Ordinary Numinous

One of the symptoms of severe depression is a “loss of meaning.” Activities and goals that once seemed urgent, suddenly appear trivial, transparent as ghosts. The world starts to feel immaterial. Nothing matters. Although the body feels heavy, as if made of led, the purpose and function of ordinary material things feel vaporous. Interacting with the material world – doing dishes, taking a shower, walking the dog or cleaning one’s office – becomes confusing and overwhelming.

This is the weight of The Black Sun, which hangs dark and leaden, warping the horizon and poisoning the sky.

However, unlike neurochemical depression, for which we take drugs, or depression of cognition and behavior, for which we have short-term talk-therapy, what I am experiencing now is melancholy.

Melancholy is an uncanny state of mind, in which the meaning falls away from things, and a different kind of meaning – metaphorical and numinous – fills the empty space. It’s as if the usual daytime sunlight has darkened, but under the weird illumination of The Black Sun, familiar household objects shimmer with mysterious symbolism.

For example, yesterday, as I walked outside to my office in the backyard, I was struck by the sense of being out of synch, not “at home,” even spooked.

Then looked across my backyard…

Numinous everyday objects.

In a sea of green grass and leaves all lit up by late afternoon sunlight there were, hidden in shadow, three purple flowers that gave off an otherworldly glow.

The ordinary numinous.

All at once, I had a sense of vertigo and awe, as if I were glimpsing some secret that runs deep beneath the ground of commonplace objects. I can’t say what that secret is, or what these flowers “meant.” The flowers were just numinous.

nu·mi·nous/ˈn(y)o͞omənəs adjective: having a strong religious, spiritual, or mysterious quality; suggesting the presence of a divinity.

Numinous comes from the Latin word numen, meaning “divine will” or “nod.” It suggests a figurative nodding, of assent or of command, of the divine head. English speakers have been using numen for centuries with the meaning “a spiritual force or influence.” 

I myself an atheist, and I do not believe in the supernatural, as such. Yet, when I looked at those flowers, something nodded. So at times like those, I feel like a closet mystic. My experience melancholy becomes an altered state of consciousness in which hidden forces and occult meanings radiate from within the utterly mundane.

To be clear, when other people use the word “numinous,” they usually mean something like this…

Pagan Stone Circles – Four to Five Thousand Years Old.

Whereas, when I use numinous I am usually freaking out at something seemingly humdrum, like this…

A circle of five stones I found on the beach.

As another example, early this morning I sat on the couch, my head hanging like a sack filled with wet sand.

However, I looked up at my front door, and through the little window, I could see the sunlit trees whipped by gusts of wind. The little patch of green pulsed and swelled like a green-tentacled anemone in an aquarium.

My Front Door

As I stared, that same sense of vertigo, dread, and wonder welled up in my chest. The front door, the window, and the tree beyond it, all of which I’ve seen daily for twenty years, suddenly were alien, unfamiliar, and WEIRD.

My Front Window

For me, the window was no longer just a literal window; it was a metaphor glowing with thousands of meanings and connections. Its semi-circular shape was a half-sun, the bars were like rays, and the shape doubled in my mind…

Window doubled.

…momentarily becoming a SUN, fiery and unrelenting.

Window as Burning Sun.

As I will write in my next blog, the “sun” is an oppressive symbol for me. It evokes tyranny, oppression, and death.

Sun Symbols, Helios, The Sun King.

However, the window was not an ordinary sun, it was The Black Sun, the symbol I have been exploring in recent blogs.

As a Black Sun, the window felt not like an oppressive fire, but as a kind of portal – a window to another way of seeing.

Drawn by the gravity of The Black Sun.

As I stared at The Black Sun, I felt I could see beyond the dark bars into a rich landscape of pattern and meaning that was always there but hidden behind the stultifying familiarity and habit: the ordinary door, the ordinary window, and the ordinary tree branches bobbing in the ordinary wind. Now it had transformed; it was the ordinary numinous – a window lit up by the eerie rays of melancholy.

An ordinary window becomes numinous – a portal to someplace else.

So, the Black Sun is not religious or supernatural. It is mystical in the way that a Platonic understanding of mathematics can be mystical. By that I mean… if mathematics is “the formal study of pattern” and if those abstract patterns (like pi, imaginary numbers, and transfinite sets) exist as real-yet-immaterial facts that we discover about the world, then The Black Sun is the poetic counterpoint. Just as there are circles and derivatives that describe the patterns of material objects with spooky accuracy (see The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences), there is an eerie network of non-material metaphors, patterns, and signs that run like roots beneath our familiar names: “Door.” “Tree.” “Window.” A network revealed and electrified by melancholy.

Have I lost you yet?

Anyway. This is all a way of saying that when you start looking into The Black Sun, ordinary shit gets WEIRD.

The Black Sun is Not…

If you look up The Black Sun on Wikipedia, you will find a symbol that is NOT the one I will be writing about. This Black Sun originates from Viking decorative designs but was repurposed by Nazis, The SS, Occultists, and the Alt-Right. If you see it someplace, run away.

By contrast, when I refer to “The Black Sun,” I’m referring to a poetic, psychological, archetypal, and metaphorical perspective on severe depression, or rather “melancholy,” which I plan to differentiate from depression.

These images of The Black Sun come from medieval alchemical texts, painting, and literature:

La Genèse – Robert Fludd, Utriusque Cosmi, tome, Oppenheim, 1617
Marc Chagall (1887-1985). Black Sun over Paris, 1952, Lithograph on ivory wove paper.
Black Sun, print by Bill Mayer
The Black Sun by Stanton Marlon

The Books that are guiding me are The Black Sun: The Alchemy and Art of Darkness by philosopher, and post-Jungian analyst Stanton Marlon.” Marlon writes about an “egoicide” through creative work, and despair as a fuel for transformation.

The Black Sun by Julia Kristeva

I’m also reading The Black Sun by philosopher, Lacanian psychoanalyst, and feminist, Julia Kristeva. Through art, literature, religion, and philosophy Kristeva writes of melancholia as a “noncommunicable grief” over a lost erotic Thing. “The Thing is inscribed within us without memory, the buried accomplice of all our unspeakable anguishes.” However, the heavy light of the Black Sun brings with it a “metaphysical lucidity.” Says Kristeva, “if there is no writing other than the amorous, there is no imagination that is not, overtly or secretly, melancholy.”

More on this soon. I’m still gathering my thoughts.

A Tyranny of Sunlight

Sunlight is usually a symbol of life, growth, happiness.

However, I seem to have a kind of “reverse” seasonal affective disorder because I get happy during times of clouds, wind, and rain, and sad under the summer sun. August is my time of withdrawal and hibernation.

In fact, the Sun has become, for me, a symbol of tyranny, death, illness, and depression – not a smiling, warm, life-bringing emoticon. Let me explain why:

The Sun God

The Sun is traditionally a male symbol associated with male gods like Helios, Apollo, Ra, and Initi. (The Feminine in our culture is most often associated with the moon.)

The Son God

Jesus

The Sun/Son also associated it with a Judeo-Islamic-Christian God, and Moses, Jesus, and Mohamed as the ultimate straight, white, cisgender, middle-aged males.

As I’m sure you know, straight, white, cisgender, middle-aged male is a brand with stock at an all-time low.

The Sun King

The Sun King

The personified sun is often made literal. “The Sun King” is another name for Louis XIV of France, who is famous for his egotism, arrogance, opulence, paranoia, warmongering and absolute power.

With his penchant for gold and opulence, as well as his arrogance, egotism, and childishness, our own “Sun King” is Donald Trump.

Thus, “The Sun” as symbol takes on all the qualities of Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, and Bill Cosby (or for that matter Bill Clinton): the straight, cis-gender, abusive, dirty old man who embodies “The Tyrant” archetype. The sun’s “growth” is just the inflation of ego.

Furthermore, Jared Kushner is a “Sun Prince.” Here “sunlight” or “son light” is a symbol of privilege and nepotistic power.

I am, alas, a straight, white, cis, middle-aged man, and so “The Sun” is a symbol of toxic masculinity that leaves me without symbol, archetype or role model with which to identify.

“Enjoy The Sun”

The Sun as a symbol of happiness, health, and growth has been co-opted by advertising as a trigger for consumption. “Enjoy the Sun,” which is free to all, has been replaced by “Enjoy Coca-Cola.”

“Growth” and Capitalism

Unrestricted and neverending “growth” is the fuel for capitalism, which only can sustain itself if the economy continually expands – if our own production and consumption continually grow. This kind of growth is not healthy. Plants and animals do not grow this way. The only thing that grows unrestricted and neverending is cancer.

Sunlight and Global Warming

In the last 50 years, both wild animals and rainforests have reduced by half. From an environmental perspective, the human race is an ever-growing cancer, killing all other forms of life. The Sun is now a symbol for global warming and the Anthropocene.

Lastly, I’m fair-skinned so The Sun has a literal association with cancerous radiation. Laying out in the sun only gives me a painful, burning rash. Give me fog and gloom any day.

The Black Sun

So, The Black Sun, as a symbol, even though it is still linked with melancholy and grief, offers a weirdly comforting light, an uncanny freedom in darkness, and an opportunity for transformation.

For more on the Black Sun read my other posts:

The Black Sun

The Black Sun is Not…

Ordinary Numinous

The Black Sun

Black Sun #1 by Sean Hood, pastel on paper, digital remix

My interest in the “Black Sun” as a symbol and a metaphor began when I read Stanton Marlon’s book The Black Sun.

It is a symbol that evokes death, depression, suicide, and nihilism, but The Black Sun also shines with eerie, numinous luminescence. If the white light of the noonday sun is a symbol of positivity, optimism, the Ego’s plans for perpetual growth, the paradoxical light of the Black Sun is a symbol of egoicide and rebirth through creativity.

Under this weird illumination, depression is not (just) a disease to be cured by medication and cognitive-behavioral therapy, but a call to creative action.

Black Sun #2 by Sean Hood, pastel on paper and digital remix

I have the sense that in our consumer-capitalist frenzy of relentless activity and growth we attempt to abolish melancholia, boredom, and grief. The Black Sun is desperately needed as balance to the Tyranny of our well ultra-bright, smiling world.

The Black Sun is a portal that allows the depressed and despairing a path to avoid literal suicide through symbolic egoicide. This path leads into darkness instead of away from it, and reveals an unexpected bounty of compassion, gratitude and awe.

“Do not then close your eyes to the agonizing Sphinx, but look her in the face, and let her seize you in her mouth, and crunch you with her hundred thousand poisonous teeth, and swallow you. And when she has swallowed you, you will know the sweetness of the taste of suffering.” – C.G. Jung

Writing For Screens – Introduction

In about a month, I’m going to presenting an academic paper and twenty-minute “talk” to a symposium at the University of Portsmouth in the UK called “Writing for Screens.” My topic, unsurprisingly, concerns screenwriting, but it is more specifically about how approaches to screenwriting can adapt and evolve in the 21st Century.

Why would approaches to screenwriting need to evolve at all? How is writing a movie in 2019 any different than writing a movie in 1969? Aren’t the basic tools of storytelling pretty much the same as they were when Aristotle wrote Poetics? Regardless of the internet, interactivity, transmedia, gaming, and virtual/augmented/alternate realities, isn’t writing a movie pretty much the same as it has always been?

Well, my premise is in the paper is “no.” Things are not the same, and approaches to screenwriting and storytelling need to evolve. As I write the paper, record a video presentation, and interact with others who are attending “Writing For Screens,” I plan to share my work here on Undergrids as it develops (and by posting daily on Ask a Screenwriter.)

So stay tuned. Please feel free to comment (and challenge my conclusions.)

More to come…

What are the odds of selling a good screenplay?

Ask A Screenwriter #4

Short answer: Very, Very Low.

Estimating odds is never easy because a number of assumptions must be made, and many of these assumptions may not apply to a particular script. “Good” is an extremely subjective term. A brilliant and original screenplay may actually be no easier to sell than an average script if what makes the story “good” is seen as risky, or if the “originality” is misunderstood. Conversely, if the writer just had a hit movie, the odds of selling the next script skyrocket. Maybe, it’s a mediocre screenplay based on a wildly popular book. Sometimes scripts are bought just because producers or executives like the underlying premise and they plan to hire a more seasoned writer to rewrite it. However, a script that is well-written is always more likely to sell that than a script telling the same general story that is mediocre.

So, here are some general statistics to make the argument that, all other things being equal, the odds of selling a good screenplay are LOW. And for you, probably about 1/1000.

Roughly 50,000 screenplays are registered at the WGA each year.[1] However, not all screenplays get registered, so it is safe to assume that about double that number of feature scripts get written every year. (For example, I finished two screenplays last year, but I didn’t register either at the WGA. There are many other ways to establish a legal claim of authorship, including registering the script with the Library of Congress.)

Some estimate that as many as one million scripts are written per year worldwide in hopes of “selling” that script to Hollywood.[2] So my pool of 100,000 scripts is really just the 10% of scripts worldwide that are “professionally” written – meaning any script reader would recognize it as having the minimum level of narrative form, format, coherence, and quality to submit to a buyer.

So, out of 100,000 “professional” screenplays how many of them are “good.” Let’s just say the top 5% of screenplays are good.

So out of 5,000 good screenplays how many actually sell?

In 2018 there were only 40 spec screenplay sales reported in the Hollywood Reporter or Variety, a statistic gathered by the folks who run The Blacklist.[3] This doesn’t count writers who are hired to write scripts based on existing material ( a book, a sequel, an existing script that needs a rewrite, a producer’s idea, etc,) which makes up the bulk of the paid screenwriting done in Hollywood. It also doesn’t count the many screenplays that are optioned, with writers hired to rewrite their own material. However, when people say “sell a screenplay” they are usually imagining selling an original script to a major studio or production company. The average number of these sales in recent years is about 50 screenplays per year.

So to summarize, assuming your script is one of the 5000 “good” scripts out of the one million that get written worldwide. Your chances of selling it are…

1% or one-in-one-hundred.

Are you discouraged yet? It gets worse.

How many of those 50 sales are screenplays by unknown, unestablished writers? Maybe 4. Sometimes fewer. Yet how many of the 5000 scripts were written by unknown, unestablished, non-WGA writers? Only about 5000 WGA writers out of 20,000 WGA members, earn any money in a given year, and most of them are TV writers. But let’s be wildly optimistic and say that of the 5000 good scripts written, 1000 of them were written by WGA members.

This means that out of the 4000 good scripts written by as-yet-unknown writers, only 4 will actually sell. So, for you, the chances are one-in-a-thousand.

What does this mean for you and your dreams of being a screenwriter? If you have “what it takes” to write movies, you are probably delusional, obsessed, and sadly unfit to do anything else. So stop reading Quora and get back to writing.

As Han Solo said in The Empire Strikes Back…

I answered this question on Quora in the space Ask A Screenwriter. Here are my recent articles On Screenwriting.

Why are Hollywood writers firing their agents?

Ask a Screenwriter #3

The Writers’ Guild of America demanded that the Talent Agencies sign a Code of Conduct. The Agencies refused. So, all WGA writers fired their agents and agencies. Writers will remain “unrepresented” by agents until an agreement is reached.

To explain:

The Code of Conduct is a document intended to eliminate Packaging Fees and curb the practice of Agents receiving money as de facto producers.

Agencies, in particular, the “Big Five” (CAA, WME, UTA, and ICM) who thrive on packaging fees and who feel they can’t survive without them, refused to give them up.

To explain in detail:

Talent Agent negotiates fees with Producers and studios on behalf of Writers.

A Talent Agent makes money by taking 10% of the fee negotiated.

For there not to be a conflict of interest, the Talent Agent negotiating with a Producer should not also be a Producer on the project.

Since the 60s it has been illegal for an Agent to also be a Producer.

However, the most powerful agencies (like CAA and WME) often behave like producers. Whenever a writer sets up a TV pilot, the agency charges the studio a “packaging fee.” This fee amounts to 6% of licensing and 10% of the gross, which is precisely something that a producer or a writer-producer might get.

“Packaging Fees” are ostensibly paid so that a powerful agency will bring other talented writers, actors, and directors it represents to the project. However, attaching additional talent is a producer’s job. And it’s not clear that the people who are “packaged” are having their best interests served. Most problematically, the agency could end up making far, far more than 10% of the deal:

Said Meredith Stiehm, the creator of Cold Case, “When the show was sold, CAA negotiated a packaging fee for itself, without my knowledge…It wasn’t until six years and 134 episodes later that I learned about it. It turned out that on the show I created, I worked on exclusively for years, CAA ended up making 94 cents for every dollar I earned. That is indefensible. An agency should make 10% of what a client makes — not 20, not 50, not like in my case, 94%. 10% is enough.”[1]

Furthermore, companies like the newly formed, WME affiliated Endeavor Content are both producers and agent-like representatives. Although the heads of Endeavor Content call themselves “matchmakers,” writers feel that they are behaving precisely like agent-producers.

Bottom line:

Writers say there is a conflict of interest. Agencies say that if the money is good, what’s the harm?

Bigger Issues:

Writers, who often get their own work based on their own relationships, are asking themselves, “If I have a lawyer and a manager, what do I need an agency for?”

Agencies, who are struggling to find ways to make money in a rapidly changing industry, say “everybody benefits from agency packaging and participation. The writers are creating chaos, and the result will be that everybody loses.”

See these articles:

Why Are Agents Producing Shows? Writers Guild Would Like to Know

Endeavor Content Takes Big Swings to Expand Options for Producers

WGA Sues Big Four Agencies Over Packaging Fees

I answered this question on Quora in the space Ask A Screenwriter. Here are my recent articles On Screenwriting.

Is there a book similar to “Save the Cat” for TV series?

Ask A Screenwriter #2

Save the Cat is a popular screenwriting book for beginners; it offers a simple, humorous and accessible introduction to story structure. It gives just about any reader the feeling that he/she/they too could turn their idea into a movie script.(How To Write a Screenplay in 21 days! was the first in this genre.)

With a few basic concepts like “The seven immutable laws of screenplay physics!” along with a basic structural template and a few charming anecdotes, inspired readers of Save the Cat can often finish their first draft and get a sense of having done it. “I wrote a movie script!”

Of course, writing a movie is much harder than the witty and beloved Blake Snyder makes it seem. 90% of the writing process is REwriting, and most of the problems professional writer’s struggle with aren’t covered in “the last screenwriting book you’ll ever need.”

Writing a TV series is a vastly, VASTLY larger and more complex undertaking than writing a movie, which is why a series is written by a ROOM full of writers, instead of just one. The process just doesn’t lend itself to glib simplification and fill-in-the-blank templates. That doesn’t mean writing a great film is easier than writing great TV. It just means that creating a TV series is usually the wrong project for a starry-eyed beginner to attempt. It would be like tackling an epic, thousand-page novel before having even written a short story.

All of that said, two books I’ve read are good for beginners:

Writing the TV Drama Series: How to Succeed as a Professional Writer in TV written by Pam Douglas, who teaches TV writing at USC. (Full disclosure: she is also a colleague, so I like to plug her book.)

Writing the Pilot, by William Rabkin

However, you’ll notice that some Amazon reviewers complain about these books. “I was looking for a Save the Cat type book with a beat sheet, offering some type of structure or format. Although a lot of people like this book, sadly my expectations weren’t met.” So, you aren’t alone.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure an easy-to-read, anyone-can-do-it, Save-The-Cat-style book on TV writing is really possible, and if you are serious about learning the craft and ultimately creating a series, it’s better to leave behind the beginner’s fantasy that one exists.

I answered this question on Quora in the space Ask A Screenwriter. Here are my recent articles On Screenwriting.

On average, How Much of the Screenwriter’s Vision Are We Actually Getting?

Ask a Screenwriter #1

In 2012 I was an avid writer and contributor on Quora, writing several answers that went alarmingly viral, including What’s it Like When Your Movie Bombs at The Box Office.

But now, as I expand my teaching portfolio, I’m going back to Quora for three months in order to contribute to the Ask A Screenwriter section. Tonight I found this question On average, How Much of the Screenwriter’s Vision Are We Actually Getting which I answered thusly…

Short answer: not much.

The key phrase in your question is “on average.” Every film is different, and there are situations (for example Ladybird and writer/director Greta Gerwig) in which the writer’s vision is exactly what “we are really getting.”

However, most movies are based on valuable underlying material: a novel, a comic book, a franchise, and so on. So, the primary elements of character, world, story, and conflict are already in place. The writer is not free to change these elements according to their “vision” because the underlying story is a valuable brand, handled as such by the corporation owning it.

Most movies have three or more participating writers who work on the screenplay independently at different times, often at the direction of different people. Most movies go into credit arbitration, in which the WGA determines who among the participating writers contributed enough material to the final shooting script to receive screen credit. As a result, most movies have multiple writers (and thus multiple “visions”) as well as a set of uncredited writers whose contributions (and uncredited “visions”) are never recognized.

Most movies are driven by the “vision” set by the studio, the producers, the director, and the name actors, all of whom outrank the writer. Screenplays are usually re-written dozens and dozens of times before and during production. Each time a “pass” is done on the script, the screenwriter (or screenwriting team) is given a set of “notes” (often bundling changes required by the studio, director, producers, and actors.) These notes are directives, not suggestions.

I have been both a WGA arbiter determining credit on Hollywood movies and a participating writer on Hollywood Movies that have gone into arbitration. A typical arbitration might include these elements:

  • A best-selling, novel on which the movie was based.
  • Seven writers who all worked at different times over five years during which the script was “developed.” In general, only two writers (or writing teams) can ultimately get screen credit.
  • Twenty different “drafts” of the screenplay, including the first draft and the last “shooting script.”
  • Statements from all seven writers, each arguing that their contribution to the final shooting script (aka “vision”) exceeded 33% (which just puts a number to a very subjective assessment.)

In this typical movie, the arbiters may determine that Writer A contributed 35% and Writer B contributed 30% and the other five writers made combined contributions of around 35%. The arbiters may talk it through and ultimately determine credit for Writer A (in the first position) and Writer B. Writers C, D, E, F, and G would get absolutely nothing. The dude who gets the producers’ dry cleaning would get credit, but they wouldn’t.

So, if you ask “how much of Writer B’s vision are we actually getting?” In this hypothetical case, Writer B did three “passes” on the script based on highly specific notes by multiple executives, producers, directors, and actors, while not changing anything that might harm the underlying intellectual property. While Writer B’s work added up to a third of the actual shooting script, many of these story points, dialogue additions, and action beats were changed during shooting and editing. Finally, after audience testing, Writer B’s ending was completely reshot.

So again, not much.

Ultimately, the way movie production usually works, the screenplay is often a kind of Wikipedia entry – emerging from countless small changes made by dozens, perhaps hundreds, of “authors.” The screenwriter can have an important role in this process, figuring out how to skillfully and artfully execute these changes, but “on average,” the writer’s “vision” is not what you are seeing on screen.

Exceptions include hyphenates, like writer-directors and writer-producers, or celebrity writers, like Charlie Kaufman, Diablo Cody, Aaron Sorkin, and the late Nora Ephron. Also, there are producers (like the ones I’m currently working with) who see the value in maintaining the same writer from beginning to end, and in keeping this writer actively engaged in the filmmaking process.

I answered this question on Quora in the space Ask A Screenwriter. Here are my recent articles On Screenwriting.

the absent minded #3

So… Other puzzling and nonsensical things you may encounter on this blog are my cartoons.

I use the style of the daily cartoon strips I loved in my youth – Peanuts, Doonesbury, and Bloom County – to draw about the mundane struggles of screenwriting.

So far the strip has a one-panel format, in which I struggle with a punchline in the form of a hashtag.

But I also will be adding additional “characters,” who are simply the people I hang out with at coffee shops and the readers of this blog.

I may go to four-panelel format from time to time.

The Absent Minded is still in the development phase, as are most things you might find on Undergrids.