Wednesday, August 15, 2012

How Authentic Are You Prepared To Be As A Screenwriter?

Whether you’re writing a superhero blockbuster or a DIY lo-budget indie film, your writing will be best when there’s something uniquely yours on the page. But that’s terrifying.

What everyone in the film business is looking for in a script, is an original voice. Something about the subject matter and the writing style that sets it apart from the mass of generic, derivative scripts trying to jump on the bandwagon of recent box office or cult hits. For the screenwriter this is good and bad news. The good news is: There’s only one of you, so your unique experiences and point of view are inherently original. The bad news is: Writing from your own embarrassing, shameful or even traumatic experience, exposes you to criticism that can be extremely painful and inhibitive.

Embracing Rather Than Overcoming Your Demons
Terrified screenwriter embracing his demon
In his wonderful book Writing From The Inside Out, screenwriter turned psychotherapist Dennis Palumbo talks about how writers often become frustrated because they try to circumvent their embarrassing hang-ups or painful memories rather than embracing them for what they are: their own personal archive of raw material. Plus, what’s unique about a writer’s experience, however disturbing, is part of being human and so something to which other human beings will be able to relate. Which isn’t an encouragement to refuse to write anything other than a verbatim transcription of a highly emotional real life event (‘No, but it really happened that way!’), because that’s always less interesting to others than to you. But it does mean that your awful first kiss, your liberating divorce, your shameful experience as a son or a daughter or as a father or mother—all these unprocessed experiences are chock full of authentic details, characters and emotions just begging to be mined rather than avoided.

Exposing Yourself Emotionally Is Risky
Cut that scene, it turns my stomach.
The truth is, it is a terrifying prospect to let strangers have a peek at your dark side, however authentic it may be. They might laugh, be disgusted or simply disbelieving. Believe me, I’ve received notes from readers disapproving of actions or traits of characters in my writing which were direct representations of my own life. It doesn’t make you feel good when a reader exclaims: “What kind of a shmuck would ever do that?!” But what’s also true, as Dennis Palumbo writes, is that all screenwriting is autobiographical. Not literally, but whatever you write is informed by and infused with the way you experience the world, your past experiences and the values you believe in. Even if you try and hide it (that’s part of you in action, too…). So it hurts when someone dismisses or disapproves of your material, because you’re so invested in it and it feels like they’re rejecting you personally. But it’s par for the course and the risk is worth taking, because at the very least you come out the other end wiser and better equipped for your next writing challenge. And if you don’t stick your neck out, chances are your writing will feel inhibited or generic, which will certainly and justifiably lead to rejection anyway.

Why Authenticity Matters
I'm sorry, this suit just isn't me.
Lying, denying, avoiding, pretending, and so on, are all very stressful occupations. And in terms of writing, they cause you to (unwittingly perhaps) try and spare your characters the confrontations and conflicts you yourself are avoiding in real life. Whereas these are the very conflicts that you know most intimately! Again, being authentic doesn't mean getting rid of these conflicts. On the contrary, it means acknowledging and embracing them as a real part of who you are. Tapping into them for their emotional power. But besides being essential for being able to fully identify with and inhabit your characters, for being able to write honestly and truthfully (and therefore more engagingly), being authentic is basically just a lot better for you than being stuck in denial. Here’s an article from Psychology Today which explains the benefits of authenticity nicely. So, basically: Lie, deny, avoid, pretend and so on, but write truthfully about what that’s like…

Lastly, a huge thank you to the amazing Corey Mandell, who recommended Dennis Palumbo’s book to me. But more about Corey and his mind-boggling screenwriting insights in my next post.