Saturday, August 17, 2013

Worry and the Writer...

I've always had a lot of issues with control. When you grow up feeling like you don't have any, it's really easily to unconsciously hoard any little bit that opens itself up to you. You grab it so tight, you don't realize you're doing more harm to yourself until your nails have broken the skin, and you're bleeding everywhere. 

When I was younger, first developing my voice as a writer, I was afraid of workshopping my stories in class. A part of me irrationally feared criticism-- not because I poured so much of myself in my work that it would be like they were saying they didn't like me, but because I left it all on the page, and if someone said it wasn't good enough, I knew I didn't have the tools to fix it. A part of me irrationally feared theft, too. You can't copyright an idea and all of that. The idea that an angsty teen wouldn't write anything worthy of a middle aged creative writing teacher claiming as her own never occurred to me. My writing was all I had, and I guarded it like it was my newborn cub, and we were fending for ourselves in the wild.

As I got slightly older and set out to take L.A. by storm (ha!) I still worried, but this time it was more about "workshopping" with the industry, i.e. having to take notes and tweak a project based on the buyers' brands and trends and interests. I didn't want to put my name on something that didn't live up to my standards, especially if that something was going to be used to launch myself into a career and make myself and my writing known by it in the first place. 

Compromise is a part of the creative process in this business, but to do so means to relinquish some control-- creative or otherwise-- over something that will no longer just be "yours." I got my first taste of this right after college when I attempted to work with a writing partner for the first time after literally a decade of holing up by myself in my bedroom to churn out page after page, script after script, alone. It was not easy. The truth was, we were not equal partners because the story came from my brain, the characters were all based on people in my life, and it was real and maybe a little too close to me personally. I had more at stake, and that was obvious to both of us, but I also pushed harder for it to be made, and that became obvious to both of us, too. But mostly I was just so used to working my specific way, with my specific voice, that when I felt we were straying, I would get irrationally frustrated-- with both the process and the story itself.

It was always the opposite when I was helping someone else brainstorm a story or flesh out characters, arcs, or ideas. By taking some objective control I felt useful; I felt empowered; but most importantly, I felt energized and creative again. 

Most recently, a friend came to me with an idea for a television show. He basically pitched me over email, and I came back with some thoughts and questions off his basic premise and from the standpoint of what I though the executives in the room would want to know, so leaving him with things to think about as he created his world. He wrote the script, and I gave him some notes on that. We went back and forth with characters and scale and tone. I was acutely aware that some of the notes I was giving him were subjective, personal preference type things, but I made sure to be explicit about that so he could take them or throw them away based on how they aligned with his vision for his baby. Still, I was inspired-- partially by his really interesting idea and partially by how easy and rewarding the process felt. So I asked him to take a whack at something of mine-- something that I started, knowing full well just how specific my own vision and tone and characters for it were.

But the crazy thing is that as time went on with this particular story idea, I went through all of the stages of writing fears that I should have experienced for all the years leading up to it. I worried a studio or a network would pull a My Stepmother is an Alien with it*; I considered turning it into a novel instead of a TV show just to ensure my version was told**... but then I worried my version wasn't good enough anyway. I considered that as a sign for a little while that this shouldn't be the mark I make, either. But then something remarkable happened. Rather than put it on a USB to never think about again, I started testing the waters and pitching the idea to friends, some of whom are writers, too, and some of whom are in the industry-- but some who were not but could be a potential audience. I sent the script around for notes. I put it away for a few months, then re-read it and gave myself notes. And when I saw flaws I could name but for which I couldn't execute a fix properly, I admitted that maybe this was one I should just hand over to someone else***.

I don't know if that growth is real maturity as a writer, coming up so much later in my life and career than it should because I kept myself stunted and segregated for so long, or if it should be considered giving up. If you had asked me at various points in my own life, I would have given you both answers. I'm true artists have one way of thinking about it, while those more focused on the business have another.

Reading my friend's ideas and the first few pages of the draft he said he was inspired to start certainly had my still-subjective-and-much-too-close-to-the-story alarms going off about little details, but when I stepped back and looked at the bigger picture I realized a couple of key things. First, I must have been onto something because this guy has babies of his own-- he doesn't need my scraps-- and yet he felt compelled to work on something. But more importantly, the things I worried about not being clear between character relationships given that some of them had years of history that I wasn't willing to exposit in a monologue of any kind (for example), he understood immediately. We traded emails about the tone and backstories in a way that got me re-excited for my own work. That never really happened before.

That is one instance where I don't think "growth" has anything to do with it, though. The truth is, I spent so many years worrying about the unknown because I feared the worst about it. I've always considered myself a pragmatist, and I include a note in many job application cover letters that I'm great at seeing all angles to a project and therefore able to anticipate problems before they arise to work on ensuring they never have to. It is a skill that comes in handy for corporations and productions and high pressure, fast-paced professional environments, for sure. But it can kill creativity because the exhaustion that comes with it is stifling and stunting on a personal level.

So can the desire-- or the need-- to always be in control, even of the fictional, the abstract, the in process. Old adage about grabbing grains of sand aside, creating means constantly evolving and changing, and at times adapting. If you can't-- or aren't willing to-- do that, you have no place being in the creating business at all. 

* The original script was a dark tale about child abuse at the hands of a new family member. Hollywood watered it down, sensationalized it, and added the sci-fi element. Some (I) would say they bastardized it. I heard this story in film school, and it solidified all of my fears about collaborating with suits.

** I still may do this, but more as an exercise to keep me writing and to work through some character snags and keep the story alive. No one is giving me any studio or network meetings for the show right now, so there's no point to writing subsequent episodes past the pilot. But I, personally, still want to hang out with these characters some more.

*** It's why I entered it into a pitch competition and not a script one.

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