Sunday, June 23, 2013

Mindset: Five Misconceptions That Can Hamper A Screenwriter

The belief that people have fixed, inherent abilities rather than being capable of learning from experience, is responsible for much misery among screenwriters. So it’s worth debunking.

We screenwriters face specific challenges at various stages of our work, both in the creative and business realms. But often the biggest challenge we face are our own debilitating assumptions about talent or potential. I recently came across a book called Mindset by psychologist Dr. Carol S. Dweck which threw some very welcome light on this problem. 
Do I really have to?
In my own case, for example, rewriting is a problem. I hate diving back into a feature screenplay once I’ve ‘finished’ it. I want to leave it the way it is and move swiftly on to the next project. The result is a growing pile of well-written but unmarketable first drafts.

Mindset has helped me understand the reasons for my reluctance to embrace the rewriting process, and the insights are shockingly simple. Dweck distinguishes what she calls a fixed mindset, ie the conviction that things like intelligence and artistic ability are fixed quotas you get at birth, and a growth mindset, which says you can develop abilities by learning from experience. Her book covers many different areas of activity, but I find it resonates powerfully with some significant and limiting misconceptions I often wrestle with as a screenwriter. Here are five of them:

Misconception #1: Effort Equals Failure
The thing I hate hearing most in interviews with successful screenwriters is that they wrote their first draft in one marathon writing session. The thing just rolled out onto the page in five days, seemingly effortlessly. The reason that's annoying is because it reinforces the idea that speed and lack of exertion are evidence of great ability. After all, if you’re really good at something you obviously don’t need to make an effort to produce great work. Conversely, the blood, sweat and tears (not to mention time) needed by mere mortals like me just to come up with a good idea or two, is proof of our inferior abilities. But as author Malcolm Gladwell has explained in his best-seller Outliers, successful people in all kinds of fields invest huge amounts of time and energy in perfecting their skills.
Just press for finished screenplay.

I love the example of Thomas Edison in this context. There’s a popular mythology surrounding the inventor of the light bulb that he was a natural genius who suddenly came up with this brilliant idea and it worked. But in reality his invention was anything but effortless. He worked tirelessly for years, employed a team of scientists to assist him, tried and failed many times before finally hitting on the right technology. He worked systematically and learned from his mistakes.

Misconception #2: Talent. You Either Got It Or You Don’t
This is an insipid and highly demotivating trope that you find in all areas of human endeavour, from the creative professions to business and academic work, but also in sports and entertainment. The plethora of talent shows on TV bears witness to this idea that talent is a trait you either have or don’t. But the reality of so many great athletes, artists, musicians, business people, etc., is that they spent many long years developing and honing their skills before they became successful, and continued to do so afterwards too.

Look, I can even play the guitar.
There’s a famous anecdote about legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, who was once confronted by someone who said something like: “Yes, but you’re black, it’s in your genes.” To which Davis replied that he had studied hard every day since he was a young boy, made a superhuman effort to get into Julliard School of Music, and spent four years there learning from the best possible teachers, while gigging in clubs at night. In other words: He developed and nurtured his talent. It wasn’t a god-given, pre-fabricated gift.

In fact, the metaphor inherent in the use of the word ‘gifted’ in this context is telling: Being gifted suggests you have been given something, an ability that has little to do with you. It’s just something you have.

Misconception #3: Failure Proves You’re Worthless
What is failure? For example, a script you’ve written is rejected by agents and production companies. Or: You get stuck on a script and abandon it. Or: Your screenplay doesn’t place in a competition you’ve entered. Or perhaps your script is produced and the resulting film is a flop and you’re blamed. Unfortunately, this kind of failure is par for the screenwriting course. It’s unpleasant to experience rejection, or be judged unfairly, but it only becomes a debilitating problem if you believe rejection is evidence that you suck. A sure sign of this is when you start apportioning blame and fantasizing about violent retribution (hey, write a story about it instead). Whereas, if you believe that people can learn and improve from experience, then every failure can be an important lesson too. It can point to specific aspects of your writing or pitching skills that need improvement, enabling you to focus your efforts more effectively next time.
You talkin' to me?

I have to admit it’s quite unnerving to realize this about myself, because I like to think of myself as a reasonable, fairly rational individual. Whereas this kind of thinking is just so unhelpful, especially in a profession like screenwriting where you are constantly confronted with rejection. It’s all very well learning to “manage” rejection, but if deep-down you actually believe every rejection proves your lack of ability, or conversely, that it demonstrates the subnormal cognitive capacities of the rejecter, then you will never learn or improve.

Misconception #4: You Consist Of A Fixed Set Of Traits
We’ve all heard people say things like: Even as a toddler she was very musical. I’m just not a maths person. He’s a born leader. I’m just not the creative type. And so on. It’s a very common way of thinking about other people and about yourself, but in reality people learn new skills, change jobs, emigrate, and learn from their mistakes all the time. In her book, Dr. Dweck quotes numerous examples of educational initiatives, projects with convicted criminals, different styles of sports training, and much more, to demonstrate that often all it takes is a shift in attitude away from this idea of fixed traits, to achieve significant progress.

I sometimes wonder if the phrase “I am a screenwriter” itself expresses this kind of belief. Most people who are paid to write screenplays, do various other things too. Especially considering that only a tiny minority of people who write screenplays can live on doing only that. Most of us also have day jobs, earning money with other forms writing such as copywriting, writing prose, playwriting, journalism, and so on. I recently heard a published poet say she only considers herself “a poet” while she’s writing a poem. I like that attitude.

Misconception #5: Success Proves You’re Special
Even though it feels a lot better than failure, success is just another great opportunity to learn. Success can mean different things depending on where you are in your screenwriting career (if there even is such a linear thing). It could be something as simple as getting good feedback on a script, placing in a screenwriting competition, or it might be landing a paid assignment, selling a script, obtaining funding for your own production, etc. If you believe that success is a sign of some special innate ability rather than of the effort you put into a project, you make yourself vulnerable to inevitable subsequent disappointments. Because the question then becomes: Where did my 'gift,' my ability go?

It’s like when a child gets a good grade at school. The worst thing you can do as a parent is suggest the success is evidence of some innate gift. You’re so clever. You’re so musical. It’s much better to praise the kid for having worked hard. The same goes for your own screenwriting success: Being aware of what you did to achieve the success, helps you replicate it and improve on it in your next project.

All written with just my thumbs
For example, last year my short script Happy New Year was awarded production funding by the Pears Foundation Short Film Fund and although I’ve written quite a few short scripts, this one has received the best results so far. I’ve already taken away plenty lessons from the experience, but one major one is: My writing is at its best when I feel a strong emotional connection with the characters’ dilemmas, because that’s the fuel that helps me keep going back to script to make it better and better. It moves my attention away from the idea that I have to rewrite because my writing isn’t good, and channels it into the urge to express what I set out to write as clearly as possible because it’s important to me.

I can’t possibly do justice to Carol Dweck’s work here, so I would highly recommend reading her book yourself. I’ve certainly learned a great deal from her, not just as a screenwriter but also as a parent, a husband, a musician, and all the other roles a person has.

Of course, now I have to go and rewrite a feature screenplay or two…

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Paradox Of The Hero’s Journey As A Screenwriting Paradigm

Has the mythical Hero’s Journey story form run its course, or is it perhaps truly a timeless expression of Human Nature?

So you want to write a screenplay?
Today I saw that Christopher Vogler is coming to Paris with his three-day seminar on The Writer’s Journey His method is based on Joseph Campbell’s seminal book on comparative mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, first published in 1949, which in turn is heavily indebted to Jungian analytical psychology. The announcement made me stop and think once again, seriously, about the value for screenwriters of trawling the history of storytelling for recurring story forms, character types, themes, etc.

Because It's Old Doesn't Mean It's True
Many great movies follow the mythical structure, either deliberately or accidentally, but I actually find it a bit worrying how this particular model is venerated, for the following reason:

As an abstract story form, the Hero’s Journey claims validity on the basis of a very specific and flimsy assumption: Because this type of story has been told for thousands of years, there must be some fundamental truth to it. However, I think ideas about what it means to be human (and ultimately, this is what films try to illuminate) are changing dramatically. The advent of neuroscience, quantum physics and other “new” branches of science are radically challenging many longstanding ideas about concepts such as free will, intuition, decision-making, and so on.

The Hero’s Journey celebrates and glorifies the past, rather than questioning the underlying assumptions about human nature and how we give meaning to our lives. It gives the filmmaker a false sense of comfort and reassurance, nurturing the illusion that they are part of a long, noble tradition of truth-tellers, when in fact what they are doing is uncritically confirming age-old biases.

It's All In The Willpower
Yes, but my willpower is huge.
Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that the Hero’s Journey is always ultimately an argument for individual willpower as the final resort. The hero manages to achieve the goal against all odds because of his or her willpower, or the hero fails because of lack of willpower. But this is an outdated, romantic view of human nature that bears little resemblance to the banality of real life.

Since Campbell did his initial studies, a lot has changed. Scientific research has clearly shown that people’s actions are largely determined by situational, genetic and neurological factors. Our decision-making is mostly unconscious. Not in the literary, Freudian sense of an unconscious full of mysteriously repressed forbidden desires, but unconscious in the sense of not being accessible to conscious awareness. You don’t know why you chose the Toyota for the same reason you don’t know how you secrete hormones: It would be completely impractical to be consciously aware of all these processes. The difference is that you think you do know why you chose the Toyota.

Plus, we have far less agency as individual humans than we like to admit. Both in terms of making choices and in terms of acting independently in general. We are much, much less “in charge” of how we behave than we would like to believe. And yet the Hero’s Journey is predicated on this notion that adversity can be overcome by asserting your willpower.

Willpower, if such a things exists, is a very minor factor in real life. Just think about how hard it is to stick to a diet or go to the gym regularly. This is not because of an archetype you are battling with, or because of unconscious desires you’re suppressing. These are just metaphors that psychologists have used in an attempt to describe the very real experience of not being consciously in charge of one’s actions. Sticking to a diet is difficult because of the kind of animal we are, living as we do in extremely new and unfamiliar circumstances on an evolutionary time scale. You’re more likely to stick to a diet by using cognitive tricks and social frameworks to keep you away from temptation, than by telling yourself to man up.

The Screenwriter As Hero
I’m not saying it’s wrong to make movies that reflect and revel in an ancient intuition about individual willpower and agency, but I do think it’s problematic that this model for telling romantic morality tales has become the litmus test for “good screenwriting.”

Lucy, leaving her Ordinary World.
I hear you protesting: You have to know the rules to break them. Or: There simply aren’t any new stories to be told. And so on. But that’s precisely what a paradigm does. It engenders loyalty and the accompanying rationalizations. Once you are committed to a paradigm, it’s almost impossible to get your mind out of it. The problem is, essentially, that familiarity feels like evidence of truth, but it isn’t necessarily.

It’s a peculiar paradox, when you think about it: Designing your screenplay so that it follows the familiar steps of the Hero’s Journey, might actually be a bit cowardly. Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe there is such an unchanging thing as Human Nature, which was the same 3.2 million years ago for our ancestor Lucy as it will be for our descendants in 3 million years from now. I’m sceptical, though.

On the other hand, there are very practical reasons for using the Hero’s Journey, like: It will make a screenplay easier to pitch, more accessible to a larger audience, and so on. Which as far as I’m concerned are absolutely legitimate, pragmatic, business reasons. But don’t get carried away and then claim that it’s the only legitimate choice.

So, Christopher Vogler in Paris… I’m still undecided. Maybe I’ll see you there. If I do, I’ll be the one in the cafeteria trying to muster the willpower to resist yet another croissant.