From a Talk with Zadie Smith @ Wexner Center

From a Talk with Zadie Smith @ Wexner Center

This weekend I saw Zadie Smith at the Wexner Center. Like returning from an Available Light show, I left ready to write. While I felt so-so about her debut novel, White Teeth, I am interested in reading some of her later work. That's what I love about author talks; they give you context to a person's work. In Smith's case, she's left behind her multi-cultural comic novels for the time being. She wrote a few of those, went into an essay phase, and she's now writing work that is less about the humor of everyday life.

Or so I've gathered from the talk.

There were a bounty of references to her latest essay (and one of my favorite as a copywriter and creative writer), 'Find Your Beach' from The New York Review of Books. However, that's very new. She led the talk (whose subject was race and culture in literature) with a reading from 'Speaking in Tongues' (2009). This set the mood for her own personal experiences with adapting to different 'languages' as she moved between classes and among other races. And it wraps up with an elegant deconstruction of Barack Obama's appeal and his own ability to changes 'tongues'.

What followed her reading was part talk, part Q+A, and all wit. I can only include what I wrote down when I wasn't laughing.


On gentrification: "Nobody is saying it's more fun to be shot up in the streets than it is to eat cupcakes. Obviously, cupcakes are great. Smith goes on to talk about returning home to a neighborhood that's been gentrified, after all the tax funds have been dumped into it. She summarized it as 'humiliating'; as if you weren't worthy of this attention when you lived there. "It's not a city if you can't have relatively normal people living in it. Nothing to do but eat cupcakes."

On writing: "Writing is always about trying to be more honest."

On why she writes multi-culturally: "It was lovely to read Jane eyre, but she's got nothing to do with me. Where are my people, you know?"

On past vs. present: "That's true. There's nothing interesting about my present."


For me, the best part of this talk was the fact that she sold out the Mershon Auditorium. It's rare to have an outspoken, level-headed literary personality nowadays. Seeing Zadie Smith in person is a pleasure and one that I highly recommend to any individual interested in fiction or writing.

NOW-ISM: Abstraction Today [Pizzuti Collection]

The Pizzuti Collection is the new kid on the block for the Columbus art scene. Having only been around about a year now, not many of the locals will know where it is or even that it exists. The Collection, however, is a rare artistic gem for the Columbus community. NOW-ISM: Abstraction Today is their current show, and there has never been anything like this in Columbus. CMA has never had such an extensive show, and the Wexner Center is too small to curate a show like NOW-ISM. If you have any interest at all in modern art and live between Indianapolis and Philadelphia, you need to see this show.

This show exhibits a kind of playfulness you won't see in larger museums. The artists selected were playful with color, playful with line, playful with context. The result? A stunning collection in a modern gallery. This is the kind of art I wish that Columbus had more of. Granted, these are mostly artists who are fairly known in art circles (I'm assuming).

I wanted to hit on a few of the most striking pieces. I visited the Pizzuti Collection a couple months ago, but I'm still thinking about these works.


Looping (2007-08), Mindy Shapero

Looping, Mindy Shapero

The lighting in the Collection's online gallery photo doesn't do this justice. When I visited, this sculptural piece was on the balcony. Sunlight illustrates the colors present much better than the promotional shots. The upper portion of the piece is a vivid collection of color, sculpted with the illusion of intense, fast movement. It could be something out of a Starburst commercial.

What makes this large work interesting is its juxtaposition with the piece beneath it. The angular, black 'rock' under the flowing colors stands in stark opposition to the free-flowing motion above. The two also never touch. They are completely separate objects.

For me, this piece is about creative opposition. One object without the other would be boring. Yet as interesting as the sculpture appears at first glance, you don't even notice the half of it on the ground. One would not be nearly as thought-provoking without the other. Shapero produced my favorite piece in this show.


An Advice from Grandfather (2010), Haluk Akakçe

An Advice from Grandfather, Haluk Akakçe

I can't quite place what I love about this piece. I think that the offbeat, flat colors are what do it. Could also be the angles of the 'landscape' in the background. Then again, it could be that these forms make me think of a Lovecraftian family's day at the beach.

Akakçe's work is definitely unique. There's no denying that. There's something slightly sexual about this piece for me, too. Dark and sexual. It doesn't make me think of abuse, but rather unfulfilled fantasies. But that might be the bit of Lovecraft seeping in again. Darn you, Cthulhu!

The blurb on the Pizzuti Collection page is amazing, especially since I hadn't initially written any notes about this piece. That's part of the magnificence of a collection with an art library, though. Piste's resources are second to none (locally, anyway).


Evaders (2009), Ori Gersht

Evaders (2009), Ori Gersht

I am a sucker for video art. And Ori Gersht's Evaders is intriguing, harrowing, and tedious in its intensity. I mean that last part in a positive way. The tone of the piece plateaus quickly and begins to communicate a driving anxiety surrounding an ultimate horror of death, made worse by the hopelessness of the single possible glimmer of goodness.

Evaders tells the emotional story of Walter Benjamin's flight out of Nazi-occupied France. And the escape is historically only an attempt. Mr. Benjamin killed himself rather than be repatriated to the Nazis. The film, while not Aristotelian, tells a complete emotional story. Which is all I ask of film art.

Corporate Naming: Scotts All-American Lawns Tour

Scotts LawnService took a campaign public that I worked on. For their customer appreciation sweepstakes, Scotts will be sending a winner and the guest of their choice to famous American lawns (i.e.: The White House, Golden Gate Park, The Biltmore Estate).

I was hired by an agency to contribute corporate naming ideas to their overall sweepstakes design. Based on the elements of the prize package, I came up with 'The All-American Lawns Tour', which has now been turned into this lovely logo below.

Scotts All-American Lawns Tour

Over 42,000 people entered in just over 2 weeks, making this a high-exposure campaign that I named. The high yield wouldn't be possible without an eye-catching name that clearly communicates the prize while simultaneously linking it to the Scotts brand.

Corporate naming and branding are some of my favorite things to work on. They're high-concept projects that usually involve a lot of research and whiteboard sketches. Sadly, I didn't have a whiteboard for this one. Paper got a big dose of love from me, though.

9 out of 10 Things You Write Are Crap

9 out of 10 Things You Write are Crap

In college playwriting, we only ever talked about the structure of a play and how to construct it. We approached it from the artistic point of view. What I've found myself longing for is an approach to writing from the business perspective. Second City, while also a very funny place, has been expanding and making money for more than 50 years. They know a few things about the business of writing.

9 Out of 10 Sketches Suck

Second City produces a lot of work. They have at least four shows running at a time. Each show has up to 30 sketches in it. That's 120 hilarious sketches. That means that about 1080 sketches were also written that really blew. Thinking of it that way, I feel a lot better about my own writing.

With that in mind, the focus of our class was on idea generation. We worked with various ways to come up with new ideas, individually and collaboratively.

The Del Close Set Up

Del Close was a Second City actor and director who put a lot of thought into how to come up with new ideas quickly. The idea of this exercise is to write the first three lines of a sketch and then move on. After you have a bunch of beginnings, you can choose a few things that are working.

Here’s the outline:

  • A: Who is Character B, and where are they?
  • B: Who is Character A, and what’s happening in the scene?
  • A: Raise the stakes and center it on the relationship between the two characters.

For example, here’s a bit that funny guy Mike and I put together.

  • Mr. President, we have a situation in the ball pit.
  • For the last time, you’re my Secretary of Balls, I need you to take care of this.
  • Fine, I’ll take care of it. But if you shaft me one more time, I quit.

From there, we both continued the scene and went in different directions. The Del Close set up inspired both of us with the first three lines, though.

Pitching in the Writer’s Room

Our class also worked on how to pitch a sketch idea to a group. This is great for sketch comedy companies and TV writing (SNL, 30 Rock). This was a pretty straight-forward way of thinking about a sketch.

Each pitch needs:

  • Set up - Who, where, what’s the relationship
  • Problem - What’s happening in the scene
  • Solution - What’s the end result

We briefly touched on structuring a whole show. For example, Saturday Night Live has most of the best sketches in the first half. These all have good solutions. Ending a sketch is the hardest part. So the sketches that are a little clunkier get relegated to the last half of the broadcast, when fewer people are watching.

Miscellaneous Concepts

Finally, a few random ideas for how to generate ideas for writing.

  • What’s Different? - Take something mundane and normal, then make it absurd. Example: a drive-through where you buy emotions.
  • Relationship Triangulation - Two characters against a third. The humor ensues when they take opposing sides. Example: parents vs. child.
  • What’s Before/Beyond? - Take an event we’re all culturally aware of and explore what happens immediately before or after it. Example: what happened to Lincoln on his way to the theater?
  • Clash of Context - Take two opposing ideas and merge them together. Example: we watched a sketch from Paradigm Lost (Second City) where office mergers change management style at work like a radio station changing its format (ie: country, electronica, hard rock).

Start Writing Now

…is a mantra I tell myself. It’s amazing that in five days of sketch comedy class, we covered something I was really craving in college playwriting and never got. Not to say that college classes didn’t teach me anything – they absolutely did. Studying under Wendy MacLeod was amazing. I’m just glad to have covered some idea generation concepts to bust through periods of procrastination.

With these exercises, I hopefully won’t feel a dry spell ever again.