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…