movies

agency

How much control do you really have over your own life?

That’s a tough one. It’s a question I’ve often wrestled with and I’m not going to pretend I’ve found the perfect answer. 

I can tell you this much: it’s somewhere between absolute control and none at all.

I know. Helpful, right?

There’s a benefit to finding the balance here. If you believe you have no control, you might wonder what the point is in trying. If you think you have total control, you’ll be frustrated and disappointed when, inevitably, things don’t go your way.

Somewhere, there is a place of healthy surrender that allows you to accept what you can’t change and a determination to change what you can.

If this is sounding familiar to you, it’s likely because I’ve touched on it before.

There’s a word that’s come up a lot this past year, one I’ve rested my thoughts upon like a bag of potatoes on a scale. The word: Agency.

Just what is agency?

From wikipedia, agency is:

The capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.

Even in Christian circles (and squares too) there are some major disagreements on how much is up to us. Is God doing everything here or do I have some say in the matter? It all comes down to agency.

In story writing, the necessity to create characters with agency comes up again and again. Characters with strong desires and inner drives—the kind that make things happen—tend to be more interesting than those who just get bullied around by the plot and don’t put up a fight.

Indeed, some of the best stories (in my opinion, and probably yours as well) are those in which the protagonist refuses to back down or give up the fight, no matter how grim the odds. The movies IP Man and Unbroken come to mind here. Sorry, Japanese, you don’t get a lot of love in either of those. Does it help if I say Studio Ghibli is amazing? I mean, come on, a cat bus? Wow.

Where were we? Oh yeah, so where does agency come from? Do we muster it up ourselves or is it granted to us from a higher power? Why do some seem to have more of it than others?

Quite frankly, my dear, I’m not quite sure. There is much to consider about agency.

Like most things, it’s helpful to start with a few investigative questions:

What does agency look like in your life and in the lives of people around you?

Is it something you strive for?

Do you take responsibility for your actions?

Do you own the work you do?

Is anything truly yours?

Like I said, I don’t have the answers. But it’s something to think about isn’t it?

How about this: when I figure it all out, I’ll let you know. Until then, I’m going to try my darnedest to do my best at the things that matter most. But at the same time, I want to work on being humble and thankful for even getting the opportunity to try. 

Can any of us really say we’re the masters of our destiny? Or maybe secret agents of agency?

I have my doubts, but, at the end of the day, I’m just glad to be here and I’m glad to be me. And I’m glad you’re here too.

Tyrus

Even though Google may be taking over the world and all, I do so enjoy their Google doodles about people of importance. Often they choose lesser known figures who have made a great impact in some way.

Recently, Google featured Tyrus Wong, a Chinese-American artist, who passed away a couple years back. I’d never heard of him before but I’m glad I know of him now. 

Tyrus was the driving creative force behind the animated Disney movie, Bambi. He was also a major influence on the artistic direction of movies like Rebel Without a Cause, and his work can be found in many household items such as dish wear and greeting cards. Besides all that, he also designed really fantastic kites that look like animals.

Turns out he had a pretty hard go of things in the US, traveling here with his father as a young boy, leaving the rest of his family behind. He endured a lot of racism and didn’t receive much recognition until later in life (he lived to 106). But his work has now made it into museums alongside some other greats like Picasso and Matisse.

Besides being in awe of the man’s brushwork, I always appreciate creatives who are good at more than just one thing. Hey, why not be a painter of movies and dinnerware as well as a kite maker? As I’ve found while working on writing and game design, creativity has so many applications. Why limit yourself to one? Just don’t try to do them all at once.

There isn’t much more to this post than to say you should look the guy up, just do an image search of “Tyrus Wong” and be amazed.

unexpected

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This is the first of a two-part series, both of which are excerpts from my upcoming book, The Endless Creative.

There are two common aspects of creativity I’d like you to keep your eyes peeled for, especially when looking for inspiration. When you do, you’ll notice they show up all the time, like flies at a picnic.

  1. Creativity is unexpected (yet understandable)

  2. Creativity combines (the unrelated)

Let’s start with the first: creativity is unexpected. If you’ve seen the sci-fi show, Firefly, you may remember this line from one of the early episodes, “Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!” 

It’s an unusual line and comes during an unusual scene (the titular spaceship’s pilot is playing with toy dinosaurs on the dashboard). It’s comically melodramatic and a great character moment. I believe its memorability comes from a truth it contains—something we inherently understand about storytelling and creativity—the need for the unexpected, yet understandable.

How often have you heard of a movie receiving criticism for being too predictable? There is something about predictability we can’t stand—it’s uninteresting, unexciting, unimpressive, and unfulfilling.

The predictable is dull.

When we were young, the world was fresh and new, everything was a surprise. But as we age and experience more, we become harder to impress, especially in this age of information over-saturation. We’re hard to impress because we already know it all and have seen it all. 

Predictability is not a bad thing—we’d be in big trouble if mathematic equations didn’t yield predictable results. Without predictability, we’d never get a grasp on how the world works. 

The problem with predictable is that it fails to grab our attention, to make our brains think in different ways. Besides, it’s not all the entertaining. 

The unpredictable, however, leads to discovery and learning. We love stories with unexpected elements like plot-twists and surprise endings because we didn’t see them coming—they challenge our expectations. While we might not like our expectations to be wrong in real life, it can be very rewarding in someone else’s story.

But there is a balance. It can’t only be unexpected, it still has to make sense. Just as we complain about movies being too predictable, we’ll also complain when we leave the theater scratching our heads, often due to an ending unwarranted by the rest of the movie. In a way, we feel cheated or tricked.

Granted, there is more to it than all that—there are other things to consider, like the viewer’s expectations going in, the films intended audience, and whether it’s supposed to be an absurdist film. But, on the surface, a good story should surprise the audience with an outcome that also makes sense—one the narrative naturally leads to with foreshadowing and the repetition of theme.

They say every story has already been told, or that there are really only a few types of stories (something like five to seven). Despite that, new and interesting stories are coming out all the time, some with massive success. Some element of the familiar is necessary, otherwise the story will be unrelatable, but there is always an opportunity to add something fresh and surprising to the mix.

Keep this in mind while you’re on the lookout for creative examples. When you discover something that surprises you and also resonates with you, take note of it.

You can find the second of this two-parter here:

Combined

the power of now

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Life is a strange thing to me. The more I think about it, the stranger it seems. 

Just how much control do we have over our own lives? In the case of external events and circumstances, it often feels like very little. But, in the case of our internal attitudes and the actions we take from them, we have much more.

I’ve heard one preacher describe life as a series of choice, decisions, and consequences. In some aspects I believe that’s true.

As far as time goes, and the passing thereof, we have no control. Like it or not, time just keeps on ticking into the future. All we have is right now. This moment. No, I mean this one. Even so, our now is shaped by our past and what we do now determines our future.

So often I’m tempted to dwell too long on the past or worry to much about the unknowns of the future. Either obsession can become a hamper to creative thought because both can be the result of dwelling in fear.

Yoda claims that fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering. For Anakin Skywalker this was true. It also led to three mediocre (at best) prequels. Sorry George, but it’s true.

As far as dwelling on the past and worrying about the future, fear leads to indecision, which leads to inaction, which leads to … well … not creativity. Maybe you have a better word for it.

In Clint Eastwood’s movie, Gran Torino, Walt is a retired vet who is, in many ways, stuck. He’s old, in bad health, has lost his wife, and despises his multi-ethnic neighbors. He’s a man haunted by his past wrongs who has a grim outlook on the future. Now, I wouldn’t call him scared (he’s a ballsy guy, to be sure), but there is an internal fear that keeps him disengaged—at arms length from his neighbors and even his own family.

But things change (a necessity for any story) and Walt is drawn out of his cocoon of beer, home repairs and car maintenance and into caring relationships with his Hmong next-door neighbors. He finds creative ways to protect and care for them, especially one boy in particular. Eventually, Walt takes an extremely heroic (dare I say, creative) action to put a stop to a gang that has been attacking the family.

In the end, there is a sense of redemption for Walt and hope for the family he helped. His decision to step into the moment and make some real changes lead to a positive outcome. That’s not to say everything is peachy, but it’s a much better story than what would have happened if Walt had stayed holed up in his house until he died of old age.

At some point, we’ve got to let the past be the past, let the future worry about itself, and focus on what we can do right now and the impact we have on the people who are around us today. I hope you, unlike Walt, don’t wait until you’re a crotchety old fogey full of regrets. But, even if you are one, it’s not too late to start living in the now, right now.

appreciation

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Typically, I’m about a year behind on watching movies—sometimes longer. 

A few reasons: we don’t make it to the theater much (a product of having two young children), movies take time to watch, and there are a lot out there to catch up on.

That said, we saw La La Land recently. This is hardly a review, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. The songs were great and I got to relive my experiences of life in LA, including my pursuits as both a budding actress and an underground jazz club owner.

Ok, maybe not the last bits.

One thing I found ironic (not sure if it was purposeful) was the song, “City of Stars” since, as anyone who lives there knows, both the light pollution and air pollution prevent the seeing of many celestial bodies in the sky. 

Something that really stuck out to me, and the point of this post (yes, I’m getting to it finally), was the presentation of this universal truth: 

You often won’t appreciate something until you see someone else enjoy it.

I don’t think the following is much of a spoiler, but, if you care, be warned.

One of the main characters, Mia, comes out early on in her relationship with Sebastian informing him that she hates jazz. Sebastian, however, is a jazz enthusiast who dreams of starting his own jazz club in hopes to revive the art form.

Sebastian takes the time to sit Mia down and show her why he loves jazz so much. Over the course of the movie, his excitement rubs off and she, too, learns to appreciate jazz.

Now, I’m no jazz buff, but I’ve seen the same story played out many a time through movies and real life. One person has a real passion for a hobby, sport, art form, etc. Eventually, as that passion is lived out, it spreads and others share the same love.

Why does this happen? Excitement spreads.

I’ve definitely seen it happen with board games, and it’s worked on both sides of the table (heh). I’ve learned to enjoy them because of other friends and family who shared them with me. In turn, I’ve shared them with my own friends and family and their interest has grown.

That’s the beauty of creativity: when you share what you love, others learn to appreciate and enjoy the same things you do. A community develops.

I encourage you, take time to sit with someone else and learn about the things they love and why. You may be surprised how your interests change and what you discover. 

In the same way, don’t be afraid to share what you love with others. You just might find a friend or a fellow aficionado. Hey, maybe you’ll find yourself dancing across tables playing jazz flute. You’ll never know until you try.