Podcast: 48 Hour Film Project Asheville Edition

See podcast player below and the program is also available on iTunes and STITCHER.

After living in Asheville for less than two weeks, I decided to plunk down $160 bucks and enter what is called the 48 Hour Film Project. This means that on a Friday night you pull a genre out of a hat and then are assigned a prop, a character, and a line that must be spoken in the film. You have 48 hours to turn in a movie between 4-7 minutes in length.

Here was our assignment:

  • Genre: Science Fiction
  • Prop:  bell
  • character: Cynthia Peters gym instructor
  • line of dialogue: It’s your choice. What are you going to do?

When I entered the competition, I knew my team would at least consist of my youngest daughter age five, my older daughter age eight, and my wife who probably prefers me not disclose her age. With less than a week before the competition began, I hoped to secure some possible locations and recruit additional members to our Torg Stories team. I went to the library and checked out Asheville travel books, read the local Mountain Xpress hoping to find talent in the way of music or comedians, and sent messages to people I’d never met on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Using that process, I put together a team. Here are a few of the people I worked with and the places we shot:

48 Hour Film Project, Asheville, filmmaking, Fairy, Christopher's Garden, Odditorium, Asheville Outdoor Center

Barbie Angell who starred as the Fairy Protector of the Garden

the garden in the trailer is owned by Chris Mello. He also acts in the film

asheville outdoor center, 48 Hour Film Project Asheville

Dave from the Asheville Outdoor Center keeping me afloat

The Odditorium

we filmed at The Odditorium in West Asheville

Film by 16 year old Alex who did great work with us

Jeremy Vogt hooked us up with sci fi and travel music.

Love to hear comments and questions from you or if there is any other part of the 48 Hour Film Project that interests you.

Why Set a Story in a Cemetery?

I used to go sledding as a child in a cemetery where several of my family members and at least one friend are buried.  That experience helped deliver to me some of the materials for my story “Suicide Hill.”  In planning this story set in a cemetery, my thoughts went to my own eventual death, and I got to thinking about what sort of life I might feel satisfied having lived.  Those thoughts took me to the death of my grandfather, a man I admired for his quiet personality but very action oriented brand of love.  He was the sort of man who grew tomatoes and took them around to his friends, the sort of man who drove children two hours south to the hospital in Indianapolis when they would have otherwise had trouble getting there.   I also thought of the lives of all the other people I knew who were buried near my grandfather.

novel-in-stories, linked, collection, short story

This Hill Gets Steeper in My Story

In writing “Suicide Hill,” I made up a character who ended up with very poor attendance at his funeral.  I also placed a protagonist who’d been paid to carry the casket.  Then I tried to become that character and see what he thought about the low attendance.   When I finished the first draft of the story six or so years ago, I didn’t really think it much mattered if a person had anyone at their funeral or not.  I mean, who cares?  But I couldn’t make that “who cares” ending work for me, and I’ve found that I care very much about the way my wife and daughters would remember me should I die.  I think “Suicide Hill” and my novel Love on the Big Screen both also reflect my notion that love ought to contain logical and emotional features.

“Suicide Hill” was the story I submitted to Georgia College and State University as a writing sample when I wanted to undertake a study in fiction writing.  That and my teaching experiences were probably just enough to convince somebody on the school’s faculty to let me come get to work.   (it sure wasn’t the GRE score).

Once in graduate school, even though the first text I had written was a novel and I wanted to revise it for my thesis, I found the courses I was taking mostly called for stories.  As I went to class and taught class, I worked on my divorce novel  on my own time and wrote new stories for the workshops:  “Every Word I Said,” “Aloe For the Burn,” and “Friends at the Table,” were all stories I wrote during my time at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville.  Those are all stories that appear in my forthcoming collection Horseshoe.

Home of Flannery O'Connor from 1951 to 1964

As for Milledgeville and GCSU, it’s a town and college that take great pride in being the home of Flannery O’Connor, and even before I ever moved to Georgia, O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” was one of my favorites.  That’s saying a lot–that she’d written a story I knew–since I wasn’t much a short story reader back then.  O’Connor’s character “The Misfit” takes on nearly comic-book or super-anti-hero qualities for me, and her themes connected to guilt, violence, and Christianity are also ideas that I find myself often in conversation with.   I’d say they are some of the major themes in the Horseshoe collection.

What Does God Have to Do with Ayahuasca? A Conversation With Adam Elenbaas, author of FISHERS OF MEN

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Every Story Has a Story:  Adam Elenbaas’s Fishers of Men: The Gospel of an Ayahuasca Vision Quest

-questions by William Torgerson, author of the forthcoming Love on the Big Screen

William Torgerson Love on the Big Screen Adam Elenbaas Fishers of Men Georgia College and State University


Note from William Torgerson:  I first met Adam Elenbaas when he became my fellow graduate student in the M.F.A. in Creative Writing Program at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville.  Because Adam and I wrote primarily in different genres (Adam in creative nonfiction/ myself in fiction) we didn’t see much of each other in classes, but we did fall into a fairly-regular Friday afternoon round of golf, where I think cheap green fees, wide-open spaces, and lively conversation were the primary attractions. Adam grew up in rural Minnesota the son of Methodist Minister, and he has a B.A. in Philosophy, an M.A. in English Language and Literature, and an M.F.A in Creative Writing. Currently, Adam lives in New York City and is working as a free lance writer and yoga and meditation instructor. Adam is also a contributing editor and one of the founding writers of RealitySandwich.com, a popular counter-cultural web magazine devoted to consciousness studies.

In the subsequent interview, my questions for Adam appear in italics and his responses follow.

For those who haven’t heard, can you give us some background on the Ayahuasca plant and how it is used in a healing ceremony?

Ayahuasca is a powerful medicinal tea that has been made by shamans of the Amazon for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. The tea is made from a leaf and a vine. It is cooked over a fire with water and boiled down for many hours. Then it is drunk by the shaman and all the participants of the ceremony.

Throughout the night, the shaman(s) guide the ceremony by the singing of traditional songs called “icaros.” Along with the icaros, the shamans shake chakapas (leaf rattles) and use mapacho (tobacco) smoke to anoint people and protect the space of the ritual.

The effects of ayahuasca are what we in the West might call “psychedelic.” Yet, the experience is also vastly different from “getting high” or “tripping out.” The senses are all enhanced, sharpened, or heightened. The sub-conscious is brought to the surface and is often projected into visionary symbols in front of your eyes. The tea is also a purgative, so one of the features of an Ayahausca ceremony is the cleaning of the deepest levels of psychological disease. As the repressed layers of the self are faced, purging occurs. Aside from this very “psychoanalytic” explanation of the healing process, Ayahuasca could be said to quite literally open up a door to the spirit world. I’ve often said that it’s like realizing Narnia is for real, and you’ve found a wardrobe door.  Ceremonies usually last about six hours. That being said, I’ve also been in many ceremonies that lasted until dawn! Talk about hard work. Which is why I say that this is quite different from taking acid or mushrooms or smoking pot. Ceremonies are often described as “many years of psychotherapy” in one evening. It’s an incredibly disciplined and challenging ritual to take place in—as ancient and revered by people in South America as any vision-quest tradition on the planet.

At some point you hadn’t conceived of this book, and now it’s been published with Penguin.  Looking back, what were some of the most interesting parts of the process for you?

William Torgerson Love on the Big Screen Adam Elenbaas Fishers of Men

The Ayahuasca Plant (photo from ayahuasca-ceremonies.org)

The process of writing my book was the process of not just textual revision but also self-revision.  As I was working with an incredibly powerful psycho-therapeutic tool (referring now to the ritual use of Ayahuasca) I was “coming of age.” The ceremonies in South America inspired me to write about my life, as if writing about it were the Rosetta Stone for truly understanding myself, my karmic heritage, my relationship to the church, my preacher father, Christianity and Jesus, and the new age or “hippy” culture I was supposedly now a part of.  Taking a psychedelic plant with shamans certainly tends to get you labeled a hippy, anyway!

The process of writing the book was also a recovery process. Not recovery from some “thing” (like substance addiction or patriarchy), or someone (my father or his father or my family or the church) but a recovery of personal faith.  What is my faith? Who am I? What are some of my core beliefs and how do I hold them without marginalizing others?  The question “Why did I lose faith?” in my revision process (which was about writing self-centered, angry or bitter draft after draft of the book), was replaced by the question, “What is my faith?” And “How can I give something to the world?”

I’m interested in the ways that you connect God, especially Jesus, to the use of hallucinogens.  Can you say a little about how that works for you?

I don’t think it’s as simple as taking a hallucinogen and having visions of God. As we saw in the 1960’s, people often take drugs for hedonistic purposes, and even though they say they want to “get higher” or “expand their mind,” they end up having nightmarish experiences, even schizophrenic breaks from reality that can be seriously damaging to long term mental health.  I worked with schizophrenics for the past two years in NYC as a social worker, and many of my clients experienced their break as a result of too many unconscious drug choices.

That qualifier being issued, I think it is also possible to use psychedelic plants with integrity and respect. After all, that is how shamans and indigenous peoples have used psychedelic plants for thousands of years. But okay, once you are in one of these rituals, how does the ritual and the plant facilitate these transformational visions of God?

My answer is that it does so by eliminating the consistency of mental concepts and boundaries. Wherever a system exists by principles founded on opposites (it is this way, not this way), Ayahuasca will eliminate the dualism and present a visionary episode in which x and y are not an either/or but a both/and. It does so in a way that is so true, so purely true, that you must face the truth that you ARE everything you despise. You ARE everything you reject. The Universe holds all of the possibilities you would like to marginalize or exclude. As your former belief system (based on various forms of judgment and marginalization) is deconstructed, so are you. During those moments, you will cry or laugh or vomit or scream or shake. The shaman will come to you and sing or start blowing smoke over you until you come to a place where you have to accept the paradox of living in a universe that is ABSOLUTELY—RELATIVE.

What does it mean to be absolutely relative? It doesn’t mean a contradiction. Not ever again. Instead it means living in the moment (the absolute) and listening for the voice of discernment (the relative) that is always there to guide you.

People come away feeling alive for the first time because they are not living by principles but by faith (listening to God’s real-time voice, not laws, in the moment).

Just imagine getting bombarded by the infinite nature of the cosmos, and the infinite nature of something you are seeing for the first time, called your soul, for six hours straight, in the most intensely catalyzing experience you’ve ever had. And the entire time, it’s not that you are seeing God, it’s that you are seeing something you never had the ability to even imagine. It puts you so much in awe that you say, “Oh my God,” over and over again, and as you are doing so you realize that at one point that very saying, “Oh my God,” was a real statement uttered during the most intensely real moments of human experience. And now it is you, having the primitive realization that you are calling on God, and not by habit or cliché, but by the realization that something vastly larger and more creative and conscious than you is present and always has been.

Did I read you right in that I believe write that you experienced forms of a Godly connection with your use of recreational drugs before you participated in the Ayahuasca ceremonies?

I think that many meditation instructors, yoga gurus, even pastors like my father, were at first inspired by more recreational psychedelic experiences. In some ways the psychedelic experience simply blows your mind to the point where, once again, you say, “Oh My God,” and you mean it. It’s not just a saying.

That being said, I am very cautious to glorify the “psychedelic” experience, as if it is just one thing that can be gained by mechanistically swallowing something, etc. Not all psychedelic experiences are gateways to the divine. They are ancient religious healing technologies that should be used with a great deal of care. Some of my first psychedelic experiences were also very scary, and I had no help or context to place them safely into my psyche. I suffered as a result.

William Torgerson Love on the Big Screen Adam Elenbaas Fishers of Men

The Beast Out of the Sea from the Luther Bible of 1534 (image from taschen.com)

Certainly I can imagine many Christians dismissing your book as written by someone who passes off getting high as religious experience, but you’ve got me thinking about your own visions—where you write thick descriptions of a dragon—and how there’s a lot said about a dragon in the book of Revelation. Do you see connections between your visions and the Biblical dragon? How do you see the visions you’ve experienced as connected to the visions in the Bible?

Well, not just the dragon from the book of Revelation, but the serpent from the book of Genesis. The serpent is largely misunderstood in the book of Genesis, I think.  I refer readers to Joseph Campbell’s ideas about the creation myths and serpent symbolism within them. The snake is an age-old religious metaphor.  Snakes shed their skin and are continually “born again.” They drag their bodies along the rocks and die every so often. So do humans. In the book of Genesis, the fact that the serpent is the guardian creature at the foot of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is representative of the classic “genesis” of the soul’s birth into duality (where before it had been situated in Eden, which was an eternal place). Now, once the fruit was eaten, humans will know the cycle of birth and death, over and over again, because that’s how the life cycle works in time and space.  The message of Christian salvation (Jesus stepping on the head of the serpent, for example) is the idea that people can stop the cycle by remembering their eternal self within the life-death cycles of dualism (voila! Salvation).

The idea of the serpent as a tempter is not present in many other world myths that also have a serpent at the foot of a tree of the knowledge of opposites. In those myths, the serpent is simply a guardian. So you see the serpent is often revered as tempter, deceiver, predator, and also as a healer, regenerator, evolver, etc. The entwining of two serpents, the double helix, is another common motif that represents this dual nature of the serpent(our own DNA is double helixed), so there is always that paradox about serpents that represents good and evil. One represents our fall from grace, and the other represents the evolution of consciousness.

Does the “purging” in an Ayahuasca ceremony have anything to do with the Christian notion of sin?

Purging is just an existential workout. People work out for lots of reasons at the gym, and the same thing goes for Ayahuasca ceremonies.

Most of the time when people purge, they are actually purging the notion of sin itself and not anything particularly “sinful.” In other words, if you feel that you screwed up in the past and you won’t forgive yourself or make changes and move forward, then you are condemning yourself. Condemning yourself is impossible because the nature of reality is love and acceptance. Condemnation is impossible. Life accepts everything. So does God. And since you exist eternally already, there is no salvation prayer necessary. If people don’t “know” these things, or aren’t operating with some semblance of these truths in their lives, then they are trying, to some extent, to live under the banner of a lie, a deception, a condemnation, or a judgment.  All of these are impossible.  Trying to do what is impossible creates stress in the body and mind. It creates suffering. Ayahausca simply shows you the truth:  “You have been struggling against your SELF. Life accepts you and everything always.” Once you see the truth, if you try to put up a fight (which is pretty inevitable given our conditioning) you purge.

Ayahuasca helped me to stop fighting (as does any good spiritual practice from any religion).  It’s not about purging yourself of sins; it’s about releasing blockages that you have to love (the impossibility of sin). It’s about seeing where you are holding and then releasing. It’s about finding where your fight is and then making peace.

It’s like in the movie Star Wars. Luke had to go into the cave to face himself, but he was told not to bring a weapon. If we make “sin” the enemy, then we bring a weapon into the cave. We don’t need a weapon to understand ourselves, just courage and love and peace in our heart and mind. Purging might seem violent, and it is often scary, and some people enter ceremonies or caves with weapons. I don’t think it’s necessary, and I hope my book reflected that spirit.

When it comes to your participation in Ayahuasca ceremonies, there’s a point in your book where you write, “I don’t need this anymore.”  Why did you believe that?  What changed and brought you back to the Ayahuasca tea ceremonies?

There are many moments where you say, “I don’t want to go back into the cave ever again.” But, if you know in your heart it’s out of fear, then you know there is still more to learn from your cave.

In truth, I was afraid. Other times when I have taken a break from drinking Ayahuasca, it has been because I felt like life was calling me to other things. It’s always about listening and being real with yourself. I think we should all have some practices that call us into the cave to face ourselves again. God is like a mirror. The result is always that you get to live with a renewed sense of hope because the answer in the mirror is always forgiveness.

Sometimes we think, “I ‘get’ the message” of forgiveness, and I don’t need to learn it again. But it is not a once-and-for-all principled lesson; it’s not a once-and-for-all prayer that you pray.  That would warp it again into a fear-based ideology or dogma. Forgiveness is a way of life that sometimes needs an oil change or a detox or some retreat or some work. It’s very easy to forget love, and I find the experience of facing myself and being humbled something very refreshing. Dare I say that I might get pummeled the next time I go into my cave!

Are you at all concerned about the long term effects of ingesting the ayahuasca tea?  Has anyone looked into that?

No. I’m not. I think the fact that this practice has existed for hundreds, if not thousands, of years is the best testimony to its sanctity. I would be curious to see studies done, though!

William Torgerson Love on the Big Screen Adam Elenbaas Fishers of Men

Stephan Beyer's Singing to the Plants (image from Image Maya Blog)

As a writing professor working in classrooms, I’m always talking about the professional conversation that surrounds any topic.  This means I ask students to think about their beliefs in relation to the major voices speaking into any given field.  What’s some of the history of the conversation surrounding Ayahuasca?  Who is writing about it today?  Where are the hottest pockets of tension?

I’m the first to publish a personal memoir from a major press about the subject. There are anthropological works. The best probably being, Singing to the Plants, by Stephan Beyer. He blurbed the back of my book!

Otherwise, Jeremy Narby, (a Stanford Anthropologist). Lots of conversation about eco-tourism and the diluting of indigenous traditions by white people. That’s less of an issue for me because I’ve met too many indigenous shamans who believe, and have known for decades, that the destiny of this plant was to be shared with the world.

Now that the book is out, are you working on a new project?  Can you give your readers some idea of what they might see next from you?

I’m working on another book. Its subject matter is a sort of second tier of the “coming of age” journey. It’s about settling into your thirties, finding a wife, starting a family, falling in love, finding yourself and your professional contributions dialoging with larger societal issues, your implication in the snares of your own culture and family history (money, power, materialism, indifference, marital faithfulness, etc). The subtitle of the book is, “How to Fall in Love and Not Die.” It will also explore my deeper experiences with Ayahuasca ceremonies and several new Christian-based Ayahuasca traditions I’ve explored.

Note from William Torgerson:  to share on Facebook, click the title on this blog and then click the “Facebook Share” that follows this post.  In order to promote my own book, I’m always looking for Facebook friends who read.  If you’re willing, send me a friend request.  Both Adam and I welcome comments,  questions, or challenges meant to extend the conversation that lives in this interview.

Here are some relevant links readers might find of interest:

“I might be a dork, but I’m a resourceful dork.” –from Junot Diaz’s “Wildwood”

One of my favorite "dorks." Possibly I didn't look so different as a youngster.

Here’s a strategy for writers or anyone who talks:  communicate in memorable phrases.   As sensible and obvious of a strategy as this might seem, it wasn’t something that occurred to me until the past year or two, that I ought to look for chances to write what some people might call a “golden line,” that I ought to try and make some sort of observation about what it is to live a life.

I don’t set out to write these golden lines.  When I write, I mostly try to put the subject ahead of an action verb and then I pack in as many images as I can.  By images, I mean something that might snag one of the senses the way a fishhook could pierce a nostril.   If it’s a short story, I’ve got myself a few characters (usually more than I should have allowed in), a situation, and I try to get to know the characters as I watch what they do and say.  What I’ve been noticing is that if I stay open to moments for memorable observation, once in awhile I can see where one might fit in.   In Diaz’s “Wildwood,” here are a few lines I won’t soon forget:

  • That’s white people for you.  They lose a cat and it’s an all-points bulletin, but we Dominicans lose a daughter and we might not even cancel our appointment at the salon (372).
  • Happiness, when it comes, is stronger than all the jerk girls in Santo Domingo combined (379).

That I think of any text I encounter as a sort of teacher of writing is the result of my being in Dr. Allen Gee’s fiction workshop at Georgia College and State University.  He didn’t talk to me specifically about how books can be my teachers, but what he did do was direct us to texts and then ask us questions designed to get us to see what was on the page.   I spot several interesting lessons from the text-as-teacher, Diaz’s “Wildwood.”  For example (what follows is me attempting to write a short and memorable line):  If Junot Diaz’s story “Wildwood” is an English language Salad, then he’s doused it with a pretty massive helping of Spanish language dressing.” This isn’t at the present moment much of a lesson for me because I don’t speak any other languages.  It is, however, a lesson for my teacher self.  Why don’t my students (who often speak several languages) ever write sentences that make use of that part of their literacy identity?  It’s a feature of their writing that I’m more responsible for than them.  I think it’s my place to show them this sort of sentence is possible:  “Sick or not, dying or not, my mother wasn’t going to go down easy.  She wasn’t una pendeja.  I’d seen her slap grown men, push white police officers onto their asses, curse a whole group of bochincheras”  (367).

Wildwood, NJ

Junot Diaz is a simile super hero:

  • It went up in a flash, like gasoline, like a stupid hope… (367).
  • …the bruja feeling that comes singing out of my bones, that takes hold of me the way blood seizes cotton (377).

A tricky or problematic area of writing is figuring out who you are on the page, or who you are on the page in a certain piece of writing.  In the pages of “Wildwood,” I’m able to revisit some important lessons.  First off, I notice the allusions in the story, most of them references to pop culture.  It used to be when I wrote that it would occur to me to try and explain something by invoking a sports, musical, or cinematic metaphor, AND I’d shut that impulse down.   I’d flip my mental rolodex away from The Cutting Crew or Fletch, and head over into at least something as literary as Edgar Allen Poe or Edith Wharton.  Here’s a couple lines from “Wildwood” that remind me there’s no reason to stay in the imaginary literary canon:

  • “A punk chick.  That’s what I became.  A Siouxsie and the Banshees–loving punk chick” (362).
  • Right after invoking The Sound of Music, Diaz writes, “All my favorite books from that period were about runaways–Watership Down, The Incredible Journey, My Side of the Mountain–and when Bon Jovi’s “Runaway” came out I imagined it was me they were singing about” (365).

Diaz alludes to Bon Jovi and Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead

If you teach English or you’ve been taught English, or you’ve had an editor recently, I wonder how many times you’ve told somebody or been told by somebody that you must be consistent with point of view or verb tense.   I know “watch verb tense” or “inconsistent POV” is something I wrote on students’ papers back in the day when I was teaching writing without being a writer myself.   Often when tense or point of view is brought up, it is a relevant point of consideration, but there’s no Moses rule that states a writer can’t change verb tense of point of view.  Diaz’s story is a good example of what’s possible.  He beings his story by addressing the reader directly, using “you,” which to my way of thinking, makes the POV second person:  “…but then she called you again, louder, her I’m-not-fucking-around voice, and you mumbled irritably, Si senora” (360).  Before we get to the switch to first person, Diaz shows us how to make a narrative leap in time, a move that allows us to skip everything that is boring and irrelevant:  “Before the winter is out the doctors remove that breast you were kneading and its partner, along with the auxiliary lymph nodes”  (362).   We’re still in second person “you,” and as a writer, you only need the little phrase “Before the winter was out” to take the reader with you to what’s next.  There’s  no need to talk about the rest of the winter, all those days when all that was happening was that people were sitting around and watching television.  Then Diaz make the switch to first person:  “A punk chick.  That’s what I became.”  The story continues.  I know what’s going on.  I can’t stop reading.  I don’t close the book thrown off by a shift in pronoun use.

The Pen / O. Henry Prize Stories 2009

There’s a bunch in this story to see, but I’ll just share one last little lesson this story offers, a super easy one to at least consider:  when you start a piece of writing in a certain place, (mental, intellectual, geographical)  sometimes the best way to end it to return to that place.  Diaz begins, “It’s never the changes we want that change everything” (361).   Fifteen or so pages later, after the narrator’s mother has been diagnosed with cancer, after the narrator has run away, returned, and then been sort of shipped off to live with her grandmother, she tells us, “So much has changed these last months, in my head, my heart.”  Nothing has happened to the narrator that she ever would have wished for, but yet, she is different than she was.  If you’re lost for an ending, come back to your starting place.  What new is there to say?

Diaz, Junot. “Wildwood.” The Pen / O. Henry Prize Stories. Ed . Laura Furman. New York: Anchor Publishing, 2009. Print.