so what do you do? me? i’m a writer

Going to try some visual aids. Don’t get used to it.

Sunday was an extremely busy day, involving a great deal of socializing far beyond anything I’ve done since college. Technically, the socializing was all business related but at my level of filmmaking, the notion of networking-by-hobnobbing makes it hard to tell the difference.

Trust me, we are all working hard.

Trust me, we are all working very hard.

Let’s see… meet with a hip-hop artist/producer, check. Then meet with a fellow filmmaker/assistant director, check. Follow shortly after by birthday dinner at an upscale (by my standards, anyway) restaurant with people I’ve never met before, check. And wrap up with an impromptu pre-production meeting at a friend’s house. Oh, and there may have been falafel and nausea-inducing hookah somewhere in there.

like here

like here

Sunday was a twelve-hour day, chockfull of all sorts of interactions and project planning that I imagine a full-time filmmaker does when he’s not filming. It was exhausting and emotionally terrifying for an introvert like myself. And with the exception of a few social hiccups, I loved every minute of it.

these guys may not have exactly observed the love

these guys may not have exactly witnessed the love

It was a day of introductions like “I’m a musician,” “I’m an actress,” and “I’m a producer.” And while I’m 99.9% sure none of us actually do those things for a living, what we said is absolutely true because we were describing our true selves. It was the first time I ever found myself in such an environment, where everyone was so unafraid to reveal that much about who they really are. We spoke of ourselves as we saw ourselves. As creatives. As artists.

Maybe I’ve been a writer and a producer all along. Maybe I’ve just let society, internet trolls, and my own negativity tell me otherwise. That I’m an office temp, or a security guard, or an unemployed sad sack. It’s that old argument of when a writer can call himself a writer. Does he have to be published first? Does he have to be paid enough to support himself? Or is he a writer when he gives himself over to the craft–and writes?

I think… well, no, I want to believe that it’s a matter of belief. I am what I believe myself to be, not what I do to earn a paycheck. Of course, there are probably some exceptions (I’m not an astronaut, for example), there are some caveats. And, in the case of writing, elitists and jerks the world over will be quick to judge and strike down anyone who dares assume the mantle of “writer” in the name of professionalism and butthurt. You know what I’m talking about. Friends and family members who want you to be more practical, think more practical. Mortal enemies who say you haven’t jumped through the right hoops yet.

No, I’m not a paid writer, or a published writer, or even a professional writer. But I’m a writer, dammit. I remember a moment at that dinner when a young woman asked me what I did. Without even thinking about it, I told her I was a writer and producer. And I didn’t feel the least bit silly or phony.

writers, directors, musicians, oh my!

writers, directors, musicians, oh my!

Because that’s my true self.

Oh. And here’s some cheesecake from the dinner.

because cheesecake

because cheesecake

same as last time

Writing is an art.

“Duh,” you say. “Shah,” I reply, to quote my favorite high school English teacher. Here’s my point. Writing is not a science. It lacks quantifiable rules and hard absolutes. We like to believe that distinguishing good writing from bad writing is obvious and universal. Hemingway and Thoreau good. Meyer and Paolini bad. You won’t find me in disagreement about those examples, but this notion of determining the quality of writing stands on shaky ground. It’s completely subjective. True, there is a craft to writing well. One needs look no further than Campbell’s monomyth, but we’re describing cross-cultural truths and themes, not laws.

I love, love the works of R. Scott Bakker and Steven Erikson. I think they’re exceptional writers, true masters of the craft. I aspire to shape my storytelling like theirs: non-traditional, epic in scope, rich in philosophical nuance. But a lot of people would disagree with me. Patrick Rothfuss and Christie Golden have legions of fans defending their every word, and I’ve spent a lot of time reading them too. I’m convinced they’re glorified hacks.

Damn. I’m starting to sound a little resentful, aren’t I? This isn’t the direction I want to go, so allow me to get back on track.

Writing is subjective. There.

Ultimately, only you can decide if you’re a good writer or not. (Or if your preferred author is good or not, but I’m going to focus on “you the writer,” not “you the reader.”) Only you have the power to say if your story works or not. No one has the power to tell you that your stuff is weak sauce and be right. Because writing is, pardon my language, fucking art. It’s not some geometry proof where you missed a step and messed it all up.

So… why, then, does it hit us so hard when the feedback we get isn’t the feedback we were hoping for? It’s not that we wonder if our writing sucks. Okay, it’s not only that we wonder that. It’s that we want our work to be understood. At least that’s how it is with me. In a way, yes, I’m referring to the old adage that our writing is personal and comes from our own experience. I don’t care if people think/say/write that my writing sucks. I’m confident and comfortable enough to know that it doesn’t. And I really don’t care if my writing is appreciated, because I write for me. I don’t write for validation, kudos, or Kit-Kat bars. Because in my heart, I firmly believe that writing is about communicating. And I think everyone wants to be understood.

The editor who has been working on my manuscript is very good. Excellent, even. I can clearly see in her notes that she’s intelligent, intuitive, and a skilled communicator. The work she’s put into my manuscript has been exceptional, and I would eagerly refer other writers to her. Still. I’m not sure she really understands what I’m trying to do. Or maybe she does, and my manuscript really needs a lot of work. It’s something she and I will have to discuss.

As I said in my last post, I have not been the best at identifying weaknesses in my own storytelling efforts until long after the fact. I guess it’s not so unusual to say that we writers have some blindspots when it comes to our work. But that’s not the case with my manuscript. I went into it knowing that it would lack certain elements traditionally considered essential or, at least, desirable. Telling stories in medias res requires some adjustments. The reader needs to exercise some patience and have faith that, by the end of the story, their initial questions will be satisfied in one way or another. It’s a common technique, in literature and film, but mainstream films tend to rely heavily on flashback sequences to fill in the blanks. I wasn’t going to do that, at least not in the same way I’d seen it done. My manuscript would ask more of the reader, and I’ve succeeded for the most part. Maybe too much. My editor may think so, and so maybe my blindspots persist.

I’m also hyper-critical. Of myself and others. I’m very good (or bad, depending on how you look at it) at identifying weak points in others’ stories. Camera angles look that look askew. Lighting that distracts. Acting that doesn’t convince. Dialogue that falls flat. Plot choices that strain credulity. (Yeah, all cinematic stuff. I’m a little gentler with literature.) And with my own work… well, I’m extremely nit-picky about my choices. (Not so much here in the blog, though. I work hard to stay relaxed.) I agonize over every character choice, every twist in plot. It all has great meaning. And I want to be understood.

when the feedback you’re hoping for isn’t the feedback you get

No, no clever title this time, though I admit this may still confuse some people.

When I went to film school, I had a lot of big story ideas I couldn’t wait to translate to the screen. I’d been writing for so many years, fantasizing about my stories appearing on TV or film. I’d spent days, then weeks and months developing characters and story arcs… maybe I was a little light on theme, but the hope of further developing my ideas pushed me to step way outside my comfort zone twice and move across the country to attend film school.

If you ever hear someone say that filmmaking is a collaborative art, it’s completely true. And in some ways it isn’t. Unless you’re gifted with superhuman speed, stamina, and masochistic tendencies, you need other people to work alongside you–a cast and crew. When we’re talking professional (Hollywood or “indie”) productions, there’s really no way around that. You just can’t make a film by yourself. But when I say that filmmaking isn’t collaborative, I mean that as the designated “filmmaker,” the person with the vision and the need to make this film (whether that makes you the director or the producer), it’s really all on you to push and make sure you succeed. Like with writing in general, it can be kind of a lonely road. Your vision guides the shape the story takes. Your perseverance steers the project through the inevitable tough times. (Yes, I know all about the studio system. Let’s not pop open that particular can of worms.) It may be that you’ll invite others to participate in your storytelling process, of course, but the product should reflect what you want. Don’t look to someone else to make those final creative decisions, because you’re the filmmaker. (There’s a really great text called The Independent Filmmaker’s Law and Business Guide: Financing, Shooting and Distributing Independent and Digital Films
by Jon M. Garon
that describes this concept of a “filmmaker” in its opening chapters.)

Unfortunately, I didn’t take this lesson to heart while I was at film school. Despite all my hard work, I never fully “owned” my productions, and the quality suffered for it. And for as long as I was in school, I never really understood why. I never even noticed the problems on set, or during post-production, not until it was too late.

My classmates saw it but if they knew the real reason why, they didn’t say. Despite that, they still saw more clearly than I did. They pointed out the obvious, of course. (Obvious in hindsight.) Visually, a lot of my work was a mess. I couldn’t argue with it. But I was sure the story, the script, was solid at least. Feedback on that part was minimal. Neutral. Needless to say, I was crushed. It wasn’t until I switched from a Directing concentration to Screenwriting that I finally started to received the kind of feedback I was looking for.

Except it wasn’t the feedback I was hoping for.

My professors–and especially my thesis committee–and I didn’t see eye-to-eye on my scripts. Technically and lyrically, they had nothing but high praise. Thematically and otherwise, well, I can only hope that they just didn’t get what I was trying to do. Whether they did or not, though, the feedback was discouraging. In the words of one professor (whose opinion means a lot to me), “It’s beautifully written, but I just don’t see why I should give a shit about these characters.”

Those words, even now several years later, have never left me.