Celebrating “The Distance I Can Be From My Son”

In 2013, Lenka Clayton had a goal for a series of works she wanted to create via An Artist Residency in Motherhood. As she put it:

Artist residencies are usually designed as a way to allow artists to escape from the routines and responsibilities of their everyday lives. An Artist Residency in Motherhood is different. Set firmly inside the traditionally “inhospitable” environment of a family home, it subverts the art-world’s romanticization of the unattached artist, and frames motherhood as a valuable site, rather than an invisible labour for exploration and artistic production.

As part of this residency, she created a series of videos with a seemingly simple premise. Titled The Distance I Can Be From My Son, Clayton sets up a camera in a static location, then allows her son to walk into frame. He toddles away from her until she feels a need to rush into frame herself and keep him from going any further. At that moment, an on-screen tally shows the distance he travelled away from her in that location.

It’s a truly beautiful exploration of a range of emotions involved in parenting and creating art.

But let’s start at the ending.

It’s not just the number

At the end of each video, the final distance between Clayton and her son is measured.

But it was never just about the distance, but about the myriad concerns a parent weighs while watching a child move away from them.

It’s a punchline, and an effective one.

But by reducing it to an objective measurement, we quantify all those questions inside a parents’ mind into an easy calculation.

It suggests a definitive answer to a constantly renegotiated situation.

The camera is Lenka Clayton, and also not Lenka Clayton

As you watch the video, we see Clayton’s son trot into frame and look back at the camera. In that moment, given the title of the work and the framing, it feels like we’re seeing her son walk away from her in this moment through her eyes.

But at the end, the illusion is broken and Lenka runs into the frame to chase after her son. It breaks the illusion that we’re seeing her direct point of view.

Maybe the camera is a divided part of her perspective, suggesting that there is a fracture between the artist’s perspective and the mother’s perspective.

And yet, as she moves into the frame, Clayton doesn’t eliminate the artistic perspective on the situation by acting in a maternal role. Now she is also a subject of her own artistic gaze. This combination doesn’t negate one for the other, but showcases the complicated interaction between the two from moment to moment.

Also consider the static framing of the shot. From the title of the work, we’re meant to think of the camera as a fixed point that we should measure distance from. However, the boy moves around within the frame, but the frame never tracks or pans with him, like a parent’s head might do.

The unblinking eye of the camera, and its lack of natural movement makes it separate from the experience of being a parent watching a child.

You blink. You turn your head. You’re aware of other distractions, or scanning for things that might interact with or threaten your child. You are not a passive observer.

That lack of motion acts as an invitation to the viewer.

Spectator as co-parent, or The distance we can be from Lenka’s son

With the static camera creating the field of vision for the audience, we’re free to move our own eyes and head as the boy steps into frame.

He turns toward us. He gets further away from us. We watch out for the possible dangers ahead, or the escape routes he might take to get out of our field of vision.

It’s a dramatic use of empathy. Because the camera isn’t suggesting where we should look aside from the movement of the child, we can see ourselves in the environment. In the moment. It doesn’t feel like a constructed reality as much as a slice-of-life.

Even a person who doesn’t regularly care for a small child can watch this and feel the pangs of urgency watching a small child walk away from you. We know the environment, and we know that a small child isn’t ready to explore these spaces completely independently.

We don’t want to see a child come to harm, and even though we know, rationally, that it’s unlikely for someone to deliberately put their own child in harm’s way, our fears are triggered.

You start asking the question: When is she going to run out to him? You start assessing the distance for yourself. When would you run out? What are you looking for as a signal for when this far is too far?

But there’s another layer to these videos that comes into play when you ask the question: Why is he walking away from the camera?

Motherhood as performance

If the boy doesn’t walk in front of the camera, would the premise of the video work? What about if he stops or turns back? Look at how he turns back in every single one of these videos, hesitant. Looking for permission. Testing for a reaction.

Yes, eventually he takes off and wanders away out of his own desire or momentum, but there’s no video without this child walking away from the camera in a way where he stays within the field of vision of the camera.

Every choice was made with purpose. Picking a specific supermarket aisle. Dressing the boy in a red snowsuit for his walk down the alley. Deciding when to cut the camera off, interrupting Clayton’s mad dash to catch up with her son.

The dash itself is a choice. Moving with such force and acceleration. She wants to get to her son swiftly, but there’s something else: She knows you’re watching her. Paying attention to her reaction.

It’s a reminder of the way that we watch parents with their children. Her speed is the product of both a desire to keep her child safe and a desire to demonstrate to the viewer that she wants to keep her child safe.

It’s a reminder that not only are we watching a constructed representation of an act of motherhood, but that in some ways motherhood itself is a performance. To be a mother is to be watched. Judged. Aware of being watched and judged.

Who gets to be an artist

Going back to Clayton’s original statement of intent on her residency, she talks about the change in how others perceive her and her career after the birth of her child:

I find now that many aspects of the professional art world are closed to artists with families. Most prestigious artist residencies for example specifically exclude families from attending. Despite a legacy of public artist/parents it still seems to be a commonly held belief that being an engaged mother and serious artist are mutually exclusive endeavors. I don’t believe or want to perpetrate this. I like to imagine the two roles met as competing directions but to view them, force them gently if necessary, to inform one another.

This is another aspect of the works that I greatly appreciate.

When you think about a successful artist, what do you picture their life being about? Do you see room in their life for responsibilities and goals that don’t wholly relate to their art? Do you picture them needing to completely surrender to the muse?

What informs your conception of what the life of an artist is all about?

Bricklayers and Rock Throwers

There’s two kinds of people in this world: Bricklayers and Rock Throwers.

Bricklayers look for opportunities to make something. Rock throwers look for opportunities to knock something down.

Bricklayers care deeply about every brick they place, wanting to make sure it all fits together. Rock throwers don’t care about where their stones land, so long as they hit something.

Bricklayers feel satisfaction with the progress they make based on their own effort. Rock throwers feel satisfaction when a chucked rock gets the kind of reaction they want out of others.

Rock throwers feel confident they know better than everyone else. Bricklayers know there’s always more to learn if they want to do their job well.

Rock throwers will tell you it can’t be done. Bricklayers tell you it hasn’t been done yet.

A rock thrower can feel their job is finished after throwing a single rock. A bricklayer knows they need patience and focus to follow through on what they’re building.

Bricklayers look to others to see if they can help share in the work. Rock throwers look at others with suspicion, sizing up if they’re a target.

Bricklayers want to leave something behind after they’re done. Rock throwers have nothing to show for their efforts but sore arms.

Cynicism is not a virtue.

Caring deeply about other people is not a weakness.

Get your wheelbarrow. It’s time we built something.

This is my storyline.

 

While listening to a recent episode of The West Wing Weekly, a story that Josh Malina told about a conference he had early during the filming of the show’s fifth season struck a chord with me.

Showrunner John Wells told Josh “Here’s the plan I have to keep you on the show,” going into detail on his reasoning for having Josh’s character, Will Bailey, change jobs and accept an offer to work in the office of the new Vice President.

Josh said he wasn’t used to this kind of explanation from a writer or producer, and that while he appreciated the additional conversation about the reasoning for some dramatic changes for his role in the show, his overall reaction floored me.

“At the time I didn’t dwell on it much, because I don’t think that enhances one’s acting, to obsess about the storyline. Your job is: Here’s the script – act it. I never really gave it two seconds of thought. I never really cared deeply about Will’s decision. That’s not the kind of actor I am… it’s not going to improve my performance to go through the mental gymnastics of whether or not I like the storyline. This is my storyline. This is what I have to say. Go say it.”

– Josh Malina

I want to frame that quote on my wall.

There are a lot of times in life where the unexpected changes our plans, or we get straight-up served a shit sandwich.

But no amount of thinking about the situation is going to essentially change it.

While we don’t all have the convenience of a script to feed us our lines, there’s still the option to train ourselves to not get caught up in the emotional side of the response and focus on the task at hand.

We can shut down the response to procrastinate, to fume, to come up with any number of alternate scenarios that would be better. Or we can live with what’s presented to us and move forward.

This is what’s happening. It’s your story. Do what you have to do.


If you want to listen to the whole story (or the entire episode), you can check it out here.

My Post-4.jpg

Suitable for framing?

 

Plants and Payoffs in Comedy Writing: Parks and Recreation

Comedy Has Structure

Long form comedy isn’t just a series of jokes. Whether it’s a sitcom, a film, or a stand-up set, there’s a structure to humor that relates to dramatic structure.

Over time, strong comedy builds. New jokes call back to previous jokes. By the end, you haven’t just watched a string of unrelated funny moments, but you’ve seen how one joke leads into a joke later on.

Great comedy builds. It lifts the audience up.

To show you what I’m talking about, I’d like pick apart the inner workings of an episode of Parks & Recreation.

Parks and Recreation Episode 4×11 – “The Comeback Kid”

There are a few key elements of the larger story of this season that help set up this episode:

  • Leslie and Ben are in a relationship, but Chris had a policy forbidding romantic relationships between co-workers.
  • The discovery of this relationship created the scandal that damaged Leslie’s candidacy for city council and lead to Ben resigning his position in the government.

A quick synopsis of the episode:

With Leslie still reeling from her poll numbers plummeting and her campaign staff abandoning her, she recruits her co-workers as a replacement staff to stage a re-launch for her city council campaign at the Pawnee Sports Building. Seeing that Ben has spiraled into a depression brought on by resigning his job, Chris attempts to lift his spirits.

There are three main plot lines to this episode:

  1. Leslie and Ann attempt to convince former Pawnee High School basketball star “Pistol” Pete to appear at the event and endorse Leslie.
  2. Ron leads a group of the rest of the new campaign staff in preparing for the event.
  3. Chris attempts to break Ben out of his funk, which needs to start with getting Ben to recognize he’s depressed.

Plants and Payoffs

A plant is when a writer offers a piece of information to the audience early on in a story ahead of when they absolutely must use it. It’s making sure the audience is thinking about some aspect of the story, be it the stakes, a task some character needs to perform, or even a specific object important to the story.

A payoff is when the writer cashes in on the audience’s memory of that earlier plant, using that information to resolve a story, tell a joke, or throw a twist at the audience.

There are two specific payoffs in this story that weave together the three story lines, and we need to talk about them first to get a better idea of what to look for in their construction.

Payoff One – The Climax

Leslie prepares to walk out into the Pawnee Sports Building believing that she doesn’t have Pistol Pete, her stage is incomplete, the banner she ordered has an error, and to make matters worse, the basketball court she thought she’d be walking out on has been resurfaced as ice for an upcoming hockey game.

Screen Cap 1.png

Leslie’s campaign staff vows to go out and help her try and save face, only to see that Tom couldn’t order a red carpet that leads all the way to the stage.

Screen Cap 2.png

Screen Cap 3.png

As they shuffle together across the ice, a short clip of Gloria Estefan’s “Get On Your Feet” loops (a clip that would’ve been a perfect duration for a brisk walk across a basketball court).

Screen Cap 5.png

Champion, April and Andy’s new dog, starts peeing on Ron.

Screen Cap 4.png

In the scramble to get up on the stage, Leslie’s notecards got out of order, and she starts delivering an incoherent speech.

Screen Cap 6.png

Screen Cap 7.png

At the last moment, when Leslie admits to the crowd that this campaign event was a disaster, Pistol Pete shows up in his old jersey to endorse Leslie. When he attempts to make a slam dunk at the end of his speech, he slips on the ice and injures himself.

Screen Cap 8.png

Even out of context, these moments are funny, but there’s more at work. Each of these jokes has an origin point earlier in the episode, planting these ideas to play with the audience’s expectations.

Because you were taught what to expect by the earlier parts of this episode, you’re rewarded for your attention and your patience with even bigger laughs.

Payoff Two – The New Story Direction

After Chris talks Ben out of his funk and gets him thinking about how to make better use of his time, Leslie and the rest of the campaign team show up, fresh from the disaster at the Pawnee Sports Building.

Leslie approaches Ben and asks him to step in and be her new campaign manager. After seeing what happened without someone with political experience at the helm, she wants Ben there, no matter if his connection to her scandal and polling problems could damage her chances.

This launches a new phase of the story where Ben and Leslie will directly work together on her campaign, but the emotional payoff of this moment requires us to see how much Ben and Leslie need each other (due to seeing the disasters they have to deal with when they intentionally keep themselves apart).

Turn by Turn Directions to Our Destination

So let’s take a look at the big picture. In the following graphics, I’ve charted out, scene-by-scene, what happens, and what information is used to build the story toward the climactic moments.

Some things to pay attention to:

  • Notice how the writers keep most of these plot threads separate from scene to scene until we get to the final act. These individual threads and stories have a distant connection at first, but they start to interact the deeper we get into the story.
  • Look at the way the narrative moves between the different storylines. We spend a little time with Ben & Chris, then back to a part of the main storylines dealing with the “Comeback Kid” event.
  • The sheer density of this show’s writing. There are moments that barely qualify as having a setup, like how Jerry’s job to pass out flyers to get an audience is a note on a whiteboard, yet it comes back at a crucial moment to raise the stakes for Leslie.

The Comeback Kid - Chart 1.png
The Comeback Kid - Chart 2.png
The Comeback Kid - Chart 3.png
The Comeback Kid - Chart 4.png

Sleight of Hand

But the writers can’t just have the characters look at the audience and say “Hey, here’s a new dog for Andy and April! Pay attention to this dog’s wacky hi-jinks and get ready for it to do something really funny near the end of the episode!”

When planting an element to set up a later joke, it needs to be introduced to the audience so that they’re only mostly paying attention to it.

A successful plant lets the audience know something is there without giving away that the writer wants their attention drawn to it.

Think about a magician. They’ll tell you where they want you to look, and they’ll tell you what they’re going to do, but they’re always conscious about drawing your attention away from the actual work of the trick.

They want you to know you’re being fooled, but they don’t want you to know how.

It’s the same with comedic storytelling. The writer wants the audience to laugh as much as possible, but they know that laughter will be stifled if the audience is too aware of the construction of the jokes and the dramatic storytelling underneath.

Nothing kills a joke like telling somebody that it’s going to be so funny.

So let’s break down one scene as an example.

Anatomy of a scene

(Please note, this isn’t the actual script for the episode. It’s a transcription I made to help explain this point.)

I’ve added some notes to the scene highlighting where important plot threads are referenced or introduced, and adding specific notes on how these jokes introduce exposition and plant information in a way that avoids falling flat.

Comeback Kid - Example Scene 1.png
Comeback Kid - Example Scene 2.png

By disguising the planted elements with conflict and humor, the writers keep the audience’s attention on the present moment and don’t give too much away about what they have planned for Champion and Ben.

Tying it all together, these elements of conflict and humor are based in what the audience already knows about the characters. Ben is rigid in his behavior and frequently doesn’t understand other people’s enthusiasm. April & Andy are impulsive, and they regularly go all-in with their enthusiasm if it’s something they both care about.

We know these characters because we’ve grown to care about them. Without that emotional connection, the jokes can’t help to obscure the intent of the planted material, and the payoffs won’t land with full force.

We need to care if we’re going to laugh.

We need to care about Ben’s mental health, and his rebound from losing his job and sense of identity. We need to care about Leslie’s desire to win the election and become part of Pawnee’s City Council. We need to care about the desire of her friends and co-workers to help her.

We even need to care, at least a little bit, about Pistol Pete. A character we just met needs to be human enough that his decision to embrace his past and endorse Leslie with a dunk means something.

A man choosing to do something foolish, like try and dunk a basketball on a hockey rink, is funny. A man choosing to do something foolish because we know, in his heart, this is about rising up and coming to terms with a deep, internal pain… That’s comedy gold.

Mounting My Own Comeback

I used to write a lot more about film and television. I used to make a lot more time to watch film and television.

This blog was something I approached from a place of intense study and small a authority. Coming fresh out of grad school, I had a lot of information in my brain and not always a lot of clear outlets for it.

I don’t know what it is now. You’re just as likely to see me writing about my daughter and our cat as you are to see me dissect a television episode.

I’m not sure what it’s going to become, either.

I know this is my place on the internet to do what I wish. I know that I’ve got lots of ideas. I know that there are other things I’m writing and working on that aren’t even related to it.

Life is a lot messier than fiction. Not everything you plant pays off later.

But I care deeply about storytelling. And I care deeply about putting these ideas out there. I want to make sure I don’t leave that behind as I head toward whatever happens to come next.

I’ll leave the last words to Leslie Knope:

“Well, um, I can assure you people in the bleachers that, if you follow my campaign, it will be interesting.”

 

Heavy Clicky Touchy Feely

I ponied up the money for a mechanical keyboard.

I get it. People buy in, hook, line, and sinker to this craze the way marketing used to tell kids shoes would make you run faster and jump higher.

But it’s genuinely pleasant.

The Matias Laptop Pro for Mac

Does having a nice keyboard make me a better writer? Not in and of itself.

But does having a nice keyboard make me feel like my time spent writing is more enjoyable, encouraging me to favor this activity over other ways to spend my time? You bet!

The only thing that helps a person work on their craft is time and deliberate practice. You could argue any tool that helps create those conditions has some degree of positive impact.

But there’s also the nostalgia.

It reminds me of that feeling of the first time I learned how to type, working on a Commodore 64 in my parents’ living room. The chunkiness of the keys. The orange glow of the text when I fired up the word processor to do a research paper on Mars. The satisfying click as I made things happen on screen while following along with one of the library books that said they would teach me how to program in BASIC (Ron Howard Voice: “They did not.”)

It’s not that I wish that the computer I was using had the same limited capabilities as that old machine. What I wanted from purchasing a mechanical keyboard was comfort and joy.

There’s a strong sensory connection between the tactile experience of the keyboard and the sensation of enthusiastically discovering something new. An attempt to trigger those beginner’s mind feelings, even after years and years of using a computer.

Because there’s still so much to learn.

But even without any guarantee of that, I can say for certain that sitting down to type feels more joyful. It’s no longer just the pleasure of actually taking time to write something down and work out my ideas. There’s a rhythm to the keys that keeps me motivated just as much as any well-crafted writing playlist.

Hamilton GIF 'Why do you write like you're running out of time?'

Because he got a clicky mechanical keyboard, of course.

It’s a healthy reminder that we’re not just content-creation algorithms, trying to spit out data for dopamine rewards. There should be joy in the process. An awareness and appreciation for not just our ideas, but the tools we use to make them tangible.

Little touches can make a world of difference, like the right coffee mug.

My favorite breakfast place in the entire United States is the Deluxe Town Diner in Watertown, MA. If you’re familiar with the love Leslie Knope has for J.J.’s Diner, you have a general idea of how much I rave about this place.

Leslie Knope: 'Why would anybody ever eat anything besides breakfast food?'

On my family’s most recent trip out to the east coast, I made sure that I took home a mug from Deluxe Town, because it is the perfect mug.

Mug.jpg

You are perfect.jpeg

This isn’t just nostalgia for the countless brunches over sour cream waffles or their perfectly tender and juicy in-house corned beef hash.

There’s a satisfying weight to the mug. It doesn’t make coffee taste better, but it makes the act of lifting the mug up to my lips feel substantial. You pay attention to the feeling in your hand and your arm as you raise it up.

You can’t ignore this mug. It’s not a paper cup. It’s not a cheap ceramic nothing. You are aware that you are drinking a good cup of coffee (so long as you put some good coffee in it).

Damn Good

If I appreciate my tools, the objects I surround myself with, they help me to remain present in time and space with them.

It’s not about the price tag. This isn’t a call for unchecked consumption, or for an endless deep dive into the world of The Best X You Can Buy listicles.

Spared no expense.gif

It’s a call to look for those objects and moments you interact with that matter. To consider how best to appreciate the tools of your trade.

What do you touch every day? Do you pay attention to it? Does it matter? Should it matter more?

When you are asked to give more and more of your mental energy and presence to things happening away from where you are, what things help anchor you? What objects can you use to keep yourself from drifting too far away, or getting lost down rabbit holes?

I am drinking this coffee. I am typing these words. I am here.