Why The Blues Brothers Still Kicks Ass: A Critical Analysis

Remember this awesome scene from The Blues Brothers?

ELWOOD: Oh, no. No, no, no.
JAKE: What is it?
ELWOOD: Cops just put on the party lights. We’re getting pulled over.
JAKE: Are you serious?
ELWOOD: I could not be more serious.
JAKE: You’ve got to be kidding me.

You don’t? Ah. That’s because it actually was written like this:

ELWOOD: Shit.
JAKE: What?
ELWOOD: Rollers.
JAKE: No.
ELWOOD: Yup.
JAKE: Shit.

Since I first saw the film lo those many years ago, this perfect dialogue has been etched in my brain.

I went to a pretty progressive school as a kid. One of our field trips was a class trip to go see The Blues Brothers when it came out. I would have been nine or ten at the time. We all had to get consent forms from our parents, cause it wasn’t a G rated film. We loved it, especially all the swearing and the scenes where things got demolished. I saw it at least five times. I lost count.

Studying film and screenwriting as an adult, I wondered how it was that one of my favorite films seemed to so flagrantly disregard so many of the structural principles that writing gurus trumpeted as gospel. Recently, I watched it again after many years. Yup. It still kicks ass. So, gentle reader… let’s take a look under the hood and see why it kicks ass.

(If you haven’t seen The Blues Brothers, go watch it before reading this. You won’t regret it – unless, for some reason, you’re an alien from another planet where they hate comedy and blues.)

LACK OF A CLEAR ANTAGONIST
There’s no villain in The Blues Brothers. No one is opposing their quest to get the money for the orphanage; no one wants their band to fail; no single figure emerges as a representative of the forces that oppose them. This shouldn’t work. Or if it does work, then there must be some sort of conflict between the brothers, or a dilemma of some sort, that gives the film its juice. But no. Nothing.

Instead, what we have is a “chorus of antagonists” model: loosely, our heroes spend the first half of the film pissing everyone off and the last half of the film getting chased by them. If we were to pick one antagonist to stand out above the rest, it would be the cops, but more as an elemental force than a focus on the two particular pissed-off cops that repeatedly crash while pursuing them.

This is speculation on my part, but it’s possible that this structure may have its origins in long-form improv forms, in which new characters enter and initiate conflicts which are then resolved or paid off in other scenes towards the end of the piece. Ground zero for this kind of work was Second City in Chicago, where Aykroyd trained & performed before joining the cast of Saturday Night.

DUAL PROTAGONIST
Aspiring screenwriters are told that their scripts must have a single protagonist: that even in films that apparently have a dual protagonist (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid being the most popular example), one protagonist emerges as the prime mover. Not so here. The characters are almost entirely equal in status. Almost entirely. There is an extremely understated comic dynamic at play between the two of them.

Most duo acts in comedy follow a familiar template. A wacky character is usually paired with a straight man. Often, there will be an established power dynamic between the two, where one is clearly in charge. Usually the one that isn’t in charge is the one that gets the pies in the face. In clowning, this pairing is known as a Joey/Auguste. The Joey is the mean one in charge and the Auguste is the lovable screwup. Watch this clip of Mump and Smoot to see a classic example:

See how clearly defined, even elemental, the characters are? There are variations, but the principles are pretty robust. The straight man’s deadpan reaction makes the other character’s wacky behaviour more funny. (In the vaudeville days, straight men got paid slightly more – good straight men were scarcer then good zanies, and they didn’t get the same appreciation from audiences that didn’t understand the mechanics of laughcraft.)

The Blues Brothers turns this notion inside out. With Jake and Elwood Blues, we have two straight men, each reacting with the same deadpan nonchalance to the chaos that erupts around them – a chaos entirely of their own making.

The two characters are very close to being a single character. For the most part, their actions and reactions are identical. But imagine a single character in their place reacting with the same nonchalant deadpan. Funny? Maybe. But not a tenth as funny as Aykroyd and Belushi deadpanning in unison. This is a highly nuanced clown double act. They only really argue twice; both times, Elwood ends the argument by performing an insane manouvre with the car. They’re never apart for the entire film. If I recall correctly the only times they’re not in the same space are when Jake tells Elwood to start the car at Bob’s, when Elwood hits on Twiggy, and when Elwood sprays the glue on the winnebago gas pedal.

ACT STRUCTURE
Back to story structure. There are three cleanly defined acts:

  • In Act I, Jake gets out of jail, they visit the Penguin and Curtis and learn that the orphanage is facing closure, then they go listen to the Reverend Cleophus James where Jake has a religious epiphany and their quest to reunite the band begins. Along the way, we get two antagonists: the cops, and the Illinois Nazis.
  • In Act II, they gather up the band, get their gear together, and finally make it to the gig. New antagonists include Carrie Fisher’s Mystery Woman, the Good Old Boys, and Bob from Bob’s Country Bunker. (For all intents and purposes, Bob and the Good Old Boys are the same antagonist.)
  • Act III is a straight-up chase scene beginning where the Bros drive from the Palace Hotel Ballroom to the Cook County Assessor’s Office, pursued by an exponentially increasing number of cops. (And by the Nazis and the Boys.)

What’s interesting here is that the act breaks all hook onto the quest to get the money for the orphanage, but none of them hook on to any sort of character-to-character conflict. The character-to-character conflict is extremely simple: with the exception of the Mystery Woman, all the antagonists are minding their own business when they encounter humilation at the hands of the Brothers Blues. (And the Mystery Woman, as we learn late in the film, has a similar tale.) The Illinois Nazis are certainly a bunch of douchebags, but dramatically speaking they don’t have any villainous intent – they’re just out for revenge. Similarly the Good Old Boys, Bob, and the cops.  Though Bob earns douchepoints for not comping them on their liquor bill after they rocked the joint so hard.

While there’s remarkably little conflict from a dramaturgical point of view, the act breaks are robust.

THE BUY-IN: ESCALATING OUTRAGEOUSNESS
By the third act, cop cars are crashing by the dozens, Keystone-Kops-like SWAT teams are hut-hut-hutting down the sides of buildings, and Nazis are freefalling through the sky like Wile E Coyote. We happily roll with it, because the outrageousness has been ramped up gradually. Let’s take a look.

The film opens with images of industrial desolation and takes us into a lengthy opening in which Jake is discharged from jail. Two things jump out about this pre-credit sequence:

  • There is no music
  • We do not see the brothers’ faces

It is only when the brothers reunite that the soundtrack kicks into gear with the opening chords of “She Caught The Katy” and the camera is allowed to see Jake and Elwood’s faces – only when they are together that they are, for our purposes, a character.

The grittiness of the jail release sequence (at least until Frank Oz shows up) also serves to provide a sort of grounding.

So. Time for some gags. It starts small. Jake lights his cigarette, then tosses the dashboard lighter out the window. This is an appetizer to soften the audience up for the real buy-in: Elwood stuntdrives the card over the raised bridge. We, the audience, know the car probably didn’t really jump the bridge. But collectively we buy it. “Okay, cute,” we think. “He jumped the bridge.” It appeals to our sense of fun.

This is all the foot in the door that Landis and Aykroyd need. Next, the orphanage doors open and close by themselves  – or is it just the wind? – and Sister Mary briefly moves as if floating in the air. We roll with it. Gospel-infused churchgoers fly improbably through the air; the heavens open and a light of divine energy strikes Jake. (“DO YOU SEE THE LIGHT BOY?”) We roll with it.

Now, we’re bought in and they can do anything they want. The subtlest form in which this licence works is in the chase scenes: in the mall, and later in act III. Since we’ve bought in to the Looney Tunes logic, we know that no one is going to get hurt when the Blues Brothers drive into the mall. And it doesn’t surprise us that a line of cop cars blithely crashes in after them, wreaking a swath of destruction, instead of setting up a police cordon around the mall and storming the place on foot. The idea that the cops would act sensibly never occurs to us. By act III the filmmakers are cheerfully violating the laws of physics, a far cry from the somber walk to freedom that faceless Jake Blues takes in the film’s opening moments.

UNITY: CHARACTER AND MUSIC
Aykroyd and Landis don’t punch it too hard, but the setup for the characters is pretty clean. They lay it out in the first scene with Curtis (Cab Calloway): Curtis and Sister Mary (“the Penguin”) were the only real family these orphan kids had; they spent all their time in the basement with Curtis, listening to the blues. Tellingly, their identical wardrobes – which, like their faces, like the blues music, only enter the film when the brothers are united – match that of their father figure.

After the one scene, they never mention it again. But the scene provides the context for all the music in the film and their relationship to it as little white kids that adopted the blues as their music. Their love of the blues mirrors that of Aykroyd and Belushi – and of much of the film’s audience. (Me, for example.) The guest artists – James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and Cab Calloway – are goliaths of soul. (Throw in a quick walk-on from John Lee Hooker, while you’re at it.) In each number, the (black) guest artist is given the spotlight to perform a number in its entirety. Jake and Elwood dance along as best they can, never doing too good a job, always being white guys, totally but dorkily committed to their love of R&B. All four songs advance the plot in at least a cursory way. In a sense, each of the four is a gatekeeper there to facilitate a waypoint: the receipt of their holy mission, the assembly of the band, the procuring of their instruments, and the commencement of their big show.

When the Blues Brothers do take the stage, it’s at a country bar – where, backed by their mixed-race band, they launch into a kickin R&B number only to find themselves scrambling to find some country music – white music – that they actually know. Finally, they get to do the show at the Palace, where we see them perform “Everybody Needs Somebody”, then embark on a merry car chase to the strains of “Sweet Home Chicago”.

IN CONCLUSION: THIS MOVIE STILL ROCKS
So what might look like a series of unrelated events with no dramatic conflict is actually a tightly constructed film in which character, tone, comic structure and musical grammar are unified into a single joke: two deadpan straight men in an outrageous world that they never quite manage to fit in to. This kind of unity can only happen with a tight creative team, especially when tone is such a critical element.

A duo act with two deadpan characters swearing a blue streak. Is it any wonder that when I grew up I produced work like this?

The Blues Brothers is a masterpiece. Thanks to Dan, John, John, and everyone else involved in this great film that still brings me so much enjoyment.

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Reformat and Reinstall

The great work continues, with more progress on the book each week. Each chapter-edit is followed by little aftershocks of work as the changes are reviewed and approved– and preceded by making sure the line-level edits are done. A recent inventory uncovered 39 pages of new material sprinkled throughout the book’s 500+ pages. Perhaps there will be no more new material. Perhaps.

The chapter on Gothic architecture that was giving us so much grief is now a thing of beauty. Turn the ignition and it hums. It feels good. This week? Editing new material in Modernism, rewriting a few pages of Edwardian, and reviewing eight new pages in Art Deco.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, and I’m going to be taking this blog in some new directions. My initial intention was to create a public space to talk about my progress toward a deadline. But was that interesting? I wasn’t so sure. I tried to look for ways to bridge that diary to broader topics on the craft, short essays that would be of broader interest. But this way of thinking, thinking of it as a sort of column that I had to maintain in addition to a quick post on the state of the book, started to feel a little oppressive at a time when I’m juggling three writing projects and a part-time job plus participating in a soul choir and having a social life.

So I’m starting now from a blank slate. I have a few ideas for where I’d like to go in the blog, but I’d also like to stay open to improvisation, to keep sharing, and hopefully keep working on communicating across that gap between a writer’s solitary work and the online community that we share. Talk to you real soon.

 

Carpe Diem

It’s a new year and I’m back in the ring, coming out swinging. I can beat this guy. He’s a punk.

If you’re new here, I’m working on a book with my father. Styles and Society started out as a collection of photos with a few essays and exploded into a 600-page beast – a history of architectural style, a study of Vancouver architecture, and a social critique of our changing relationship to form and beauty. My current task is a structural rewrite of all fifteen chapters and my current estimates give March 4 as the date of completion.

A lot can happen between now and then. The pace of the work is unpredictable. Right now I’m working on a chapter on Gothic architecture – its roots in pagan colour theory and eleventh-century engineering breakthroughs, its propagandization through the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and its emergence as a national Canadian style. All great material; all part of the same book.

The only problem is that the chapter sucks. It’s riddled with weird rhythms, style problems and needless repetitions. “That chapter’s horrible,” pronounces my writing partner. “It was the first one I wrote. It sucks. I think you should rewrite the whole thing. I’ll get you a couple of books to read on it.”

I gently recoil from this idea. I am nurturing a beautiful dream in which we complete the book in the actually foreseeable future. I want streamlining. I want shortcuts. I want the shortest possible distance between the draft we have and a beautiful, polished, final draft. But as much as I feel like cutting corners and planting a bootprint on this book’s ass, there’s a point beyond which I just can’t go. Sometimes you just look at the prose and say “We’re rewriting that. Give me a pen.” So this is the dance. Some passages are tweaked, some are cut. Some are glared at malevolently, the words SLASH AND BURN scrawled in the margins in a caffeine-addled chicken-scratch, earmarked for an aggressive attack to come, most likely a complete rewrite.

There’s a part of me that hopes the book will rewrite itself.

This idea is only partially ridiculous. When I bring my will and my joy to the task of writing this thing, my subconscious mind works on in the background. Some days it seems like all I have to do is show up and sit down and the work gets done. As if the book has a life enough of its own that all I need to do is let it drive. Other days it does not seem so. I have to press on either way.

I’ve recently started a project-based coaching service, for writers seeking a mix of editing, instruction, and goal-setting to help them complete their work. There’s a lovely symmetry for me right now in facing down the same challenges as my two clients. I’m taking great inspiration from them both this week. Each of us is doing something that we’ve never done before, and attempting to do it on a schedule of some sort. The first impulse is to dream big, for example I’ll finish this in two months and it will be brilliant. But to succeed, we need to find the sweet spot. Maybe the sweet spot is I’ll finish this draft in two months and it might be awful, but I’ll be able to hold it my hands and sculpt it into something better. Maybe it’s I’m going to spend two hours a day on this for the next three weeks no matter how I feel about it and then I’m going to look at what I’ve got. It’s finding the thing that’s going to get your motor running, get your juices flowing, not be too hard but not be too easy. A plan you can commit to that can hold up under enemy fire… and can be modified when necessary.

At the same time, “it’s taking longer than I thought so I revised my schedule” can’t be a get-out-of-jail free card. From time to time, you have to acknowledge failure. And move forward. And that doesn’t mean saying “oh well, maybe next week will be different”. It means saying “next week will be different because I’m going to make it different and here’s how I’m going to do it”.

Until next week.

In Absentia

Happy holidays, everyone! Merry Christmas, happy Hannukah, happy solstice.

There’s a time for hard, diligent work, and there’s a time for relaxation and board games and red wine. There’s a lot to be said for intention: for knowing whether you’re working or playing and throwing your weight and will behind it.

Much love to you all this holiday season. I look forward to sharing new developments with you in the new year. Be good… but not too good.

In Flagrante Delicto

My intention with this blog was severalfold. Primarily, it was to share my experience working on our architecture book, and to generate interest in it, but also to release some short little essays about the writing process based on what came up for me along the way. Also, to provide just one more layer of accountability: to make it harder for me to back down from the deadline and from the project.

I consider myself to be a professional – in my attitude to my work, and in the quality of it. My writing clients have always been happy with my work, and I’ve got a few awards on my resume. But I want to look and sound like a professional as well. I want to come here and say “Hi, everyone. Sam the professional here. We’re on time and under budget. We made a plan and we’re executing the plan. Everything’s great.”

But everything isn’t great. And I didn’t come here to lie to you.

In the last three weeks or so, I’ve done some decent work on the book, but nothing close to what I set out to do.

I’ve also read three novels (“The Bombmaker”, “Hostage”, “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three”) two graphic novels (“Ooku volume one”, “Moomin volume 4”), and two great short story collections (“Thieves’ Dozen” by Donald Westlake, plus a “Transgressions” collection that had a novella each by Westlake, Walter Mosley, and Ed McBain). I’ve watched six episodes of “The Sandbaggers”. I’ve purchased “Flight Control” and “Starscape” on Steam and logged some serious play hours. I’ve had a few drinks. I’ve hit my snooze button more times than I care to count.

Both of my desks are covered with paper – stuff related to the book, notes for the Shine rewrite and the websomething project (both of which actually are going great), sheet music for the City Soul Choir, visa slips, bus transfers, diagrams from my page-a-day origami calendar. Lists of things to do. Library books. Cookbooks. A spent toner cartridge. Half a bag of caramel corn flavoured rice cakes. A jar of dry roasted peanuts. Don’t get me started on the laundry backlog.

We could use a lot of different names to describe my condition. Let’s look at a few of them.

  • Writer’s Block: You’ve encountered a difficult stage in the work and the discomfort of working through it makes anything other writing very appealing.
  • Laziness: You know what you should be doing, but you just don’t feel like doing it.
  • Depression: You feel bad. You don’t want to think about why you’re feeling bad because thinking about it makes you feel bad. You deaden your senses with activities that occupy your mind and your eyes so your problems can’t call you because the line is busy. Your problems get worse. Repeat until furious.
  • Burnout: You’re a sprinter and you’re trying to run a marathon. The first hundred metres go great. Then things start to hurt. You don’t worry about eating or drinking or resting, you just run. Until you can’t. Then you’re done.

Each of these is a partial description of what I’ve been experiencing. None of them is the whole story.

If I was on trial for this, my lawyer would say the following in my defense: that I created an arbitrary schedule based on an unrealistic deadline. That the amount of work I tried to do simply wasn’t feasible in the amount of time that I had available to me, and that since the bulk of my writing experience has been in scriptwriting and storytelling, and neither myself nor my writing partner have ever attempted to write a book before, let alone a 600-page doorstop with 15 chapters, 80 essays, and 80 exhibition-quality photos, it’s understandable that there would be a disconnect between the projected schedule and the actual schedule.

And the prosecuting attorney would say “Yes, that’s all very well, your Honour. But he said he was going to do it.”

My coaching-exchange partner, Jennifer Howd, seems to take the role of my defense. In our last conversation she said “Why don’t you just make a new schedule? A realistic one. Now that you know how long it can take. Stop beating yourself up about not keeping to the old schedule. It’s not helping you. You knew it might not be realistic, and you’ve got a lot of work done.”

Well. She has a point. As always.

I haven’t much felt like updating this blog. The car was cruising down the road and I didn’t like the way it was handling so I pulled over and just stopped driving and went for a walk.

This has been a postcard from purgatory – a snapshot of where I’ve been.

I’m coming home now.

Tempus Fugit

Three steps forward, two steps back: The Writer’s Tango. This week I fell further behind my so-called schedule while accelerating the pace of my work. Did some great work with my co-writer, and also found time to do some great work on the Shine rewrite and the websomething. Needs must, when the devil drives.

I didn’t post on Thursday or Friday; I was busy writing. It’s a hazard of posting a work diary. I took it easy on the weekend. On Monday morning I felt refreshed and ready to work.

One thing that I did was a devise a purpose-built outlining tool, and it got me thinking about how different outlining tools work, and how important it is to keep your methods fluid.

“Outline” means different things to a different people. I tend to use the term to refer to a document that lists what’s going in the piece that I’m working on in the order that they go in. Depending on the form I’m working in, I might call it a “step outline”. I usually just write each thing on a line. If something needs sub-outlining, I might do that too, or add a couple of notes about stuff I know needs to go in the “step”.

An outline is very linear. Almost all outlining tools are representations of linear structure: A, then B, then C, then D. But even though they might contain exactly the same information, a Word document with ten double-spaced lines of text on it feels completely different from a row of ten index cards with a line of text each. And a handwritten sheet of paper with the same ten lines is different, too.

Each of them is shorthand for the work as a whole, and none of them will mean much to anyone except the writer. A short phrase is able to represent something larger, something between a paragraph and ten pages, because the writer knows what it means. It’s your tool; no one else has to look at it.

On Styles and Society, I’m doing something a bit backwards, which is that I’m retroengineering an outline from a book that is substantially complete. We have an overall structure for the whole book that works; my day-by-day work is to restructure each chapter. So my work begins with an inventory. Then the question is: What does this want to look like? And then: “What’s the most efficient way to turn this from what it is into what it wants to look like?”

The first chapter I tackled was the biggest: 82 pages on Victorian architecture. I used a three-page outline to represent an 82 page document. First I went through the doc adding headings and extracting a brief description of each section, then I turned that into something like a step list. To whit:

Point-counterpoint: the lazy indian and the protestant wendigo

How verticality and horizontality trend together in architecture +fashion

Donald Smith
HBC Hero and capitalist monster
cf. Thompson, Fraser + their ilk

Like I said, it doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but the writer. Anyway, this gave me a tool that I could use to see what I had; then I rearranged the structure of the chapter by rearranging the outline. I had page numbers for each step, and a hard copy for reference, so it wasn’t too headsucking to rearrange the old version of the chapter to match the new version of the outline.

I’m a big believer in index cards. I’ll whip them out at the slightest provocation. I usually use blank business cards, because a million of them can fit on a table and they force me to keep the thoughts on them simple. The beauty of them is that they’re so tactile. In a word doc, things are in a certain order, but your cards don’t have to be laid out in a line. You can shuffle them around, put related ideas together, toss the things you’re not sure about in a pile to the side, whatever floats your boat. Something about physically moving the cards connects to the body. Most artists know that the body makes the decisions, not the head. Don’t take my word for it, though. Try all the tools, get to know them, and when you reach into your toolbox you’ll grab the right one.

On this rewrite, I haven’t touched the cards at all. The closest I came was printing out a whole chapter, then cutting it up with scissors. I never tried this one before, but it worked great. I stapled each section together (each section already had a heading in boldface), then I was able to move them around and stack the consecutive sections in little groups. It let me see all the headings at once, so I could see the entire chapter – plus it let me pick up a section and just read it to see what was in it. Also it was really easy to pick up orphaned paragraphs and move them around. Worked great. Wouldn’t have worked with Victorian, though. Victorian was too large. And it wasn’t necessary to do it for Classical, because the changes for Classical were minor enough that I could do them right in the doc.

So the lesson is not to get hung up on finding one tool that works all the time, but to learn what all your tools feel like, then just reach for the one you need.

Mea Culpa

I have hit the panic button.

I have rolled my schedule back one week. This is my confession.

I have lost all sense of progress other than to know that I’m really behind. Week Four’s worklist lays pristine and untouched, while weeks One to Three lay disassembled in parts all over the workshop. I’m basically up to date on the commentaries, but I allowed myself to become demoralized with the slow progress on the main thread of the work, which is the chapters themselves.

Once I slowed down on the chapters, I continued to slow down. The initial week’s chapter – a single, 82-page monstrosity – was easier to deal with than week two, even though Week Two was only 60 pages. The best cure for resistance is no escape. When your army has the water at their back and no way out but through the enemy, you can bet they’ll fight.

Because Week Two was two chapters, and I was working on them concurrently, I could always put one down and work on the other one; at least, that’s the way I experienced it. I soon found that my response when the work on a chapter got difficult was to switch to the other chapter or to the commentaries. While this kept me moving more or less forward, it failed to create enough pressure to break through the more difficult organizational parts of the work. To create that pressure, I needed constraints: constraints of time, constraints of attention, constraints of form.

(An example of combining all three constraints would be “In the next 90 minutes, create an outline briefly describing the content of each section of this 30 page chapter”. The constraint of form gives a structure for the pressure of the work to release into.)

So, what happened? Facing difficult decisions about the work in front of me, I deferred them; those deferred decisions created unfinished work where my schedule called for finished work; my schedule lost authority; my morale dipped; and my frame of reference for how close I was to being on schedule went out the window. It went from “Looking good” to “A day or two late” to “I don’t know. Late. Not close. Who cares.”

This third category is bad news. Addicts recognize the to-hell-with-it switch that trips when you wander too far off the path. You might not be an addict, but I bet you know that feeling. When I’m a writer facing resistance, I’m an addict without an addiction. If I was hooked on alcohol or junk or coke or porn or ebay or gambling, I’d go on a three-day bender. Instead, resistance lets me say “to hell with it” in a hundred tiny ways. Dirty dishes, dirty laundry, messy desk, late night videogame sessions, stacks of graphic novels from the library, the staring purgatory of the internet. Click, click, point, click. In the trance of “to hell with it” there’s no work to be done. It’s kind of soothing, except that the part of you that knows you should be working keeps it from fully being fun. And you can step off the path in the space between heartbeats.

How did I get here? I started with an active decision to set a schedule that was extraordinarily difficult. I fell behind when I encountered difficult work and made a passive decision to abandon my task management – my “I’m going to do this and this today and that and that tomorrow and then Friday I’ll finish up” traffic direction. I made an active decision to reduce my available time for the book by simultaneously working on a rewrite of the Shine libretto and a rewrite of a websomething. (Both of those projects are going great.) Finally, I made a passive decision to wallow for a few extra days in “poor me I’m so behind schedule” land before dusting myself off and getting back to it.

In the time since I began this blog yesterday, something shifted. This morning, I sat down and wrote the closing paragraph to our 82 pages on Victorian architecture. Week One is complete. The task that had been dogging me for three weeks only took me a few minutes. Week Two is tantalizing close: the two chapters are each well marked up, and need only a final push. I believe I can finish them both today. Tomorrow morning I’ll get started on Gothic and Edwardian. I should be able to finish Gothic by Sunday and get a beachhead on Edwardian. With pushing the schedule back one week, I’ll just owe the rest of Edwardian. That’s my plan and I’ll stick to it until I have to change it.

The crux is this:

If you do not have a plan, then you are relying on inspiration.
Resistance can mess with your inspiration, but it can’t mess with your plan.

Actors spend a great deal of time analyzing their scripts to find playable actions. The cornerstone of contemporary acting technique is performing an action that places your attention on the other character in the scene: you’re trying to borrow fifty bucks, you’re trying to extract an apology, you’re trying to talk their pants off. The last place an actor wants their attention to be is on their own emotional state, because i) it will inhibit organic emotional response, and ii) it prejudges the “right” emotion and elimates vast territories of rich experience. So you want an action that you can perform whether you’re angry, sad, relieved, ecstatic, or hopeless.

This is exactly the same criterion that we require for any artistic activity, unless we choose to allow our productivity to be held hostage by our moods.

If you realize that you’ve been sitting at your desk for an hour and you don’t know what you’ve been doing, it may be time to draft a quick plan. The exact form the plan takes will depend on what form you’re working in, what stage of the work you’re at… and how much gas you have in the tank.

In its simplest form, the plan is a contract with your attention: for the next twenty-five minutes, you will keep your attention focused on one task. So get a nice hot cup of tea and set the timer. Set your worries aside for the moment: your email and your debt and your lover and your laundry can wait.

It can all wait, for just a few minutes.

While you do the work.