From the lab to the library – Jennifer Zeynab Maccani’s path to “The Map of Hopeful Broken Things”

Jennifer Zeynab Maccani went from working in a Brown University lab to writing a novel in just a few years – a feat I know has the aspiring novel-writers reading this practically salivating over their laptops.

Maccani made a career transition away from academic science to writing full-time in 2015, two years after getting a PhD in Pathobiology from Brown University. Clearly, all those years of research served Maccani well, because she spent six months putting together her debut novel, “The Map of Hopeful Broken Things,” together before signing with an agent and making revisions. In October 2016, just a year after she started the novel, it was sold to publisher Touchstone Books (Simon and Schuster). 

Jennifer Zaynab Maccani, taken by Matthew Maccani, 2016
Jennifer Zeynab Maccani, taken by Matthew Maccani, 2016

It wasn’t as sudden a development as it seems in just these few paragraphs: Maccani published several short stories prior to taking on her first novel, and she is also a member of the Radius of Arab American Writers (RAWI). She also belongs to genius organization Mensa, which probably helps!

In honor of National Novel Writing Month, I spoke to Maccani about her experience writing a novel for the first time, the path that led her to “The Map of Hopeful Broken Things,” and what she recommends for aspiring novelists.

You started out as a scientific researcher. What made you leave that path to pursue writing?

To be honest, I was a writer long before I was a scientist. I wrote my first story in third grade—a spiral-bound, illustrated little story called “If I Were a Kitten for a Day”—and wrote novellas and a few just-for-fun fantasy novels in middle school and high school. I’m a writer for the same reason I was a scientist—I’m fascinated by how the world works. So I continued to write throughout high school, college, and grad school, which resulted in a much better knowledge of and appreciation for the craft of writing. Along the way, I also studied science, because there were questions about the world that I wanted answers to. I’ve always been a curious person.

Writing has always been a necessary part of who I am. For me, writing is like a reflex; it’s how I process my experiences and the world around me. It keeps me sane. So while I eventually realized that academic science was not the right career path for me in the long term, my passion for writing only grew stronger.

Tell me about your forthcoming novel, “The Map of Hopeful Broken Things.” What’s it about, and what inspired you to write it?

“The Map of Hopeful Broken Things” is the story of ten-year-old Manhattan-born Nour, whose family returns to Syria after her father’s untimely death just before civil war breaks out. She and her family flee as refugees across seven countries of the Middle East and North Africa in a desperate and dangerous search for safety. Their journey intertwines with the historically based fable of a group of mapmakers who made the same journey nine hundred years before in a quest to map the world. It is an adult literary novel structured into two intertwining timelines, in keeping with traditional Arab storytelling techniques. The contemporary timeline is centered on a multifaith Syrian American family similar (though not identical) to my own.

As a Syrian American, it has been difficult for me to watch the war that has raged in Syria for the last five years. I’m incredibly thankful that I’ve been able to keep in touch with my Syrian relatives and that they are, for now, safe. But I know that this is unfortunately not the case for all families. I am always aware of how much others have lost. We say a lot of prayers in my household. At the same time, seeing how Syrian refugees are discussed in the news in my own country convinced me that I had to do something to try and engender more empathy for the people of Syria, for refugees, and for victims of war in general.

I set out to write a novel that would help readers to empathize and identify with Syrian refugees. I wanted to introduce readers to the Syrian people as I know them—beloved family and friends; Christians and Muslims; smart, resilient women who love to laugh; men who recite poetry and are excellent cooks. I wanted to help break the stereotypes around Syrian and Arab people while also helping readers to learn more about the Syrian conflict and refugee crisis.

I hope that “The Map of Hopeful Broken Things” will humanize Syrian refugees for readers. I hope it will help readers to understand, as I do, that were it not for very slight differences of luck and geography and circumstance, any one of us could be in the same situation.

You’ve also published short stories: what was the biggest difference between working on a novel and working on a short story?

When you write short stories, you learn how to make every word do as much work as possible. You have to choose your language to not only relay the plot, but also to convey voice, tone, and theme at the same time. You learn to use structure to reflect your subject matter. You learn to get to the point as quickly as possible.

When I write a novel, I try to think of each chapter as a short story—with the same thematic development and clear throughline that a short story would need to have. Thinking about my writing that way helps me to bring focus and intensity to my work.

For me, though, the biggest difference between a short story and a novel is that a novel requires more stamina to complete. Novels also usually require bigger themes—they have to sustain themselves for the length of the work. Not every story is enough to support a novel.

What would you say was the greatest challenge of writing a novel? And how did you approach the project?

With “The Map of Hopeful Broken Things,” I sort of knew that the novel was bigger than I was, and that intimidated me a little. I started by doing a huge amount of research, using as many primary sources as possible. First and foremost, I did everything I could to educate myself and listen to the accounts of people who had been through the types of experiences I would be writing about. I continued to do this kind of research throughout the writing and revision process.

Aside from the enormous research involved, the greatest challenge I had with “The Map of Hopeful Broken Things” was that I had to balance the two intertwining timelines without one overshadowing the other. I had to make sure that they mirrored each other thematically without being too obvious about it, and I also had to make sure that the voices were different enough that you could tell which was the contemporary timeline and which was the historical fable. But those challenges were also what made the novel fun to write.

What advice would you give to someone starting a novel for the first time?

First of all, read a lot! Read as many novels as you can in the genre you want to write, but don’t just read novels and don’t just read that genre.

Don’t put too much pressure on the first novel you write. Write it because you’re passionate about it and because the story is its own reward, not necessarily for publication. You will likely need some time to hone your craft. While you learn, try short stories. Try flash fiction. Try poems. Try different styles and voices and structures. Give yourself permission to play. Writing a novel is different for everyone. You will likely need to create your own system based on what works for you: the right amount of research, outlining, and revising. If you’re like me, you’ll probably only figure this out after you write your first novel. And that’s okay!

As you learn, look for people who understand your vision for your work. Find a trusted critique partner. Ideally, this will be a person who can put their own preconceived notions aside and ask: what are you trying to accomplish with this piece, and how can I help you accomplish it? It is more important to find someone who will be totally honest with you than someone who will sugarcoat a critique. My first critique partner was—and still is—my husband, Matthew, whose keen suggestions never fail to help me improve my work. I am honored and privileged to have the incredible help of my agent, Michelle Brower, and editor, Trish Todd, now, but critique partners help you to give only your best work to your agent and/or editor. Remember, an objective eye will spot issues that are sometimes invisible to the writer.

Beyond honing your craft, write what you yourself are excited to read. Write the most honest thing you can muster. This is especially true for marginalized writers. Don’t be afraid to write the world that you see around you. Write about things and people that matter to you. Write your truth. For a long time, I was hesitant to write about Arab American characters like me, interfaith families like mine, women who had survived and thrived after experiencing trauma and violence, or life in diaspora. I didn’t see a lot of those stories or characters in books; I didn’t see myself reflected much on the page. But I found that when I sat down to write, it was a relief to talk about those things. It was a relief to start writing stories where someone like me could be the hero of her own story. The words came out faster then, and the stories stronger. My writing improved when I put more of myself into my work. I think readers can tell when you are passionate. Passion is infectious.

Still, there were a lot of people who tried to discourage me along the way, and people will try to discourage you, too, especially if you are a writer of color or are otherwise marginalized. Don’t let them. Others have done it before you, and you can do it, too. Your stories are necessary and valid. You will find wonderful people who will appreciate and champion your work. But you have to finish that work first.

So read a lot. Take your time. Find critique partners you trust. Find the joy in your work; it will get you through the hard times and rejections. And when you’re ready, write the book you want to read, because somewhere out there is someone else who needs that book, too.

Quibble with the world:

Nadia watches Netflix: Gotham Season 1

A couple weeks ago, I binged the entire first season of “Gotham” on Netflix. “Gotham,” for those of you who are unaware, is a prequel of the Batman lore and follows Jim Gordon and his budding police career. We also get to see a young Bruce Wayne as he copes with the aftermath of his parents’ murder.

I was intrigued by “Gotham” not because I’m a Batman aficionado (I watched the animated series as a kid, but that was about it), but because Gordon is played by none other than “The O.C.’s” Ryan Atwood, whose IRL name is, Wikipedia informs me, actually Ben McKenzie.

The 2000s was really my heyday in terms of pop culture awareness, so Ryan (that’s his name as far as I’m concerned) is one of a few select group of television stars that I recognize on sight (others include Rory and Lorelai from “Gilmore Girls” and Kristen Bell, who will forever be Veronica Mars in my eyes. You thought I was kidding when I said the 2000s were my heyday, didn’t you?).

Anyway, I wanted to see what Ryan was up to, and I sunk like a rock into the dark world that “Gotham” imagines. I got through the first season almost compulsively because nearly every episode ended on a cliffhanger and I had to see what happens next. But it’s also a very violent show, so I needed a break between seasons. In the meantime, I thought I’d summarize everything I liked and didn’t like about the first season. Fair warning, there are spoilers ahead:

I liked:

  • Jim Gordon: I like Ryan in this new role. I mean, Jim Gordon is essentially a grown-up version of Ryan Atwood, complete with “strong, silent type” demeanor and a predilection towards emotionally unstable blonde girls.
  • Baby Bruce Wayne: It’s actually kinda fun watching a teenage Bruce Wayne develop the skills that he would utilize as Batman later on. Plus the kid who plays him, David Mazouz, is a surprisingly good actor.
  • Alfred: is badass. Seriously, I don’t know how he got the job as the Wayne’s butler, but clearly they were anticipating needing more than just a guy who can answer a door because Alfred is one tough cookie.
  • Harvey Bullock: Donal Logue makes everything better. I just love him.

  • Fish Mooney: I don’t know why, but something about Jada Pinkett-Smith in this bizarre and overly dramatic role just speaks to me. Actually I do know why: it’s because I like watching a tiny lady stab giant men. I’m super bummed she was drowned(?).

  • Edward Nygma: His descent into madness will clearly be the highlight of the next season.

  • Oswald “The Penguin” Cobblepot: He gives the me the heebie-jeebies, but I kinda want him to see him become the ultimate mob boss. It’s that physically underwhelming guy being the one in control thing again.

I didn’t like:

  • Selina Kyle: For a street urchin, this girl is surprisingly well-groomed and well-dressed. I’m not buying it. Scruff her up a little!
  • Barbara Kean: I knew she was crazy the minute she came onscreen, because a) see predilection for unstable blonde chicks referenced above, and b) she basically didn’t have a personality at all until the last third of the season, and unfortunately when writers don’t know what to do with a character, they make end up making her crazy.

  • Leslie Thompkins: This character is played by the girl who was the barista with crazy eyes on “How I Met Your Mother,” and once you’ve seen crazy eyes on a person, it’s hard to unsee them.
  • The Dollmaker: This was a stupid subplot and a giant waste of time.
  • Victor Zsasz: I like the actor, but I don’t get the character. There are already enough visibly disturbed people on this show. What is he adding here? Not much from where I’m sitting.
  • The city itself: Are we even going to pretend that this isn’t actually New York City? Not gonna even try? No? Okay then. Seriously, it’s jarring to be sucked into the story only to have it interrupted by what is obviously the New York City skyline. I’ll pretend that “Gotham” takes places in an alternate universe where New York City just has a different name, but I won’t like it.

 

Quibble with the world:

The five fatal flaws in fiction writing – NaNoWriMo2016

Hello quibblers! In celebration of this year’s National Novel Writing Month, I’ll be shelving the book reviews and media commentary to focus on the craft of writing. Hopefully, aspiring NaNoWriMo-ers will find this information helpful as they write and, ultimately, rewrite their stories.

In this installment, we’ll be discussing an oft-asked question by writers old and new: what are the flaws that I should avoid when writing?

I did some research, and there are the five flaws in fiction writing that I think writers should be most aware of:

Telling instead of showing

This is a crucial part of all kinds of writing, but especially in fiction. You are the reader’s lone guide through the story you’ve made, and as vivid as it may seem in your own head, that won’t translate to your reader if you continously tell your reader about the story instead of show them what is happening. Let’s say, for example, that you’re writing “Maria had always had a wonderful relationship with her mother, but lately she’d been cold and distant.” Instead, describe a moment where Maria goes to her mother about something and the mom is unenthusiastic and unengaged. Show Maria being heartbroken, feeling that her mother is ignoring her, uninterested in her. That will translate to your readers so much better.

Troping your story to death

Look, there’s a reason why tropes exist, and it’s because they’re familiar. They make sense to us. And it’s fine to use tropes within your story if you feel that it’s what the story needs. What’s not fine is for every character in your story to fit in some kind of trope, and for every storyline to follow the well-worn paths of those before it. If you’re motivated to write a novel (in one month!) then it’s probably because you have a unique story in you that you want to get out. And yeah, maybe it follows the traditions of its genre, but it shouldn’t be an amalgam of everything that tradition has to offer. Think outside the box a little. Throw a wrench in there that’s atypical to the style of stories in that genre. Flip a trope on its head and see what happens. Sometimes, little things like that executed well can make a story stand out from others in the genre.

But! Be extra careful with tropes that are clearly racial or sexist in nature: the Ice Princess, the wise old tribal leader who speaks in cryptic imagery, the nagging housewife, etc.

Uncle doesn't want to read your story about how he gave you tea and told you not to look for material things and it changes your life. Seriously, Uncle is over it.
Uncle doesn’t want to read your story about how he gave you tea and told you not to look for material things and it changes your life. Seriously, Uncle is over it.

Pacing

This is one that I wouldn’t have considered if I was just writing this post off the top of my head, but pacing is actually crucial to a story. In many ways, pacing is your way of manipulating time within your story. In “Writer’s Store,” Gerry Visco advises writers to look at their story scene by scene (so basically, storyboard it) and see how the scenes fit together. Are some scenes to fast, to slow? Does the sequencing need to be changed to make more sense? Is the climax followed by an immediate drop in the action, or is there a more nuanced slow-down in the pace? These are all things you can see better when you take the story apart scene-by-scene.

Remember, too, that a story doesn’t have to move at a break-neck speed to be good. A lot of the advice online about pacing your story discusses speed, but it’s important to give your characters (and your readers!) moments to breath, collect themselves, and get ready for the next adventure.

Inconsistency

There are lots of types of inconsistency in writing, but the ones you really want to watch out for are the kinds that directly impact your characters or your plot. Things like inconsistent characterization (is he a level-headed thinker or an impulsive fire-cracker? Because he can’t be both.) and warped timelines can really throw a wrench in your reader’s concentration. In fact, many authors start their writing with a timeline of events and a character description for each person in their story so that they can stay on track.

One-dimensional characters

This one almost goes without saying, but it’s still worth saying because it happens all the time. Especially with secondary characters, it’s easy to for you to forget about them as your hero trudges on through your story. But every character in your story should serve some purpose, and that purpose will not be truly fulfilled if we only ever see one aspect of them.

This happens a lot with villains, too, where their only goal is chaos for the sake of chaos, evil for the sake of evil. The villain in your story should have a purpose, something that drives them to do what they’re doing, and that purpose can’t just be “I want everything to go to hell!” Make us understand where they’re coming from, why they’ve chosen this path. The X-Men in particular does a good job with this, where although Magneto’s goals (and his methods for achieving them) are obviously horrific, we can see why he is the way he is. Although the trauma he’s experienced doesn’t justify his actions, it does shed light on his motivations, and gives a logic to his refusal to join the X-Men.

That’s my take on some of the major flaws in fiction writing. What do you guys think of these flaws, and what are some you think writers should avoid? Share in the comments below!

Quibble with the world:

Link Bank October 2016: Spooky fun facts for Halloween

I’m going to level with you: I’m not a fan of Halloween. The kids are cute, sure, but I never understood why you don’t just buy the candy you want and eat it at home. At least then you’d always get the candy you like!

“Give me the Reese’s! Give them to me or die!”

Clearly, however, the rest of the nation feels very differently. Regardless of whether you love or hate the holiday (is it a holiday if you don’t get the day off?), I guarantee you will be spooked by these fun facts.

25 real facts that make common fears less scary – Cracked

“More people are killed by vending machines than by sharks.”

40 scariest books of the last 200 years – The Lineup

“All of Poe’s poems are scary, but this short story [“The Fall of the House of Usher”] in particular—about a crumbling house whose inhabitants are riddled with anxiety—will give you chills.

(This is true. I read the this story in English class several years ago, and it still haunts me.)

Handy Halloween guide explains how much candy it will take to kill you – The A.V. Club

“You’d probably be throwing up like crazy long before you reach either of those limits, but they still seem weirdly low.”

8 super weird things you didn’t know about Halloween – The Huffington Post

“In some parts of Ireland, people celebrated Halloween by playing romantic fortune-telling games, according to Nicholas Rogers’ “Halloween: From Pagan Ritual To Party Night.” These games allegedly predicted who they’d marry, and when.”

7 weird Halloween facts that will scare the wits out of you – Mirror

“There are all kinds of urban myths about the mean old crone or crazed madman in the tumble-down shack slipping poison or dangerous items into cakes and candy for the unsuspecting cherubs who knock on their door on Halloween. But in reality almost every case of Halloween candy tampering has been performed by a family member.”

Quibble with the world:

Frustrated? Embrace the potential for creativity

Are you familiar with the “group project” memes that have germinated all over the Internet?

Does this one resonate particularly strongly with you?

Via Tumblr
Via Tumblr

If you answered yes to these two questions, boy do I have good news for you!

In a TEDTalk, “Financial Times” columnist and author Tim Harford put forth the idea that frustration actually improves creativity and problem-solving skills.

Using examples from social psychology, rock n’ roll, and the German opera, Harford shows how disrupting factors – the things that trip you up, ruin your work, and complicate your process – are actually helping you think outside the box and do better.

According to Harford, strategic, predictable step-by-step processes can lead you to a dead end. You can only see what’s already there, and if there’s something wrong with your process, you can end up making the same mistakes over and over again. When you introduce an element of randomness, you’re forced to approach things differently, which makes for an end result that is new and different from what you’ve done before.

This isn’t just a theory. In practice, it’s called “oblique strategies” – a group of index cards list disruptive (and frankly annoying) things you can do to create obstacles in the creative process, and you pick one at random and implement it.

Because this whole idea is so counter-intuitive (making things harder makes them better? What?), our natural instinct is to shy away from it. What kind of masochist wants to make the difficult and often emotionally and physically draining task of making something even more complicated?

This is why, Harford says, when life doesn’t supply the randomness, you have to force yourself to find way to throw a wrench into your own plans.

So the next time you get an A+++ on a group project, you’ll know who to thank:

these-guys

You can find Tim Harford’s books on economics and creativity at the Creative Quibble bookstore.
Quibble with the world:

The bizarre world of home improvement television

In case it isn’t already incredibly obvious, I watch a lot of television. What can I say? We get some pretty good channels at our place.

One of the channels we get (which will remain unnamed, lest I anger the Producers That Be) is dedicated to real estate and home renovations. If I had to guess, I’d say that this channel runs around eight different shows at a time. “Different,” however, is a strong word. These shows all run on one of two premises:

  1. A couple are moving to a new city and looking for a home in which to live. Both have very specific requirements for this home which are, more often than not, irreconcilable. A harried real estate agent accomplishes the impossible – finding them a home they both like – by showing them exactly three houses.
  2. An old house, rundown by time and probably weather, having suffered the neglect of man and woman and finally abandoned by the populace, is rescued from obscurity by a kindly, creative couple/siblings/single person determined to give it a new lease on life and on ownership, so that it may once again fulfill its housely destiny as a home for a family of three/five/seven/eleven/etc.

So, eight programs, all based on premise or the other. It is amazing to me that this kind of situation can occur and apparently be very profitable for said channel, although given the fact that there are approximately three separate “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” shows on at any given time, perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised.

And let’s face it, that’s basically what we’re watching, isn’t it? Yes, it’s interesting to see what you can get for your money in Chicago or wherever, or what kind of furniture goes with blue wallpaper, but that’s just a sideshow next to the real entertainment.

Why can't they indeed, Liz Lemon.
Why can’t they indeed, Liz Lemon.

What’s truly entertaining is watching couples bicker about budgets and yard size and “curb appeal,” a term I learned recently. It’s a short window into the relationships, but through it you can glimpse (and snigger) at the power dynamics. You’d think there’s enough conflict on television, but apparently not.

I don't know if these two are married, but they should be.
I don’t know if these two are married, but they should be.

 

Regardless of the whys and hows, it’s obviously a winning formula, because it seems that every time I turn on the television I see an ad for a new show based on the exact same premise. Clearly, this unnamed channel and its army of real estate agents and contractors are raking it in.

It makes you want to get into the real estate industry.

Quibble with the world:

So much for man’s best friend: A review of “Fifteen Dogs” by Andre Alexis

Several months ago, a very dear friend of mine gave me the book “Fifteen Dogs” as a present. Unforgivably, I did not get around to reading it until fairly recently despite the fact that I was instantly intrigued by the book’s premise.

In “Fifteen Dogs,” Canadian writer Andre Alexis imagines a world where the Greek gods of old walk among us. Two, Apollo and Hermes (the god of music and poetry and the god of transitions and boundaries, respectfully), take an interest in fifteen dogs who have the extreme misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time – a veterinary clinic in Toronto. Apollo bets Hermes that dogs would be miserable if given human intelligence, while Hermes is convinced that at least one will die happy.

It’s a dog eat dog world

You can already guess that this does not go well for the dogs in question, who wake up in the middle of the night at the clinic and decide to escape their lives of servitude to carve out their own destinies. Over the course of the book, the dogs do what we humans did – develop a language, form a societal hierarchy and a culture, and, eventually, get into fights about what the language and culture should entail.

So far, so good. I mean, that’s how our species evolved, and look at us now! Sitting at the top of the food chain, lord of all that we see, unimaginable technology at our fingertips. Granted, we mostly use it to maim and/or kill each other and destroy the very environment from which we derive our needs, but let’s not get to bogged down in the details here.

Fairly quickly conflict arises, as some dogs seek to preserve their inherit “dog-ness” by refusing to acknowledge or develop the intelligence that was thrust upon them, while others want to see how far they can take it. One in particular, Prince, who develops poetry (it’s very nice, and believably doggish), quickly becomes a target of the top dog (hah!) and his allies. They are then forced to pursue alternative paths and find themselves unable to survive without the care of a pack or a human, and at the same time unable to ignore the new instincts that challenge and conflict with the lower status of pets.

I know humans suck, but still…

It’s not surprising that things go downhill so quickly. What is surprising is the way Alexis portrays dogs, even from the beginning, as being suspicious of and even hostile to humans. A few remain loyal to their current owners, and most of them have fond memories and a genuine love for their original owners, the ones they knew as puppies. There’s actually a very heartwarming scene towards the end where Hermes makes up partially for all the trouble he’s caused by rewarding one dog with a vision of the child he’d adored, but it stands in stark contrast to how dogs view humans in the rest of the book. At best, it seems, we are a necessary nuisance to dogs, performing the functions of the “alpha” of their pack, but not inspiring any more love than your average boss or teacher does. At worst we are vicious, cruel, unpredictable creatures who are best avoided.

Granted, that last sentence is a pretty apt description for humanity at large, but it was surprising to see it so clearly articulated from the dogs’ perspective. I expected more of the “man’s best friend” view of dogs, where their loyalty and sweetness is contrasted with our fickle nature. I’m not particularly fond of dogs myself – the small ones are adorable but I’m pretty sure that one day the bigger ones are going to turn on us and decide that fresh meat is better than packaged dog food – but even I was like “geez, I thought you liked us!”

Overall, I really enjoyed “Fifteen Dogs.” It’s well-written, it’s different, and it really makes you think about why we as humans use the gift of intelligence so cruelly. If you have a dog, however, you may find it very disconcerting. At a minimum, you’ll think twice before you ask your dog to roll over again.

Quibble with the world:

The world of stand-up comedy with director Logan Leistikow

Meet documentary film-maker Logan Leistikow. The Los Angeles-based director has been making movies in the comedy circuit for years, and his latest documentary, “Walton,” chronicles the experience of stand-up comedian Walton Jordan.

Logan Leistikow at the American Idol Press Line.
Logan Leistikow at the American Idol Press Line. Logan was the digital producer at American Idol.

I connected with Logan via Twitter, and he was nice enough to answer some of my questions about “Walton” and his work in comedy.

Tell me about your background. How did you get into directing? What drew you to the field?
As a kid, I always wanted to do something creative when I grew up. It morphed from being a cartoonist to painter to musician, etc. I just wanted to be an artist. Eventually, the magic of movies drew me in. Star Wars and high concept productions like it made me want to be a blockbuster director. I loved the idea of making my cinematic vision come to life.
 
I actually moved out to Los Angeles with that intention. However, because I was not born into the entertainment industry, I had to find my own pathway in. It just so happens that my first big break was producing Tom Green Live, a comedic celebrity talk show. After that, I very much stayed in the lane of talk/unscripted shows and comedy, if only because that is where my resume took me.
 
I have to say, though, that I have fallen in love with making documentaries. You can capture and create real emotion, tone, and production value on a shoestring budget and with a small crew. This offers ultimate film-making freedom, as well as the adventure of unpredictability and improvisation.
What was the first thing you ever worked on? What was that experience like for you?
Well, I guess the first thing ever was my high school senior video, which was just a ripoff of jackass.
 
In college, my friends and I made some video sketches that went viral and got me featured on IFC, which was pretty cool. One of those videos was also a part of a Yahoo! contest where celebrity judge Tom Green said “These guys should have their own sketch comedy show!”
 
That eventually led to a job at Tom Green Live once I moved out to LA. Getting that gig was surreal. Having heard Tom’s compliment on the Yahoo! show, I applied to work on his talk show. He personally called me on the phone, invited me to lunch, and then showed me his studio and hired me all in the same day. It was a bit overwhelming, but it was just the beginning of my journey.
Tell me about your new documentary, Walton. How did you meet Walton Jordan? Why did you decide to do a documentary about him? And what was the experience like?
Walton is a good friend I have known for years. We met way back in 2007 at a Comedy Garage show. He’s such a sui generis guy with a magnetic personality, he belongs on stage/screen.

 

Poster for "Walter," courtesy Logan Leistikow. Now available on Amazon Prime.
Poster for “Walter,” courtesy Logan Leistikow. Now available on Amazon Prime.
I also wanted to present a homeless person who breaks the mold of what people expect. A lot of us make assumptions about the homeless. Although Walton actually indicates he IS homeless by choice, you can’t help but root for him…even if you would never do that to yourself. It humanizes the homeless.
 
Shooting the documentary with him was so fun and exciting I’m very likely to make more docs about him.
How do you approach a documentary project? Walk me through your process.
Every project comes together differently, but I always search for fascinating people who have a passion. 
 
For the Comedy Garage, I actually attended a show and said to myself “I must make a documentary about this.” It was pure inspiration. I eventually saved up enough money and favors to make it happen. We shot a three camera stand-up show, and interviews leading up to it over a long weekend.
 
Walton, on the other hand, was shot sporadically over a year in our spare time. I edited as we went and I think that really helped the pacing of the piece and told us what shots we had to get next. I also filmed a minidoc called “Trees” that I filmed by myself in one day with no concept until I hit the editing bay.
 
My advice would be to find what you are passionate about and cover that in your own way. Figure out what is logistically practical and use your creativity to make it sing. Do you have a client? Do you have backers? Do you work for a network or news organization? Are you independent? Do you know someone who can help? Everything is a factor, so there is no instruction manual. You have to be dynamic.
Your work seems focused on comedians. Is there a reason for that?
There are two main reasons for this: Comedians have a job of holding a mirror up to society and ultimately that is my goal as well. The comedians I know are the most open and honest people around and that makes for really great interviews.
 
Comedians are also the epitome of freedom of expression and tolerance. Even the squeaky cleanest stand-up comedian you know is exposed to some raunchy humor in their career, whether at open mics or when they open for another comic. They have to tolerate, appreciate, and respect different approaches to humor and different perspectives on endless subjects. The comedy scene in LA is more of a marketplace of ideas than people realize. Its also very diverse.
 
That being said, I also have productions in development that will not be about comedians.
 
What’s your advice to aspiring filmmakers looking for inspiration? What would you say to those looking for backing for their work?
 
When asking for backing, make sure you have your ducks in a row. Be ready for any question, anticipate parts of the pitch that the backer may not like, and pitch for a higher budget while having a plan for a much smaller budget ready. It helps to know your backer personally and appeal to him/her in a personal way. Maybe he/she owns a business that can have product placement in the film. Maybe he/she has a soft spot for animals, so pitch an animal related project. Your creative vision will have to adjust to reality and your planning will have to incorporate what your backer will want.
 
Again, every production comes together differently, but the bottom line is you need to impress your backer with how knowledgeable and prepared you are.
 
Also don’t be afraid to just start working even if no one will back you yet. Remember that films like “Clerks” and “Grey Gardens” had no backers and are now classics. “Walton” also had no backers.
 
As for inspiration: its everywhere. [Ask yourself:] What movie do you want to see that doesn’t exist yet?
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Is writer’s block a real thing?

You ever hear yourself talk about why you can’t do something and get this nagging feeling that maybe you’re just making excuses?

That’s how I feel whenever I hear the phrase “writer’s block.” It feels like the kind of thing you say when you just can’t muster the energy or willpower to work – an adult version of “the dog ate my homework” if you will.

Then again, I do experience what I legitimately believe is a sense of obstruction, a lack of inspiration, a feeling like the words are slipping in and out of your consciousness. A mental constipation. Just when you think you finally need to go,  you’re right back where you started from.

Walls and blocks seem to serve as a metaphor for a lot of bowel-movement-related advertising lately.
Walls and blocks seem to serve as a metaphor for a lot of bowel-movement-related advertising lately.

So is writer’s block a real, proper affliction of the mind? A quick Google search (good ole Google – yes you will one day rule us all with a Big Brother-esque dominance, but you will be a gentle and informative master) assures me that writer’s block is real enough that many trusted resources have dedicated time and space to addressing the issue. Purdue OWL, my go-to dispenser of wisdom for matters of APA comma placement, has several suggestions based on why you have writer’s block – you’re too stressed out, you don’t want to write about the topic assigned, you want to write about something without knowing what that something is (this, I assume, is their euphemistic way of saying ‘lazy.’)

In my experience, writer’s block is more likely to happen when you don’t have a clear vision of what you’re doing or where you’re going. That’s not what causes writer’s block though – I think the cause is probably a combination of mood and a lack of interest in a work or lack of belief in it. Those are the things that prevent you from writing at all, that have you staring at a page, having only been able to come up with “BY [NAME].”

[This, in fairness, is how I start all my writing projects. It’s part narcissism, part ease, part “I forget to put my name on an assignment once and got a zero” paranoia.]

When you know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there, it’s always easier to write. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to know the end, but you know the point. Even if your phrases are stilted and your vocabulary has seemingly shrunk to somehow include only words that would be more suitable for a 40-page treatise on the history of economic theory in Western thought (one of the many pleasant side effects of grad school), you can still write. It may not be particularly good, but it’s there and good can always come later. It’s when you don’t know where you’re going or why you’re writing that even the most creative and original ideas will sit on your page undeveloped and unfulfilled.

What’s a gal to do?

Of course, this is not exactly a breaking development in the understanding of writer’s block – in fact, a book my dad bought me when I was a teenager counselled exactly this: know where you’re going to end up before you start. It’s good advice and one that I should follow more often.

The problem is if you do have a really interesting (I won’t say great since it seems presumptuous, nevertheless feel free to assume it here) idea but you don’t have a vision for where it’s going to go, do you jot it down and then sit on it until you figure it out, or do you work with it to the best of your ability and hope that inspiration strikes eventually? Because when I do the former, I end up with a bunch of promising but unwritten stories, and when I do the latter I get writer’s block.

Writer and author Henneke Duistermaat doesn’t say exactly what I should do in this case, but she does have a lot of advice on how to overcome writer’s block. For her, it’s all about getting out of that routine that can sometimes suck the life out of you. Change where you write, she advises, or even the time of day you sit to write. Switch out your fonts, or hey, even change the color from boring black to intense hot pink. The idea is that change in your surroundings can jumpstart your mind.

James Altucher, who writes some really thought-provoking stuff on LinkedIn, says, “Start with the blood.” Sometimes the most frustrating part about writing is that you know something good is coming up in your plot, but you can’t seem to find your way there yet. So just jump ahead! It’s the kind of thing that would never occur to my linear mind, but it’s genius as far as I’m concerned.

Of course, not all advice is golden, and not all of it will work for everyone. For example, Altucher suggests reading before you start writing, but for me, that just serves to muddle my thoughts and distort my style. I’m a bit of sponge that way. But what I do find helpful is visual inspiration – just scrolling through photos and artwork online can motivate and encourage me. That is what originally motivated me to compile a list of all the websites I go to for inspiration.

So, in conclusion, there exists sufficient evidence to determine that writer’s block is certainly perceived as being very real by many established writers. If nothing else, that should at least comfort those of us who are still amateurs.

What do you do when you have writer’s block? Tell us in the comments!

 

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Artist Geneva Benton shows us a world of color

You might recognize her better as Prinnay on Tumblr or GDBee, but however you know her, artist Geneva Benton makes an impression. I first started following her on Tumblr, drawn immediately to the bright bold colors that are a hallmark of her work. Her characters are nothing short of inspirational, and so I was really excited when she agreed to be featured on The Quibblerview to talk about her background and art style.

When did you first begin to become interested in art and drawing? What sparked that interest?

I started drawing since childhood but didn’t get serious until the late teens. I just really liked drawing, but then played a game called Chrono Cross, which sparked me wanting to draw and inspired me quite a bit more.

Bubble Tea by GDBEE
“Bubble Tea” by Geneva Benton (GDBEE).
As a self-taught artist, what were the resources you depended on to develop your skills?

I have tried watching streams on how other artists work and tutorials that they make. Also just starting and eye balling what makes someone else’s style so great. Doing the occasional study on anatomy, animals, etc is also quite helpful. Quite a bit is experimenting.

One thing that really attracted me to your work is how amazingly colorful it is. How did you develop that style?

Since I was a teenager, I’ve really admired an artist named Benjamin Zhang. His artwork is especially colorful, with hues and shades used so drastically and artfully. For the most part, my style is inspired by his color use.

"Taurus" by Geneva Benton.
“Taurus” by Geneva Benton.
Where does your inspiration come from?

Mostly random things. The way paint looks and chips off a wall. A single kiwi. I really have trouble explaining it.

Your art also features a lot of black women. Is that intentional on your part, to broaden the representation of black women in art? Or is it a reflection of you and your community?

Well, it’s what I know. I’m a huge cute stuff and anime fan and also black, so it’s all subconsciously boiled together and out comes the art that I do. I am trying to broaden these horizons but it’s definitely my comfort zone.

"Reach" by Geneva Benton/
“Reach” by Geneva Benton.
What advice would you give to someone looking to become a professional artist or freelance as an artist?

Freelancing is technically working professionally. I would say study on what you need to get started and amass enough savings for a couple of months to cover initial freelancing expenses. And do good work! Do good work and a lot of work will come to you. One of the most challenging things is finding work, but refining your craft always increases the odds.

What’s a project you’re working on now that you’re really excited about?

I was on course for Kickstarting an artbook but it’s been put on hold till next year, for time reasons. Otherwise, I’m just making whatever feels cool at the time, until another idea hits me that is less time consuming than a book.

Geneva Benton will be at Anime Weekend Atlanta from September 29 – October 2, 2016, at the Renaissance Waverly Hotel & Cobb Galleria in Atlanta, Georgia.
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