How Did You Build This Place?

A few months ago I went to a film screening at the wonderful Sidewalk Cinema in Birmingham. The filmmakers were on hand, and a Q&A followed.

From the back row of the theatre, a small hand reached up and a young kid shouted his question:

How did you build this place? There was obvious awe in his voice.

Confusion and amusement worked through the room. Audience members whispered or giggled among themselves. The filmmakers, visiting from Europe, conferred for a moment in French, then asked the kid to repeat the question — How did you build this place? he shouted again, emphatically, maybe a little frustrated and finally they had to explain: oh, no, we didn’t build this place, we just made the movie — but it really is a wonderful theater, isn’t it? (It is.)  Someone who works here, they said, may be able to tell you about …

No — this time it was a parent or grandparent calling out from the back — he’s asking how you made the movie.

The kid agreed, nodding, his frustration relieved by the adult translation. So the filmmakers offered a brief description of how to conceive and write and fund and shoot a movie.

A few months have passed since that exchange, but I keep thinking about that kid’s great question: How did you build this place? Despite the grown-up giggles, the kid knew what he was asking. Because a movie is a kind of place, and it’s not just “made,” it’s built. A good movie — any movie that’s good to or for you — is one you can step into, move around inside, even live in for a while.

The same might be said for any piece of art — music, writing, theater, whatever — that does its job well. And then to know that someone somehow built that place, created that space, that somehow someone spun out this whole universe for you to inhabit, inviting you to disappear into its insides — it really does inspire awe.

So I’m hanging onto this question for any Q&A with any artist whose work I’ve entered, explored, and perhaps not wanted to leave, and I pass it on also to you. If you ever find yourself emerging from some work of art and on the way out you’re lucky enough to meet its creator, don’t be afraid to stretch high your hand and shout:

(Seriously!)

How did you build this place?  

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P. S. If you’re a subscriber to this blog, you’re probably surprised to see a new post in your inbox today: I haven’t written anything here since January of 2020, and even by then the posts had become fewer and further between. I guess there’s been a lot going on. Most of my writing energies have gone into finally finishing my book (more about that soon) or into the Patreon series of monthly mailings I created for subscribers last year. Then, too, I got a case of long COVID which slowed me down, hard, on all fronts. (I’m glad to say it’s much better now.)

And there’s this: a few months ago, I said goodbye to my teaching job of seventeen years, to pursue more creative endeavors full-time. I’ve had a good run in the classroom but am enormously excited about the next thing — and I promise to tell you more about that soon, too. For now, just know that I’m working on building a place. And I hope you’ll want to spend some time in it.

Thanks for reading. Stay tuned.

P. S. 2. If you’re in the area, I’ve got an art show up right now at Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment in Huntsville, Alabama. Lost Child Radio Visions: Pioneers in American Music includes numerous drawings created, over the last decade, for my radio show. Check it out if you can.  

Back to School: Creative Writing 2.0.2.0

Three years ago, I was asked to relocate to a new classroom in my school. I packed up ten-plus years of teacher things and moved to a more-or-less identical room in another part of the building.

This summer, in another shuffle of classroom assignments, I was asked to move again — back, it turns out, to 226, the room where I’d started out and taught for so long. I was happy to discover, when I returned, the ghosts of my old decorations — postcards, photos, bookmarks, bumper stickers, students drawings — still lingering on the big bulletin board at the front of the room, three years after I left, their memories imprinted into the cork. 

I’m a big believer in classroom decorations, not the mass-produced posters and banners you can buy from the teacher store, but decorations of a more personal and DIY sort. What’s on the walls can go a long way toward establishing the classroom as a safe and creative space, and the less one classroom looks like the next, the better. This year, things are a bit different: most of my decorations are still in boxes from this last, hurried move, and many of my students are learning from home, not in the classroom at all. The need for a safe and creative space is at least as important as ever, but that “space” is more metaphorical. For the moment, in Room 226, the ghosts of decorations past will do.

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One Friday in March, we left school for the weekend and did not return until August. I swept through my room just once after that, to grab some necessary books and papers. I didn’t set foot in the school again until July, when I started the move to my new (old) classroom. 

In this last room, the one I packed up this summer, I’d made a mural of huge photos of writers, figures I imagined as some of the patron saints of our class. The students and the photographed writers had no choice but to gaze into each other’s faces all year, which I liked. Early on, I asked my Creative Writing students to warm up for their writing day by drawing, in their notebooks, one of the faces from the wall. Then they moved on to drawing the faces of their own creative heroes. (To see the original mural and a few student notebook drawings, see this blog post from last November.) Before the schools shut down, we started using the drawing time to learn more about the world: students would take about five minutes to Google Czech or Nigerian or Bolivian writers (for example), then choose an arresting face from the images that resulted, draw it, and finally surround the drawing with a few biographical facts, culled from a brief internet search. As an alternative, they could type in their own first names, followed by the word writer, and quickly research and draw a writer with whom they happened to share a name.

In February or March, students had started taking turns drawing their pictures on the classroom’s two whiteboards. I hoped to have every available whiteboard inch covered by the end of the semester. 

But then the virus came, and we went home, and the school stood empty for months. So when I finally returned to pack up the room, I was greeted by all these faces, each of which I still adore. Every one of them is somehow alive with the unique personality of the student who made the drawing:

I was reluctant for a long time to push my Creative Writing students to draw pictures — or even sometimes sing — which are decidedly not activities they signed on for in a writing class. But these whiteboard faces persuade me to believe that our drawing time is time remarkably well spent. If nothing else, the drawings have brought me enormous joy — I’ve looked at them so much it’s hard to believe they might never have existed. And it made me glad to know these figures stood watch over the classroom all spring and summer, when no one else was there. 

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Our first assignment in Creative Writing this year had nothing to do with writing. It was inspired in part by Kurt Vonnegut’s now-famous letter to a bunch of high school students in 2006, the one where he implores them to “Practice any art … no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.”

I share the assignment here, in case you would like to do any of it yourself. I’ve also included, at the end of this post, a few student responses, which have convinced me that this, too, was time well spent.

Thanks for reading, y’all. Stay safe, and be kind.

FRIDAY, 8/21/20:

This isn’t a writing assignment, but more like an invitation to play. The purpose is to shake off some self-consciousness, to do something silly and pure, to open yourself up to art and accident and vulnerability, to express yourself by yourself, for yourself. I will not see the results of this activity, but I do want you to send me a short email after it’s done, telling me how it went. 

Do ONE of the following:

 1. If you have a driver’s license and access to a car: Make yourself a short playlist of the songs that give you the most life and the most energy and the most joy, the kinds of songs that are best if you play them loud, songs you know or can at least fake every word. Go for a 20 minute drive, by yourself, blasting those songs, signing along as loudly as you can.

2. If you don’t have a driver’s license or car access, skip the playlist and the driving. Just go take a shower and sing your heart out. If possible, do this when you are alone in the house, and really sing your heart out. Loud! Make it a long shower, with lots of songs.

3. Without consulting the internet; spend at least 10 minutes trying to do an impression of each of the following. Don’t worry if your impression is terrible. Don’t be afraid to laugh at how hilariously bad you are at impressions. But do make a mental note of which impression is your best. Spend at least a couple minutes each trying to imitate each of these:

+ a family member

+ a famous actor

+ a famous singer

+ a famous politician

+ a cartoon character

When you’re finished, consider: what would an impression of yourself sound like? Can you do an impression of yourself? 

4. Spend 10 minutes making funny faces in the mirror. For inspiration, you may want to first watch the first three minutes of this video, in which Patton Oswalt makes faces for the camera: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cVNCm8lhB80 (The second three minutes may also be of interest, but they don’t include funny faces.)

5. Pour a tall glass of water. Spend a few minutes gargling some of your favorite tunes. Optional bonus challenge: after you’ve done this by  yourself for a while, invite a family member to join you. See if you can gargle in harmony or gargle a duet, swapping lines of the song. For best results, do this standing face to face.

6. Draw each of the following from memory, without consulting the internet: a giraffe, a koala, an orangutan, an ostrich, an owl. Don’t spend more than 5 minutes on any one of them. Live with (and celebrate) your mistakes. Only once you are finished, compare your drawings with online photos of the real thing. Revel in the differences. 

7. Find a place, maybe but not necessarily your bedroom, where you can be totally alone. Lock the door, if possible, and put on a favorite, high energy song. Play it loud enough to drown out the rest of the world. You know that phrase, “Dance as if no one is looking?” Do that. Don’t even watch yourself, because then you have an audience and it becomes a performance: avoid all mirrors. I ‘d recommend going a step further and finding a dark place, a closet or a bathroom, maybe. Turn off the lights and do your dancing in the dark, where all there is is your invisible body and the music. If you have trouble picking out a song, try this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kMXBJW1PuU8. Whatever song you choose, dance to it at least twice, back to back.

8. Draw pictures with your feet, holding the pen, pencil, or marker in between your toes. A marker may be best because of the thickness; feel free to experiment to find the best writing utensil for you. Draw your own self portrait, first, and then at least 2 of the following, on separate sheets:

+ your home

+ your family

+ your biggest crush, if you’ve got one (either someone you know, or a “celebrity crush”)

+ your pet, if you’ve got one, but wearing a cape

+ Dracula

+  Spiderman vs. Batman, the ultimate showdown

9. Only if you don’t already know how: spend the weekend learning to juggle. Get as good as you can by Monday, even if it’s still pretty rough. Feel free to consult internet videos for help.

Okay, that’s the list. Do one of those things. If you want to do more than one, that’s fine, too, but make sure you do at least one of these, and do it whole-heartedly. Do it alone, and try your best to be as unself-conscious as possible. 

Immediately after you do this, email me a brief description of what you did, how it went, how it felt, etc. Just 3-6 sentences documenting the experience is all I need. 

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That was the assignment. You’ll have to take my word that I received a bunch(!!) of inspiring responses. Here are just a few:

I took a shower and sung my heart out as you said, and really gave it my best shot! It was loud, ugly, and loaded with vocal cracks, and unruly shrills! It was … the most cringe-worthy and satisfying thing I have ever done! I butchered: Lewis Capaldi “Bruises” “Someone You Loved” “before you go” and many other great songs. And let’s say…I felt as powerful as a battalion, and that’s a statement!

I did the first option and made a short upbeat playlist and drove for 20 minutes. This made me feel energetic and I wanted to accomplish things after I got home, and I did the rest of the day I worked out did speed drills, and went to the park to play basketball.

During the weekend, I stayed in my bedroom singing national anthems of different developing countries. I didn’t dance because I don’t dance and dancing is not my thing. It made me feel extremely good while singing them because I feel like I want to help those countries.

So, I drove around with the music up pretty high. Higher than normal. It was after work and I was going home. I had a terrible, stressful day and I went on my favorite playlist and felt free. I took the long way home and I normally go under the speed limit, but I decided to go over. I know, so rebellious and scary. In that moment, I was as free as a bird with the world in my hands. I felt absolutely elated and when I came home, I was in a better mood than I had been for a week. 

I did the impressions option for today, and it was a funny experience. For the singer portion I tried to do Ariana Grande, and I was way off, though that was expected. But the funny thing about the whole thing is that my mom heard me from the other room and started laughing. She actually came in to try and help me with my impressions, but we just kinda sat there and laughed for most of the attempts. Then we went out and got ice cream and fries, because why not?

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Why not is right. That right there is what I would call some homeschool at its finest.

whiteboard cinema & royal alpacas

Yesterday in my neighborhood some little girls were selling their drawings, lemonade-stand style, for 25 cents apiece. I bought this one, which I imagined was a family of royal alpacas. It turns out they are unicorns.

Unicorns

Also this week, we’ve wrapped up my Film Studies class for the year. All year, I’ve been tracing onto the white board paused scenes from the movies we’ve been watching, as backdrops for our discussions. I started an Instagram account for these last semester (@whiteboardcinema), and I’ve posted a few of the drawings on this blog. Here are some more from the last few months. One of my students, Sydnee H., did this one from Raising Arizona:

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Here’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (with a freehand Spiderman by Zaida W.)…

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…  and a few stills from The Godfather (Parts I and II) …

luca brasi

sonny godfather

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… Strangers on a Train 

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… and, most recently, Moonrise Kingdom:

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I’m compelled by art that’s designed to be temporary, made to evaporate, wither, or vanish: jack-o-lanterns, sand castles and mandalas, whiteboard or Etch-a-Sketch drawings, fresh magic markings sold to strangers like lemonade. I think it’s good practice, to create something special from scratch and then to let it go.

I don’t have anything especially deep to say about any of that, I just think it’s a good thing to do.