“When you’re writing, you’re conjuring. It’s a ritual, and you need to be brave and respectful and sometimes get out of the way of whatever it is that you’re inviting into the room.”-Tom Waits
As is often the case with major life changes, my pursuit of screenwriting came quite suddenly. On July 14, 2018, I sat in a Starbucks and considered my career. You see, I had worked in higher education for eight years, and while there was certainly joy to be found there, I wanted more. It was in this moment of cold brew coffee induced contemplation that I found my path…I would become a screenwriter (cue the laugh track from the doubters).
Writers will often discuss the myriad of ideas that pop in and out of their heads at any given moment, but I had become adept at pushing those ideas aside for so very long; that’s not to say that I hadn’t dabbled in storytelling or had left numerous unfinished screenplays growing dust, but I had never taken writing seriously. If I took this pursuit seriously, there would be…pain, excitement, rejection, acceptance, losses, wins and an endless barrage of near misses.
With a gulp and an exhalation of anxiety, my journey began.
After two years of toiling, there have been far more down moments than up, but what if we were able to simplify our pursuit? What if we weren’t so enveloped in our own desires for success/money/recognition that we were able to find an endless inkwell of joy at our fingertips? The opportunity is there if you take it.
Outlined below are four strategies that have taken me through my darkest moments in this screenwriting journey, and allowed me to reconnect with the very essence of my pursuit.
Most of us began pursuing a writing career, while never actually realizing what we were doing. Whether it was ghost stories told around campfires, playing with toys, sprinting through green fields, or hammering down the steps as you escaped the villainous cat threatening to take your family captive, storytelling has been a constant for many.
Go back to the moment where you fell in love with telling stories, what did that look like? What did that feel like? There is a simple joy in remembering those times. Many of my earliest stories were developed without thought of act structure or marketability; I created those stories because it was fun.
When we take the pursuit of screenwriting seriously, there is a tendency to forget the freedom of those formative years due to the overwhelming notion that we MUST SUCCEED. Success is certainly a worthwhile pursuit, but the longer we think like this, the longer the journey can often take. To find success, a writer must be willing to throw the notion of success away in order to create both compelling and personal work.
“This isn’t what we’re looking for at this time.”
“Nothing personal, it just didn’t grab us.”
“It’s only a draft away.”
After I submitted my first screenplay for review, I wore my rejection like a bloody nose. I’m willing to bet that many of you felt the same. In fact, that first rejection is often enough for many screenwriters to never attempt it again. Believe me when I tell you, there is joy in rejection.
While your MFA in Creative Writing is impressive, if you’re so consumed with the very act of succeeding that you are blissfully unaware of the diamonds locked away in the critique following your rejection, then this road will be much harder for you. Those that cannot find success in this industry are the individuals that believe that their vision is infallible, and thus disregard any critiques of their work. Read the critiques that you receive and know that they will sting, but they are worthwhile. Do not immediately go into rewriting mode, but consider what is being said.
As a creative, I would never tell you to sacrifice your vision based upon one critique, but if you are consistently hearing the same comments from multiple producers/reviewers/contests etc., then there is truth buried within the critiques that you must acknowledge.
Remember, this is a 20-30 draft profession…not a two or three.
Inevitably, you will one day encounter an overwhelming sadness when individuals you have met through Stage 32 or any other social media platform begin finding success in screenwriting as you continue toiling; these individuals will discuss their contest wins as you look at your 40th draft of the story you’ve been living with for 10 months. It’s often disheartening because the little voice hanging out on our shoulder tells us…”That should be me! I’m more talented than them.”
The success of those around us should not dishearten us because it means that there is still hope for us. As long as there are more undiscovered writers landing opportunities, there is the chance that we can have that success as well. The key is to not be consumed with the success of others, as this will merely cripple your writing. If you are in the midst of a draft and cannot bare looking at another success post, lock yourself away for a bit, so that you can complete your writing with a clear mind.
The success of others does not define your success or lack thereof.
While I cannot discount the need for screenwriting books or reading the work of other screenwriters, it is vital that you find your own voice. Finding your voice can be a bit like finding a four-leaf clover, everyone talks about finding it, but you’re not exactly sure where they got it.
The truth about finding your voice in writing is that you can only find it through a combination of rejection and self-reflection. Rejection allows us to review our writing style to begin taking some notes and adjusting our writing to meet necessary standards while self-reflection allows for us to more clearly learn about ourselves, and the characters we wish to create. While screenwriting does have very firm standards regarding formatting etc., that doesn’t mean that you aren’t free to tear the formula apart to find your voice.
Willingness to explore allows you to not only learn about your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, but also helps to develop greater insight to the characters you are writing, which will provide more rich characterization.
The film industry does not need another Christopher & Jonathan Nolan or Quentin Tarantino, the film industry needs the unique YOU.
I wish all of you the best of luck as we continue on this journey together. At this time, I will begin working on my 28th draft of a story that I’ve been working with since this all began. I know there is a place for us in this industry, and while many of us might not have made it there yet, we’ll never make it if we don’t continue writing.
Mark resides in Perrysburg, Ohio with his wife (Meggan), son (Ollie) and his two cats Lucille and Maggie. When Mark is not writing, he spends his days crawling on the floor with Ollie, while simultaneously helping his cats overcome their crippling cat treat addiction. Mark’s second screenplay, Posthuman, was the winner of the Wildsound Fantasy & Science Fiction Screenwriting Competition in December 2019.
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