Sunday, September 23, 2012

Lighting a Cigar With a Crisp Hundred Dollar Bill

I was very happy to be invited by writer, screenwriter, and graphic artist, Anthony Schiavino, to participate in his Fall Guest Blogger series. I was even happier when I read the questions he gave me...the kind of questions most of us think about, but rarely have the opportunity to answer.

You can read the whole interview below:

This week we have writer Karla S. Bryant, who brings a little bit of “old soul” to the mix. Her short story, ‘Not My Secret to Tell’, retitled ‘Catch and Release’, is currently in pre-production as a short film by Mondall Films.

What would you say you do?

I say I write. Because it’s what I do. There are a number of goals I want to achieve as a writer, and I’m doing the work now to get there. Earlier, I wondered if I should wait until I was making more money from my writing before calling myself a “writer”. Then I wondered what that criterion would be. At $50,000, would I be a writer? $75,000?  Would I have to wait until I made six figures? I realized that made no sense. Money has never been the deciding factor in determining if someone is a writer, or a filmmaker, or an artist of any kind.

Before you sit down to write, what gets you going?

Story. I have to have a strong story in my head. Without that, who cares about the characters or setting? It’s like a film that looks fantastic, but makes you feel nothing. Most of the time, I’m drawn to what’s playing out beneath the surface. So often, what people are thinking and feeling are very different from their words. When people do something that seems totally unexpected, they’re usually acting from that deeper level. Conflict between a character’s thoughts and their dialogue builds suspense and subtext. Keep pushing both and it makes a satisfying read.
Recently, I’d felt I was getting bogged down with formatting issues on a screenplay. I could feel the focus of my writing shift. Coming back to the mantra of story-above-all-else, I wrote a short story and submitted it on Trigger Street Labs. It became a Featured Short Story eight times before being chosen as the Short Story Spotlight selection for July 2012. That was all the affirmation I needed that story comes first. Always.

Drop some names.

I’m not sure if I’m blessed or cursed that research for both my writing and genealogy projects often involve the same books. Both tracks have led me to an old series of the tawdriest kind of “non-fiction” pulp: the “Confidential” series by Jack Lait and Lee Moritmer, published in the ‘40s and early ‘50s. So far, I’ve made it through Chicago Confidential, Washington, D.C. Confidential, USA Confidential, and I’m trying to get my hands on a copy of New York Confidential. Love that the blurb reads, “Rough, tough, and well informed.” about advice that reads, “Never give a babe a break, or her parents your real name.” and “Chorus dames are okay for dates, but make sure that when she tells you she’s got to get home to ma, that it’s not an oboe player instead.” Most of my reading lately has been related to research…or reading drafts of work that friends have written.
Television shows that I never miss are Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Modern Family, Game of Thrones, and Boardwalk Empire. I’m consistently amazed at how good they are and how much better other shows could be. Vince Gilligan and Terrence Winter have brilliantly elevated the bar for TV.

What's in your glass?

It depends on the time, place, and company. If I’m laser-focused on a writing project—especially if the word “deadline” is involved at all—I’m downing a Metromint Chocolatemint Water. I like to tell myself it’s an energy drink. Which it isn’t. But, it somehow keeps me going. If it’s a night out with my husband or friends, it’s either a cosmo or sangria. I do occasionally enjoy a glass of red wine while watching “Mad Men” or “Boardwalk Empire.” It just seems fitting to raise a glass with Don Draper or Nucky Thompson.

What's the first thing you buy after lighting your cigar with a crisp hundred dollar bill?

Well, my fantasy has always been to have a small writing space of my own…a separate building, not just a room. There are about three variations in rotation in my mind…a cottage near a beach, a condo in a city, or a cozy cabin in the woods. I have no idea if I’d be a more productive writer in a space like that or not. But, I certainly want to experience it and find out.
Once I settle in my cottage/condo/cabin, I’ll light a second cigar with another crisp hundred dollar bill.

I know a guy, but how can other people find you/your work?

You can find me at

(You can read more about Anthony Schiavino and his current projects at )

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Stories: Past, Present, and Future

What happens when you return to your hometown when you haven't been back for decades? You begin to understand the genesis for the series LOST (ignoring--temporarily--it's sub-par finale). Your back stories and your current life keep crossing lines, intersecting at unexpected points, fading in and out, and resulting in theories that take weeks to process.

As a writer, I knew the experience would be good fodder for future projects. But, I hadn't expected it to be quite the mother lode it was. Which was more unlikely: the fact that with one sentence, I picked up where I'd left off 30+ years ago with old friends? Or that the main street of the small town was almost completely unchanged? I could have held up an old, faded postcard and it would have matched what was in front of me. It felt at once weirdly wonderful and a little unnerving. If I was time travelling, where was my DeLorean?

Mash into the experience the fact that it was also a reunion weekend for all graduating years (it's a very small town) and the crush of memories got more dense. I tried to keep straight who had moved away (and to where), who had never left, and who had moved away and recently moved back. I tried to hide my sorrow for those whose lives had not been as happy as they might have been. I was thrilled for those who, against the odds, had made a success of their lives on multiple levels. The fact is, all of us are still on the journey. As I spoke with one person after another, the old Rod Stewart song, "Every Picture Tells a Story" came back to me, but I heard it as, "Every Person Tells a Story." And they do. With their words, or their demeanor, or with an unguarded expression or two.

There were moments that rattled me. Not having known someone's son had died until the still-grieving father told me in a choked voice, "No parent should ever have to bury their child.". Realizing, mid-conversation, that another person I was speaking with had not emotionally evolved past their 16 year old self. There were moments that delighted me, especially when I was able to say, "Thank you," face to face with my influential junior high English teacher. Or when we were in town and I brought my husband and son to eat in the old soda shop where I'd worked during high school. It was so unchanged, I could have slipped behind the counter and made a sundae without hesitation. (Yes, I realize that sounds like I was in high school in the 1950's. I promise, I wasn't even born then.)

I made sure there was time set aside to be with those I'd been closest to all those years ago. I savored reconnecting with them, and expected regret on my part that I'd kept my distance for so long. But, I truly believe things happen when they're meant to happen and so, joy took the place of regret. Interestingly, there were very few sentences that began with, "Do you remember when...?" We were in the present. Whatever had connected us in the past, connected us now. Some discussions carried a depth and mutual empathy that was lacking when we first knew each other, when we were too young to have had much weight of experience on our shoulders. Some conversations were enlightening, others raised unanswered questions. Some new stories began and some old stories had new chapters. Most of the stories, though, are just waiting to be written.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Finding One's Voice

After the Grammy's, I was wondering what it is about Adele that has brought about such a massive, cross-generational following. Earlier, just before announcing Song of the Year, all the nominees were on screen. And all of them were carefully-crafted personas while Adele was simply a person. When she performed, there were no over-the-top dancers, special effects, or embarrassing attempts to be edgy or shocking. There was a stage, a microphone, and Adele. It's that kind of strong talent and stark authenticity that makes people take notice.

To be able to reach deep enough to find creative authenticity isn't easy. Hemingway's famous goal was to write "one true sentence". It was hard then and is, perhaps, even more difficult now. We're constantly exposed to endless voices and chatter in our real lives, our virtual lives. In social networks, we're sometimes encircled by invented lives. And it's difficult to find a quiet corner, a still space, where we can hear our own voice, let alone find a way to have others hear it.

I've read about all kinds of tricks. Abandon social networks as if you were giving them up for Lent. Write down the exact time of day when you'll write and stick to it. Set a timer. Keep writing until the timer goes off. These may be adequate exercises in discipline, but is that how to create your best work? To find those core truths needed to create something authentic, something without contrivance or shallowness, time and quiet remain the best partners. Not only to be able to hear oneself think, but to understand what's being said. To peel away the protective layers until the honest, sometimes uncomfortable core of an idea is revealed.

Once that core idea has been grabbed and turned over and held tightly again, all those methods of accountability come into play. It's the turning point that divides the writers from the daydreamers, those who aspire from those who do the hard work. And in the end, to take a found truth and chisel at it until readers can see it as clearly as you do, is to reveal the heart of Hemingway's "one true sentence".

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Long Ago and Far Away Lives

I've been running into a recurring theme lately: people being reminded of significant incidents and people from their pasts that they hadn't thought of for some time. A wonderful journalist and friend who goes by the alias Hollywood Spinster recently posted in her blog about the confused and complex feelings that occurred when she learned that an old boyfriend had died. She was visiting the country where she'd once lived with him, decades earlier, and decided to google him-as one would-, only to find his obituary from two years ago. She writes movingly about her unsettled emotions over the discovery here:

I'm involved in planning a large school reunion in my home town of Eagle River, Wisconsin. A place I haven't visited since my mother's death there, 29 years ago. Although I'd recently reconnected with many friends from the North Woods on Facebook, there were some I knew I'd have to call. Like one of my mother's closest friends, whose annual Christmas cards I'd left unanswered for decades. I finally found her number and called. Understandably, she was surprised to hear from me, but she was friendly and engaging. It wasn't until about 8 minutes into the conversation that I discovered she thought I was my mother. After correcting her, and more discussion, I realized that she clearly had pervasive dementia. The last time I'd seen her was when she was in her 50's. She's now 86.

After hanging up, I broke down in tears and wasn't sure why. Guilt, that I'd not communicated with her for so long and now, meaningful communication was impossible? In part. Speculation that, since my mother and her friend had been the same age, my mother might have also had dementia if she'd lived? I think it was an example of how the passing of time can bring startling changes to our old realities. Especially when you step back into a world you'd left long ago. In your head, everything is as you'd left it. In reality, nothing's stayed the same.

Another person recently blogged that, given our longer life spans, people are reinventing themselves multiple times in a lifetime. Reading it, you couldn't help but feel energized and optimistic. I thought about how many times I felt my life had truly taken new directions: certainly, when I changed from being single to being married. And again, when I became a mother. And, now that the more time-intensive years of motherhood are subsiding, I feel like I'm on a new journey with my writing.

Yet, with all the forward momentum, there are those stark moments when something unexpected triggers a memory and you stand still, suddenly remembering being in a different place, talking with a person you'd almost forgotten. You hear an old friend's laugh, remember an old boyfriend's smile. And I realize that it's not so much that we move forward and have a "new life". It's all part of the same book, just a new chapter. And you can't fully experience Chapter Twenty if you forgot what happened in the worn and dog-eared pages that came before it.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Lesson Learned

So, where was I? Right. Almost seven months ago, I'd blogged that I'd decided to bravely take risks and say yes to positive opportunities as they appeared. And I did that. What I learned along the way, as my dormant blog may indicate, is that sometimes enthusiasm needs to be tempered. I'd taken on several creative projects, but didn't finish them all. By spreading myself so thin, I realized the sobering truth that, since nothing had received my focused attention, my best work just wasn't there. I can do better. I could hear echoes of my mother's voice, saying, "Karla, stop being so cavalier." How long does it take to learn some lessons?

In this case, it took seven months to learn that the more specific I make my goals, the more likely I am to achieve them. Tightening the horizon even more, I'm focusing on goals for the next six months, rather than the whole year. If I can hit the first round, I'll have that much more confidence when choosing the next set. Over the next six months, I have two primary writing goals:

*Finish and polish three feature scripts, including a collaboration.

*Keep my blog active.

It's a good list. Focused and solid. It's challenging, but achievable. And, this time, it even gives me space to breathe.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Taking Risks

The other day, I read a blog that focused on the image of ladies waving away the dessert tray while dining on the Titanic. Playing it safe with their diets, priding themselves on their tiny waists. The writer wondered, hours later, how quickly their priorities must have changed. I have to disagree with the writer, though, when it comes to his opinion that they would have regretted passing up the cherries jubilee. That had to have been far from their minds. But, I thought it was a striking example of the dilemma of how much should one plan for the future and how much should one live for today?

The question has been on my mind for some time. More so now, when there are increasing instances of peers suddenly dying, their long-term goals never to be met. Often, not even their short-term goals. My own mother died in an accident decades ago and I'm well aware of all the sentences she'd say that began with, "Someday...". The problem is, no one knows if their "someday" plans should be pulled a little closer.

For me, I've found my risk tolerance seems to grow each year. Having played it safe and cautious most of my adult life, I've asked myself, "Why not?" with some frequency. You know, when it comes to positive things. For me, that means kicking my writing into action. NaNoWriMo, a challenge to write a 176 page novel in a month? Okay. NYCMidnight--short screenplays written in 48 hours? Sure. Enroll in the highly recommended ScreenwritingU ProSeries? Why not? And, while I'm at it, I'll work on my novel as well. I finally reached the point of being tired of my own excuses for delaying things. My mantra has become, "If not now, when?"

And, to be honest, the musing over the ladies on the Titanic is a little bit forced. I would never wave the dessert tray away, whether I was on the Titanic or not.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

My Badass Great-Grandfather

So, it's Father's Day this weekend and I realized that my last post had been about my paternal grandfather. The one before that had been about my Dad. Okay, so I looked to my maternal side. As many of you know, my maternal grandfather is Mr. X...that man with the unknown identity I am determined to eventually discover. But, I DO have a paternal relative on that side of the family who I know something great-grandfather. Sam Bloom.

I honestly don't know how else to describe him in one word other than badass. Born in a Lithuanian-Jewish shtetl, Sam Bloom was a young man when a military officer came to his home to give him conscription papers to the Russian Army. Knowing that, as a Jewish male, he'd be used as cannon fodder, he promptly hit the officer, knocking him out before immediately leaving home. He traveled around Europe for a few years, spending enough time in Greece that he could still speak the language fluently decades later. In about 1903, he met his future bride in a small Jewish community in Norway. Together, they immigrated to America, his wife pregnant with their first daughter.

There are some spotty years where we don't really know what happened. But, by 1920, he was the owner of a large, successful scrap metal business in a major city. He and his wife had two children, both daughters---ONE of which is my grandmother, but the odds on which one have been fluctuating lately. And speaking of odds, Sam Bloom loved to gamble. Compulsively. And drink. Compulsively. But, so did his friends, some of whom were among the most notable bootleggers, gamblers, and goodfellas of the 1920's and beyond. Again, some facts are foggy, but Sam later moved to Miami Beach, where he made frequent gambling trips to Havana. His wife died in 1927, and it appears he married three times after that. In the 1930's, he moved back to his former city and business. In newspapers, he's described as a successful, charismatic person, known for his light-colored suits and expensive cigars. And shrewd business practices.

It's odd to have so many fragments of information about a person and not quite be able to know where they all go. When I think of Sam Bloom, there's a montage of images as I try to envision his life in Lithuania, his quick financial rise in America, his notorious circle of friends, his charm, and, from other accounts, his extreme cruelty.

Within a year of discovering my mother's birth family, four years ago now, we happened to visit the city where they'd lived. I visited Sam's grave. Doing my research, as always, I learned of the Jewish tradition of leaving a few stones on top of a headstone, to show someone had visited that grave, someone had remembered that person. No one had been there before me. As I put the stones on the bare surface, I wondered what Sam would think...he was being remembered by the daughter of a granddaughter he'd never known. But, it felt important that I make the gesture. And, on Father's Day, he's not really the kind of paternal relative I would honor. But, now that I know so much of his story, he's someone I will never forget.