Archive for April 2010

No “Secret” to Success

April 27, 2010

I’m a big believer in positive thinking and self-help/motivational stuff. But when a fellow writer recently asked if I had read The Secret, I had to tell her the truth: I have some real problems with that book. And I think the kind of “magical thinking” that propelled it to the top of the best-seller charts is also partly to blame for the financial ruin of many people.

When Oprah and other True Believers (even church ministers!) got on The Secret bandwagon, people were riding the inflated real estate boom and tapping into imaginary equity in those properties to bankroll lifestyles that were beyond their means. The gains in home “values” were all based on pure speculation and greedy flipping of real estate, while lenders roped unqualified home buyers into the market with too-good-to-be-true mortgage deals.

Now that the bust has resulted in millions of people either losing jobs or making a lot less money, you don’t hear much talk about The Secret anymore, do you?

Here’s a piece I wrote three years ago when I saw the book’s popularity as a troubling sign of the times. Did you buy into The Secret or were you a skeptic?

From my April 29, 2007 Addicted to Life column in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin

The Secret’ of a Snake-oil Saleswoman

“WE BECOME what we think about.”

A line from “The Secret” best-seller? Nope. Anyone who’s ever been to a motivational seminar will probably recognize those words from Napoleon Hill’s book “Think and Grow Rich,” published in 1937, or Earl Nightingale’s audiotape “The Strangest Secret,” recorded in 1957.

I don’t begrudge author Rhonda Byrne for repackaging ideas that predate even those guys. But after reading “The Secret,” I have to say some of her claims are not just silly, but downright dangerous.

Yet I also credit my recovery and continued sobriety largely to the same principles she talks about. Positive thinking, gratitude and faith are all part of 12-Step programs for addiction. Except you get this stuff for free at AA meetings, plus coffee at no extra charge.

The main difference is priorities. In 12-Step programs, you’re frequently reminded that material concerns should be secondary to spiritual matters. By that, I don’t mean you have to adhere to any particular religion. It’s about believing in a power greater than yourself, and realizing you are not the center of the universe.

However, “The Secret” says we’re all gods in effect, since our thoughts can manifest everything from money to curing cancer. It’s really a return to the magical thinking of pagans. Byrne sidesteps that comparison by adding vague references to quantum physics and padding her book with feel-good stories that get broadcast on Oprah’s show to millions of people.

The Oprah endorsement mystifies me, because she achieved success the old-fashioned way: she earned it. But “The Secret” claims you need not struggle or work hard if you just go with the flow of the universe. Now it’s true that when artists or athletes are in the zone, they experience a state called “flow” in which everything seems effortless. To get to that level, though, requires perfecting skills that only comes from countless hours of concentrated effort or practice.

I know, I know, but on Oprah this woman said she didn’t do anything and she started getting checks in the mail! Folks, if I got a hundred people to join the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I predict at least one of you would have a stroke of good fortune that could then be attributed to becoming a Pasta-farian. Ergo, since millions have bought “The Secret,” it would be impossible not to have a few success stories.

“The Secret” has become a phenomenon, I think, because of the growing disparity between the rich and the rest of us. More families are living from paycheck to paycheck, and yet they continue to spend beyond their means. But like a drunk in denial, they don’t want to face the truth. Instead of making necessary sacrifices, they’re told they can make debts vanish simply by wanting more money and pretending they have it already. That isn’t a life of “abundance.” That’s insanity.

What’s also troubling is that Byrne tells followers not to read or listen to negative news. According to her, the media gives us “bad news” because the public wants it as evidenced by higher ratings whenever there’s a disaster. She says when the public “emits a new signal” of what we want to hear, the media will report “good news” instead. As if that will solve pesky problems like global warming, poverty and war. Reality is such a bummer.

I did laugh, though, when I read that food doesn’t make us fat — thinking about being fat makes you fat! Not so funny is her assertion that all illness is caused by stress, and victims of disease make it worse by their own thoughts of being sick. This is where it crosses the line from being a benign fad to quackery. No one disputes that a positive attitude can have health benefits. But to suggest illness is wholly the result of the mind not being in harmony with the universe is looney. On top of that, Byrne says aging is merely a figment of your imagination. Tell that to my mirror.

My advice: Don’t buy this book. Get a used copy of “Think and Grow Rich” or one of Earl Nightingale’s audio recordings. Then start praying to the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I guarantee you will see amazing results by the time my next column appears!

Squashed gecko photos wanted!

April 26, 2010

Found this funny Flickr photo from “23 Ways to Kill a Gecko”…

http://www.flickr.com/photos/lainmoon/203864464/in/set-308121/

I’ve been remiss in posting my own photos of luckless geckos who are now embedded in my front door frame, but would love to see other interesting or odd gecko pictures from readers out there — live, dead or flattened like pancakes!

If you have gecko photos you’d like to share, please email me small to medium sized files at: richfigel@gmail.com.

Also include details about the gecko, and what the squashed gecko symbolizes to you in terms of failure or futility. Poems and artwork inspired by geckos are welcome too. Mahalo!

Unrelated Gecko News Link:

From the NY Times…

A Sticky Little Lizard Inspires a New Adhesive Tap

KEEP your eye on the shelves of your local hardware store, where in the next few years you may be able to find new tape from an unlikely source: the gecko.

Click here for the rest of the article.

Celeb Rehab: Wasted Opportunity

April 16, 2010

NOTE: I wrote the op-ed piece below last year and sent it to the NY Times and LA Times. Neither ran it, but a couple of months later the NY Times published an article that raised many of the same questions that I did. More recently, Entertainment Weekly had a short piece on “Addiction Television” in their April 16 issue, which asks a recovery expert to weigh in on the subject. His opinions mirrored my own sentiments below…

SOBER HOUSE: A How-NOT-To Guide

By Rich Figel

As a recovering alcoholic, I’m not surprised that the Celebrity Rehab spin-off series, Sober House, doesn’t seem to have very much to do with recovery. It is Hollywood’s version of reality, after all, cast and edited with ratings in mind.

But as a screenwriter, I’m appalled that the big melodramatic twists are given away at the start of each vomit-tinged episode, and then shown again in clips before each commercial break. Do the producers think their audience consists mostly of brain-damaged addicts with short attention spans, incapable of recall beyond the last 10 minutes?

Aside from the repetitive “teasers,” I have serious moral problems with this show — and I presume many recovery professionals do too. But first, full disclosure: years ago, I tried to sell a pitch for a fictional TV series called Rehab, which focused on the counselors at a treatment center for all sorts of addictions and weird compulsions.

In my series, the counselors themselves were recovering addicts, which is often the case in rehab. The idea was that we can learn more from those who have been sober for a few years than from people who have just stopped using for a month or two. “Pink cloud” epiphanies by newbies makes for warm and fuzzy TV moments, but those optimistic sentiments can evaporate as quickly as the careers of the former American Idols, models and actors who pop in and out of Sober House or Celeb Rehab.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m all for making recovery entertaining for the masses. It’s a program of attraction, they say, and I don’t see why TV can’t be part of that mix. However, Dr. Drew Pinsky, the show’s creator and voice of authority, is missing an opportunity to show “normies” why addictions are so hard to overcome. It makes these celebs look like spoiled, narcissistic, overgrown children — which is true of many addicts, myself included. But this show caters to the very egotism that got them into trouble in the first place. Even the “three strikes” house rule is an invitation to relapses, by giving them two chances to misbehave before they get the boot.

The biggest problem with Sober House is that the producers believe audiences would rather gawk at the train wreck than watch the hard work it takes to clear the wreckage. There is precious little talk of fundamental principles most recovery programs are built on. It’s more about which club or party they are debating going to, and who will puke next after ignoring halfhearted warnings about avoiding temptations. In short, it panders to instant gratification — the bane of all addicts.

By contrast, in David Carr’s gritty and honest book, The Night of the Gun, he writes about how the constant repetition of 12 Step sayings actually worked for him. Mottos like “one day at a time… first things first… easy does it… don’t drink, go to meetings,” and so on. It’s a simple program — but not easy, which is what counselors tell you from day one.

Yet in Sober House they seem to throw many tenets of recovery out the door right after they check in. All 12 Step-based programs stress the importance of attending 90 AA or NA meetings in the first 90 days. It’s a matter of discipline. In the award-winning HBO Addiction series, researchers confirmed a scientific basis for that idea, noting it takes the brain a minimum of 90 days to begin “rewiring” itself.

Cut to: Sober House clients making plans to go out clubbing and to parties in the very first couple of episodes, only a month after getting clean. There is no mention of daily AA or NA meetings as an alternative to activities they are clearly not ready for. They just seem to loaf around the house and smoke a lot.

Oh, sure, the staff and resident house manager express concerns when the celebs announce they’re going out. But the laxness in the house rules, combined with plenty of outside visitors — some decidedly in the unsavory category — practically guarantees dramatic “slips” will occur. In true game show fashion though, the celebs each get three chances to screw up before they must leave the tribe.

Another integral part of early recovery is getting an AA or NA sponsor to work the 12 Steps with. What does that entail, you ask? Well, that’s one of the things neither Celebrity Rehab or Sober House ever addresses. The Steps don’t work for everyone, and that’s something that should be discussed too, along with new drugs that are being used to suppress cravings for alcohol, cocaine and meth. One size does not fit all in recovery.

To me, that’s the saddest thing about watching these programs. There are important issues related to our culture’s hypocritical views toward drugs and alcohol, which we should be talking about. Instead, shows like Sober House reinforce a negative image of addicts as being self-absorbed divas and bad boys, who take second and third chances for granted. In the real world, addicts and alcoholics get better by helping others, while listening to older and wiser voices of experience. I hope Dr. Drew will show more of that on camera before the series is through. When you’ve seen one celeb barfing in the toilet, you’ve seen them all.

Screenplay Contests Pros and Cons

April 5, 2010

It’s that time of year again, when thousands of aspiring — or blindly naive — writers from all over the world enter the big screenplay competitions that have May deadlines. Never mind there are dozens of other contests throughout the year that actually offer better odds of winning cash and prizes.

I know many professionals in the TV and movie business dismiss them as being a waste of time and money. For most entrants, that’s probably true. Writers who start out with half-baked ideas, haven’t learned the craft, or just don’t have the chops, are subsidizing the prize offerings with their entry fees.

However, if you have a great concept, decent writing skills and choose the right contests, you could very well make connections that advance your career. I know, because I’ve gotten requests from producers, agents and managers as a result of winning or placing in both small and large contests. Did those contacts lead to deals? Not for me. But I did get offers of representation from making the Nicholl Fellowships quarterfinals cut, and I know other writers who sold scripts that did well in the contest circuit.

Of course, those same writers might have succeeded on their own merits anyway. The cream generally rises to the top. You’ll see a lot of the same scripts and names appearing in multiple finalist/winners lists on websites like Moviebytes, which specializes in covering screenwriting comps (they even offer “Report Cards” on how well the contests are run).

The chief benefit of entering contests though is that it forces writers to finish scripts and provides a source for unbiased feedback. Unlike your spouse or mom who will say you have written a masterpiece, contest readers have no attachment to your work. So it’s really a crapshoot when it comes down to relying on readers, who may or may not know what makes a good script. All contest readers are not equal in their abilities.

That’s why time and again, people recommend the Nicholl Fellowships. For starters, nearly every script gets at least two reads, so it doesn’t come down to the personal likes/dislikes of a reader who might be having a bad day. They also hire professional readers who provide coverage to agents and producers for a living. Nicholl readers are not novices or wannabe writers.

Most of the smaller contests rely on the tastes of a single reader in the first round, and that can be very dicey (I’ve gotten back notes that indicated the early round “judge” in one well-known contest was probably a college student who was given a checklist to work from).

Here’s another thing I always look for: Who is judging the final rounds? If there are industry professionals (agents, managers, producers with legit credits) listed as judges, anything can happen. Plus, if the contest is part of a film festival or writers conference that you can attend, you may have a chance to network with these pros if you’re a finalist.

When I was a finalist in the Austin Film Festival contest, I got to meet an upcoming assistant at Zide-Perry, who now has her own management company; I also got script requests from major producers. Ditto for the Maui Writers Conference — Andy Fickman, who produced ANACONDA and now directs movies for Disney was one of the judges, as was Chris Vogler, author of “The Writer’s Journey,” a seminal screenwriting book. Placing in the Nicholl quarterfinals (twice) also got me some attention from agents and managers.

Unfortunately, I had some bad luck with the Austin and Maui contests. In past and subsequent years, both had the winners publicized in Variety. But the stringer who covered the Maui Writers Conference turned in his story late, so Variety didn’t run it the year I came in second place. And for some reason, the year I was a top finalist at Austin, the Hollywood trades opted not to report it. Which brings me to my last point…

The real reason to enter contests is that the publicity could open doors for a writer who lives in Podunk or Liverpool and has no networking contacts in L.A. It’s not necessarily the best written script that wins either. It’s the best executed screenplay that strikes an emotional chord with readers. And once it gets recognized by a major contest, agencies and managers will have someone cover it just to be sure they aren’t “missing” that rare diamond in the rough — which was mentioned in the trades. If it’s not in the trades, no worries (for the agents or managers, that is). They didn’t “miss” anything because no one else heard about that script either. In Hollywood, everyone is looking to hop on the bandwagon after it starts rolling.

As for the cons of entering contests, the main one is cost. Many writers have two or three scripts they’ll enter in multiple contests. At $30 to $65 per entry, you can easily rack up a few hundred dollars each year in contest fees. That’s why if you enter smaller contests offering cash prizes of $500 to $1,000 or more for the top three winners, you might at least break even. Besides, you’re competing with “only” 200 to 500 other writers in the smaller contests, as opposed to 5,000 in the Nicholl or Austin comps.

That said, it’s no easier winning the top prize in the small contests. The cream rises to the top in those as well, and if you’re fortunate enough to make it that far, you’ll find most of the other finalists are published book authors or professional journalists and produced playwrights.

Today’s relevant links:

Nicholl Fellowships info.

Moviebytes – the place to get info on screenwriting contests.

Done Deal – I subscribe to their pro services (less than $30 per year) to see who’s selling what on a daily basis; also gives you access to lists of agents, managers and producers.

The Done Deal forum is free, and you’ll find threads on contests, along with lots of other useful info!