Two weeks ago, I got a call from from Wesleyan University asking me to expand my previous one-semester screenwriting course into a full-year mentorship program for the seniors writing thesis scripts.
The second I received the call, I knew exactly what I wanted to teach these students.
I wanted to help them learn to tolerate being in process with their screenplays. To not worry about “getting it right,” to not worry about the “proper” way to do it, but to keep returning to the key questions that speak to the core dramatic idea at the heart of their stories:
1) What do I want to express with this script?
2) Why is this important to me?
3) What do I want people to take from this movie?
After all, isn’t this the most valuable lesson of all for writers? To cultivate a tolerance for the changing, shifting creative process? And navigate it not from a place of intellectual worry but from a place of clear artistic intention?
My feeling was (and always has been) that if you have real clarity on why you are working on a particular script, if you have real clarity on what you want to express with it, then you have an unshakable compass to guide you through the myriad of seemingly endless story choices.
Elements of structure can change from script to script. But the capacity to to tolerate creative discovery can sustain an entire career.
I was so excited about the idea of a class that focused less on external mechanics of structure and more on supporting the students to get clear and specific on what they longed to express. I was brimming with ideas.
I was also short on time.
I got the call literally a week before I was to fly out to Connecticut to commence the first class. With all the hustle and bustle of both taking care of remaining loose ends in Los Angeles as well as planning the trip, I was counting on my free time in Connecticut prior to the class to finalize my initial lesson plan. I had everything perfectly scheduled out and all my ducks lined up in a row.
And then everything went wrong.
My first flight got delayed for an hour because of a malfunctioning light that indicated mechanical trouble that didn’t actually exist.
I was in such a rush to try to make a connecting flight in Charlotte that I didn’t get a chance to eat a single meal for the entire day.
After rushing to catch the second flight, it too was delayed for over an hour due to bad weather in Hartford. We weren’t allowed to disembark during our wait, so I sat on the plane at the gate, torturously hungry and squeezed into one of those non-desirable exit rows that faces a wall. There was no place for my carry-on in this row, so I didn’t even have access to my computer – not that I would have had room to open it and type. Not that I could have focused on my work due to my hunger pangs.
I finally arrived in Hartford only to realize that my license had expired, which meant no rental car company would rent to me.
I ordered a taxi to get to the hotel. There was no food establishment in walking distance of the place. And were are no local taxis available to take me somewhere. Without any other option, I grazed the hotel concession kiosk and ended up unsuccessfully trying to fill myself with Kind bars and microwave popcorn.
As I drifted off to sleep, I had this vague awareness that I should maybe set my alarm. “No worries,” I tell myself in a starved fog, “You always wake up early, and you’re so hungry, there is no way you’ll oversleep.”
I overslept. And to top it off, I had to wait for a taxi to come pick me up to take me to the University campus.
As I sat in the taxi, taking in every stroke of this ongoing calamity, I finally heard the negative voice (the one that I had been attempting to avoid) creeping in: “I don’t understand what’s going on. I was so excited about this opportunity. This was all supposed to go so well. I was supposed to be prepared. What is going on?”
And that is when it hit me.
I had made a clear decision to teach a class about the willingness to be in creative process – and now the tides of unpredictable process have taken my first trip to campus by storm. Everything had gone wrong, my anticipated schedule had been shot to hell, I didn’t have time to plan out the perfect lesson plan for my first class.
Which meant one thing: I now had to surrender to creative process. I’m being asked to make the same surrender I want my students to make – to let go of the “master plan,” to let go of knowing how to get it exactly right, and instead surrender to whatever deeper plan that has started to unfold.
I got to O’Rourke’s diner for lunch, plopped myself down at the counter and broke out my spiral notebook. I still had no idea how exactly I was going to present the material for my first class, or even how much material I wanted to present in my first class, but I just put pen to paper and wrote down the question, “What do I want to express to the students in this class?”
And it all came pouring out in a clear, direct stream-of-consciousness – first, a few teaching points; and then, a deeper message that part of teaching creative process means seeing what is in the actual room: Who are these specific students? What level of critical thinking is each one at? What kind of story does each one want to write?
In other words, the very nature of process is surrendering to a mysterious ebb-and-flow that cannot be predetermined or controlled. It would only make sense, then, that my own creative process needs to spring from the specific needs and demands of this particular group of students.
Or, to put it more simply: “Do some footwork and then just show up.”
I immediately felt relief because I no longer had to be in control or know everything. I was clear in my intention, and that intention was helping me to navigate a process that is ultimately much bigger than my intellect.
This is a prime example of what it means to “Work on Your Script, Work on Your Life.”
Our writing holds great emotional power for us. The impulse to write a story is an impulse to take a journey into some part of you that longs for creative expression.
When you have the willingness to get clear on what dramatic conflict lies at the heart of your story, then you’ll also be clear on what personal conflict inside you wants to be illuminated and transformed.
Undertaking your script with this heightened level of consciousness initiates a process of deep self-discovery and life change. The issues of your script have a way of bleeding off the page and creating opportunities in your life to work through long-held issues. It’s a synchronous, holistic process that both changes you as an individual and informs the story you’re writing.
In this case, my desire to teach a class largely geared toward surrendering to process prompted real-life experiences that forced me to surrender more deeply to process – which of course means that I am better able to teach about process.
And so it is with my clients: when a writer comes in wanting to write a script about a young adolescent undertaking a magical journey, we get to deal with the part of her that wants to take a magical journey and everything that brings her up – her fear, her resistance, her excitement. As we help her to surrender to life as a magical journey, she funnels all this new information into her script.
Another client comes in wanting to break free from toxic, codependent relationships in his life so that he can have his full creative voice – and so we get him writing a crime script about a young man looking for freedom from a network of unsavory characters who won’t let him leave the racket. This writer starts to map out his own healing by writing his hero’s journey to freedom.
It is a system of constant feedback: the script reveals the point of conflict within the writer, exploration of the writer’s inner conflict informs the dramatic events of the script, the script helps the writer to shift this conflict toward resolution.
In many ways, this connection between a writer’s script and a writer’s life is not news. Cinema is littered with examples of great movies where scribes’ personal lives bled into their fictional lives (and vice-versa).
Life very much imitated art in the French New Wave classic Contempt as Jean-Luc Godard wrote a movie about an international filmmaker struggling to make a meaningful film in the face of a boorish American producer – all the while struggling with his own set of boorish American producers. The result is one of the most notorious, beautifully choreographed works of avant-garde cinema of all time – a celebrated meditation on movies, art, love and existentialism.
More recently, Charlie Kaufman has created a whole brand out of blurring the line between fact and fiction. His assignment to adapt Susan Orleans’ The Orchid Thief became a movie about his struggle to adapt The Orchid Thief. Kaufman literally wrote himself (and his attendant crippling neuroses) into the screenplay and the result proved to be a post-modern exploration of both the writing process as well as man’s search for meaning.
Essentially, then, the process of Working on Your Script, Working on Your Life consciously recognizes the deep connection that already exists between a writer and his script, and actively uses that connection as a tool for both creative and personal exploration.
It empowers writers to live their screenplays. It empowers writers to put themselves into their screenplays. It empowers writers to truly put all of themselves into their art in a deep, meaningful way.