As part of my ongoing quest to explore what it means to live a creative life, I periodically invite kickass creatives to come play with us on Zebra Sounds. First, I ask them five questions about creativity, and then they get to ask you something…
… and that’s when the real fun (and wild generosity) begins.
Creative liberation, bad sitcoms, a short history of decay… and another GREAT giveaway!
Michael Maren is a journalist, screenwriter, and former aid worker who has written for The Village Voice, Newsweek, The Nation, The New Republic, Harper’s, GQ and The New York Times, but none of those are where I found him. I found him on Twitter, tweeting about writing and directing his first feature film, A Short History of Decay. He’s partially funding the project through Indiegogo, and here is his one-sentence description of the movie (and why I contributed, and why I’m excited to see the film get made).
“A dark comedy about stepping up when your parents are going downhill; a love letter to everyone caring for someone who raised them.”
So of course I pounced on him in that way that I do, asking if he’d do the creativity questions with me, and I was just
exhausting persuasive enough for him to say yes. His answers surprised, inspired and challenged me. They also made me laugh out loud… which are all the things I think his movie will do.
j: Life is demanding. What are your tricks for getting into a creative space?
Michael: I simply rent a creative space, a little office in Washington Depot CT, where I can do anything I want. There’s a freedom to having a completely dedicated workspace, the sole purpose of which is to create. (Yes, I know you’re talking about creative space in the abstract, but I’m getting to that.) That space is a no-failure zone, where a day spent reading, or watching a violent blood-soaked movie is just as successful as a day where I complete 5 pages of a new script. Everything that happens in that space is, de facto, part of my creative life. This is, of course, a flimsy conceit, but to reach a level of self-delusion where you really believe it is completely liberating; it opens you up to all levels of experience. There’s no such thing as a distraction or waste of time, because I’ve defined it out of existence.
j: What’s the weirdest thing that inspires you?
Michael: Pathetically bad sitcoms. I watch them and start wondering about who wrote them and if they knew how they got that bad. It takes me outside the experience of the show and into the deep labyrinth of creativity and ambition where writers live and die. There’s nothing harder than being genuinely funny. Watching people fail at it is often funnier than what they’re creating. Nobody sets out to create shit. Imagining how it happens is inspiring. You can get the same thing from a really bad novel, but it only takes 30 minutes to watch a TV show and it’s much less toxic.
j: How do you deal with critics?
Michael: I welcome criticism, so long as it’s not personal, which is to say that I enjoy good criticism. Art is about reaching people and demanding a reaction from them. I’d rather someone hate what I did than be entirely unaffected by it. I once ran into a critic who had trashed my book. I sat down beside him, and he became comically uncomfortable. Then, he opened his briefcase where he actually had a copy of the review he wrote. He took a pen, and using circles and arrows, he showed my how I could construct a positive blurb from his critical words. I thanked him and told him that I had enough good press from the New York Times and other places and therefore wasn’t that desperate for praise.
j: What energizes you, solitude or engagement?
Michael: Engagement. I started my career as a correspondent in Africa, in Uganda during the last days of Idi Amin, and I spent many years in Somalia. I’ve always been attracted to conflict, violent or otherwise. It keeps me involved and on my toes, keeps my senses sharp. For a short time I tried to be a reporter in the U.S. It was the worst year of my professional life. I didn’t know how to work on a story during the day and go home and live my own separate life at night. As a foreign correspondent, I lived and breathed every story I was working on for every moment of every day. I still get inspiration for characters and situations in screenplays from engagement with the world.
j: A strobe light, a typewriter, a tether ball, and rolls and rolls of duct tape. What will you make?
Michael: I’m much better at taking things apart than putting them together. I don’t like playing games. But what comes to mind, is duct-taping Dick Cheney to a chair, turning out the lights and circling his head with a strobe-lit tether ball until he confesses to starting the Iraq war as a personal retirement plan. I’d use the typewriter to write a stage play about it and to annoy him with the clacking of the keys. (I love old typewriters.) (I’ll probably be investigated for writing this. Oh, well.).
I totally forgot to ask Michael to ask you guys a question, so it’s up to me this time. Let’s have fun…
What movie(s) do you never get tired of watching?
Answer in the comments section before September 6th, and I’ll pick one of your answers at random to win a DVD or digital download of Michael’s A Short History of Decay. I’m looking forward to seeing your answers; I love when people get passionate about movies.
Also, as of the writing of this interview, Michael’s Indiegogo project has almost reached the halfway mark. It expires September 14th. Please consider donating if you can. And even if you can’t, go watch Michael talk about why he’s making the movie. It’s an “artist takes his art by the horns” story (or, you know, something like that).
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Congratulations to Odette Vega who won a copy of Michael’s movie, A Short History of Decay!
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