Update on the Update

Thanks to everyone who attended last night’s studio tour and Reserve & Green update! Extra special thanks to Rebecca Richter for providing an incredible spread. If you weren’t able to attend, here’s a four-second video from us to you:

My awesome floor-mates at the Montana Wilderness Association kindly let us use their chairs, and boyfriend extraordinaire Bryn Cunningham moved those chairs between floors, fixed my stove so I could finish baking cookies yesterday morning, and helped move all the furniture into the new space. Thanks everyone!

So, what happened?

We started with some eating, drinking, and touring of the new studio space which many of you are helping to underwrite. People told me that it looks and feels “beautiful," “cozy," and “perfect." I couldn’t agree more, especially with all the lovely furnishings Joan Burnett donated when I moved out of my first studio at her place. Thank you, everyone, for helping me nest into this new home!

Next we gathered in the leafy second-floor atrium, and I read a brief overview of what I feel R & G is all about. Up until this point, I’ve avoided explicitly naming my themes, because I really wanted to hear what all of you thought. And I still do. But somehow the time felt right for me to come out with a bit more information about my lines of inquiry as I see them. What I shared is by no means complete, but it’s a start.

After that I read some loose character descriptions of three important characters in Part One of the R & G trilogy, and some of my most recent writing.

I wrapped up by talking about form. What is Reserve & Green at this point? Here’s what I told folks last night:

I have a story, a lot of characters, and a line of inquiry, with many sub-plots and related questions spinning out and mixed in. I have a full draft of a musical, including multiple versions of a script, over 15 finished songs, and many, many more partial songs and discarded drafts. I have research on everything from Chernobyl to the Kardashians, and more research to do.

But what I don’t have is a form. I’m not sure if this story should be a play, a movie, a book, a TV series, something else entirely…

How did I get here? How did I arrive at this point of not-knowing over the last six months? It’s not a clean, linear process, but in the interest of better story-telling, I’ll reduce it down to three pivotal conversationswhich happen to be with three men, all of whom are accomplished writers:

  • #1 - William Mastrosimone at the Missoula Colony last summer. After seeing R & G in musical form, he asked if I’d ever considered writing it as a TV series. He liked my characters and the premise, and thought the story could go on and on, delving into who these kids were, and what they were dealing with inside this big-box-store shelter. I said, “Hmmm…."

    I digested this. Wondered. Had more conversations…and eventually I realized I had written and seen multiple drafts of the musical, and I was really unsatisfied. It just wasn’t working for me. I wanted to write a musical with nuanced, complicated characters, with a lot of subtly and complexity, and it turns out there’s a reason why this almost never happens. It’s really, really hard. The idea of R & G as a film had been in the back of my mind for a while, and somehow, rather than a TV series (as Bill had suggested), making it into a movie really started to grab me. Screenplay! That was my form! So I started learning about writing screenplays, and writing one, and then found myself eating ice cream and chatting with:

  • #2 - Rick Bass. Rick has been a great sounding board throughout this process, and when I told him I was making R & G a screenplay rather than a musical, he asked why. I said I wanted the characters to go as deep as they could go, that I wanted the story to hold as much complexity as possible. He said: “Well then, you have to write a novel. That’s the only way to make it as deep as it can go. Screenplays have no space, no time. Everything is condensed. It’s brutal. Hats off to you if you can do it, but I think you’re not gonna be satisfied until you tell the whole story. Why don’t you write a novel, and let someone else turn it into a screenplay." I said: “Hmmm…"

    More digestion. Wondering. More writing. Eventually, I had a good portion of a screenplay written. And I realize that I’m 60, 70 pages into a 120-page script, and I feel like I’m still just scratching the surface. Hmmm….maybe William was right, and it should be a TV series.

    So I can’t sleep one morning, and I start to write it that way. It’s pretty fun — suddenly, I have oodles of space, eons of time. The 60 pages that were half of one movie can be just the first episode of an whole season, and the season can be one of an indeterminate number. The vastness of it all is delightful, but I also know that I don’t know anything about getting a TV script turned into a TV show. My friend Mike Steinberg happens to stop into my office. I ask him for some advice. He tells me to talk to Andrew Smith, who knows about these things, and who is also (like Bill and Rick) a super nice guy. So…

  • #3 - Andrew Smith. Upon hearing the concept for R & G, which I was describing as a cable TV series at this point, Andrew’s first response is: “Are you sure you don’t want to write a novel? That’s what it feels like to me — this big, epic, multi-generational story. Those are usually novels. Plus, it’s really hard to do these huge time jumps on TV. Logistically, financially. And also because audiences lock into characters, and want to see them again and again — they need that continuity. Your concept is cool, but I’m not sure TV is the right form."

    Ha! Maybe Rick Bass was right! Andrew closed our get-together with a really great piece of advice, which echoed what Rick said:

    "You should make sure you write the story you want to write. Don’t let the form dictate to you." He could sense, like Rick and Bill, that I have a lot I want to delve into, a lot I want to ask and show and play with. I really appreciated his advice not to limit that delving — especially not if it means shoe-horning my story into a form that feels like an odd fit.

Which begs the obvious question —- what form feels like the right fit?

And the answer is: I don’t know. If I’m really honest with myself, I can see that I don’t yet know what the best form is for this story. I don’t yet know what the best form is for me.

With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had said last summer, “The musical form isn’t working for me, and I don’t know what the right form is for this story." But I was too insecure, and the process felt too fragile, for me to go from having a form to having none — I needed something to hang on to, another rung on the monkey bar to grasp. But actually, I don’t know.

It’s terrifying on some level, and also incredibly exciting to be in this time of not-knowing. It feels like a rich and fertile time, like there are all sorts of seeds planted, and they’re being all mysterious (like seeds like to do), and hiding in the soil right now. Am I scared that none of them are going to come up, that I’ve run aground, that this thing is going to die? Yes, sometimes. But most of the time I feel called to simply cultivate more patience, and to surrender more deeply into letting this thing be whatever it is.

It’s funny — I feel like my content and my process are colliding, which I take as a good sign. I mean, duh, did I really think I was going to be able to write about wildness without being challenged to go wild myself? Did I really think I was going to be able to bring all my “civilized" junk along with me on this adventure? My curling iron, my hot water heater, my big, warm bed? No way. My need for accomplishment? My perfectionism? My identity? Nope. Everyone knows you don’t head off into the Bob with your backpack full of mirrors and make up. You take what you need for survival, and expect to be transformed.

That’s maybe where I am right now — wandering around in some wild place with a half-broken compass, a crust of bread, a notebook and a pencil. Sometimes magical, be-spectacled fairies flitter in, dispensing challenging questions, but they don’t hang out long enough to help me answer them. Giving you this update feels like sending out a flare. Not a flare that says, “Rescue me!" but rather one that says, “I’m here! I’m still alive! I don’t know where I am, but I don’t want to leave!"

In short, I feel like my story is working on me. It’s insisting on a much wilder, less controlled, less tidy trajectory than I’m comfortable with. It’s pushing me to grow in ways I never would have imagined, and maybe wouldn’t have signed up for if I could have imagined them. I don’t know what my form is, and I’m not sure when I will know, or how I will come to know. And that feels like a very good thing, even as it is also a very hard thing.  One friend suggested to me recently that coming to know may not be totally under my control — that if it’s going to be truly wild, it will involve an interaction with something outside of my own mind. With me being open to that.

We don’t choose wilderness adventures because they’re easy. We choose them because something in us needs them. Even if we can’t explain it, and even if they make us miserable a good portion of the time. We choose to go into the wilderness because we are wild, and something wise and animal in us knows that if we forget that, we die.

"Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what next or how. The moment you know how, you begin to die a little. The artist never entirely knows. We guess. We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark."

- Agnes de Mille