I’m on The Come Down: that weird phase after an artistic accomplishment where a person goes from “Wow! What a feat! I did it!” to “I have never done anything and will never do anything because I am a talentless phony” in days... Hours... Moments.
I find that filmmaking is like calling for an avalanche: you’re pretty sure you can’t, with one small voice, make such a big mountain lurch at you, but it’s awfully perdy, and you sure would like it be closer. So, you muster your gumption and call out. And the only thing scarier than failing, is succeeding.
A very small number of weekends ago, I premiered a fictional six-episode mini-series about being a young artist in Lancaster City that I wrote and played the lead character in. I also had my hand in some directing, producing, and all the other '-ings' that come with independent film endeavors. From start to finish, me and 50 other local filmmies completed the mammoth project “Young/Lancaster” in eleven months.
I find that things often end at the beginning. The Come Down for me is never the whole new world I imagine when I think about the way my current project will finish. Sure, I’ve made new connections [barf], got my name out there a little more [gag], and hey, at least I tried something [puke]! But ultimately, it’s a return to the start of things. For me, that means sitting.
Eleven months ago, I moved into a new city and started tinkering with the idea of a film project. I had no idea it would come crushing, thudding towards me so immediately. I find that I doodled this poem in my notebook at the time:
Gonna put on a weird little show
Gonna show people what I know
Show people just a weird little bit
I know a weird little bit & that’s it.
I have to grin at the adorableness of how we see our projects at the outset. Simple! Brilliant! 5 easy steps! Not the shitstorm of ice and rain and weight and emotion it gets tangled into. And certainly, we don’t imagine that when it’s finished, we will wind up at the same place, where it all began. You mean I still have to be this person?!
For me, The Come Down is a scary reflection of all that went right and wrong in my efforts, the extent of grace I embodied whence shit rainedth down.
When I moved into Lancaster City last year, I found that all my recent traumas-- a cross-country move, a death in the family, a hit and run accident of which I was the victim, a friendship debacle, a failed career move-- had moved into the rearview; they had become the past. And life, for a surely fleeting moment, was still. I found myself sitting idly on benches, letting the spinning copper penny in my brain slowly lose speed, and stop.
When it stopped, and I can still remember the feeling, I had an idea. I went home, wrote it, screen-wrote it, cold-introduced myself as often and awkwardly as possible, formed a team, casted, location scouted, rewrote scenes, filmed the scenes, re-shot scenes, got into arguments, suffered new traumas, lost my faith in Art, found Art again, finalized and re-finalized, then put tickets on sale for a premiere that sold out in five days.
But first I sat.
If what one needs is a very small amount of money, and if one has such an abundance of self-esteem that he wishes to discard some, and if one could also afford to lose most of his time and much of his energy, what that person needs is a career. If what a person is desperate for, however, is just one great idea, accompanied by just-enough passion to bring it into being, what that person needs is idle sitting.
I have come upon this piece of wisdom by error, naturally. For what is more natural than error, and coming upon pieces of wisdom by it?
The first clue I found, was that there are no great ideas hiding in my apartment. It is a sad and accurate fact. I have tried re-organizing the closet to make room. I have tried leaving the door open so a great idea could let himself in. I have tried facing the wall in case the great idea wanted to sneak up on me from behind. I have doodled about it and prayed for it and even cooked it dinner in my apartment. Much to our mutual shock, I’m sure, nothing came of my toils.
Then I discovered idle sitting. When nothing else would bring a great idea to my door, I just went outside and sat. I did nothing. I didn’t think about anything, I didn’t hope for anything. I just existed in a freaky parallel universe of ambitiousless space, magnetically swaying back and forth with the soft pull of some distant tide. It was not lazy sitting, of course (which is terrible and defensive and could also be called “brainstorming”), but idle sitting. It was surrendering to simple existence.
And then: what free, automatic art! What brilliant solutions and thoughtful mini-plans! I found myself drawing without meaning to, singing with bright pitch beneath my consciousness, and solving puzzles without first spilling out the pieces!
This is good, I thought, and I was right. I tingled with tickling train wheels running on tracks all beneath my skin. And I have since conducted hours of idle sitting experiments, perfecting this peculiar science.
For me, the most effective method of idle sitting is at Penn Square, when the market is open and all kinds of food-dependent humans shuffle into organized huddles at crosswalks, waiting in their respective states of patience and then ignoring one another as they cross and disperse. Elderly black men form ballbusting circles and elderly white men eat sandwiches or wear political signs around their necks. Double-decker strollers and eco-friendly tote bags and varied religious headgear speckle the crowds of people yearning for the perfect melon.
The grounds are fertile here for great ideas.I try to sit for hours at a time, though I also avoid watching clocks, which sort of slays the purpose. I sketch senior citizens on segways or slowly re-read something splendid I’ve enjoyed before. None of these details matter. The important thing, I’ve found, is to be in a very daydreamy state; to allow the mind to hop from stone to stone across the wide, weird creek of one’s existence. No focused work is allowed. Most of the time I just sit, still, doing nothing.
Great ideas are found here. In fact, I often come to Penn Square hunting (pleading!) for just one idea, and find myself loading that big metal Mental Trailer with so much game I can barely haul it home.
The only imperfection I’ve found with this method of transporting great ideas from the Square to my apartment is that often on the way home I will notice their weight and start to feel burdened. I will question myself on the feasibility of the great ideas I’ve selected. I will never have enough resources to get that done, I tell myself.
I will never find anyone who is willing to help. The money is nowhere to be found. I am already too busy. I have already overworked all of my friends and colleagues.
The problem here, of course, is that I did not sit long enough. And the only solution is to turn around, haul it all back, and start the entire process over. I have learned at this point to just sit until both the great idea AND the peace has come. Actually, if I sit long enough, both the great ideas and the peace tend to load themselves up and push themselves off in the direction of my house, and I have to run and chase it home!
I did a version of this as a child. Most of the things we learn we are merely re-learning, aren’t we? We are remembering how we did it originally, how the more-genuine us used to do things.
I remember sitting in my mother’s dining room—very much a town square, what with neighbor ladies and alley cats and school friends and my father’s many non-profit organizations claiming territories for their central hubs. I would sit and draw them all, write thoughts about them all, get patted on the head by them all, while passions formed in my heart so strongly that I am still ninety-percent them, ten-percent anything else.There are no good ideas in my closet. It’s an odd wish we all seem to have inside of us. We hope that one day, after our work is done, we will huff and puff in our quick overworked breaths and tear open the cedar chest, finding that all along pure gold ideas were waiting for us to pick up and present cleanly to the world. But this is not the way great ideas come, though they do live in all of us. They are bred slowly, by experience and mercy, in our chest, and can only make their way out into the world by catching a long, slow sigh.
All together now.
Shawna Stoltzfoos is an actor and screenwriter living in Lancaster City. Learn about her recent project at facebook.com/younglancaster.
Photos Courtesy of Shawna Stoltzfoos