all set up no action | Todd Regoulinsky | toddregoulinsky.com

All Set-Up, No Action

Ideas are worthless.

Yeah, I said it. Of course, I’m only one in a long line of people who have said it, so please don’t think any credit is due here.

In learning about screenwriting, I found there was two schools of thought: those who guarded their story ideas as if they were a precious hidden treasure and those who didn’t. And I can understand both sides.

There’s something about an idea that is special, but a lot of that comes from our perception of it and where it came from. The idea comes from us and most of us, for whatever psychological reason du jour you happen to subscribe to, would like to think of ourselves as special in some way. Even the idea that we aren’t special kinda makes you think you’re special because it feels like you’ve figured something out other people haven’t. You’re part of an elite. You liked the band before anyone else. You actually understand and appreciate Infinite Jest. Whatever.

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Your Whatever Step System To Having A Something

I have a couple problems with YouTube videos promising a Whatever Step System To Getting The SOMETHING You WANT.

First, it’s never quite that simple. There’s usually a ton of truth in the video, but there’s also something that’s left out or glossed over that represents a somewhat significant piece of the puzzle. Usually, it seems like that bit happened before the person developed The System, so it gets tossed in the corner where they’re hoping no one will notice. What’s that? You had a lucky break because your cousin’s uncle’s cleaning lady knew someone in the industry who also owed them a life debt and helped get your first book published? Definitely leave that out. Or how about you actually didn’t know what the hell you were doing in the first place and happened to be in the right place at the right time? Sure… but this system will totally negate that thing!

The second problem? I usually wind up getting suckered in by them.

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Screenshot from the Essential Craftsman YouTube channel | toddregoulinsky.com

Smart Still Produces Sweat

Let me introduce you to my new favorite YouTube video.

I don’t plan on building a ramp any time soon, but I’m always interested in becoming more productive. I’m fascinated by the ways people streamline their workflow and spaces to get more done – from Adam Savage’s workshop to Casey Neistat’s old studio and everything in between.

What I really appreciate about this video is his appreciation for hard work and that working smarter doesn’t negate hard work.

It’s made me think about what my definition of “working smarter” actually means, and I’ve come up with this – eliminating wasted effort. Working hard is fine and in many cases is necessary and good; so long as the majority of the work is getting a positive result. It’s working hard for little or no results that causes problems.

There’s always going to be some degree of wasted effort, especially if it’s a new type of project or new skill that’s being learned. But it’s those moments when I want to be aware of the times I went down a dead end then backtracked so I can avoid that same path the second time. I know I’m going to make mistakes, I just want them to be new and interesting mistakes rather than the same ones over and over again.

In my opinion, this is fertile ground for creativity. It’s not just finding a system that works and never changing it ever – it’s find what works, always being aware that you’re using a system, and whether there are places to tweak that system. Or it might be a matter of dumping the system altogether and trying it a completely new way.

This is something I’m thinking about at the beginning of a new year. How many places in my life have I lost track of the underlying system? How many times do I do things just because “it’s the way I do it” without examining if there’s a new or better way of doing it? Where are some low-risk areas that I can completely abandon the system and try it a new way – almost an intentional forgetting of my habits where I can force myself to learn something new?

Video and screenshot from the Essential Craftsman YouTube channel.

this ones for me - todd regoulinsky - toddregoulinsky.com

This One’s For Me

Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.

Cyril Connolly – New Statesman, February 1933

At some point, I stopped submitting poems for publication in magazines and journals. For about a year, I’d spent hours tracking submissions, printing my own custom envelopes trying to catch an editor’s eye, writing cover letters, and all the assorted tasks that come along with trying to get published. At the end of the time, I had exactly one publishing credit.

It wasn’t the lack of acceptance that made me stop, although I suppose it didn’t really help either. I decided to mash on the brake because of all the things that I was doing, writing poetry really wasn’t very high on the list. In a moment of clarity, I thought if getting published means writing less or even writing specifically for an audience, is it really something I want to do?

When I start getting down on myself for falling behind on a project or outright abandoning it, I think back to that moment and I’m reminded to be a little more kind to myself. What and who am I doing this for?

At present, I have a screenplay that is on its fourth draft. It’s pretty good, has commercial potential, and I have all the information I need to finish the current draft. However, there’s a piece of it that has made me put it aside for the past six months or so. The script is set in college with students as the main characters and I’ve been told that they sound much more like a 43 year old than someone in their early twenties. So I’ve taken some time to decide whether I’m really the person to write this thing. Of course, every movie and television show I catch with dodgy writing and characters edges me closer to finishing it, but I haven’t quite gotten there yet.

I also have a book of poems that has stalled for no particular reason aside from I needed a break. The subject matter, death, is a little heavy to carry around for long periods of time. I’m probably halfway to completion on that.

Do I wish that either or both were finished? Sure, it’d be nice. But it’s not like I have a publisher holding the presses for the book or an agent in Hollywood trying to stall a studio because their eccentric writer who lacks the good sense to live in California hasn’t come through with the pages yet. Even being commercially viable, there’s no guarantee the movie will ever get made – in fact, the odds are against it. The book? Even more so. I’d still like for them to see the light of day, but… for right now, they’re just for me.

To further muddy the waters, I’ve been thinking about the differences between Star Wars movies lately – The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker to be precise. I prefer TLJ because I felt Rian Johnson walked the line between fan service, making the next logical step with the characters, and also doing something that was his. What happened? A bunch of fans hated it. Then comes along TROS where J.J. Abrams went out of his way to course correct, heap fan service on top of fan service, and then drizzle nostalgia over the whole thing in heaping gobs. What happened? A bunch of fans hated it.

Watching The Force Awakens last night, I think it’s more of an Abrams movie than TROS because he went out of his way to apologize for TLJ and lost his way. That can happen with our own creativity – where we spend so much time trying to overcome what we feel are inadequacies or mistakes rather than just doing something. Anything.

Rather than trying to apologize for something that didn’t work out, I’m trying to look at it in a different way. Oh, that sucked and you didn’t like it? Huh. Well, try this new thing then. Didn’t like that either? Huh. Come back next time and we’ll try it again with something new.

By the way, the Cyril Connolly quote comes from the excellent Tim Ferriss weekly 5-Bullet Friday email that is a great subscribe I highly recommend.

New Year, Who This?

One of the more interesting aspects of getting older is that, if you’re mindful and pay attention from time to time, you gain perspective. After all, what’s the difference between the stuff I got upset over as a teenager and the same situation now? Perspective. Going through it a few times, I’ve come to realize that it’s not the end of the world and not to freak out. At least quite as much.

Over the last few years, I’ve become more aware of what another spin around the sun means and that there’s actually a lot of things I’d like to accomplish. Maybe they’re not huge things that will change the world or as trite as some of the things that I have on my daily to-do list, but they’re important to me on some level. These are things that hold a certain amount of meaning and value in my life. I’ve also become painfully aware that without some kind of plan, very few of those things will be accomplished by accident.

Which leads me to a quick recap of my goals from 2019. In the cold language of math, last year was an overall fail. I had 15 goals and achieved 6 of them. Granted, most of those 6 were pretty solid goals that have enriched my life and I tend to operate on the “it’s the not the ones I’ve missed it’s the ones I’ve caught” philosophy, but still… that’s kinda rough to look over.

So how did I fail to achieve over 50% of my goals last year? Funny I should ask that way because “how” is part of the answer.

My goals where lots of what – what I wanted to do – but were very light on how – how I was going to achieve it. The successful goals either already had the how (a plan of some kind) baked in or were ones that I was likely to want to achieve anyways. Having a goal isn’t enough, there has to be a plan – and for myself at least, having the plan built into the goal works the best.

I spent the last week of 2019 coming up with a list of goals in my normal 3 categories: personal/creative, business, and church/spiritual. Now, it’s time to do my second draft on those goals and begin answering some questions. Sure, that’s a nice goal… but how am I going to do it? What’s a simple way to state it as part of the goal so that every time I glance over to see where they’re tacked up on the wall, I see the end goal along with how I’m going to get there.

Optimistic, Though Threats Lingers

Fresh off the presses, or should I say, permanent marker.

I’m still working the kinks out of my morning creative routine, trying to find something that feels natural, feeds my creativity, is easily repeatable, and is something I actually want to do. Maybe a daily blackout poem would be a good addition to the mix?

As usual, thanks to Austin Kleon for the intro to this particularly type of poetry.

Moderate giftedness & temporary excellence

I was clicking through links on an old Austin Kleon newsletter (which I highly recommend) and came across this one on moderate giftedness. It’s an interesting idea that also started me thinking about my place in the world where creativity is concerned.

The upside of the internet and social media is that, like Sly & The Family Stone once sang, everybody is a star. You’re the star in your own movie, you can share what you’re doing with the world, and reveal the most intimate details of your life. It’s a great equalizer in that some unknown musician’s song is passing through the same conduit as the new T-Swift ditty and that your self-published e-book can sit on a virtual shelf next to Stephen King’s new novel.

The downside is the exact same thing. It’s a double edged sword because while more choices can be good, too many choices just crank up the background noise. There’s no contrast.

The idea that at one time, people were special because they were the best at something in their village or family. Now, that doesn’t hold as much sway because who needs to listen to the guy down at the local pub when you can get the best music ever recorded downloaded to your phone in a matter of seconds? Who needs to check out an indie film when you have streaming apps? And even if the pub singer has his music on iTunes and the indie film is on Netflix, what are the chances that you’ll find it?

As a musician and a writer, I’ve seen both sides. It was a thrill to record an album in a professional studio, get the CD’s, and then see our music on iTunes. However, it was always a struggle to get people to come to shows. Why? Probably a mixture of things, but the bottom line is that there’s a whole lot of things vying for our attention. For creative people, that can be an incredible downer.

So what’s the solution? For me, I’ve been trying to make my life a little bit smaller, bit by bit. Slowing down and concentrating on what’s in front of me. I still shift my eyes up to get the big picture, but without focusing on it all the time, I find it’s more awe inspiring rather than depressing.

Does it work? Sometimes. But it’s sure better than the alternative.

Everyday Creativity

To say I don’t enjoy Halloween would be overstating it. I enjoy the candy, the festive atmosphere, and from time to time, I’ve even enjoyed dressing up in a costume. But overall, I have to admit that the holiday is, for me, and overall meh on the excitement scale.

The trouble is the costume. I’ve never had a good eye for these things and lack the motivation for the truly grandiose ideas that have come across my mind. Sure, I could spend months putting together that Voltron costume, or… I could order pizza and watch the Empire of Dreams documentary for the fifteenth time. Pizza and Star Wars wins every time.

Then I read about mundane costumes from parties in Japan, and think maybe I’m not out of the game after all. Costumes that require minimal props, can slant towards the snarky, and require an explanation? It’s almost like this thing was invented for me.

As Rob Walker points out in that post, it’s the combination of observation and creativity that makes it really interesting. Finding those things or moments that we all see but don’t register with everyone until they’re pointed out.

It’s made me think more about the things I write about. The majority of the poems I’ve written come from a personal place and could be considered confessional in nature. A lot of those poems are also born out of moments or images that wouldn’t be considered all that dramatic all by themselves. Someone sitting on the couch playing a game of solitaire. Walking along a sidewalk. Those moments wouldn’t make great action movies, but they do make for interesting settings for a poem. All it took is the patience (or boredom in some cases) to stare at them for awhile.

The script I’ve been working on is another example. It’s not a huge “save the world” sort of thing and the original idea started out with a very simple moment that kept coming back to me over and over, demanding to be looked at more closely. It was the mundane idea of someone sleeping on a couch and being woken up suddenly. That’s it. But eventually, there was some more to it – I just had to be patient (or bored) enough to wait for it.

I suppose it ties into how Stephen King describes stories as fossils in On Writing – how they’re actually all there and just need to be dug out. A little bump in the ground is pretty mundane – almost like someone’s glasses steaming up as they sip a hot beverage.

It’s when you dig a little bit deeper and realize there’s a whole skeleton down there waiting for you that things get really interesting.

The Little Gaps

“The problem is no longer getting people to express themselves, but providing little gaps of solitude and silence in which they might eventually find something to say…. What a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing…the thing that might be worth saying.”Gilles Deleuze

This quote bounced into my inbox this morning via Tim Ferriss’ weekly 5-Bullet Friday newsletter, and came along at just the right time. You see, today is my day off.

My work schedule is based around a print deadline every two or three weeks, depending on the month and how we maneuver around holidays. As someone who spent a few years in a rapid development freelance gig, this is right up my alley and keeps things from dragging on too long (always a danger when timelines get longer with projects). I do appreciate some of the pressure because it forces me to not be too precious with my work. After all, at some point, it doesn’t matter how cool the design is, you just have to get the damn thing done.

On the other hand, the danger of running the creative tank empty is very real. That’s a problem.

I once worked as a recording engineer with a stage actor who was voicing audiobooks. In spite of the books actually paying his bills and buying groceries, he never gave it the proper respect it deserved because he considered himself a stage actor first with everything else beneath that. Which meant his preparation for these books would be spotty, he’d show up late, and generally pitch a fit if we had to spend a little more time with something. Dammit, he was an actor dontcha know!

Thinking of him keeps me vigilant to not let myself slip into the same habits. Perhaps my day job isn’t high art, but it actually requires me to flex my creative muscles constantly in a disciplined way. Ultimately, I’ve found that helps the passion projects because I’m not like the guy who suddenly needs to lift a car off his kid but hasn’t seen the inside of a gym in decades. I’ve been putting in the time, building up strength, and then I get to direct it.

But back to the day off.

One habit I’ve been instituting this year, more or less regularly, has been giving myself a “day off” following a print date. That doesn’t mean I do nothing, it’s just that I give myself permission to get nothing of business value accomplished. It might be a day spent reading or watching movies – taking in some kind of creativity and feeding my imagination. It might be a day spent writing or revising poems or a script (my tentative plan for today) to get something done that doesn’t pay the bills. Could be having coffee with a friend and doing a whole lotta nothing.

No matter what, it goes back to something Joe Strummer once said – “No input, no output.” Keeping that balance has become a rewarding, if difficult, point of focus for me. How about you?

Plumbing

I’ve just spent the better part of an hour trying to get the drain in our bathroom sink to drain properly. Since a lot of the more wondrous and corrosive chemicals don’t play with with septic systems and ours is roughly 30 some odd years old, I tend to lean into the more gentle and natural solutions whenever possible. So a box of baking soda, a gallon of white vinegar, and new plunger were my weapons of choice for this mission.

It’s pretty interesting the things that can be accomplished with baking soda and white vinegar. Baking soda is a nice scrubbing agent for things you don’t want to go medieval on with steel wool and vinegar helps to take the stink out of laundry. Fun stuff and they also work pretty well on drains (in my experience). Well, this time around, it took a few rounds and a bit of work with the plunger, but we’re draining again.

What struck me afterwards was that a bit of regular maintenance would’ve made this job simpler or perhaps eliminated it altogether. The next thought that came to mind was that creativity is a lot like that too.

By keeping the creative muscles somewhat in shape, it’s a lot easier to get into some heavy lifting when you need it; rather than trying to lift a car off someone when you’ve barely done more than lift cans of beer for the last five years. I’ve found myself seeking out new ways to keep creativity supple, or to borrow one of Tom Brady’s favorite words, pliable.

Finding those little routines and disciplines that are the creative equivalent of stretching has been a challenge but also a lot of fun. It’s the reason why I’ve been journaling more on a daily basis and also part of the reason for my yearly reading goals (which I’ve already surpassed for this year!). Even taking in creative helps keep the thinker ticking along rather than seizing up. Because if there’s one thing that I know, things tend to seize up at the worst, or most inconvenient, times.