Why I Write, Part 2

Stanislavski, the well known acting coach, would ask his students “Are you in love with the art in yourself or yourself in the art.”

When I decided to devote my time to become a writer, with specific intent on being a screenwriter, I never really thought about what would come of being a successful screenwriter. Sure, I daydream of what it would be like to sell my first script and having well known directors and actors translate my words and my story to the big screen, but I never thought about it in terms of that being my “ultimate” goal. I just started thinking about what stories I wanted to write and then I would sit down in front of the computer and do it. The problem for me is that everything I have written and am writing right now, goes against everything that would help me break into the business. See, the types of stories I write are minimalist in nature. I am more into the internal reason why people act as they do. There have been fantastic movies written about people struggling internally like the loss of a loved one (“The Accidental Tourist”, “Ordinary People”, “The Doctor”, “Terms of Endearment”) and people struggling internally with alcoholism and self doubt (“Naked”, “Tender Mercies”, “The Hustler“, “Leaving Las Vegas”, “The Days of Wine and Roses”). These types of stories fascinate me - Writing stories about people struggling internally. Unfortunately for me, these are not the types of movies that are made today. I guess if I really wanted to increase my chances, I would change what I write. I could do as much research as I could about movies genres that are hot right now or have had a long run of commercial success like Horror movies and Romantic Comedies. Maybe I could write Saw VIII, the fifteenth movie about Jason, or a new sequel to the Halloween franchise. Maybe I could watch the last twenty years of the same romantic comedies that are, basically, of the same format and structure and then write as many as I could until I mastered it. This for me is down right boring and it would probably end in me giving up. The answer to this is that I will continue to write screenplays with characters that I would like to see on screen.

I bet you’re thinking…

Why do these types of stories fascinate you? Why do loneliness, alcoholism, and dealing with personal, internal struggles interest him so much?

To add to this…

Some of my favorite writers are people that have lead that type of life like Dostoevsky, Poe, Hemingway, Checkov, F. Scott Fitgerald, and many others that committed suicide, had bouts with alcoholism, or who had failed relationships that contributed to alcoholism and/or suicide.

It is not because I relate to those authors or their stories. In fact I am quite the opposite. I love life, I love to smile and I love to be in the company of friends and family. Nothing is better than spending time with people you love, laughing and having fun. The difference, I guess, is that we all have our internal things we are working out. We deal with these things on a daily basis - they don‘t go away. Often dealing with stuff like this leads to loneliness, alcoholism, depression and the separation of the inside world to the outside world. People have hard times dealing with the bad things life gives us. I ask myself, why aren’t more movies made about people who deal with these things? I am trying my best to change this.

AH HA moment

I have been struggling lately. Every time I would sit down at my computer and look a screenplay I am trying to write, or working on a prior script of mine, I would just sit there disgusted at what I was looking at. The format of a screenplay just bugged me. It was action line after action line, dialogue after dialogue. Nothing was coming out of me and if it did, it was shit.

If you’re thinking this is writers block, it’s not. During this time I have been writing short story after short story. Finding something to write has never been a problem for me. The problem is that I want to be a screenwriter, not a short story or novel writer. Usually when I have some sort of situation like this (usually it only lasts a couple days) I would do one of two things. The first thing that usually works for me is to watch movies. Movies, seeing what your ultimate goal is - your screenplay on screen - almost always pulls me out of the couch and puts me right back where I belong, the computer. Unfortunately for me, every movie I watched or started to watch just sucked, drawing me deeper into my temporary hatred for the screenplay format and everything about grinding out story (writing) is all about.

The second thing that usually helps me get out of my doldrums, is reading other people’s screenplays (www.simplyscripts.com is a great website to read screenplays of your favorite movies). The first screenplay I was able to read all the way through made me even more frustrated because it was something that I could have written, and in my view the two screenplays I have completed were every bit as good as the one that was made into this movie. Upon further reading of screenplays that were made into movies, I just couldn’t finish them. Once again the screenplay format (action lines and dialogue) just made me sick, I lost interest, resulting in trying a different screenplay until finally I gave up.

At this point I didn’t want anything to do with screenwriting. I even tried to read some articles, and that didn’t help. I would throw the magazines down and watch TV. This is murder for writers - not writing. Writing is my profession. I haven’t made a dime, and there is a very good possibility that I never will, but it is my profession. I have a job that puts food on the table and pays for the energy that allows this computer to be on as I write this, but I am always thinking about writing and story telling (if only those employees of mine understood this and left me alone).

The Ah-ha moment.

I dug into my closet about a week ago and pulled out the first book I ever bought on screenwriting. I pulled it out and it ended up sitting on my coffee table or next to me on my bed for that time, until today. The chapter I started to read was about screenplay structure. After reading about half of the chapter, I was BACK. I couldn’t wait to get to my computer and actually look at my screenplay. It has really given me a kick in the butt to look at the rewrite I’m working on and it has given me hope that the recent screenplay I gave up on, may have a possible resurrection. This brought me to thinking about life in general. No matter what you do for a living, everybody needs to look at things in a different light. Going through the motions and accepting things for the what they are and/or hoping it will get better (it never does unless you do something about it) never ends up being the right choice.

Now for my advice to you. It never hurts to even do the smallest thing that gets you out of the routine of life and even the pressure life gives us every day. Even if it means taking a walk around the neighborhood, eating lunch outside on a street or a park bench, or not only taking a different way home from work, but to stop, pull off the road, and take a look at something beautiful. This usually helps in breaking routine. For me it was to drop everything I was doing wrong, stop thinking about how frustrated I was with the screenplay format (hoping it would end) and to look at things differently. Now I see action lines and lines of dialogue as gold. Words have more meaning now. Instead of glancing at words and reading sentences, they started to pop out at me. Without words, I am lost.


Why I write (Thank you A. Chekhov)

I love when writers talk about why they write. When reading articles about writers, I always hope a question will be asked to them why writing is important to them - why they do what they do.

I read a passage from one of my personal literary heroes, Anton Chekhov. Chekhov, in my opinion, is the best minimalist short story writer that ever lived (Raymond Carver is a close second). Anton Chekhov wrote,

“Has it ever happened to you to experience a feeling as though some unseen force were drawing you out longer and longer? You are drawn out and turn into the finest wire. Subjectively this finds expression in a curious voluptuous feeling which is impossible to compare to anything.” - Chekhov, from “A Woman’s Kingdom”

When I’m writing I get that “…curious voluptuous feeling which is impossible to compare to anything.” It just grabs you, story (the unseen force). Why would anybody not want to create a world where characters can move your imagination past a place you never thought possible?

I will continue my pursuit of writing so others can tap into the joy I feel from the point where the idea of the story comes to me and I ask, “how can I make this story so enjoyable, and I hope memorable, that the reader of my words can not only feel something for just a few moments, but when I’m finished, my story has taken the reader out of a world that just isn’t working for them, for a fleeting moment.

Back to my words…


Travis Bickle and L.B. Jeffries

I started this blog to show my journey of being a screenwriter (I still believe I will be paid for this effort). The biggest frustrations of being a Spec screenwriter is the many of “rules” spec screenwriters are given. This is not a formal “do or don’t do” list but it shows up in the hundreds of articles I read. It’s like I have to break through some giant wall. It happens to us, as human beings. We are always having to prove ourselves to others, but once you do, you don’t have to follow specific rules, or guidelines.

Why are rules able to be broken once you are accepted in the world you want to join? In a way it seems like some initiation.

[personal memory] I remember when I became a member of the fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon. As a pledge, I had to go through 12 weeks of “training” of how to become a brother of the fraternity. I went through countless twelve to twenty four hours of non sleep, I was made to stand upright with my chin to my chest (humble position) for what seems like over an hour (I still can’t look directly down without pain). I was yelled at, made to remember useless facts, and treated like a dog. Yes, I would never trade that experience for anything (thank you SAE) but it basically sucked when I was doing it.

I could also make some similarities in regards to making it from a line employee to management, but I won’t. The biggest point I would make is that, spec writers (not including those paid writers who take chances writing spec scripts) are made to follow specific rules. The one, of the many, rules I would like to address today is that of the character introductions and, in general, action lines.

What I mean by character introductions, in terms of screenwriting, is that the reader (audience) is introduced through the description line (also known as action lines) of the writer’s characters in his/her screenplay. We as spec writers are told not to describe your characters in more than 2 or 3 lines. This will get in the way of pacing. It will turn the reader (that first person who has control of your screenplay) completely off, making him, or her throw it in the garbage and go on to the next of his or her 20 scripts to read that day. You can’t seem like you are writing a novel. You can’t write what can’t be seen on screen. You have to grab the reader in the first 10 pages. You have to jump right to dialogue - to the next scene and you must not let that reader drop your screenplay in the refused pile for any reason possible.

I follow this to the letter. Why shouldn’t I? It is what I am told by all the books, articles, and interviews of paid screenwriters I see every day.

With chin to my chest… I am humbled.

I started to read two of the most celebrated movies and screenplays of the current major motion picture history (I try to read at least some part of a screenplay everyday) and have found two random examples of how spec screenwriters are treated differently from those writers that have gotten into “the club”.

The first is from one of my favorite movies,

He is L.B. JEFFRIES. A tall, lean, energetic thirtyfive, his face long and serious-looking at rest, is in other circumstances capable of humor, passion, naïve wonder and the kind of intensity that bespeaks inner convictions of moral strength and basic honesty.

Written by John Michael Hayes
“Rear Window”
Based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich.

(This is an example of writing what you can’t see on screen.)

The second is from, the great, Paul Schrader…

TRAVIS BICKLE, age 26, lean, hard, the consummate loner. On the surface he appears good-looking, even handsome; he has a quiet steady look and a disarming smile which flashes from nowhere, lighting up his whole face. But behind that smile, around his dark eyes, in his gaunt cheeks, one can see the ominous stains caused by a life of private fear, emptiness and loneliness. He seems to have wandered in from a land where it is always cold, a country where the inhabitants seldom speak. The head moves, the expression changes, but the eyes remain ever-fixed, unblinking, piercing empty space.”

“Taxi Driver” written by Paul Schrader.

I love those descriptions. Can I get away with that? With the rules I have to follow, it is impossible. Both stories (movies) are exceptional and, in fact, iconic. I guarantee, those writers were paid before those words ever hit the page. What is a writer like me to do?

To My Friend, Richard

I have decided to stop production, so to speak, on my current screenplay. I just can’t find a story. I have a protagonist I love. He’s a sad character with such great upside that I want him to succeed. Unfortunately for him I can’t find his destination within the world I created for him and his co-stars (including the love of his life). Every protagonist must have an ending, a conclusion. Every time I think I’m on to something where I’m excited to take him on a journey, things fall flat.

Sorry buddy. I love you but I think you deserve more than just a story. You deserve an audience. What I have in my head right now would never see the light of day. You will stay on my computer and in my thoughts until I can find a story for you that can sell. Hang in there my friend.