produce new and wider roads away from our fears, rather than seek the tools we need to turn around and face them. These lessons essentially reflect some of what I have learned (and am seeking to remind myself) in my own eternal battle between fear and action.

Finally, you’ll notice many lessons appear to contradict each other, when taken in pairs. Exactly.

Here we go:

  • Get healthy. This lesson is first on the list for a reason. It’s the most important one, and perhaps the hardest to implement and maintain over the long term. Getting truly healthy takes work, dedication, and perseverance. For me, it took a series of fits and starts before I finally got on a real, sustainable path to healthfulness. Unsurprisingly, this lesson also brings the biggest, most life-changing results, once you learn it and apply it. Where to start? I can’t really tell you that. Before we can get healthy, we need to arrive at an accurate, realistic, perhaps unsparing (but not necessarily judgmental) assessment of how we are faring — physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally. It takes testing, reflection, introspection. It’s not an overnight process. It’s a lifelong process. But major changes can be made over the course of months and years. Some parts of healthiness are simple. Many Americans are overweight and out of shape. I have been both, many times, for long stretches. Currently, I am neither, and being fit has not only boosted my confidence and self-esteem (significant pluses), it has left me more energetic and more equipped to fight off sickness and fatigue. I also stopped drinking alcohol entirely, except for Saturdays and special occasions. I cut my caffeine intake by 70%, as an experiment, to see if doing so would reduce daily anxiety (it did). You don’t have to do any or all of these things, but dedicating yourself, perhaps one step at a time, to areas of your life that you know in your heart could use some attention in terms of healthiness, or to similarly test changes — the results begin to cascade through everything you feel and do. Finally, note that I mentioned mental and spiritual health as well. Excluding the introduction of some sick, horrific scientific experiment, and/or divine intervention, to the process — we aren’t able to see our hearts and souls. That doesn’t mean an idea of both shouldn’t be sought after, and similarly assessed. The pursuit of these sort of deepest personal truths are essential to pure creativity. We can’t produce true happiness in our life when starting from a hurt or damaged place. I’d argue we can’t completely produce genuine, heartfelt contributions to society from such a starting place either.
  • Always be doing something — and actually do things. This is definitely one of those lessons that’s already out there, in many forms, but it’s been worth it for me to constantly remind myself of its importance. I tend to brood. I used to think it was just part of being me, part of being a writer. It’s not. Brooding, often, isn’t very different from doing nothing. And doing nothing, in such a way, is not only of no real use (to anyone) — it’s also paralyzing. The mind fills the space created by do-nothingness without your permission — and it doesn’t always choose what you would want it to choose if you were taking any control over the process. Staying active, and focusing as often as possible, time after time, on one task (or experience) that we sincerely want to do (or have accepted we must do), keeps us aimed in the right direction. Starting small, and breaking tasks up, helps immensely. Starting early helps immensely — it sets a tone of relaxed accomplishment that can last a whole day. Don’t have enough time? That’s a lie. Give up something that’s really not important to your life or happiness. Cut TV time in half, or by an hour (to start). Or stay off social media for a predetermined stretch of time. But you have to actually do things. Repeatedly. That’s why it’s good to start small and simple. Set up manageable patterns that make you feel good and learn to love being active. Find a system you love, that made to work for you.
  • Plan, at least once per day, to do nothing. Nothing. For at least a few minutes. I’ve been meditating, as a means of accomplishing this. It’s not as hard or as confusing as it seems. There are free podcasts on iTunes that include guided meditations. I’ve been using this one. It truly helps to jolt the mind out of less-than-helpful, unproductive patterns. For a quick video about the value of doing nothing for a few minutes per day, click here.
  • Go out into the world and stay in it. About a year ago, I started to realize that I was hiding myself from much of my own life. I was spending too much time alone in my apartment. If not for the incremental presence of my wife on certain nights (we were working opposite schedules at the time), and the necessity of getting up and going to work (which was truly a struggle on most days), I’m not sure I would have left the apartment except to get food and essentials. When I did leave the apartment, it hurt, and it exhausted me. The story of how I got to this place is complicated and multi-layered and I’m still working some of it out. However, with some help from my therapist, some more help from other resources (including Marc Maron’s podcast, which I’ve written about before), and a personal dedication to battle the unhealthy pattern — I was able to accept my condition at that time and make some changes. I don’t think what happened was necessarily uncommon for a writer (and I did come out of the stretch with a ton of pages). But, thankfully, I am a filmmaker as well. So I wrote Multiverse, one day, around the time when I was working on this particular issue. Making the film proved to be a means of not only coming to terms with this exact lesson but owning it. So began a long, ongoing journey to get myself — as myself — out into the world physically (New York City presents an opportunity to this about a hundred times every second) that has changed my life. I’m happier, now that I get out more. I feel more connected to people and to life. These two developments, taken together, have contributed greatly to increases in the quality and quantity of the work I’ve been producing. This blog is evidence of the shift (and has helped me bridge the process). In a few months, it will be a year old. And I’m enjoying the existence of this ongoing connection with you, even if it’s not exactly the same or as good as interacting in person.
  • Respect the solitary impulse, then embrace it when it comes. I did say there would be contradictions. What I mean by advocating solitude, immediately after admitting a struggle to escape it, is to point out the importance of being comfortable with ourselves, and taking the time to feel and to think deeply about our own lives (more of that part later). The differences between falling to isolationism and embracing solitude only when the desire for it comes naturally — are many. First, while we think and feel all day, we don’t always (or often) do so actively. Many times, we’re reacting to outside circumstances and stimuli. This is okay, and perhaps even necessary when out in the world — but there are many other worlds inside the human imagination as well. These inner worlds are just as complex as the outside world (if not more so) but frequently more elusive in terms of seeing them clearly (if at all). They are also in a constant state of interplay with the outside world, and the people in it. To strike a proper balance, as this interplay continues in perpetuity, I believe it’s essential to take time, when you need it, for yourself only. I have to do this on a daily basis, at this point. I need to be alone, for long stretches, at several points throughout the day, on most days. I can’t be a writer without solitude. I can’t figure out what I’m feeling, or why I’m feeling what I’m feeling (which affects what we do and how we do it) without taking many moments to pause. I’d argue, similarly, that none of us can be full, complete, healthy and productive versions of ourselves unless we constantly take time the amounts of time we need alone — and no longer — to get comfortable with, feel compassion for, and better understand ourselves.
  • Reach out and be vulnerable. This lesson comes from smashing the previous two together. It’s not enough to put yourself out there, and to also spend time alone figuring out what’s inside that person you are launching into the world. As far as you are comfortable, which can perhaps be figured out by taking small steps — as a means of protecting your core self to the degree you feel you must on a case by case basis — it helps to begin introducing some of what you learned and observed about yourself, in quiet moments alone, to the people around you. First, obviously, it helps to surround yourself with those with whom you feel comfortable but who also excite you — people with whom you share interests and/or experience. For some people, this is very easy. For others, it’s hard. For me, it’s both. However, I have come to believe that reaching out and being more honest and open (sometimes even to the discomfort of others, within the realm of respectfulness) is essential to well-being and productivity. Being open about your feelings, wants and needs — it halves the available arsenal of Fear and Doubt. Fear and Doubt are normal elements of life with their own part to play in how we act and interact with others. But, oftentimes, to me at least, they seem to be dominate too many of the considerations and decisions of the average American. Think of how and when you came to love and to trust those people in your life who became your closest friends and family. Shared experience and common interest and chance all probably played a part in each story of each relationship. But what do you remember about each story? I bet it’s the feeling of sharing, of a true and special connection being formed as you traded “secrets” over a drink, or shared some adventure that can never be duplicated, etc. Such stories don’t happen if we don’t offer a part of ourselves. Often, this must be done in spite of fear of rejection or judgment.
  • Lean on your defenses, when you absolutely must. But then get back on your feet, when the threatening moment passes. This is a tricky lesson. For me, it took (continues to take) a lot of patience. Defensiveness has a reputation for being “a bad thing”, and to a great extent that reputation is earned. However, at the end of the day, despite everything that has happened to us both in and out of our control, we have to deal with the lingering consequences. With limits set at the threshold of rudeness, disrespect, and reactive antagonism, I’ve found it can be healthy to defend myself against people who have no real idea or concern for what I need or am going through at any given moment. Again, I believe this is a useful lesson, on average, for many people. So many of us frequently default to absorbing blows rather than deflecting them — even as we are bombarded daily by the attacks or encroaching needs of others. This has a very large impact on what we are able to accomplish during a given day. It can have an even larger effect on what we believe we can accomplish on a given day (or at all). Leaning on defenses, in instances wherein we are doing so to protect our own intentions, can help get us from those intentions to the completion of a goal. In the past, I’ve made the mistake of swinging too fully from total defensiveness (which is isolating and unhelpful) and total immersion and vulnerability (which cannot be sustained over any long term in a healthy way). It’s been helpful to realize that short breaks from a total commitment to say, putting yourself out there, reaching out and being vulnerable, constant motion — they can help keep you inoculated against a reversion to unhappiness and poor productivity by introducing a bit of the old poison back into your blood now and again. What I’m saying is: don’t be afraid to return to old coping mechanisms and “vices” that have served you well in the past — so long as they aren’t harmful in moderation or addictive. If you don’t know the difference, err on the side of caution and fall back on defenses you know you can safely lower when you’re done with them.
  • Think, and be discerning and forgiving. This final lesson is somewhat of a broad catch-all for wrapping up all the rest. But it’s almost as important as the first one, if not more so. As contextualized at the top of this post — life is messy, unpredictable, and complicated. Much of the above is about managing the conditions of life while at the same time attempting to impose a touch of order in places where such order can help. Honestly, none of what I have shared has worked for me perfectly, all the time. Sometimes I fail to stay true to my own advice, sometimes life gets too overwhelming for it to be possible to manage anything other than “eat and drink and sleep and fulfill only your core commitments”. To be able to weigh and differentiate between good choices and bad, to know what is healthy or helpful or what isn’t, to figure out how to adjust what and how, it takes not only a desire to be well and to produce but a commitment to discerning thoughtfulness. I used to be very frightened of making decisions. Luckily, seven years as an independent filmmaker has mostly cured me of that fear. Forgiving myself, say, for lapses in dedication to my own well-being, or for a “failure” to realize that it’s time to “just chill” — this I am still working on. But it’s going okay. The point is to aim the brain at what really matters, which is probably a mix of productivity and simply…living.

This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list. It is, however, a representation of what has definitely been working for me, lately. If any ideas tickle you, give them a try. It can’t hurt.

Well, it can hurt. But life ain’t a daydream written on a cloud. It’s not a horror show either, most of the time.

Life is real and tactile and yet elusive and mysterious. For myself, I guess I’m trying to settle more comfortably into this greatest of paradoxes. There’s not much any of us can do to actually affect the balance in either direction, anyway,

We can only ride the waves as they come, and do what we can with what we have and with what’s around us.