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While having coffee with that friend last week, she also mentioned a book that could be inspiring when you’re stuck in a rut a bit with your writing. When she told me the writer, I thought ‘I know that name’, then she told me the title and I thought ‘ah, that’s why I know the name, I have that book in my bookcase!’, Bird by Bird, written by Anne Lamott. It’s not actually mine, I borrowed it a hundred years ago from a writer friend, I wrote her name on a Post-it and stuck it on the book, like I do with all my borrowed books, so I don’t forget who I borrowed it from. Anyways, I got into it again, I had read some of the chapters about 99 years ago, or so it feels, and indeed it is a great book, full of great anecdotes and advice.
One of the advices she gives about writing is one I have heard a few times already and seems to be my Achilles heel: just write and keep writing that ‘shitty first draft’. Don’t stop. Don’t write a little bit and then go back and rewrite, try to edit already. Just write the whole thing completely and then after you’re done, then you go back and rewrite, edit. And here is why:
‘The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto that page. If one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?,” you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go, but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages’ (page 22, 23). She writes mostly about writing novels and shorts for books or magazines, but the point she makes remains the same for a screenplay.
It reminds me of what Robert McKee is saying in his book Story, and I mentioned here before on Day 6 # Write What You Know, that writing is a discovery and we don’t know where it goes and should the telling take a left turn, we should even abandon the original inspiration to follow the evolving story. And I know this is true. But I guess it’s the perfectionist in me that wants to get it right the first time, only then can I write on. I have the same thing with editing video’s and the reason why that takes me so much time every time. Because to me it feels as if I am building stepping stones to the top of a mountain. I’m not stepping onto the next stone, until I know this one stone is right. I keep chiselling on that first stone and then move on to the next and so on. But I’m getting better at trying to change this method. When writing this blog, I do try to just get it out of my system what I want to say and then read back and rearrange and edit things if it doesn’t make sense or doesn’t come across what I am trying to say. And it’s true what Anne Lamott is saying, because when writing something out, getting it out of your system, without editing first, you really do discover what you actually want to say and it’s often not the first thing you are writing.
This week I was also at an event where a well known successful screenwriter talked about what writers for the screen can learn from writers for theatre, she having done both (which I will talk about another time). Even she said exactly the same thing and she does as well, when I asked what to do when story bits are popping up in my mind, even dialogue and whether I shouldn’t write the overall story in an outline first. And she too said: just write, everything that pops up in your head, write it all down, even the dialogue. Just write the story. As is, now. As it comes out. And then, after you have written the first draft, then you go back and rewrite and tweak. But just write. Now.
Earlier in her book, Anne writes another thing I love to read, that all good writers write shitty first drafts (ok, all but one, but nobody likes her very much). This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts and that almost no writer sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident when starting off. Even the screenwriter I talked to at that event mentioned that. Don’t you just love that? I do. That actually gives me more confidence. Because that means that I too have a shot and that writing a shitty first draft doesn’t mean it won’t get better and is in fact still in the run for becoming something great.
Then why I am still so hesitant to keep on writing with these prospects (well, at least on paper, by no means does this have to be true for me of course)? Because I am writing about it. And although it shouldn’t matter, I feel like I have raised the stakes now of this very first screenplay. But shouldn’t it be about the journey and all that I am learning through it? In all honesty, to me, this is already a success. If I were to quit right now, choose not to continue to write this first screenplay right now, because all of sudden I decide to become a pastry chef or something, I do love baking a lot, this has not been a waste of time and to me is so valuable. And I know I have stumbled upon things that others go through as well and not only about the art of screenwriting.
Having said that, of course I want the other product coming out of this journey (other than the already very valuable lessons), the actual screenplay, to be a badass one, excellent that is. I’m sorry, but I do! It almost feels like this screenplay is now a protagonist of an own story and we’re all, at least I am, curious how this will turn out. The story even follows some kind of storytelling structure, including the call to adventure, obstacles, helpers and antagonists. And so now this story’s stakes are raised, I feel, although technically I wouldn’t lose anything if it doesn’t become an actual well written screenplay, perhaps even a sold one. But I would hate it if after all we’ve been through and will go through still for who knows how long, following this story, that it ends with a crappy product that will be too ugly to read, which I will then try to hide under an alias. But perhaps the screenplay itself was and is my conscious desire (sticking with Robert McKee’s terminology), and in the end isn’t the most important thing of this journey and my unconscious desire is actually to dare more and to become more confident at the craft itself, as an artist and as a person even. And that is much more valuable than any well written screenplay. Boy.
Although a very valuable lesson yet again, what I just wrote is no good argument for not writing that shitty first draft whatsoever. It’s ridiculous even. Because writing a shitty first draft doesn’t mean that it won’t be that badass, excellent screenplay in the end! Because at this speed, although we love slow-cooking and it can produce good stuff, the characters in my story will be grandparents by the time I’m done with them. And you know there is much more of the story that you can write, right now. You have much more material of the story lingering in your mind, that you simply refuse to write out, because you’re not sure if it will work in the story. But how will you find out if you don’t write it in?! I’m getting pissed at myself right now! Just write, just write, just write! And stop being your own antagonist! There are plenty out there, you don’t need another one, especially not one from your own camp! Alright?