It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.
Stephen King: On Writing
Some time ago I was watching video of a live performance by the late blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn. He was playing fiercely, passionately, covered in sweat, unaware of anything but his music. I watched and listened, and something dawned on me. This was no “ordinary” performance. It occurred to me that he wasn’t just playing his guitar — playing an original song he’d played a thousand times before.
He was channeling something.An energy was passing through him and into his hands and it was expressing itself through the guitar and amps. He was just a conduit for this energy.
Cut to a few days ago, when I’m listening to my new copy of Vaughn’s first CD “Texas Flood,” newly remastered and featuring some bonus tracks, including a radio interview. In which he said the following:
Since I can’t read music…I find out that I do the best when I just listen for where I’m trying to go with it, and where it can go, and just let it come out…if I just go with what’s in my heart and let it come out, then I’m ok.
In his own words, he reiterated the exact thought I had when I was watching him play. It just so happens that what he’s talking about is one of the most pervasive spiritual maxims in existence. Follow your heart and find your true path. The idea of your heart as the “spirit mind” — the channel for your true self — your soul. Not your mind, which can overanalyze and let fear creep in. It seems to follow that all great artists express from their heart. Writers, especially, as they must express universal human emotion in words; I think we all agree that’s a daunting task. And a noble practice.
Didn’t someone say that everyone hears voices, but the great ones actually listen to them? Maybe it’s the willingness to tune in to these inner voices that makes true “talent?”
It seems to me that a lot of people waste their time focused on “talent”; they judge the amount they, and others, possess. Ultimately, I believe talent has nothing to do with culture, race, religion, education or upbringing, it only has to do with a person’s ability to put aside fear, have faith, and follow the voice of their heart. It can’t lead you wrong. Because if you’re focused on expressing yourself to gain personal satisfaction, as opposed to material gain or ego gains, then you will always win.
It’s about the art, not the ‘being famous’ part.
This may be tough to believe when considering this business of mega-budgeted TV show remakes and 20 million dollar paydays. But it’s the only way you’re going to make it. I get many queries from people asking about the business of their screenplay before they’ve ironed out the craft of their screenplay. They literally don’t know where their own story is taking them, but yet they’re trying to find this elusive roadmap for getting that story into the hands of the biggest bigshots in this bigshot industry. I understand, I’ve been there. I was fresh out of film school once and submitting my not-ready-for-submission scripts to the bigshots. And getting my just rejections.
There was an infamous story in the NYU Film & Television department. The story of the student director who is shooting on a dock when his camera falls into the lake. A crew member fishes it out of the drink, and the director tells him to put the camera in a bucket of water. The director had heard that’s what Spielberg did on Jaws when his camera fell in the ocean. The reason being that water preserves the most delicate, and expensive, mechanisms of the camera. Well, the punchline comes when the student brings back the camera to the equipment checkout desk, grinning from ear to ear as he holds his bucket with the camera in it. He launches into the tale of his brilliant Spielberg-like maneuver as he plops the bucket down on the counter. He is greeted only by a chorus of laughter! The girl behind the counter explains that Spielberg did in fact put his camera in a bucket of water, but it was to save the film. The footage shot on that roll of film was worth well over $100,000, more than the (hopelessly ruined) camera was worth.
And that was when our poor student filmmaker slapped his forehead and the hallowed halls of film school resonated with the sound of the chasm that lies between multi-million dollar Universal Studios event films directed by Steven Spielberg and pretentious piles of doodie directed by misguided kids. Oops.
The point is: there are way too many film students trying to be little Spielbergs when they should just focus on making good little films. The point is: don’t believe what you’re told. The point is: don’t worry about the myths and the warstories and the big paydays. The point is: you’re going to suck. At first, and always. You’re going to be rejected. Just focus on your work, and your work alone. Just be yourself. Confidently. But it doesn’t hurt to make sure you spend enough time in the woodshed, first.
As someone who has read many, many stories for people with deep pockets, and rejected the majority of them, I tell you this: focus on the process, not the goal. Forget the career aspect; forget your former fears and limitations; forget the possible pricetag; forget the competition. Focus on this particular story and what you’re trying to say with it. And I hope you’re trying to say something with it, because if not, then what’s the point? Not just to make a sale, right? Hope you’ve been listening.
But, hey, if you want that big sale (who doesn’t?), there is hope.
The great thing is that if you can hone your talent and practice your craft with enough focused intensity to the point where you are expressing at your highest level, a unique level that stands out from the pack, then you have a fantastic chance of producing work that can sell and gain you that all that material stuff. But that can’t be the emphasis. So just write, and keep writing. It takes time, sure. It’s a tough road, sure. It ain’t easy. But you can do it.
I write this as much for myself, as for you, when I say: Do not give up.
Don’t give up on your novel or screenplay or short story collection. Your life is historically meaningful and your voice is important, if for no other reason than that it is truly unique. By definition, you are truly unique. Why would you want to write just like David Webb Peoples or H.G. Wells or Toni Morrison when you can write like the one and only you?
Only you can write like you.
You may not always express that unique voice, and that’s okay. Like many of us, maybe most of us, you may find yourself following a path instigated and controlled by others; well then this is your chance to get back on track. Find that onramp onto your own superhighway. When you sit down at your computer or your restored Underwood typewriter or you rip the plastic off a fresh ream of yellow pads, for God’s sake enjoy it.
As Stephen King tells us in his wonderful book On Writing: you don’t come to the page lightly. This is writing, people, this is serious stuff. It can save your life. And hopefully if you’re truly expressing your very soul in words, it is your life. Treat it as such.
From Lawrence Kasdan’s film MUMFORD, a psychologist and his troubled patient:
PSYCHOLOGIST I know, it can get confusing sometimes.
PATIENT What can?
Don’t give up.
I want to tell you two things. Listen closely now.
- Raymond Chandler’s first novel The Big Sleep is the greatest piece of detective fiction I’ve ever read. Not that I’m an expert on the genre, but I’ve read quite a few, and this story left me, literally, breathless. I’m not kidding; this book had me pacing the room, throwing air punches, talking to myself (in strange tongues).
- Raymond Chandler was 51 when The Big Sleep was published.
What was this guy doing before he decided to finish the greatest piece of detective fiction of all time? Beats me. Writing, probably. Working, probably. Having a family? Getting his shit together? Isolating and throttling his personal demons? Whatever the case…
He is remembered as Raymond Chandler, ‘master of the hard-boiled pulp thriller,’ not as ‘the late bloomer.’
Think you’ve ran out of time? Too late for you to be dubbed a genius? Just got too much going on in your life — you’re too busy, right? Or maybe you’re comparing yourself to Mr. King, published Carrie at age 26 and been busy ever since pumping out a new book every three minutes? Or Paul Thomas Anderson, directing BOOGIE NIGHTS at age 25. Throw in M. Knight Shyamalan writing THE SIXTH SENSE at age 27 and selling it for a cool $3 million. Feeling insignificant, are we? Hey, good for them, right?
That’s right, I said screw them. Worry about yourself. No, don’t worry. Write. And keep writing. Don’t stop. Don’t look back. Don’t reread all your old material. Don’t get hung up on pet projects and keep rewriting them for years (trust me, I’ve made that mistake myself). Experiment. Take chances. Follow your muse. Listen to your inner voice and let it guide you. Always wanted to pen that all-dwarf musical adaptation of THE SORROW AND THE PITY? Do it. Stop talking about the public’s inner hunger for little people singing about the holocaust and just write it.
Why say screw them to all these talented artists? I’m not saying don’t enjoy their work and be inspired by their stories, I’m just saying don’t get hung up on their methods and their successes. Or the myths you’ve heard. Because. They. Are not. You. Only you can write your unique vision. Have confidence in that statement, because it’s true. It has to be. You’ve written “the worst, most unfunny comedy in history” and over five people have given you this same reaction? Dammit, be proud of that fact!! Hold your chin high and exclaim: I am the best WORST writer of comedy in history, and I am me and me is a unique expression of the great universal spirit-child of light!
Just kidding. Thought I might throw a little levity in there. I’m not going to go overboard with the pats on the back or the New Age jargon. In fact, I’m going to get tough on you for a second when I say this:
Hollywood doesn’t need you.
Hollywood doesn’t need your ideas.
Hollywood doesn’t need you to write another formulaic movie like the past ten formulaic movies they’ve released and made billions from. And if you do write such drivel, and submit it to them, they’re going to reject it. Heck, they may not even read it.
Why? Because the film and TV industry already has a whole bunch of people they can call to write the same ol’ crap. And they know you and your many relatives are going to pay to watch said crap. So they’re going to keep you in that ticket-buyers line where you belong instead of taking you behind that special curtain where they tell you who really directed THE WIZARD OF OZ. They want you to stay in your place. But…
They NEED you to write the new thing. The brilliant story. To come up with the new twist on the genre they haven’t thought of yet. To pitch them the coolest high concept they never could have dreamed of. To come up with a new kind of hero. A new myth. The original franchise that will reel in millions of bit-gnawing ticket-buyers and create a cult of rabid fans.
Seems like the same group of people keep making bad film after bad film, huh? And they’re getting paid very well to do just that. You want to break into that group? You’re going to have to write a Great One. Something new, something fresh. I know, it doesn’t quite make sense. I seem to be saying their motto is “Write something great and we’ll pay you to write a bunch of crap!” Okay, well maybe they don’t really say that exactly; in fact, I don’t even know what they say way up there on that well-catered peak. But if there’s one thing I do know, it’s this…
…when reading for an employer, I reject 9 out of 10 stories that come across my desk.
Conclusion: it’s tough to get past me. The Reader. Conclusion: I don’t waste my boss’s time with the same ol’ thing. Or the sort-of-new concept that’s poorly executed. Or the great opening act that doesn’t have a driving push through act two and into act three. She has better things to do, like developing movies for Johnny Depp. And Johnny has better things to do, like acting weird in movies and having great cheekbones.
We seem to have gotten back to the “business and glamour” aspect, haven’t we? I apologize. We were supposed to focus on how you are supposed to focus on craft. But you know that, don’t you? It just helps to have a reminder sometimes. A positive suggestion. I know.
So do it. Not tomorrow, today. Tonight. Now. Write it. Put the movie that plays in your head down on paper. Create an epic, a holiday classic, the very first cyber-slacker-slasher film. Write that novel. Pull it out of the drawer and finish it. Sit down, put on your headphones and blast your favorite music, and let it flow. You can do it. We need you to do it. Because you might be the next Woody Allen or Orson Welles or Stanley Kubrick or Raymond Chandler. But there’s one thing you don’t want to do.
I say this as much for myself as for you: Don’t give up.