Writer’s block happened to other people, as far as I was concerned. I tend to think about several projects at once and rehearse scenes in my head until I point out continuity errors, so there’s always something to write. And a consistent schedule commitment means I’m always writing something. In theory. But from March to April this year, my page requirement outpaced me, and I squatted in swamps of unproductivity and wasted time. This writer’s head was as heavy as a… a… I’ll think of something.
Looking back, the project I was working on may have had something to do with the state. You might have seen it: it’s New Caveton, a script whose beginning pages I posted during that sluggish time. Don’t memorize every word; I’m going to post a revision sometime soon. I’m halfway through the script now, bouncing off great ideas and laughing as I go along. Whether the ideas are great, and whether you will laugh with me, is something we’ll decide later. But this is, without a doubt, the project that caused the most ulcers during its creation. Part of this stress comes from the main character, which remains inexplicable to readers no matter how much I untangle him from his current, arguably illogical situation. Most of the headaches derive from the risqué and (dare I say it? There’s nothing to dare) tasteless nature of the piece. I tend to not offend in my writing or speech (OK IT WAS ONE TIME SHUT UP), so talking about anarchists going to what’s essentially Ferguson to, succinctly, fuck shit up is a big risk for me. Making the anarchists the butt of the jokes in this dark comedy helps, but outside that there’s still a white guy talking about one of the biggest events in black America with, shall we say, a bit of irreverence. Either way off the tightrope, it’s spikes or a pit.
And I’m not sure a lack of ideas played a part in this slump. I worked on this screenplay for a Writing For Film class, where everyone else opted to write tasteful, more dignified stories. My teacher’s feedback for the first twenty pages I submitted hinged on two points. The first was confusion about the protagonist, which is useful criticism, if hard to hear. The other was the excessive (in her eyes) violence and sex in the story. Now if she doesn’t like violence and sex in her screenplays, that’s not her fault. We’re all entitled to our personal preferences. Yet I got the vibe that she objected to guns and punches at all in the story, whereas I believe a tale about teens on the fringes of society, libertine in their actions and in social norms, going into a vicious situation calls for violence. But whether or not she was the target audience doesn’t matter, because my script was getting tried as an adult before it even reached the age of 18 pages. It turned out ok: she convinced me to take out an early 10-page scene that set the completely wrong tone for the script. That was in late March. Come mid-April, I knew what I needed to accomplish and what to do, and my pen still rusted inside my writing binder. I tend to think of myself as welcoming to criticism, yet here I was, hiding my newest possible opus in my mind, triple-locked and bolted.
Stephen King talks, in On Writing, about a teacher that banned his work from his high school and berated him on why he wanted to write “junk.” The echo of her voice haunts him, although what doesn’t haunt Stephen King these days. My teacher never censored me, and never intentionally discouraged me. Yet somehow I thing I ended up in a similar situation to King. The author talks later on in the book about not showing your first draft until it’s finished, and I think I see why now.
The same class that seized my writing fingers ended up releasing them. For attendance one day, we all listened in on the Q&A/ script session of one David Milch, the writer behind Deadwood and NYPD Blue. He’s an interesting guy- delivered answers in stilted, loaded phrases that answered as many questions as they raised. He also gave us invaluable writing advice. To him, there are two types of scripts- one written out of fear, and one written out of faith. The best writing comes from faith, faith in the audience as well as in your material. And I flipped through my script archive in my head and noticed how much I’d written out of fear of my audience noticing a plothole or not getting the message or thinking a controversial script was- gasp! – controversial. I now had the strength to open the toolbox again and hammer out something good. My workshop was two days from then, and I blew out ten pages that day.
So thanks to David Milch for seeing writers in a ditch and giving them rocket boots. If you’re reading this- hi! I’m the asshole who meant to ask “What was the process for bringing your first script into production?” and it came out “How did your first script go?” Everyone laughed at your answer (“It was horrible. It does not do well to dwell on this.”), but after my cheeks went back to pale, I realized that that meant you can fail the first time and still have a Hollywood career. You could even argue that Akiva Goldsman’s even more inspirational by continuing to fail over and over again. So to any writer in a slump, I say this: Write stupid. Write silly. Write insulting. Write bad. Nothing turns out good until there’s enough red around its first draft to qualify as one of the 10 plagues of Egypt. Criticism of your writing is not criticism of you. You gotta write not out of fear, but out of fries. Sorry, I meant faith. Dinner’s coming up.
EPILOGUE: I got my feedback on my Writing for Film Final: the first 50 pages of my script, plus plot point 2 and ending. I’ll go over her comments in detail later this summer, because 1) I still have to submit stories for another class and 2) I can’t read her goddamned handwriting. I got a B+ in the class, likely because I turned in things pretty late even by her lax standards. She appreciated what she calls “intensive rewrites,” and believes my work became a lot funnier when it got a bit lighter and not so randomly violent. No, madam, the thanks go to you. I may have sweated the blood to improve it, and I may disagree with the early timing of the peer-reviews in your class, but it was your suggestions that turned this story into something quasi-readable. You’re a good teacher. Don’t let others tell you different.
She compared the set-up and outlandish situations in the script to comic books, and suggested I find someone who’s into comic books to read it. And King suggests finding an “Ideal Reader,” so there’s some merit in finding like-minds for critiquing. But there’s a gut reaction I have against finding a hugbox and sticking yourself inside it until your spine snaps from the pressure. Someone else in my class read my script, someone likely closer to the ideal reader my teacher thought of. He loved it, therefore he didn’t give me many ways to improve it. My teacher invited the class to send her their finished scripts in August, though I have a feeling she wouldn’t want to see mine again. What do you think? Should I subject more of my story to a reader that will give honest and useful feedback until she pukes? Or should I find a cheerleader and let him cheer away?