Things I am asked every day

February 2, 2014

1)Should I outline?

You have to understand something: without knowing you, I have no way to know whether or not you are the kind of person who would be helped or hindered by outlining. But here’s a way to think about it. Outlines are roadmaps, they represent a way you CAN go to get to your destination. My writing partner, David Levien, and I, usually work from some kind of outline. But to us, it’s never a limiting document. It just a series of cards or pages that set out the story as we have it figured at the moment.
For us, the outlining process is really where we get the bones of the story down, or the initial idea of how we are telling the story. We may spend longer outlining than we do writing the rough first draft; once we have that draft down, then everything is open to change.

Some people worry that outlines constrict freedom. I used to feel that way. And there are times, I don’t outline (like when a story presents itself, right at the beginning, as a series of scenes, Then I may just jam for as long as I can until I am brought up short).

But lately, I find that outlining is more freeing. It kind of makes the actual scene writing, the dialog writing less freighted with implications, less like a grind.

So: should you outline? I have no idea. The Coen Brothers never do. Tony Gilroy always does. How’s this: don’t stress about it. Don’t convince yourself that to do it is to be a workhorse and not to do it is to be an artist. Just try one way. If it works, keep doing it. If it doesn’t, try the other.

2) How do I know when to show my work?

This one I can answer: show your work when you have no idea how to make it any better without getting some kind of feedback. Or when you have gotten feedback from a few trusted readers, have addressed it, and now have no idea what else to do.

The truth is, you will get better at figuring this out as you go along. All artists learn how to gain some objectivity over time. Well, all sane artists do. If you’re crazy…if you’re crazy, do whatever you want. You will regardless of what I say anyway, right?

If you’re not crazy, try and learn your own rhythm. Here’s what I have learned about myself and gaining objectivity–it takes me at least 24 hours to know if a scene I have written works. Meaning: once I barrel through a scene, get to the end, do a quick rewrite of the dialog, I LOVE it. I am sure, in that instant, that I have nailed it.
If you were to read it and try and change even a line, I might hit you.

But about a day later, when the adrenaline and attachment is gone, I see, immediately, where I have written too much, gotten carried away, become redundant. At that stage, I will start begging you to tell me where it sucks.

And then, in about a week, when that scene is just another amongst a whole bunch of scenes, I will have total objectivity. Will look at it like a mechanic might.

Same pattern repeats with groups of scenes, acts, the entire screenplay. That’s my rhythm. Figure out your own, and you make life a whole bunch easier.

Which brings us to the related third question.

3) When and how do I rewrite?

Moe Koltun (@moeproblems), a college student, scary good poker player and friend of my son (@sammykoppelman) and mine, asked me this one yesterday. I answered in email form, which I paste below (with some cleaned up grammar, maybe).

The important thing is to put it away long enough that you gain some objectivity, forget what lines or ideas really jazzed you as you were writing, forget where you kind of lied to yourself that the plot stuff made sense.
But not so long that you don’t feel connected to the over all spirit of the thing.
For me, that’s around 10 days, probably, where it has kind of cooled off but not gotten cold.

But that’s after I have completed a real first draft, meaning: when I am writing a first draft, I try and get to the end, so that scenes exist in some written form. But that’s not truly a first draft. That’s a rough draft. As I am doing that, I kind of informally keep track of what isn’t working and let it roll around in my mind when I am living life away from the pages, away from the script.
So the thing stays very alive and present for me. I get to the end of the rough draft and then go through it again quickly, because I am making connections very fast at that point, kind of carrying the whole of the piece in my mind, if that makes sense. I am also a little obsessed at that point if it is a good one, one that could turn into something.
So on that pass through, I am cutting and shaping and really making progress toward a proper first draft.
I may do that twice or three times in a row, days apart or on consecutive days.
Then, when that process is finished, when it sort of seems like it works, or almost works or works the best I can figure at that time, that’s when I put it away and force myself not to deal with it for awhile.
Now, sometimes, during those days away, a line, a scene, a cut, a connection will occur to me. I ALWAYS write it down.
And then, 10 days later or whenever, when I come to the script, if I’ve done all this right, I am able to see the thing really clearly, with little excess pride or shame or other writer bullshit, and I can shape it into a presentable first draft, a public first draft.
—————————————————————————————–
Ok. So that’s three answered the best I can on this Sunday morning. Have more? Fire away. I can’t say when I’ll answer. But I promise that I will before too long.

One rule: do not pitch me ideas, ask if you can pitch me ideas, or try to get around this in any way.

Keep writing. Keep creating. Keep on.

Con Men, Gurus, and the Screenwriting Instruction Industrial Complex

December 31, 2013

A few months back, I started making Vines. I called them Six Second Screenwriting Lessons. The name meant to be ironic, of course,  a statement on the absurdity of anyone teaching anyone else to write a screenplay, a way of calling out the screenwriting gurus who make money by sharing the ‘secrets’ of the trade with anyone willing to pony up a few (or a ton) of bucks. The way I felt then is the way I feel now: all anyone in a creative field can do for anyone else is to be an example, to encourage, to be honest about the challenges and rewards of attempting the same path. 

I’m glad that some of you have gotten something of value out of these messages. To those who have gotten in touch with me to say that they are writing again after a long hiatus or finally finishing that screenplay, I want you to know that I’m thrilled for you. And I hope 2014 brings you even more accomplishment. 

As this year comes to a close, I want to revisit two of the most controversial Vines.  

On the first SSSL, I said, “All screenwriting books are bullshit. All. Watch movies. Read screenplays. Let them be your guide.”  And then on the fourth one, I said, “ The so-called screenwriting guru is really the so-called screenwriting con man. Don’t listen to them, if you don’t know their movies.” 

Since then, I have been asked many times, “Do you really mean all screenwriting books? Aren’t there any of any value?” And, “Are you including Robert McKee in those statements?”

 There’s a safe way to answer those questions, and it’s an answer I’ve given, “I haven’t read every book. There are parts of McKee’s book that are interesting. Some screenwriters I respect, including Billy Ray and Akiva Goldsman have told me that they’ve gotten a lot out of McKee’s course…”  

 But if I am being honest, my real answer is that I fully believe what I said in the vines. 

 Yes, McKee has been able to break down how the popular screenplay has worked. He has identified key qualities that many commercially successful screenplays share, he has codified a language that has been adopted by creative executives in both film and television. So there might be something of tangible value to be gained by interacting with his material, either in book form or at one of the seminars.  

But for someone who wants to be an artist, a creator, an architect of an original vision, the best book to read on screenwriting is no book on screenwriting. The best seminar, no seminar at all. 

To me, the writer wants to get as many outside voices OUT of his/her head as possible. Experts win by getting us to be dependent on their view of the world. They win when they get to frame the discussion, when they get to tell you there’s a right way and a wrong way to think about the game, whatever the game is. Because that makes you dependent on them. If they have the secret rules, then you need them if you want to get ahead. 

The truth is, you don’t. 

If you love and want to make movies about issues of social import, get your hands on Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay for Network. Read it. Then watch the movie. Then read it again. 

If you love and want to make big blockbusters that also have great artistic merit, do the same thing with Lawrence Kasdan’s Raiders Of The Lost Ark screenplay and the movie made from it. 

If you love horror movies and want to make those, read and watch those. 

Think about how the screenplays made you feel. And how the movies built from these screenplays did or didn’t hit you the same way.

This sounds basic, right? That’s because it is basic. And it’s true. All the information you need is in the movies and screenplays you love. And in the books you’ve read and the relationships you’ve had and your ability to use those things. 

But basic does not mean easy. Or simple. It’s not enough to read and watch. You have to really think, And try. And fail. And work harder. But if you do, and you have a knack for it, you can get there. 

If you don’t, I can assure you that it won’t be because you didn’t read Save The Cat. 

Does this mean that there are no legitimate resources for someone who wants to write for a living? Absolutely not. 

When I say, “…Don’t listen to them if you don’t know their movies,”  I’m saying it for a reason.  There are people out there who are not giving false testimony, who are, in fact, successful screenwriters, filmmakers, novelists who aren’t full of shit. Guys like Craig Mazin and John August, whose podcast Scriptnotes explores the screenwriting career accurately and with honesty. Both Mazin and August are working screenwriters, in the trenches, and have written screenplays that have turned into movies time and time again. 

I know Craig and John. Like them personally (even if Mazin is maddeningly unbeatable in an email putdown contest, which he is). I don’t always agree with everything they say, don’t always think about screenwriting the way they do, but I am sure that for the aspiring screenwriter, what they offer has tremendous value. Because they are actually experts. They write movies for a living. Instead of giving advice for a living. 

So they have no incentive to lie; they are only in it to give back, to teach. 

This is how I have always felt about William Goldman’s books. And David Mamet’s.  But if you check these out, you’ll note that none of them offer dictates on how your screenplay must read, where it must fit in the market, how it must be structured. They are, in other words, written without bullshit. 

And there are wonderful books on the creative process too, on getting through creative blocks, on what it means to live the life of the writer, books like Steven Pressfield’s War of Art and Stephen King’s On Writing that I have read more than once. And plan to read again. 

Once more, these are written by people who have DONE it, at the highest level, and who aren’t trying to limit you in the guise of guiding you. 

So. Do I stand by the statements that all screenwriting books are bullshit. And that screenwriting gurus are con men? Yeah. I do. 

And I think you should save your money and your time and spend both on someone much more likely to impact your success.  You. 

Happy New Year. 

The Talent Question

December 29, 2013

The other day, after seeing this Vine…

https://vine.co/v/hE6OUQpBPZz

…my friend Penn Jillette emailed me: “unless they suck.”  Now, I sort of spoke to that in this Vine…

https://vine.co/v/hTdxIlKgdnT

But that’s an incomplete answer, as any answer given in six seconds has to be.

I wrote Penn back, laughing, and asked if that’s what he really thought. Now, you have to understand that Penn is someone I take very seriously; he’s been an artistic inspiration since the first time I saw him perform, at the West Side Arts theater, off-Broadway, when I was 19 or 20 years old. The monologue he gave at the end of the show, about what it takes to be a fire-eater, remains one of the seminal theater going moments of my life. It’s also one of the most fervent, honest and accurate descriptions of the dedication it takes to become an artist that I’ve ever heard. And, as Penn himself points out, it looks cool. 

Penn’s been a big champion of the Vine series I’ve been doing. So I wanted to dig in and understand if he was just kidding around or not. 

He then wrote a follow-up email, pointing to a Bukowski quote that suggests the best thing one could do for aspiring writers and artists of all stripes would just be to DISCOURAGE them instead of ENCOURAGING them.

The point being that if someone really needs to do it, the discouragement won’t work. They will forge ahead regardless. And it will save the person who quit a whole bunch of time and energy. His paraphrase of the Bukowski was “the kindest thing you can do is tell someone not to write because it won’t work on the people who need to write.” (I can’t find the exact quote. If anyone can, please let me know and I’ll put it in.)  Penn didn’t endorse this position, just thought it was worth looking at. I understand why.

For a long time, actually, I held to that same opinion. It’s part of what I hated about the entire screenwriting guru industry and, in fact, the entire industry of teaching people to write. The truth is, I still think talent ultimately determines artistic success. And by success, I am not referring to commercial success. Though that too is largely determined by talent.  

But.

I have come to think that sometimes, maybe often, talent hides. And that I’d rather help people find a way to discover that hidden or latent talent. I think it’s worthwhile pursuit for people whether they end up unearthing that talent or not. The sort of deep diving I’m talking about, achieved by slugging it out every day, using things like journaling, meditation, long walks to help, offers massive benefit regardless of the quality of the artistic work produced. As does just doing something really hard, like finishing a draft of a novel or a screenplay. 

The positive effects of this kind of success can be stunning. And not just in self-esteem. When an individual has been blocked, stunted, and then breaks through it, producing a completed piece of work, something changes in them forever.  And it’s something that the people in their lives notice. In a really good way. It just makes them easier to be around, better company at the dinner table. 

And so that alone would make me want to continue to help people drive themselves forward.  But there’s another reason too. The one group of people in all creative fields that I despise maybe as much as the false prophets who hold themselves out as experts without having accomplishment to back it up, are the gate-keepers. Especially those gate-keepers who are more interested in keeping their jobs than in nurturing worthwhile creative voices. Included in this group are everyone from college drama teacher to reader at book company to screenplay reader for a production company to junior A&R person at a music company (I was an A&R guy in an earlier life. I know from whence I speak).  Let me add to that, actually: I also include lower school art teachers and english teachers who, far too often, have a rigidity in their approach that kills burgeoning creativity in their students, favoring those who draw within the lines both literally and figuratively. 

Sure, there have always been curators. They serve a useful, necessary purpose. But as art has become more commoditized, the range of their vision has shrunk.  

I guess what I want to say to my friend is this: what I have come to believe is the world is already out there dispensing “reality,” discouraging the creative journey, tamping down enthusiasm, limiting opportunity. So I want to stand there in the face of that reality, cheering, lifting up, rooting. 

Is it possible you’re not going to sell that book you’re writing or picture your painting or screenplay you’re in the middle of outlining? It’s not only possible. It’s likely. Isn’t it fucking awesome that you are doing anyway? 

I think it is. And I want to help you get to the finish line any way I can. Once you’re there, you’ll find plenty of people to tell you how you screwed up.

But you’ll know that at least you ran the race and didn’t quit when it started to hurt.  And you’ll be that much more ready to run the next one.

UPDATE: So after I posted this, Penn emailed to say he’d read it, agrees, and I should feel free to say so. So, I’m saying so. Glad we’re in sync on this.

A short twitter Christmas Remembrance (from an atheist Jew)

December 25, 2013

I did this as a twitter story yesterday. So, in case you missed it…here it is. 

 

A short twitter Christmas remembrance (from an atheist jew). 

 6th grade. My best friend was Italian, Chris P. His mom, Mrs. P. was the nicest woman on earth. 

 Mrs. P. was always more aware of my judaism than I was. And thought even secular jews were kosher.

 So, I’d be a their house and she’d make amazing Italian feasts for the family, pasta and sauce redolent with pork.  

 And on my plate, a turkey sandwich on rye, which she would call “a nice jewish turkey sandwich”. I’d eat it while pining for the pasta and pork.

 But she was so sweet, and I knew it mattered to her. That she really cared. 

 And would always say things like: Your mother would kill me if I let you have that veal parm: it’s cheese and meat.

(my mom made veal parm). 

 Chris was less sensitive. Once, while playing ping pong, a ball I’d struck hit the net chord before dropping in. He called that a “cheap jew shot.”  Mrs. P. would not have liked that, I’d bet. 

 I didn’t actually care. I knew he didn’t mean it. At all. And would’ve beat up anyone else who said it to me. And the shot was kind of a cheap jew shot. 

 One Christmas, Chris and family took me on a trip to Boca Raton, Fla. And we went to Midnight Mass.  

 Mrs. P. and Mr. P. (a lawyer with, everyone whispered, deep mafia connections) sat in the back of the church. 

 Chris, his two sisters, and I sat in front. This was a big, huge, giant church.

 Lovely service. Nicest mass I ever attended.  

 And then came time for communion. I had no idea what it was. Chris said to follow him. So I did. 

On the line we went. I watched, fascinated, as the priest went through the ritual, blood and body and all that.

And I was hungry and thirsty. 

 Finally, I was at the front of the line. I had watched Chris, so I knew what to do.

Stuck out my tongue. Priest had the wafer ready to go, when… 

 I felt myself YANKED back by my shirt collar. Mrs. P., had come running from the very back of the church. 

 The entire congregation watched as she dragged me away from the alter. “He’s a jew! His mother would kill me!” she said.

 Which made me, ya know, a little self-conscious. 

But it also led to an honest conversation later that night which ended with me finally getting to dig in to that delicious, mind-blowingly great pasta.  

So in the end, it was a Merry Christmas for all. Which this atheist Jew hopes all of you have as well.

1/4 second from death

December 11, 2013

Dec. 10th, 2013 (journal entry I decided to share)

I almost got killed yesterday. Missed, by about 1/4 second, getting crushed between two cars at a crosswalk. One car was stopped and the other genius decided, with no warning, to back up at around 30 miles an hour. I had taken one step past the stopped car when the collision happened. Turned around with the sound of impact and saw the cars bounce off each other. 

It was so strange and powerful and bizarre–how often does a guy just back up at speed on West End Ave in the city without even looking in his rearview–that the guy in the stopped car, a Russian who spoke like a movie villain Russian, got out of his car, looked at me and said, “why that guy wants to kill you?”  He said this like that could be the only rational reason for the crazy driver’s move. And also like he’d seen THAT move before. 

And then the CD got out of his vehicle, and it all became clear. He was just an addled jerk who had made a mistake on a Monday morning drive to work. Was he texting? Did he forget that his car was in reverse? I’ll never know. I just stood there for a second. Well, to be honest, first I got right in his face and screamed at him that he was a dumb motherfucker who almost killed me and what the fuck was-a-matter with his stupid fucking brain. Not proud. But it happened. ANYWAY, after I was done yelling, and he was done half-heartedly apologizing, the Russian and he started discussing bashed-in front ends and insurance (funny, neither one wanted to bring insurance into it), and forgot about me. And I just stood there, in the middle of the street, staring at the damage, dazed and aware at the same time that the scene could have been entirely different. I could have been lying there, dead or bleeding out or, at best, with shattered legs, barely conscious and hoping that between them, the Russian and Crazy Driver had a cell phone contract that was still in effect. 

Finally, I moved on, casting one look back at them still standing at that intersection, still negotiating who was going to call in what favor  to get the bodywork done. 

As I was walking to the office, it occurred to me that exactly nothing had actually happened to me. An accident happened to two other guys after I moved past.  The fact that it almost happened to me was jarring because of the proximity.  But mostly just because I happened to notice. And because the accident was loud.

It got me to thinking about how many collisions we miss all the time, or that just miss us. How many apartments we walk by that have had unbelievable acts of violence happen in them, how many doors we pass not having any idea that something brutal might be occurring at that very moment. 

It’s true, looked at one way, I was seconds from death. But looked at another way, with the weight of the earth’s time, aren’t we all, at every moment, seconds from death?

Amy (my wife–this parens was not in journal entry. It’s for you to follow) is a genius at understanding this and at living in the present, in the very moment, appreciating all of it.  I am not. Though I try. 

And I am determined to try harder. 

Two guys smashed into each other in the street. I could have spent the rest of the day, week, month, year dwelling on how close I came. Instead, when I got to the office, I sat down and began to write. 

Because I was here. I was unharmed. And I am lucky enough to do something I love.  Most days, I don’t really think of it that way. 

Yesterday I did. 

Today I’m gonna try real hard to. 

What should I write?

December 8, 2013

Right behind the Most Asked Question is this: which genre should I write in? And, of course, its companion: which genres should I avoid? There’s also this variation: how do I know which of my ideas is the most commercial given the current market conditions? 

Ten years ago, I hardly ever heard these questions asked. Sure, there were magazine articles about what types of screenplays sold and which ones were made, but there wasn’t this idea out there that the screenwriter had to be as calculating and careful as a scientist plotting the course of a space craft, where a mistake of even one centimeter could have horrific and permanent implications. 

I think these questions come from twin desires: 1) the desire to feel like we’re not wasting our effort and 2) the desire to believe that we can reduce the odds of failure.

And I get it. Nobody wants to feel stupid or vulnerable or like we deserve the blame for failing. It’s so much easier to look to external conditions, outside advice, expert opinion and say: but I listened, I did the right thing, I did as I was told. 

The problem with this is it’s a false construct. There are no experts. Nobody knows what anybody will want to buy, watch, read or sell. Nobody ever has. Which is why most movies and television shows fail.

So why do so many people claim to know which genres are viable and which are losers? 

Because they want you to feel like you don’t know, like you don’t have an internal compass, like you NEED them. 

But you don’t need them. In fact, what you need to do is shut them out. 

Is it true that certain genres did better at the box office this year? I’m sure it is. Is it true that certain others did worse? Again. Yes.

But ask yourself this: would any of those experts have told you to write The Butler? Or Enough Said? Or even American Hustle? 

No way. 

Somewhere inside you, you know where your storytelling passion is. You know what you have a true point of view on. You know the story that only you can tell in the way only you can.  If you write that one as well as you can, if you are consistent and rigorous and honest with yourself, if you are brutal with the screenplay, get all the bullshit out of it, get all that you know and feel into it…hey, it’s no guarantee of anything but this: that screenplay will give you the absolute best chance you have to make an impact, get noticed, get started. 

I know that’s not the same kind of promise many of the clowns leading seminars at the Radisson will give you.

But it does have the advantage of being the truth. 

Now dig in. 

How do I get an agent? Honest answer: none of us know. We barely know how we did.

December 7, 2013

“Yeah, yeah. But how do I get an agent? Yeah, yeah, I know I have to write a great thing. I’ve done it. How do I get anyone to read it?”

I understand the question. I do. And I know where it comes from. How frustrating it is to feel like you are on the outside and the barriers to entry are enormous and almost insurmountable.

And you are not crazy to feel that way. The barriers are built high so you can’t scale ‘em, thick so you can’t knock ‘em down, and buried deep in the ground, making it almost impossible to crawl underneath ‘em. 

Easiest thing to do is give up. Second easiest: complain about how unfair it is.  

Third thing is to recognize the problem and carry on anyway, finding a way to believe that if the work is strong enough, powerful enough, compelling enough that the folks behind the barriers will find their way to you.

Which sounds exactly like what someone who has already made it over would say, right?

But here’s the thing: all you need is one champion, one assistant, one friend of a director, one boyfriend of an intern at a production company to think that your work will make him (or her) look good. 

How do you find that one believer, that one person who decides that carrying your screenplay up the line will help both of you? I don’t know. I have ideas: post it on a website, stage a reading, network, use your Facebook friends and their friends.  

Or make a movie. That’s what Shane Carruth did. He made Primer for $7000 that he saved up over years. And then he won Sundance. Equipment is the least expensive it has ever been. Access to the audience is the most available it’s ever been. Find a way to use those things to make the business come to you. If your work is truly undeniable, someone, somewhere will recognize it. Because it is in their self-interest to do so. 

If you ask 100 screenwriters how they got the read that changed their lives, you’d get 100 different answers. But almost all of them would have to do with one person, only one, seeing something special, something worth sharing. 

The first screenplay that David Levien and I wrote got rejected at every agency. Then Miramax bought it. And all those same agents lined up at our door. It was Rounders. 

I wish there were an easy answer to this question. It’s the one that all writers, directors and actors get asked more than any other. None of us really know. 

We just know this: the only thing that moves you closer is the work. Which is also the only part of it that you can control. Keep grinding away, keep going deeper, keep doing. Keep the faith.   

 

 

Fire Away

December 6, 2013

One of the entertainers I most admire in the world just followed me on Twitter. This is someone who not only makes me laugh but whose world view and attitude, and the philosophical underpinnings that drive them, inspire me. Someone on my shortest list of people I’d want to have dinner with. I got a quick ego boost when I saw his name pop up, an even bigger one when I saw how few people he follows. But then, the moment I next went to tweet, dread set in. 

What if I lose him, I thought? What if he followed me because he liked one Vine he saw, that Penn retweeted, but then, if he sees a ramen tweet, or if a joke about The Knicks falls flat, maybe he’s gone.

When he wasn’t following me, fine. He didn’t know who I was, didn’t connect me with my movies, whatever. 

But now, now that he’s in,  I face rejection. And not just garden variety rejection. Narrow, specific rejection from someone I put on a pedestal.  How am I supposed to deal with that? 

Guess I’ll never tweet. 

Or I’ll really workshop the next tweet. 

Maybe, yeah, this is it, I’ll test market the tweet, send it as a Facebook status first or email it to a few friends. And then, if a high enough percentage of them laugh, I’ll tweet it. 

That’s definitely a way to go. Crafty. Safe. 

And absolutely crippling. My entire creative journey has been about writing without fear, expressing myself without regard for what any one person will think of it. I get an idea, work on it to the best of my ability and fire away. And yet here I found myself, ready to tweet something–a tweet, mind you, something so small, insignificant and temporary as to barely exist–and holding back. 

And isn’t that something we all do to ourselves sometimes. Don’t we all sort of set ourselves up for defeat, tell ourselves disempowering stories, hesitate out of fear?  I think we do. And I think one of the most important steps an artist can take is to get to a place where s/he’s not scared of losing her audience. 

The person you’re scared to lose might be your wife or your father if you finished that short story you have hidden in a secret folder on your laptop, or those guys sitting in the front at the comedy club who will laugh at your dick jokes but might boo you if you get political. Or maybe you’re worried that if the YA audience knew you really wanted to write thrillers, they’d never read you again. 

Whatever. Whomever. Fuck ‘em. They will go on the ride with you or they won’t. But the ride is yours. And the time is now.

Go.

As for me: I’ll tweet away. And if he unfollows, he unfollows. I won’t shed a tear (but I will curse. Very loudly).

Thanks for listening, six seconds at a time.

November 28, 2013

I started doing the Six Second Screenwriting Lesson Vines on a whim. There was no preplanning or strategy. I just had something to say, so I said it, directly, without any sort of thought to what kind of impact it might have, to who might see it, to what they might say about it. If I had thought about any of that, I might’ve made sure to blink or choose a more flattering light or wear a cool hat or something. 

On reflection, I know that what prompted it were a series of questions I had been getting on twitter whenever I did a q and a. These questions seemed to carry certain assumptions with them, assumptions that came from various screenwriting books, seminars, websites that these (mostly) young aspiring screenwriters were taking as bedrock foundational facts.  As a lifelong student of con artists, scammers and false prophets, it rankled me that there was so much misinformation being slung out there for profit.  Usually propagated by so called experts who had never written any actual movies. Or tv shows. Or anything. 

And it rankled the shit out of me.

So I opened Vine, pointed the iPhone at myself and said what I was feeling, which was: “All screenwriting books are bullshit. Read screenplays. Watch movies. Let them be your guide.” And then, before thinking about what I was doing, I saved it and tweeted it.

The reaction was pretty immediate. A few of my friends made fun of me. Which I expected. But a whole bunch of other people thanked me. Actors, writers, producers, journalists. By then, a few hours later, I had recorded and posted a few more, also mostly as a response to the received ‘wisdom’ that was out there in the screenwriting guru movement. And once again, I saw that there were writers, artists of all stripes really, who were waiting, not for me, but for someone to speak honestly, personally, about what they believed was actually important in the creative process. And what was bullshit. 

So I kept going. I made two rules for myself. 1) I would only say what I absolutely believed. What was absolutely true in my own experience and 2) I would do one a day for as long as it seemed that that I still had something to say and that there were people who still wanted to hear it. 

I’m up to number 86 now. And I have say, it’s been at least as beneficial for me as it has for anyone else. I have realized that the person I am mostly talking to is me, reminding myself, encouraging myself to press on each day, to commit each day to being honest on the page, to writing without fear, to writing despite the distractions, to writing when I don’t feel like it, to writing even when I’m certain that it’s all been a lucky accident that’s bound to end any second. 

As I’ve said before, I was a blocked writer until my 30th year. My goal ever since then has been to keep the dark voices, the inner critical voices, at bay for long enough each day to get something down on the page. 

One of the ways I do it is by talking to you. And myself. Six seconds at a time. Thanks for listening and responding and letting me know that it helps. 

Have a great Thanksgiving.  If you give yourself a day off from writing, do it without guilt. And if you decide to write despite the urging of family and friends, do that without guilt. 

And get up tomorrow and do it again.

That’s what I’m going to do. 

At least I hope so. 

the question of selfishness

November 22, 2013

Sometimes people around you can start acting strange when you tell them you are embarking on a creative project. They may express skepticism, they may say something like “you’ll quit, you always quit.”  They may be almost overly supportive at first but almost immediately start making little digs about all the time you are devoting, or how absent minded you sometimes seem.  And, of course, they can call you selfish. 

This one really stings. Because part of you may very well feel that way. 

But it’s not true. Yes. you are devoting yourself to something, going inside yourself, spending as much time as they say you away from them and living in your own little world.  Only it’s not selfish.  It’s the opposite. For a few reasons. And it’s worth it to remind yourself of this.  1) you are trying to create something that you will share with others. Whether it’s a song, a novel, a screenplay or a sculpture, you want to produce something that adds value to the world. This one, the one you are working on right now, may not the one.  But it just might. Artists need to remember that the world needs what they do, values what they do.  So it cannot be selfish to do it. 2) if you give in, give up, abandon it, you may end up being more physically available to those in your life. But the version of you they will now be dealing with will be, in some way, bitter, angry, resentful.  Maybe even a little self loathing. Because you will feel that you have abandoned the best of yourself, the highest hope for yourself. 3) Those around you will ultimately become inspired by you if you stay the course and really do it. And later, they will appreciate you and your work even more than you can imagine. Or they’re the wrong people to have in your life anyway. 

This doesn’t mean that being an artist excuses other selfish behavior. Artists do get carried away, do, from time to time, take advantage of their ‘special’ status.  

But it does mean protect your creative time. Guard it. 

And do your work. Without excuses. Because we need you to produce something great, transportive, elevating. To refuse…now that would be selfish. 


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