Posted in Books, Quotes by cleithart on February 12, 2016

You see, they imagine that I have everything I want – cars and pools and appliances and Picassos – only because I have what they want. But what I want I cannot have. I cannot have so much time ahead of me that it is seemingly without limit. I cannot any longer be quite so deeply in love with the world now that I know that my love for it is unrequited. I cannot ride in my father’s arms. I cannot know any of the great store of his memories that he did not tell me. And I cannot change the fact, as I am the last one who remembers him, that all he saw, and learned, and loved, will have a second death when they die with me.

From Mark Helprin’s short story “Reconstruction” in his collection The Pacific.

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Why Protestants Can’t Art: Three Guesses

Posted in Art by cleithart on February 10, 2016

A friend recently posted on Facebook that, in his experience, Evangelical Christians aren’t making good art. We tend to discuss art a lot, but in general, we don’t encourage the kind of atmosphere that great art thrives in. I don’t have an explanation for this, but here are three guesses as to why this trend is so persistent.

Walking on Water - Azurite by Makoto Fujimura

First of all, when art is encouraged in Christian communities, it’s often encouraged in the service of a larger goal, usually one with a theological argument behind it. Christian artists love to explain what they’re doing. The meaning of the art is displayed on its surface. “That’s Noah, and this rock over here represents sin being swallowed up by the waters of baptism.” Most of the time, this comes from a genuine love for the truths being communicated. But a certain level of ambiguity is often what makes art great, because what the art is saying can’t quite be put into words. Protestant Evangelical Christians don’t really like ambiguity. We usually want art to have one straightforward meaning, and frankly, most great art doesn’t.

That brings us to the second point. Art requires an element of uncertainty in the artist. David Bentley Hart mentions that beauty seems to give reconciliation to things that cannot be reconciled. It’s almost as if beauty operates on a different timeline from ours. In order for the artist to let beauty do that work, the artist must admit that things are not reconciled. Ecclesiastes says that God put eternity in the hearts of men. The Evangelical Protestant wants that eternity to be filled up with the truth of the Gospel. (Whether or not this is historically true, it’s how many present-day Christians operate.) Again, this may be done with utmost sincerity, but it smothers the artistic pursuit. Beauty wants those unanswered questions.

Lastly, as the poet Scott Cairns says, artists tend to fall in love with the stuff of making. Those who paint canvases dream of paint. The poet pushes words around in her head all day. The serious photographer or cinematographer is always paying attention to the way light bounces off of things. At one level, the artist must be willing to lay aside what he knows in his mind to be true in order to pay attention to what the stuff tells him to do. In the contemporary evangelical church, the stuff of the world is typically regarded with suspicion. (This seems to be changing, based on my own experience, and praise the Lord for that.) Trying to create art with that kind of attitude is sort of like, say, making bricks without straw. Unless Christians are willing to fall in love with the world, they can kiss their artistic aspirations goodbye.

(I’d encourage you to read this post at CiRCE about why modern people can’t write and this post at First Things, which kicked off this whole discussion in the first place.)

That painting is Walking on Water – Azurite, by the Christian abstract artist Makoto Fujimura.

What I Did in 2015

Posted in Updates, Video, Writing by cleithart on February 3, 2016

I decided to make a catalogue of some of the things I wrote, edited, or contributed to over the past 12 months.


I wrote two articles for the Theopolis Institute, one about sexuality and one about civil obedience. I also have another post up, new this week, about the particular sins that artists are prone to.

I reviewed two movies at Film Fisher, Blackhat and Avengers: Age of Ultron.

I wrote a chapter for a book about Christianity and Doctor Who, and had my first ever book signing.

I wrote an article for the New Jersey Family Magazine called “The Limits of Sexual Freedom,” which you can read here.


I wrote a short film called This Is Me for the Colchester Film Festival 60-Hour Film Challenge. My brother filmed and edited it in two days. It must’ve turned out well because it was chosen to screen at the festival as part of their official shortlist.

I co-wrote and produced a short film called The Man With Two Legs with my friend, David K. The film is based on a novel by G.K. Chesterton called Manalive. Check out some photos from the production here.

I helped out with a film called Roomies, written and directed by my friend, Daniel S. Watch it here.

The feature film that I helped shoot in the summer of 2014 had its world premiere in Lancaster, PA.

I edited a short video for some friends of mine who have a ministry in Lancaster.

In college, the men’s Bible study that I was part of would sometimes take trips up into the woods to chop down some trees and split some firewood. I took my camera along one Saturday (it must’ve been late 2012). Last week, I finally got around to editing the footage; you can watch the result here.

And I got to help out with this cool video for Khan Academy. (Ok, that released in 2016, but I did most of the drawings in 2015.)

That’s enough for now. 2015 was a busy year.

The Artist’s Litany

Posted in Art, Writing by cleithart on February 3, 2016

“If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth… If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:6-9)

If there’s one thing every artist aspires to, it’s telling the truth. Nicki Minaj and Gregory Alan Isakov both present something at the core of their music that they (or their managers) believe is true. Otherwise, they would not connect with their audiences.

Throughout history, sculptors, painters, poets, authors, musicians, photographers, and filmmakers have created art that resonates with deep truth, and many of them have done so without confessing their sins or making any effort to walk in the light. It’s tempting, therefore, for Christians to think that the pursuit of art is somehow distinct from the pursuit of holiness. But if Christ has any claim on your life at all, he has claim on all of it. The pursuit of artistic excellence is never an excuse to leave sins unconfessed, as difficult as that may be.

In light of that, then, here is the Artist’s Litany.

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One use of an MFA

Posted in Art, Education by cleithart on January 29, 2016

I think [getting a BFA in photography] has helped me, in that being at an art school, studying photo and making art, talking about art, etc, it puts you in the frame of mind that art is important. It has great value. It NEEDS to be produced. Outside of that environment, I think it’s marginalized. So just being there instilled in me this feeling that I should always be making art, and as a result part of my personal fulfillment requires it. Now, did it help me become a professional photographer, earning a living doing photography? Not really. I learned most of those tools by assisting great photographers after I graduated. I guess what would be best would be a school that gave you a good dose of both, but sometimes those two worlds don’t coexist very well.

Photographer Travis Huggett talking to HuffPo

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We Just Decided To

Posted in Movies, Screenwriting, Story by cleithart on January 27, 2016

I was an Aaron Sorkin doubter for a long time. His reputation was too hyped for me to enjoy either Moneyball or Charlie Wilson’s War. Part of the problem was that I was told that his dialogue was “realistic.” It’s not that at all. It’s fantastic, not realistic.

But last year a friend sat me down and made me watch The Social Network. I wanted to sneer at the Sorkinese, but it won me over. I ended up enjoying the movie quite a bit, and I think that it’s one of the finest to come out of a major studio in the last ten years.

Newly converted, I decided to try The Newsroom. My brother had shown me the opening titles sequence (or more accurately, he’d shown me Thomas Newman’s theme music that plays during the opening titles sequence), and I’d watched the opening scene on Youtube because I’d heard so many screenwriters mention Will MacAvoy’s tirade. So I wanted to give it a shot.

For those of you that haven’t seen the show, it’s about a news anchor named Will MacAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) who decides that he’s going to do what he can to make the world a better place. Instead of grubbing for viewers and ratings, he decides to use his hour-long show to inform his audience. He wants to tell them things he believes they actually ought to know, rather than merely entertaining them with gossip or spectacle.

Will MacAvoy is a Republican, but Sorkin (who is credited with writing every episode) is unabashedly liberal. Most of the stories are set up so that the liberal mindset comes out on top. Not all, however. Sometimes Sorkin does go out of his way to make sure characters present both sides of an argument, which is one of the many things he’s really, really good at. I’d love to write an entire post about Sorkin’s writing style – and maybe I will some day – but for now I just want to focus on one aspect of The Newsroom.

The thing that impressed me most about the show is that the central conflict (apart from interpersonal conflicts between the characters) comes from Will MacAvoy’s “mission to civilize,” which he gets from Don Quixote. The “mission” is Will’s effort to fix all the problems in the world from his news desk. He knows it’s impossible, but it’s a worthy goal, and that makes him feel good. It hardly matters if he succeeds. The worthiness of the goal is its own reward.

A lot of TV characters have some kind of deep, dark secret that drives them through the series. If the protagonist isn’t damaged at the beginning of the show, they will eventually have to face some kind of ethical dilemma that causes them to slip into a spiral of sin. Despite their good intentions, they can’t stop themselves from falling prey to human nature, whether it’s greed, rage, or a craving for respect (Walter White and Don Draper come to mind). That’s not a rule, of course. It’s just really common, because it’s dramatic. We like watching people do bad things. We want to see if they’ll get away with it.

Will MacAvoy’s not perfect, but he’s genuinely a good guy, even if he does go out of his way to hide it. And more than that, the whole team in the newsroom is fighting for something larger than themselves – something that they really believe in. A lot of people dismiss the show as a fairy tale, and so it is. The characters are knights, devoted to chivalry. They’re monks. They stick to their principles.

Storytellers nowadays seem to delight in making characters compromise on their principles. If a man promises fidelity to his wife, we expect him to give in to temptation. If a woman believes that she must always tell the truth, we wait for her to tell her first lie. Clergymen are revealed to be hypocrites. Cops traffic drugs. If Batman tells us how much he hates guns, he’s going to have to shoot somebody sooner or later.

What The Newsroom offers is one example of a story where the central conflict comes from characters standing up for what they believe in. The world around them is bad enough that their fight is never boring. Will MacAvoy is smart, kind, good-looking, and rich, and he remains interesting. Why? Because doing the right thing is never easy.

We could use more protagonists like that.

Doing the Math in your Head

Posted in Screenwriting, Writing by cleithart on January 22, 2016

I catch up on old Scriptnotes episodes while I do the dishes. For those of you that don’t know, Scriptnotes is a podcast hosted by two screenwriters, John August and Craig Mazin. They ramble a lot, but you can gain a ton of insight into the movie business if you listen to their conversations.

A few days ago, I was washing some plates and listening to this episode, where John and Craig answered a question from a listener about getting notes from her director. Basically, the screenwriter didn’t want to incorporate the director’s suggestion because she could see that it was going to damage the story. In her words, it would “make the story more predictable and the characters less consistent.”

Craig responds by saying,

This happens on every movie, every movie. So when you say, “I don’t want to walk away because I need the money,” I would retort. You don’t want to walk away because you’ll never stop walking away. This happens every time.

The only comfort I can give you is this. You have the ability to do the very best you can to make this mistake as minimal as you can in terms of its impact on the quality of the movie. Sometimes, when you do it and people read it, everyone goes, “Oh, no, no, wait. Olivia was right. We just didn’t know.” See, we forget as writers because we do the math in our head so fast.

And most other people don’t. So, then they get the script. They read it and they go, “Oh, this doesn’t work.” And you’re sitting there thinking, “I told you it wouldn’t work.” But what we don’t understand is they just couldn’t see it in the way we can see it.

The part I want to draw attention to is where Craig says, “We forget as writers because we do the math in our head so fast.”

It struck me that that’s exactly why an experienced writer is so valuable. Experienced writers have spent years sitting at their desks (literally), hitting dictionaries against their heads as they try to come up with the right words (maybe literally, who knows?). A writer might spend two weeks thinking through a scene or a paragraph from every conceivable angle before settling on what he or she thinks is the best one. And that writer does the same for the next scene, and the next, and the next. Over time, that kind of troubleshooting becomes second nature and starts to happen almost instantaneously. As you sit at your desk, chewing on your pen, you can immediately discard bad ideas and latch onto good ones. Just like anything else, you get better at it over time.

It’s good for writers to remember that not everyone spends all day doing math in their head. Seeing how the tiny changes affect the big picture is what we’re best at, since we run into it all the time. But most people aren’t used to thinking that way. If someone suggests a change for your story, like a love interest for the main character, take the suggestion graciously. If the possibility of a love interest hasn’t occurred to you, think it over. But at the end of the day, don’t be afraid to chuck that suggestion in the trash, with the mountain of ideas that you already threw away.

The other thing to remember is that it takes a while to do perfect math in your head every time. This is something that I need to constantly remind myself of. Writing is a slow process, sometimes painfully so. It’s ok if it takes a while (days, weeks, months) to figure out a scene. All the best writers put in the time, so you’re in good company.

Writing and the Definition of Work

Posted in Writing by cleithart on January 20, 2016

The other day I tweeted a few things about writing and work. I wanted to clarify what I was talking about. The first thing I said was that even genius authors often have other forms of income besides their books. I’ll talk more about that later. For now, I want to talk about the second thing, which is what it means for a writer to work.

(Of course, I’m squarely in the “aspiring writer” category, so take anything I say with a grain of salt.)

Smart people tell young writers (and other artists) that if they want to succeed in their chosen career, they better get to work. For a long time, my own interpretation of this advice was that I needed to push myself to the brink in order to succeed. I suspect I’m not the only one who thought this way. This is the mindset that makes you feel terrible when you miss a day of writing, or makes you feel good when you stay up all night to finish a draft. This is the mindset that turns writing into an exercise in self-flagellation.

I’m not against working hard. But you don’t have to be dirt poor and cultivate a rampant caffeine addiction to call yourself a writer. You just have to write, and work on getting better. Artists love underdogs so much we sometimes try to manufacture tough circumstances so we can feel like we’re overcoming them. Baloney. As Anthony Lane once said, “If you’re working on a piece at three in the morning, you’re not Keats; you’re just late.”

A “working writer” shouldn’t be defined as someone who kills himself in order to put words on the page. A working writer is someone who practices the skill of writing. We can all tell when we’re getting better at something. It’s not immediately obvious, but everyone knows what it’s like to see someone else do something and to keep trying to do it until you can do it too. If you’ve ever ridden a bike, learned to read, played a video game, or even figured out how to use the camera on your phone, you’re learning. The thing is – and Ira Glass says this very well here – most people learn how to do something, and then they stop. Or worse, they try to do something, find out that it’s harder than they expected, and then give up.

If you want to learn writing, or anything else, you have to push through those uncomfortable moments. Even better, start looking forward to the times when you stare at the screen or out the window with no idea what to write next. Meet those moments head on, and work to push through them.

That’s why it honestly doesn’t matter if you write 15 minutes at noon every day, or three hours in the middle of the night every two weeks. As long as you find that weak muscle in your story and work to build it up, you’ll improve as a writer.

Start looking for those moments. Make time for them. If you can’t be away from Twitter or Facebook for more than three minutes without sweating, go somewhere without internet and leave your phone at home. It will be pretty bad at first, but you’ll get over it, and you’ll save your attention for writing. You don’t need to kill yourself, but you do need to make time to practice your craft.

If you were trying to become a professional skateboarder, you’d spend hours at the rink, practicing your stalls until they were perfect. As long as you wanted to improve, you’d attempt moves that were more and more difficult until you had mastered them. Or you’d practice the moves you could already do until they were second nature. The point is, you’d expect to have to work in order to improve. Writing is no different. Put the time in. Practice your writing moves until they become second nature.

A few months ago, I started trying to develop a habit of getting up every morning before my wife wakes up and writing for an hour and a half. I set boundaries for that time. I’m not allowed to check my email or social media. On very dry days I let myself read a short story or passage from a book or watch a short film, but honestly, at that hour, those things discourage me more than they inspire. I haven’t gotten up to write every single morning, but I try to do it more often than not, and at this point, I count three early morning writing sessions as a good week. (Saturdays and Sundays don’t count, obviously. What, you expect me to write on the weekends?)

The point of getting up early isn’t some kind of masochism to make me a better writer through pain (though it’s hard not to derive some martyrial pleasure from it). The point is that I know it takes me at least an hour to write anything halfway decent, and the only time that I’m sure I’ll have regularly available is before the day starts. It’s not about punishing myself and hoping some great art will spring out of it. It’s about giving myself some space to devote to a hard, complicated task.

Success always requires some kind of sacrifice. Depending on your situation, you may have to sacrifice sleep. But here’s the important thing: you might not. Maybe it’s only because we’re writers, but we find something romantic in the idea of the kid alone in the gym, shooting hoops after everyone else has gone home. By all means, shoot hoops, all night if necessary. But that’s not the definition of work. The definition of work is putting time in when you don’t want to for the sake of improvement. That’s what will make you a better writer.

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Script reading challenge

Posted in Books, Movies, Screenwriting, Theater by cleithart on December 15, 2015

A friend of mine created this reading challenge for next year to get himself to read a variety of scripted material. I’ll be joining him.

Here’s the reading list.

  • Your favorite movie script
  • The Pilot of your favorite TV Show
  • Your favorite play
  • A screenplay written or filmed this year
  • A TV script written or made this year
  • A play written or performed this year
  • A foreign screenplay/teleplay/stage play
  • A comedy
  • A tragedy
  • An Oscar winner
  • An Emmy winner
  • A Tony winner
  • A coming of age story
  • A sports story
  • A love story
  • A fantasy/sci-fi
  • A story named after a character
  • A story about mental illness
  • A famous writer’s first movie/show/play
  • A musical
  • A story in a genre/medium you usually hate
  • A script written before 1960
  • A script that passes the Bechdel test
  • A script based on a true story
  • A script based on a book
  • Wild card (anything you want)

Good luck, and good reading.

Review: Skyfaring

Posted in Books, Reviews, Travel by cleithart on November 27, 2015

41zp1v63vjl-_sx347_bo1204203200_I don’t like to sleep on planes. I don’t even like closing the window shade. I’d much rather watch the world go by and imagine what kinds of things people are up to down on the surface of the earth while I fly quietly above their heads. Flying has always felt otherwordly, fantastic in the old sense of the word. So when I picked up Mark Vanhoenacker’s book, Skyfaring, and read the first few pages, I knew I was in the company of a kindred spirit.

Vanhoenacker is a long-haul airline pilot who flies from London to the uttermost parts of the earth. Skyfaring is his poetic meditation on the wonders and oddities of flying. Listen to what he says in the first chapter (titled “Lift”).

Three questions come up most often, in language that hardly varies. Is flying something I have always wanted to do? Have I ever seen anything ‘up there’ that I cannot explain? And do I remember my first flight? I like these questions. They seem to have arrived, entirely intact, from a time before flying became ordinary and routine. They suggest that even now, when many of us so regularly leave one place on the earth and cross the high blue to another, we are not nearly as accustomed to flying as we think.”

From that starting point, Vanhoenacker explores miraculous facets of flying from a variety of perspectives. Each chapter focuses on a particular aspect of airplanes and air travel, covering everything from the mysterious to the mechanical. He tells us about weather, water systems, continents, cardinal directions, time, space, language, and what it feels like to steer an aircraft with hundreds of passengers (or “souls”) on board. If you’re ever tempted to think that technology and spirituality are at odds, this book will fix that once and for all.

For me, reading this book was like re-opening a journal I had written in but never read. The sensations he describes (mostly, the excitement of flying) are sensations I know well. The feeling of the air lifting the plane as it barrels down the runway. Looking down at your hometown from thousands of feet in the air. The paradox of knowing that there is nothing below the floor but clouds and miles of empty space. GK Chesterton describes the man who leaves his country only to return and find that everything that used to be rote and familiar is new and exciting once again. That’s the experience of air travel. Skyfaring captures that feeling all too well.

Flight is the cartographic, planetary equivalent of hearing a song covered by a singer you love, or meeting for the first time a relative whose features or mannerisms are already familiar. We know the song but not like this; we have never met this person and yet we have never in our lives been strangers. Airplanes raise us above the patterns of streets, forests, suburbs, schools, and rivers. The ordinary things we thought we knew become new or more beautiful, and the visible relationships between them on the land, particularly at night, hint at the circuitry of more or less everything.”

If there’s one thing I didn’t like about Skyfaring, it was that I read it too quickly. The middle chapters are full of fascinating descriptions of how planes and air travel work. Sometimes, the level of detail (all very poetically written) was too much to digest at once. Take breaks between chapters, or you might come away feeling overstuffed.

If you ever suffer from wanderlust, or if you’ve ever entertained thoughts of becoming a pilot, you probably shouldn’t read this book. But if you decide to risk it, you’re in for a thrilling ride. And you may end up lying in your bed at night with the lights out, eyes closed, skimming over the surface of the world in your sleep.


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