Writers: Are You Giving Your Work Everything it Needs to Survive?
“I like to say that I write poems for a stranger who will be born in some distant country hundreds of years from now. This is a useful notion, especially during revision. It reminds me, forcefully, that everything necessary must be on the page.
I must make a complete poem – a river-swimming poem, a mountain-climbing poem. Not ‘my’ poem, if it’s well done, but a deeply breathing, bounding, self-sufficient poem. Like a traveler in an uncertain land, it needs to carry with it all that it must have to sustain its own life—and not a lot of extra weight, either.” Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook, pg 110.
For those who are not familiar with Mary Oliver, she is one of the most prolific and enduring nature poets in America. Her writing connects the human spirit to the lessons and inspiration of the natural world in an easily accessible way. She also writes in A Poetry Handbook that each of her poems goes through 50 – 60 revisions before it’s ready to stand on its own.
Wow, are you that dedicated to your creative work?
It got me thinking about what our work needs from us to survive on its own. Particularly for screenwriters who are the First Trustee of the Story and must give that initial script everything it needs to sustain its own life in an uncertain land of development and production. But Oliver’s words also inspired me to think about how committed (or not) we are to our projects. Fifty revisions on a poem. That’s a lot of time, but even more so, a lot of focus and commitment to ensuring that each word, each placement of each word, is at its strongest, most efficient location and thrumming with power. Fifty revisions explains why Oliver’s writing simply sings off the page, why you never stumble over it, why it seems to sink straight down into your soul. It connects.
I revise a lot. I can’t imagine writing without revision. I do believe that you have to trust your first instinct in a first draft and let the story pour itself out – but then you bring the craft of writing into play. You take on the executive role of making decisions that will shape and anchor your story into a well-polished piece. You move things around, question the intent behind dialogue, get your characters to explain to you what they mean emotionally and what they aren’t telling you, and you choose the most effective way to retell their story. And once you have revised it through several drafts, you get a second-set-of-eyes to have a look and bring fresh insight into it. You take what agrees with the story’s purpose and you revise, revise, revise.
I used to wonder how I would know when a story was finished. I’ve found that the Story will tell you when it’s finished. You’ll sense it. You’ll know that it’s right, it’s ready, it has everything it needs. You’ll know when you’ve come up against all that you have to give it. You’ve done your very best. But that knowledge ONLY comes from having revised, revised, revised.From having the patience and the tenacity to take the time to give the story what it needs.
What do stories need from us to sustain their own life?
As Oliver so eloquently said: “everything necessary must be on the page.”
If someone in a foreign land in a few hundred years reads your story, will they ‘get it’? Scripts don’t need to be bogged down with minute detail (unless it furthers the story), but I do believe what Oliver is referring to here is the essence of the meaning of the story. Will a reader connect to the human emotion of the story, even if they can’t understand the jargon or cultural references? They should be able to.
Another way to check if your story can stand on its own is to “turn off” all the dialogue and see if you can still follow the storyline. You should be able to “view” it and get it. When I first lived in Sarajevo, I was in a small studio apartment and would watch French dramas with Bosnian subtitles. I didn’t understand either language. There were films that I could follow quite well and others that were impossible to follow without the dialogue.
Actions speaks louder than words and should be able to carry a script’s story. That’s not to say that dialogue isn’t vital and important, but the actions should back up the dialogue well enough to let the story stand on its own.
Giving your story everything necessary means ensuring the core story is present so that if and when the dialogue and actions are changed, the core story can still be expressed and understood. Remember, there is always more than one way to tell a story and get the same message across. The core story is the message. That’s what you need to nurture. That’s what needs everything necessary.
Take some time to ponder what “everything necessary” is for your story, your work. How can you ensure your story will survive without you?