Monday, June 30, 2008

Why I Write: To stratch the itch

It's an itch.

The nagging feeling that I should be writing, that I need to write now, and I'm wasting the precious minutes of my life doing whatever it is I'm doing now, and everything will be better with the world if I can just get to that page. If I can stratch the itch.

I've learnt over the last few years that I need to keep my life in balance. There are a number of dimensions in my life that need to all be taken care of if I'm to remain happy.

Writing is definitely one of those dimensions - much as I try to deny myself it should be. After all, what's writing? My self-indulgent inner workings which may never see the light of day... Why should I need to write?

Except I've caught myself time and time again feeling down, wondering what is bothering me, and realising that I haven't been writing for the last week. The itch is the symptom of that need to write, and it's good to listen to it before my mood starts getting worse.

Luckily for me, stratching the itch doesn't take too long. Ten minutes working on a story idea is usually enough to lose the itch and feel all is right in the world (I have a very low work threshold combined with an impressive ability to deceive myself that if I've started on an idea, I'm almost there...)

So maybe I'm an addict and writing is my fix. Or maybe I'm healthy and the itch is a reminder that I could get sick. I like to think the latter, but then again, it's cool to be an addict. Who wants to be healthy all the time?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Why I Write: To recover

For periods between 2001 and 2004, I was working at home full-time as a writer. Projects included an unfinished and as yet untitled Katherine Mansfield biopic (various title suggestions include the completely unsuitable Katherine Mansfield and the Spiders from Mars) and a similarly unfinished fictional future documentary called Only Human.

Writing full-time was my dream and aspiration as a career. But I found this to be one of the hardest times of my life to date.

Writing was bringing out very dark feelings in me. Expectation of failure, tension, a lack of self-belief bordering on depression. Writing put me into a bad mood. Half an hour was enough for me to feel tense and want to lash out.

At the same time I really wanted to do it. I was drawn to writing, but the actual process of writing was really hard.

The immediate source for these negative feelings about writing was the damaging experiences I'd had while writing for the television series I co-created, Love Bites.

First, and most of all, I'd had a very hard time writing (or not succeeding in writing) parts of that show. The first episode, which I was in charge of, was rewritten too many times to remember. A few things fed into that experience in hindsight - uncertainty about my abilities and how to channel them in high pressure situations, a lack of clarity around what I wanted to produce, tight deadlines and the pressure of a production riding on my output, and sheer overwork.

Second, the show didn't make much of an impression in the cultural consciousness, so the sacrifices didn't seem to pay off into the finished product. The show came in for some criticism as well as some praise. My ego took a battering and that's something I've had to recover from as well.

The thing is, once the series had finished, I was eager to put into practice some of the lessons I'd learnt from writing on the show. And to improve on what I'd done. But now the actual process of writing had become incredibly difficult for me.

How did I get out of that? Persistence - I pushed through it by continuing to write. Awareness - knowing the writing process was hard for me, so not being so surprised when I felt bad while writing. Listening - hearing the negative voices inside of me, letting them have their say, and become part of me. Balance - I had come to place such pressure on writing that success or failure was too important to me. My life is now more balanced and I'm happier.

Writing still puts me in a bad mood. The less familiar I am with a particular part of the writing process (e.g. developing the idea, writing the first draft, editing), the more likely it is to bring out difficult feelings in me and more quickly. So the healing is ongoing. It's made me nervous of combining pressure situations and writing, which is something I still want to get over.

The process of writing Love Bites wasn't the only thing that caused me to feel the way I did then. The show came along at a particular time when I had a lot to learn, and I learned a lot from it. So I don't regret the show or blame the show - actually I thank it now and appreciate it.

Writing was hard before the show, and I think it'll always be hard. But it doesn't need to be as hard as that time of my life. I'm feeling the pleasures more now than the hurts, and that's something to celebrate.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Why I Write: For the pleasure

Writing is (often) a pleasurable activity for me.

There's the delight of feeling something falling into place. The 'Aha!' moment, where I find just the right line that I'm proud of, or just the right point to end the scene, or just the right insight into the character. The bigger the insight for me, the bigger the thrill. But I very much enjoy the feeling of getting it right, and the continuing glow afterwards - which I stoke up by reading over and over something that I feel is right. I can dote on a favourite line for hours...

There's the joy of knowing something is on track and going somewhere good. It's the expectation of the finished good work combined with a sense that my life is on track. I don't need to be immediately working on a project to have this feeling, so it doesn't necessarily lead me towards actually completing anything!

And there's the deep satisfaction of accomplishment - the 'Ahhhh' moments where I feel I can sit back, take it easy, and crack open a beer (or a can of Coke in my case). I've overcome the fear of the blank page and persisted long enough to take the work all the way from A to Z.

I hope I would be able to take the conscious choice to give up writing if I didn't experience these pleasures from time to time. I fear I wouldn't be able to - maybe I'm enough of a masochist and dedicated enough to pursue in the face of receiving no reward whatsoever... Luckily, even when I haven't felt good about writing at all, I've eventually come through to a place where I do derive these pleasures from writing again.

It's those darker emotions that writing generates for me that are going to be the subject of my next post.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Why I Write: To be liked

I've struggled with low self-esteem and still do, but to a lesser extent. One of the reasons I took up writing was to be liked for what I do rather than who I am.

Writing is something that people like. They generally respect or admire writers, particularly successful ones. So getting on the writing bandwagon seemed like a good way to get me some of that action.

There are at least three flaws with this plan.

First, writing can lead to respect and admiration. But that doesn't mean people will like me. Success doesn't bring personal connection - in fact it tends to distance people. Fans do not like the person they are fans of - they admire them. They place them at a different level to themselves. I don't have fans in this way, but I have seen this phenomenon in action, and have seen it's the person who is being admired who has to work to build a personal connection. It's actually kind of tiring!

But at least people are positive towards you though, which leads me to the second flaw.

Writing is always in danger of being judged negatively, particularly when you're starting out and maybe the work isn't all that good yet. Someone is not going to like what you've writtten, and particularly if they are a guy between 17 and 25 years of age there's a good chance they are going to tell you that, at the party at which you've just met them. Which doesn't really bolster a weak self-esteem.

The third flaw is probably the biggest, and the trap for the actual writing. If I write to be liked, this negatively influences what I write. I don't take risks. I avoid certain topics. I stick to the known in order to create a known effect. And the work is never as good.

Writing is not for the faint-hearted or for people with self-esteem issues. Writing has helped me with my self-esteem issues by forcing me to confront that I can't rely on external support to always feel good about myself. To be liked has transformed over time into To not rely on what others think of me. Which is all very positive but still not always the case!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Why I Write: To create something of meaning

This is very important to me. I want to write work that inspires, because it has meaning.

But what do I mean by meaning? I have two questions and a test.

The first question is whether the story is meaningful to me. I'm going to spend a lot of time working on this story, and I need to know that it moves me. There's plenty of projects that don't fulfil this test, and plenty of them are worthwhile. Just because I think they're good ideas doesn't mean I personally should be working on them. I've already talked about the idea of pursuing the heart of the story, which I called the nugget. That glow of the nugget indicates the story has personal meaning for me.

(So what are the topics or themes I consider meaningful? One of my goals for this blog is to help me figure that out. I want to dig into the projects I have written and try to identify what was driving me to write them. By identifying these nuggets I expect to find some common topics and themes, and some I'll still want to be writing in the future.)

The second question is whether the story is meaningful to others. This is harder to accomplish, and is a true test of the writing.

I may find something I've written meaningful, but that may not be having that effect on a reader. That may be because I haven't written it well enough yet (entirely likely) or this person doesn't find that story as powerful as I do. Given it can be an individual response I try to show my work more widely. But if no one is relating to the story, then this particular piece of work either needs more work or is staying on the shelf.

So how can I test whether the story is meaningful? I've identifying three factors that I want the effect of a story to have, based on my own response to work that inspires me.

Force. A story must carry force. It must make an impact by the reader.
Depth. A story should affect the reader at a personal level. They should feel it affects them deeply.
Longevity. A story should have a lasting impact.

So when I say I want to write something meaningful, I think I mean I want to write something that forcefully strikes the reader at a personal level, the experience of which stays with the reader over time.

How about you? What does meaning mean to you?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Why I Write: To tell a story, but to practice it first

I am not a good oral storyteller. I used to be better - I've scared roomfuls of kids with ghost stories - but I'm out of practice and I feel it.

One thing that holds me back is a reluctance to repeat myself verbally. Once I've told something once, I can't be bothered telling it again. But of course that practice helps get the story right.

That unwillingness to repeat myself is turned on its head when I come to writing stories. Here, I'm happy to continue reiterating an idea over and over again.

The true advantage of the written story is I don't need to get it right first time. In fact I'm not expected to - I'm pretty much required to practice it. The culture of screenwriting is such that if you haven't done half a dozen drafts, you've barely started.

Actually I can smell fear at the heart of my positions about both modes of storytelling.

I'm afraid to tell a story orally in case I get it wrong. And I'm afraid to let go of the written story in case I get it wrong.

My challenge then is to get stories out there and not let practice get in the way of achievement!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Why I Write: For the money

One of the things that lured me into screenwriting (as opposed to say short story writing) was the promise of easy money. If I made just one million dollar sale I'd be set for life. And I'm not a greedy man. I'll take half that, particularly US money. The exchange rate's in our favour here.

So half a million dollars for one script. How long's that going to take me to bang out? A few weeks? Sweet.

Ten years plus later I have yet to make that big Hollywood sale. Or any Hollywood sale. Most Full members of the New Zealand Writers Guild earn less than $10,000 a year from writing, and I've been in that camp for a number of years now. But at least I have been paid and stuff I've written has been made. For a screenwriter anywhere that is a big deal.

So I've had to revise my Hollywood riches scenario a few times now over my screenwriting career. In fact I work full-time now so screenwriting doesn't have to pay the bills. This way, if some screenwriting money comes through to help pay for the bung door on the downstairs flat, I'm a happy man rather than a desperate man.

But there's still part of me waiting for that Hollywood money to flow. Easy money. And isn't that what screenwriting is all about - the fulfilment of dreams?

Monday, June 9, 2008

Why I Write: To find out why I'm driven to write this script

I'm currently working on two scripts - The Gap and Utopia, while I let a third script, Run, settle for a while after having written a very rough draft.

All three scripts are in approximately the same place - the process of finding out why I feel driven to write them.

There is something in all three of them that I cannot let go of. I'm going to call this something the nugget.

In the process of finding out what the nugget is, I will let go of vast amounts of extraneous ideas which surround the nugget. And I don't know what this extraneous dirt is and what the nugget is until I go through this process.

Should the protagonist in Run be a man? Turns out she's definitely a woman. Old or young? Young, but not too young. Is her love interest a man then? No, turns out she's gay.

Through feeling my way through all these choices, I somehow get closer and closer to the nugget that is driving me to write the script. Maybe the nugget is a question. Maybe it's an emotion. Maybe the nugget doesn't sit still. Can I trust it's worthwhile? I don't know, but it keeps on gleaming. And it promises answers.

On reflection that doesn't sound very trustworthy.