Living in the Sprawl

My favorite and (according to iTunes) most listened to album of 2010 was The Suburbs by Arcade Fire.  Hypnotic, melodic, complex – it’s everything a great album should be and does what any great album should do; transport you.    Someone asked me why it was my favorite album and it took me a bit to articulate exactly why.

Because of the music, obviously, and because of that mood and tone, but mostly because of the subject and title; it’s exactly the album I would have loved when I was seventeen.  I can easily picture throwing the cassette into the deck of my Toyota and cruising the streets of my town, and being utterly surrounded by it

The Suburbs.

Maligned and scorned by the hip, the self-conscious, the self-absorbed, and the “hip urban elite” who live comfortably in their lofts and apartments and townhomes of whatever metropolis they call home.  The ‘burbs are where you go where the dream dies.  When marriage and children enter the picture you feel its pull; abandoning the excitement, the energy, the vibe of the city for the house, the fence, the cul-de-sacs and crescents and tree-lined streets, the strip-malls and shopping centers, bisected by roads and freeways, survivable only by automobile.

Call them “sub-urban.”  Beneath contempt.

Well, I’ve come to praise the suburbs, not bury them.  The suburbs made me who I am.

When I do a tally of my life to date, most of it has been lived in an urban setting.  With the exception of six years of small-town life, I’ve lived in large cities, or mid-size ones connected to a singular sprawl.  In Ontario, Canada (where a solid 30 years of my life were lived) you have what’s known as the Golden Horseshoe; a connected network of cities and towns that comprise a good third of the country’s population, ringing Lake Ontario roughly from Ajax to Niagara Falls.  At night if you stand on the shore in St. Catharines or Niagara-on-the Lake you can see that ring of glittering light stretching around you; it’s an amazing sight.

My first true memory of the suburbs involved me chasing a blimp.  True story.  I was four years old, happily being four years old in the subdivision I lived in with my parents and sister.  One summer evening (childhood memories of these suburbs seem always to be summer ones) I’m in the backyard of our bungalow and what do I see in the sky but a blimp, much like the Goodyear Blimp, only with red and white colors.  I run and tell my dad and tell him we have to follow it.  Why he agreed I’ll never know but what resulted was a family outing with me and my mom and my sister in her stroller wandering the tangled network of streets looking for wherever this damn blimp is, just hanging there in the sky.  We eventually found it at the edge of our subdivision, among the skeletal structures of the coming expansion of houses yet to be built and inhabited.  The “blimp” was really just an oversized helium balloon, with the logo for the construction company on it.  I was disappointed that it wasn’t real (and that rides weren’t in the offering), but as we walked back home, I realized that the world existed beyond the limits of my own realm; the front yard and backyard of our house, and wherever my parents would take me.  That there was more out there than just my home and street.

This was a fact in every neighborhood we lived in subsequent, be it Vancouver or Edmonton or Greensboro, but when I think of the suburbs I think of a particular neighborhood in Scarborough Ontario.  Scarborough is a suburb of Toronto, referred to by the downtown elites as “Scarberia” – a wasteland to the north with no culture, no draw, and no reason to visit.  It’s the dirty corner of what likes to call itself a “world class city” as if saying “world class” enough automatically makes you one.  (Sorry, but saying you’re “world class” automatically means you aren’t and live in denial of that fact.  It is a fact.)

My ‘hood was home to Rush, The Barenaked Ladies, Mike Meyers and Jim Carrey.  Meyers dated the older sister of an elementary school friend, and frequently played pool in the basement of the same house me and my friends would, years after the fact.  At the ripe old age of ten I was amazed to learn that my then favorite author Gordon Korman was from the neighborhood [The title of his first book, a Grade Seven English Lit assignment “This Can’t Be Happening at Macdonald Hall!” took its name from Sir John A MacDonald Senior High School, just down the street from my house].

Looking at a map of the neighborhood now I am amazed at how much of my memory of that period is confined to a tiny grid of streets among many.  Really my world extended from my street to a block south to my school, and maybe a block or two east and west.  My world was comprised of wherever my bike or feet could take me.  Venturing a block south of my school was considered a Big Journey, and if we wanted to go to one of the shopping malls in the vicinity we had to ask a parent to drive us and save a quarter to call when we wanted to be picked up.  Our experience of the city at large was made in increments and always entailed some sort of voyage.

As we grew older and gained the freedom that comes with age, trips into the city itself involved a lengthy bus to subway ride and consumed the better part of the day.  Downtown represented freedom, record stores, comic shops, the best burger joints, and girls (especially girls).   On those trips your world expanded to areas accessible by public transit.  Of course when we got our licenses and access to a car, that world grew exponentially.  There was literally no place we couldn’t go and as we explored, as our sphere of influence expanded, the world we grew up in seemed all the more tiny and insignificant.  Cruising through neighborhoods only a kilometer or two west of ours presented homes and schools and kids our age who lived in worlds that were as foreign and unknown to us as ours were to theirs.  We would never experience their lives, the halls of their schools, and maybe we’d pass each other at a mall, we were ships in the night.  Maybe we’d learn later, at college, that a new friend lived in a neighborhood that was a stone’s throw away geographically, but a lifetime down the road.

But to understand the allure of the suburbs is to understand their relationship to the city they orbit.  To glimpse the glittering skyscrapers of Toronto or New York or Los Angeles as you pass them on the freeway to your home enclave, is to see a light seductively drawing you in.  You want to escape, you want to find your place in that light; you want to find home.  I’ve come to realize that dream, that search for your place in the world is a recurring theme in a lot of my work.

The suburbs are about longing.  They’re about being on the outside and looking in and dreaming about what was or what could be someday.  Not many urban kids rebel against their parents to move to the ‘burbs; it’s always the reverse.  The promise of that excitement, that constant search for a place in the world is forged in a suburban setting, not an urban one. In a city like New York you look for an escape from it, the heat, the noise, the people and can find it within a relatively short drive but you always feel the city’s pull on you whether you live there or glimpse it from a hilltop or a highway.

But that longing is part of the romance of the suburbs.  You always feel that pull that a better life could lie around the next corner, or the next subdivision over.  You can spend your life looking for that place, only to realize that what you’re looking for is right beside you all along.

We’re all living in the sprawl.

With Apologies to Renoir

If you don’t know Warren P. Sonoda or Liisa Ladouceur, you should, for both are extremely talented in their respective fields.  Warren is a very successful, very prolific film director and my former roomate and Liisa is an acclaimed author, poet and journalist who I know through our work at Rue Morgue Magazine.  Both recently penned their own personal and professonal “manifestos” on their respective websites.  Both are excellent and definitely worth the read, so why don’t you go check them out right now? (click the hyperlinks embedded above)

I’ll wait here.

Done?  Good.

So with the gauntlet thrown, I decided to share some of my” rules of the game.”  The disclaimer is that these are my rules and experiences and some are bound to piss some people off because they fly in the face of what they say or do.  That’s okay; they have a right to be offended, which is part of the job as you’ll soon see.

1. Whenever you write, whatever you write, never make the mistake of assuming the audience is any less intelligent than you are. (Rod Serling)

2. Write every day.

3. “Writing” doesn’t necessarily mean “sitting at your desk” but for the most part it does.

4. Write 3 hours a day, minimum.  Before I struck the lottery and moved from aspiring professional to actual paid professional, I worked an 8 hour day regular shit job, got home, made dinner, then spent three hours writing.  As a full-timer now I have no excuse not to.

5. Live your life.  Married?  Dating?  Family?  Don’t feel guilty about spending the evenings and weekends with them.  In the end you’ll appreciate the time with them more than anything you write.

6. Holidays.  Take them as often as you can.  Your body needs the break, as does your creativity.

7. Exercise — do it.  I can’t stress this enough.  First year of writing full time I packed on a good 20 pounds.  Seeing photos of Fat Elvis at the end of that year (i.e. “Me”) was shocking to say the least, and I resolved that I would do at least 30 minutes of cardio a day.  Twelve years later I still do.  It’s good for your overall health, but better for creativity.  Any time I’m stuck on a plot point or just blocked creatively, I take my walk.  The blood flows, oxygen reaches your brain and I guarantee you whatever problem is vexing you will be resolved by the time you get back to your home/office.  And speaking of that …

8. Have an office.  A dedicated room is ideal, but a corner any room will do.  What’s more important is that it be solitary and solitude.  I work in the living room of my 1-bedroom apartment and from roughly 8am to 6pm it’s all my space.  No distractions, no interruptions.  It has to be just you and your work.

9. Don’t answer the phone or check email when writing.   They’ll leave a message if it’s important.

10.  Whatever you do, do not be one of those people you see tapping away on their laptops in Starbucks.  They’re not writers; they’re exhibitionists, and they’re not professionals.

11.  Starbucks are great places to steal ideas from

12.  “Good artists borrow.  Great artists steal” – Pablo Picasso

13.  Keep a notebook handy, because you never know when you’ll come up with that brilliant idea.

14.  But don’t keep said notebook on your night-table.  I know, you’ll say “what if I wake up in the middle of the night with that great idea and come morning I forget it?”  Take a page from Steven King; if it’s a truly great idea, you’ll remember it come morning. If you don’t, chances are it’s not a good idea to begin with.

15.  “Grab ‘em by the throat and never let them go” – Billy Wilder

16.  It’s okay if your first draft is shit.  All first drafts are.  That’s why God invented the rewrite.

17.  Feedback is painful and valuable at the same time.  Don’t be afraid to ask for it, and don’t be afraid of what that feedback tells you.

18.  When you finish your draft of screenplay/novel/whatever, stick it on the shelf and don’t look at it for at least as long as it takes to write your next work.  Then when that’s done, switch ‘em out, shelve number two and get back into number one.  Wash, rinse and repeat.

19.  No matter how busy you get, no matter how brutal the deadline, NEVER skip out on a friend/loved one’s birthday, or Christmas, or Easter, or Thanksgiving or anything that involves you spending time with the people you love.  They won’t be around forever and as important as your work may be, it’s never that important.  Believe me when I say I speak from painful experience here.

20.  Your work is important, but living your life is more important.

21.  Work to live but don’t live to work – (with apologies to) Ben Franklin

22.  No matter how creative you are or brilliant your ideas may be, nothing will ever take the place of personal experience.  So get out there and experience.

23.  Regardless of format, regardless of genre, all great stories are at their most basic, about the human condition.

24.  Deadlines are your enemy and your friend, but no deadline ever “sneaks up” on you if you’re doing your job properly.

25.  “Art is never finished; only abandoned” – Leonardo da Vinci.

26.  When all else fails, go with your gut.  It’s going to be right more than any “How to” book will.

27.  And speaking of which, all of those “How to” screenplay books are written by people who’ve never earned a living as a screenwriter.  I have, and I’m telling you they will actually make you a worse writer because they’ll encourage you to write what everyone else is writing.  If you want to make your mark, you have to do what everyone else isn’t.

28.  One book I will recommend though is “Elements of Style for Screenwriters” because it’s actually useful.

29.  Format is as important if not more so than what you’ve actually written.  I wrote about format here and you should read why if you haven’t already.

30.  An experienced producer/executive/script reader will be able tell within the first ten pages whether you’re a professional or a well-meaning amateur.  So which are you?

31.  It’s important to know where your story ends.  How you get there is less important, as long as it’s interesting and unexpected.

32.  “A good movie is three great scenes and no bad ones” – Howard Hawks

33.  Never assume you’re smarter, better or more creative than the producers, director, actors, cinematographer, editor you’ll be working with.  They all want to make a good movie and they’re your allies, not your enemies.

34.  Only work with the best, and by “best” I mean people who take their craft as seriously as you do.

35.  Take your work seriously; if you don’t, who will?

36.  People who tell you’re they’re excellent multi-taskers are full of shit.  They may multi-task well, but they don’t produce as well as they do if they focus where they should.

37.  Never work for free.  Never work for below your worth.  Lots do, and that’s why we get bad movies, bad TV, bad everything.

38.  Agents can be the most reprehensible people in this business.

39.  Agents are extremely valuable in this business.

40.  A good agent is worth their weight in commissions.

41.  Every story has been told before.  But not by you.  That’s why you’re the writer.  That’s why they come to you; because your take will be different.

42.  A good idea is a good idea regardless of who comes up with it.  All that matters is that it makes it into your story and that you get to claim the credit for it.

43.  Be courteous to everyone, from the secretary at the production office, to the assistants, to the P.A.’s, to the craft service people, to the grips and gaffers and even the extras.  Nobody likes an asshole and writers are notorious assholes.

44.  Be professional.

45.  Be professional.

46.  Be professional.

47.  “The greatest danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.” – Michelangelo Buonarroti

48.  Aim high.

49.  Remember it’s a privilege to do what you do.  Many aspire to follow their dreams and make a living at it and few ever do, so remember to be humble.  Arrogance is your enemy and at the end of the day, you’re a writer; so write.

50.  Write.