Today I went for a run, the first in about a year. Only for twenty minutes, but enough to feel my time away from the road hasn’t been kind.

As I ran I felt each weak link in the chain and there were many. The muscles that keep me upright and that propel me forward are soft. At ten minutes the clamor of excuses grows louder: ‘running in chinese-made new balances isn’t safe’, ‘Cairo’s urban design kills pedestrians’, ‘that gang of wild dogs I keep lapping look very hungry’. All these things are logical, sound, reasonable – and that is why I must ignore them.

I raise the volume on Jay-Z self-congratulating himself until I go deaf, until I drone out that part of me that wants to surrender.

At fifteen minutes I’ve accepted I’m slower, not as fast as before when I sprinted up hills with the enthusiasm of a child. I pace myself. I take solace that this is the beginning of great things, a refinement of the body I can’t get by thinking about it. I play back sound-bites, words of encouragement from heroes like Murakami, that treat this primal movement as religion.

And by twenty minutes I think I’m born-again.


A New Addiction

Too many ideas and intentions have been percolating for some time in my head. It’s been almost two years since my last writing challenge when I forced myself to write a poem every day for thirty days straight with no clear goal. Surprisingly that challenge kept going longer than planned and turned into a monster collection of one hundred poems.

Clearly the habit tapped into a deep, rich well in my imagination I didn’t know existed. I remembered things I had forgotten. I sewed together symbols from my fragmented childhood into some kind of narrative. And some of these mysterious verses have even cross-polinated into my ‘real work’, into the writing of my screenplays.

Occasionally I continue the practice, writing scraps of poems on napkins until they make a complete thought. But nowadays I rely more on the crutch of inspiration than on habit. And so I’ve decided to give myself a similar challenge, but in a different medium – the Essay.

I’ll be writing a blog post everyday, without worrying about the results or the overall theme of the short pieces. There’s no community that I can rely upon, as I did with NaPoWriMo, except for the small, patient audience of this blog. I predict it will be an eclectic collection of thoughts and musings. Some of the posts will be housekeeping in nature, posts I had meant to write or complete but never got around to. But once I exhaust those old ideas, will I be able to continue creating something new every morning?

There is something ‘professional’ about showing up daily to work, even if the results are amateurish at first. There is something therapeutic in creating a quiet space where you can make sense of your own observations and distill them on paper instead of always being bombarded with the voices of others. There is something exciting about a new challenge.

My ‘Bosch Stiftung Film Prize Nominee Forum’ Experience

I just came back from Berlin where I attended a film forum organized by the Robert Bosch Foundation. Organized for nominated projects competing for their 2013 Arab-German co-production film grants. 

I first found out about the Bosch Foundation and their generous funding opportunities this past summer in Amman where I attended a short-film project market hosted by the Royal Film Commission of Jordan meant to help Arab writer/directors partner up with German producers. After some pitch training and meetings, I decided to join forces with an ambitious producer, Jessica Landt from Beleza Film, and apply to the co-production grant together with our short fiction project The Stork.

We were shortlisted and invited to the Nominee Forum with nine other teams, each working on either short fiction or documentary projects, also made up of Arab and German filmmakers. It was an intense few days of training rounded out with good food and conversations. I think we all left more prepared to officially pitch our projects in February to the jury during the 2013 Berlinale.

Since I found it so useful, I thought I’d summarize my highlights:

Pitch training with Cathy de Haan: I first met Cathy in the Amman project market, where she introduced us to the art of pitching, but here she had more time to expand on her advice. She reminded us of the essentials: to keep things clear, consistent and concise – reflected in everything from how we use our voices, our bodies and the design of our visual material. We’ve got to relax, to enjoy the process, because we’ll never have this opportunity again to speak to this particular audience about this specific film. We tend to get so wound up with our presentations and ourselves that we forget about our audience; who we’re actually pitching to and who has ultimate power. What do they know about the project already?, what do they want to hear and how/why will they be moved by your project? Even if they’re critical of the pitch in the end, we should be appreciative and answer their concerns seriously, as their questions and feedback is proof they actually took the time to hear our pitch.

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Map & Compass

She had a stroke of genius,
when she traced the collarbone to sternum,
that place of muscle and faith.

She kissed the scars I earned as a child –
playing victim in the backyard,
acting daredevil in the front –
and she said they taste just like Alexandria.

At God’s feet are all things,
like this girl embracing me,
this girl blowing into me,
playing her instrument,
and I make the sound of a child.

This Week’s Gems – Sept 2nd 2012

So this is an inaugural series of posts I hope to do weekly. I’ve handpicked some useful stuff I came upon this week – links, articles, books, inspirational work –  and I thought it might interest you as well. Like most of my posts, these resources center around work, learning, artmaking and creativity. Enjoy this week’s potpourri:

1. The Little Book of Talent by Daniel CoyleThree years ago Daniel Coyle published the fantastic The Talent Code that debunked popular misconceptions on talent/genius and how to attain it. It shared some kinship with Gladwell’s Outliers, except Coyle gave us specific methods for getting better, for acquiring mastery, regardless of the pursuit. Here in this short volume he continues that discussion with more concrete tips. Each short chapter is supported by observations he made visiting masters and the schools/teachers that mentored them. Highly recommend it, to any ‘makers’ out there. I’ll leave you with a quote from the introduction:

Whatever talent you set out to build, from golfing to learning a new language to playing guitar to managing a startup, be assured of one thing: You are born with the machinery to transform beginners’ clumsiness into fast, fluent action. that machinery is not controlled by genes, it’s controlled by you. Each day, each practice session, is a step toward a different future. This is a hopeful idea, and the most hopeful thing about it is that it is a fact.

2. Working Out Doesn’t Just Make You Stronger, It Makes You Smarter [via FastCompany] Useful infographic that reminds you how important exercise is for your gray matter.

3. Scent of Revolution (Ra’ihat Al-Thawra) – A dear mentor of mine is seeking funds to finish off her most recent documentary. Viola Shafik is the author of the esteemed Arab Cinema and film maker/curator based between Berlin and Cairo. Based on the film’s trailer and description, it seems that this doc will be a multi-threaded, cross-sectional look at the complex relationship between Egypt’s past, present and future. She seems emotionally tied to finding some answers to where Egypt is going post-Mubarak. While there’s no shortage of films on the recent Egyptian revolution, I think few take such a nuanced look at the events as she has. With the film in the can, she’s seeking $18k for post – if you’re a fan of Arab cinema and want to be part of it, definitely pick up her book and try to support her film with whatever spare change you have.

4. Kirby Ferguson: Embrace the Remix – If you’re not familiar with Kirby Ferguson’s Everything is a Remix video series you should be. It debunks popular ideas on originality and ownership and is a great starting point for ‘makers’. In this short TED video he extends his ideas by using examples from Dylan and Steve Jobs to demonstrate how our most celebrated creators borrow, steal and transform to produce their greatest work. You can watch the full 10 minute video here:

5. I’ve spoken before about Skillshare, now they’re offering hybrid classes that allow students to take online classes and meet up in their respective cities for further discussion. Really interesting selection so far, I think I’m going to sign up for Build Your Creative Empire, and I just sent in a proposal to teach a Kickstarter Your Dreams class.

Share Your Skills

I’ve attempted these past few months to organize a workshop on screenwriting with two community centers. These plans keep falling through so I thought I’d take the initiative and organize something on my own.

There’s an online marketplace called Skillshare where you can find classes to take in your city or post one of your own you’d like to teach.

Their template allows you to quickly create a class and build an audience of potential students. You’re able to follow other teachers and your students are able to leave you feedback.

You can learn more in this short promo of theirs:

I’ve posted three short workshops I feel qualified to teach. We’ll have to wait to see what the response is but it was a great exercise to organize my ‘marketable skills’ and advertise them like this.

You can check out my teaching & classes profile here.

I’m assuming many of you reading this also have skills you can leverage to organize and teach a class of your own. I recommend you do so, as it’s a great way to reenergize your craft, give something back to your community and earn some extra cash to invest in your creative ambitions.

Drop me a line if you do organize a class on Skillshare – I’d like to follow your progress.

The Best of 2011 for 2012

I combed through my RSS feeds and bookmarks for what I felt where the most useful things I read or saw this year on the web. Because of their resonance, they’re resources I’ll probably refer to again and again in 2012. The themes center around hard work, success and living an artistic life. I’ve organized the articles into a narrative, but feel free to skip around and choose buffet-style. Hope you enjoy the curation:

Grit, perseverance, and how to get better:

1. The Future of Self-ImprovementGrit Is More Important Than Talent, Part I & Part 2:  (Jocelyn Glei via The 99 Percent)

If we want to cultivate expertise, or “genius,” or whatever you want to call it, we need to be able to step outside of ourselves, observe how we are operating, reflect on what could be better, theorize how we could change it, and then test out a solution. The problem is: This is very, very hard for most people.

2. ‘Hustle‘ (Matt Nowack via ihumanable)

The best way to learn anything is to do it, to struggle through, to forge on, to fight and gnash teeth and curse at. There is no knowledge as highly regarded as that which you have to work for.

3. ‘Coaching a Surgeon: What Makes Top Performers Better?’ (Atul Gawande via The New Yorker)

You have to work at what you’re not good at. In theory, people can do this themselves. But most people do not know where to start or how to proceed. Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence. The coach provides the outside eyes and ears, and makes you aware of where you’re falling short. This is tricky. Human beings resist exposure and critique; our brains are well defended. So coaches use a variety of approaches – showing what other, respected colleagues do, for instance, or reviewing videos of the subject’s performance. The most common, however, is just conversation.

Eliminate choices and make decisions:

4. ‘Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?’ (John Tierney via The New York Times):

Part of the resistance against making decisions comes from our fear of giving up options.

Good work is easier than you think:

5. ‘Everything Is a Remix‘ (Kirby Ferguson) Amazing to realize the patterns in art and film and begin thinking in terms of ‘recipes’ and how everything is a remix of something else.

Creativity isn’t magic: it happens by applying ordinary tools of thought to existing materials. And the soil from which we grow our creations is something we scorn and misunderstand even though it gives us so much — and that’s… copying.

6. ‘How To Steal Like An Artist‘ (Austin Kleon) Down to earth guide on how to start ‘stealing’ or borrowing from others as a starting point for what you’re working on.

Art is all about the slow accumulation over time.

7. ‘The 50 Things Every Creative Should Know‘ (Jamie Wieck) Not applicable across all creative fields but there’s definitely some points you can save for reference. You can use this as a template to come up with your own ‘essential 50’.

IF YOU’RE GOING TO FAIL, FAIL WELL: Being ambitious means you have to take on things you think you can’t do. Failures are unfortunate, but they are sometimes necessary.

8. ‘How underdogs can win‘ (Malcolm Gladwell via The New Yorker): Written a while back something I keep referring to and that’s fits nicely on this list. While grit is an essential part of success, so is street smarts; sizing up your reality and figuring out how to leverage what you have despite your weaknesses. What ‘rules’ or conventional wisdom in your field can you break to your advantage?

It is easier to dress soldiers in bright uniforms and have them march to the sound of a fife-and-drum corps than it is to have them ride six hundred miles through the desert on the back of a camel. It is easier to retreat and compose yourself after every score than swarm about, arms flailing. We tell ourselves that skill is the precious resource and effort is the commodity. It’s the other way around. Effort can trump ability—legs, in Saxe’s formulation, can overpower arms—because relentless effort is in fact something rarer than the ability to engage in some finely tuned act of motor coordination.

Build yourself a garage & tinker:

9. ‘Lab Notes: My Closed-Loop Research System‘ (Cal Newport via Study Hacks): How to mix daily work, with ‘little bets‘, and make sure you’re working towards mastery and discovery.

10. ‘How Weekend Projects Can Free Your Inner Rock Star‘ (Kevin Purdy via Lifehacker): Pursue new projects with time constraints to achieve outside of your expertise and experience.

11. ‘Try something new for 30 days’ (Matt Cutts via Last spring I tried writing poetry for 100 days straight and had phenomenal results. Something I’ll probably repeat this year for a different activity. Here’s a short guide to devising your own month-long challenges for 2012.