Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Cross and The Capitol

Today’s lesson in authenticity for creators folks is about one way the creative process really works from the view of beating the competition out and getting the job, controlling the client, and finally, giving the client what they ought to have instead of just what they want, and last but not least, learning the difference between dreams of fame and authentic fame. 

Without further adieu, I give you a true story entitled:

The Cross and The Capitol

That was going to be the name of the book.  “The Cross and The Capital.”  Written by Walter H. Moeller, former congressman from the 10th district of Ohio, and Lutheran Pastor.  

Ghostwritten by yours truly…

I answered an ad in the Santa Barbara News Press back in the short story phase of my writing career.  The ad was for a ghostwriter, and I was ready for long format work, having had success with my short stories.   

But how to get the job?  Writers are intensely competitive and sneaky – we can be anything that they want to be really, the skill is that powerful.  I thought about it long and hard before making the phone call that Sunday afternoon.

I decided the way to find out how to best get the job was to listen to what the person wanted, then figure out the person by what they said, and run that against what the project formally requires, and finally start asking questions from there until you get an understanding mutually agreeable as a workable framework.

It worked in architectural project management. 

Walter was a nice man, with real kindness flowing from him.  Smart, conversational and articulate like a politician, driving, clear and vibrant like a Lutheran,  He was also getting on in years.

I figured this was going to be his swansong as soon as I heard the age in his tone.  I can never tell a client the truth about swansongs unless there is no other choice.  But what intelligent writer would have gotten themselves into that kind of unappealing (for several reasons from several perspectives) kind of job.  The kind of writer I ain’t – the kind that thinks about money and fame more than story.

But, back then, I was a competitive writer too, and this was Santa Barbara, “A sunny town full of shady people” the old author who wrote the history of Montecito told me once writer-to-writer. 

Half the time getting a writing job is beating the other writers and not offering the client a better product.  Sometimes you do that by not being a better writer, but by being better at people.  Not as tall an order as you would think, at least back in the 80’s.

Being competitive and ready to stop writing free scripts for Brooks master’s theses in film for credits and reel, I figured I could make at least 20-30 thousand for the job if I was productive and high minded.  Having just moved in with the woman who would become my wife, I felt that was just the ticket.

So, I got a little sneaky, for Walter had a gem at the heart of his idea of how the story would go.

It was something significant historically, and he felt it was a book.  It was significant historically, but not a whole book.  But who was I to tell him he didn’t have a book?  You know, people just don’t deal with the truth creativity reveals very well.  The like the predictable, they like what they believe it is supposed to be like.

You know that old human trap, expectations gone wild.

I had my eyes on the money, sure, but more importantly, letting all those pompous Santa Barbara walk on water mentality writers that the new kid in town was to be reckoned with and it was true Jack London really was my bitch. 

I was the new master writer in California, or so I imagined before I became authentic.  It was the reason I came to Hollywood from Key Largo.  The letter from the VP of the Writer’s Guild didn’t hurt either. 

Everyone would know that one day, I told myself, as I read every book on writing in sight and cranked out bad science fiction and detective stories one after another. 

Tolerating contemptuous looks from Jonathan Winters because he recognized the types that were going to put him out to pasture.  Talent knows talent.  Not always on friendly terms, either.  Welcome to show business. 

So after coming to an understanding of sorts with Walter over the phone, I asked him a key question.  I asked him what he felt the most important moment of the recollection he was going to talk about in the series of interviews he’d chosen as the production pipeline.

He told me that was interesting because none of the other writer’s had asked a question like that.  Then he added there were going to be several historical and meaningful things he would be talking about in the interviews – I then interrupted him, asking, “But what is the one thing, the major thing that stands out most in your memory you’ve been reflecting on that comprises the most powerful thing you could offer a reader to keep them turning your pages?” 

He considered that a minute then said, “Well it would have to be the day I went to the Oval Office and met President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.  We-“   He began going into the story and I interrupted him again, saying, “Stop right there!  Don’t tell me.  It’s too important to tell over the phone.  Tell me about it when we meet in person.”  He grunted in recognition, and said, “Ok, you got a deal.”

I asked him then how he was going to go about choosing his ghost writer?  He was going to meet all the writer’s after conducting church services next Sunday, and spend a half hour with each one.  Then, he was going to meet again with the top four of them and re-evaluate and then would make his choice from there. 

Why wasn’t I surprised even a man who lived in prestigious La Cumbre Hills was going to conduct a cattle call?

I asked for an appointment.  He told me I might be disappointed but the appointment calendar had filled up pretty quickly, and the earliest appointment he had was two thirty in the afternoon, behind several other writers.  He added though he was looking forward to meeting me and he appreciated my background skills in project management and loved my enthusiasm, the fact was other writers he’d talked to already had quite respectable writing credits I could not match.

I told him I never cared about other writer, and that the only thing to think about was the manuscript.  He was flattered and said what time would I like?  I told him I wanted to be last, the very last.

He said, “My you are confident, aren’t you?”  “Not as much as I am sure after hearing all the other pitches, you’ll hear mine and know I am the right person for the job.”  He told me it was a great answer, laughed and we said goodbye.

*     *     *

The next Sunday, I got up early and made my way to the copy shop across from the Carrows restaurant in Santa Barbara.   I knew the counter person there and explained that even though I would not be making many copies that day, it would take me a few hours to decide which ones to make.  Later on, when he no longer believed me, I confided in him why I was there and he got excited after hearing my plan and was totally on board.  He even went and got us both coffee and said it felt like some kind of police stake out. 

I said, “Yeah, it does.  Except it’s a script out.”

We slowly drank the coffee, and I watched for the man whose physique would match the voice I had gotten to know behind the words.  He would be older, smaller, energetic for his age and alone.  He would have a look of business on his face, which would stand out on a Sunday.  That eliminated most of the older men that went to Carrows for breakfast that day, and when I spotted him I knew immediately and instinctively.

I got super lucky because he took a window seat and was easily visible, as were the string of writers he met and conversed with.  I scrutinized the interaction: facial expressions, pauses between sentences, the solemnity, and the joy, the nervous shoulders and what we call in comedy ‘the tell’. 

Questions raced through my mind.  Were they telling him what he wanted to hear?  Were they telling him what he should understand?  Were they trying to sell him the job, or were they trying to determine he had what it took to get through the job?  Writing is not for he weak or faint of heart unless it is your last will and testament or a Dear John letter.  At least anything beyond a hundred pages, for sure. 

Writing a book is not like writing a piece of legislation.  May you all find that out firsthand in your journey to authenticity as a creator.  I’ll set the creative specifications out for this part of the creator path in another publication. 

There were all kinds of interactions, but only two of the fifteen writers I watched meeting with him over the next seven and a half hours really had him in a state of undivided attention.  I knew they were the ones I had to beat, and the length of time he was attentive told me how good they were at this part of the job.  The selling-yourself-before-selling-the-idea part of the creator job.

The longer of the two went seventeen minutes, and the other one went eight.  I knew who was giving him the most to think about, but my job was to sell him on what he had the most desire for. 

In my piece about the Dalai Llama, you will understand what he taught me about false and true desire, but that will have to wait, but nonetheless, it is useful to recognize desire in all its forms in all your work and play in life.

At last, my appointment came.  I crossed the street, entered the restaurant and walked up to his table, introducing myself.  He bade me to sit down, excusing himself for not rising as he had been there all day.  I was aware that he was exhausted, and had bit off more than he could do, even for his considerable abilities, for one day.

So, my first job was to put him at ease and to get to know me some.  He recollected I had been enthusiastic and very productivity oriented.  I asked him how things had gone with the other writers, and he was a little withholding because he wanted to get through them all and then make up his mind, and with that could we get started.  I told him I wasn’t fishing, just trying to get some perspective on what his expectations were as opposed to what he had discovered. 

He smiled a politicians smile, and understood I was fishing.  He liked that.  A veteran of local politics for years myself in that town, I’ll spare you what you won’t easily understand, but let’s just say in any conversation, two conversations are occurring. 

So, I told him plain. 

I said, “I know you are tired, Mr. Moeller.  I recognized this is an important project for you both personally and reflectively.  That is why I am going to make this short and sweet for you.”

He smiled with some relief and I knew I’d hit the bull’s-eye because the first thing that the body language of every interview he’d had so far validated they had all talked about themselves extensively, which meant I was going to talk about him.  Uh, by way of talking about them first.

I paused and said to him, “Walter, you barely know me, just like you barely know many of the writers who came here today.  But even if I don’t get the job, there is one thing that has to be said you have yet to hear from a single professional writer you’ve spoken with so far?”

“And what is that?”, he inquired. 

“Anybody who has told you they know how to write this book for you today is a liar,” I replied.

He looked at me with shock.  I told him, “Please, let me explain.”  He bade me to continue.  “As a former politician, you know the famous words the great Aristotle he used to keep over his doorway.”

“Know thyself,” he replied, locking into me comfortably.  “Know thyself.  And I do, Walter.  I know myself.  I know that in spite of the fact that several professional, highly qualified writers have been here at this table today selling you their services, the truth is, the writer that sits across from you now is a passionate, literary artist with no greater desire in life than to become the best writer he can be.”

“I believe you.  That’s very admirable,” Walter replied. 

“And you also know, as a politician and quite likely a philosopher too, as the two fields are never very far apart-“  “An astute observation, young man,” he shot back.

“Then you also know,” I continued, “that if you really, truly know yourself, then you know others pretty well also.”

“Agreed,” he replied. 

“So, the reason those other people, no matter their qualification and representative integrity are liars, is because nobody knows how to write a book in advance unless it is a manual or a cookbook or a formula genre like romance or detective – which this book is not.  The writing itself is an organic, malleable process, and is by definition a process of discovery, experimentation, redefinition, reinterpretation and rewriting.  Emphasis on the rewriting,” I said.

A look of slight astonishment and recognition came across his face and he said, “That’s just how you write a piece of legislation!” 

“Interesting,” I replied.

Then he went off on a tangent about the legislation he’d authored or co-authored in his years in Congress and I let him run, as conversations, like creativity, often grows like a vine runs. 

As an aside, in a cultural context, this was the 80’s.  The word organic eventually replaced the word malleable in terms of popular usage not long after Walter’s and my conversation.  It was when the word appropriate appeared not long after, replacing organic in the popular usage sense that things started going south in the movie business, but that’s another story.

I told Walter that while he was telling me the story he wanted to tell, his life story, that all his other stories including stories he didn’t want to tell would come pouring out of him like rain, and if I wanted to capture the essence of Walter Moeller and his true voice, all that had to be noted.  It speaks to tone, and tone is more important that pace in your story.

I told him another writer would have worked him over intellectually for two weeks hammering out an outline.  Then they would have cranked out a couple crisp, clean drafts for you to review.  While you were reviewing it they would be preparing their bill for services rendered. 

This sobered him, and he was a little uncertain, as all people can be when faced with an actual totally creative task.  They have to leave their comfort zone or they will for the most part never catch originality or align their authentic voice and message of meaning. 

If you can’t do that, you are a commercially oriented writer, and don’t belong in the fine arts. 

“But that’s the beauty of this process Walter,” I said, throwing him the only rope that counts in the creativity business.  “You have to go through that, there’s no escaping it.  But on the other side of that process is a thing of beauty and a marvelous quality (marvelous was a big word back in the 80’s and you hardly hear it anymore either.  It was replaced by the iconic and everlasting awesome) production from your essence which does the job this kind of book is intended to do.”

“And what is this kind of book meant to do?” he asked me, as open and accessible as a child recognizing they are being taught something adults do.

‘Time to roll the dice and hit the bull’s-eye or strike out’, my inner voice said. 

“It’s meant to be your legacy, Walter.  You need a writer at your side to help you along this path, and that writer has to take every single step beside you or they are not validly in the co-creative development process.  They are there just for the paycheck and that is not the person you want to hire.  You want someone there who is going to respect and reflect alongside you.  

That’s why I am the right man for this job, Walter, not because I am the better writer here today, but because I am the right kind of person who writes.”

He looked at me a long time, and realized I had found the truth of the matter for him he had not articulated to himself or the others writers had led him to discover. 

How could he or they, it was very close to the bone, so to speak, and most people shun knowing themselves, despite their intellectual validation of Plato’s maxim.

Yet, this is how one often leads another through the creative act commitment phase, by showing them surgery does where hacking cannot.

Then, the old savvy gentleman who had been to Washington D.C. and came, saw and conquered emerged in front of me, and I, having held power myself before, cowed before the authority coming out of the man three times older than I sitting across from me.

“You’re right,” he said with judicial conclusion in his tone.  I felt validated.                        

“Well, I’m glad you now understand how to mentally win this game of writing, a game often far removed from the technical or process related aspects of writing,”  I said with relief.

On the inside, I was dancing in that I felt I had just given the best pitch of my life.

“Not me,” he said, “We.”  “Huh?”, I replied. 

He smiled at me and repeated, “We.  We understand.”

“Oh, yeah. Good,”  I said.  He smiled again, and said, “No, I mean, we understand, as in, ‘we have an understanding.’” 

“Oh, great!”, I chirped.  He laughed and said, “You really are a writer, aren’t you?”  “I often think so,” I replied.

He laughed and said, “Well, you may be a great writer, but you need to work on your business skills.  What I meant to say, we have arrived at an understanding, and the job is yours.  You are the right man for the job.”

“Fantastic, I get it!”  I replied and laughed nervously to which he was suddenly patient and serene.  Then he said, “Where do we go from here?”

I shifted mode out of dufus into literary project manager and said, “Well, I recommend we go into the building up steam mode, as I call it, and begin to focus our powers of concentration on the job ahead, think about how the story can tell itself before we go through a conversation that allows us to discover how the story should tell itself, and then we can revise it until we find how the story must be told.”

“Sounds great,” Walter replied.  “When do you want to begin?”

“Let me get back to your in two weeks, as it will take me that long to start charting out and planning things that must go in contextually and those which might and could, and then meet with you to eliminate those things that are not logical or inconsistent with what you want to say.”

“Wonderful,” he replied, “call me in two weeks on Sunday afternoon.”

“Done deal.” 

He smiled again almost angelically and said, “Wouldn’t you uh, like to know how much this job pays?” 

“Well to tell you the truth Walter, I suspect you have done well for yourself financially and as I am still in Theatre Arts school and am working at a convenience store part time, just about anything you say will do the job.  Besides, If I didn’t think I could do the job right, I never would have applied, whatever the rate, because I can’t work on something I don’t truly love.”

He really warmed up and said, “Well, Arthur, you are too honest to be a politician, and your business skills could use some brushing up, but I’ll tell you what I told all the other writers.  The job pays 20 dollars an hour up to a maximum of 20,000 dollars in billable hours.”

That’s quite fair.  Anybody could do this in half a year.  “You’re not bad at math, I see.”  “Not bad, but wait till you read the poetry.” 

“Poetry!?!” he said surprised, “This is a book about Washington D.C.!” 

“I know, I meant metaphorically, the words will resonate off the page like poetry,” I replied, calming him.

“Oh, I see.  Guess I’m going to have to learn how to be a little looser in my interpretation of words that you use.” 

“Yeah, well I promise to be less alliterate and metaphorical.”

He nodded.  “Is there anything else we should cover before the next meeting?”

“Just one thing,” I said. 

“What is that?” he replied, “when does the first check come?”

“Oh no, Walter,” I replied, “I trust you on that, for goodness sakes, you’re a pastor.  What I want to know is the JFK story?”

“Oh yes, I nearly forgot, thanks for reminding me.”

“Remind you?  I’ve been wondering if I was worthy of hearing it from someone who knew such a great man.”

“Hmm.  Interesting.  Well, it’s rather simple really.  I was the first Lutheran pastor to be invited into the Kennedy White House.  As I was a congressman, I suppose it could be viewed as a political meeting, but I felt there might be some other things to the meeting, as I was called alone.”

I nodded and kept listening.  I’ve heard historic things from historic personalities before, as you’ll see.  My big rule is ‘STFU and listen closely cause you might learn something.’

Since then I have amended that rule to add, ‘and feel fortunate you are there to listen to such a rare thing.’

“So I went into the Oval Office and stood before the desk of the Commander in Chief.  He was not in the office, they always let him in through a side door – protocol, you understand.”

“Of course,” I replied.

“John Kennedy came in as I was looking at the carpet - it really is a fantastic carpet you know.”

“Wow,” I said.

“The President came over and introduced himself and we shook hands.  He asked me to please sit down and I made myself comfortable and he took his seat at his desk. 

We looked at each other and the first thing he said to me was, “So, you’re a Lutheran pastor.”  I of course, paused and replied, “Mr. President, are we going to have a religious conversation?”

“He smiled that famous soft smile of his,” Walter said, adding, “and then he said, ‘I don’t see why; we’re both Democrats.’”

I laughed with him and felt a great liking growing for this elder statesman and spiritual guide.  He saw it on my face and remarked, “Well, it’s been a long day.  Thanks for your hard work and I expect to see more of it for my money.  I think we are off to a great start.”

“Me too, Mr. Moeller, thank you for your generous time and patience” I replied.  He nodded appreciatively, and we got up, and he walked off a little tired.  But he deserved to be because  he’d served his country so long and well for so long.

I felt amazingly lucky.  I ran home and told Vickie the good news.

She was so happy.  I guess she understood the writer’s struggle better than I did.  I came up with the title above and gave it too him the first meeting.  He loved it, it was the perfect context, he had said. 

But the first meeting was challenged.  I was prepared, and he was not.  Mentally prepared, I mean.  He cut the meeting short, and postponed the next one saying he realized he needed more time to prep.

I was more than happy to accommodate him, but I would have like to begin working on it as I’d really gotten prepped well and was ready to produce an excellent manuscript.  Plus, I keep a few other projects on the stove because that is how I creatively tick. 

Time dragged on, and he got sick and had to postpone for a few months, then it went to four.  Then five months passed, and we still hadn’t gotten started.  I began working on other stories to keep my career moving forward.

Then one day Vickie and I went for one of our Sunday drives like we used to do, and we were in the La Cumbre area and I spotted him walking way up La Cumbre Hill Estates; one of the many exclusive residential areas in and around Santa Barbara.

We pulled up on him and he was glad to see us and looking worse for the wear in truth.  I asked him if he was feeling better and he said he was. And then I asked him if he was thinking about getting back to work on his book.

He was silent for a moment, and hemmed and hawed and I realized he was not prepared.  So I decided to cut to the chase.

“Is it the money, Walter?  Are you unsure you want to spend the money on this project, Walter, or on me to write it?” 

He paused briefly and then let the air out of his lungs in a big whoosh, and said, “No, I wish I had that luxury.  The truth is, Arthur, I don’t have the money to pay you.  I’ve had a lot of medical bills recently.”  He trailed off, and it dawned on me he was in much worse health than he’d let on and it would not be polite to inquire further.

“Well,” I replied, “my recommendation then is that you try to write the book yourself as much as you can, and then later on, maybe I or someone else can help you tighten it up.”

“I’ve tried that, Arthur, but it’s – it’s just not coming,” he confessed. 

Suddenly, I realized he didn’t have the memories all there anymore, and it was a much more delicate moment.  We all fear the day our memory begins to fade.  We all hope medicine will change that soon. 

“Well, Walter, when it does, you just call, and I’ll be there for you,” I said confidently.

He smiled at me graciously, and said thanks and he would.  I bid him a good afternoon and we drove off.

I looked at Vickie and said, “Jeez, I thought that would have panned out.”  She looked back and said, “Well, like you always tell me, each writing project is a learning experience if you recognize the lesson.  Just try to understand what you are trying to learn from this.”

I squeezed her hand and thought about it and eventually realized that sometimes the kind of project you pick and the people you work with are more important than the money.

Because a more business oriented approach would perhaps made a writer more money, but they would be less authentic, and authenticity pays bigger in the long run more than productivity on many projects that are not perhaps as exciting or creatively challenging.

I’d rather spend a long time on a masterpiece than crank out drivel for the masses like a short order cook, but that is how I was raised and how I creatively tick.

At least I came up with a great title. 

And I learned the projects I should create are the ones worth creating if you pay yourself off in originality, authenticism and meaningful rewards that aren’t always monetary.

Stop chasing the money and someday somebody will tell you a JFK story too.  And then you will understand riches more precious than gold for the rest of your days.  Like Walter Moeller understood.  And now, so do you.


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