Category Archives: Process
Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing a songwriter who has been behind some of the top pop hits in the last decade. Something he said in regards to the writing process hit close to home:
“If it (the content) is just okay, but it doesn’t feel like magic, then find something else, don’t waste your time, on writing.”
Feel like magic. That’s what it’s supposed to feel like, isn’t it?
What encouraged me was the fact that even after so many years writing songs for A-list artists, he still judges his writing by the magic. As creative professionals it can be hard to keep that magic front and center in the work we do for others. But the magic – and finding it – is the key to what makes our work stand head and shoulders above the rest.
So how do you know if something has the magic?
I know one thing: you can’t create magic. You can receive it and you can refine your work until the magic comes through – but it is not something you can order and have served up in your work. You can’t layer it on top. It has to emerge organically. And it comes by listening.
Getting quiet. Paying attention. Asking questions. Asking for guidance. And listening to what you hear, to what you feel, to what your intuition is telling you. From the Story, from the Characters, from the work, from your Spirit.
Magic evades us most when we are striving. When we disconnect from Spirit and push, pull, tug and coerce creative results.
This is one of the key risks in revision and one we need to be very careful about. Revision has the potential to delete the magic. And while you need to revise (revise, revise, revise) you also need to know your Story and Characters well enough to know which parts are magical and which parts aren’t. It’s the magical scenes and dialogue that give Story its soul.
How do you know which scenes those are?
By how they make you feel.
Chances are that if a scene you’ve written moves you emotionally, it’s carrying magic. Not everything in a script or novel is going to evoke emotion. When we’re writing a script, we see every page, every scene, every word in it’s long form.
We do not see it condensed down into film, with actors, sound and editing to carry the emotional tone through 90 minutes.
So we need to be aware of which scenes and dialogue carry the magic and protect those.
Magic flows most freely in the first draft, so mine it for gold. Magic also flows during revision when characters share scenes with you that you weren’t aware of before. In a script, the magic is in the characters. So you have to listen to them and let them express it.
And if you’re not feeling the magic?
Don’t waste your time. Don’t write something that just doesn’t speak to your own soul. If you’re on assignment, and you have to write the story given to you, then pay very close attention and listen to the character’s hearts. Let them give you the magic. Ask them for it. Give them room to find it amongst themselves.
Last day in character, on set. Final revision on a novel. Screenplay’s bought and produced.
We finish creative work all the time, but we don’t always give ourselves the grace of actually closing our relationships with our characters. Most of us have projects lined up, already started or waiting in queue. And we tend to move mentally toward them as we finish up a current one. We’re busy, we don’t have time.
But rushing forward without taking time to find closure can be risky to our well-being and our new work. Why? Because we spend considerable amounts of time emotionally and physically invested in characters and we need to be emotionally available for the next one.
Tough emotions are part of the work
I’m currently finishing up Restoration*, a script that dives deep into the emotional interior of three scarred war veterans who must navigate the unfamiliarity of life after war and each other while trying to save their condemned house from being destroyed. The fabric of their story is steeped in tough terrain – from torture, from guilt, from being left helpless to make a difference and save others. And they’re asking relevant questions that we are all facing about the rationale behind going to war to impose democracy.
I know these characters well, they trust me fully as the First Trustee of their Story – but it hasn’t been an easy journey for me emotionally to work with them. It won’t be easy for the actors who will embody and carry their weight. And as I finish this up, there’s another Story, another set of powerful characters waiting for my attention, again, a Story that will be tough to carry.
Tough emotions are part of the fabric of stories that resonate deeply with the human spirit. They have the ability to touch places in us that we prefer not to go – unless a Story takes us there. As artists, we accept that the challenging emotions of our characters are part of our work.
Our experiences of characters are real
When it’s time to say goodbye, our logical minds argue that characters aren’t “real” so we minimize our departure. But our experiences of characters are real. And these experiences are what linger in us when the work is done. When you embody a character you think, see and feel that character’s emotions, you carry the weight of their pain, their struggles, their crimes, their pasts, their decisions. You get to know them better than anyone else knows them and they learn to trust you.
That last day can be very tough.
You may feel a sense of loss head on, but you may also go through grief, anger, depression, sadness and a sense of being emotionally overwhelmed and drained. You may feel adrift, unable to focus, sense a rush of exhaustion flood through you. Deflation is common.
All of this can hit you at once, or it can seep into the days and weeks following the last day. You may start to wonder what’s going on and stress over having to be ready and emotionally available for the next character and story that’s waiting for you.
So how do we say goodbye?
How do we close these emotional ties that have lived, breathed, felt, feared, loved, hated, risked, killed, received wounds, forgived, triumphed, in us and through us for weeks or months on end?
- Recognize that you need to create closure. You do this by being aware of what it means to end the relationship with the character.
- Accept that you are going to feel a sense of loss. Allow yourself the emotions of missing a character, of not being part of their fabric 24/7 anymore.
- Find some time to be alone to formally say goodbye to your characters. Thank them for what they have blessed and burdened you with, for the experiences they have opened your life up to, for their trust in your artistic ability to embody and share their story with the world.
- Separate out the emotions that belong to them from the emotions that are truly your own. You’ve been in their head and heart for intense periods of time, it can be hard to decipher what actually belongs to you. But it’s essential to make the distinction.
- Let go of their journey. They have to live now without you. They have to go on being present in the world without your daily presence. Trust that you have given them everything they need to thrive.
- Rest. You may not have much time between projects, but you are spiritually exhausted. You need time to re-center, to ground yourself again in your own being. You need time to let go of the motions of work. Physical activities – even mundane household chores- can be therapeutic – as they bring you out of the creative emotive state and sink you back into earthy presence.
- Celebrate what you’ve achieved.It is something major in any artist’s life to bring a project to a full close. No matter what level of success you’ve had in the past, each project takes all of you and creates new spaces within your spirit for what will come in the future. Having completed a project is an end and a beginning and you need to honor your spirit for that. Don’t just toss it off as “what you do.” Take a moment and feel a sense of achievement, accomplishment. You have done this. You are living a creative life. This is why you’re here.
In our work, we delve into tough, tough emotions of characters and live and experience pain that often would never be ours in our private lives. We do this as part of sharing Story, of furthering our human existence through Story. And because it’s part of what we do in our everyday work, we may not take what that pain can do to us seriously enough. We need to be conscious of the boundaries, of what belongs to us emotionally and what doesn’t. We are not our characters, they are not us. Yet, we will always be part of our characters and they will forever be part of us. Part of the magic and wonder of this amazing creative work is that we allow them to change us, we make ourselves vulnerable to them and in return, they give us the stories that become the fabric of our creative lives.
Close your projects with a sense of wonder and thankfulness. Bless your characters as you say goodbye.
Because no matter what happens when the work is done, they’ve blessed you.
*Restoration: When former Iraq P.O.W. and seasoned special operative Kyle Sandberg faces being institutionalized because he refuses to speak, war-weary psychologist Alicia Meier takes him home to her family’s abandoned farm in North Dakota’s booming oil fields—only to discover that her house has been condemned and will be destroyed, unless she can repair it in time. Battling insurmountable odds, threats from anti-fracking environmentalists and a neighbor desperate to see her off her land, Alicia, her Iraq war vet brother Daniel, and Kyle fight to rebuild the house and their lives, while grappling with the ultimate question: how do you know what’s worth saving?
“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?
When you write a novel, you write for your final readers – the consumer who will purchase your book. You don’t write for an agent or an editor or anyone else.
When you write a screenplay, however, you write knowing your final viewer will never see it. So who are you writing for?
While we screenwriters envision our version of our stories on the screen, our real job is storytelling. Because we are telling a story that others will pick up and retell – adding their own twists and turns, making it their own in their telling of it. And ultimately, it will land in a director’s hands who will “catch the vision,”see it through his or her creative lens and bring the story to life through the cast and crew. This can sound incredibly frightening when you think of how intimately you know your characters, their stories, what they’re after. And how hard you’ve worked at creating scenes that tell that story. And you’re right, it is a matter of trust.
But it is also a matter of perspective. If you write solely with the idea that your words on the page will be the final result, you miss the full weight of what you can contribute and do with the story for the other creative professionals it will be entrusted to.
As I’ve said before, a screenwriter is the first trustee of the story.
We have certain responsibilities that no other creative professional – not even additional writers – can fulfill.
We carry the honor of “origin” – the story first presented itself to us and no one will ever know that original story better than we will. But, stories are more than description, action and dialogue – all stuff that can and most likely will be changed. So what is that we have that others don’t?
The meaning of the story.
When someone else “catches the vision” of your script – it’s the theme they catch. They may or may not like the way you’ve told the story, but if they catch the theme, they’ll respond to it. If that theme resonates with them creatively, spiritually and financially, they’ll pursue it. Because at the heart of this business is storytelling. And theme drives story.
So what do our colleagues need from us?
1. A soul-driven story.
This means that your characters have human qualities, seem realistic to our emotions and move from a place of pain, need, hunger to growth, truth, and freedom. It means you write your own soul into it. You put the “humanness” into the story.
2. A story they can shape.
A well-crafted story has shape and is malleable. Actors and directors will bring life to your story that words on paper never can achieve – and they do that by being individuals and bringing their best creativity to the process. If you give them leeway in a script by giving them a solid theme-based story that they can spark ideas off of, they will. They’ll work with what you’ve presented, work with the characters, and create scenes that best present the theme.
3. Willingness to let go and let them.
If you’ve carried the theme well in your script, you’ll have faith that it will be carried into the final version of the story. Scenes, dialogue, description may change, but the story will a solid foundation to stand on and you will be able to trust others as they take responsibility for it. Remember, there’s always more than one way to get a message across. It’s the message (theme) that counts.
4. Understand their roles in the process.
As writers it’s too easy to get trapped inside our part of the process. We need to learn more about the people who will be the other trustees of the story.We need to understand their roles in the creative process and how they use the script as a working document.
Mark Travis‘s book Directing Feature Films gives a wonderful presentation of a director’s perspective of the script and the process a director may go through to capture that vision and continue the trust of the story. (He also has a very caring, respectful attitude toward writers and actors, which is refreshing and nurturing.) Exploring the craft of the other creative professionals who will be entrusted with the story is essential to understand what it is they need from you in the original script.
When you write from the perspective of theme – then you free yourself from the weight of seeing every word as “do or die” – and can tell the story in a solid way that presents the meaning of the story through the spiritual problems, growth and fulfillment of the characters. How that happens in the story may change. But the essence of the story will remain. And that’s where writers can find the deepest fulfillment. Knowing that our job is to present a powerful, moving story that touches the human spirit and inspires others to share it with the world, too.
I’ve been thinking this last week how easy it is for us to hinge the whole point of our lives on our creative work. We put so much of ourselves – our spirit, psyche, physical energy, hopes, dreams and future self – into it. Yet, how easily that work is seen today, forgotten tomorrow.
We throw everything we have into a project and in the matter of a few business decisions by people who are most likely not emotionally invested in our work, it can all be dismissed and forgotten – forever. And even when we “make it” – the public enjoys our work for such a short time, then so quickly moves on.
It’s all so transient.
(Sure, every now and then a work will become a classic, but often not until the artist is dead.)
So what keeps us going? And is it healthy for us to pin so much on something that we adore, but has no power to love us back?
We create because we can’t not create, it’s simply our calling in life. But as much as we focus on the end result of our creativity, if we aren’t anchored and grounded to something far more lasting, we leave ourselves wide open to being torn apart and devastated. Repeatedly.
So what really matters? What is it that we can ground ourselves in so that when our work is done and gone, we’re not left wandering in the desert of futility?
Two things: the process of creation and the people we touch along the way.
If we find deep meaning in the process of creation, then we can continue to find meaning as we work on new projects. And no one can take that away from us.
If we find even deeper meaning in the lives that we bless and touch during the process, then we’ve found something even stronger to hold on to. And we can know that no matter what happens to our work, we’ve made a difference in our journey.
Isn’t that where true meaning in creative life lies?
Not in the big, glorious, high moments that we spend so much time pursuing and are here and gone and, in all honesty, leave us deflated, wondering “was that it? is that all? why don’t I feel any different now than I did before?” – but in the everyday process of doing the work, in the challenges, the creative decisions, the pursuit of excellence in our craft and in the joy of blessing others along the way.
Anchor yourself in what matters, in the deeper meaning of why you create.
Then hold on to that purpose when rejection and disappointment hit.
You’ll have the certainty that you’ve lived your life well. And no one can take that away.