Write, Read and Watch—Lessons from Marvel’s Jim Krueger

Jim_CJ_Art

I got together with a couple dozen creatives over the weekend for a workshop on story. It was a great time of networking with like-minded artists. Jim Krueger, a storyteller, comic book writer, novelist and filmmaker, was the keynote speaker. He’s most known for his works (including Earth X) at Marvel. He also won the prestigious Eisner Award for Justice (DC Comics).

Jim pointed out the three things that all writers need to do each day: write, read, and watch.

WRITE

Writers need to write everyday to strengthen and mature their “voice.” Jim, who tries to write four hours every day, believes that the writing process helps us to pour out the very thing that can fix our broken world. He also suggested that we have to know ourselves in order to find those internal nuggets of value that are worthy to be shared.

He gave us an exercise to write down our top 10 films that we love followed by the top 10 films we hate. The correlation was amazing and helped us to discover the passion that stirs within us. Within the stories we hated was an internal “No” wanting to be expressed. This pensive drive reveals the “Yes” that we want everyone to embrace—the very thing we must write about to be fulfilled.

READ

Screenwriters need to read the best scripts in the genre in which they write. Authors need to read the best books in the genre they write. Studying the best allows us to improve our techniques, while also learning what has already been done. Unique character reveals, rhythms, and pacing become second nature when we immerse ourselves in the writings of the best.

Being able to spot in others’ works what makes us feel good, and why, helps us understand how to craft our own stories that inspire. This is an important base element in writing that will attract followers and build a fan base. It’s the fulfillment of a natural need, according to Jim, who said, “People need to feel good about themselves after watching your story.”

WATCH

Since our world was transformed from a literary to a visual culture, Jim recommended that writers watch feature films and long form television to study what’s being created for the market and what is well received. While he didn’t intend to do a commercial for Movie Pass (now $6.95 for a monthly subscription program), he did recommend going to the movies often for study purposes.

James Patterson, who writes first thing every morning, shared in a class that I took a couple years ago, how he heads to a theater and watches a feature film after his morning writing session. Since he goes daily, he doesn’t always stay for the entire picture, but learns what he can about the market, what’s been done in the realm of stories, and any story techniques that he can observe and capture.

After convincing us that we all needed to be writing, reading and watching, Jim shared that the rules of story must also be followed with no exception. “Rules as a storyteller are never to be broken, only worked around with loopholes,” he said. When rules are broken, the audience can’t easily follow the story and loses interest, so it’s important to make sure the core elements or the logic and reasons behind the rules are never altered.

Jim pointed out that the limitations put on the storyteller are actually valuable creative tools. “Limitations allow us to put surprise and wonder into place,” he said. Understanding how wonder plays a role in the development of entertainment gives us the fuel to explore an idea until it rises to its best version before releasing it to the audience. Jim suggested that it could take anywhere from 4-6 weeks for an idea to mature to its highest value.

At the end of the day, Jim autographed three panel original art from his next published work due out in a few months. Keep your eyes out for his work.

Copyright © 2018 by CJ Powers
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Redemptive Films Change Society

RedemptiveMany have asked me to clarify why I’m passionate about creating redemptive stories. The answer rises from the depths of my soul, which I find myself contemplating time and again. The contemplation is not a form of second-guessing, as I’m firm on my position, but it’s about distinguishing the gap between the two.

I’m adamant about society being challenged by story to consider who they are verses who they truly want to be. United Kingdom writer Jeanette Winterson wrote, “True art, when it happens to us, challenges the ‘I’ that we are.”

Great motion pictures always start with a character living their normal life, which gets turned upside down and explored from a new vantage point in the second act that fuels contemplation. The audience gets to watch the character explore how he or she faces life and its circumstances.

Writer and filmmaker Susan Sontag said, “All great art contains at its center contemplation, a dynamic contemplation.”

The character is eventually forced into an emotional corner that requires a life-changing decision. Prior to the final moment, we see the character test out a few possible outcomes, but to no prevail. However, by the end of the third act, the character has chosen to live a new normal life going forward.

Art’s ability to force contemplation and change our viewpoint is of great value to society. Being able to create such media empowers the filmmaker to alter how people perceive society and how the people fit within that new world he presents. It’s no wonder those in power seek to master the media.

Frederick_DouglassFrederick Douglass, in his Pictures and Progress essay wrote, “Poets, prophets, and reformers are all picture-makers—and this ability is the secret of their power and of their achievements. They see what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction.”

But why are pictures, or more specifically motion pictures, so moving?

Douglass further wrote, “To the eye and spirit, pictures are just what poetry and music are to the ear and heart.”

In other words, there is an innate power within pictures to demonstrate what a better life can look like and how to embrace it from where a person currently stands on any given issue. That is why films start with the character’s normal life, moves him or her into an exploration of the roadblocks in life that force contemplation, and finally resolves with the character choosing a new normal life.

I would venture to say that a motion picture that doesn’t move the audience emotionally from their current place in life to a better one is void of art. The idea that art forces contemplation is an important one, as our society must learn how to change for the better, not to its detriment.

Pulitzer-winning poet Robert Penn Warren said, “Art is the process by which, in imagining itself and the relation of individuals to one another and to it, society comes to understand itself, and by understanding, discover its possibilities of growth.”

Filmmakers, the best of our picture-making community, have been ordained to inspire society’s growth. There are no other animals around who can hold a torch to this appointed responsibility.

In fact, Douglass said, “Man is the only picture-making animal in the world. He alone of all the inhabitants of earth has the capacity and passion for pictures.”

Redemptive stories are created for society. Its movies start with the character’s normal life, moves them through demonstrable roadblocks, and forces him or her to make a life altering decision that brings the character into a new normal life, which adds to society’s growth.

Creating stories that make a direct impact on society is what I’m all about. That is where my artistic appetite thrives and that is why I’m passionate about making redemptive films.

© 2017 by CJ Powers

Creatives Are Driven To Live

OklahomaBill Hybels, a legendary spiritual leader, once talked about a “holy discontentment” and how it drives the spiritual to continually look for ways to help others. Choreographer Martha Graham spoke of an artist’s “divine dissatisfaction” that drives all creative work.

Prose writer Rachel Carson also spoke of this unrest that leads to creative activity, “No writer can stand still. He continues to create or he perishes. Each task completed carries its own obligation to go on to something new.”

Dancer and choreographer Agnes De Mille, known for her original choreography in Oklahoma!, a musical that generated numerous awards including a record setting 2,212 performances, found herself struggling with her “fairly good work” when critics touted it as a “flamboyant success.”

De Mille received clarity concerning this disconnect in her life when she bumped into Graham and shared her sense of dissatisfaction. De Mille started the conversation with a confession that she had a burning desire to be excellent, but had no faith to achieve it.

Graham: “There is vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. As for you, Agnes, you have so far used about one-third of your talent.”

De Mille: “But, when I see my work, I take for granted what other people value in it. I see only its ineptitude, inorganic flaws, and crudities. I am not pleased or satisfied.”

Graham: “No artist is pleased.”

De Mille: “But then there is no satisfaction?”

Graham: “No satisfaction whatever at any time, there is only queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

Graham and Hybels had hit on something fascinating. Both saw the activity rising from creative discontentment as divinely inspired for the good of others. While artists long for satisfaction with their work, the blessed only receive a drive to move on to another work.

Julia Cameron, known as a artist, poet, playwright, novelist, filmmaker, composer, journalist and teacher, learned through her studies of the human condition that, “Art is a spiritual transaction. Artists are visionaries. We routinely practice a form of faith, seeing clearly and moving toward a creative goal that shimmers in the distance—often visible to us, but invisible to those around us.”

When I meditate on what I’ve observed, whether information from life or scripture, and many times the combination of both, I receive a divine awareness that helps me to understand a perspective that most have never considered. The excitement contained within the moment drives me to share it with others. But they don’t get it.

The only way for people to understand what I’ve seen is to create art that can demonstrate it or move a person to consider something outside of their reality. It therefore compels me to create art, always hoping it reaches the people it was intended to reach.

This continual drive that most of my friends label as passion, breathes life into me daily. It forces me to try and try again so everyone gets the gift of understanding that I received, but my attempts always fall short. The cycle begins again and again. While I can’t complain because of the life that stirs within me, I am always dissatisfied in my feeble ability to communicate such an important understanding.

And there lies the truth of an artist’s dilemma. Filled with life overflowing, always driven, but never arriving with any form of satisfaction. I’ll call this curse a blessing for it is who I am.

© 2017 by CJ Powers

 

 

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Mentors Breathe Inspiration into Creativity

Movie_Theatre

My Home Town Movie Theatre

When I mentor young filmmakers in how to develop their style and breathe life into their films, I often watch their eyes close me out from their thoughts. They are adamant about making sure the film is theirs and they don’t want anyone to give them a helping hand. This is problematic for a collaborative art form.

The idea of inspiring someone to a higher level of art can only come from words of encouragement, difficult moments of challenge, and the sharing of conceptual ideas. The word, “inspire,” means to “breathe into” or to “infuse with life by breathing.” That means someone has to do the breathing of new ideas to help the filmmaker get his mind cranking.

The creative process requires an environment of ideas, enthusiasm and energy. These are tools that help us gain experience from others and expose our minds to various styles and artistry. The shared wealth of history creates a powerful form of influence that brings the young filmmaker to a higher level of art than his or her counter parts ever achieve. Yet, Millennials seldom want to collaborate.

Inspiration of Mentors Stir Our Heartfelt Voice

The best thing that happens in a collaborative process is the deep sense that your own ideas demand to be heard. From deep within the gut comes this voice begging to resound. The inspiration of mentors draw out those deep ideas from within us and we suddenly find a way to express them. The inspiration brings our ideas to the surface so we can take action.

Unfortunately some people think that when you share a creative idea with the hopes of inspiring them, they think you want them to use your idea. But that is far from the truth. The mentor only wants to get the filmmaker thinking about something they never finished thinking about—that special something that resides deep within their heart.

I was mentoring one filmmaker who wanted to create a world that lacked water. The scarcity drove many to kill for a single cup of fresh water. The original script had a sign in it that made the idea of water scarce, but I suggested he find a way to demonstrate the rarity of water instead.

His latest cut of the film had the water sewn throughout the entire story as the key driver of all decisions made by every character. It became obvious that the liquid was such a rare commodity that everyone’s life changed in the presence of fresh water. Within that setting his protagonist could then mature and become a person who questioned his selfishness and chose to demonstrate love sacrificially.

While I gave him a handful of ideas that were plausible to demonstrate the scarcity of water, he was inspired enough to come up with his own unique ideas. Not one of my suggestions made it into the film, which was good, because my goal was to inspire his convictions and expressions. His choices worked.

The Journey of Understanding

Film is an emotional medium that comes from the heart. Those who hold to conservative standards make conservative films. Those who understand the liberal first and then make conservative films takes the audience on a journey that ends with a conservative view that makes sense to all, not just those with likeminded ideologies.

By finding inspiration from both sides of the political spectrum, a filmmaker becomes more powerful in the messages he can send to an audience that’s hungry for answers to the latest societal issues. But closed-minded conservatives who only focus on their views can present nothing of value to the liberal.

And what good is a film that only reaches the likeminded?

Film is not necessary when used as a tool of validation. It’s only necessary to help opposing viewpoints be understood. When film demonstrates the potential results of an idea, while touching the emotions of everyone watching, the audience is able to buy into the concepts and consider how they might apply within their own life.

For this reason I hangout with liberals and conservatives. I read both sides of every issue. And, I create paths through story that will take an audience to the life-breathing conclusion that cries out to be heard. These actions breathe creativity into each viewer so he or she is capable of altering their life with healthier choices.

© 2017 by CJ Powers

The Death of Neutrality and the Assertiveness of Wonder

pexels-photo-27802I’ve learned a hard lesson over the past couple of weeks. It started with a memo I wrote filled with facts that executives could ponder for the sake of future consideration and direction. I thought the neutrality of the topic allowed the leadership team to look at the information as raw data without any preconceived filters biasing their vision. Instead they assumed that because it wasn’t slanted toward their predisposed notion, it must be against their directive. I was condemned with a very angry pushback.

A recent blog post on how to filter out facts from feelings received the same negative pushback. Some who saw the post as an opposing view distorted my neutral stance. The result was several personal attacks on me from people who didn’t even acknowledge my point of separating fact from feelings before we make condemning comments on heated issues. They overlooked the entire point for the sake of falsely leveraging the neutral post to their opposition so they could slam their biased statement in retaliation.

Neutrality is no longer neutral, but instead is a tool for the aggressive to use as a launching point of opposition to spread their ideas. They push back off of the neutral to make an exaggerated contrasting statement—making a middle of the road balanced viewpoint look skewed. They disfigure the neutrality until their distorted viewpoint appears to be normal.

Historical writings reveal civil wars rising within similar polarized societies. The volatile aura created by people who push their ideas before understanding the opposition’s perspective fuels that fire. Battles ensue based on the society’s rights to secure their way of life without regard to the rights of others.

Since neutrality is no longer a safe haven, but a tool for everyone to leverage, we are forced to pick sides. Or, are we?

I’m a firm believer that when people focus on the wonders of our world, they are less likely to participate in the destruction of it. Wonder is a healthy and wholesome emotion that cannot live next to the lust for destruction. When we focus on the awesome and humble, there is little room to consider the angry rampages of distorted thinking. We become focused on the inspiring.

Denise Leverton wrote in her statement on poetics, “Insofar as poetry has a social function it is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock.”

The darker films, television and books are filled with story elements that shock audiences to consider new viewpoints, the more we need art to explore wonders within our world that shifts our focus back to balanced views. The only thing that can bring balance back to society is the illumination of the wonders that we’ve overlooked.

When we as a people are faced with the ugly and painful for an extended period of time, we begin to think hope no longer exists. A recent song by Zayn and Taylor Swift for Fifty Shades Darker reveals the distorted perspective in its lyrics, “I don’t wanna live forever, ’cause I know I’ll be living in vain.”

Our society once treasured that living forever was a good thing because it held the hope for a future utopia that was just around the corner. But with the “church” and the arts conforming to our dark society rather than reminding others of the wonders that surround us, people have lost touch of a hope that can unite those with opposing viewpoints.

Therefore, I’m going to look for ways to bring wonder back into society. I want to find new wholesome forms of entertainment that gives a glimpse into what that hope filled life might look like. I want to give people a taste of a future that is fulfilling and fun, taking them away from our dark society for a time of pondering the possibilities.

Copyright © 2017 by CJ Powers

 

Capturing the Surge of Inspiration

If I were to write a formula for innovation it would look something like this:

Creativity * Inspiration = Innovation

There are few who will disagree with my formula, but almost everyone would admit that the tricky part is capturing and maintaining the surge of inspiration. Finding it is never the problem, as inspiration is always associated with life. When you find life, you find inspiration.

To find inspiration all we have to do is seek out the things that are infused with life. The meaning of the word is also associated with life. One definition is about inhaling to bring something to life. Another is about giving life. Still another is about a divine influence that creates life.

When you find a person who is full of life, you find a person that inspires you. If you are able to maintain a relationship with him or her, you have found a source of continuous inspiration. Many artists during the renaissance referred to inspiring people as their muse or a goddess that inspires. Today, we call the person a rare treasure and a joyful find.

CreativeMost artists find different people over time that brings about various levels of inspiration. Seldom do we come upon a person who overloads us with so much inspiration that we go off creating project on top of project—but it does happen.

The key is trying to figure out how to keep someone special like that in our life, especially when they need to receive something in return like any good two-way relationship. But what do you provide a muse?

During days of old, the artist would bring honest heartfelt emotions and words of love to the relationship—driving some into romantic relationships. During the late 1900’s partnerships were formed with each person bringing something to the table that the other needed to keep the business functioning. However, few people developed long term relationships, whether platonic or not, that was based on each person focusing on the needs of the other.

I’m convinced that when you pour some form of inspiration into another person’s life their heart overflows with joy, love and hope. The combination of those three things settles into the heart, which produces inspired words of affirmation and encouragement—life giving things in their own right that inspire the artist in return. This results in the artist being inspired more than they gave out.

In other words, if we sew seeds of inspiration into the lives of those around us, they may in turn inspire us. If my theory is true, then the best way to capture inspiration is by giving it away. To test my theory, I recommend that artists find ways of inspiring others and pay attention to see how much inspiration comes back to them.

But, if you are truly fortunate, you may stumble into a person who matches your synergy for inspiration. You both would fly high with joy overflowing because it takes little effort between you to generate more inspiration than what your humble hearts can hold.

I’ve only had that experience a couple times in life and I can tell you that you feel capable of changing the world because of them, yet you never want to leave their presence for fear that the inspiration might fade. You want to spend every waking hour with them, but instead you’re driven to create and innovate from your overflowing heart. That gift of inspiration gives birth to new ideas and work that changes lives. The inspired creative cannot sit still. He or she must respond to what they receive.

Since those experiences happen ever so seldom, I recommend you put my theory to the test and see if it works or not. Go out and inspire someone and let me know the results.

Copyright © 2016 by CJ Powers

A Day at the Art Festival

The Glen Ellyn Festival of the Arts was at Lake Ellyn this past weekend. There were several dozen booths filled with painted canvases, mounted photographs, custom jewelry, handcrafted pottery, and many other forms of artistic expression. The least expensive item was on sale for $7.00 and the most was $65,000.

Jeremy Ashcraft.jpgGlen Ellyn is a small town that has a strong understanding of the arts. The village has several galleries and an indie art theater. Some would argue that my hometown has more happening in the arts than most culturally elite cities.

I had a lot of fun walking through the booths. It didn’t take long to figure out which booths held artists of the highest caliber compared to people who threw something together and called it art. A simple conversation with each “artist” revealed the truth about his or her status.

Mark Schroll.jpgMark Schroll and I enjoyed a wonderful talk about his selections and techniques. He was a down to earth artist that focused on the details he found fascinating, intermixed with a passion for generalizing Americana in a way that left the person feeling great about life. He seemed to appreciate my interaction, as I dove into the heart behind his work.

Jennifer Collander.jpgJennifer Collander’s art caught my attention. There was something about her whimsical style coupled by the pains in life that brought a new perspective to the ordinary. The painting I’ve pictured captured my attention for the longest of time, as I tried to understand the warm swirling feelings it generated for me. It made no sense, except that it made me want to be more expressive in life, which is why I’ve written this post.

Kelly Griffin.jpgKelly Griffin and I hit it off well. Halfway through our conversation about how she captured her image, she realized that I understood art more than most who pass by. After briefly sharing my background, she talked about her background in television. It didn’t take long to realize that we could artistically collaborate. She also had what it takes to be a great producer.

Laura Gardner.jpgLaura Gardner was well traveled and captured numerous international sites on canvas, while backpacking. To keep things compact, she taped her canvas to small cardboard palettes for travel and then stretched the canvases after returning home. Her work was beautiful and depicted the true feel of the locations unlike those artists who only paint distant locations based on photographs.

April Dippy.jpgArtistic works included hand carved cutting boards, furniture designed for children, pottery and jewelry of every type, and numerous photographers distinguishing their styles through color, mounting and subject matter.

Table.jpgGetting to know each of the artists personally made a big impact in my day. I love engaging with real artists that are not only in touch with their feelings, but have mastered their art in a way that allows them freedom of expression.