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Three Meditations on a Gorilla Suit: Letting objects tell their stories

gorilla

One of the things that spurs my creativity is to consider the impact of a specific object on my life. What stories surround it? Why do certain objects seem to capture energy and hold it? Some objects seem to acquire meaning over time. Other objects seem to explode with energy all the time, changing the world around them.

While thinking about that, I wrote a piece about the various meanings behind a gorilla suit I bought.

Three Meditations on a Gorilla Suit When Throwing it Away

I.

The day we started selling gorilla suits at work, I had to try one on immediately. It’s a big reason why I work where I do. Some people wouldn’t understand the compulsion to put on a gorilla suit when fate presents a gorilla suit, but I absolutely had to.

The suits were “one size fits all,” so I threw one on and ran around the building. If you want to be creepy in a costume like that — which is really the point — you have to be completely silent and refuse to answer people’s questions. At first they laugh, then they smile, but soon they’re nervous and contemplating the nearest route to safety.

As usual, one size fits all turned out to not apply to me. My overly long mid-section stretched the costume to its fullest and as I reached up to mime picking a banana, the crotch ripped out.

I broke it, I bought it. After applying our generous employee discount, I was now the owner of a gorilla costume. In my eyes, this was far from a tragedy.

—-

My wife and I have game that we play with one another. We don’t have a name for it, but the general idea is to not acknowledge that the other person is doing something strange. If, for instance, my wife were to put on a Tammy Wynette wig and greet me at the door with a big kiss, if I laugh or ask her about it, I lose. No reaction, no matter what, is the only way to win. The only other rule is that you have to continue the behavior until the other person acknowledges it. So, if you don’t smile or laugh, the other person has to continue looking like an idiot until you let them off the hook.

This is an amazing game and I recommend it.

So, that night, I waited for her car to pull into the parking garage and then slipped into the gorilla suit. My pug, Roscoe, looked at me startled for a moment, but as soon as he saw me move in the suit, he knew it was me. In fact, even my moving around in a gorilla-like manner and reaching out for him only resulted in a slight tail wag.

When my wife walked in the door I was in the gorilla suit watching TV with Roscoe on my lap and a remote control in my hand. No reaction except her usual greeting.

I got up and hugged her. She chatted with me as if nothing were different.

Gorilla suits, actually character costumes of all kinds, are like mobile fur-covered sweat lodges. At first you smile at the discomfort, but after a few minutes, you start having hallucinations from the heat. It’s basically like that desert scene in Oliver Stone’s movie about The Doors. In fact, I’m convinced that Jim Morrison’s tight leather pants probably caused him to hallucinate even when he wasn’t taking other drugs. In any case, I was in there, hot as hell, convinced that my wife wasn’t going to win this one.

I am the gorilla king, I can do anything.

My wife started cooking dinner and I went into the kitchen to talk to her. The heat from the oven made it even worse and I could feel myself getting dizzy. She had been home less than an hour and I was about to break and give her the win. I was weak.

My hand went up toward my head to pull off the rubber mask with its tiny nostril air holes, when she took pity on me.

“I see you got a new product in at work. Did you buy it or borrow it?”

She didn’t smile, just tilted her head and tapped her foot.

The mask was off so fast that I caught myself mid-breath and ended up gasping in the cool air like a drowning swimmer surfacing for the last time.

II.

My family rented a vacation house in the San Juan Islands one summer. It was in the woods, not tremendously remote, but the closest house was about a quarter mile away.

My wife and I had secretly brought the gorilla suit with us and kept it hidden. We also peppered the conversation over a couple of days with mentions that in the Pacific Northwest we were in Bigfoot country. Telling everyone they should keep their eyes open.

One night, during the first episode of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, I snuck away. I grabbed the gorilla suit and ran to the bushes outside. At the appointed time, my wife called everyone over to the porch claiming that she had seen something in the distance. Something hairy.

I shook branches, but didn’t come out right away. I figured the more mysterious it was, the more their imaginations would run away.

My sister said, “I see it over there; it’s some kind of animal!”

I ran across the field, getting closer to them as I swept from bush to bush. Never letting them get a clear look at me. One of my sisters ran inside to hide or, she later claimed, to look for the phone. My father snapped pictures as quick as could.

I heard a scream and decided to let them off the hook, pulling off the mask. They all laughed. I was now down in the annals of family practical joke history.

None of my father’s pictures turned out. He was moving too quickly and the camera was shaking. That coupled with me running meant that the pictures were about as clear as any picture of the actual Bigfoot.

Everyone acknowledged that they had been tricked except my mom. She said, “I thought it was one of the neighbors dressed up in a costume and running toward the house. If it had been some crazy guy who lived on an island in the woods wearing a gorilla costume and menacing tourists, it would have been much scarier than if it were Bigfoot.”

I couldn’t argue with that.

III.

Years later, I was cleaning out my closet, sorting clothes into bags for donation, dry cleaning or garbage. I couldn’t decide whether or not to keep the gorilla suit, so I set it off the side.

The next morning I set a few bags down for the collection truck and took a few more into the dry cleaners.

When I got home from work that night, I found a bag of my dry cleaning. I would have sworn that I had picked it all up, but there it was. That was when I realized that I had dropped off the gorilla suit.

My dry cleaner is Korean and his English is patchy. He had told me that he liked me for two reasons, I always knew the exact count of my shirts when I brought them in so he didn’t have to count them and I paid in cash. That will give you a pretty clear picture of our relationship from his perspective.

I called him on the phone and said, “Hello, this is David Wahl. I think I made a mistake when I dropped off my clothes this morning.”

He started laughing really loud, “You played a joke on me! I opened the bag and screamed. I looked around for the cameras to see if I was on TV.”

“It was just an accident, I didn’t mean to -”

“You are a funny man! So funny.”

When I went to pick it up, he had the whole staff come up and laugh. I think it must have been the most exciting thing that ever happened in the shop except for the time they were robbed.

Now whenever I take my clothes in and he’s at the counter, he makes a big deal out of looking in the back as if he expects a cobra to leap out and bite him on the face. Then he smiles at me and points to let me know that I won’t be tricking him again.

“You are so funny, I never know what to expect from you.”

—-

I am now deciding once again if I should throw the suit away. It is ten years old, tattered and dirty; it even has twigs still knotted in the fur from my run in the woods. It’s hard not to feel that its purpose has been fulfilled — that all the meaning that one could wring out of a gorilla suit has been wrung.

Part of me wants to take it to the bus stop down the street late at night and set it up as if it were waiting for the bus. Or, to abandon it in the park as if someone stripped it off quickly and left its pieces in a trail to a cliff. Or, leave it hanging in the closet for our next tenant to wonder who would own a gorilla suit and then forget it. Even if it’s done for me, perhaps the time has come to release the suit’s power onto the world and let it become a prop in the story of the life of someone else.

If you see a homeless man in Seattle dressed as a gorilla, think of me.

Man smelling gorilla suit

Here’s a picture of an older gentleman smelling my gorilla suit before I bought it at the Archie McPhee store.

 

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David Zucker’s 15 rules of comedy

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David Zucker, one of the minds behind movies like Airplane and The Naked Gun, set out these fifteen rules for comedy. They’re smart rules. If you break them, people probably won’t laugh. Of course, rule 15 applies to any list of rules when it comes to creativity.

Some of the apply only to comedy, but others apply to most creative work. For example, the rule about two jokes at the same time canceling one another out. This is just a good reminder to give each part of your story or song its moment or it will get lost.

These were written many years ago, so the references are a bit outdated. (Especially OJ)

1. JOKE ON A JOKE: Two jokes at the same time cancel each other out. When an actor delivers a punchline, it should be done seriously. It dilutes the comedy to try to be funny on top of it. Likewise, if there is something silly going on in the background, the foreground action must be free of jokes and vice-versa.

2. ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: Actors in the foreground must ignore jokes happening behind them. At the end of Naked Gun, Priscilla Presley tells Leslie Nielsen, “Everybody needs a friend like you.” They never acknowledge O.J. Simpson’s wheelchair careening down the steps and launching him into the air.

3. UNRELATED BACKGROUND: A joke happening in the background must be related in some way to the action in the foreground. The reason why the O.J. Simpson joke works is because he’s flying through the air as a result of being slapped on the back by Drebin.

4. BREAKING THE FRAME: Don’t remind the audience that they’re watching a movie. This is the rule most often legally bypassed, but a movie has to be a strong one to withstand more than one or two of these.

5. TRIVIA: A joke using references so arcane that few people will ever get it.

6. JERRY LEWIS: Don’t use a comedian in a straight man role. Scenes in a parody ought to mimic the real thing. That means, basically, follow Rule #1. You’ve got funny lines in the script. If you add comedians (and “funny” character names, “funny” wardrobe, etc.), it’s a joke on a joke.

7. AXE GRINDING: When the joke is overshadowed by some message, it gets unfunny fast.

8. SELF CONSCIOUS: Any jokes about the movie itself, the movie business, or comedy itself. A strict no-no because it prevents the audience from being invested in plot and character.
9. STRAW DUMMY: Where the intended target is set up by the writer instead of real life. Even if the joke hits the target, who cares?

10. CAN YOU LIVE WITH IT?: Once a joke is made, it can’t be allowed to hang around after the initial laughs. In Naked Gun, Frank and Ed are seated in a car, their lips turned ridiculously pink from the pistachio nuts they’re munching. But one scene later, when Frank goes snooping in the bad guy’s apartment, he’s got to be clean. It’s kind of like buying a personalized license plate. How long can “I H8 MEN” be funny?

11. THAT DIDN’T HAPPEN: Something that totally defies all logic but is on and off the screen so fast that we get away with it. Example: Robert Stack in Airplane! yells to Lloyd Bridges, “He can’t land, they’re on instruments!” And of course we cut to the cockpit and four of the actors are playing musical instruments. Seconds later, in the next scene, the saxophone and clarinets have disappeared. If it’s done right, no one in the audience will ask where the instruments went.

12. LATE HIT: You know a particular target has had enough when it’s been raked over the coals by Leno, Letterman, the MTV Awards, etc.

13. TECHNICAL PIZZAZZ: Special effects don’t necessarily mean funny.

14. HANGING ON: Don’t play a joke too long. When it’s reached its peak, get the scissors.

15. THERE ARE NO RULES

My Head is Like a Factory: Creativity in the Industrial Age

Myhead

I ran across this chraming poem by Butler Brannan in an old magazine on Google Books. Oringinally published in 1901, it compares creativity to a factory. The brilliant bit is that it acknowledges that we don't always control what the final product of that factory will be.  I think we've all had days when our heads produced nothing but hair.

My head is like a factory,
the windows are my eyes;
The Furnace is my mouth, – you see
I feed it meats or pies.

And when its Hunger I appease
My Head will do its share,
Sometimes producing Rhymes like these
And sometimes only Hair.

Songwriting Ideas From Wikipedia – Black Francis Interview

Village Voice Frank Black
Black Francis, lead singer of the Pixies, and incredibly prolific solo artist as Frank Black, gave the Village Voice an interview on his creative process. A lot of it is very specific to songwriting, but I thought this snippet was universally valuable. Beware, if you view your creativity is a fragile flower with magical inspiration from another realm, his method might seem a little mechanical. All I can say is that I have used this exact method before and it works.

Sometimes, you have an idea in your head and it’s just looking for a connection to bring it into the real world. Looking at random things can help it to take shape and connect it to reality more quickly. Plus, you’ll get to surprise yourself.

 

In the case of Svn Fngrs I had no idea what I was going to write about, but I was really up to the gut to try to go above and beyond the call of duty. And so I was under the gun and I was like, ‘Okay, what the hell am I going to write about here? What am I going to write about?’ And I literally just started doing the random article search function on Wikipedia. And I did this for quite a long time late one evening in a very tired state, and somehow I stumbled upon the article for demigods. And I was like, ‘Oh, demigods.’ And then, of course, ‘Okay, well what is a demigod? And who was a demigod? What do they mean by demigod?’ And, of course, on something like Wikipedia one article has other links in it and suddenly you’re off, you know. So the Internet has become a really great resource for me because I’m not a deep researcher. I just want to have an impression. I just need to find out some facts. I’ve already got my little concept going. My little concept is already in place, but I just need some facts so when I rhyme “phone” with “zone” my couplet – well, hopefully it has some artistic merit on its own, regardless of what it’s about or if it’s about anything – but if it happens to be about something, it’d be nice if it was sort of backing up some cool fact about the subject. It’s satisfying, I think, for the listener and it’s satisfying for me.

 

Douglas Adams On Creativity and Inspiration

douglasadams
Douglas Adams is one of the great comedic writers of the last 100 years. He wrote for Monty Python and created the enduring Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy series. He was also a great thinker. I have collected a few quotes of his that relate to creativity. My favorite quote is the one about beliefs: “If you don’t change your beliefs, your life will be like this forever. Is that good news?” An excellent question.

I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.

Having been an English literary graduate, I’ve been trying to avoid the idea of doing art ever since. I think the idea of art kills creativity.

The world is a thing of utter inordinate complexity and richness and strangeness that is absolutely awesome. I mean the idea that such complexity can arise not only out of such simplicity, but probably absolutely out of nothing, is the most fabulous extraordinary idea. And once you get some kind of inkling of how that might have happened, it’s just wonderful. And . . . the opportunity to spend 70 or 80 years of your life in such a universe is time well spent as far as I am concerned.

Writing is easy. You only need to stare at a piece of blank paper until a drop of blood forms on your forehead.

A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.

He was a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher… or, as his wife would have it, an idiot.

It is a rare mind indeed that can render the hitherto non-existent blindingly obvious. The cry ‘I could have thought of that’ is a very popular and misleading one, for the fact is that they didn’t, and a very significant and revealing fact it is too.

Let us think the unthinkable, let us do the undoable. Let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all.

See first, think later, then test. But always see first. Otherwise you will only see what you were expecting. Most scientists forget that.

If you don’t change your beliefs, your life will be like this forever. Is that good news?

You live and learn. At any rate, you live.

Eliminate Other People’s Imagination

Nick Mamatas, controversial writer and editor, was asked by someone whether or not they had the potential to be a great writer. He posted his answer and it’s a fascinating discussion of good versus great, the value of practice and turning on the pilot light of imagination.

The whole answer is worth reading and debating, but I wanted to point out one particular bit because I think it has a universal truth that applies to all creative work.

The goal of the practice is to negate the negation — to eliminate the use of other people’s imaginations instead of your own. You must negate and negate and negate until there is nothing left but you, your right hand, and that woodchipper. Do you think it is clever and responsible to find “balance” in your life by keeping a day job and writing every other weekend? You should cultivate a loathing for yourself, for such advice, and for the pathetic circumstances of existence — bills and kids and private property, that makes that advice seem so sound. Do you think “real artists” run around from lover to lover, living off the fat of the land and friendly patrons one might meet in midnight cafes? Embrace the reality that you are a hopeless poseur playacting the neuroses of a couple prominent writers and zillion awful pigs from the last century. All that has come before is worthless, except for those few people you realize were using their own imaginations and not the mass imagination, and their work.

As you can see, Mamatas is not out to make any friends. Even if you disagree with him, what he says is worth thinking about. How much of what you do is just you? How much is just everything that came before you projected on to you? What do you need to do to grind away the inessential, unoriginal parts of your creativity?

By the way, I just read Nick’s book Under My Roof and thought it was great. Also, his submission guidelines for Clarkesworld are extremely funny.

Link to answer

Advice For Completing Projects

Warren Ellis, novelist and comic writer, wrote a great post about the best way to complete a project that people will want to consume. He frames it around Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible web project

Part of his point is that you have to earn people’s trust before they will pay attention to something big. Instead of starting with a huge epic or a full length feature, start with something small and manageable and build.

The three strongest points he makes are, “Be Short, Be Bold and Get It Done.” Later in the article he adds, “Be Great.”

He adds:

I can’t tell you how many new hopeful comics writers I meet who have never finished anything in their lives because their intended first project is a hundred-episode epic that creates a whole new universe or three. And I tell them all the same thing: you’re screwed. No-one will want it. Not until you’ve written something short, capable of being produced on a budget, and finished. Your epic may be worldchanging, but no-one will ever know because no publisher will gamble that kind of money on an unknown. And that’s before you get to the vagaries of the attention economy.

I think this is fantastic advice, especially with web content. I know people who won’t even start a video on youtube if the length is over five minutes. Produce enough brief, memorable stuff and people will flock to your longer, more complex stuff. Build an audience, create desire with tiny savory snacks before you serve up a meal.

Also, limitations can be a powerful way to inspire yourself. Challenge yourself to Be Brief, Be Bold and Get It Done!

Read the whole article here

Improvise Your Way To A Better, Faster First Draft

One of the major schools of improvisational acting (improv) developed not as an exercise for actors, but as a tool to help creative writer’s develop new material and overcome blocks. Improv itself is really the art of trying to present a first draft of a play that’s so good it’s worthy of an audience. It doesn’t always work, quality wise, but with improv you always get something.

Without an audience, you have the ability to go back and perfect your draft until it’s fantastic. Instead of this making writers feel free to do whatever they want in their first draft, many people have difficulty even completing a first draft. It occurred to me that these rules might help writers free themselves up while writing.

Following these simple, basic rules of improv will get you a completed first draft and, over time, improve the quality of your first drafts of both fiction and non-fiction. There are great stories that break all these rules, so they really aren’t rules so much as suggestions. In my opinion, it’s better to break one of these rules in a second draft rather than the first.

1. "Yes, and…"

This is the most basic rule of improv. In fact, this is improv in two simple words. The idea behind these two words is that you always accept what came before and add something new.

In acting, the "yes" part of the phrase means not denying what someone else does or says. In terms of sitting and writing your draft, this means that as soon as something is down on the sheet of paper it is part of the story. There is no going back and switching around details because you got a better idea, it’s down in ink. I think more things were written this way before the word processor, but now it’s always easy to go back and change.

Now, let’s talk about the "and." This addition to the phrase points to not repeating things over and over again. Each sentence should add something to the story or move it forward. So, you accept everything that has already happened and add something new. Each sentence should expand the world of the story or move it forward.

Taken together, they create an unstoppable force creating a world and telling a story.

2. C.R.O.W.

This is an acronym for the most basic parts of a story that need to be established fairly quickly for a reader to want to continue with the story. They stand for character, relationship, objective and where. Withholding one of these pieces of information too long results in a twilight zone story where everything is just killing time until a last minute piece of information changes everything that happened before. You’re much better off giving your reader this information and letting the story follow its natural path. It belongs at the beginning of the story.

WIthholding this information will make your audience lose patience with you.

3. Start in the middle of the action.

Try to start with characters that already know one another involved in an action. Starting with a a couple leaving a dry cleaners with a stolen wedding dress and tuxedo being chased by the shop owner is far better than starting with two characters who have never met sitting on a bench. Strangers need to introduce themselves and have no emotional connections, which means more work for you and more patience from your readers.

4. Listen

I know you’re not listening, you’re writing. So, really this one should be "read yourself carefully." Everything you need to tell your story is right there. Often, people don’t figure out what they’re writing about until later drafts. Reading as you write will allow that process to speed up.

Also, have your characters listen to one another and really respond to what’s said to them.

5. Details

Be as specific as possible in your details. If a character is reading, he isn’t reading a book, he’s reading Bridges of Madison County or Highlights Magazine or a copy of the Constitution. Every detail is important. Training yourself to be as specific as possible in your first draft will charge what you write with meaning.

6. Justify

There are no mistakes, justify what you write. If there is confusion or contradiction explain it. Repeated mistakes are a theme! However nonsensical something is in your story, make it natural and real. Justify justify justify. If it truly doesn’t belong, cut it out in the second draft.

7. Change

Some of the worst improv scenes are when all the actors refuse to let their characters change. Story is change, if nothing changes there is no story. Don’t love your characters so much that it becomes like bad fan fiction where the familar character run through familiar situations and say familiar things and leave ready for the next adventure with no emotional impact at all.

8. The end is in the beginning

Don’t pull in some outside force, deux ex machina, to end your story. Look at what initiated the story and find the solution there. Walk backwards into the future figuring out where to go next by examining what has happened before. If a story starts with someone cleaning a gun, someone will probably be shot in the end. If a story begins with a farm boy who wants to be a hero, it will end with that boy either becoming a hero or not becoming a hero.

Automatic Writing – Creativity Tip

Autom_2
Automatic writing has an interesting history. The name contains what it is, just sitting down and writing without trying to influence what comes out with ideas about meaning or story or spelling or even being interesting. It seems to have started with spiritualism, as a means of contacting the dead in the afterlife, in the 1800s. The spiritualist movement was really about women trying to have positions of power in a society that limited them.

So, automatic writing served two purposes. One, the person doing the automatic writing could pretend that the writing was coming from somewhere outside themselves. Two, other people would take it more seriously because they thought the women were just a means for the message to be communicated. By removing the idea of authorship from the writing, both the writer and reader were free to judge the writing for what it was rather than prejudging its source.

The next group to use it were the surrealists who also did automatic drawing. They believe it was a channel to the "genius of creativity" in all of us. Also, they were attracted to the strange images and rhythms it produces.

I don’t think automatic writing is a message from another world or the key to your subconscious mind, but it is a useful tool for producing raw material.

Here’s a short guide on how to do it.

Find a comfortable place to sit with a flat surface in front of you. Get a pen or pencil and some blank paper.  Clear your head, go neutral, then begin writing as fast you can.  If you find yourself stopping, just use the last letter of the last sentence you wrote as the first letter of the next sentence and keep going. Don’t stop to correct, alter or  insert a better idea, this is simply a big dumping ground for you to produce raw material that you can use for whatever you want later.

Write as long as you want, you’ll know when it’s over.

I recommend putting it aside for a day before reading it. It can be a revelation or a complete disappointment, it doesn’t matter because you didn’t put any effort into it.

Try it. I promise you’ll be entertained. If you feel better pretending that you are channeling a voice from somewhere else, go ahead. That way you don’t have to take the blame for what happens. If you decide to do that, you can pretend you are channeling the voices of aliens, fairies, half-dog half-men that live in the swamps of West Virginia, David Lee Roth or President Taft. Maybe it will make it better!

After all, like all good games this has no rules.

 

How To Write Moving Picture Plays

While browsing through the public domain books in the Google library, I found one called How to Write Moving Picture Plays that was written in 1914 by William Lewis Gordon. It has some good advice (Is your climax strong enough?), some common sense advice (Write only on one side of the paper.), and some advice that is now laughably bad.

Here is the first paragraph of the section called "Kinds of Plays to Avoid."

Avoid any scenes or suggestive complications that may offend good taste or morals. Avoid scenes of murder, suicide, robbery, kidnapping, harrowing deathbeds, horrible accidents, persons being tortured, scenes attending an electrocution or hanging, violent fights showing strangling, shooting, or stabbing, staggering drunkards, depraved or wayward women, rioting strikers, funerals, and all such scenes of a depressing or unpleasant nature. Do not make a hero of a highwayman or escaped convict. Do not reflect upon any religious belief, nationality, or physical deformity. Thousands of men, women, and CHILDREN of all classes, nationalities, and creeds witness these pictures daily. We may occasionally see some play depicted which is contrary to the above advice, but they are the exceptions, and are to be avoided. Give your story a clean, wholesome, pleasant tone, leaving the few morbid tales for others to write. These tales of crime are growing less every day, and consequently the photoplay is growing better.

Quentin Tarantino would have no career!

It’s a quick, fun, 26 page read.

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