The genius behind Breaking Bad and some of X-Files' best episodes took part in an ask-me-anything interview on reddit last week, and it was delightfully brimming with inspirational quotes. Gilligan is truly one of my screenwriting heroes, so I gobbled up that AMA like it was egg nog cheesecake.
I wanted to share some of his comments that stood out to me, in the hope you'll also find some interesting lessons on creativity, writing, television, etc.
On the value of writing with others:
For me, working collaboratively with a bunch of talented writers is exciting, entertaining, and yields much better results (and yields them quicker) than working by myself. I think writing by one’s self is a bit overrated. There’s nothing wrong with people working together – not just in writing, but in every human endeavor. I think we need more of it in the world, in fact.
On advice to a film school dropout who is still hungry to work in showbiz:
I think the trick is to find inspiration from your own work. To be inspired by the act of writing and creating in and of itself, rather than to focus solely on some ambiguous "success" that may or may not come of it.
I know that’s easier said than done – we all want our work to be read and loved, and we all strive for fame and success. That’s only human nature, and to deny it would be disingenuous. Still, if we can learn to love the act of writing, and if we can appreciate and be proud of the work that we do -- whether it sells or not -- then we’ve truly achieved something profound. Something with deeper meaning.
Hang in there! If it were easy, everybody would be doing it.
On how he brings depth to his characters to make them emotionally connect with the audience:
Always find something to love about your characters…even if it’s only something small. Always try to find a way to invest in them emotionally. And when you write a scene, always ask yourself: are these people behaving like real, recognizable human beings?
That last bit of advice is something that a lot of writers ignore when they’re in a pell-mell rush to write cool, exciting scenes. To my mind, the most exciting scene in the world will ultimately fall flat if the characters in it aren’t behaving in a way that we can comprehend.
As an example: in a horror movie, when the teenagers split up to explore the haunted house!
A month ago the Professional Writers Association of Canada approached me to join a panel discussion held on March 27 that focuses on building strong client relationships. As a full-time freelancer, this topic has long been on my mind, and I was excited to be part of an advice-heavy night that can help other 'lancers.
Torontonians, you're welcome to join me and two other great freelancers (Sharon Aschaiek and Marjo Johne) on Monday March 27 @ the Miles Nadal JCC, Room 318 at 7 p.m.
As the event description says, "Topics include building rapport with new clients and securing repeat work, the elements of a good contract, how to get paid when they’re not paying, and how to fire a bad client."
The talk is free for PWAC members and $15 for non-members.
In a related post, check out my top 10 lessons I learned as a full-time freelancer.
That's something I used to hear from my father growing up. His lesson would relate to how I shouldn't be afraid of speaking up, of asking for something I want and the worst that can happen would be rejection. So what?
It's a lesson I've taken to heart, such as when I'm asking a retailer if they can negotiate the price of something due to a flaw in its design. Why buy something that doesn't deserve to be priced at its max?
It's a maxim I remember when asking for advice. Sometimes I feel bad about asking this or that person for their take on something, whether relating to dating or poetic ventures or journalism. But there's no shame in admitting what you don't know, and I'd say there's no shame in asking for tips or insight. There is always someone who knows about something more than we do.
So I'd implore you to consider that sentence "You don't ask you don't get" in your daily life. It has its limits, of course, but sprinkling that question in areas of your everyday can be extremely helpful.
This weekend marks the one-year anniversary of venturing into the hinterland of freelancing. For those unaware, I'm a freelance journalist and arts educator, writing for more than a dozen publications and bringing spoken word workshops to schools across Ontario.
I've learned a lot in being a "warrior without a king," as Seth Godin calls freelancers. And I thought it'd be helpful to other freelancers, in any discipline, to learn from what I've taken away from the past year of writing and teaching:
Tonight marks the final improv class I'm taking in this eight-week course at Bad Dog Theatre. I've been all over this Improv 101 class, soaking up the lessons from the talented Nigel Downer and learning from my fellow improv newbies. It'll be weird to have my Thursday nights devoid of this escapist workshop.
I write escapist because it truly is a break from the daily grind of what I do (as much as I love freelancing, arts education). In those two hours at Bad Dog, nothing matters but how I'm reacting to my colleagues on stage, how adept I am at the whole "yes, and?" thing. And it feeds a part of me that needs that kind of nourishment: extending my artistic reach beyond poetry, writing, etc to immerse myself in something totally new and refreshing.
I can see how improv will benefit me in my other pursuits, particularly hosting Toronto Poetry Slam shows and helping run panel discussions on my poetry podcast (more on that another time). Improv is teaching me to go big, express emotions I might not normally access, and find clear ways of saying things that help carry the scene forward. I admit, it was difficult at first; I had to play an intimidating character in one scene and that's an emotion I rarely tap into.
As much as some exercises were a stretch for me, I felt at home with my fellow improv'ers. These were Toronto men and women who just wanted to find comfort on stage, build public-speaking strength, find themselves in a way that isn't the ho-hum. And I can't wait to see where improv will take some of these people.
But as much as my blog title laments the end of these sessions, I don't think improv will just fade from my life. I intend to see where it can take me down the road, perhaps enrolling in the next level of improv classes in the summer or fall. And of course, I'll continue to be inspired by the excellent improv shows Toronto has to offer, at Bad Dog and Comedy Bar and elsewhere. This is jut the beginning.
If you haven't heard of the author Harlan Ellison, I'm actually jealous...because now you can experience his incredible short stories for the first time, unlike the repeated readings I've dug into the past several years.
Ellison, 82 and living in L.A., is a master of speculative fiction whose short story "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" is one of the most anthologized stories ever. Many dub him a sci-fi author, but that box is too narrow; Ellison bridges the gap between magic realism (think Salman Rushdie) and alien-heavy sci-fi, and he does it all with alluring and engaging writing unlike anything I've ever read.
Rather than get into the weeds of how Ellison uses language in interesting ways, I want to encourage you to read any of his stories and get back to me. What did you like, not like? Can you see how today's authors might have been influenced by Ellison? If you read any of his 1960s work, do you see parallels of his central theme still relevant today?
What I've also admired about Ellison is his no-bullshit attitude. One of his best known rants is Pay The Writer, found on YouTube, where he blasts the corporations that take advantage of writers by throwing them peanuts, if anything at all. Dude doesn't mince his words. And yeah, he can be an asshole, but you'll know why once you see the documentary about Ellison and his troubled childhood.
I'll end this ode with a list of some of my favourite Ellison stories, so seek them out any way you can. But try to, you know, pay the writer :)
"I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream"
'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman"
"The Whimper of Whipped Dogs"
"Paladin of the Lost Hour"
"The Lingering Scent of Woodsmoke"
"Mefisto in Onyx"
"Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral"
Never before have I been witness to such slimy attacks on the press. From Donald Trump in the U.S. to Ezra Levant in Canada, mouth-holes with a pulpit are denouncing journalists and news outlets in such a vile way that it feels surreal.
Every time Trump bookends a tweet with "Fake News!" I cringe as sharply as I laugh quickly at such a label. Any bad press will send him cowering to his tweeting stoop so he can blast the very establishment that actually propelled him to the presidency. But that's another story.
Instead, I want to take a moment to encourage you all to pay for the journalism that matters to you. To us. The vital work being done by news outlet big and small. They are under attack by leaders and tyrants, and sadly there are followers who believe every acidic word spewing from their face.
Last week, I subscribed to two publications I've long admired - The Ryerson Review of Journalism and Wired. The Toronto-based Ryerson Review is essential reading for anyone interested in media trends affecting Canadians, and Wired features some of the best technology journalism on the planet. In the coming months, I also plan on subscribing to The Globe & Mail online.
I used to be like a lot of people I know: "Why pay for news articles when so much of it is free?" But I like to think my perspective has matured to conclude that great journalism is worth paying for, and online advertising is not growing enough to help struggling media outlets. Yes, newsrooms can be a heckuva lot more innovative, but if we're paying for our entertainment (Netflix, Spotify) and our technologies (cellphones, smart homes, etc) then why should we neglect the very pillar of information and analysis.
Public figures need to be held accountable. Who is going to debunk the many lies Trump and Levant are broadcasting? What will happen to investigative journalism if it isn't funded adequately?
This month, I implore you, dear Reader, to put aside $40 or so to invest in a media outlet you admire and respect. It could be the local paper or a new online outlet you've been checking out. You'll be helping fund writers and broadcasters who could use your help now more than ever.
It's not about being happy. Or successful. Or loved. All those things are fantastic ingredients to add to the entree of your life, but I've always believed the true purpose of the everyday is to be part of something bigger than yourself.
What do I mean? Contributing to a community or organization that aligns with your interests and values can be incredibly rewarding. Instead of serving your self, you are serving others, and the good feelings that come with that approach are unlike anything you'll experience.
I know this from my own life: I started Toronto Poetry Slam 12 years ago because I wanted to be part of something bigger than my own successes and career goals. Spoken word is a an ancient art form, and I wanted to see how I can be adding some value to the what it's already given to its fans. I began to see how my passion for producing poetry shows was bringing joy and inspiration to those around me, and that was more fulfilling than any paycheque I got from journalism or part-time jobs.
The same with Digital Journal, the news network I used to run. In its early days, it was harnessing the citizen journalism trend coursing from Japan to B.C. and I wanted to be part of this media revolution. To be on the ground-floor of an exciting movement is like starting a band that soon headlines Glastonbury and Bonnaroo. "I was there then!" you can say, as the current of your project ripples to areas of the world you never thought it would go.
A lot of people stress about finding careers or families that will bring them joy. For me, I always wanted to see how I could contribute to a project that didn't wallow in the routine or the been-there-done-that. And if you catch me smiling randomly, now you know why.
A thank-you letter to the teachers who have invited me into their classrooms to bring spoken word to their students
Dear You Awesome Teacher You,
I want to thank you for being open-minded. For being curious about this powerful art form of performance poetry. For expanding your students' minds to help them see beyond capital-P Poetry.
By allowing me to teach spoken word to your students, you've given them a gift that I never had as a kid. Your students are now looking beyond the curriculum to learn about one of the fastest literary movements in modern history. Spoken word and slam poetry has given a voice to the voiceless, and I've seen that first-hand with your students who began the class shy and quiet but finished the class with braver throats.
I want to thank you for letting me workshop with your students so they can share their stories. It isn't easy to do so in school; kids wear masks to avoid being judged, to help them fit in, and with poetry being such a raw art form to share the truths buried inside their chests, these youth are now seeing what is possible with poetry. It's not just lessons plans about dead white people, I like to say. Today's spoken word is performed by people who look like them, talk like them think like them.
You might not know it, but you have given your students a community they can embrace any given week. I have seen how students I've taught bring their poetry to the Drake Hotel for Toronto Poetry Slam, or our BAM! Youth Slam, or Dwayne Morgan's Up from the Roots events. That is a unique gift that not many teachers award to their classrooms, and believe me, it doesn't go unnoticed.
So thank you for being a teacher that I respect because you've given your students an opportunity to inch closer to creative expression and being vulnerable. I only wish you were around when I was in high school.
Markham Village in downtown Toronto is on my mind recently, as it will soon look radically incongruent with how Annex'ers have seen the community the past several decades. With the iconic Honest Ed's soon to morph into, blerg, condos, a piece of Toronto is disappearing into the mist. Or evolving. Depending on which side of the development deal you sit.
So with Bathurst n' Bloor on my frontal lobes, I thought I'd share a fun factoid I came across recently: the Toronto dive bar and nachos utopia Sneaky Dee's first took shop on Bloor across from Honest Ed's. And thus they dubbed themselves Sneaky Dee's, choosing opposite-words for "Honest" and "Ed's", since "Dee's" is a backwards Ed's, more or less.
Sneaky Dee's moved to College Street in 1990. And lo! did the punks and U of T froshies did feast on Hawaiian nachos and all was good in the world.
This trivia won't change your life. But these little knowledge dips crease a smile on my face, since I've always loved learning more about the city I respect and cherish so deeply.
What's your favourite fun fact about Toronto?
About David's Blog
My musings about the arts, Toronto, technology, journalism, sports.