Thursday, May 31, 2007

Talent and Skill

I've been MIA again but I have excuses.

(1) Daughter home for a week or so
(2) Son home for Memorial Day
(3) Meeting a deadline--today--

I'm taking a quick break from working on a new short story, tentatively called "Oh, Hell." I had a successful morning so I'm treating myself to emails and blogs. But this has to be short.

What I wanted to address was the need for patience. I am not a patient person. Never have been. And when in the past (a rolling, long-ago past) I couldn't master something immediately, I assumed I had no talent and no skills and I gave up.

No talent. No skills.

These are two distinct attributes. Having talent is terrific and it certainly makes following your passion rewarding, but talent is only half the formula.

Having skill is absolutely necessary (watch American Idol if you don't believe me). But getting these skills isn't an immediate process. And if you're talking about becoming an expert at anything, you're talking YEARS of practice. That's where patience comes in.

I think it was Robert McKee (the writing coach whose book STORY is an excellent resource) who said that all we can do is to "take out our little bit of talent," push it around every day, apply our hard-earned skills and hopefully, that will result in something worthwhile. I'm sure I don't have that quote right, but you get the gist. It takes both talent and skill to become good at anything and skill takes patience.

I realized this this morning. I have to mail my story to the powers that be and last night when I went to bed I was miserable. Things at the end of my story were not working out. The whole thing felt stupid and, heaven forbid, CORNY. In the old days, I would have felt doomed. I would have thought of quitting. I would believe to the depths of my being that my writing sucked. And I sucked.

But this morning, I remembered I have developed a skill set to help me solve the problems in my story. Hmmmm. Imagine that!

I read about two or three pages in the middle, did a little editing, and suddenly I knew how to solve the story problem at the end. My mind was asking questions that only an "expert" would know to ask.

I moved away from the computer and started to scribble notes of what exactly had to happen for the whole story to make sense. I was so shocked at how easy it was, I started doubting it would work. But I typing the notes, I sure it does work. And it isn't corny. Maybe a little corny, but I still have time to fix that. Wow, it's working!!!

I'm not saying here that what I do is brilliant or even interesting to anyone else. But it is to me. To see that I will allow myself to make mistakes, to go on tangents, to think I suck, and then get back to work. To take out my "little bit of talent" and my years of practice, and actually be able to have answers, know what comes next, delight myself with a surprising ending, that for me, is success. And when I discover the NEXT problem, I will have skills to solve that too.

This idea of having patience--and I suppose, FAITH IN THE WRITING PROCESS--is a gift to me. A gift I've given myself over the years by focusing on learning the skills I need to do what I want, and letting my little bit of talent take care of itself.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Idol Thoughts

I have a few things to say about American Idol before the season gets filed in the TV archives. Many people have told me and I have often read on-line that this has been "the most boring season yet. Worst year ever. No talent. AI is done. The phenomena is over. It's going downhill."

Wait! Worst year ever? NO TALENT?

Can you say Melinda, Lakisha, Jordin, Blake, Gina, Chris, even Phil if he'd kept a stetson on his balding* head and truly channeled Garth? Excuse me, but when did a lot of talent turn into NO TALENT? You see, this is the problem. We hard-core Idol fans are desensitized. We're experts now, so the slightest break in a warble becomes a reason to dismiss someone as a hack, has-been, get rid of 'em no talent. We want the BEST? And we got it. Think about it. Would any of the superstar guests actually get into the top twelve today? Which ones? Akon? Gwen? Barry? uh-hem.

Of course, getting rid of the contestants is the whole point and so the unpredictability of both the performances and the results is the hook, and it works. It worked this year too.

"Idol's going down hill?" I get cranky when people start making sweeping statements based on a 10% dip in a couple of shows. Let's face it, part of the dip is do to some valiant efforts of competing networks, and the age of AI itself. There will be attrition. There always is. So what's the problem this year?

2007 may have produced the most talent ever. And this talent weeded out most of those who might have brought controversy to the show. There were so many strong, interesting voices and personalities--especially among the ladies--that there was no room of those who might develop as the season went on. We even had to lose two fabulous competitors in Stephanie Edwards and Sabrina Sloan.

The only weak link in the beginning appeared to be the men and they were more diverse than the women. However, the men failed to step up and it was only the numbers quotas (12 guys, 12 girls and later 6 guys, 6 girls) that kept some of them on the stage. The final twelve all gave at least one good performance (I would argue this is not true for Sanjaya, but there are those including the judges who thought he acquitted himself well on Latin night).

And the Top 12 bonded. They didn't even seem to resent the fact that Sanjaya stole the stage from more worthy candidates. The biggest factor to the "It's boring" comment is that every one of the final 12 idols seemed to be genuinely friendly, passionate, caring, non-controversial, unrebellious, and well, NICE. Anyone will tell you, "nice" is boring. The only two who provided any attitude were Sanjaya and Lakisha. SANJAYA! How can a show have Sanjaya in it and be boring? And Lakisha, her 'tude was subtle and wouldn't even have shown if the rest of them weren't wearing those toothy grins.

But what most people fail to talk about is the good that American Idol does. Why it ultimately succeeds every season. Idol creates uncommon common ground. While it's always different each season, the basic elements of the show bring people together, exposing them to a wider variety of music and talent than any other program before. While the demographic may be younger (I have no idea about the stats), the audience overall is composed of people of all ages, colors, tastes.

My daughter still can't get over the fact that Chris Daughtry lost. I still miss George Huff. This year my mother-in-law loves Melinda, can't understand a word of Blake's music (it all sounds alike), and claims a great injustice has been done. But, every Friday at lunch, we engage in a lively conversation about music, people who strive, digging deep to keep one's determination, living through disappointment. All because of Idol. This is bad? This is boring? A show that brings together generations to discuss life lessons such as what it takes to do the best you can, to be critiqued and live through it, to be dumped from the show and end up on the charts for, what, over 20 weeks?

No. The premise and the people aren't boring, but the audience demands lively entertainment and the show is often crass, over dramatic, stagy, and manipulative. And that CAN get boring. It's up to the producers to respond by listening to the fans and to continually refine the format.

Who will win? Bottom line: it doesn't matter. What IS really important , as in real life, is the journey and where it takes you.

*I mean no offense to bald people. There's good bald (Chris Daughtry, Michael Stipe, Ben Kingsley, Bruce Willis, Telly Savalas) and bad bald (Donald Trump, Britney Spears). Sorry Phil. Take a hint from Kenny. He is NEVER without a hat.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Savoring the Unexpected

Yesterday I ran errands until after six, coming home hot, ragged, annoyed because the library has misplaced three tapes I know I turned in. The new gate didn't work right. The dog was barking. The trash in the kitchen smelled. I dropped my purse on the floor, grabbed the plastic garbage liner, and took it outside to the curb. Back on the porch, I noticed among the scattered mags and ads, a familiar white envelope. Manuscript size. Addressed to me by me.

In my world this spells R-E-J-E-C-T-I-O-N. I let go an expletive and scooped up the envelope. Must be "One Question," a flash piece, I thought, because it's so light.

I tore it open. A minute of true confusion. A check? Who would paper-clip a check on a rejection?


"Dear Gay Degani,

Your manuscript "Hawaiian Hair" has been accepted..."


Yep. As Annie Potts yells in Ghostbusters, her voice echoing through the empty fire station the boys spent their last dimes renting ("Three mortgages? Everyone has three mortgages these days") : WE GOT ONE!!!

So. "Hawaiian Hair" will be in the fall 2007 issue of
THEMA, Written in Stone.

If you are interested in purchasing a copy of the current issue, THEMA, Rage Over a Penny, shown above, or the Written in Stone issue in the fall, follow this
link to the THEMA website.

Or if you would like to subscribe to THEMA, here is that information.
Subscription price: $20 per year for three issues ($30/year outside the US)
Single issue, back issue (see below), and sample copy price: $10 per copy ($15 outside the US).
Postage and handling: 1-3 copies, free; 4-8 copies, add $5; 9-15, add $8; more than 15, C.O.D.
Make check payable to THEMA Literary Society and mail to: THEMA, Box 8747, Metairie, LA 70011-8747

Monday, May 14, 2007

Mom's Day Mambo

Nice weekend for mothers. I'm a mother and I got my turn too. And I will avoid making the obvious comments such as Mother's Day is a Hallmark holiday. Which it is.

What worked for me yesterday was 1) a nap in the middle of the day. A nap not stolen when no one was around but a BALD-FACED nap that everyone knew about. 2) My husband did the driveway shuffle with my car AND went to the grocery to buy salad-fixins for Mother's Day dinner at his mother's. 3) My daughter put away the dishes from the dishwasher and came up early with us to the mother-in-law's. 4) Wonderful Mother's Day cards. 5) Beading with my daughter and mother-in-law. 6) A giant bouquet of flowers. 7) NO HASSLES and NO THINKING on my part!!! Wow. That ain't bad. Maybe even perfecto!!!

Friday, May 11, 2007


Not much time today. It's Friday and as always I have things to do on Fridays. However a sense of routine is a good thing. At least for me. When I'm free-floating out there in the real world, I tend to waste time and I'm running out of that commodity.

I'm so torn between not wasting time and doing what I'm in the mood to do. The arguments on both sides of the issue are seductive. I'm older. I don't have forty years ahead of me to hone skills, make mistakes, do what I was put here on earth to do. I don't have thirty. I may, if I'm lucky, have twenty. And maybe not twenty COHERENT years. I can already feel the hot breath of forgetfulness steaming up the hairs on the back of my neck.

But if I only have twenty years, why not indulge myself? Do what I want? Haven't I earned the right to live life exactly how I choose? If I need or WANT a nap, what's wrong with stripping down in the middle of the day and crawling between cool sheets? If I want to wander through an antique mall for hours even though I can't put one more leg of furniture in my house, what's the harm?

None really. But I can't shake the feeling that what I do with my time should be of some use to someone other than myself. And if I want to "change the world" writing probably falls into the self-indulgent category, so where does that leave me?

Indecisive. Fearful of wasting time while defiantly wanting to waste time. In other words, a mess.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Cheering from the Peanut Gallery

Since Tim is travelling, Hillary and I watched "American's Next Top Model" and the results from "American Idol" without so much as one male eye roll.

Actually, I want to address this "male eye roll" thing.

Men in general, the average man on the street, has been reluctant to embrace Idol (also "America's Next Top Model" and "Project Runway," the class shows of their ilk) as anything but an obligation to keep the little woman sitting next to him on the couch. Can you imagine a bunch of bruisers crowded around the TV set with beer and pizza, yelling "Atta girl, LaKisha!" with no estrogen around?

Most men think "American Idol" is a fad, and a cheesy fad at that--it IS cheesy much of the time--but hold on. What's the difference between spending two hours watching grass grow at a Dodger game and spending two hours watching Paula clap her hands together like a little kid?

Both are competitions. People who want to win do their best to beat out other people who want to win.

Both have created job opportunities for unknown talents and for people who aren't "the talent."

Both can be classified as "reality TV"--whatever that means. We get to watch semi-amateurs and paid professionals vie to stay in the game as long as they can and set up opportunities (contracts, endorsements, trips to Japan) for more glorious futures.

Both draw audiences from all walks of life, all ages, with all kinds of music tastes, though most have never heard of emo, trance, techno, techno-emo, underground emo, Crunk, etc.

Both competitions are seen in person or on TV.

Both are watched live or taped. It's still the director who chooses what we see.

Both create a "culture" including adjunct TV shows, media events, and bigger competitions.

Both are "topics of conversations" whenever we run into people we don't have much to say to.

Both feature people who can hit it out of the park and thrill us.

Both are loved because of the unpredictability of the competition.

Both are loved because of the drama of the competition.

Both give us "heroes" and make us fans.

Both give us flawed human beings who annoy and disappoint us.

Both feature people we wonder "How the hell did this person get this far?" At least on "American Idol," Sanjaya wasn't paid a million dollars for every missed lay-up.

Both contain life lessons about perserverence, passion, self-confidence, as well as disappointment, manipulation, and self-doubt.

Both are metaphors for life.

And both gave us its own version of Paula Abdul: Laker girl and "American Idol" judge. Now isn't that a life lesson in itself?

Okay okay now EVERYONE is rolling their eyes.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

American IDOL Final FOUR

I love American Idol, but haven't written about it in this space before. (Hmmm...maybe once a while back). Usually I unspool my jewels on the Iowa board, but since I'm committed to doing a better job on this blog, I'm stealing from myself.

Despite the scorning of disco music for 30 years, the BeeGee oeurve sounds current. After all, the Bee Gees were the first boy band. (Even I won't call the BEATLES a "boy band").

Barry Gibb. What was up with those teeth? Why can't the English--who've conquered the world a couple of times--get basic skills of orthodontia and enamel RIGHT? BUT. I'm a BEE GEE fan from way back. Love him. B.G.'s gone through a lot and looks it, but wow, he's the real deal. And a good mentor from what I could decipher. (Teeth).

Melinda-The consummate professional, and since I don't really know how a "back-up singer" would approach a particular song, Simon was all wet about her first "joint." (Randy-speak) She did what she said she wanted to do which was to make a solo out of a group song. And it sounded excellent proving this woman can do anything. The second song totally ROCKED. I be downloadin' today.

Blake-While I thought his first number was good, it felt a little too trance-y to me. I know young kids might like it, but I missed the original beats. Seemed like the arrangement was missing a bass line? (I don't have a clue what that means, but that's what it FELT like. Blame the judges for teaching me lingo without clear definitions. Pitchy? Lower register? See what I mean?). Blake's second "joint" was terrific. Worthy of a first single release from his album.

Lakisha-I won't even bother. Anyone else hear that sucking sound?

Jordin-Wow and double WOW. I liked both her songs, but especially the first which was perfect-o. And I loved the second one too. Maybe she isn't quite Babs, but who is? By the way, the Babs/Barry "Guilty" album is worth downloading. Anyway Jordin's either got me mesmerized or the judges are looney-toons about the second song not working. Oh, wait. Two of them are!!!

Monday, May 07, 2007

Row, Row, Row my boat...

You've heard of continental drift, I'm sure. How as the earth formed and reshaped itself, the continents moved closer together, then farther apart, back again? Still do? Not a scientifically accurate explanation*, but that's not the point. The point is WE drift too.

It is the rare human being (writer) who doesn't suddenly find herself in a different landscape far from the one where she wanted to be. Sometimes the new island, mountain top, whatever, is pretty damn pleasant and for a moment, when she realizes where she is, she thinks maybe she'll stay.

After all, the place she used to be is a bare speck on the horizon. From where she sits now, that speck seems rugged and untamed, jungle-like, and a good rowing distance away. A hard row. And she's never learned to sail, can't crank an outboard. For her it's strong arms, back, and legs all pulling together or nothing. And that's soooo much work. Easier to stay put in this new place...

But no. Can't do that. Gotta get out the row boat, patch the leaks, and get rowing. And next time when playing in the vast sea becomes a temptation, she's gotta point the prow straight back to the jungle, and pull it up into the sand.

*I googled "continental drift": In 1915, the German geologist and meteorologist Alfred Wegener first proposed the theory of continental drift, which states that parts of the Earth's crust slowly drift atop a liquid core. The fossil record supports and gives credence to the theories of continental drift and plate tectonics.