SEAN MCGINLY

WRITING

I once read an interview with the screenwriter and director David Koepp where he was asked if a writer should spend a great deal of time at parties trying to make contacts.  I loved his answer, which was something along the lines of, “I can’t think of a bigger waste of time.”  There’s the saying, “It’s all about who you know”.  I suppose there’s some truth to that but it’s less true for writing than it is for other professions in my opinion.  No matter who you know, at the end of the day your script has to be great or it’s going to get passed over. A lot of good scripts get ignored but great scripts seem to find their way eventually, just because they’re so rare.  Writers should be spending their time writing and trying to come up with a piece of material that has an urgency, that is so good it can’t be ignored. 


But, it’s hard sitting by yourself in a room trying to write something great and it’s fun going to parties.  Furthermore, one thing that every writer does is rationalize that whatever time wasting activity they’re engaging in, to distract them from how hard and lonely writing can be, is actually just part of the job.  So, writers will go to parties but call it “networking”.  You feel a lot less guilty at parties if you’re able to convince yourself that you’re not having your 5th drink and talking to the cute girl who may or may not be wearing underwear because you enjoy this sort of thing.  This is work, the kind of work that writers must do as part of a larger career plan.


Parties have never been a problem for me.  I hate them.  I’ve found that most - though not all - of the good writers I know aren’t great at parties.  They aren’t much for small talk and either spend most parties alone or with one or two other people having hours long conversations about Eric Rohmer that they could just as easily have had by themselves on the phone.  These types, of which I am one, are the more misanthropic, hermit sort who would probably be home alone most of the time even if they weren’t writers.  But the nerds aren’t out of the woods either.  Writers like us get waylaid by another distraction that is called “research”.


This one is a little easier to pull off than going to parties. The word, “research” sounds important and carries with it images of serious looking men and women pouring over documents and tiredly running their hands through their hair. Plus, writers must do research. We find ourselves drawn to settings and historical eras that we don’t know much about. Time must be spent, books must be read, occasionally trips must be taken and interviews conducted to gain a greater familiarity with Byzantium or the world of underground sex clubs.


I once got an idea for a script about a political consultant. I knew nothing about the machinations of political campaigns so I set about reading 5 or 6 books on the subject.  One book led to another and soon it had become 10 books, then more.  I read a book about Lee Atwater that mentioned Robert Caro’s book about Lyndon Johnson, Master of the Senate.  This book was something like 800 or 1000 pages and I read it.  Then I realized that this book was just one volume out of 3, each nearly 1000 pages.  I read the other two volumes.  Soon, I found myself obsessed with Lyndon Johnson (who is a fascinating character by the way.  The fourth volume of Robert Caro’s biography came out in 2012 – I read it immediately even though my political script had long since been written- and there’s a fifth and final volume coming).  Doris Kearns Goodwin had written a book about him.  I read that one.  There was a PBS American Experience documentary on Netflix.  Watched it.  Soon I was thinking about Lyndon Johnson constantly and boring my friends wanting to talk about him all the time. I briefly considered dropping my idea about the political consultant and writing a movie about Lyndon Johnson but saw the brilliant HBO film, The Path To War (2002), starring Michael Gambon as Lyndon Johnson and directed by John Frankenheimer.  This film had said all that needed to be said far better than I could have. 


With all this reading nearly 2 months had passed without me writing a word. How much of Robert Caro’s books were useful for my script?  None.  How much of the other books were useful? The research that I needed to do for this script could have easily been completed in 2 or 3 days.  The truth was that I was using this reading to avoid writing.  Plus, I like reading the way other people like parties and I’m known to get obsessed with interesting subjects.  Maybe my interest in Lyndon Johnson will become unexpectedly useful somewhere down the line but I doubt it.  Still, I like to tell myself that it will because then I’m not a guy who wastes time and avoids his profession.  Instead, I’m a serious writer who immersed himself in, always valuable and very important, research for a script.


The toughest thing about writing is starting.  I’ve found my biggest motivations are boredom and fear of humiliation.  If I’m writing on a paid job that means I have been contracted to write something and there is a general date where the producers expect a draft to be delivered.  I once took a job where I assured the producers I’d have a script in 10 weeks.  I’m a good boy who was trained by nuns in Catholic school to never be late so I’m not one to ever miss a deadline.  But I am one to spend 2 weeks going through Malcolm Gladwell’s website reading every article he has ever written, most of which I’ve already read when they appeared in The New Yorker.  But, something eventually stops this.  I wake up one day in a near panic.  I’ve wasted too much time. Instead of a leisurely 10 weeks I now have a mere 8 weeks to finish the script.  So I work 8 or 10 hours, 7 days a week and get the thing done and try to make it perfect or as close to perfect as I can get it.  The thing that makes me stop fooling around and get to work is the fear of humiliation.


If I’m writing something on my own or on spec, boredom is very useful.  I don’t allow myself to watch TV.  Sometimes I shut off my internet.  There’s even an internet blocking software called “Freedom” that allows you to set a period of time where your internet is disabled.  I’ve read that Jonathan Franzen works in an office on a computer without a wifi signal and that he goes to the further length of putting super glue in his Ethernet port.  Still, these sorts of techniques just make you more creative about finding ways to goof off.  I had an old computer for a while that didn’t have internet.  But I had a Nerf baseball that I kept on my desk.  Above me, a piece of crown molding ran along the ceiling.  I devised a game where, while seated, I threw the ball at the molding.  If I hit it, it was a strike.  If I missed, it was a ball.  Soon an entire league had been formed in my head.  Nine inning games were pitched.  I got very good at hitting the piece of molding.  My goal became to pitch a perfect game.  Hours and hours were lost to this.  There were times where in the 8th inning I’d miss the piece of molding for the fourth ball, allowing a walk and destroying my much sought after perfect game.  At these times I’m ashamed to say I jumped up from my desk and cursed out loud, honestly furious.  Then I sat, forlorn, wondering perhaps if I’d “choked” the way Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in his great article, “The Art of Failure”.


Eventually, you just get bored of all this.  Even with the internet, there comes a time where you’ve exhausted yourself with it.  You feel like such an enormous loser that there’s nothing more to do but start writing something, even if it’s just to feel productive. 


If you’re lucky, before long something takes hold.  One day builds onto the next and after a few weeks you know you’re going to finish it.  As more time goes by you begin to think that that perhaps it’s good, maybe even better than good.  You allow yourself to think that just maybe this is the script that won’t need to be rewritten.  Maybe it’s the one time in your life where a sort of genius has arisen from within you, which will be instantly recognized by everyone.  Times like these are why we write, or at least why I do.  During this time I find myself staying up very late in a kind of manic state and going to bed reluctantly.  I wake up after only 4 or 5 hours of sleep and can’t wait to sit down and get back to work.  I find myself at a pleasant dinner, or even in a movie or on a date wishing I could be at home writing.  I begin to think what a tragedy it would be if some disaster were to befall me and I’d die before getting the chance to finish what could possibly be my masterpiece.  The feeling is that the script is inside me.  I just need the time, enough waking hours to simply transcribe it.  It’s writing itself.


About 50% of the scripts I’ve ever written have had a period like this, some more intense than others.  It’s never as good as I thought just maybe it would be when I was in the thick of my manic state and they all need to be rewritten.  I can’t find any relationship between how a script is received and how much I enjoyed or didn’t enjoy writing it. Sometimes the ones I’ve been sure were great were duds.  Other scripts that I’ve slogged through and thought were mediocre have sold.  It’s kind of like love though, no matter how many times you’ve been disappointed the hope for something transformative never seems to fade.


Doyle Brunson describes playing poker as “a hard way to make an easy living”.  Writing is the same.  It’s not easy.  I hate when I hear people describe it as some sort of vacation life.  Of course, it’s not as hard as coal mining or digging ditches but few things are.  I would say though that I, and most writers, work as hard as an accountant or a lawyer.  We all get to be indoors and no one gets black lung.  The only difference is that I’m able to work in my sweat pants if I want to, which I do.


It can be lonely.  There have been a few times when a script I’ve written has been made into a film that I’ve directed.  It’s a thrill to be let out of my cell and allowed to interact with crew people and actors. It’s fun to be part of something larger and social and to know that this thing you wrote is now coming to life, not to mention employing a bunch of people.  After a couple months though I look around at the people on the crew and realize they spend their lives like this.  They go from movie to movie and are always part of this kind of social atmosphere.  And I know that I could never do that.  Before long I begin to feel over stimulated and find all the socializing exhausting.  I’m tired of talking to people and answering questions.  I want to be back in my cell as badly as I’d wanted to be out of it only a few months before.  Of course then I get back in there and before long am praying for another chance to direct a film.  Life is elsewhere.


The following is a Woody Allen quote that is the most useful thing I’ve ever read about writing:


“So to avoid getting caught up with a lot of writing rituals and time wasting, you’ve got to get there and just work. Art in general, and show business, is full to the brim of people who talk, talk, talk, talk.  And when you hear them talk, theoretically they’re brilliant and they’re right and this and that, but in the end it’s just a question of ‘Who can sit down and do it?’  That’s what counts.  All the rest doesn’t mean a thing.”


This is true, of course.  If I’m not mistaken, I think Raymond Carver said something similar.  He just said you had to, “be at your station”, which just means you have to sit your ass down and wait for it to come.  This makes sense.  If you’re not there, ready to write, if you’re busy running errands or occupying your mind in other ways then you surely aren’t writing or in a position to write. I think the big thing is that you have to make writing central to your life.  It has to be the thing you do, if possible, all day, like a job.  If that’s not possible then I think there should be hours set aside, the same way they would be if you were being paid, even if you just spend these hours screwing around.  Lots of people don’t have the constitution for this.  They spend a few days or a week doing nothing and it drives them nuts and soon they’re staining their deck or doing something else that makes them feel productive that isn’t writing.  You have to wait for it to come and try to make it come. Sometimes you have to wait way longer than seems responsible and you feel like a useless layabout who will never amount to anything.  This is writing in my experience.


I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this.  I can remember certain moments where I first had an idea that became a script I was later very proud of and considered successful.  One time I was watching a football game on a Sunday and an idea hit me, almost all at once, fully formed. In an instant I had it.  The instant before I had nothing.  Another time I was sitting in a coffee shop and the same thing happened. The story just appeared. 


Every other time I’ve been at my station, which just means I’m in my bedroom, either at my desk or pacing around. When the inspiration hit, and I have no idea when it will hit or why, I was there, ready to write.  I’ll get an idea and take notes for a while and think about it.  Sometimes I’ll give up and then return to the notes, even years later, and suddenly figure out a way in.  At times I’ve had the force out the first 10 pages or so.  Other times I’ve cruised through the first act and then gotten stuck.  Once, and only once, I wrote nearly 100 pages before finally admitting there was nothing there and giving up.  I must have 8 or 10 scripts that I started but couldn’t finish and probably will never finish.  They weren’t meant to be.  Most of the time though, I find the energy and the characters start talking to me.  I never use an outline.  I like to let the story slowly reveal itself.  Something magical happens in these moments. My unconscious is speaking. And this is a beautiful thing.

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