Thursday, November 7, 2013

What it Means to Use Your Voice

When I tell my students to "use your voice" as a writer, I can't help but feel that I'm telling them something trite and Hallmark-esque. "Who else's voice am I supposed to use?" I can almost hear them ask.

Some of the greatest advice I heard from Tim Albaugh of Hollins and UCLA, it refers to taking the archetypal/universal and baking it into your art as only you can do. There are experiences, once you're past a certain age, that you're guaranteed to experience: love, loss, and death to name a few (in Save the Cat, screenwriter Blake Snyder refers to these themes as primal: survival, protection of loved ones, hunger, sex, and fear of death).

Regardless of culture or home country, you're bound to these themes. They transcend boundaries. They are human experiences. Your unique take on them, fed by your unique experiences with them, are what comprise your voice.

Look at the work of Alan Ball (American Beauty, Six Feet Under, True Blood): in each of his works, you can almost hear him say, "Life is great, but it'll all be over one day and sooner than you'd like."
Or how about Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho, Shadow of a Doubt, Rear Window, The Birds)? His voice concerns the uncanny: a mild-mannered motel clerk, a beloved uncle, neighbors, or a flock of pigeons – all turn from the unexceptional to the dreadful.

And let's not forget Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Strangelove, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket). Omnipresent in each of his works is the theme of irony. Humankind is its own worst enemy. You can take the animal out of the jungle, but you can never take the jungle out of the animal.

When people say, "Alan Ball," "Alfred Hitchcock," "Stanley Kubrick," "Steven Spielberg," "Marleen Gorris," "Tim Burton," or "Ron Howard," images instantly spring to mind, images of a type of film. You know, in general, what you're in for if you pop in anything by one of these artists.

Why should it be any different for you and your work? It shouldn't.

I'd like to share one such experience with you, one that has sharply focused this idea for me.

Back in 2006, I received a frightening call. My Aunt Wendy, then 54, had fallen down some stairs and was in a hospital in New York. I was living in Massachusetts at the time and zipped down to her bedside.

Wendy and I had always had a tight relationship. She was my most vocal supporter when I told my family that I had decided to cease my studies of electrical engineering and go into film. She'd always ask me about my projects and how she could help. Wendy was an aunt, an ally, and a friend. So much so that she's credited as executive producer on each of my films.

So you can imagine how matters were complicated when it came out that she had fallen down the stairs after blacking out due to a bit too much cocaine. I, Wendy's two siblings, and my cousins were upset and hurt. However, I was surprised to discover the depths of the family's anger.

"If she behaves this way, we'll turn our back," became the party line. "She has to choose: the drugs or her family."

At Wendy's bedside, I told her how hurt I felt and how colossally stupid I thought she had been. She said, "I can accept that. But you need to know that I don't mean to stop. I don't want help, I like my life, and I don't want to change anything."

Then, as I'm assuming that both of us had the rest of the family in mind, she asked me something I'll never forget:

"Will you turn your back with the rest of them, or are you with me?"

She had been irresponsible, selfish, and careless.

On the other hand, she was family. She was Wendy.

I told her, "You're an adult. You'll do these things whether I want you to or not. But I can't judge you. I'm with you, Wen. Even if you're an asshole."

She liked that.

The family was upset with me, some going far enough to accuse me of undermining their "plan" to make her quit. They didn't understand that Wendy was Wendy, and that she wasn't going to quit whether we cut contact or not. Given that, while I didn't endorse her life choices, I certainly wanted to maximize whatever time with her that I had left.

As years passed, some of the family returned to speaking terms with her and some didn't. Me? I couldn't turn my back. She had always supported me. I'd be ashamed to turn on her, but I also wasn't afraid to call her on her crap. We continued a strong relationship until she passed away suddenly this past August, due to natural, non-drug-related causes. She was 62.

What's a lesson I took from the experience? That it's okay to be unpopular if you choose the right thing. That people who make bad decisions need love and forgiveness, not vengefulness and victimization.

In the past month, I've written a new short film. It's about a hard, angry young woman who, after a night babysitting a difficult child with a secret, comes to forgive her addict younger brother for hurting her feelings.

I'm in pre-production on it, and production is scheduled for early December.

It's entitled Are You with Me.

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