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A Discourse on Discourse

To say that our nation is deeply divided would be akin to saying the Plague was a little bug or that World War II was a tiny skirmish. From every corner of our country, people are taking to Facebook, Twitter, and online communities to share their expertise on everything, from politics and religion, to social and economic issues. That, in and of itself, is a fine thing. The issue is that most of these folks are coming from the perspective that their opinion is the only valid one, and if you disagree then you are an idiot.

This is what happens when the whole world gets a voice.

But honestly, I don’t think much has really changed. If 1860 America had Twitter, I’m sure the political tension would be just as vicious (I recall smear campaigns against Abe Lincoln criticizing him because he looked like a monkey; I can envision the memes now…). We haven’t really changed all that much: we are a society of people with opinions. In days gone by, our upbringing and our personality played a role in how vocal we would become about those opinions. These days, however, the internet has afforded an anonymous platform from which every self-anointed armchair expert can shout their views for all to hear..

Sadly, that simple anonymity has also allowed for the gloves to come off. Instead of civil discourse, angry rage and vicious attacks seem to be the order of the day. While there’s technically nothing wrong with this, I can’t help but feel that a truly decent society would take umbrage with making every political and religious argument a necessary bout of “I’m right, you’re stupid.” It is truly reprehensible, to see how human beings have decided to treat other human beings, all because they feel their opinion is the only valid opinion. And it’s very easy to find a group of others who share your opinion, isn’t it? When you surround yourself with like-minded people, your conviction in your beliefs grows and you become unable to see any other path except the one to which you passionately subscribe. While this may make you secure in your own beliefs, the lack of challenge and discourse eventually breeds an inability to properly defend your position. Thus, you fall back on other tactics. Attacking grammar. Implying stupidity. Making it far too personal.

If a person only ever goes to church, they’re only going get that point of view. You have to engage with others, to have that point of view challenged. It doesn’t have to be so that someone can change your mind. You grow in your belief and your position when you’re forced to defend it or explain it so that others understand.

But in hiding behind our glowing rectangles and squares, we have all but ruined our ability to have productive discourse. The notion that you don’t discuss politics or religion in polite company is now more a necessity than an exercise in social grace. And that’s a shame, because no matter where we fall on the political spectrum, no matter what religious views we hold, we should always be open to discussion on them. We should always be ready to have our views challenged. Defending one’s beliefs is a rigorous exercise that requires truly understanding WHY you believe what you belief. Why do you support this candidate? Why do you follow this faith?

This is explicitly stated for those of a Christian persuasion. “…always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.” (1 Peter 3:15, NKJV). I cite this as an example because I am familiar with it, but I would be surprised if most faiths didn’t express a similar sentiment. It just makes sense, doesn’t it? Why do you believe what you believe? Too many of us don’t have answer. We blindly accept what we’re taught, blindly accept the “news” we watch on TV or read on Facebook. We don’t challenge it, and we don’t challenge ourselves.

Debate is good. Discourse is good. It’s a healthy, necessary component of an intelligent, functional society. The fact that the vast majority of Americans cannot tell you why they follow Christ, why they’re agnostic, why they’re liberal, why they’re conservative, is incredibly disheartening, and even dangerous to our society. Facebook and Twitter have created a country full of “bumper sticker philosophers” – people who perpetuate short buzz words, phrases, or topics that are expressed in oversimplified terms, that appeal only to emotion and not to intellect. Most of these things cannot stand under thoughtful scrutiny. Yet, we allow them to pervade our news feeds every day, never giving them a thought. The idea of a longer discussion, the idea that maybe I could learn something if I listen to the other side, has been replaced with the very simple, primitive mindset that I am right, and they are wrong.

I am guilty of this. I’ve flooded my Facebook feed with enough political memes to sink a spaceship. I’ve chosen to give that up recently, in the hopes of making more thoughtful posts about issues and maybe stimulating some discussion. Granted, there will still be many people who glance at these and shrug. They’re too busy with their own concerns to worry about it. They have their opinions and that’s that. No room or need for change or growth. That is everyone’s choice, of course. But I’d like to use this space to maybe start some conversations. Because I need to feel like this divided country can come back together again. I know there are people on every side of every argument that hold out that hope. We just need to find each other.

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Posted by on February 22, 2014 in Blogging, Current Events, Faith, Writing

 

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How Novel

I’ve written millions of words over the years. Millions. I’ve penned over 20 screenplays and teleplays. I’ve written some short stories that I’ll never admit to. So I wonder what it is about a novel that is so darn intimidating.

I’ve spent a lot of time the past few years exploring the various aspects of the arts. I’ve created a web series and directed the first few episodes. I’ve got other film projects I’d like to work on in some capacity. But the more it I branch out, the more I appreciate the simplicity of a keyboard, a computer screen, and my own thoughts. I enjoy making films, but I’m a writer at heart.

The past year hasn’t been great for that. I’ve written, and what I’ve written is pretty good, I think. But I miss when it was just me and the keyboard, letting the story flow organically, not worrying about whether or not we can afford to shoot this scene or at that location.

I like screenplays. They’re structured. Organized. The story beats and flow makes sense to me. It’s all instinct to me, now. I don’t even have to try to hit certain goals when I write a screenplay. I just know when what needs to happen, and I can make it seem very organic.

A screenplay is meant to be a skeleton, conveying just what is necessary to generate interest and provide a map for the director and actors. It can be written eloquently, but it’s not a requirement. I’ve written these things for years, as noted above. I’ve got it down to a science.

Novels? They’re not organized at all. There’s no formal structure. No flow. No story beats beyond whatever the author decides to throw at you. That makes me a little more uncomfortable. They’re such sprawling, random things. How do you get a handle on it? How do you make sense of a massive story that takes so long to tell and has such a distinct and different flow than a screenplay?

Well, simpler isn’t always better. And lately, my muse has decided to kick me in my complacency and set me back upon the elusive path of writing a novel.

I asked one of my instructors years ago if it were possible to be a novelist and a screenwriter. He told me not everyone was able to make the shift. He himself had done so, because years of reading drivel in the form of B-movie, direct-to-DVD screenplays made him feel kind of “dirty” in a literary sense. He commended my “voice” – my ability to hook a reader with a comfortable narrative voice that reads well, and encouraged me to continue in my efforts.

And so, on I go. I’ve penned around 2500 words in the past few days. I’m excited to be delving back into this world (both the world of the story and the world of writing a novel). Shepard and my other projects will be going forward as planned, of course. This book is kind of a palette cleanser for me, a way to reconnect to my inner writer and to tell a story much grander than any I’ve written in screenplay format. It’s a challenge I’m looking forward to.

Anyone else out there try to balance both screenplays and novels? What’s your preference? Why?

 

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Shaking Off the Negative

“The best way of removing negativity is to laugh and be joyous.”

– David Icke

I chose the above quote for my first blog of the year (indeed, the first blog on this site in two years) because it perfectly expresses two particular sentiments: first, the most obvious meaning of the quote, to embrace joy and let go of negativity. The second is more in my choice of author. David Icke is partly known for espousing government conspiracy theories, the majority of which I don’t personally agree with. Yet here we are, finding common ground when it matters.

I spent most of 2013 in something of a hazy, angry rage. The rage was often silent, but ubiquitous. I was frustrated about a great many things, and for much of the year, I believed those things to be external. Every time I turned around, there was a new report or article talking about how religious liberty was being threatened, how Obamacare was ruining the health care of hard working Americans, how the liberal culture was slowly seeping into how the nation is governed such that it is practically unrecognizeable anymore.

These things upset me because I care about our country. I care about the freedoms we enjoy. I am vehemently oppossed to a nanny state, to spreading the wealth, to limiting individual rights. The notion of big government makes me absolutely nauseous. Our nation is being run by a man who has never had a day of real work in his life, who was educated by the hippies and idealists of the previous generation, people who embrace ideas and philosophies that sound great on paper, but that fail miserably when implemented in reality. The incessant “I had no idea” rhetoric, the disdain with which he and his administration treats the founding principles of this nation (ideals that enabled him to get elected in the first place)…I’ve had my fill and then some.

The problem is not that these things upset me. The problem is what I do with my anger and frustration over them. For the past year, I’ve just raged on endlessly about it, complained about, pointed out the million reasons why it’s all going to fail. I stand by all of those arguments. They’re valid. I see it. A lot of other people see it. But – I let that anger just fester and change me, until I couldn’t see any good in anything. And that is where I went wrong.

Now, I admit, another source behind the “rage” was a personal issue or two that I’ve been dealing with. Questioning my faith, that sort of thing. I think most people face that kind of existential crisis. When it’s over, you’re either more certain than ever, or you have an epiphany that changes your worldview completely. In my case, it was the former. I’ve changed the way I think about some things. Or more accurately, my understanding of things has evolved, and said thought process changes came about organically because of that evolution.

We’ve got a lot of crazy things coming up in 2014. Creative projects will at long last reach fruition. Others will begin, and even on the homefront, things are set to change and evolve. It’s an exciting time. Thankfully, the holidays somehow managed to lift my spirit, to make me remember that life isn’t just all about the negative, even when it seems like that is all that surrounds us. I see signs of my fellow countrymen waking up, in light of a number of victories for Christian employers who don’t have to cover abortion-inducing drugs in their health plans, and in the reinstatement of the Robertson patriarch in Duck Dynasty (and prior to that, Cracker Barrel’s putting the Duck Dynasty products back on the shelves). I’m pleased to see more conservative Americans making some noise.

As I always do, I hope to post more frequently here and establish a more consistent routine for my writing, both fiction and non-fiction. I’m sitting on some cool ideas for screenplays and stories that I wouldn’t mind getting out there and selling. And of course, projects dear to me, such as Shepard, will be coming to fruition this year. Very excited about getting that out there!

But be warned: no topic is too big or small, to politically correct or risque. Read future entries at your own risk. And if I happen to offend you: stop what you’re doing, head down to Target, and buy a sense of humor.

 

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Divergence

Where will you go when the road splits before you?

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
and sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
and looked down one as far as I could
to where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
and having perhaps the better claim
because it was grassy and wanted wear;
though as for that, the passing there
had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
in leaves no feet had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less travelled by,
and that has made all the difference

Robert Frost

I have to admit, it’s been years since I’ve thought about this poem.  As a literature nut who has straddled two worlds for most of his adult life, one would think I would have kept this particular piece a little closer to my heart.

At times, it seems like it’s a never-ending battle.  What do I want to be when I grow up?  The problem with that question is that I am, in fact, grown-up.  And all I can say that I am for certain, is indecisive.  I am not unique in this, nor am I the only one who has ever, or will ever, face these kinds of choices.  Left or right, fight or flight…such ponderous questions inspired one of the most well-known and memorable poems in all of literature.

My paths in the woods are career paths, specifically technology and entertainment.  I’ve walked this line for years, content to keep one foot on the tech path, and one foot on the entertainment path.  I write in my spare time, and work a full-time job in Information Technology.  I have a degree in computers, but I also am earning a degree in film.

It’s a curious combination, since scientifc, technologically minded people tend to be more left-brained, and creative people tend to be more right-brained.  Yet I’ve managed to straddle this line for over a decade of professional life, and the end result thus far has been a spectacular display of mediocrity.  Let’s take stock, shall we?

On the tech side of things, my career has been remarkably bland.  Oh, I have proven myself to be a hard worker, a self-starter with a talent for effectively managing processes and procedures and implementing improvements that save time and money.  I flourish in environments where I can contribute, and where my ideas are heard.  I have a good handle on technology and its practical applications in the business world.  Yet my I.T. career has been one stellar support job after another.  It is only now that I’ve earned a position that is more specialized and focused.  I’m comfortable here, to be sure.  And I’m drawing a terrific salary (especially in light of the few years in my twenties when I left I.T. for awhile).  Yet, things are stagnate, because there aren’t enough hours in the day to fervently pursue an I.T. career, manage home life, and continue with my “other half.”

On the creative side of things, there is no career to speak of: just a series of side projects, many of which have languished in “development hell” for years.  The efforts I have put forth, when I do put them forth, have been great, and very well received.  My virtual series, Frontiers, was at one time one of the most widely read fanfic series on the internet.  Yet, we’ve been releasing Season 3 since 2008.  I’ve begun several film projects that ended up being cut short due to various complications.  I’ve written several promising prose series that have a pretty big reader base, but they are stalled out early in the run.  Yet here and now, I’ve got a great web series off the ground, I’m planning my next short film, and things more moving with my classes.  But things are still stagnate to a degree. Why? Because there aren’t enough hours in the day to fervently pursue a career in writing or film, manage home life, and continue with my “other half.”

It takes a special kind of talent to straddle two sides of the fence.  It’s given me insight into reconciling different and opposing viewpoints over the years, making me something of a peace maker.  It’s allowed me to coax reluctant people into joining me on whatever damn fool crusade I’m embarking on.  But when it comes down to it, you have to take a side.  To walk that line forever is foolish and impossible.  One cannot serve two masters, at least not reliably.

I’ve never been more capable of venturing down one of those roads or the other.  Never been more prepared.  Will I have the steadfastness to choose technology and let go of my more creative nature?  Or will I have the courage to leave the relative safety of the familiar and embark upon that road less traveled?

In the end, it’s never really been about which I would choose.  It’s been about how long I could keep them both up.  How long I could kid myself into thinking it’s possible to keep it up forever.  How long it would take me to find the courage necessary to finally, fully commit myself. 

For me, there’s only ever been one thing I love, one thing that keeps me up at night, one thing that makes me giddy every day before work.  And my only regret, is that it’s taken me this long to realize it.  I’ve always “known” mind you – but the true epiphany, the true, self-permeating realization that I cannot possibly do anything else…that’s a little more recent.

I always thought that making this choice would be some epic event.  But it isn’t.  It’s a calm, quiet, private moment where something inside of me finally says, “Yes. Yes, you idiot, you’ve finally accepted it. Now go on and live your life. You’ve got a lot of wasted time to make up for.”

Two roads diverge in a wood, and I —
I will take the one less traveled by
And that will make all the difference.

 

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Lead Role Cast

“Bella Morte” Lead Role

“Bella Morte” (Beautiful Death) is my next project, once Season 1 of “Shepard” wraps in October.  It explores the life of a beautiful femme fatale, Jaiyana, as she is forcibly drawn out of retirement and hired to take on one final hit.  Even though I’m still refining the script for this short, I’ve had the rare pleasure of already casting the lead role.

Those of you who have directed anything, stage or screen, know that casting a project can be both incredibly exciting and very challenging.  Sure there are casting directors and talent agencies to help narrow down the choices for you, but ultimately it comes down to matching that vision of a character in your head, with actual, physical people in the room next to you, patiently awaiting their turn to audition.  This also means keeping an open mind about it.  You may have to compromise on that vision to a degree.  But sometimes that’s when the greatest magic happens.

While casting “Shepard” I was met with tremendous good fortune.  I was fortunate enough to be able to offer two roles the very same night as the auditions.  The actors were just that good, and that perfect for the roles for which they auditioned.  I very nearly was able to offer a third that night as well, the role of Jamie.  We had two strong contenders for the part, so I decided to do callbacks for them both and see how it would go.  Once we got rolling, the choice was obvious.  And honestly, it had been my gut instinct from the start.

Megan von Wertman is a versatile actress.  She auditioned for two roles originally: Jamie, and Shayla.  These two characters are so diametrically opposed to each other, I was actually surprised to see she wanted to take them both on.  Far more common was to audition for Allyson and Jamie – characters that were more similar to each other.  Megan could have easily handled either role, but I was very compelled by what she brought to Jamie.

Most times, the “quiet” girl comes off as being fairly bland.  But Jamie, in Megan’s hands, leapt right off the page, right off the screen.  Finding a pretty girl to fill a role like that is easy.  But finding one who can infuse a character with so much personality – especially given the brevity of the character’s sides – is much more challenging.

It was also about that time I noticed that Megan’s versatility could make her the perfect candidate for Jaiyana, the assassin brought out of retirement in “Bella Morte.” Jaiyana is a challenging role, to say the least.  There’s a lot more to her than just being a patient, precise killer.  So much more, in fact, that to divulge even the slightest detail would utterly spoil the film.  She has a lot of pain and grief to carry with her, and a profound sorrow that most people cannot begin to imagine.  If there is a place more tormentuous than hell, that is where Jaiyana resides.  But there’s also a humanity to her, a spark that makes her relatable, sympathetic to the viewer.  To have already met the person capable of tackling that broad range at this early stage is definitely a pleasant surprise.

It’s a rare treat at this level to have such consistent good fortune in casting.  I couldn’t be more pleased with my cast for Shepard – every one of them is exactly right for their roles.  And now, Bella Morte is starting things off in the same way.  Although we’re months from rolling cameras on this exciting short film, I greatly anticipate seeing Megan’s Jaiyana in action.

 

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Character Profile: Jason Shepard

“These kids aren’t my problem.”

It’s hard to imagine such a calloused and self-centered individual had such humble beginnings, but such is the case for Jason Shepard.  Born into a single-bedroom apartment (literally; his mother couldn’t afford insurance and had him at home), Jason grew up without luxuries like toys, disposable diapers, or medical care.  His mother worked three jobs to provide for them, after his father walked out soon after he was born.

Jason attended a poorly rated public school, where he was mocked behind his back for his limited wardrobe and the lack of a hot shower every day.  The constant taunting led to many fights and an ever-increasing build-up of anger and frustration.

Yet at home, Jason seemed content.  He enjoyed spending time with his mother at least once a week, and spent the rest of the time plucking away at a guitar she had bought him at a yard sale.  It was his most prized possession, and on it, he taught himself how to emulate the sounds around him.  He spent hours listening to the rock stations on the radio and picking out the tunes, then playing them himself.

Unfortunately, one of his mother’s job was working in a local mill, where she contracted a serious lung disease that prevented her from working.  After a friend offered legal counsel, she sued the company and the money won from the lawsuit allowed her to finally give Jason the kind of house and life she had always wanted for him.

High school turned things around for Jason.  His mother – with her health deteriorating – invested some of the money from the lawsuit and managed to make enough to provide for herself and Jason for a long, long time.  No longer ridiculed, Jason reveled in newfound popularity due in part to his impressive guitar skills.

Jason found himself escaping more and more into his music as his mother’s health declined.  He began writing songs, putting the lyrics to paper and then making up the tune as he went.  He also began casually dating Amber DiSoltes, a fellow Senior.  His mother had desperately wanted to see her son attend his Senior Prom, so he took Amber.  She told him how happy she was and how proud she was of him, giving him a strangely long embrace before he departed.

The next morning, Jason returned home to find his mother had died in her sleep.  He was devastated. He was invited to stay with his grandparents, but chose to move to New York instead, in the hopes of escaping his old life and pursuing a music career.  He left Saint Paul without so much as a goodbye, refusing even to take part at his own graduation.

Working as a Taxi driver in New York, Jason met up with Silas Bishop, a fellow aspiring musician.  Silas was playing a gig at a night club with his partner, Nathan “Nate” Reinke.  Their third man cancelled at the last minute, and Jason – who overheard this on a cell phone while driving the two to their engagement – offered his services.

The trio performed a few cover songs, and a few tracks written by Silas and Nate (which Jason picked up on after hearing the recordings just once).  By the end of the night, people were asking for EP’s and demos.  Silas and Nate offered Jason the job permanently, and Damned Azkus was born.

The band met with great success, eventually signing on with Interscope Records.  The band kicked off a brief tour in the Northeast to celebrate.  The album was a regional success, and a world tour was in the works.  Meanwhile, Jason had married Katherine “Kat” Veneziano.  A groupie for the band from age 16, she fell in love with Jason and married when she turned 18.

Twin boys soon followed, and “Kat” ended up leaving the road life to raise the kids.  Jason grew more and more distant, unable to find satisfaction at home or abroad.  He turned to drinking, had several affairs, and fell into a deep depression.  This life wasn’t what he had hoped it would be, and he had no hope left for any other kind of life.

After a late show one night, Jason took a groupie back to the hotel with him. Both were seriously drunk, and the girl, Tiffany, decided she didn’t want to wait until they were back in the hotel.  She climbed atop Jason, and the subsequent coupling resulted in a terrible car accident.  A piece of shattered windshield nearly tore Jason’s hand off.

After surgery, he was told his nerves were shot. He could never play guitar again.  The band was unable to find a replacement and their future deteriorated.  When Kat found out how the accident had happened, she took the kids and left.  Jason was utterly alone once more.  He spent several weeks in rehab only to fall back into old habits.  He landed in jail, lost his license, got it back, and repeated the cycle.

Perhaps it was fate that Jason ended up taking a trip into Virginia.  He had been drinking again, and was pulled over and arrested near Saint Paul. The arresting officer recognized him, and made a phone call on his behalf.  Jason went before Judge Harold Slate and was sentenced to community service, in the hopes of rehabilitating him.

Though he’s had a difficult life, it’s hard to feel sorry for Jason. Most of his current troubles are his own doing, and he doesn’t seem to care or look out for anyone but himself.  Yet deep down, there is a small part of him that is still that sad, lonely little boy who had only a guitar and a loving mother to get him through each day.

Fate has a funny way of bringing things full circle, and of forcuing us to confront the ghosts of a past we thought we left behind.  And so it goes with Jason Shepard, now standing at the beginning of a journey that will bring him face to face with shadows of his past and that will change his future forever.

 

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Enter, the Shepard

Welcome to Saint Paul, Virginia.

Nothing ever happens here.  Until the day Jason Shepard comes home.

“Shepard” is my first major creative effort outside of film school, and my first attempt at a web series.  It chronicles the story of Jason Shepard, a one-time rockstar who has lost everything to a string of bad decisions and run-ins with the law (both of which involving copious amounts of alcohol).  After he is cut a break by a sympathetic judge, he finds himself back home, facing a lengthy community service sentence at an old church on the verge of closing its doors.

Inspiration for this story came from a number of places.  I’ve always enjoyed the idea of returning to what you’ve left behind and facing your past.  It’s not an unfamiliar story, that’s true. But the thing about “homecoming” stories is that they are as varied and unique as the individuals who populate their worlds.

Jason doesn’t have much left at home. No family, and no friends.  Just one lingering connection, in the form of an old high school flame that he walked out on after the prom.  And, one new connection, in the form of an aging and very much atypical church pastor, who seems to think Jason would be well-suited for the task of working with the youth group.

I didn’t honestly expect much to come from this series at first.  It seemed like a neat idea, but I never planned on taking it anywhere.  The nascence really came from my own church pastor asking me to work with the youth at our church.  It sparked an idea that has since grown into this web series.

We’ve just begun production, and have two full days of work under our belt.  As things continue, I’ll offer production updates and insights on this blog, and we’ll take a look at the unique cast of characters that populate this small but fascinating world.

Until next time!

 

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