In which I say, try it all at least once, no matter what anyone says, and go with what works right now.
I remember being a kid and wanting nothing more than to sit down with a fresh new notebook, full of lovely, clean white pages, and fill every single one of them to the very edges with words in thick, black ink.
This never happened. Ever.
I would, without fail, stare at all those pages, my fist cramping in discomfort as I held my pen so tight, waiting for inspiration to strike and going quietly mad with the exercise. The biggest problem was of course that I had fallen for the greatest lie that swirls about any creative exercise — that creative expression is a gift bestowed on us whole and fully formed, rather than a hard-won skill constructed of work, process and pain. I expected that words would not only spew forth from me in a great, gushing torrent, but that the words would also be perfect and clear and form a complete and coherent narrative. So when my hand was unable to construct these magically bestowed words of perfection, I did nothing.
There is a lot out there about ‘process’ — the specific ways, routines, rules and restrictions people use to help them create their work, whatever it may be. Like so many others, I have been desperate to find the secret to process, the key to unlocking the engine so that when I came to a blank page, armed with good intentions and no f*cking idea, I could still turn it on and get somewhere no matter what.
So, I became for a time obsessed with process, or rather, other people’s processes, in a desperate search to find my own. I devoured interviews and articles and books and videos that all tried to put forward a way of working that could somehow (I hoped) pave the way to unlocking whatever it was in me that needed unlocking, so that a blank page or a churning mind would not result in more empty notebooks. And let me tell you, there is SO MUCH out there about process — finding it, refining it, improving it. It is so overwhelming, it can be counter-productive.
Just recently, I stumbled across the excellent Academy Originals series on Youtube. They feature successful filmmakers talking about their process, and these two episodes, specifically with screenwriters, struck me as wonderful examples of individual process and consequently how loaded and confusing trying to find your own path can be.
Where Dustin Lance Black (Milk, J. Edgar) relies on an intensive process of research, refinement and consolidation, Mike White (School of Rock, Nacho Libre), relies on a process which harnesses the subconscious power of downtime in spectacular fashion. Take a look:
I love these two videos! They seem like polar opposite approaches — and yet what both these writers are talking about essentially is how they go about slashing their own way through the creative jungle to get to what it is they actually want to say. And my guess is, both of them at some point have to do a whole lot of what the other is doing to get their work done.
The ‘business’ of screenwriting instruction in particular is a fascinating microcosmos of competing paths of detailed process — there are hundreds and hundreds of teachers and ‘gurus’ who all claim to varying extents that they have uncovered the best methods for working, the best ways to streamline and shortcut your process toward completing a great work of creative expression.
But like the two writers featured in the videos above, process is ultimately a highly individual, emotional and hard-won skill that forms over time as a person creates and practises their craft over and over again. It is tied to how an individual brain puts things together and how an individual work needs to be treated. There may be broad brush stroke basics we can all follow, but in the end, it’s really about how one individual must beat out their own path from initial scratches in the dust to a fully realised creation. Sadly (or happily!), a completed, beautifully cobblestoned path does not come pre-laid for you by someone else.
I’ve often found that when you work for other people, particularly in the creative industries, you are placed in a position where you need to work in a way that is subservient to their approach to work. Basically, you need to fit in around their creative process rather than really examine and understand your own way of getting things done. There are pros and cons to this — you are forced to try different ways of working, different ways of approaching material — an excellent course of events really. But your potential can be confined, your imagination restricted (and not in the good ways) because the course you must travel is ultimately being navigated by someone else.
The other thing you notice when you spend a good deal of time discovering other people’s processes is that, when the more specific a process is, the more specific a type of work results. What do I mean by this? In my experience, if you want to implement a specific type of process on your work, let your concept dictate the process, not the other way around.
Not to go into too many details, but here’s an example: I was recently approached by a producer to help her putting together a pitch for a series concept she had — and she was adamant we use a particular approach made popular by one of those script gurus I was talking about earlier. I’d not tried that approach and so it was a wonderful experience for me – an excuse to try something new. This particular approach was centred on character-driven development that did indeed get our creative juices flowing and resulted in the creation of a suite of characters that, for me at least, leapt off the page. The drawback however was that the process completely ignored the initial concept that the producer wanted to weave the series around. She had come to the table with a firm idea of what the show was going to be about — and the pitch hinged on this single, defining concept. Our development process then resulted in a fantastic bunch of characters that had to be rammed back into the premise forcibly rather than organically.
Of course, we couldn’t really see this at the outset — we had to actually use the method practically to work out its strengths and weaknesses. So, I for one know now when to use this particular approach in the future. But I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t tried it out.
I was talking about this experience with a screenwriter friend some time later and he too had been through a similar experience. As a working writer in TV, he told me that he often came across producers who did this — wanted writers to work to a specific model of creative development, not necessarily having asked whether that approach was the best one for the actual project. His view, one I share, was that producers are looking for a level of control over the creative process (like we all are), and being producers, who need to consider budgets, schedules and logistics, a prescribed method seems like a golden ticket. If there’s a set way of doing something, that guarantees an outcome, it means that — eureka! — they can accurately work out a budget and stick to a pre-determined schedule. Whether or not they get a decent product at the end of it is an entirely different matter.
I’ve never been very good with commitment, in any part of my life. And so every time I sit down to do anything I really care about, it’s always a struggle. So I’ve tried lots of different processes. I had a friend recently come up and thank me enthusiastically for gifting her with The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron, many years back as it had inspired her to write in a way, and with a passion, she had not experienced before. She apologised profusely that she hadn’t read it the minute I’d given it to her, but was so glad she’d finally got round to it. I was thrilled! But to be truthful, I couldn’t even remember giving it to her — and to be even more truthful, when I’d tried it, I’d got about half way through and given up. Not that it wasn’t an excellent method, but more that it just wasn’t the right time for me to get the most out of it. Plus, you know, that whole commitment thing.
Desperation has led me to try many people’s secrets, many people’s processes, in my own work. None have ever really stuck or felt completely right. They zing at first, there is a vitality in new approaches and it can be exciting. But in the end, there’s really no secret to putting words on a page. Or paint on a canvas, or stitches in fabric. You just have to do it. The biggest secret, if there is one, is that you need to be OK with the fact that whatever it is you are doing probably won’t be very good the first time round, and that is completely normal. You just have to set about fixing it once you’ve blurted it out.
In fact, if there’s any process at all to go by, it would be the process so beautifully and succinctly summarised by legendary Irish writer Samuel Beckett (oddly popularised by that tennis player who has it so spectacularly tattooed to his arm) who said:
‘Ever tried. Ever failed. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’
Every project is different, and depending on the state you are in at a certain point in time, the way your brain is working is different too. So I say, try every damn approach you can get your hands on. What works one time may well not work another. And that’s ok. Find something, anything, that gets you moving right now, anything that gets you past thinking there’s a secret. The point is you are trying and doing. No, it may not be perfect, but perfection is a mug’s game anyway. It is so wonderful to be able to sit back and look at something you’ve done and go, ‘that is crap, but I totally know what I can do to make it better,’ and then set about doing that thing to make it better.
I’ve stopped dreaming that I will one day use up a whole notebook, all the way to the edges and everything. I’ve recalibrated my expectations to know that getting anything done is better than getting nothing done at all. So my advice? Just Say No to perfection. Try again. Fail again. Lay some more cobblestones. You will eventually fail heaps better. And getting there will be the greatest.
What about you? Have you found one solid method that gets you going, whatever your medium? Or do you, like me, try anything and everything once just to see what happens?
The featured image of Samuel Beckett via www.apieceofmonologue.com, photograph: Mary Evans.
Academy Originals on Youtube can be found here and you should totally check it out!