TAPPING INTO THE “FOREVER EMPTY”: A Conversation between Mentor & Mentee

by Gabriel Jason Dean
Spalding MFA faculty, Screenwriting
cassie headshot

Cassie Brower

Spalding Screenwriting student, Cassie Brower, is currently the Director of Original Programming at Disney Junior in Los Angeles. DISNEY JUNIOR LOGOCassie has overseen the hit shows Sofia the First, The Lion Guard, Jake and the Never Land Pirates, Mickey and the Roadster Racers, Sheriff Callie’s Wild West, as well as several short series. I had the pleasure of working with Cassie as her mentor during her first semester at Spalding.  We inevitably discussed time-management and daily practice during our time together. And since those are topics I’m asked about by almost all the Spalding students I mentor, I reckoned a blog post was in order. But rather than just espousing what works for me, I thought it might also be beneficial to hear from Cassie, arguably one of Spalding’s busiest students. 

GABRIEL JASON DEAN (GJD): Thanks for taking the time to do this.

CASSANDRA BROWER (CB): Of course. Thanks for asking!

GJD: So your job is intense.

CB: Yes.

GJD: What’s your daily schedule?

CB: A bit Schizophrenic.

GJD: As we say in screenwriting, “paint the picture for us.”

CB: Well, all of our shows are on different schedules and I’m currently overseeing four shows, one short series, and two development projects. I never know what my workload will be from day to day. I might receive three first draft scripts, two outlines, two animatics (black and white hand drawn storyboards edited together to play like a moving image) and two animation passes all from different shows in one day. Plus, I might be scheduled for a Sofia music preview in the morning, a Mickey record with a special guest star after lunch, and a Lion Guard mix in the evening. And this doesn’t take into account any internal meetings at the network like discussing the marketing campaign for Mickey’s Roadster Racers, or the new toy line for The Lion Guard. Luckily I usually get a 48-hour turnaround on notes for things, but sometimes it’s a struggle to get through everything and often have to take work home.

GJD: I’m exhausted just hearing you describe it.

CB: Me too! It’s hectic, but I love my job.

GJD: Does it inform your own creative work?

CB: Absolutely. I’m learning from some of the best creative minds in the business. Every day I am looking at story and why something works or doesn’t, what makes a great character, how to distinguish character voices, to write songs, where to place songs for the best impact, how to move a camera and how not to move the camera…the list goes on and on. I’ve also learned to be collaborative and to hear the notes of others, which is a huge deal. There are so many writers who get combative. And I’m not saying every note or thought is correct, but a lot of times if you hear the same note more than once, then there’s a problem. The best creatives are open to other people’s thought and know when and when not to address the feedback.

GJD: That’s so true. I always tell students to listen for the note under the note and to honor their original impulse when considering feedback. That’s for another post though. If we veer too far off-topic in a conversation about time-management, the irony would be unbearable.

CB: Yes, keep us on track! You’re managing a lot too. How do you balance teaching and writing multiple projects in both theatre and TV/Film while raising a child?

IMG_4393-16-03-17-12-11GJD: It’s tricky to balance everything. I have to be insanely schedule-oriented. My wife, who is also my writing partner, often says I’m on “mountain time,” because I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains and time there is…well, it feels slower.  And being so focused on how I stack up my day has only amplified since my son was born. For the first year, we both had the luxury, due to a Fellowship I had from Princeton, of being home with him.  Now that’s not the case. It makes me a little crazy to even say this, but I schedule everything including family time. All the minutes are accounted for and that requires a discipline that isn’t instinctive for me. And scheduling is just half the battle. I also have to stick to the schedule.

CB: And how do you have the brain space for multiple cross-genre projects?

Terminus

Terminus

GJD: The multiple projects inform each other. For instance, at the moment, I’m working on co-producing my play TERMINUS here in New York, developing my play HEARTLAND for a number of upcoming productions with different directors across the country, developing a half-hour comedy for TV called We Belong, and in the final development phases of a musical for young audiences with Seattle Children’s Theatre—MARIO AND THE COMET—and at the beginning stage of co-authoring an untitled interview-based musical about guns on college campuses with the Civilians Theatre Company here in Brooklyn.  The projects are wildly different from each other in content and form, but involve many of the same collaborators. And the discoveries in one often unlock something in another. If I’m getting bored or stuck with one, I can jump to another. Writing a number of things at once is really the only way I can work. I think of my scripts as children. I like to have a brood that always includes a newborn, a middle-schooler and one that’s just about to graduate and leave the nest.  Trouble is, right now, I’ve got a couple who’ve got their PhDs and are still living at home! Speaking of school…with your very demanding job, what made you decide to go back and get your MFA in Screenwriting now? Are you a glutton for punishment or…?

CB: A couple things prompted it. I’m a vet. I was in the Navy and I found out that I might have money for school. It turns out I did, but I only had three years to use it or I would lose it. So…I’m using it. And the second reason is that I wanted to get some of my own creative work completed. At Disney Junior, I get to exercise creativity all day long. The problem is none of the creative work I do at my job is really in service to things that generated originally from my imagination. And I have so many stories in me that I want to tell.  I just needed to give myself the time to tell them. And both my bosses were very supportive of me going back to school, which is a rarity in Hollywood and tells you how great Disney Junior really is.

suzan-zeder-WVTF

Suzan Zeder

GJD: Suzan Zeder, a mentor of mine, once told me that graduate school for writers was simply giving yourself the gift of time to write. I’ve always loved that. In terms of time-management, what has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced as you’ve tried to balance your job with the gift of time you’re giving yourself at Spalding?

CB: Creative energy conservation! And really finding time to write. By the end of the workday I have very little creative energy left to put on the paper for myself, so I have to spend my weekends catching up.

GJD: A lot of writers tout the benefits of waking up early and writing in the wee hours.  Have you tried that?

CB: I’m so not a morning person, although I’ve found that if I do manage to do some writing in the mornings, that damned critical voice is still in bed so I get stuff done. But it is seriously a struggle waking up enough to form cohesive sentences too. How about you?

GJD: Before my son was born, I would do my best writing mainly in the afternoons or at night, but those are no longer available most days.  I do intermittently write in the mornings out of necessity, but I find that my mind is more attuned toward the business of the day in early hours—checking email, reading the news. Mornings feel like a time to prep to me, to gear up. Recently, we hired a nanny for two days a week and I go to an office in Park Slope on those days and focus on my creative work for eight hours straight each day. It’s not ideal for me to write for long stretches like that, but it’s the space I’m able to make at the moment. Ideally, I would write 3-4 hours a day, everyday. Speaking of space, you just bought a house in L.A. Congrats! How do you think space impacts your practice?  Has becoming a homeowner changed anything for your writing yet?

CB: I’m still trying to make the house work for me. It’s actually been a bit detrimental to my writing so far. There’s so much to do that I constantly feel the fight between fixing my home and writing.

GJD: Virginia Woolf famously wrote, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write…”

CB: Absolutely. Although when she wrote that, writing wasn’t an option for many women and luckily we have a lot more freedom in that regard today. But I think writers of all genders need a space where they can sit with their thoughts and write.

creative habit coverGJD: A lot of writers have rituals. The choreographer, Twyla Tharp, talks a lot about the importance of ritual for creative people in her book The Creative Habit, which is about cultivating a daily practice. I’m still finding my ritual.  Do you have rituals? Have you developed any new practices during your studies at Spalding?

CB: I’m still finding mine too. I have discovered that I can only work on something for about 20 to 30 minutes before I need a break. I thought it was just my attention span, but then I read somewhere that this is simply how the human brain works. So now I intentionally schedule little breaks. Exercise helps get the blood going too, so I sometimes take a quick walk or do some jumping jacks. If I’m really anxious, or procrastinating a lot, I do a quick meditation. I started taking mindfulness classes during my first semester at Spalding.

GJD: That sounds so L.A.

CB: Yeah, it did take me a while to drink the Kool-aid, but the tools I have learned through those classes have helped me so much in all parts of my life, but especially in writing. It’s so important to be able to quiet your mind, and be kind to yourself. I’m still very much a novice, but just the small things I know and utilize help so much.

GJD: Like what?

CB: Being quiet enough to listen to myself is a big part of it. If I’m procrastinating on a project, I take a moment to breathe and listen to my body and try to hear what that inner voice has to say.

GJD: Do you always hear something?

CB: Not always, but the practice of centering myself to listen is enough.

Cassie recommends the Calm App.
And she enjoys these meditations: http://www.mindfulselfcompassion.org/mobile/meditations_downloads.php
inside.insightla.org/mbsraudio/

GJD: I bought a pair of Bose noise-cancelling headphones just to really get things as quiet as possible.  They cost a mint, but totally worth it! Also, I’m starting to believe that procrastination isn’t totally a bad thing. Sometimes leaving it all to the last-minute pushes us to do our best work.  There are lots of articles out there about the benefits of “positive procrastination.”

CB: I’d love to read them.
(Here’s one: blog.bufferapp.com/…structured-distraction)

CB: Do you do any kind of meditation or anything like that?

spaces of creation coverGJD: Personally, I respond well to visualization exercises.  I did a few of these with the group in Greece as you might recall. Those typically require a partner to walk you through the visualization, which you can design for yourself in advance of the meditation. Suzan Zeder, who I mentioned earlier, and her partner Jim Hancock, have a great book about process called Spaces of Creation, and it includes a lot of visualization and body-oriented meditations to kickstart your writing. I require that book for all my Spalding mentees.

CB: That was the book that included a tarot card reading for your characters, right?

GJD: That’s the one.

CB: That book was great.  I find that I also have to take a break from technology. It’s hard to resist, but as a creative person I don’t want to be constantly plugged in to someone else’s creative output all the time. How will I find breathing room for my own stories if I do? How do you find breathing room for your own thoughts and your own stories if you are always plugged in?

GJD: I have to leave my iPhone in another room entirely and unplug the wifi router when I’m writing. I’m prone to distract myself by scrolling on Facebook or checking email, reading blogs (wink wink) just as I’m on the cusp of something in the writing. I have no idea why I do that.

CB: I constantly fight that reptilian part of my brain too. I also think, when you’re on the cusp of something like you said, it’s scary.  To be alone with your thoughts and feelings.

louis-ck-cell-phone-adviceGJD: That reminds me of an interview Louis C.K. did on Conan.  He was talking about driving and texting, ultimately a very reptilian thing to do, and how he thinks that people do it in spite of the obvious danger simply because we can’t stand being alone in the car.  We think about the hard stuff when we’re alone. I think he called it the “forever empty.”  And really, as writers, tapping into the “forever empty,” that’s the stuff!

Louis C.K. on Conan: via YouTube

CB: So you meticulously schedule yourself to tackle the forever empty.  Sounds…fun.

GJD: Good point. Writing should be pleasurable, right? Even if we’re wrestling with personal demons or writing about dark subject matter, the actual process of creation should somehow be pleasing to the artist. I think it certainly shows in the quality of my work when I actually enjoyed writing the script. How do we maintain the pleasure of writing?

CB: I think we have to let go of fear and follow our passion in the writing.  No matter how dark the subject might be, I think most writers derive pleasure from creating stories that move them personally. But that blank white page can be scary. I don’t know a writer who doesn’t put off facing it, especially me! Even though I love my story and I have a space and am giving myself time, sometimes something still keeps me from writing. What is it?

warofart_bookGJD: Steven Pressfield, who’s a screenwriter, wrote an excellent book called The War of Art about getting out of your own way and breaking through. He says, “There’s a secret that real writers know and wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write. What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.” And then he basically defines Resistance as anything that you put between yourself and the work.  It’s an excellent and cogent book, a quick read with rituals and daily practices you can implement to get you back on track. Thinking about that book, it occurs to me that one of the things we haven’t addressed in this conversation is self-doubt, which Pressfield would define as a form of Resistance. But, self-doubt is different than the other largely external things we’ve discussed—space, time, ritual and practice.  Self-doubt is internal. I definitely feel it. Like, all the time. Do you struggle with it? What do you do to overcome it?

CB: Of course I do! Writing can be a very intimate extension of yourself, which makes it really hard to share and put out there to be judged. Having great mentors at Spalding and the supportive community of other writers definitely helps. I think the best way to overcome self-doubt is to just keep sitting down, breathing and doing the work. Acknowledge your fear and keep tapping into the “forever empty” anyway.

GJD: That’s great advice. Anything else?

CB: Writers keep writing! We need your stories. I strongly believe that great stories have great power. Storytelling, both for audiences and writers, is a non-threatening way to experience the world from a different point of view and it creates empathy and understanding. Stories can truly change people and have the power to open people’s minds.


Gabriel Jason Dean is a playwright and screenwriter and is on the Dramatic Writing faculty at Spalding. He lives in Brooklyn.

His full bio is available on his website at: http://gabrieljasondean.net/GD/Bio.html

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