Finding True Intimacy in The Sessions

The SessionsI have a new movie review for On Tap – Finding True Intimacy in The Sessions.

Starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt and William H. Macy, The Sessions is about Mark O’Brien, a paralyzed writer determined to lose his virginity at the age of 38. Hunt plays his sex surrogate.  It’s a different kind of Hollywood film, in that it explores intimacy in sex rather than titillation.

But after watching the movie, I was much more interested in Mark O’Brien. A polio victim, he was paralyzed from the neck down and spent most of his life in an iron lung. Despite this, he was determined to be as independent as possible and found success as a journalist and poet. The fascinating story of his life is told in the documentary Breathing Lessons, which is free online and inspired The Sessions.

Find Small Business Success with The Pumpkin Plan

Around this time each year, you’ll see a news story about a farmer with a record-sized pumpkin, one much bigger than anything grown by his neighbors. How did he do it? How did he find success in the pumpkin patch?

He did it by nurturing his best pumpkin, a principle that can be applied to any small business. That’s the message of The Pumpkin Plan, a new book by Mike Michalowicz.

To make your business thrive, you must weed your garden, like a good farmer. This means removing the pumpkins that are too small or not worth your time, so as to focus on the one great gourd that can grow bigger than all the others.

In other words, the Pareto Principle. 80% of your sales come from 20% of your clients. The key to growth is to focus on the most profitable activities of your business.

(I satirize this idea in my novel Don’t Mess Up My Block, where my narrator chooses to eliminate all distractions – even family – to concentrate on getting rich.)

The most interesting section of The Pumpkin Plan is where Michalowicz talks about failure. So many entrepreneurial titles gloss over the hard work of building a business – yet, this is the norm. Each year Americans start one million new businesses, nearly 80 percent of which fail within the first five years. Michalowicz frankly discusses how his company was eating him alive, consuming every waking hour and ruining his family life. Only by concentrating on what he did best was he able to escape this trap. He learned to weed out the activities that weren’t worth his time so as to focus on his best customers.

Michalowicz is a serial entrepreneur who started his first business at the age of 24, moving his young family to the only safe place he could afford – a retirement building. With limited resources and no experience, he systematically bootstrapped a multi-million dollar technology business, sleeping in conference rooms to avoid hotel costs. After selling his first company, Mike launched a new business the very next day, and in less than three years, sold it to a Fortune 500 company. In the Pumpkin Plan, he describes his life story as well as the stories of similar entrepreneurs.

This is not a book of theory. It’s chock-full of real-world examples from people who have had to sell products, make payroll and keep themselves sane. Chapters expand on the Pumpkin Plan concept, with checklists on how to discover what you do best and how to get back on track if you stray.

What’s your Great Pumpkin? This Halloween, find out with The Pumpkin Plan.

Beasts of the Southern Wild: Born on the Bayou

On Tap Magazine
July 2012

Opening July 6th, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a mad fever dream of a movie, filled with evocative images that will remain in your consciousness long after the film has ended.

Beasts of the Southern WildThis eco-drama was a sensation at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the top award for dramatic (fiction) film and for cinematography. Beasts of the Southern Wild has also been honored by the Cannes Film Festival.

“This is a simple movie about fighting for your home,” says director Benh Zeitlin.

The movie follows Hushpuppy, a six-year-old girl who lives with her father in a swamp community of rebels and misfits. Played by Quvenzhané Wallis, she is fierce heroine who struggles to keep her father alive and survive environmental catastrophe. Playing amid broken glass, rooting pigs and wandering drunkards, she is braver and stronger than any first-grader you have ever met.

Casting non-actors like Wallis is one of many risky decisions made by Zeitlin. For his first feature film, he violated the unwritten rule that directors should avoid working on water or with child actors.

Beasts of the Southern Wild embodies the can-do spirit of the Louisiana bayou, where it was filmed. Everyone involved in the film pitched in, providing boats and suggesting locations, in a community still struggling from the impact of Hurricane Katrina.

“We invited chaos in intentionally,” Zeitlin said, describing the makeshift filmmaking process.

Beasts of the Southern Wild was a labor of love for Zeitlin, a project that he spent two years editing. Over time, the story focused more and more on Wallis – she literally carries the film on her tiny shoulders. There is already Oscar talk around her striking performance.

A coming of age story and a tale of a community’s survival, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a crazed American jalopy of a movie. Packed with stunning imagery of the Louisiana bayous, Beasts of the Southern Wild is the harrowing saga of a little girl trying to survive in a world where the ground is literally disappearing beneath her feet.

 

The $100 Startup – Chapter Three: Follow Your Passion… Maybe

screenplay

Some books deserve a closer read. One of these is The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau.

I’m a writer. I’ve written screenplays, short stories and even several novels. Writing and (more recently) photography are my passions. I’ve followed my muse, as much as I could afford to.

But make a living at my passions? I had the dream of being a Hollywood screenwriter until I actually visited LA. And I’d love a book deal but the publishing world is in disarray these days. And the dream of being a professional photographer is undermined by countless photographers (including, at times, me) willing to work for free.

Besides, I really do like working on web sites. I love the immediacy and creativity of web publishing.

The idea that there must be some way to combine my writing, photography and web skills into some sort of coherent business is why I bought The $100 Startup.

In chapter three, Guillebeau addresses the artist within all of us, the countless people who have wanted to turn their hobbies into money-making operations.

The key is to find the overlap between your passion and the what people will pay for. He puts it in this somewhat clunky formula:

(Passion + skill) -> (problem + marketplace) = opportunity.

The best example comes from Guillebeau’s own life. I first started reading his blog during his quest to visit every country in the world. Did he get paid for this? No. He gets paid through related services, like his books and guides. As Guillebeau expains:

…you don’t get paid for your hobby itself; you get paid for helping other people pursue the hobby or something indirectly related to it.

Another example is Benny Lewis. He loved learning new languages and discovered that total immersion was key to picking up a new tongue. He learned seven languages in just two years. Pushed by his friends, he developed Speak from Day One (check out the insane video).

But how do you determine what the market will pay for? A tough question, but Guillebeau offers a checklist. You need a hobby that you’re passionate about. And have other people asked you for help with this hobby? Are they willing to pay for your expertise? These questions will be explored in greater detail in chapter six.

Remember, too, the admonition from chapter two that business success comes from helping people. So, how do you use your skills in a way that helps people?

art jamzThis chapter has a lot of relevance for artists and other creative types. Not everyone wants to turn their art into a business, however. It’s one thing to take photos that you enjoy; quite another to try to sell them at a farmer’s market. Guillebeau underestimates the difficulties people may have in exposing their art to the cruelties of the marketplace.

If you decide to turn your passion into a business, choose wisely and have a thick skin.

Local Examples

I have a couple of inspiring examples of my own, people I know in Washington who have turned their passion into businesses.

  • Jon Gann created the DC Shorts Film Festival, with a desire to put on a show. Now in its ninth year, it was named as “one of 25 festivals worth an entry fee” by Moviemaker Magazine. Jon created DC Shorts because he believed that filmmakers deserved to be treated better.
  • Everyone loves stories about ex-lawyers doing something other than law, like Philippa Hughes of the Pink Line Project, a local web site covering the arts.
  • Julianne Brienza has the occasionally impossible task of running the Capital Fringe Festival every year. This Montanan has successfully brought oddball theater to serious Washington.

Full disclosure: I’ve worked with all of these people and they’re all awesome.

Bonus

Artists are at war with themselves. Creating art is making something imperfect, that’s not going to match the perfect vision in your head. On Writer’s Block is an excellent little book on overcoming this hurdle as is Do The Work.

Reading this chapter, I was reminded of Do What You Love and The Money Will Follow. Sounds like flippant advice in these dour economic times but the book’s message is that what you’re passionate about, you will do better than anyone else.

A nice companion to this chapter would be The Art of Possibility. It’s a beautiful little book about envisioning your future.

The $100 Startup – Chapter Two: Give Them the Fish

fish tank

Some books deserve a closer read. One of these is The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau.

In the first chapter, Guillebeau set the stage, like a good novelist would. He brought out his main characters (unexpected entrepreneurs) and introduced his theme: building a microbusiness.

Now, in this second chapter, we get into the work of figuring out what kind of business is best for you.

But, first, a parable, one we’re all familiar with.

Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.

Yes, but when you go out to eat you don’t want to catch, clean and cook your own fish. You just want the fish. Give the customer what they want, instead of what you think they need.

This point is illustrated by the story of the V6 Ranch, which looks like loads of fun. This dude ranch offers more than just horse rides, they give their stressed Californian guests the chance to “escape and be someone else.”

Across the country, Kelly Newsome brings serenity to uptight Washingtonians through her yoga practice. As an ex-lawyer, she understands the pressure of the rat race better than anyone.

These two businesses understand that value means helping people. It is not about a long list of features – horse rides, yoga classes – but instead the value of the business comes from benefits. A meal by campfire is a feature; the feeling of relaxation you get is a benefit. Customers want benefits not features.

Focus on benefits when considering ideas for your own $100 startup.

Guillebeau illustrates this further with an example from his own business. He developed a product called Travel Ninja, based upon his round-the-world adventures. It was a detailed explanation of how to earn frequent flyer miles and book your own travel. It flopped. Customers were overwhelmed by the complexities of the offer. They didn’t want to know how the airline mileage system worked; they just wanted to be told what to do to get the best deals. He refined his product and developed the Travel Hacking Cartel, a simple guide to rapidly earning frequent flyer miles.

Honing in on what people actually want is key. Customers didn’t want to learn the ins and outs of the airline biz, like Guillebeau had. Instead, they wanted to travel to the places of their dreams. People aren’t attracted by features (detailed knowledge of airline programs) they just want the benefit (a memorable week in Bali).

The chapter closes with the story of Brooke Snow, a lifestyle photographer in Utah. I know a lot of talented photographers. With everyone a photographer these days, it’s a brutal business but Snow has differentiated herself by teaching classes online. This “professor of meaningful creativity” teaches courses on technique and storytelling, all of which are sold out. She shares her trade secrets, overcoming the fear that she was training the competition.

In the words of Guillebeau:

When all else fails, ask how you can help people more.

Give people what they want. Give them the fish!

For More Information

Have the dream of being a wedding photographer? My friend Mary Kate McKenna offers a reality check.

Are there too many yoga studios?

Another way to look at features vs benefits is in the recent Mad Men episode on Jaguar. Rather than pitching features in their ad (leather seats, British engineering), the team comes up a persuasive line that is all benefits, “At last, something beautiful you can truly own.” It’s about the emotional experience of owning a Jaguar.

Next: Follow Your Passion… Maybe.

The $100 Startup – Chapter One: Unexpected Entrepreneurs

cookie and coffee at Black Sheep Coffee

Some books deserve a closer read. One of these is The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau.

I’ve been a fan of Chris for years, being an avid reader of his popular blog and his earlier book, The Art of Noncomformity. He writes about escaping from cubicle nation and leading the kind of life that you want – a heady dream in this time of chronic recession.

What makes him different from a hundred other authors selling this idea?

Practical – He is one of the best writers on the practical details of being a freelancer or running a small business. In his books and blogs, he writes about the sometimes painful aspects of running a business, from getting publicity to organizing a product launch.

Realistic – Chris does not promise to make you rich. His work is filled with examples of everyday folks who have managed to improve their lives. The $100 Startup includes stories of real businesses, with dollar figures attached to them. Some are impressive, but others are quite modest.

Honest – I distrust books which only talk about success. Chris is honest about what’s worked and not worked in his entrepreneurial journey. The $100 Startup contains stories of disaster, as well as triumph.

But enough about Chris. What does his book say?

Chapter One: Renaissance

This first chapter sets the stage. It begins with a sadly typical story – a veteran sales professional gets unexpectedly laid off. What happens next is like a quirky episode of Portlandia. This salesman goes into the bedding business, and pioneers the industry’s first-ever mattress delivery by bicycle.

This story (and related case studies) introduce the idea of micro-entrepreneurship, an idea which has been around for centuries. These are one-person businesses. And they can be setup for less than $100. (The $100 figure is a bit arbitrary. Some of the businesses discussed in the book cost more, some less, but the point is that you can set up a business no matter how little money you have.)

The best part of The $100 Startup is that it is grounded in real stories. These case studies come from Guillebeau’s study of “unconventional, accidental entrepreneurs.” His subjects were interviewed and required to submit financial data. For the book, he profiles a wide range of “microbusinesses” that are successful and low-cost.

They were also created by people who decided to follow their passion. But they did more than just that – they found the sweet spot between what they were interested in and what the market will pay for. These businesses build upon skills that people already have. This is illustrated by the wonderful example of Scott Adams. He took his modest art skills, sense of humor and business experience to create Dilbert.

The basics of business are very simple, according to Guillebeau:

  1. Product or service: what you sell.
  2. People willing to pay for it: your customers.
  3. A way to get paid: how you’ll exchange a product or service for money.

This, of course, is the hard part and where most business books falter. They say “you can change the world!” but skip over the bothersome details.  The rest of The $100 Startup will closely examine these three concepts, down to the dollar figures of other microbusinesses.

The chapter ends with a touch of the quaint – James Kirk (really?) leaving his IT job and crossing the country to start Jamestown Coffee in South Carolina. His quote makes a nice coda to the chapter:

There was one moment very early when I realized, this is what I want to do, and this is what I am going to do. And that was that. Decision made. I’ll figure the rest out.

This theme of action bias is a constant one in Chris’s writing, the idea that it’s better to take action today rather than defer your dreams endlessly.

Summary

In this first chapter, Chris has explained the idea of microbusiness, teasing the case studies of ordinary people that he’ll examine in greater detail in the rest of the book. These inspiring tales of doing what you love are grounded in the reality of finding something fun that people will actually pay for. And owning a quaint coffee shop is the perfect story to close with, since it personifies the American Dream, 2012 edition.

Check out the video trailer for the book for more inspiration and to see what a yarn entrepreneur looks like.

Next Up: Chapter Two – Give Them The Fish, or the surprisingly uncommon idea that business should meet the needs of consumers.

The Getaway Car: Practical Writing Advice from Ann Patchett

A work in progress

UPDATE: The Getaway Car is no longer on Amazon! If it returns, I will update this page.

Ann Patchett provides practical advice on writing in The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life.

I’ve written four books, numerous short stories and several screenplays. The questions I get most about writing are the practical ones. What do you write with? Where do you write? How do you find time to write?

Answers to these questions are supplied by novelist Ann Patchett in The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life. It’s like a FAQ for aspiring writers.

Writing is a Habit

Do you need to get an MFA in Creative Writing? Not if it means going into debt, according the prudent Patchett.

Should you turn your desk away from the window, to avoid distractions? “Desk positioning does not a real writer make,” according to the author.

Are you really a writer? Spend one hour a day for thirty days writing to find out. Sit down and do the work. You’ll be amazed at how much you can accomplish.

She also believes that writer’s block is a myth. If you were stumped by a complicated math problem, do you have math block? No, you’re still working on the problem, even if you have no evident progress.

Writing is Craft

Patchett also punctures the idea that “everyone has a great novel in them.” Would you say that everyone has a five-minute mile in them? Writing is a craft that must be learned.

Her description of plot is the best I’ve ever read:

The plot of a novel should be like walking down a busy city street: First there are all the other people around you, the dog walkers and the skateboarders, the couples fighting, the construction guys swearing and shouting, the pretty girl on teetering heels who causes those construction guys to turn around for a split second of silence. There are drivers hitting the brakes, diving birds slicing between buildings, and the suddenly ominous clouds banking to the west. All manner of action and movement is rushing towards you and away. But that isn’t enough. You should also have the storefronts at street level and the twenty stories of apartments full of people and their babies and their dreams. Below the street, there should be infrastructure: water, sewer, electricity. Maybe there’s a subway down there as well, and it’s full of people.

This rang true with me. A novel can’t be just about one thing. All your characters, even the most minor ones, are heading somewhere, pursuing their own destinies. They exist in a dynamic world and, if it’s a good novel, are worthy of stories of their own.

The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life is a Kindle Single. It’s a slim volume but at $2.99 is a bargain for anyone seeking answers on the craft of writing and the realities of the writing life.

A Grab Bag of iPhone Photo Apps

The iPhone is more than a phone and much more than just a camera. It can do things that are impossible to do on a “real” camera, like effortlessly stitch together panoramas and instantly share pictures worldwide.

These creative possibilities were explored by Jack Davis in “iPhoneography: The New Frontier of Creative Photography,” a free seminar at Photoshop World in Washington, DC. Davis is an award-winning photographer and the author of the Photoshop Wow books. In an hour-long free talk, he shared the dizzying number of iPhone apps he uses. Here are his favorites:

Snapseed – Give your photos a grunge look, put them in interesting frames and make them look like old film. The iPad version of this app is gorgeous.

ProHDR – There are enough adjustment tools in this app to produce HDR that doesn’t look totally fake.

Photo fx (Tiffen) – For $2.99 you get a lot of the tools and adjustments of the desktop Tiffen program which costs hundreds of dollars.

PhotoSync – Wirelessly transfer photos between your computer, iPhone and iPad.

Photo Sender – This app allows more flexibility in sending images from your iPhone to your computer, email and social media, including the ability to send lots of images all at once.

FastCamera – Indulge your inner sports photographer and shoot hundreds of images a minute.

360 Panorama – I remember the old days (just a couple years ago) when shooting panoramas required a DSLR, a tripod and an expert knowledge of Photoshop. Instead, let this 99-cent app do it for you!

You Gotta See This! – Cheesy, but fun, this app lets you create a collage of images, as if you scattered a stack of Polaroids on a table and took a picture. Again, another complicated Photoshop task now done with a click.

King Camera – This app bills itself as a replacement for your big camera. We’ll see.

Big Lens – Another camera replacement, this app does nice depth of field shots.

SlowShutter – I love this app and have written about it before. It’s great for photos that show movement.

Instagram – You can’t talk about iPhone photo apps without mentioning this social media app.

Olloclip 3-in-1 Lens – This is actually a piece of hardware, a little lens to get fisheye, wide angle and macro shots.

This is just a sample of what Jack Davis uses. His iPhone and iPad were crowded with dozens of more apps. All these great and easy ways to create beautiful imagery demonstrate the fun of iPhoneography.

What It Was by George Pelecanos

what it wasI live a block off 14th Street, the setting for much of George Pelecanos’s gritty crime novel, What It Was. Set in 1972, it’s a fascinating read for anyone who likes books set in the Washington “beyond the monuments.” Watergate is briefly touched on, but this book contains no Senators, no wacky Masonic conspiracy theories and hardly any politics at all.

What It Was concerns the lives of real people, mostly cops and criminals, in a city scarred by riots. The popular conception of 14th Street is that it was a wasteland, from the disturbances of 1968 to the start of gentrification in the 1980s. But life went on. Pimps, drug dealers and hustlers of all kinds moved in. And for a lot of them, and the cops that pursued them, it was a hell of a time, even a good one. Continue reading “What It Was by George Pelecanos”

A Book for Anyone Who Wants to be Famous – The Winner Stands Alone

The American dream is no longer about accomplishment – it is about achieving a Kardashian-level of fame. We’ve become a society that values the famous more than we do the virtuous.

This desire to be seen, to be known, to be recognized (no matter your dubious accomplishments) is insidious, teaching people that having your own reality show is the ultimate American achievement.

For anyone that thinks that happiness comes from being on screen (or having millions of Twitter followers), I’d recommend The Winner Stands Alone, a thought-provoking novel by Paulo Coelho. He’s the author of The Alchemist, a global phenomenon of a book about the authentic pursuit of your dreams.

Set in the glamorous world of the Cannes Film Festival, The Winner Stands Alone starts out as a murder-mystery but is more a meditation on the desire for fame. It’s a cruel book, at times, as it illustrates the lengths that the aspiring will go to become members of the “Superclass” – and the hollow center that they encounter once they arrive.

It’s a great book for anyone who wants to go to Hollywood, exposing the phony and worthless nature of the “fame game.”

The Winner Stands Alone is far from a perfect book. With all of Coelho’s novels, characters and dialogue are largely secondary to the parable that he wishes to tell. Everyone sounds like Coelho, the wise teacher.

The Alchemist is about following your dream; The Winner Stands Alone is about the danger of following someone else’s.