Friday, December 30, 2011

Goals 2012: Where am I as a storyteller?

The following bullet-point questions were taken from Scott Meyers' Go Into the Story blog. I am going to use them to help assess where I am as a storyteller.

* Is this where I want to be as a writer?

This is a difficult question to parse, because there are three different answers, depending on the context of the question.

In terms of craft, I am on the path I want to be on. I have a greater understanding of story and the telling than I ever have, thanks to the continued guidance of my mentor, and continued exposure to numerous great films. I also cannot underestimate how great it was have a partner to develop the story and outline of my current script. Not only was it creatively fruitful, but it taught me a great deal about myself, my strengths and weaknesses as a storyteller, and my creative process. I tend to like to work from the gut, but within a strong structural framework. For example, I must know that the path to story event 'C' starts with 'A', but I love improvising and spitballing my way through 'B'. This "dreaming" part of the process might be my favorite part. According to Gary Ross, it's by far the most important part to him. When it comes to actually writing, I'm a bit of a control freak with my prose, so it's all well and good that my writing partner eventually tapped-out. I think the dreaming was his favorite part too, so there's no hard feelings either way. I still run ideas and, now, pages past him as I work through things, but the bulk of the work now falls on me. I am okay with this.

In terms of process, I am not satisfied. I have not yet managed to make writing an organic part of my everyday life. It helps having zeroed-in on a specific project now, but for weeks I've been languishing, stressing myself out over my lack of concrete definitive progress. My natural state of being is to work in fits and starts, but that's not conducive to a healthy, productive lifestyle. So I want to change my process to a more regular one, with less periods of high- and extremely low-intensity, and a more consistent, persistent state of progress.

And In terms of my profession, I am not satisfied. I have a great job, I do not as yet have a career. And it is a daily struggle to keep from feeling like every hour not spent writing and directing movies, every hour not spent telling stories, is an hour wasted. I think this sense of personal failure would diminish if I could get onto a more regular writing schedule, even if I'm still not yet a paid "professional". But let's unpack that word "professional" anyway -- my mentor told me that a writer doesn't become a professional when he gets paid. A writer becomes a professional, and then gets paid.

* Am I writing what I want to be writing?

As a matter of fact, I absolutely am writing what I want to be writing. I am not writing as much as I want to be writing, but I am telling the stories I want to tell. I imagine this will become more of a problem the closer to the profession I get. But right now, the only thing I answer to over the context and content of my stories is my heart.

* What do I want to write?

if science fiction is my bread and butter, war stories are my stock-and-trade. All of my ambitions tend to point toward speculative ficton, including my two feature scripts and a few of the ideas for short films that I have. But in practice, the vast majority of my storytelling revolves around or derives from my experiences in combat. I know I can't keep milking it forever, and what's more, the further I get from literal war, the bet my storytelling seems to get. This is why it was such a challenge to hone down my love-in-war short film DESERTERS from its initial unsightly, ungainly, uninteresting 25 minutes to a reasonably sharp, pointed, emotional 7m45s.

Everyone says "write what you know" but I think it should be the other way around: "Know what you write." Storytelling requires objective construction as much as it requires a subjective "voice", and speaking just for myself, writing what I know is simply too dangerous a proposition for thematic and structural discipline. I get too easily overwhelmed.

This doesn't bode well for the war stories coming up that I have to write after my current script, but I hope that with practice, I'll get better at exerting control over the subjective elements of my stories and be able to tell something more conventionally "personal", because I do have a few war-derived stories that have crackerjack concepts.

* What do I need to write?

I need to write, simply put. I have a good instinct for drama and story that I am continually honing and learning to better hear, but it's all for nothing if I'm not writing regularly.

* Is there a particular story I have surfaced about which I am particularly passionate?

Right now, the SF script is the story demanding my attention -- it's strong, intense, and has something passionate to say. I'm not worried about losing interest, only in stalling-out from lack of progress. The war-derived story that I recently cracked the mythic structure for is up next -- that and a transcontinental Western are the two calling to me to be hashed-out and dramatized after the current one.

* Has something important happened in my life this year which has shifted my writing perspective?

This past year was an incredible eye-opener for me and truly humbling. There's really nothing quite like having no income and being in danger of eviction (we eventually made the last month's rent and moved out voluntarily, but we couldn't have made it another month) to really put the fear in you, so to speak. I really cannot emphasize how enormous an impact it had on my perspective of life, on how I see the poor and homeless, the hungry and the downtrodden. Between being unemployed, having my short film rejected by film festival after festival, and having a hard time excelling at freelance commercial gigs, it really brought me down to Earth. The simple fact of having no money, knowing that none was coming in, and having this great ambition to be a successful filmmaker one day -- the incongruity of it was enough to make me realize just how goddamn hard it is to succeed, and that nobody is going to give it to me. it was enough to make me realize that I have to put in the effort myself, and that it will be a long, hard road filled with blood, sweat, tears and broken dreams before I can achieve my goals.

A few things came to me this year, that proved to be particularly apt, namely, something Sam Raimi said on the Spider-man 2 commentary which I listened to a few months back, when I was just beginning to crawl out from under the weight of unemployment. Raimi said, "The thing about Hollywood is that no one wants to give you a shot. But if you go and prove you don't need a shot, suddenly everyone will want to work with you." That, more than anything, is what I'm trying to figure out how to achieve at this moment.

* Am I in touch with my Creative Self?

When I raved earlier about how great it was having a partner to develop the story for my current script, I think this was one of the things I was getting at. I started to notice that when I read an outline for a scene, or a sequence, that I'd get a gut reaction. I'd begin to feel either like I'd eaten something gross, or like I'd eaten something wonderful. It was sort of a hot/cold sensor, and I found the more we dreamt and spitballed, the more clearly I could read that sensor. I've come to the conclusion that this is my creative instinct, one that academia taught me to suppress. I've spent the last year getting back in touch with it and it feels glorious.

* What can I do to be a better writer?

Simply put, I need to STUDY and I need to PRACTICE, everyday. I'm naturally afraid of failure, so my first impulse is to revert to study when there is a conflict between the two. But I've done so much study and have only a few things to show for it, that I think I need to invert that relationship some, or at a minimum, find a happy medium.

I was caught in a pickle with this exact issue a few weeks ago; I didn't know whether I should commit to writing a script or to studying a particular filmmaker. Of course, my desire was to do both, but as I began to count up the hours I wanted to put into it, I began to realize it was pretty much impossible with a full-time job. So I turned to my writing partner, who at that point had ended his primary engagement with the project. His point was that when you practice, it forces you to synthesize everything you've learned up to that point, and even exponentially expands your understanding. And that is simply something I don't do enough of.

My takeaway is that, if study is my natural failsafe, I should direct my efforts into what is not my natural failsafe: PRACTICE -- and let study happen the way it naturally does anyway.

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