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Friday, July 13, 2007

Writing From the Deepest Part of Yourself

I cannot tell you, Rouge Wavers, how many scripts I read in which it is clear that the writer is every character in the script – if not most baldly, the main character. Very often, younger male writers write scripts which are fantasies about the way they wish their lives were. These are scripts about endless parties, good buddies who are constantly funny and busty, lusty girls and lots of ‘em. But female writers can do it too. Women writers who fall into this trap write some version of a famous man – usually a rock star – who is sexy and sought after but he sees the main character (the writer) for who she is. And he chooses her above all others. It’s a pulp romance fantasy that many women have. And there’s nothing wrong with that fantasy. But it doesn’t make a very interesting script.

That’s the thing: writing a fantasy version of your life and figuring that other people will care is a big mistake. One must differentiate between writing one’s own fantasy, whether that be recreating the past you wish you had or conjuring up an alternative life for yourself if everything was perfect versus writing a story about the human experience. Don’t write about your life, write about life.

In order to have audience appeal, movies need to speak to us as humans. Movies, and the character in them need to be relatable, in other words. But here’s what most novice writers do: You’ve gone through a bitter divorce from your pro wrestling husband. So you write a script about a wonderful, beautiful, talented woman who divorces her jerk of a…wait for it….pro wrestling husband. And trust me on this, the work just won’t sing. Because it’s too personal for you.

Back away from the specificity of your own life and take a deeper, more universal view. If you’ve gone through a divorce, you know about feelings of anger, grieving and new horizons. You know about betrayal and loss and late alimony checks. So how can you translate the feelings generated for you by your particular experience into a story that all audiences can relate to? Here’s a hint: how about story that has nothing to do, specifically with divorce, but rather a story about loss and endings and new beginnings. Use what you know to write about what you feel; what is true for all of us will show up on the page.

When I read Anna Karenina I was amazed, on every page, as I reflected upon Tolstoy’s ability to see inside of a woman’s heart – perfectly. And I’m pretty sure he didn’t that particular experience, being a man and all.

The ability to separate yourself from your work is, in the Wave-inatrix’s opinion, the only truly great gulf that separates real writers from dilettantes. Writers are conduits for stories that seem to come from without. We are translators of the human experience. Many writers have experienced the strange feeling of dialogue just coming through them. I know writers who have penned entire acts of a script and don’t really know how they did it; it was almost trancelike. We have rituals and talismans, we sit in the same way by the same window – we’ll do anything to let that muse pour through us.

My first script was not only completely terrible – I still cringe – but completely self-reflective and ultimately self-aggrandizing. I didn’t realize it at the time. It was only several years later that I looked back and realized why I was really writing that awful script. It was an ode to myself and how cool I am and how I wish love could be. No wonder it sucked. I have since written many more scripts and several short stories. I have had people who have read a short story of mine meet me for the first time and be blown away – wow, I thought you were a man. I thought you were black. I thought you were way younger. Why? Because the story came from points of view that are my own but not at all my own. The story came from outside of me and from within me at the same time.

Think of a mountain stream. The water flows at two different levels; the rushing water on top, crashing against the rocks and splashing and tumbling, and the water which runs much more slowly across the sandy streambed, dappled with sun, where the fish swim. That is where your writing should come from – from that deeper, more universal part of yourself, not from your ego or surface consciousness.

I had a conversation with another consultant recently who is writing a book focused on this very topic. Our discussion was enlivening and elucidatory and I know he is doing writers a great service to really talk about this issue. He speaks of needing to separate from the Self in order to be a truly great writer. As we discussed it, we both agreed that essentially only one thing can get a writer to that place of writing from the deeper part of themselves – experience. But it is my hope that being conscious of the fact that your script just might be self-referential is a step in the right direction. The ability to write about places you’ve never been and people the likes of which you’ve never met is a gift that will serve you for the rest of your life as a writer.

To be able to write about a woman getting a divorce simply because she is a human being experiencing the end of something – even if you are 23 and never been married and are a guy – that is the mark of a writer.

It bears repeating: Use what you know to write about what you feel; what is true for all of us will show up on the page.

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JPS said...

When my most recent novel was published I was asked in interviews how I could have written an entire work of fiction with a woman as protagonist--and to have the utter gall to write it from her point of view. Being a male, I of course couldn't possibly carry something like that off.

Though I hated to even hint at comparing myself to them, I of course mentioned Tolstoy and Flaubert. I can't, of course, put myself within the personality of a female--it's an experience completely exterior to me (though I grew up in a household of women, and have a wife and a daughter). But I can imagine it. And that's my job: to imagine and to try as best as I can to convince the reader or viewer.

[sic] said...

Thanks to Creative Screenwriting I found your blog. I wanted to take a moment to say thank you for the very insightful article.

Julie Gray said...

You're welcome!