Tales from the Hallmark: It’s not a brain tumor

Hallmark Building 4- 8-16 wm

Hallmark Building

From what they tell me, most non-writers think writers spend their days sitting in a calm, quiet room where they twiddle their pen when they aren’t tapping on their keyboard or staring thoughtfully into distant corners.

My reality isn’t that calm or quiet. In fact, instead of writing the Great American Novel, I spend most of my time dealing with the blown fuses, nonfunctioning furnace and real-life stories of the other inhabitants of the 101-year-old office building in which I try to write.

The other renters of the Hallmark Building include Dani, owner of Black Sheep Salon; Matt, Christopher, Igor and their team of other artists at TigerLily Tattoo; and Katie, owner of Hollywood Lux Boutique, the downstairs shop that specializes in antique, used and vintage household items. Ron, the mild-mannered landlord, can usually be found a few blocks down the street at The Hobby Smith (“Your Source for Model Trains”), which he also owns.

Over the years, the Hallmark has housed everything from a jewelry store and insurance office to a medical marijuana distribution center and a one-room office where a woman sold baby portraits over the phone.

Anyway, one day last month, coffee cup in hand, I took the few steps from my office to Black Sheep across the hall so Dani could do her magic on my hair. When I walked in, Dani was sitting in the hair dryer chair, typing into her phone.

“Just a minute,” she said. “I have a long email to write and want to get it just right.”

I nodded, set my coffee cup on the counter and took a minute to look out the window with its view of the power station, also known as Poo Corner because that’s where dog owners takes their dogs to poop. After donning a black wrap, I took a seat in front of the mirror.

One thing I like about Dani’s salon, in addition to our talks about the latest events in the building, is that it’s a one-chair salon, which means when I get my hair done, Dani and I have the space to ourselves.

“I had to be careful,” Dani said that day, after setting down her phone and walking over to me.

Turns out, the email she was so carefully crafting was not only going to her mother-in-law, a ticklish-enough business, but addressed the topic of childcare. Dani is a multi-tasking mother with two jobs and a part-time nanny. She and her husband recently bought a discount grocery store, just about the time she gave birth to their daughter Sloane, now seven months old.

“I had to get the details and the tone of voice right,” Dani explained, while checking out my hair.

Even for non-writers, life involves writing, a search for the right word, a subtle touch or gentle approach. Over the next few minutes, Dani explained how her mother-in-law would offer to help with childcare, only to cancel at the last minute.

“Undependable childcare is worse than no childcare at all,” I said, remembering the days.

A month later, I was once again sitting inside Black Sheep when Dani said, “My nanny quit.”

“What!?” I said, giving Dani a poke.

When Dani was pregnant she’d planned months ahead to make sure she had a nanny. She eventually found a 48-year-old woman, with grown children of her own, who lived in nearby Vancouver, Washington. Things started out okay, but, as Dani explained while cutting my hair, the woman eventually revealed she was afraid of Portland and didn’t like Dani’s two dogs. Then the nanny’s excuses began. Her phone calls started with “I have a doctor’s appointment” and “I don’t feel well” and led up to “I’m getting migraines and can’t sleep” and “I have an appointment with a neurologist” before culminating with “I think I have a brain tumor.”

“Brain tumor?!” I shouted.

Dani and I looked at each other for a minute before bursting into laughter.

“She must have felt bad quitting, to come up with that,” I said.

“Yes,” Dani said. “She felt horrible. She felt like she let us down and she loves us.”
Still, it was funny, so we laughed even more. At which point Dani said

“There’s another story,” Dani said. “Do you want to hear it?”

“Of course.”

Just the other day, Dani said, the nanny asked her “Do you want my 20-year-old daughter to fill in until she moves to Italy?”

“Italy?!” I asked.

We laughed even harder about the bizarre nature of her trying to find dependable daycare. At that very moment, Dani then said, the ex-nanny’s daughter was “sitting in my living room watching TV while pretending she’s taking care of my child.”

So much for reasonable childcare. So much for the Hallmark being a place where I get away from everything in order to write. The next morning I checked my email and found that Dani had send me a link to a YouTube video called “It’s Not a Tumor.” https://youtu.be/Tb5IZ8Mni3I


Writing process: Play to your strengths

Play to your strengths.
“I haven’t got any,” said Harry, before he could stop himself.
“Excuse me,” growled Moody, “you’ve got strengths if I say you’ve got them.” ― From Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling


What are your strengths as a writer? Are you good at writing humor? Sex scenes? Humorous sex scenes? Maybe your friends have told you that you’re good at writing dialogue. Or action. Whatever you’re good at, focus on that.  Make a list of your strengths as a writer and refer to it during your next writing session.

Writing process: Get out of your own way

Hollywood on the Couch

The inside scoop on Tinseltown, USA.

by Dennis Palumbo

For an artist, “being yourself” may be simple, but it’s not easy.

I want to talk about the most important thing a creative person must know how to do—which, for lack of a better phrase, is just to get out of his or her own way. Or as cellist Pablo Casals said, about playing music well, “Learn the notes and forget about ‘em.”

Simple, isn’t it? You have a story to tell, plot beats to tell it, characters to live it, and the will to create it. (You may even have a deal to deliver it.) All you have to do is get out of the way and let the creativity “happen.”

See? Simple, right? Not exactly. Because, as a former teacher of mine once remarked, “It may be simple, but it ain’t easy.”

For years, as a Hollywood screenwriter, I struggled to “get out of my own way,” without really understanding what that meant. The phrase always had a kind of down-home, common-sense, don’t-make-such-a-big-deal-out-of-it quality that I was often frustrated with myself for my difficulty in achieving it.

(Similar to my response to the advice to just “be myself,” whenever I was anxious about some upcoming interpersonal conflict. Again, simple but not easy.)

As it’s generally understood, “getting out of your own way” implies somehow putting aside the anxieties and doubts,ego concerns and career pressures, “mental blocks” and “critical inner voices”—pick your favorite pet term—that stand between you and the effortless flow of work. As though, if you just did enough therapy, or meditated deeply enough, or visualized sincerely enough, or manifested enough positive energy, you could disavow all the “stuff” that gets in the way of your creativity.

If only, in other words, you were different than who you are.

Because the simple fact is, we do bring our “stuff” to our creative endeavors, “stuff” that runs the gamut from the ridiculous to the sublime, the irritating to the overwhelming. Some artists can’t get past their fear of failure; some struggle with a nagging sense of inadequacy regarding their talent; some feel the pressure of being unknown and thus feeling powerless. (Or even, ironically, the reverse: Norman Mailer once talked of the feeling of creative paralysis that came over him after he’d achieved fame. “It wasn’t just me sitting down to write,” he said. “It was Norman Mailer sitting down to write. I had to live up to him.”)

Add to that the relationship issues, financial pressures, marketplace fluctuations, and sense of isolation that creative types must contend with on a daily basis—and suddenly the amount of “stuff” you’re supposed to put aside in order to “get out of your own way” starts to feel like a veritable mountain of personal baggage.

That’s because it is. Each of us lugs around enough baggage to warrant the name Samsonite. It’s the trait we share with every other human being. Our “stuff” is who we are. Our hopes and fears, faith and doubt, empathy and envy, loves and hatreds and fantasies and habits and prejudices and favorite movies and the way we tie our shoes and whether we like asparagus and on and on and on. That’s us. Human beings.

One particular subset of human beings, creative artists, have all the same “stuff” as the rest of the tribe. Except for the need and desire to create art out of it. We may produce stories or screenplays. Or films or TV pilots. Or novels, poems, and songs. But what all artists, regardless of approach, really do is try to make sense of their “stuff.” In a language or medium or form that is understandable to the audience. In other words, “stuff” talking to “stuff.”

Now comes the paradox. If I, the artist, get out of my own way—that is, put my “stuff” aside so I can create—what’s left to explore creatively? My “stuff” is the raw materials of my work.

In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and just say it: there is nothing but stuff. Which is great, because that means I’ll never run out of raw material. As long as I’m a human being, I have an inexhaustible supply.

I began this column by stating that the most important thing an artist had to do was get out of his or her own way. Haven’t I just challenged this statement? No. I’m only challenging the conventional view of what that means.

Let me explain: From my perspective, a creative artist who invites all of who he or she is into the mix—who sits down to work engulfed in “stuff,” yet doesn’t give these thoughts and feelings a negative connotation; who in fact strives to accept and integrate whatever thoughts and feelings emerge—this artist has truly gotten out of his or her own way.

From this standpoint, it’s only by labeling a thought or feeling as either good or bad, productive or harmful, that you’re actually getting in your own way. Restricting your creative flow.

Getting out of your own way means being with who you are, moment to moment, whether you like it or not. Whether or not it’s easy or comfortable, familiar or disturbing. And then creating from that place.

As I said, simple but not easy.

Writing process: Don’t think too far ahead

During a recent class, a student told me he was worried by what one of his relatives might think about the story he was thinking about writing.

See the problem?

He hadn’t even put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) but already was worrying about the reception his writing might receive.

I suggested he focus on getting the words on paper (or in the computer) first and to remember that he didn’t have to show that writing to anyone.

Tip: Don’t let you fears stop you before you’ve even begun.