Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Better late than never

I now talk out loud to myself more than I ever have in my entire life. Am I going crazy? Am I simply beginning to like the sound of my own voice? Why has this only now started happening as I bid farewell to my 21st year?

Well, yes Ben, you just might be a little crazy, but go with it. It's a good market. As for the sound of your voice... Naaah, you kind of missed the mark on that one.

I remember being consistently frustrated as a kid in school when confronted with a writing assignment. Even now in college I hear teachers chanting the same advice we've all been told for years. "You must develop your own voice," they say. Oh yeah, let me just do that! I never understood where I could get one of those, or if there was some instruction manual that I could go pick up. I guess I just didn't care much to find out then. "It will come with time" is the only guidance we were given for this. Maybe I wasn't listening hard enough, or more likely I didn't want to accept the truth.

The truth.

It's no secret that the key is simply writing more and more -- forever. There's only one rule and that's it. An obvious concept, but my laziness kept prodding me away from it.

Well, here I am. The hesitancy and perhaps repulsion towards writing that I have maintained in all of my glorious years as a generic white kid in the suburbs of Napa California is slowly dissolving out of my brain. I don't know why it took so long, but I feel it beginning to happen. I feel a desire to have an opinion, personal taste, to participate in a dialogue, and to fucking argue like my life depends on it. I guess that's what they try to condition you to do in college, but only now is it really starting to stick and sink in. Better late than never.

A piece of wisdom that is becoming more self-evident as the days pass: nothing comes out, unless something goes in.

About 20 minutes ago I finished Breakfast of Champions and it kind of just rocked my world in a good way. I desperately needed it. Vonnegut's writing style applies directly to the type of dramatic thinking I am trying to do myself. It really does go hand in hand with developing a screenplay and I learned a lot from him. Thank you kind sir.

And with that, I hope each new book or screenplay or movie that I slip into my noggin will somehow make something click. With more stuff going in, something has to come out, right? It's quite sad really, I don't actually accomplish much unless I physically write it down as a task to be checked off on a certain day. I've literally scheduled myself two screenplays to read every week to make sure enough is going in without making excuses of being too busy or well, lazy.

I think I'm crazy, but I also want to be good. Maybe these two truths have more in common than I suspected. I'll have to talk it over with... myself.


  1. Sitting down to write -- and then actually writing -- is hard. For me, it was hard twenty-plus years ago when I finally decided to get serious about the keyboard, and it's still hard today. Back then, of course, that keyboard came on a manual -- and later electric -- typewriter, so there was no temptation to check e-mail, read other blogs, or cruise the net in search of time-wasting diversions. With only the empty page staring at me, it was easier to buckle down and write. Today, it's a struggle to wade through all the Internet crap first.

    When I took my my first abortive stab at fiction, I established a routine of sitting down at the keyboard by 9 a.m. every non-work day, then knocking off for lunch at 1:00 p.m. I'd come back to it for a hour or two after lunch, then take an hour long walk to clear my head. More often than not, a solution to whatever problem had been vexing me before that walk would bubble up from my unconscious by the time I returned home -- so I'd put that revelation down on the screen (crude personal computers had become affordable by then) along with a few notes to provide a little traction and help me get started the next morning.

    At that point, I quit for the day -- no pecking away late into the night. That way lies madness... unless it works for you. To each his own.

    It worked well enough that I was able to pound out an absurdly long first draft of the second attempt at fiction in 18 months. Subsequent cutting and revisions took a lot longer thanks to my commercial gaffing career heating up, but after five drafts, I'd learned a lot about writing and developed a "voice" of sorts. I think my fiction voice is different from the blog voice, but perhaps I'm only fooling myself.

    At any rate, your teachers at UCSC are right -- like everything else in the world worth doing, learning to write and developing your own distinct voice takes time and effort. Not too many people pop straight out of college with a deep and resonant writer's voice, so don't be frustrated. Good things take time.

    E.L. Doctrow had a great philosophy about writing a book without an outline, and the sentiment applies to your situation as well. I can't quote the exact line, but the gist is that you can drive from LA to SF at night even though your headlights only illuminate the road for a hundred yards in front of your car. You know where you started and where you're going to end up, so the rest is just a matter of keeping your foot on the throttle and the car on the road. The same goes for developing a style and voice. Do the work and you'll get there.

    As I see it, the only fly in this ointment is working on screenplays, which are more an exercise in story structure and dialog than prose writing, be it fiction or non-fiction. There's nothing wrong with writing screenplays -- you'll learn a lot about story, pacing, and crafting a tight, compelling narrative -- but given the sketchy nature of a screenplay compared to writing a novel, it might be harder for that personal style and voice to emerge.

    That said, it all depends on what you want to do, and if your goal is to write screenplays (whether as the path to directing someday or simply to become a successful screenwriter), then there's no substitute for doing just that.

    If Eli Hollander is still teaching film at UCSC, please tell him I said hello. He won't remember the name, but I'll never forget the day he came into the film lab one day when I was floundering in my attempts to A and B roll the negative of my 16 mm thesis film. He wasn't even officially teaching yet, but had been hired to start the next year. Since neither of the two film lecturers on staff at the time knew how to perform this basic editing/negative-conforming task. Eli sat down and show me how, thus saving me from terminal frustration and my own worst instincts. I was grateful then, and remain so now all these years later.

    Good luck with your writing.

    1. Thanks for the words of wisdom Michael, much appreciated!

      I've never had Eli as a professor before, but I've heard good things. I think this is his last year teaching...

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