I’m Not Lost!

Scarf1I walked downtown this morning to make a bank deposit, return a book to the library, and send a Christmas package to a dear friend. The walk was lovely with old lampposts decorated in garland and red ribbons. But something was a bit different on the next lamppost I approached.

A scarf was wrapped around it with a note attached that read: “I’m not lost! If you find yourself in the cold, take this to keep yourself warm!”

I witnessed Christmas in action. The brand new, warm scarf being made available for someone in need was a great demonstration of unconditional love. The recipient’s finances or lack thereof wouldn’t be judged, nor would the gift leverage a lesson to illuminate their poor choices or lifestyle. The gift was given out of grace alone with no strings attached.

The kind donor deserved to be blessed for such an act of kindness, but the generous gift was anonymous. Joy filled my soul as I thought how fun it would be to determine what I could provide. A spark of imagination flooded my thoughts as I walked further down the street.

Scarf2Then I spotted another scarf, and another. Glancing across the street I noticed others scattered among various lampposts. The Christmas cheer was plentiful and I wondered how long it would be until those in need received comfort and warmth. I turned back to my path and continued toward the library.

A man huddled in the small alley between buildings acknowledged me. He was wearing old, dirty clothes that were dark blue and charcoal in color. His hat looked well worn and grungy, but the bright yellow and green scarf wrapped around his neck was brand new. He had watched me take pictures of the scarfs around the lampposts and smiled as he nodded with his hand patting the new scarf.

Next to the library sat another homeless man. His dark brown clothes were as dirty as one might expect, with the exception of the bright red scarf around his neck. I smiled at him and wished him a Merry Christmas. He returned the greeting as he adjusted his scarf to reveal his huge smile.

I had seen Christmas this morning and I felt compelled to share the experience. While you might not have homeless people in your town, I’m sure there is someone in need this winter that would love to smile from a demonstration of unconditional love. Maybe an elderly woman needs an errand done, or a sick child needs a new stuffed animal for play.

The answers are as numerous as the needs that rise out of the blue. Taking action to demonstrate love not only helps the recipient, but also encourages others to act in a similar manner. This is the season of compassion and only you can do your part in turning someone’s holiday sorrows into a beaming smile.

Let me know what you decide to do to help others this season. I’d love to hear that there are lots of people who care enough to participate in being someone’s Christmas wish.

If I’ve spoken into your life, would you…

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Copyright 2017 by CJ Powers
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NaNoWriMo Turns Crazies into Winners

NaNo-2017-Winner-BadgeNational Novel Writing Month is about a half a million authors writing novels during the month of November worldwide. The organization provided numerous “write-in” locations for the competition. Some provided incentives, while others provided food and caffeine.

To cross the finish line each author had to write 50,000 words in 30 days, which takes a lot of encouragement from others. A little over 4,000 people in my general area attempted the daunting task. In my specific local area 440 writers went after the win. With only a day or so left to go, only 15 writers have crossed the finish line so far with about 20 positioned to do so if all continues as planned.

Right now I have the third highest number of words completed at 56,352 with hopes of crossing the 60,000 mark on Thursday. The first highest has 120,144 words and the second highest has 76,285 words. Or, a better way to view the stats is to consider the number of total words written by local authors in this area, which are 7,846,619 words written so far—The equivalent of 100 novels.

I remember back to November 6th, the day I started. I was six days behind schedule and that white sheet of blank paper was looking up at me wondering if I had enough creativity to toss 50,000 words onto the page in the remaining 24 days. The sensation I felt when I made that mental leap to move forward was intoxicating and a bit foolish.

Once reduced enough ideas to writing and the numbers got up to around 18,000 words, I wanted to quit. There was no reason to continue the exercise since I had no way of finishing, let alone find an audience to buy my finished book. But, I received encouragement from strangers who were also participating. To honor their words of encouragement, I put one foot in front of the other and pushed through.

When I hit around 24,000 words life was pressing against me and everything was falling apart. I had to quit, but my new friends cheered me on and I broke through the 25,000 word barrier. By the time I hit 26,000 words, I found myself captivated by the story and had to continue writing to see what happened next.

I received a winner’s t-shirt after hitting 50,000 words (Yes, I had won!) and found myself compelled to forgo my breaks and keep writing. I had to tweak the words and polish the story. Everything was working in the plot points and the character development was far better than I had expected. The adventure was exciting and the romance … let’s just say women are going to love it.

NaNoWriMoCoverBOOM! The explosion and raging flames licked up toward the crashed Cessna dangling in the tall trees over the level six rapids … A few guys might enjoy the action scenes. Oops, am I saying too much?

Hmm, do I share which of the two men win Brianna’s heart? Nah.

I couldn’t have written an entire novel in one month (first draft only—lots of rewrites ahead) without the encouragement of my new friends. Thank you! And, for those of you who might be interested in reading The Tree Jumper, I’ll have more details in a future post.

In the meantime, if you see an author who wrote a novel in November, do take time to congratulate them on a job well done. It’s an impossible task for normal people, but us crazy creatives are foolish enough to entertain the masses. Oh, and for those of you who think it’s easy, I’ll see you next November.

© 2017 by CJ Powers

Cruising the Severn River in Maryland

OspreyPostMagic happens whenever I’m cruising on water in new places. This morning I launched from historic Annapolis Harbor, located next to the U.S. Naval Academy. The ship’s captain was friendly and took time to point out several noteworthy sights.

There was a post in the water of historic significance. It marks the very place where, after returning from victory, General George Washington’s boat was grounded on a sandbar and he waited until the morning tide came in to get home.

Today, that post is home to fish eagles, better known as Osprey.

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The heritage of Annapolis, MD is rich with Navy stories going back to the Revolutionary War. Commodore John Barry first went to sea from his homeland of Ireland at age 9. During the Revolution, on March 14, 1776, he accepted a captain’s commission in the Continental Navy under General George Washington.

CJatSeaA month later he won one of the first battles at sea when he captured the English tender Edward. He had captured 20 ships by the end of the war, the contents of which were sold for $3 million at auction for the Continental Congress. Soon after, Barry became the first commissioned to the United States Navy.

Barry then trained the first officers of the United States Navy including heroes of the War of 1812. He also directed the construction of the first frigate: USS United States. Barry was the uniformed head of the Navy under Washington, Adams and Jefferson.

With this newly gained knowledge, we cruised past the U.S. Naval Academy and watched several sailboats and patrol crafts maneuver the river and bay areas. Training on one boat included “man overboard” techniques with several drenched officers.

SailboatWe later headed toward Chesapeake Bay and enjoyed a little sightseeing of civilian sailboats. But we couldn’t get away from the area’s rich history as the captain pointed out the steak house with a wooden domed roof. In its earlier life, the building housed congress for several months before moving to Washington D.C..

My time on the water was fantastic and I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d return to the area to make a movie about the first person commissioned in the United States Navy, Commodore John Barry. He was a man known for his Christian piety, outstanding work in freeing our country from England, and training some of the greatest heroes our country ever placed on the seas.

© 2017 by CJ Powers

 

The Library of Focus

LibraryThe Art Institute of Chicago is a wonderful place to explore painting styles that have brought pleasure throughout the centuries. Some of the great classics are on display including works from Winslow Homer, Grant Wood, and Edward Hopper. Each piece of great art can capture your attention and maintain your focus for several minutes, unless you’ve experienced what I call “artistry overload.”

The last time I visited the museum, I felt the effects of artistry overload after attempting to pause at each of the 1,000 plus paintings and appreciate what the artist was attempting to communicate. My time dwindled quickly and I never got to the works of art that I appreciate most.

I did, however, learn to appreciate several new artists that most people raced past on their way to more familiar corridors. My observation that day helped me to realize that knowing when to pass or pause was essential to understanding and appreciating great art.

I first became aware of artistry overload when I visited the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. Prior to attending, I had watched two documentaries on the making of the park and read a couple of behind the scenes books regarding the details missed by most vacationers. I was ready to experience the park through the eyes of the artists who created the venue.

The turnstiles spun as a large crowd moved into the park. I tried to avoid bumping into too many people as we funneled toward the entrance. I was ready to see the park with new eyes. Everything I had learned popped into my mind as I saw the very things I read about.

Glancing around, I realized that I was one of the few appreciating the full artistry of the show (“Show” being one of Disney’s four keys to a great guest experience). Most hurried past on the way to their favorite rides.

The layout of the Magic Kingdom was designed to be a show, similar to watching a movie. The first things you see are the trailers or coming attractions. When you enter through the tunnel that resides under the train tracks, you see posters on the walls featuring the coming attractions from inside the park.

Once you enter Main Street Square, it’s like watching the opening credits. The signs and windows are covered with the names of people who made the Magic Kingdom possible. For instance, above the Main Street Athletic Club are the words, “Big Top Theatrical – Claude Coats, Marc Davis, John DeCuir, Bill Justice.”

The sign honors the four men listed, three of which are Disney Legends, although they had nothing to do with any make-believe Big Top Theatrical company. Claude Coats painted all the sets for Disney’s first animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and he also worked with Imagineering to design numerous rides including Pirates of the Caribbean. Marc Davis was one of the Nine Old Men, core animators during Disney’s life.

John DeCuir was a production designer and art director who not only won three Oscars for his work on The King and I (1956), Cleopatra (1963), and Hello, Dolly! (1969), but also illustrated in watercolors numerous theme park ideas that Disney dreamt up for the Magic Kingdom. Bill Justice, who painted many of Disney’s ideas, also animated characters in Disney’s classics, but is most known for animating Thumper from Bambi (1942).

There are dozens of credits throughout Main Street that pay tribute to the park’s artists, but are only appreciated by the discerning eye. I had fun scanning Main Street’s heritage, but soon tired from all the visuals bombarding me. I was experiencing artistry overload. The more I knew and could appreciate, the slower my trek down the boulevard.

I shared what little I had accumulated concerning artistry overload to a friend, who happily suggested that I shift my focus to what I use in a library. He said, “Picture shelves upon shelves of books expanding across aisles and aisles of floor space. All of which are due appreciation at some point, but not today.”

My mind jumped to my last library visit. I headed straight for my two favorite stacks of books. One held the books on entertainment and the other on movies and filmmaking. The carpet was well worn from my many visits and the nearby table was comfortably familiar. It was a place that never overwhelmed me, as I had already perused every book on the shelves.

That was my answer. I had to return to the Art Institute of Chicago multiple times. Once to see the traveling Monet exhibit, another time to study the miniatures, which I’m so very fond of, and another time to explore one new artist. Maybe during another month I’d visit my favorite artists and then plan future explorations to improve my discerning tastes and expand my horizons.

Heading back to the Magic Kingdom with a plan created great relief. I spent three entire days exploring things that most people miss. In fact, after a discussion with a cast member, I soon found myself behind the scenes and appreciating the artistry of show far more than I could ever have imagined.

The key was seeing things from a library of focus. No longer would I see the entire library as I entered, but instead I’d focus on only the things I was ready to explore. Just as a great movie can be watched numerous times to pick up on all the director’s hidden Easter eggs, how I enter new locations with a sense of appreciation changed to only take in what I could manage on any given day.

© 2017 by CJ Powers

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Beauty in Motion Speaks Louder than Words

Cycle_1

Yesterday I found myself photographing beauty in motion. The picturesque quality of my surroundings revealed an underlying splendor that only surfaced in the heat of the moment. The cycling races I shot revealed much about the character and determination of each competitor.

The motion also revealed the desperation and sadness of those lagging behind. Whether they were bent on being more competitive or were rookies realizing the strain of their first heat, each cyclist faced internal struggles on top of the external ones provided by the terrain.

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I shot over 1,000 pictures in my attempt to capture this beauty. My passion for capturing a segment of life was amplified as my skills were reenergized. I found myself secluded in a closed course where fans cheered and racers exerted everything they had for the win. The focus was intense.

When I snapped off an array of pictures at the finish line I recalled a phrase from the Apostle Paul, “…Let us throw off everything that hinders … And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us…” My mind spun to another one of his quotes, “…I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race…”

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I finally understood that it was all about the movement. There was a level of beauty in life that couldn’t be seen without some form of action taking place. Being passive or reserved hid the treasures of beauty that can only resound when turned into a deed.

Van Gogh wrote a letter to his brother about talking versus doing. He wrote:

“Principles are good and worth the effort only when they develop into deeds.”

When my father passed away a couple thousand people came out to pay him tribute. I saw a sea of faces and heard hundreds of stories that dissipated within my sorrows. Years later, the only people I remembered were those who took some form of loving action on my family’s behalf. All the rest were forgotten.

A friend of mine took it upon himself to help any family that suffered loss. He would go to the family’s house two days before the funeral and collect up the shoes they planned to wear. A few hours later, he’d return with every shoe polished and looking brand new. It was his way of demonstrating what love looked like in action.

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Seeing victory smiles on the winners of yesterday’s races were energizing. Not because of the win, but because of their inner beauty being released through the actions they took. That intangible quality that becomes apparent was more powerful than what any of them tried to put into words during their after race interviews.

Only their actions would be remembered and cherished for years to come.

© 2017 by CJ Powers

Dialog must be Relational

Conversation is about Relationship, Not Information.

pexels-photo-89873There are talkers and there are listeners that will hopefully never meet. They’re missing the chief cornerstone of relationship when only focused on half of the equation. Talking and listening actively is relationship.

Talkers can never learn or be satisfied until they listen equally as well. The listeners will bust at the seams until they share the valuable information stored within their heart. Communication is the only relational tool that unites the human race and forms culture.

During one film shoot, I directed a group of actors who were very different from their characters. The joy on set was high, as the talent played with roles that stretched their imagination beyond the stereotypical. After great contemplation they delivered heartfelt performances that opened our eyes to new perspectives.

One woman, who was an intellectual, played a ditzy blonde type that had a heart for kids. Her research brought the perception that “ditzy” was based on circumstances of how the person addressed the unknown. Curtailing the stereotype, she resisted playing the person that when jolted by a comment would say the first words that came to her.

She entered the scene as a brunette who led with undefined empathy, which became clear by the end of the scene. The actor’s choice gave the feeling of “ditzy,” but without showing a lack of intelligence. This resulted in the character coming across as empathetic and what I called squishy-warmhearted.

This empathetic quality came out because of the conversation between her and another leader. The dialog revealed the heart of both people and their relationship. It was more than just an exchange of information. The expressions of each character’s souls were on the line, demonstrating their courage in conversing.

Ursula K. Le Guin in her essay titled “Telling is Listening” published in The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination, shared the following complexities of human communication:

“In most cases of people actually talking to one another, human communication cannot be reduced to information. The message not only involves, it is, a relationship between speaker and hearer. The medium in which the message is embedded is immensely complex, infinitely more than a code: it is a language, a function of a society, a culture, in which the language, the speaker, and the hearer are all embedded.”

The film was powerful because each character did more than communicate information. Their expressions and backstory came through in how they presented each comment. Even their reaction shots revealed how they were impacted through the courageous interchange.

The audience was mesmerized and fascinated by the dialog, not because it was written well, but because of how it was crafted using the embedded elements of each character within the exchange. The dialog was far more than words or information. It was real in everyway.

I made an interesting note the night after the shoot that read, “Dialog is about relationship, not information.” Whether a discussion occurs in real life or on screen, it is only of value if it develops the relationship. Talkers who talk without listening and listeners who listen without sharing are not interesting because they are only focused on themselves.

© 2017 by CJ Powers

Managing Daunting Projects

startup-photosLast Saturday I interacted with several generations at a friend’s 95th birthday. Typically during events of that nature I get to learn a lot about people and observe things that get tucked away in my brain for future use. But this time a person brought up my latest novel (Steele Blue) and asked, “How were you able to write an entire novel? Isn’t it such a daunting task?”

I answered, “It’s not all that difficult if you write it 500 words at a time.”

Now, I’m aware that my answer was a bit simplistic when you consider story structure, character development, and the other intangible elements that must be carefully crafted into a novel. But the person’s face suggested a concern about how to overcome very large and overwhelming projects.

Last week I happened to be consulting with a CEO of a marketing communications firm that specializes in elite professional speakers. The question raised to me was very similar and went something like this, “How do you manage the myriad of elements it takes to make a movie?”

Again my answer was simple, just like you’d give an answer to the question, “How do you eat an elephant?” One bite at a time.

There are three steps I take to break down the overwhelming into manageable bites:

STEP ONE: Assess the project scope.

The 50,000-foot view is a great starting point to understand the maximum effort required for a project. However, a 10,000-foot view makes for better decision making because it includes all departments and freelancers that will have their hands in the mix.

Before I break down a movie script to determine budget and schedules, I must first understand the “why’s” of the project and who will be heading up the departments necessary to capture and translate the vision into a reality. This insight immediately tells me what size ballpark we’ll be playing in and the rough estimate of the cost to produce the picture.

As a director, I’ve found that Anthony DeRosa, who’s worked on numerous Nickelodeon and Disney projects, is one of my favorite producers to work with. The reason is because he and I have a shorthand of quickly determining if a script is a $3MM, $12MM, or $40MM project. It allows us to quickly assess what level of actors will be tapped for the show and what team might be best to spitball the visual effects budget.

The bottom line is that only speaking at the level of vision and goals is not sufficient for breaking down daunting tasks. It must be broken down for each department head to fill in the blanks of what he or she knows is needed to accomplish the task.

In the case of an author or consultant, the work needs to be looked at from the standpoint of available time slots. No consultant can work on more than four projects in a given day because it takes time to ramp up and review the previous day’s work, plus have enough time to do something significant to move the project forward. Most experienced executives will try to limit their productivity to no more than two projects on any given day so they have enough time to meet quality standards.

STEP TWO: Look for natural breaks.

When you look at a work of art you see the whole that makes an impression. But when you study it, you see all the segments that make up the whole. In a story there is always (or at least should be) a beginning, middle and end. In film you have the three-act structure.

In nature, you see patterns of fractal art. Take a closer look at a tree. Its trunk branches out into large branches. Each large branch then, in the same artistic fashion, extends out with more branches. This pattern continues until you have a full balanced tree of branches. Next the leaves come in, and the piece of art is complete.

Finding the natural breaks in a project reduces the pressure and allows for the steps to be aligned to a calendar for easy management.

When I was at a large technology company I was tasked to sell $480MM in switching equipment to one customer. After meeting with the CEO, I learned that I needed to get the written and signed consent from certain key vice presidents before the sale could be completed. I then learned from each V.P. that I needed agreement from key directors, who needed buy-ins from senior managers.

It took me two and a half years to collect support from all players. Everyone added great insights to the project, which also altered the configuration to exactly what the company needed. I closed the deal after a long presentation of input to the executive board including the new offer for $750MM.

That meeting was the easiest close I had ever experienced because I had reduced the entire project down to 300 pieces of research, presentations and sign-offs. The CEO was thrilled because he knew the $480MM project didn’t fit, but loved the perfect custom package, and the future profits the new offer provided.

STEP THREE: Develop specific action plans.

Zig Ziglar, arguably the greatest salesman of our time, shared a story about a father giving a party for his newly available daughter. The father hushed the crowd and told the eligible bachelors that the first man to swim the length of the pool without being bitten by the alligators that he stocked in the pool for the night, would receive $100MM and his daughter’s hand in marriage.

A splash was heard at one end of the pool, and after a series of frantic strokes a young man emerged at the other end. The father asked the young man what drove his decision to risk his life: his daughter’s hand in marriage or the $100MM. The pale looking man answered, “Neither. I just want to know who pushed me in.”

Clearly the young man didn’t know what he was doing or why he had “won.” No one is capable of knowing if they achieved a goal unless they first set it in writing and objectively measure the outcome of their activities. Before taking action, people also need to know what’s in it for them, which is the strongest motivator that we hold dear.

A written action plan must include the following: measureable objectives, motivational benefits, self-assigned awards for success, resources needed to accomplish the tasks, and the next steps for the portion of the project during that stage.

With these three steps in place, the daily tasks are reduced to simple steps that are easily accomplished with little emotional concern.

© 2017 by CJ Powers