This is a bright guy sitting across from me in my office. Early 20s. Funny. Charismatic. Clothed and framed out of Elvis Costello’s 1978 closet, and so suffused with post-ironic, post-modern, geek-cool that every word he speaks is loaded with world-weary wisdom and nerd-fighter hopefulness at the same time.
He’s here for advice. We’ve never met before. Lately, I’ve been asked to do this more and more. I usually say no — if I didn’t, I’d be doing it all day. But when I say yes, it’s because the young artist is serious, has a creative practice already, is doing good work, and isn’t really just asking me to make introductions in the business for him/her.
This fellow is accomplished. A peer. He’s been working as a writer and director since he quit college to take a job at a cutting edge web-video comedy site and is now, before his 25th birthday, making six-figures a year. And he’s talented.
So when he reached out online and asked for a half-hour to help talk through a career dilemma, it was an easy decision to say yes; I was looking forward to it. I’ve made the same ask to more experienced people throughout my creative life, to experts in various fields, to mentors. And I’ve gained a ton through that kind of exchange. When the timing is right, it’s a pleasure to give back in the same way. What I always hope is that the young artist has an agenda, specific questions, a reason to want to make the connection.
This young man has all that. He is on time, clear-eyed and has given thought to what he wants to discuss. He lays out the career dilemma, and it’s a familiar one. He’s trying to decide, essentially, how to manage the balancing act between creative freedom and financial comfort.
I listen to everything he has to say. Try to process all the details. He tells me that he loves the work he’s doing—making digital content for a network, half-hour shows, short segments, mini-series, that he has tremendous creative freedom within the form, but that the company is trying to lock him up for a long time. And that his ultimate goal is to make movies. I ask him some questions about his lifestyle needs. He answers honestly — that he’s gotten used to the money, that it’s enough, he doesn’t need more, but he’s not really ready to walk away from it. We get granular about the work—and he says that the freedom to make what he wants to is ideal. The only drag of it is that the company has proposed a very long term deal, and he’s afraid this will stop him from making the movie he wants to make. He’s already written the script, can shoot it for a budget. We discuss what would happen if he quit the current gig. He says he’d have to work at Starbucks. I ask him if waiting to make it is going to kill him, if he can somehow do both at the same time. He allows that he can, that the company might give him an out, that they are sympathetic. That he doesn’t really want to leave. Just doesn’t want to be committed for more than a few years.
I understand the position he’s in. And my advice is that he makes sure the term of the new deal is short—two years, that he bank money during that time, reduce lifestyle so he can save, and then, if he wants to leave to make movies only, he should.
He thanks me. Says that this seems exactly right. But it’s clear something is bothering him. Finally, right before he stands, he says it. “I just thought…I hoped that you would tell me to fucking bag it, to quit no matter what, to work in a Starbucks if I had to so that I could make my movie right now. I wanted you…”
He wanted me to be the version of myself that he knew in six second bites, the version that encourages people to chase their dreams, that calls people out on their excuses. He had this idea of what he needed to hear based on an imaginary dialog we’d have, one that he had already had with me in his mind.
I see the disappointment on his face. Instead of begin jingoistic, ignoring the realities he laid out for me, I had tried to actually listen, to figure out what would be best for him in this specific moment. I had been reasonable. He needed me to be unreasonable, unyielding, deaf to his real life. I wasn’t. So I was a let down.
He’s as nice as could be when we shake hands before he leaves my office. And afterwards, as the late afternoon sun starts to fade, I sit there and try to make sense out of the situation.
What this bright young man was looking for was permission. As together as he is, as active and creative, he still doesn’t understand that he’s the only person he can look to for permission to be exactly who he wants to be. My job, in this sort of exchange, is to take him at face value, to avoid ladling my values onto his predicament, to use my experience to give him the best advice based on what he tells me he wants. That’s all I can do, all I can be.
When I am making the Six Second Vines, I am talking, primarily, to myself, to who I was when I was a blocked artist, and I am talking to you, too, if you need a little push, a little encouragement, a little bit of evidence that it’s possible to do what now seems impossible.
And I am talking to this young man too. But what I am trying to tell him, you, and, most importantly, myself, is that none of us need anyone else’s benediction, recognition, permission to live exactly the creative life we want to live. Only we know what steps we need to take; only we know how drastic, how desperate, how urgent those steps are.
You are the only one who can give yourself permission. I am the only one who can give myself permission. And this young man is the only one who can give himself permission. And that is great news. That is freedom. If we let it be.
We just need to listen to ourselves, to speak honestly to ourselves, to permit ourselves. And then, we are off and running.
This is a bright guy sitting across from me in my office. Early 20s. Funny. Charismatic. Clothed and framed out of Elvis Costello’s 1978 closet, and so suffused with post-ironic, post-modern, geek-cool that every word he speaks is loaded with world-weary wisdom and nerd-fighter hopefulness at the same time.
I remember, with crushing specificity, the week that every single talent agency in Hollywood passed on the chance to represent me. And I remember it felt like absolute fact, like irreversible judgment, from on high, that the screenplay my partner and I wrote was not only unsalable, but wasn’t even strong enough to suggest that we had any promise as screenwriters. I was so shaken up by these rejections that I wrote down what each agent told the person who had submitted us for consideration. One said, “the script is overwritten.” Another that “these characters are underwritten.” A third that “nobody is going to buy a poker script,” and a fourth, I swear, that “there are already three poker spec scripts in the market right now.”
Not one agent asked for a meeting with us or to read any further material.
Less than a month later, Miramax bought the screenplay in question. And by the end of March, each agency had calls into us requesting meetings, offering to fly to New York to take us to coffee, asking us to allow them the privilege of explaining why they, and their team, were the absolute best and only people who should represent us. Because they were true fans of what we did, had real understanding of our work, and, from the moment they had read our screenplay, knew we were going to have a long and distinguished career, if, of course, we had the right people around us to guide us through the difficult Hollywood maze.
Here’s the best part; I read each of them the comments they had made on the script a month earlier. Being agents, none of them skipped a beat: “that wasn’t me, I had an assistant read, oh, well, I fired that reader, I only read coverage.” Not one of them owned it, said, “I was wrong,” or “I didn’t think it would sell,” or, even, “it didn’t reveal itself the first time, but after Harvey bought it, I decided to read it again, And now I get it.”
This doesn’t make the agents evil or bad people. But it does, I would think, give lie to the idea that their judgement is, in fact, a judgement on the intrinsic value of the work in question. And it’s as good an explanation as any for the reason that most professional screenwriters roll our eyes when asked, by up and coming writers, how to get an agent.
Agents are, for the most part, reactive, not proactive. They have to be; their days are spent servicing current clients, movie studios, producers, deal flow, all of it. And, they know, most screenplays that get sent in by amateurs are not going to be game changers, million dollar sales, the beginning of an auspicious career.
“Yeah,” I can hear you saying, “but my screenplay is a game changer, a million dollar spec, the beginning of an auspicious career.”
Let’s assume, for a moment, that it is everything you think it is. What then? Well, then, I believe you will find representation. But it may not be by submitting it, blindly, to the top agencies. More likely, if you have written something of real quality, you can also write emails, letters, blog posts, tweets and Facebook statuses in an inviting, memorable and witty way.
There has never been an easier time to attract attention to yourself. To make yourself and your work stand out. All you need to do is convince people that it would benefit them to invest their time in you and your material. Because that’s how the business works.
Everyday, execs in the movie business, and screenwriters, directors and producers, are online, engaging, participating, looking for something great. Your job is to find a way to get them to ask you to read your stuff. The way to do that is not by asking them. It’s by creating a smart, inviting, entertaining persona, by not seeming crazy or desperate or scary,
“Yeah,” I can hear you saying, “but that’s not fair. All I should have to do is write the great script. I don’t want to have to be some kind of online trick monkey.”
Okay. Don’t create an online persona. Take a scene from the screenplay and film it. Cheaply. And put it on YouTube. Or on your own site. If it’s really great, other people will start linking to it and before you know it, agents will be asking you to please send them the entire screenplay.
“Yeah,” I can hear you saying, “but I’m not a director. I don’t have the money, I don’t—“
Okay. Don’t film it. How’s this. Submit the script to The Blacklist. It’ll cost you about fifty dollars, you’ll get reviewed by professional readers, and if they like it—
So take a trip to LA. Find out where assistants at the various agencies go to drink or party, make friends with them—
“Not very social—“
Fine. Put the screenplay up, in its entirety, on your site, then buy some online ads in places film people go, cheap ones, to drive traffic to the site—
“No money to do that. Why can’t it just work like this: I send the script in to CAA or WME. They read it and call me and then send a dump truck filled with money and fame to my house?”
The point is this: there are huge barriers to entry in the movie and television business. There always have been. It’s a simple question of numbers and reality. And your choice is, really, to complain about how hard it is to get representation or to go out there and do something so amazing that the representation finds you.
Because that’s what the story of our first screenplay is really about. I’m not saying the screenplay was amazing. But the fact that Harvey Weinstein bought it was. To the industry. And they reacted in kind.
Worry about the work. Do the work. When it really is undeniable, your challenge won’t be finding an agent. It’ll be choosing from all the ones begging you to sign with them.
I told this as a twitter story. Posted here without hashtags. This story is 100 per cent true.
Phillip Roth and Me. A mico-memoir.
Just married. 25 years old. Move into pre-war on Upper West Side of NYC.
Get in elevator one night, with my wife, Amy–and standing there, looking every bit like himself, is…Phillip Roth.
Yep. Phillip Fucking Roth. And I can’t help myself.
“Mr. Roth,” I say as the elevator man puts the thing in gear, “Portnoy’s Complaint is a very important book to me.”
Well, my son, did it improve your character?” Roth asks as the elevator arrives at my floor.
I gesture towards Amy and, thinking myself clever say, “you’ll have to ask her.”
We step onto our floor. But just before the doors close, Roth leans out and says, “Well, it’s not supposed to.” And chuckles.
Leaving me to look like an idiot in front of my 21 year old bride.
Turns out that Roth lives 10 floors above us.
Every morning on the subway to work back then (this is before I became a writer), I’d read. And I read two or three novels a week.
All sorts of shit.
One morning I was reading some sort of popular fiction. Real crap that I dug. And as I got to the front door I hesitated.
What if Roth saw the book? He’d think I was even more of a schmuck than he already did.
So I, in a fit of intellectual insecurity, left the book at home.
Of course, he wasn’t in the elevator. And I had nothing to read all day.
Worse, The train home gets stuck en route and I have nothing to read for the 45 minutes we are stranded.
All I do is sit there and stew at myself–how can I be both so intellectually insecure and also so egotistic as to…
1) care what Roth thinks about what I read and 2) imagine that he would either notice or give a shit at all.
This was Phillip Goddamn Roth.
Why the fuck would he care what the kid in 5B was ingesting through the eyes?
And also, what were the fucking chances we would run into each other. I had still only seen him seven times total in the 3 years.
I resolve to read whatever the fuck I wanted from them on and to just generally calm the fuck down about all this crap.
So after that, I’d read whatever wherever.
Except. One morning I was carrying another popular novel. I got to the front door. Hesitated.
Remembered my promise to myself and kept moving. e
The elevator door opened. In I walked. And standing there was the man himself.
I quickly leaned against the wall, sliding the book behind my leg.
But he noticed. Hard. ”Eh, eh. Uh uh. What’ve you got there? What are you hiding?” said Roth.
“Um…this…” said I.
“Ah yes…” the great man said, already going into a strong Roman
accent, “Mario Puzo…” and he rolls the R sound…
And smiling wide, he continues, “The Last Don, one of the greats…”
“Well, I’m just…”
“It’s no use, young man. Curt here,” and he points to the elevator man, “is on assignment. He keeps records for me.
No matter what you do, you can’t hide! I always know what you’re reading.”
And then the elevator hits bottom, Roth gets out, and I am left standing there, all alone with Curt, feeling like a total ass.
I hear Roth laughing as he strolls the fuck out of the front door of the building, into his town car…
Leaving me standing in the lobby, not moving, book clenched so hard in my hand as to cause my fingers to hurt.
As the father of a daughter, I had trouble falling asleep last night, after watching the coverage of the shootings in Santa Barbara.
As the father of a daughter, I know how much those girls were loved, how badly their parents wanted to keep them safe, how hopeless the world must seem to them this morning.
As the father of a daughter, I watched the video of the killer with horror but not surprise. I’ve seen men with that look in their eyes. Young men and old men. Men who in other areas of their lives might be kind, empathetic and reasonable, but for whom women are objects, enemies, a battle ground to be won and taken.
As the father of a daughter, I want to tell her how to safeguard herself from men like that, teach her how to talk to them in a way that won’t rile them up, won’t make her a target.
As the father of a daughter, I know that isn’t possible. There is nothing a woman can do to prevent a man from deciding that he should possess her, dominate her, take her, own her.
As the father of a daughter, I worry about sexual predators. Rapists who murder, kidnap, assault. Rapists who act like friends, who might, until the very moment they get her alone, be friends. Rapists who sidle up next to her in a bar and drop something in her drink.
As the father of a daughter, I worry about men who, while not sexual predators, are–because there’s not a better word for it– creepy and whom might catcall her, grab her, slap her rear as she walks by, just make her feel weird and grossed out by how they look at her.
As the father of a daughter, I worry about how boys her age might objectify and pressure her, and how the group dynamic can turn ugly at a moment’s notice, attacking the weakest with recklessness and brutality.
As the father of a daughter, there are things I worry about that I cannot even write out, but that I could find without any effort if I just typed a few search terms into google.
As the father of a daughter, I wish that all men would take just a moment, today, to look inside, to decide if they are proud of the way they stare at women on the street, the way they talk to them in bars, the way they talk about them when they feel the women are just out of earshot.
As the father of a daughter, I feel complicit. I’ve been at poker games, football games, street fairs and business meetings, on message boards and in email chains, where I’ve heard comments about women, tinged with a particular kind of frustrated anger, that I have chosen to ignore. Because it’s easier to ignore them than to be ostracized, thought unmanly, excluded.
As the father of a daughter, I promise, from this moment on, to have zero tolerance, to be vigilant, to remember that all women are someone’s daughter, and to be brave enough to remind others of that, when they need reminding.
As the father of a daughter, I want so many things to be different. I want her to feel free, unselfconscious about what she wears, how she looks, who’s safe to be alone with. I want her to grow up and find love, and to be able to express herself sexually when the time is right (40, 50 years from now), without being made to feel used, cheapened, possessed. Without feeling shameful, slutty, wanton.
As the father of a daughter, I want to keep the doors locked and my little girl inside. But…
As the father of a daughter, I know she needs to learn, each day, how to survive, how to thrive, how to live. And…
As the father of a daughter, I recognize her strength, her instincts, and I have to trust that they will serve her, guide her. So…
As the father of a daughter, I hold the door open instead and smile as she walks through it, hoping she doesn’t see fear in my face.
As the father of a daughter, I am grieving for the fathers who felt about their daughters exactly how I feel about mine, only to have their special little girls ripped from them by a monster.
As the father of a daughter, I need to stop writing this now, so that I can go and give my daughter a hug, to tell her that whatever’s bothering her today will be gone tomorrow, but that I won’t be.
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.
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 other day, after seeing this Vine…
…my friend Penn Jillette emailed me: “unless they suck.” Now, I sort of spoke to that in this Vine…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.