What makes “Breaking Bad” So Good?

lospollosI’m on a quest to answer this question. It started when at a recent community meeting for the Catalyst Club of Redding, the question was asked, “Who do you want to sit at your table for beer week?”

I knew right away. It was the writing staff of “Breaking Bad.” That was my answer. I wanted to see what went on in those demented writing brains of theirs. How did they get a nation to fall in love with a meth-cooking nerd-ass chemistry teacher from New Mexico who recruited his ex-student to cook with him?

When it was my turn to speak, I couldn’t admit the truth. After all, what’s it say about me that I want to hang out with a bunch of writers whose goal is to create a nation of “Breaking Bad” addicts to the point they’re going to need their own 12-step program right about next Monday after the 75 minute finale?

But as a writer, I have mad respect. They’ve tapped into the balance people seek between their need to watch the sordid drug underworld juxtaposed to the very real demands daily living puts on each of us.

Take Gus for example. On the outside he’s so polite, well-mannered and OCD controlled, always presenting nicely, donating to the DEA, etc. He’s community minded. Very professional. He owns a chain of nice chicken restaurants and is not above wiping down tables and taking orders. Consummate gentleman and mentor, he won’t hesitate to change from his suit (hung neatly) into yellow plastic coveralls, slit a man’s throat without changing his facial expression, and change back into his suit and tie. His goal is to eradicate the Cartel (check) in an act of revenge and take over their business, transporting meth in chicken batter, all the while maintaining his calm, cool collective caution.

And there’s Walt. We give him a pass on his above-average meth making skills (oh–and ruthless killing of anybody and everybody who stands in his way) because after all he’s dying and he’s just doing it for the sake of his family. We feel bad because his years of pouring his knowledge out to future generations has not left his family enough security and the opportunity to make millions on his Grey Matter brainchild was yanked out from under him by his best friend and his lover. We feel sorry for Walt, so we say, “Well of course you need to make meth with only 3 months to live. We get that.”

What is it that makes us love these people? Is it the contradictions that characterize them? Is it that the writers use what former screenplay writer Blake Snyder called the Save the Cat technique in his book by the same name? (ie. Make the bad guys good by showing their compassionate side–like as they run away from killing someone, they reach down to save the cat that’s been hit by a car?)

I don’t know what it is, but this is why I’d sit at their table at beer week. I imagine they have stories to tell. Formulas that are 96% sure to work. Crystal blue strategies for success.

Still, I’m not proud that I’m feeling smug having binge watched all seasons of the show (a late comer to the series) in a synchronistic wrap with live finale episodes. I’m not proud that I’m feeling a little panicky about being in San Francisco for the Avon Breast Cancer Walk next weekend where I may not be able to get to a TV in time to catch the last episode LIVE (God forbid I have to watch the recording.) I’m not proud that my husband and I are walking around semi-dazed saying, “What are we going to do when ‘Breaking Bad’–and subsequently ‘Talking Bad’–are not on anymore after next week?” as if there’s an action item we need to have in place to fill the empty Sunday slots that will be staring us in the faces.

Back to the beer-drinking question. When the circle came to me with the beer week question, I just couldn’t come clean. I felt just a little too pervy for wanting to hang with this clan that has addicted a nation to its stories about really high-grade meth production–and that the writer in me was so impressed by that.

“The Ted Talks people,” I said. “And all of you.”

But deep down, I knew I was lying.

Ode to Max

hummingbirdEven as I type this, I hesitate. Some things just belong in a quiet space, locked up and seen only by the key holder.

Then again, that’s pretty contradictory to all I’m about. I tell my kids to live out loud. I tell my friends to live out loud. I tell my clients to live out loud.  I sure as heck better do it, too.

So I’ll tell you my little secret of the week. I’ve been knee deep in studying metaphysical thinkers, specifically the writings of philosopher Ernest Holmes. Holmes hung out in LA in the 1920s with the likes of Albert Einstein and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was heavily influenced by Emerson’s writings and thinking. We have that in common because if I could sit and have a glass of Pinot with anybody in the world, it would be Ralph Waldo himself. (Turns out the first guy I kissed–by the same name–is a direct descendant and we used to have long, philosophical discussions back in the 6th grade which he recently reminded me about. Ralph, if you’re reading this, my sister-in-law Susan and I are looking forward to one of those talks Monday after next at Mama’s on Stockton in San Francisco. We owe it to Max.)

I’ve had a passion for original thinkers as long as I can remember. When metaphysics–ie. that which lies beyond what we can see–was introduced to me by Max Fagerquist, I was fascinated. Max was a large man who wore pretty much the same thing every day: a lemon chiffon turtleneck, a brown houndstooth jacket with elbow patches, non-descript slacks, and dusty cowboy boots. Each day he’d twirl a mint with his tongue, his wire rimmed glasses lost in the wildest eyebrows you’ve ever seen. He’d summon us to non-traditional class set ups (circles), with non-traditional questions (“Why ARE we here?” or “Are we really here?”), and challenge our first AP European class ever to explore the meaning of man from a completely unique vantage point. He made a huge impression on me and my friend, Kevin, and I’m sure many other adults who haven’t thought about him for 30 years.

This week, though, he’s very much on my mind. My mom cut out the obituary that said Max had died at age 74 in a care facility. I called the number. There would be no service. I called the high school where he’d taught. Nobody called me back.

In a synchronistic twist, a friend of mine was teaching a class I’ve wanted to take for years. I ran into her at the Ted Talks last week and she said, “I’ve so been thinking about you. I’m teaching this class and I think you’d love it. Come Thursday.”

I went. I had no idea this would be a continuation of AP European history, but there we were. In a circle.  Not teenagers, but 50 (60, 70) somethings.Talking about the meaning of life, metaphysical perspectives, Planet Epistemology. I could feel Max in the room.

The next morning I rose just before dawn and went out back to do my morning meditation. I like to get out there when at least three stars are left in the sky and stay until I can’t see them anymore. It’s my new thing. I closed my eyes and thought about Max–how I wish I’d went to tell him the influence he’d had over my thinking and writing. How I appreciated the risks he took with our class, his belief in us as original thinkers. How he’d encouraged me to find my own way as a writer and not copy others. He taught us how to question, not just accept. He believed we could do it and made us believe it, too.

When I opened my eyes, pink sky had risen above the line of tall oaks at the far back of our property. The stars were still visible. And in front of my face, one foot away was a steely gray hummingbird like the one up above. It reminded me of his eyebrows.

I laughed. “Well hello there.”

My next thought: hummingbirds don’t come out at dawn–do they? I knew it was a Max encounter.

What seemed like 5 minutes passed with fluttering wings just hovering. The sky turned all pink. There was no darting around in normal hummingbird fashion. He just stared at me with beady black eyes.

I listened. Finally he flew away. I felt full of joy.

I told my husband. I told my friend, Kevin. (They may both think I’ve finally lost it, but as I told them both, the older I get, the less I care. I have Max to thank for that.)

Just before I typed this blog (actually during, to be honest) I Googled the meaning of hummingbirds because I wondered, “Why a hummingbird, Max?”

Here’s what I got on my first look:

The hummingbird generally symbolizes joy and playfulness, as well as adaptability. Additional symbolic meanings are:

  • Lightness of being, enjoyment of life
  • Being more present
  • Independence
  • Bringing playfulness and joy in your life
  • Lifting up negativity
  • Swiftness, ability to respond quickly
  • Resiliency, being able to travel great distances tirelessly

Now, it’s clear. Thank you, Max, for continuing to be my teacher even now. I can’t wait to see what you have in store for our metaphysics class next week.

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Getting in the Conversation

DSCN3513I love Ted talks. I watch them in airports, while waiting for my son’s practice that are supposed to be over but aren’t, wherever I have my phone and an extra 18 minutes. So when I saw the format was coming to the fairly rural community where we live, I high-tailed it down to the box office for tickets.

I was not disappointed.

I live in a rural community where often people lose their vision to the daily grind. They sacrifice new ideas, learning, and vision to the comfort of the way it’s always been, even if that way is unhappy and uninspiring. Conversations revolve around the weather and whatever lines up with a particular world view that dominates a mental landscape. There’s not a great deal of diversity which often means not much diverse thinking. It can feel stale at times. It can rub off on you if you spend too much time rubbing up against it.

However, this past Saturday night there was energy in the air that was motivating and anything but stale. Eight speakers were launched by Shasta Taiko, a drumming group that originated as a group of friends and now performs in Mt. Shasta annually. The performance set the tone: this would be an evening of listening to someone moving to their own passionate beat.

One speaker, Jason Roberts, inspired listeners to make a difference in their communities just by doing things. He pulled off neighborhood restoration projects in Texas, breaking all the rules of what “could” be done, to create lively centers where families came out and brought the cities to life. He had been motivated by a trip to Europe where he saw that people of all ages were out in the streets unlike the “bad” areas near his home in Dallas. The takeaway? Just follow your crazy ideas. Just do something.

Matthew Diffee, a New Yorker cartoonist, talked about his process which starts each day with a whole pot of coffee and a blank sheet of paper. He explained how he comes up with his winners, and promoted “quantity over quality.” As a writer, I did so appreciate this. Gives credence to Lamott’s “shitty first drafts.” (seconds, thirds…) Just hearing how a cartoonist creates inspires me. It all comes back to showing up with the blank page on a regular basis.

One speaker from Cedar Rapids, Iowa was named Andy Stoll. His talk was on “Startup Alchemy and Rural Places.” He said that when he graduated, he wanted to understand how all kinds of people do things, so committed to travelling the world–with no money. My husband and I talked to him after he spoke and asked him how he did that. Bottom line? He just got really good at making friends. He’d tell them the truth–he just wanted to learn more about their culture and how they thought.

What kind of ideas could we manifest if we all entered into this larger conversation with such an attitude? How would this reflect in our systems and structures, in our art and our writings?

After the event we talked to people we don’t usually talk to. We listened to what they were doing, thinking about, excited about. Threaded through those conversations (with various people of all ages) was such possibility and promise. My husband and I even skipped our traditional Saturday night movie (Woody Allen, at that) to continue talking to a young archaeologist and her partner, a young man ready to embark on a micro-biology Masters’ Degree in Scotland. After they left, high school classmate Bill Jostock stopped by the Grape Escape, a small wine bar in downtown he told us about, and we continued the conversation.

The whole night reminded me of the importance of talking to new people about things that matter and old friends about new things. To listen, without agenda. To approach humanity with the idea of being a student of the University of the Universe. It’s no coincidence that the words are so similar.

I Heart My Agent

rachael2

Last week, I finally had a chance to breathe from a whirlwind summer I hadn’t forecasted. (This summer was going to be the relaxing one, I told myself last May. Ha! Joke’s on you @jamieweil the Universe tweeted back in July.)

In that minute, I thought, “Hey. What happened to my manuscript? I sent it to Rachael (that darling under the umbrella) after she sent it to me and I fixed it and she said good and then I sent it back and…where is it again?”

I know the power of thoughts. I try to interrupt those sessions that take place around the conference table in my mind. I fail. Anne Lamott writes about it in Bird by Bird. It’s that part of every writer that likes to have multiple discussions in their head, usually flavored with self-doubt.

Immediately, I did that thing. Crap. She hates it. She threw it away. In the spam folder. Then, my cheerleader voice. Don’t be ridiculous. She loved it. She said you brought it up to a whole new level before. Why would she suddenly hate it? Then, my zen buddhist. All things in perfect time. Then, my hysteria voice, which may or may not be in menopause. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA. (No place else can you get away with that many “thens.” Let’s hear it for blogging.)

I sent her a note, “Not to bug. Just checking on the timeline…” More word ingredients. Same flavor.

This is why I love her. “NO–BUG! I’m so insanely busy…there’s no better time to be an advocate for yourself. If I don’t contact you with a list by next Wednesday, BUG! Please!”

VOICES in unison: See. We told you. (What? Hunh?)

Just knowing I’m not the only one whirling around like the Tasmanian Devil relaxes me. The candor, the kindness–knowing someone else is in it with me and in a bunch of other places at the same time relaxes me somehow and let’s the zen buddhist voice sound through: all in perfect time.

Thanks, Rachael Dugas, for being in it.

Summer writing

writing3I have the hardest time keeping up a regular writing rhythm in the summer. I could do that thing that moms do where they tell you how full their dance card is and how they have to take everybody here and there and the other place, meeting the needs of the world, but before I even get started with that long boring conversation, I’ll recap. I have the hardest time keeping up a regular writing rhythm in the summer. It really all comes down to that.

It’s by choice. I love the shift in schedule that I feel and being self-employed, I can flow along with the change just like in school when finals meant summer had arrived. That really pertained mostly to grammar school since I started working alongside school at 15 and never stopped. But that feeling…when you knew, after all the field trips to ranches (yeah, I grew up in Cottonwood–what of it?) and days on the green were done, you’d have pure open time to do whatever the heck you wanted. I like to pretend I’m still doing that.

Just putting myself at the keyboard to type my three weekly blogs challenges me in the summer. I’ll keep doing it for that reason. But the main summer writing I get done is the “pre-writing” as Ray Bradbury called it once when I spoke with him at the Torrance Civic Center. What he said stuck and was in essence this: just because you’re not sitting alone in a room at a table banging away on a typewriter (he was old school) doesn’t mean you’re not writing. You’re doing that which informs your writing by living in the world, by looking at the grand oak outside your window and imagining it comes to life at night, covered in fairies. (I ad-libbed there–he actually said the roller coaster down on the beach in Santa Monica and how it looked like a dinosaur in the dusk.)DSCN3084

 

By smelling the summer rain across the meadow. By walking through the forest, and listening to the stories from the towering redwoods in the Quail Hollow Reserve.

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From watching your almost 11 year old dog play with the froth of the ocean for the first time on Dog Beach. Through sipping a regional zin in a barn filled with stories with my husband and listening to an old winemaker fill the air with stories while your dog listens at your feet.

I may not excel at summer writing, but I’m good at summer living…

I ask myself three questions every day. I think I got these from Brendon Burchard. I actually put them on my Google Calendar so they pop up on my phone each morning. Here they are:

  • Did I live?
  • Did I love?
  • Did I matter?

I have the hardest time keeping up a regular writing rhythm in the summer.

And that’s okay.

Chasing Eagles

 eaglesWhen I was in high school, my English teacher, Mrs. Jones, was hated by many of her students. Not me. I loved her. I thought she was wise, and smart, and had enough persnickities to start her own Persnickety Store.

One of the reasons I loved her so much is  she made me believe in my writing. The way she did this was with “eagles.” (She was a staunch conservative and I see this now as subliminal training into the Republican  Party.) If a paper was returned with a gold eagle on it, it meant I was “published,” and she sent the papers out to everyone as an example of good writing. Extrinsic motivation at work right there in Anderson Union High School GATE English.

Flash forward MANY years…

Last week when my agent Rachael sent back my edits with a “GOOD FOR YOU” and “I’m so proud and pleased,” I got all eagly all over again. Gold star. A +. I started planning my first book signing. Boy, was I pleased with myself.

Then I had this conversation.

Ego: Ha! I nailed it.

Higher Self: When will you learn?

Ego: Learn what? Did you not see how she just said I brought the whole book up a level? Where’s the Cristal? Pop the cork!

Higher Self: We have so much more work to do with you.

Ego: Buzz kill.

My best work happens not when I’m trying to impress or seek validation or hunt down Eagle stickers. My best work happens when I’m opening myself up and allowing the story to flow through me from some place far greater than me. I am but a willing servant, a conduit. It’s SO not about me.

When I get all stuck in my ego and think I’m so clever (which is hard not to do when somebody says in one way or another, “You’re such a good writer”), my writing pretty much inevitably sucks eggs. It’s distracting, it doesn’t flow, it doesn’t honor the story. That’s not the kind of writer I want to be.

It’s important for me (crucial, even) to keep myself open and present to each moment as it passes by. To be an observer of the eagle and feel its energy as it soars through the sky serves me better than to covet the gold symbol that says I nailed it. If I can do that, while keeping my world in balance and joy–to serve people with what comes out of my fingertips in a way that makes their life better somehow–then that, my friends, is why I’m here.

The Idea Tree

DSCN2871When I was teaching second grade in Manhattan Beach, California, we had Writer’s Workshop. We followed an idea, into words, into a published book fully illustrated.

One question the kids always asked is the same question I’m frequently asked by kids when they learn I am a writer: “Where do you get (and by you they mean I) ideas for stories?”

Easy. The idea tree. You know, back in the orchard behind the money tree.

But, really, this is true. Take this particular tree at the Canoe House Restaurant in Mauna Lani on the Big Island of Hawaii. The characters this tree has seen. The dialogue this tree has lumbered through. The sunsets this tree has witnessed. The whales it has watched play. The slack key it has felt deep down in its roots.

When I travel, I so frequently have a story land on my head. Usually it happens on the plane. I don’t know what it is about being high up in altitude that gets my creative juices flowing, but something does. On this trip, the idea for my next book just landed in as clear as day. Not like I was looking, mind you, as I have a single space four page document with stories I want to write. Nevertheless, it nudges its way up to the front and demands to go next. (Bossy stories.)

Stories are everywhere. Listen to the palm frongs tapping together in the salty ocean breeze. (That one’s for you, QS). Watch the woozles (not their official name, but that’s what they should be called) that were sent over to the Island to control rats but run opposite shifts so now just reproduce–and so do the rats. Walk the land and imagine how it was 300 years ago.

If that doesn’t work, go find the idea tree. It’s waiting for you.

Best Writing Advice Ever

rabbitE.L. Doctorow said once that “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Anne Lamott followed that up with, “You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.”

But if it were this simple, why do we have the constant debate about outlining vs. following the story? Every time I turn around someone is blogging about one or the other as the answer to the holy writing trinity. Here’s the answer.

There’s no one answer.

Writing is so not about absolutes–and that’s the hard part. If there was one formula, one way, every MFA program across the country would be teaching it. Second grade teachers wouldn’t puzzle over, “How the hell are we going to teach these kids to write? I don’t even know if I know how to write?” (We actually had those conversations when I was teaching at one of the top elementary schools in the country and it’s not like we weren’t armed with masters degrees and curriculum.)

We get through school with some teachers (and later editors and agents) telling us we’re amazing and some telling us we suck eggs and we ought to just hang it up. (They usually euphemize.) It’s a very subjective medium. Just join writers (critics, librarians, parents) in a discussion of published books they think are pure genius or crap and you’ll generally get a divided room.

So what’s a new writer to do when writing a first novel? On the first draft of my first novel I followed the advice of Lin Oliver, co-founder of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. The reason I did that was that I’d happened upon her workshop as my first ever and she talked about plot structure that day. She’d come from Hollywood (television) and had learned the 3 Act structure and that’s how she did it. A short time later I met the late Blake Snyder at Book Expo America. He was a third generation screenplay writer and author of Save the Cat. What a great guy. I really liked him. He was funny, nice, and he pitched random people at Starbucks on his ideas.

It was settled. I’d outline. I bought poster board and colored sticky notes. I stuck packets everywhere for my brilliant ideas. Scenes were all over my house in errant places for months. And in the end, I rewrote it all in the first rewrite and it didn’t represent the outline at all. Sigh.

When mentor and friend, and oh–Edgar winning YA novelist–Charlie Price told me how he wrote, I decided to try that. This is the E.L. Doctorow School of Writing. Charlie would say, “Just peer in the window at what’s happening in this scene.” I loved that! And, as an only child who used to plant recorders behind the couch at my parent’s cocktail parties starting at age 6, I had that voyeuristic streak anyway. It was a natural progression. If I just listened to my characters, they’d tell me what was happening.

That’s the approach I’m taking on my current novel. I have the outline in my head, of course, but I’m trusting the story. No poster board or sticky note scenes. It’s definitely more fun even if, as outline afficionados would have you believe, it takes me more time on the flip.

Follow your intuition and know this for sure–in writing, as in life, we are here to explore a diverse buffet of options. It’s how we grow. It’s how we discover. It’s how we create.

The First Draft

biggesteraser“Shitty first drafts.” Anne Lamott says everybody has them. They’re messy.

I like things in neat boxes, so messy is hard for me. Recovering perfectionist type. But letting the story pour out in the first draft feels more fair somehow.

Because of that, I force myself into that place. I let myself over explain, tell far more details than (almost did “then”) anyone cares to know. I do draw a line in the sand on some things–bathroom trips. My characters never go to the bathroom–even in a first draft.

It’s all I can do to power through a whole draft and not go back and edit as I go. (That’s the picture here in case you couldn’t tell–the world’s largest eraser in New York compliments of my friend, Kevin. Thanks, Vin.) Sometimes, I cave. I justify to myself that I can only build accurately forward if I fix the foundation. What kind of house stands on sand, I ask!

Really, if I’m being honest, I just don’t like to see my writing looking messy.

Blogging has helped here, though. You’re getting first drafts. Shocked? No, I didn’t think so.  I don’t pour over each detail, give it the proverbial sit in the drawer test and go back with new eyes. Nope. Misspellings, wrong words, word mishegoss when I’m not looking–all of it pours forth to the universe each and every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday. (Thanks for tolerating that, by the way.)

In fact, sometimes when a blog comes out, I’ll read it just to see how it looks in my email. It may have been a few days since I wrote it (yeah, I’m one of those autoresponder kids). When I read an awkward sentence that I didn’t even know I had the ability to construe, or substitute “our” for “are,” a mistake my second graders even avoided in their writings, I think, “Really? Really!” About an hour later, my husband yells downstairs, “There’s a mistake in your blog.” (He’s my after-the-fact editor.)

It’s hard not to feel stupid. Like maybe the writing police should come and suspend my writing license or something. And then I counter (in my imaginary conversation with myself), “No way! I’m a recovering perfectionist. It’s part of the writing process.” Stuff. Like. That.

Join me. Let the story pour out. Erasers be damned! Embrace the shitty first draft.

 

Wednesday Writes #1

6236_337288503037165_1518858661_nA quick study of the dates since my last dip into the vortex of word fun tells the tale.

Theme #1: This girl needs some writing Metamucil. Or some word juicing. Something to get her moving the keys more regularly.

Theme #2: She likes to write about conferences. Not so much about writing. Or anything else. Just conferences.

There is some truth to both these themes, but as with all things, there’s more when you dig deeper. So I’ve dug, and have uncovered this truth: no time like the almost-end-of-the-world (I know–so 2012) to turn over a more regular leaf. And this is a good thing. Perhaps it will eliminate cliches about foliage from my writing.

What really spurred me on was my commitment to my health coaching clients and to my personal health. I set a goal to write daily through the 2012  holidays and completed that recently. Heck, doing anything every day during the holidays besides wrapping presents is a challenge. Celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas (we like to be safe) makes December a full-time job at my house so just getting through on a regular year is iffy. This year I had an additional four trips to weave through that tapestry.

Still, by keeping this commitment, I realized the value of daily writing outside my normal  writing. I fell back in love with that which had become trudgery. (Don’t go looking it up. the Merriams haven’t learned the word yet, but once they stop being trudgerous, they will.)

I reignited with that part of me that got so excited when I saw my first poem, “Red,” published in the Redding Record Searchlight back in 1971 or so. (Oh, to find that piece of work sent in by my first grade teacher, Mrs. Pope.) I’ve always felt I was put on this planet to write, and when I do it regularly, I’m reminded of that.

Balance is key, though, and I’m working on many projects. I need to organize my time. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

Look for thoughts on writing each Wednesday. If you’re into healthy living, you can find me Mondays here  (www.getstrongblog.com). They go together in my mind since I gained 85 pounds drafting my first novel (too many peanut butter M&Ms–you’ve been warned) and I had to learn how to draft novels without that crutch, a secret of the universe I like to call decaf tea.

I hope you’ll join me through the process, the trudgerous and glorious roller coaster we call writing.