Tuesday, November 24, 2009

I Wonder What Would Have Happened If I’d…

In a recent interview on Big Think, writer Paul Auster tells of the inspiration for his novel City of Glass. He was called on the phone by someone who asked, “Is this the Pinkerton Detective Agency?” He answered, “No, wrong number,” and hung up. The same thing happened the next day too, but after he hung up the second time, he immediately regretted it. He began to imagine what might have happened if he had kept that person on the line and pretended to be the Pinkerton Detective Agency. This became the starting point for his novel.

Seems to me we all regularly experience these kinds of moments. Something as simple as thinking in retrospect of a biting retort you could have given an uncooperative salesperson. Or perhaps you only realized when the train pulled out of the station that the person who was sitting next to you was inviting you to flirt.

Here’s an incident I experienced a while ago:

I live in a sleepy suburb and I have a dog (these facts in themselves are a long story, but some other time). I often take the dog out after lunch, you know an old-fashioned constitutional. At that time of day, most normal people are at work. Of course, I’m working too, you just can’t tell by looking at me; I’m a writer.

On this particular day, it was during the summer holidays, I saw someone I didn’t know sitting behind the wheel of my neighbour’s expensive SUV. My neighbour and his family were on holiday in Tunisia.

From a distance it looked like the guy was trying to hot-wire the car, as he was fiddling around below the steering wheel. The man was large, had cropped hair and a scrunched up face that seemed to bear witness to numerous fist fights (that I imagined he had won). So there I stand, a timid, bourgeois man with a little dog and a terrible dilemma. Should I approach the man and ask him straight what he’s doing in my neighbour’s car? Should I pretend I haven’t noticed?

I can’t decide, so I walk around the parking lot, pretending to attend to my dog, while keeping an eye on the suspect in the car. I think things like: Should I call the police? Should I go away? The man starts the car. Shit. Now I really have to decide. Then he spies me watching him. Fuck. He’s going to kill me. Now my heart is pounding. He drives the car slowly across the parking lot. Why slowly? This doesn’t make sense, and worse, he’s coming towards me. I act like one of those animals that feigns death when faced with a predator.

The man stops the car and climbs out (really, like he’s a gorilla). That’s when he smiles at me, and I feel a wave of relief. This is also when I begin pretending to myself that I’m courageous. I ask him who he is, and he tells me he’s my neighbour’s brother-in-law. I suddenly see the resemblance. He says he couldn’t work out how to get the mirrors out… fucking fancy-shmancy cars… He says he saw me watching him, and I tell him something about us neighbours looking out for each other and so on. Turns out he’s going to the airport to pick them up, they’re coming home from Tunisia today.

Now then… in retrospect I feel I should have been braver. I should have gone up to the car right away and asked who he was. But who knows what would have happened then? What if this had been a car thief? Or what if this was some goon sabotaging my neighbour’s car for the local mob? He might have pulled out a gun and shot my dog… or asked me for help with the mirrors, or tried to escape… who knows.

See? A simple, uneventful incident for which your imagination can supply any number of alternative continuations if you let it wander.

One thing’s for sure, next time I think in retrospect of something I could have said or done, I’m going to play it out in my mind and see where it takes me. I’ll keep you posted.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Follow Your Gut, But Train It First

I’m a great fan of Jeff Goldsmith’s blog and podcast, which features Q+A sessions with screenwriters of movies currently in theatres. Sometimes it’s just reassuring to hear people describe familiar writing dilemma’s and creative issues; it helps to know it’s not just me. Other times it’s useful to hear how other writers find inspiration or deal with specific dramatic writing issues; a great tip can save much unnecessary sweat.

However, what I’ve always found most intriguing are the interviews with writers who don’t exhaustively prepare and outline their screenplays before they start writing a first draft. They write intuitively. Just a few of these writers I can think of off-hand: Guillermo Arriaga (Babel), Ronald Harwood (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), Martin McDonagh (In Bruges), David Benioff (The Kite Runner).

What strikes me about these people, is that they all have a background in writing novels or stage plays, or both. They come from a world in which the writer is a far more highly respected and autonomous player. They appear to write from a very different starting point than screenwriters whose thinking is steeped Hollywood jargon that seems to serve more to reassure studio executives than to advance the creative process. You know, plot points, character arcs and all that stuff.

But there’s more to it than that, I fear.

I recently started work on a screenplay without doing the usual text book preparation, and it made me extremely nervous. Being the introspective type, I wanted to know what was going on, so I looked inside and realized: I feel like I’m losing my religion. Shame, guilt, accusatory voices in my head (don’t worry, only I can hear them), and all because I’m violating the edicts of all the how-to books and screenwriting tutors.

Or am I?

In fact, my conclusion is different. Learning to write good screenplays is like learning to paint or play a musical instrument, or any other creative endeavour. You first have to spend a long, long time imitating the people who’ve done it all before you. Learning their tricks, distilling principles, practising an array of techniques, and so on. Only once you’ve mastered the technique can you transcend it. That’s how you develop intuition, or gut feeling, and that’s when you discover if you have anything interesting and original to add.

Which is why learning to outline, knowing what an act break is, understanding what’s meant by a character arc, familiarizing yourself with genre conventions and so on, is essential. Only then can you go beyond the generic and create something truly original.

Like my current favourite Keith Johnstone says in his book Impro:

It’s easy to play the role of “artist,” but to actually create something means going against one’s education.

Which I don’t take to mean mindlessly rebelling against what you’ve learned. The point is to internalize what you’ve learned, so that it becomes a repertoire you have at your disposal, and then follow your instincts.

There’s a famous psychological experiment in which two groups of subjects are given a free poster to take home for keeps. They get to choose between two reproductions of impressionist paintings and some huge photos of cute little kittens. Group A simply chooses a poster and leaves, Group B is asked to first write down the reasons for their choice.

When the subjects are called a few weeks later and asked if they’re still happy with the choice they made, the vast majority of Group A, who mostly chose the impressionist painting, are still very happy with their posters. However, Group B, who mostly chose the kitten, absolutely hate their posters. The explanation, according to psychologists who study decision making, is that this type of aesthetic decision is best made instinctively rather than by means of conscious deliberation.

People in Group B had to write down the motivation for their choice. This conscious thinking removed them from their initial, unconscious preference, and instead prompted them to follow a more “rational” and in this case less authentic approach.

Something similar goes on in a screenwriter’s mind when there’s too much thinking and conscious reasoning, and not enough intuition involved.

Right now my intuition says it’s time for some tea.