Friday, August 15, 2014

What's on Page 12?

Someone will believe you.
Writing isn't something you just do for fun. You do it because you love the act of creation. The act of making something exist that previously didn't. Of making someone else feel because of something you made. If you sit down every day and write, whether your work sits on your hard drive or the bestseller list on Amazon, you're a writer.

But no one's good at it on the first try. That's why not everyone is a writer. They try it, think they've written something not too shabby, pass it around, and receive a generally lukewarm reception. "I guess I'm not a writer," they say, and continue on with their lives, not-writing. It's like sitting at a piano for the first time and expecting to be Mozart or Marvin Hamlisch. But Mozart and Hamlisch sat down at the piano every day for years and very likely sucked the first time they did it. Maybe even the second time. Maybe even the first dozen times. And beyond that. But we don't hear about those early days. We hear their music as it sounded at the peak of their form.

That can be you. Of course it can. But you need to realize that most of your writing will suck. With courage, you'll realize that if you do it every day, each day it will suck just a bit less. But it's painfully incremental. It takes a patience on the order of years, which again is why so many people spend their lives not-writing. "A thankless, no-paying job that I park myself down to do day after day, year after year? No thanks." As writers, we can understand that. Not everyone is cut out for the job, just as not everyone is cut out to be an astronaut. But being an astronaut is really cool. So is being a writer. If not more so. After all, more people read books or watch films than watch astronauts.

UCLA's Hal Ackerman says, "The reason most of us write is corny, it's sentimental, it's tragically unhip, but it's the truth. We do it because it's what we want to do."


David Koepp, screenwriter of Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, and Spider-Man, has mentioned that he's successful because he can tolerate 17 drafts. Often, a writer presents me with a first draft script, I mark it up considerably, pass it back to them, and they scratch their head, thinking that what they had given me was the next Writers Guild award-winner. The issue is that they presented me with a first draft script. Or even a second draft. Or a 10th. Or even a shooting script.

Point being: writers have a lot of obstacles to overcome. I'd posit that nearly half (if not more) of those obstacles exist solely in the mind of the writer. You have to accept that your work won't be very good on the first try, just as your first time playing Beethoven's Für Elise won't be up to Beethoven's standards. But do yourself a favor and do more than accept it: expect it. If you expect magnificent writing to flow from you the first time you put pen to paper, you're setting yourself up for an impossible standard. But if you expect that you'll have more work to do after the first, second, and third drafts, then that's a large part of what separates the professionals from the amateurs. The writers from the not-writers. The fruits of any creative labor can almost certainly be made even better. That applies to writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, and anyone working in the arts.

There's an apocryphal story about an older gentleman strolling into an art gallery, setting up a stool in front of a displayed artwork, and painting over a part of the canvas with his own addition. Horrified, a security guard barreled over and the painter revealed that the work on the original canvas was his own. He was merely "fixing" his own painting to his own specifications.

When I was stuck on page 11 of my 2010 science fiction comedy short, Timothy Feathergrass, I sought the advice of local screenwriter (and scribe of Groundhog Day) Danny Rubin. "All of my ideas suck," I told him, "It's all too complicated and I'm bogged in the minutiae. I'm stuck on page 11."

He asked, "What's on page 12?"

"Nothing. I'm stuck, remember?"

He said, "Any writing is better than nothing. Just plow forward. Even if you think your idea is terrible. You can always turn a bad idea into a better one. But if your page 12 is blank, then what are you going to do with it?"

Sage wisdom. I indeed plowed ahead. Page 12 indeed sucked. But with time and effort and rewrites and coffee, it turned from a chunk of marble into something resembling a sculpture.

In your own writing, don't mistake the chunk of marble for the statue. Take your time. Take the effort. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. You're a writer, after all. That's your job, isn't it?

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