Writing is essentially magic. Unroll your eyeballs from the back of your skull, please, because it is.
I’m currently sitting in a high-rise on Madison Avenue, corner office, with the skyscrapers behind me disappearing into fog. It’s wet and humid out there but cold in here, and I’m wearing cashmere. One hand hovers above my coffee, warmed by the steam. Feel it? See me here, a month or so in the past? Magic. Oh, and disregard the cashmere thing. It is true, but forget I said it. Also, last time I checked in, I was hiding in a rack of clothes in a costume shop, remember? This business moves quick ... but that’s a later conversation.
Anyway, magic. A telepathy from me to you, skipping time and distance and convention. I can write anything I want and you’ll see it in your head. Blueberry goddess. Dachshund tennis. Butt. Fun!
The trouble with magic is … exactly that. It’s fickle.
Writing is a practice, like anything else, and it requires concentrated clarity of thought to even start stretching. Ask any writer you know whether the quarantine allowed them to write more, and some lucky bastards will say yes, but most will shake their heads in shame. Because it’s not about free time. It’s about free headspace.
I took my first screenwriting class my sophomore year of college. A little room packed with pimple poppers so excited by the idea of being artists that the first thing we asked was: how much does a screenwriter make? The professor sat on the edge of the table and sighed. He wisely dodged the question and said instead, “Look—just get a day job in the industry while you’re trying to write, and only quit the day job when it becomes impossible to juggle both. The money will come after that.”
As one does, I spent the next few years fact-checking my education while planning the rest of my life, and sure enough, I heard about a hundred variations of this sentiment. Just get a job, any job, in the industry. Well, all fine and good, but what about that free headspace?
What happens to the limitless creativity required to write when your mental real estate is diminished?
Now, I’m not foolish enough to believe you have to go full-Bergman and lock yourself in a cabin on a cliff by the sea with no responsibilities or contact with the outside world in order to create (even though that is very much my dream). Definitely get a job. But beware the burden of knowledge when you do.
Assuming you follow directions and get this magical day job in production, the purity of your writerly voice will most definitely be tainted. Take me, for example. I’ve been running around in the Wardrobe world for the past two years or so, and I’ve learned an incredible amount of information in that time. Which is great—I know how the machine works. But these days when I sit down to write, I can’t help but pause before I throw in a shootout or a food fight or anything with a crowd, because my mind is now littered with logistical obstacles. This is especially true if it’s a project I know I’m going to shoot myself.
This is how the inside of my head sounds, on any given writing day, and before I even begin: We’d need an ager/dyer for the squib on this gunfight, and multiples, so it can’t be a build because that’d be too expensive, and depending on the number of background at this carnival, let’s call it 300, that’d be a full week of fittings if we have four teams, and if it’s period, we’d have to pull stock from the rental houses and that’ll be a lot, but I think I have a contact there, so maybe I can get a deal and, oh yeah, maybe call those pyro guys and see if they do guns because, if not, we’ll have to cut the scene anyway—
Hush, little Som. Hush. Settle down and focus on the task at hand, which is, as it always should be: Writing the best story you can. Everything to come is not your problem. Not yet, anyway, and not unless you’re lucky.
I feel incredibly fortunate to be building a career in production. Even more fortunate that I’ve never worked in development. Actually, let me clarify: I’ve never been hired to work in development, thanks to the golden handcuff that is the American Unpaid Internship™. But I can only imagine that if I had, this slimy inner dialogue would be doubly loud and doubly unhelpful. If I had any inkling of what sells or what’s “Hot in Hollywood!” (which I clearly don’t, as the last few things I’ve written have been about clams, skywriting, and Meals on Wheels) I wouldn’t write a goddamn thing. I’d never put pen to paper because I’d be paralyzed by the constraints.
Sometimes it’s good to put yourself in a box, draw some parameters, and focus in. But only when it’s self-constructed. Only when you are controlling your art, not some invisible marketplace subsisting on unoriginality. As of today, according to the Internet, there are 108 sequels on the way. Reboots, remakes, franchises … it’s exhausting, and frankly, discouraging. And hey, I’m no purist—I paid the $30 for Cruella and absolutely loved it. But where have all the risk-takers gone? Maybe they, too, are bogged down by their day jobs.
From where I’m standing, Hollywood has unlimited money. Producers always chuckle all hoity-toity at me when I say this, yet none of them ever have a rebuttal. So, I’m now stating this as a fact: Hollywood has unlimited money. If your script is great, funds will appear to make it a reality. Write whatever you want, and as long as the magic is there and felt by everyone, you will receive a fat check. Set it in the Kremlin on the sun! Make all of your characters Meryl Streep at different ages! Fuck it! Hollywood is a sticky, little kid who doesn’t know he loves peas until you hide them in the potatoes. Take risks.
The mind is designed to protect us from, among other things, embarrassment. And it will create an insurmountable number of roadblocks to achieve this. We grow and learn and meet our heroes, and the fear of embarrassing ourselves builds exponentially. Nobody wants to be laughed at, and as a writer, there’s always that possibility.
And the truth is, it’s easier to make excuses about why something will “never work” than to try and fail. It’s easy to blame the day job and the industry and everything else I just whined about up there. But nothing made in earnest is a failure. I mean, Tommy Wiseau is a millionaire.
So, put on your police horse blinders and forget about yourself for a while. The whole point of movies is to achieve the fantastic—if we can’t even get there in our minds, how do we expect an audience to take the journey with us? Go back to those early days, to naïveté, to that little room with the pimple poppers.
Let the magic lie and watch what becomes a reality.
*Feature Image: "Window" by Cristina Bernazzani (Adobe)