Monthly Archives: August 2013

Writers Who Hate Writing

Sometimes I wonder whether I’m really cut out to be a writer. Not because I think I’m a talentless hack, mind you. I firmly believe that anyone can master an art if they apply themselves. Writing is no different. Any lack of ability on my part could be mitigated with enough practice. No, what’s bothering me is the simple fact that I don’t really like writing.

Actually, that’s going to far. I like writing. It is a very enjoyable experience and my life would be diminished without it. The problem is that I don’t want to write. I don’t want to be creative. I mean I want to, naturally. I want to write books, make movies, learn how to draw, play an instrument, etc. But  I don’t want to actually start writing, filming, sketching, or practicing. There are so many things that are both easier and more fulfilling in the short term. I could read an interesting article on the internet, look at funny pictures, watch a movie, read a book, or even do the dishes. I am an incurable lazybones.

So it’s natural that I sometimes wonder whether I’m cut out for this kind of thing at all. There are some people that can write for hours on end. Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in only nine days. The very idea frightens me. I feel like I’d rather bake bread or build birdhouses for 9 days straight than write. So why do I want to be a writer at all?

Still I will not be disheartened because I know I’m in good company. One of the most inspirational comments I ever heard came from my English Professor. He was a man who obviously knew his stuff, and a bit of a aspiring writer himself (of the fancy pants “literary short stories” kind which I’m usually not a fan of, but still). He certainly was much more a writer than I am. Yet one day he mentioned to us that he had a lot of trouble actually sitting down and writing. He would find any distraction possible in order to get out of writing. Normally hated chores suddenly became pleasant distractions. He’d rather grade hundreds of papers than write another short story. Still he was a writer and he loved writing. I take his words to heart, and they’ve been a great encouragement to me.

Another writer who encourages me is Roald Dahl. I enjoyed his children books, of course, though I always managed to read the ones that were less popular. I didn’t read James and the Giant Peach or Matilda until I was a teenager, but my bookshelves held such classics as Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, The Twits, and The Giraffe, the Pelly, and Me. To most people Roald Dahl is nothing more than a children’s author, but as I entered my teens I discovered (through the useful medium of my older brother) Dahl’s large collection of short stories. Most of these stories were deciding not for children, and often featured grotesque, outlandish, and overall strangely twisted characters. I ate them up. He became one of my favorite authors and I later had the immense pleasure of getting to read his autobiography Boy (which is actually one of two autobiographies, and only covers his childhood). In it I found a quote that still comforts me whenever I feel that I don’t enjoy writing enough to be a writer. He writes:

“The life of a writer is absolute hell compared with the life of a businessman.  The writer has to force himself to work. He has to make his own hours and if he doesn’t go to his desk at all there is nobody to scold him. If he is a writer of fiction he lives in a world of fear. Each new day demands new ideas and he can never be sure whether he is going to come up with them or not. Two hours of writing fiction leaves this particular writer absolutely drained. For those two hours he has been miles away, he has been somewhere else, in a different place with totally different people, and the effort of swimming back into normal surroundings is very great. It is almost a shock. The writer walks out of his workroom in a daze. He wants a drink. He needs it. It happens to be a fact that nearly every writer of fiction in the world drinks more whisky than is good for him. He does it to give himself faith, hope and courage. A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul and that I am sure is why he does it.”

I know I want to be a writer. So I’ll keep plugging away at it, even if I don’t enjoy it as much as I think I should.

(This has all been a very roundabout way of saying that I’m sorry and that I’ll be trying my hardest to get the blog back to updating three times a week)

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Mark at the Movies: The Soloist

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Recently I had the pleasure of watching the 2009 film The Soloist for the second time. The film is an adaptation of a true story, and from what little research I’ve performed it’s fairly accurate. The main character is Steve Lopez (played by Robert Downy Jr.), a journalist working for the LA Times who needs a story idea. As he’s wandering around town he encounters a homeless man playing a two stringed violin. For the heck of it he strikes up a conversation and learns that this man’s name is Nathanial Ayers (played by Jamie Foxx) and that he appears to be somewhat mentally unstable. Ayers talks rapidly, throwing out observations about the world and observations about music laced with sudden non sequiturs and what seems like nonsense. Amid all this jabber Lopez hears that Ayers claims he attended Julliard, the prestigious art conservatory. Lopez, thinking it might make an interesting story if true, does some research and confirms that Ayers was a student at Julliard before dropping out in his second year. He hunts down Ayers, talks to him a while, and then does so more research. Slowly the full story is uncovered. Ayers was a talented cellist, and was dedicated to music and hard practice as a young man. His skill and hard work got him accepted at Julliard, a huge step up for the son of a poor hairdresser. Unfortunately Ayers began to experience symptoms of schizophrenia while attending. The disease led to him dropping out, and eventually to him ending up homeless on the streets of Los Angeles.

At first Ayers is just an interesting story for Lopez. He’s just another of a long list of possible article ideas. “Homeless man, once brilliant musician, now plays a two string violin on the sidewalk.” It’s the kind of story that people are interested in reading. One reader, an old woman who used to play the cello before arthritis took away her ability, donates her instrument to Ayers so that he has a decent instrument to play. Lopez delivers the instrument and continues to interact with Ayers in the hopes of getting more columns out of him. As Lopez enters his world and interacts with other homeless individuals stuck on the streets he find himself slowly caring more about Ayers as a friend than Ayers as a story lead.

This movie also features the most compelling and horrifying depiction of schizophrenia I’ve ever seen. Ayers suffers from auditory hallucinations (in other words, voices in his head). Most depictions of schizophrenia I’ve seen the medium of film feature harsh, rough, demonic voices laughing and mocking the person in question. Others depict the voices as monsters or talking reflections, etc, which is pretty heavy handed and lacks authenticity. When Ayer’s voices arrive they take the form of a calm woman’s voice with excellent pronunciation. The voice is not emotional. It sounds much like a very professional woman announcing evacuation instructions over a PA system. It’s the content that is frightening, as the voice informs Ayers that everyone can hear his thoughts, that he shouldn’t think, that he must be careful, etc. The woman’s voice is loudest but with her comes many other voices, each equally calm, and each saying something different. The effect is powerful. After watching Ayers lose his composure under the onslaught of voices I felt like I could understand his experience. It was very real. I can easily imagine what it would be like to have voices like that in my head, and to be unable to silence them. I did some research, and found that many psychologists were pleased with the film’s depiction of schizophrenia, saying that it was fairly accurate.

As Lopez and Ayers become closer Lopez tries to help Ayers improve his life. He convinces Ayers to play his instrument in a safe place, at a local homeless shelter. David, the shelter’s director, understands the homeless much better than Lopez. Lopez wants to fix Nathanial: he wants to set him up with an apartment, get him on medication, etc. This is understandable, but Nathanial doesn’t want an apartment, and he is extremely resistant to seeing any kind of psychologist. One thing Ayers would like, however, is a friend. Ayers doesn’t see Lopez as a benefactor who can help him, but as another person who he enjoys talking to. This captures the struggle we face when trying to help the homeless. We want to set them up with things; a house, medical care, a job, etc. These are all good, really good things. But if we think of homeless only as people who are defined by their lack of possessions then we are missing the point. The forces that lead a person to the streets are many, varied, and always complicated. They can’t be solved quickly or easily. If you go out to help the homeless don’t be surprised if some of them take offense to you trying to “fix” them.

Yet the opposite stance is also clearly wrong. We can’t just put ourselves at ease by saying “Well the homeless don’t always want the things they lack. It’s just a different lifestyle choice. Throwing money at the problem doesn’t work.” These people do need help, and your money can have a big impact on their quality of life. The problem is that their problems cannot be solved with a little cash and some discipline. If all a homeless person needed was some money and a place to stay, then there would be a lot less homeless on the streets. Go talk to someone who works with the homeless on a day to day basis and they’ll tell you that it’s not so easy.

Later, after Lopez helps calm Ayers down during a stressful moment, Ayers tells Lopez that he loves him. Lopez later confesses to David that “I don’t want him to love me.” He doesn’t want to let Nathanial down. He doesn’t want to be important to Nathanial. He tells David get Ayers on medication. David says Ayers isn’t ready or willing to sit down with a psychiatrist. Lopez wants to force Ayers to. Lopez even considers lying to the authorities in order to Ayers committed to a mental institution so he’ll receive the help he needs. David responds by pointing out that unless Ayers is willing to treat his condition than all Lopez will do is alienate him and ruin their friendship. He tell Lopez that “Nathanial has one thing going for him right now: a friend” Lopez replies “I don’t want to be his only thing.” Later Lopez’s ex wife points out that as long as he’s holding himself back he’s just exploiting Nathanial. He has to decide: is Ayers a friend or a story idea?

At the same time Ayers does have a very serious problem. His schizophrenia can be crippling, and leads to sudden moments of extreme distress and frightening actions. The film does not sugar coat his condition. It’s extremely easy to sympathize with Lopez’s desire to get Ayers help at all costs, and I believe this was intentional. The film is trying to highlight how complex the situation many homeless people, and those who seek to help them, are in.

There is a minor subplot involving the mayor pledging to revitalize skid row and help the homeless, which results in a police crackdown on lawbreakers around the city. This heavy handed response ends up imprisoning and alienating the people that the mayor supposedly wants to help. This is probably one of the low parts of the movie, and I’d say it should have been cut out altogether, except it does lead to an excellent scene of Lopez trying to track Ayers down, worrying that he was beaten and sent to a hospital.

This in turn leads to an extremely powerful scene where Lopez is reunited with a healthy and fairly happy Ayers. Things seem great. Ayers has started sleeping in an apartment Lopez has provided, and seems pretty stable. Then Lopez gives Ayers some papers he needs to sign so that Ayers’ sister can become his legal executor. However things become frightening quickly when Ayers reads the papers, which state that he has schizophrenia. Lopez tries to explain it away as legalize, but Nathanial isn’t listening. He becomes convinced that Lopez is trying to put him away. He lashes out at Lopez, hitting him and yelling angrily. He throws Lopez against a wall and then covers Lopez’s mouth with his hand. He holds Lopez down and strikes at him, all while ranting about how he can take care of himself and nobody is going to take him away. As he holds Lopez down on the floor with his foot Ayers threatens to cut him open like a fish if he ever sees him again. Lopez flees the apartment and Nathanial, clearly upset, sits down and talks rapidly to himself. He seems afraid now instead of angry. He begins to cry.

When I saw this movie for the first time I was taken aback at this scene. I thought hard about what I would do in that situation. Would I ever try to reach out to Nathanial again? I decided that I wouldn’t. It was too risky. At the very least I’d hide some kind of knife proof vest under my shirt if I tried to see him again.

Lopez has more faith than that, and puts me to shame. He’s not afraid to see Ayers again. Ayers’ sister flies into LA and Lopez drives her down to the mission to see him. He waits patiently outside for them to finish talking to each other. After a long while Ayers comes out. He is clearly in distress and apologizes for what he did and said. Lopez says it’s no big deal, friends fight. Nathanial responds saying that he couldn’t imagine he’d want to be his friend after this. Lopez holds out his hand, and says he’s honored to be Ayers friend.

At the end of the movie Nathanial is off the streets, but he’s still mentally unbalanced.  Lopez doesn’t know if his friendship has helped Nathanial. But Lopez does say that  Nathanial has helped him.

The aspect I enjoy most about this movie is it’s subtlety. There are many points in which it would be easy to hit the viewer over the head with some heavy handed moral. It would be so easy to paint someone as a villain in this piece. Instead this film chooses to be less narratively satisfying, simultaneously becoming that much more real. The fact that there is no villain to the story drives home the point that the film is trying to make. Namely that the problem of homelessness is not an easy one. There is no pat answer to it. There is no scheming fat cat with a cigar who we can blame for all this. There is no dragon to slay here. Instead there are only people who have been caught up in the whirlpool of life and spit out into the streets. People with mental problems. People who have made terrible choices. People who have been dealt a bad card. And throwing money at the problem won’t help them out of their bad situation. At the same time they do need help. There are no satisfying answers to Ayers’ problems. At the end of the movie he still has some serious issues, issues that may never be fixed. But he also has a friend.

My final verdict: this movie isn’t perfect, but it’s definitely worth a watch.

The Heroes We Need: Beth Albert

The next episode of “The Heroes We Need” is up! This one features the life of a nurse committed to helping lepers in places where they were rejected the most. I hope you enjoy it.

Note: This is the video I accidently uploaded last week, so if you were an early watcher you might have seen it already.

Calling on the Emperor

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I was wandering around when I came across a sentiment that I had heard before. Someone pointed out the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal from the Old Testament. The story, for those not familiar with it, is roughly as follows: Elijah was the last prophet of God in Israel during his time, with the rest of the country worshiping the god Baal instead. One day God tells Elijah to go and challenge the priests of Baal to a competition of sorts. They’ll make an alter with a sacrifice, and Elijah will make an altar with a sacrifice. Then they will each pray to their god to light the sacrifice on fire, without human intervention. This would prove which god was real and worthy of being worshipped. Long story short, Baal could not deliver and God sent a fireball down moments after Elijah asked for one.

Having recounted the tale the person in question brought up a challenge to the world in general. If God is real, and has performed such acts in the past, then why doesn’t he prove himself now? The Bible sets a precedent here for testing the legitimacy of various gods. If God is real then he should be able to prove his existence to the skeptics through a miracle. Since he hasn’t we can dismiss him as another Baal.

An excellent point, and a powerful indictment against the existence of God. But something about his argument gnawed at me. It wasn’t until later, after reflection, that I realized what it was. The problem with his argument is that none of what occurred in the story was Elijah’s idea. God told Elijah exactly what to do. He commanded Elijah to challenge the priests, laid out exactly how to build the altar (which was thoroughly doused with water until the wood was soaked, as an insurance against false positives), and promised Elijah that when he prayed the fire would come.

Now when a skeptic tells me that if God exists I should be able to replicate such a miracle the situation is entirely different. God has given me no such assurance that He will choose to answer my request. It would be one thing if I claimed to have heard from God and was assured that a miracle would occur. Then we could test my claim by observing whether the miracle in question actually happens. But if a skeptic comes and asks me out of a blue for an example of God’s power, what is a Christian to do? God is not my pet. He is not some genie who must answer my commands. He is the Lord.

Now of course I can pray and ask that God perform a miracle. But if I do and no such miracle occurs than that cannot be taken as proof that God does not exist. Imagine some faraway land that is ruled by a mighty emperor. This emperor is powerful indeed, but chooses to remain hidden in his palace most days, ruling from afar. One day a loyal subject of the emperor is confronted by a skeptic who believes the whole emperor story is a myth, and that there is no king in the castle. When the loyal subject objects, the skeptic challenges him, saying “If he exists then show him to me. Have him come before me with a grand parade of courtiers, generals, advisors, and horsemen. Show me his gilded coach and his ranks of servants. If he exists and is as grand and powerful as you claim than it would be a simple thing indeed for him to do this.” Now the loyal subject wants very much indeed to prove that the emperor is real. But could anyone blame him for being hesitant to demand that his liege drop whatever he’s doing and have a parade for his sake? Such a servant could go to the palace and ask, politely and humbly, for the emperor to hold such a procession. But if the emperor chooses not to can the loyal subject really be blamed? The argument of the skeptic fails because if such an emperor did exist we have no reason to expect him to do everything (or anything, really) we ask of him. To be sure such a grand procession would prove without a doubt (at least to that one skeptic) that the emperor exists. But the lack of one does not provide a proof that the emperor does not exist.

The Heroes We Need: Dr. Paul Brand

The newest episode of The Heroes We Need is up! This week features Dr. Paul Brand, one of the most awesome humans I’ve had the pleasure of reading about.

Share it with your friends, this inspiring story deserves to be told.

EDIT: For most of today I actually had the wrong video uploaded. I don’t know how many people actually saw it, but I corrected the error.

The Backstory on “Heroes We Need”

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I came up with “The Heroes We Need” out of a moment of despair.

I’m generally a pretty happy guy. I tend to be optimistic. I’m not big on negativity. But sometimes (especially right before I go to sleep) I start to feel downhearted. Lately these nights have become more common. I’ve graduated college with excellent marks, but so far it’s been two months and I still haven’t managed to land a job. When I left school I wanted to get a job in my field. I wanted to work with either writing or video production. Failing that, I wanted to at least be working in a communication’s related position. Now, after weeks of silence from the places I’ve applied to, I’ll accept just about any job that will take me. I try to stay optimistic. I’ll find something eventually. But at night, in the dark, when I’m alone with my thoughts, it can be hard to stay cheerful.

Fortunately for me I’m not completely alone. I have my beautiful wife at my side. So one night, when I began to despair of every succeeding in life, I had someone to talk to.

What was funny is that my despair on that evening had been sparked by something good. Iron Man 3 had just arrived at the local dollar theatre, and I had been itching to see it. My wife wasn’t too interested so I saw it without her while she visited friends. The movie was excellent and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Since it’s a Marvel movie I naturally sat through the credits to see the bonus scene at the end. I watched the wall of names slowly crawl up the screen.  All the actors and hairdressers and CGI modelers filled me with awe at how huge a production it is to make a movie. One chunk of names in particular caught my eye. It was about two dozen people, all under the label of “Production Assistants.”

It made me think about the multiple openings for a Production Assistant that I had applied to, without success. Then I thought about how probably all of those two dozen people listed there, people who had somehow managed to find a position working for a huge blockbuster film, wanted to someday make movies of their own. They probably wanted to be producers and directors themselves. Just like me. The only problem is that I knew that most, if not all, of them would probably never make it.

So what does that say about my chances?

Here I am, jobless and without prospects, with only my dreams of making movies to push me on. Why should I believe that I’ll ever even get the chance to prove myself? I could see myself years from now, a middle aged man with a sensible career and a closet full of broken dreams. It hurt. But it felt infinitely more likely than my dreams coming true.

All this went through my head in the theatre, and visited me again as I tried to sleep. My wife knew something was wrong, and it doesn’t take much effort from her to get me to spill the beans. After listening to fears she asked me a very important question. She asked me what I would want to do with my life if I couldn’t make movies.  I thought long and hard about the prospect. What do I really want to do? What is my motivation here? I want to make movies because I want to tell stories. Good stories, grand stories, stories that inspire. I wanted to tell stories that would make the world a better place, and I wanted to do it through the medium of film. So if film wasn’t an option, how else could I fulfill my dream?

There was a reason that I registered for a Communications degree. It was because I wanted to tell people things they needed to know. I wanted to tell them about the poverty that exists in the world, and how much good we can do with only a small sacrifice on our part. I wanted to tell people about how you can be a Christian and also be an intellectual. I wanted to wipe out misconceptions and ignorance. I imagined myself as a speaker, working for an organization like World Vision and giving presentations to crowds about what they needed to know.

So that’s what I told my wife. If I couldn’t make movies then I wanted to make a career of telling people things they needed to know. Things that would change people’s lives and make the world a better place.

So she asked me why I couldn’t do that right now.

I have a camera. I know how to edit. Why not get a message off to the world? Why not tell a story that inspires? The problem was that I had no idea what to talk about. What would my message be? What kind of story could I tell with only myself and my camera?

I didn’t have a clue.

So my wife suggested we pray about it. She said that maybe I should make a deal with God. Now of course God isn’t a genie you can make bargains with. Still, the idea had merit. I prayed to God, saying “If you decide to give me an idea by Sunday, then I promise I’ll work as long and as hard as I need to in order to have the video done by Saturday.” I left it at that. If God didn’t want to give me an idea that’s fine. He’s God after all. But if He did then I better keep up my end of things.

When Sunday came an idea came with it. The sermon at church was about the story of Naaman the leper, who was healed by the prophet Elisha. As I was listening I remembered reading about some priest who had given his life to help lepers. Then I thought about a nurse I’d read about who worked with lepers all her life and how hardly anyone knows her name, even though she was a real hero.

Then it clicked together.

I wanted to tell stories that would inspire? Well there’s no need to make them up. The world is filled with stories of heroes. Their stories are far greater and more inspiring than any story I could come up with myself. Anyone can write a story where the hero acts selflessly and sacrifices his life for others. The reader can say “That’s easy for a fictional character, but I live in the real world.” On the other hand, if you point to the life of a man like Father Damien, what can we say? It can be done. It has been done. The only question is why the story isn’t told more often.

It reminded me of something C. S. Lewis wrote about the Medieval authors. Most of them didn’t care much about originality, and openly took previous author’s stories and simply retooled them.  Lewis wrote:

“If you had asked Lazamon or Chaucer ‘Why do you not make up a brand-new story of your own?’ I think they might have replied (in effect) ‘Surely we are not yet reduced to that?’ Spin something out of one’s own head when the world teems with so many noble deeds, wholesome examples, pitiful tragedies, strange adventures, and merry jests which have never yet been set forth quite so well as they deserve?…Why make things for oneself like the lonely Robinson Crusoe when there is riches all about you to be had for the taking?”

Premiere of “The Heroes We Need: Father Damien”

Here is the first video of my new series, “The Heroes We Need.” I hope you like it.

I’ll be talking more about my motivations behind making this video, as well as my thoughts on how it went, in a later post.