4.27.2008

Bitch Slaps and Gravy

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Life doesn’t give with both hands. But sometimes after it bitch slaps you with one, it takes you a while to see what it’s offering with the other. I’ve been so focused on hating my job and trying to see the forest for the trees, that I’ve been missing out on the little stuff, the basics that make up who I am and what I need in order to get to that damned forest.

I’ve been so obsessed with finding the right job, making the right next step, meeting the right people and finding that missing link in my quest to write for TV that I’ve done a pretty amazing job recently of short-changing a pretty crucial aspect of this whole quixotic enterprise: the writing.

And so I’ve been employing the covert ordinance tactics à la Dan Rydell, and banging my head against the wall – and meanwhile life has been laying these reminders at my feet, one by one. All these eye-opening tidbits about the craft of writing. Now that I look at it, these things have been bombarding me from all over like Tribbles. They’re everywhere, furry and breeding like, well, Tribbles. I’m buried in the things. But it took stepping back and looking at all of this stuff as a whole for me to get my head out of my ass, to look at the whole gleaming range of it, see all those trees – and smile.

It’s so easy to focus on all the things one doesn’t have. To focus on where you want to be instead of where you are; lord knows I’m terrible at living in the present. But all of those other things, down the line – they’re all just gravy. And it’s damn fine gravy, and I wanna slather my whole damn plate in it. But it’s gravy. And there are so many things in relation to my writing, to what I do, that I needed reminding of – I mean, I want to get paid for what I do, but it’d probably help if I focus a bit more on that doing part of it, the writing that makes up the here and now.

So life handed me a much-needed bitch slap – or a Tribble-ish series of them. And I’m glad. Please-sir-may-I-have-another and all that. So I’m going to list said bitch slaps here, so I can go over them again myself, maybe toss some out there to the rest of you, as reminders to busy ourselves with on our way to that big gravy boat in the sky. Only hopefully we won’t be dead. So, a gravy boat on the horizon, maybe.

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THE BITCH SLAPS:

1. Writers write.


Oh, glorious revelations! I know, I know. But stick with me, I’ve veering a tad off of the obvious here. On a basic level, it’s a good reminder that playing the game out here in the desert is important and necessary, but you’re only a writer if you write. I know plenty of people out here who put on an amazing show, but don’t seem to have anything aside from a few scripts from years back that they’re eternally “rewriting.” Or mountains of ideas, but very few pages. Last week I unearthed an E.L. Doctorow quote etched in chicken scrawl from a veritable land mine of post-it notes, and then managed to find that I had emailed this same quote at some point to my friend E, who then posted it on her own writing blog:

“What’s a writer? Someone who writes. Planning to write is not writing. Outlining a book is not writing. Researching is not writing. Talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.”

If that’s not a vicious circle of bitch slaps, well, then I’m turning a blind eye to it, because I really just love using the term “vicious circle.” But I haven’t been spending enough time on simply writing. I have too many projects on my front burner, too many outlines on rotation. I spend too much time writing freelance stuff, or prepping and then deleting posts for this blog.

But the more important part of all of this is the focusing on the gravy. Of course I want to get paid to write for TV. Of course there’s nothing I want more than to be part of a writing staff. But that won’t make me a writer. I think I get hung up on the term “professional writer.” Like when someone asks me what I do, and God knows I’m not going to say, “Oh, I’m a Loan Assistant at First Succubus Bank.” But sometimes I find it hard to say, “I’m a writer.” As if I don’t have enough to back it up. As if Jane Espenson or Aaron Sorkin regularly pull out their pay stubs or W-2’s to back up their answers to this question.

A writer writes. And that’s all that makes them a writer. They write every day, because what would they rather be doing? Everything else is gravy.

2. Writing-to-TV Ratio

By this I mean the ratio of the time you spend writing TV to the time you spend watching it. Maggie (with whom I had pie yesterday and who is just the nicest, most energetic person I’ve met out here, and her spirit and work ethic are just infectious – grab Maggie, a fork, and a cut of your pie of choice for an immediate remedy of all blues writerly) has recently discovered that her own ratio is well above 1:1.

This is something I haven’t been paying attention to, possibly because I’m ashamed of the numbers. But I’d have to guess my ratio right now would be something like 1:3. At least 1:2. Which is horrible. It’s a necessity of the field to watch TV. But what’s the answer here? More writing, or less time watching TV in order to provide more time writing? As per whether or not I’m watching too much TV, that’s a question for the experts – or my mother. But until I find a way to squeeze another hour into my already shrinking days, maybe I need to reprioritize.

3. Final Draft Fear

There are all sorts of output issues with writers. I remember someone telling me about a writer they know who pumps out ten scripts a year. Ten scripts! I’m willing to bet that this writer doesn’t view that as a negative thing, but I’m willing to bet even more that it is a very, very negative thing. But there’s also those writer’s that have a Robert Towne complex and can’t seem to get anything on paper. These issues and hang ups (from being having a horrible time pushing through the first rewrite to being unable to tolerate the outline process), are as varietal as snow flakes.

But the one that often comes up for me is that I love breaking a story, I love researching ideas (most of the time), and I love the writing when I get in the swing of things. But it’s that swing. Transitioning from the outline to writing that first draft – it’s like I packed way too many clowns into the comically tiny car, and I just can’t get that first clown out. Once I do, they come parading out just fine. But it’s that first clown.

And I was talking to Maggie about this, and it was a reminder to me of something that I knew, but I had never really verbalized. Final Draft Fear. I think the problem is that this idea is so perfect and comfortably unformed and morphic. But when it gets set down into a courier type face, all of a sudden it can start to look less and less like what you were envisioning. And I think part of it is that Final Draft immediately starts to make things look so final. The form is there, it’s all so picturesque and proper on the page.

Which is why I find it easier to write somewhere else first. A notebook can be good – but writing by hand just isn’t fast enough to keep up with my mind. So I usually write in Word, format be damned. It just is what it is on the page. A mess, but a mess that’s going somewhere.

And then I let Final Draft be my software of choice for my Final Draft. Well, it’s more like a Final First Draft. But you get the point. I also like this process because I don’t import my work into Final Draft, I rewrite it. It’s like another revision stage. It forces me to rewrite it all out, to rethink all of those choices. It also allows me to focus on the words and the structure. I have the ideas written out, now I’m just putting another coat of shine onto it.

I read somewhere that D.H. Lawrence liked to write a draft, and then throw it away, and start from scratch.

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He figured that anything that worked or was any good would stick to the fly paper of his mind and it would survive in the new draft, and anything that was tangential or superfluous would thankfully be lost. What I’m describing isn’t the same thing, but it’s somewhere between Lawrence’s method and just importing the previous work to Final Draft.

4. Good Eggs

I’m become really aware lately of the necessity of surrounding yourself with good eggs. People whose writing you admire and will push and inspire your own. People who are positive and hopeful and encouraging, and people who will be honest with you and tell you what you need to hear, not what you they think you want to hear. All very important. And it takes a few forms.

Writer’s Groups.

I think they’re amazing and wonderful. But they’re also kind of like socialism. They’re built on an ideal concept and it’s easy to think that a legit group just doesn’t exist in reality. (Not that I aspire to socialistic ideals or anything, just to make that clear.) But I don’t think this is true. They’re out there. But they’re hard to find. You want the support and encouragement, but you don’t want it without the tough love honesty. I don’t need someone to tell me that my work is awesome. I need someone with fresh eyes who’s going to tell me what’s still snagging and keeping it from being what it could be. A lot of the time we all need help to face the weaker aspects of our scripts. And without those steps forward, we’re less likely to get noticed and to dive head-first into the gravy.

You hear about amazing writing groups. I remember Peter Hedges giving a talk at Northwestern once, and he mentioned being in a writer’s group with M. Night Shyamalan many years ago. I think he said some other stuff after that, but I zoned out, envisioning this writer’s group that spawned not one, but at least two successful writers. I mean, c’mon. So I’m still looking.

Postive energy.

It’s remarkably easy in this town to become really negative. And I’m doing all I can to distance myself from this (yet again, several posts in this blog to the contrary (sheepish grin)). But I’m getting really tired of a lot things that I keep running into:

- Candle Blowing. When good things happen to people around us, I know people who insist upon cutting them down, or reframing their achievements in some negative way, to make the rest of us feel better. It’s just cheap and pathetic. Let’s celebrate all victories, big or small, ours or theirs. I know I could use more celebrations. Bring on the party hats.

- Pity parties. I’ve been witness to and party of way too many pity parties. Often just an excuse to drink, or to somehow remove any shred of culpability in our own attempts to make the next step forward in our careers. Enough of that. The buck stops here.

- Hope. There’s a shortage of hope out there. There can be a haze gloom and desperation in this town. I want the hope, please. If you can’t hope for it, if you can’t see it happening, how will it ever happen? I’ve been really into intentionality lately. When athletes train, it’s incredibly common to couple physical practice with mental projection techniques. You’ve got to see the ball swishing through the hoop in order for your physical training to follow through. And I think that has its correlation to writing. You’ve got to hope. You’ve got to see things coming together, both in terms of the page and in your career. I know a lot of people who have some kind of superstitious paranoia about all of this. They can’t talk about a script, or they can’t mention a job prospect, whether it’s a wild shot or a good shot, because if they do it won’t happen. As if there’s some mystical force out there handing out the Yay and Nay’s too all the Would Be’s out there. Enough of that too. Hope for it. See it.

- Greatness leads to Greatness. I’m also done with small people. People who insist on telling you how hard something will be – or how much of a long shot it is. Hey, we’re trying to write TV for a living. We’re all in a Hail Mary pass fantasy pool, OK? We’re not trying to be engineers or investment bankers; we left practicality at the door. I don’t need anyone to reframe my life choices, or to belittle my ambitions.

I’m forever fascinated with – and admiring of – people that are amazing writers, or just amazing people, and who are forever encouraging of others. They’re great people and great writers who make other people believe that they too can be great.

That is nothing short of amazing. And necessary. It’s mana from the heavens. These are the best eggs to surround yourself with.

ps. This is much longer than I expected. I’ll come back next time with the rest.

1 comment:

Maggie said...

Yay for pie and dramatic renewal of purpose!!!