Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Secrets of Failure (Part One)

I’m a screenwriter. It says so, right on my tax return. Occasionally and with increasing seriousness, I wonder what the hell else I could do for a living if I didn’t write. This self-evaluation usually comes on the heels of a bad experience in what is called “The Business,” a phrase I’ve always liked because it indicates on the part of the speaker a belief that there’s only one industry worth discussing.

So, when I’ve had a bad meeting or a bad experience with a script or, worse, a bad experience with a production, I wonder what I’d do if I decided to hang it all and seek something else to pay the rent.

This intense self-evaluation usually lasts about five minutes, cut off by the realization that through my own pigheadedness and refusal to learn a recognizable trade, the only think I’m even marginally qualified to do is to teach others about writing…and I’m not so sure helping someone move closer to the “business” is such a noble idea. While the Earthly rewards are substantial, writing for television and movies is more likely to be discouraging, disappointing and frustrating. This is an industry where quality is not a factor, and where sincerity, talent and originality are often impediments to a career. It is a business about which someone said, “If they find out you care, they’ll use it against you.”

The books on television and movie writing I’ve looked at seem reluctant to discuss this aspect of the business. Most of them avoid the difficulties and responsibilities and proceed to render writing down to a series of logical steps, a checklist for creativity. Building story and character, they tell you, is simply a matter of following instructions and filling in the blanks. “You can write a screenplay! It’s easy and fun! Fool your friends! Confound your enemies!” It’s simply a matter of slavish devotion to formula and the following of rigid form.

I have to confess I haven’t looked at any of these books or courses seriously. Every once in awhile I used to take a quick peek in the latest one at the bookstore just to see what I’ve been missing. I usually found such nuggets of wisdom as: “Make Sure Your Characters Are Interesting.” Now I avoid these bromide-laden epics the way I avoid the “grammar check” on my word processing software. The one time I turned the thing on it flagged so many errors with such barely concealed contempt that I believe the machine thought English was not my first language.

People are falling all over themselves, offering to sell you the secrets of success. Which has led me to wonder: What about The Secrets of Failure? What about that closely held inside information that can set the tread of a struggling writer firmly on the road to the twin temples of obscurity and impecunity?

In the great tradition of niche marketing, I realized this was the gap I could fill. Let others explain plot and incident point and how to end all your action paragraphs with an ellipse to draw the eye of the weary executive ever onward into your cutting edge but comfortably familiar buddy movie about the dad who magically turns into a snowman and who, in order to regain the love of his cancer stricken son, travels across country with a wisecracking computer generated parrot who makes rapidly dating cultural references, in order to participate in an ultra-violent armored car robbery which will be shot like a music video, and the planning of which must, for some inexplicable reason, take place in a strip club.

No, I will let others take care of that part of your education. Me, I want you to develop a really annoying sense of right and wrong. A luminous knowledge of worth and purpose that will gnaw like a rat at the corner of your brain every time you’re tempted to compromise. If that doesn’t put the kibosh on your career, I don’t know what will.

While I believe good writing should challenge convention and authority and stoke the fires of righteous indignation, I’m convinced it also has a more human mission: To relieve pain, confirm love, spark joy, and sit in hospital rooms holding the hands of the dying.

I believe drama is a place we go to try out emotions and learn how to be human. Maybe it can’t change the world, but it can change a world. A play can do that, a novel, a poem, a movie, a television show, or any part thereof. I’m not suggesting everything has to be a sermon or that you can’t jazz around and have fun. You don’t have to teach when you write, but you have to be aware that someone will learn something from what you’ve written.

Most of my adult life, I’ve had a quote from John Gardner’s Art of Fiction within sight of wherever I’ve written. It’s a very simple, easy to follow instruction from the exercise section of the book. It goes like this:

“To write with taste, in the highest sense, is to write with the assumption that one out of a hundred people who read one’s work may be dying, or have some loved one dying; to write so that no one commits suicide, no one despairs; to write, as Shakespeare wrote, so that people understand, sympathize, see the universality of pain, and feel strengthened, if not encouraged to live on.”

The amazing thing isn’t that I’ve always used this quote as something to reach for with my own writing. The amazing thing is that in spite of that, I’ve actually made a living as a writer.

There’s another quote. Sort of the “anti-Gardner” quote, something at the dark end of the spectrum. About a year before I was born, Raymond Chandler wrote a letter to his English publisher. He took the occasion to look back at his career in Hollywood. In part he wrote:

“Like every writer or almost every writer, who goes to Hollywood, I was convinced in the beginning that there must be some discoverable method of working in pictures which would not be completely stultifying to whatever creative talent one might happen to possess. But like others before me I discovered that this was a dream. Too many people have too much to say about a writer’s work. It ceases to be his own. And after a while he ceases to care about it. He has brief enthusiasms, but they are destroyed before they can flower. People who can’t write tell him how to write. He meets clever and interesting people, and may even form lasting friendships, but all this is incidental to his proper business of writing. The wise screenwriter is he who wears his second-best suit, artistically speaking, and doesn’t take things too much to heart. He should have a touch of cynicism, but only a touch. The complete cynic is as useless to Hollywood as he is to himself. He should do the best he can without straining at it. He should be scrupulously honest about his work but he should not expect scrupulous honesty in return. He won’t get it. And when he has had enough, he should say goodbye with a smile, because for all he knows he may want to go back.”

I copied that out of a book on Chandler’s letters long before I had a real appreciation of what he was saying so I’m hard pressed to know why I singled out this one section. I guess part of me has always wanted to prove him wrong. But I haven’t managed to do that. Instead I’ve collected experiences that prove rather than refute what he said. He got it right and he got it right in such telepathic detail that his sentences feel less like observations and more like memories; like finding something unfamiliar written unmistakably in your own hand.

In a way I’ve spent the whole of my professional life riding the continuum between these two quotes; trying to reconcile a simple, clear-headed mandate to follow your bliss and do the right thing, with an equally simple, equally clear-minded assessment of a very inhospitable terrain. Back and forth, between the muse and the monsters. It’s a lopsided trip. There is the gentle pendular swing to the hopeful apex and the shuttlecock whack at the other extreme. Imagine yourself a five-year-old in a swing under a big maple tree on a June day. You go higher and higher until you can almost see all of the valley and the river hidden by the trees. You have a moment of euphoria and weightlessness at the top of the arc; the air is sweet, the sun warm, you can see forever and everything makes sense. That’s when they move the wood-chipper in behind you. Zoooooom. Such is the life of a screenwriter. My world and welcome to it.


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