REVIEW: Into the Magic Shop

Crisply written, full of surprising turns and excellent questions, Into the Magic Shop is both a memoir and an approachable introduction to how our brains work.

James Doty brings two things to the conversation:

  1. His knowledge of the brain as a neurosurgeon
  2. One heck of a life story to tell

James’ mostly absent father drank their money away and disappeared for days. His mother suffered from severe depression, spending most of her time in bed. Then one day, he walked into a magic shop, looking for a trick thumb, met Ruth, and his life changed.

Ruth taught James the most useful magic trick: How to relax both his mind and body. Now we call it mindfulness.

Because Doty learned to manage his thoughts and emotions, to come up with a focused intention for what he wanted to do with his life, he grabbed life and shaped it into something of his own devising. But not without some serious bumps.

He wished for money and success and all its trappings, only to find himself surrounded by riches but not much more. He’s at the top of his game, but considered an asshole.

It is a story about values. About how what we think we value sometimes is what holds us captive. The lesson I appreciate the most is that, it is only when we set ourselves a clear intention that we get where we want to go.

Doty offers a fascinating and thought-provoking journey. Through science and powerful argument, he explains how and why relaxation technique, meditation, opening the heart and setting clear intentions are not just good for you. They are magical powers which, if we all embraced, might make the world a beautiful place.

How actors use these principles

Since Stanislavski, actors learned that the process of relaxation is a key tool to performing on stage. Actors use their minds and bodies as a means to enter into the  character they are playing.

In a process I call “steeping tea” (news reporters call it “gathering string”), actors focus their thoughts to actually change their minds to be more like the character’s. They might:

  • Write a journal for the character for the year.
  • Research on the time period or place where the character lived.
  • Write the story of key chapters in the person’s life.
  • Imagine in as much detail as possible, moments from the story that aren’t included. The moment before they enter a scene, for example. Or a story from their childhood that still pings at them today.
  • And much more…

Then they throw it all away.

The body and the mind are linked quite closely. By using either the mind or the body, they are finding ways to become the character. When they get up on stage, they trust that the “experience” of being that character is in them. They are like a pot of hot water that has been steeped into tea.

How can writers use this?

Writing is a kind of performance. Where an actor is trying to discover how to play a character, as writer you play every role, and cinematographer, set designer and so on.

Exercises like these — the exploration you do explore a situation– can help you take your writing up a notch. That is, use your mind and even your body, to get into the worlds of your characters and the scene you are creating.

You might:

  • Find a song that suits the mood and rhythm of a scene you are writing.
  • Write the “moment before” for each character.
  • Stand up and act out the scene from each character’s point of view.

Close your eyes. Put yourself there mentally. Put yourself there physically. Then see what comes out of your pen.

Is all feedback useful?

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In my last post, Showing some skin, I discussed a letter I received in response to one of my plays way back in the early 90s. In this blog, I’ll point out the problems with that letter and how I might direct my younger self.

REVIEWING THE GATE KEEPERS

Us writers, we get all kinds of feedback. Unfortunately, a lot of the time, the feedback isn’t about our work, it’s about the person dishing it.

The letter I posted last week gave some positive feedback (I was drawn in) and negative feedback (and then I got lost). He kinda liked some parts of it, other parts he was just confused. But what was it he liked? There are no clues. What did he dislike? Again, no clues. Where he got lost, he gave questions (which all point to the character’s motivation and situation, so are legitimate). Yet, without specific references, half the feedback is a frustrating guessing game. He was giving his two cents and returning the script.

Of course gate keepers have the right to say pass/fail, yes/no. Many editors have learned to reject writing with the oblique phrase, “This is not for us.” Each time a writer receives feedback, one coping strategy is to recognize what type you’re receiving:

  • Star rating or Pass/fail: We want you to know we don’t want you.
  • Porridge: I kinda liked it, but I’m not going to tell you what I liked. I kinda didn’t like it, but not gonna share that either.
  • Smarty pants review: The reviewer is sooooo clever and they want you to know! The response is looooong, extremely critical, very directive. The editor is trying to turn your work into their own, because they don’t have the guts to write, so they’ll tell you how you’ve failed. It will feel like an attack. Disregard them.
  • Supportive feedback: Specific comments tied to character, plot development, style, tone, story type that help you to consider the work from a new perspective. May provide process options for you to try.
  • Am I missing any types? Add a comment.

My response to my younger self

When I conceived of this post, I thought it a great opportunity to demonstrate a typical review I provide writers. You see, I can’t post any real ones as those writers are trying for publication. They can’t have the dirty laundry of their initials drafts sitting up here on my blog, right? So this post seemed a great idea until I started writing it. Since you blog readers have not read the play, it was challenging to keep it brief and representative. So, here is my succinct version using my clinical / analytical voice.

Conflict déjà vu?

The central problem with the script is that the conflict is one-dimensional. This happens when the writer (me) walks around the story from only one or two points of view. A key symptom of this problem: The same type of conflict occurs over and over.

Here’s an over-simplified demo to make it obvious:

Mom: Go to bed, John.
John: No!
Mom: Go to bed, John.
John: I gotta go to the washroom first.
Mom: Go to bed, John.
John: Can you read me a story?

Note how there’s variety in John’s responses, but the mother says the same thing over and over again. In my play, the captors repeatedly ask Tamara to use the technology and she tries to convince them why she shouldn’t. Luckily, it was only 90 minutes long and I did use some creativity in how I repeated the conflict. Still… an audience wants more.

Another symptom of this problem is flat characters. I’d created one fully realized character who lives in an interesting time and community, but that was only a part of the spadework I needed to do as a writer. I also needed to consider the perspectives of the antagonist, Tamara’s family and the society as a whole.

Were I the dramaturge on this play I’d ask the writer these questions:

  • How does she really love and miss her family and former life? What made it hard to leave the world she knew?
  • What does the captor need from her? Why go to these lengths to get Tamara back? What ammunition does the captor have to tempt her? Hint: Look at your answers to questions about her family and life.
  • Is her captor who s/he seems to be? Perhaps they’re a robot who appears as a person? Or a robot with her mother’s (father’s, brother’s) mind installed on its hard drive?
  • What has happened in the world she left behind over the past year while she’s been away? Has all humanity been accidentally wiped out by robots or some artificial intelligence? Disease? Or are things the same? Select the dramatic intensity that relates to your theme.
  • What are the audience’s expectations for this story type? How do you not meet them? (I typically provide a list of requirements for each story type). How can you play with audience expectations? The play shows us a 1984 style interrogation. As a quick exercise, imagine the captor as a nurturing earth mother or as someone who looks like they’re from her tribe. Bring the character on stage in your imagination and get to know them. This will feed into the writing style you use, even if you don’t keep the character on stage.

Writing is a process. Each writer, like each actor, finds the processes that work for them. As a reviewer, I try to point out the symptoms I’m seeing and, based on my experience, give the writer a few ways to tune the work. And I always start each review with the same statement:  All feedback is an attempt of the reviewer to re-write the story in their own image. That’s good, because it means they’re engaged. Your reviewer is trying to figure out how they would relate to the story. But that’s also why a writer should never respond to feedback immediately. Go out on a rock and sit on it for a few days. Feel out what pings as true, then act on it.

A good hard look in the mirror

On occasion, I try to paint. I’m not very good at it, but that doesn’t matter. I don’t have aspirations of becoming some an art-world wonder. Painting is something I do to get away from a computer (because everything we do these days seems to require time in front of a glowing screen).

When I want a new perspective on a painting in-progress I hold it up to the mirror. Seeing the image in reverse is much like seeing a photograph of yourself in that it’s just different enough to point out the flaws.  I can see where the shadows don’t agree with the light source, or how the eyes look more cartoon than sketchy.

Over the years I’ve tried to find an equal to a mirror for writing, but it’s not easy. Laying the pages down on a table one after another doesn’t work. A single-page outline of the story where I highlight the events and plot points always helps as it gives a view of the whole from a distance. But that’s not a true reflection.

A story or a play or a screenplay provide the audience with a journey. On this journey, there are uphill climbs, pratfalls, victorious dances and moments of true solitude. To see all of that in your mind’s eye in one go is impossible when you have your nose pressed up against the pages. Your nose gets stuck on the nitty, gritty.

What does work, however, is a very simple tool that takes great discipline: placing your manuscript in a drawer and leaving it there until you let the story go.

Working on a project is addictive. Moments in the shower or driving become opportunities to consider a character’s thought processes or the flow of a scene. It’s no longer a project, it’s a lifestyle.

That kind of rapture is essential for writing, of course. Like an actor who writes journal entries for the days leading up to a play’s action, it is in that state where insights and nuances are found.

But there are two ruts I find myself falling into:

1. In the scenes I don’t have the patience to figure out, I dash words together until I get something I think kinda works okay and then send it out before it’s ready. Sending it out is all about the dream: Someone will overlook the flaws as charming and declare it a work genius.

2. I dig into the perfection process, going in circles. I write and re-write and revise and revise and go back and start again and again and again.

What I’ve learned is that if you treat my writing like a box of food that can be heated up in a microwave, people see that.

Or, if I keep my nose so tightly in the words, they suck me into their vortex and I never find my way out of their grasp. The relaxed flow of language is also stiffened by over-thinking or over-writing. That characters stop breathing.

It takes great discipline to let go. If you do though, time will work its mirror magic.

When I come back to a manuscript after a month or so break, I find I have a new-found objectivity more clear and insightful than any reviewer could give me. In one section I’ve hit my stride. In another, the pithy words I was so attached to glare like dollar store bling.

The pace and flow of the work becomes more obvious. Am I writing in all one flurry, or are there hills and valleys for the audience to enjoy?

The drawer takes patience and discipline. But isn’t that what the craft of writing is all about?

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