Week 27 01-07/08/2016 # Anyone Can Learn, Not Everyone Will Master

– 5 min –

Now that we’re a little more than a month into the course, a question popped into my mind. Can anyone learn screenwriting? This had to be on Karel Segers’s mind (the teacher of our screenwriting course), when he set up this online course, based on methods he had used many times over in live classes. And not only that, but can anyone learn screenwriting without any books? Or previous storytelling, journalism, writing experience? Will the proof be in the pudding? At the end of these 6 months, will everyone be able to write a screenplay? And how good will that be? And then what does that proof? Even if you only focus on the ones that started without any writing knowledge or experience, no one is completely ‘clean’ of human experience which you bring along with you. And then there is of course that one pesky little thing called natural talent, isn’t there? (Although no guarantee for success, as I wrote about in another post.)

One of the screenplays we had to read this week was that of Whiplash (2014), the multiple Oscar nominated, two Oscar winning (best supporting actor and editing), only second full length feature by director Damien Chazelle, who also wrote it. In case you haven’t seen it yet, it’s very good. It’s about a young promising passionate drummer, Andrew, and his – almost tyrannical – music teacher, Fletcher. The main question of the story is: how far should you go to reach your, or someone else’s, potential, bring a talent to fruition?

I don’t think it was a coincidence that Karel picked this screenplay for us to read. Perhaps he’s not just wanting to prove anyone can learn screenwriting, through this immersion method, but is indeed also hoping to bring someone’s natural talent to fruition through it. Perhaps this story was to ask ourselves how much we believe we have a talent in us, e.g. screenwriting, and how far we are willing to go or think we should, to make it grow and even proof we have that talent and become the best at it. Perhaps he himself is also sort of a Fletcher, who didn’t want to be the next best musician, but was eager to discover one and help him reach his full potential at any costs, because ‘the next Charlie Parker wouldn’t be discouraged’ when pushed this hard. Not that we are pushed this hard, although it most definitely isn’t a walk in the park either, being at quite a fast tempo as well, but I bet Karel’d be thrilled when one or even some of us will be standing on that podium in the Kodak Theatre (now renamed Dolby Theatre) in Los Angeles end of a February, giving our acceptance speech for winning the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and hearing his name, because of course we will thank him too, for without him, we wouldn’t have been able to know screenwriting as well as we do. Come on, doesn’t every teacher or coach or mentor want that? And especially with the help of this immersion method, without any books?

I don’t know how many of the participants are extremely busy with that talent question, and although I am on some level, I should not and don’t want to be busy with that question right now. Because it’s not about that right now. I do believe in a natural talent for it, but this doesn’t mean that you’re done then. You will have to work hard to make that talent come to fruition. And even then your talent might not give you that advantage. Some people less talented, but ‘simply’ by working harder at it, might become more successful than you. They’re not better than you, they simply put in more work and went the extra mile to get to where they wanted to go. Again, there are a lot of artists and non-artists too, who are much less talented than others, but they got to the top, because they did the work, the effort. Something I read in the book ‘Talent Is Never Enough’ by John Maxwell, which I referred to in this previous post. This is not different in screenwriting.

One of the great things about this course is that you learn screenwriting very well on a technical level, next to also starting to understand structure and how a story is told, simply by the reading and writing you do. Get the technical part right and you’re already many steps ahead of someone who might be talented and has a nice idea, but will never get his work read, because he screws up his loglines, synopses and formatting. Of course there are many other factors in play, whether your screenplay will be read, sold, made, a success, which I will discuss in another post, but get this part right and there will be a lot less obstacles on that road. Talented or not. I believe that anyone can learn screenwriting, very well in fact, and this immersion method being one of the methods, but not everyone will master. But whether that’s by the lack of hard work (the course is definitely hard work and it won’t stop after this course) or the lack of natural talent, who’s to say? I like how Gusteau, the late chef in Disney/Pixar’s Ratatouille (2007) puts it:

“Anyone can cook…but only the fearless can be great…you must be imaginative, strong-hearted. You must try things that may not work, and you must not let anyone define your limits because of where you come from. Your only limit is your soul”.

If you believe you do have the talent, and you’re not just learning screenwriting for the fun of it, because the knitting course or how-to-make-your-own-beer class was full, should you then work as hard as Andrew in Whiplash to become great, to ‘make it’, even though other factors are also in play? I didn’t expect this, but I don’t know the answer. No, that’s not true now I think about it. No, then again, I don’t know. I know that I believe what Gusteau said, ok, what the writers made Gusteau say. And also that hard work is a must, whether you’re naturally talented at something or not. I believe everyone is born with talents, and when they work hard with it, to bring it to fruition, they will produce marvellous things. If you’re wondering whether you are naturally talented at something, I think when you’re not talented at it, it will be harder to produce those marvellous things and perhaps you will not enjoy the making process as much either, because it will very likely not be a true passion inside you, that drives you naturally to keep going at it. I think that’s a pretty good indicator too to determine a natural giftedness. Damien Chazelle, the writer and director of Whiplash, on whose personal experience the story is based, realized he didn’t have the talent to become a brilliant drummer, so he quit and went to film school instead. I think a wise decision looking at his track record so far. But it remains difficult to know when to stop, give up and your lack of mastering, being successful, isn’t because you’re ‘simply’ not talented, but you should ‘simply’ give it one more try.

No matter how talented I think I am myself, in the end this course is an indispensable source of training for me despite my amount of talent for it and came to me at the right time too. It’s free (being low on resources, a very welcome gift). It’s someone telling me what to do (learning something on your own is one of the hardest things to maintain). It’s over a longer period of time (becoming part of your life). It’s a proven method how people learn things deeply, by immersion (no further comment needed). And not to forget, it’s work, hard work, needed in anything you want to become better at.

And whatever I will do after this course, my screenwriting skills will have grown tremendously through this, so that in itself is a plus and the reason I did it in the first place. And the aim is to continue the learning, because it’s a universe, remember? This is ‘just’ the beginning, a jump start. And a big one, a very important one, taking us beyond many other novice writers. But after this we too still have much to learn, after all, we’re not masters yet (and who knows, we might not even want to be). So, to be continued!


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