Happy February, Stage 32! By now, I think most of the readers on this site know me pretty well! For those who don’t, I’m a screenwriter, a playwright, a director, a producer, a script doctor of growing repute, a game designer, a novelist, and in all respects a worldbuilder and storyteller. By now, I’ve worked as an executive for more than a decade and I’ve written more than 40 feature film scripts.
My personal backstory is a bizarre and twisted odyssey of life-shattering experiences, ranging from a film development career with front-row seats to the drug abuse, investment fraud, and clout-chasing that gives Hollywood such a bad reputation, to traumatic brain injury at the hands of a bad stunt coordinator and years of subsequent (and recently concluded) homelessness. If I’m being honest, the events of the last ten years have made the more recent uncertainties of civil unrest and pandemic life seem pretty manageable!
Through it all, day by day, I get my writing done. In 2020 I wrote more screenplays than I have in any previous year, I wrote five supplements to my tabletop roleplaying game, and I made it through the first third of my debut novel. Since January 1st, I’ve written a very good pilot, an epic feature script, and the treatment for yet another feature film which I’ll be writing over the next week and a half.
How am I doing this? Don’t I get tired, or depressed, or overwhelmed? When my whole world has felt like it’s falling apart for the last ten years straight, where am I getting all this inspiration coming from?
“The trick, William Potter, is not caring that it hurts.” -Peter O’Toole, Lawrence of Arabia
Our collective notion of creativity as something we wait around for like we’re on some kind of dopey blind date is one of the most fundamentally damaging side effects of our need as artists to romanticize our work. By painting this image of creative inspiration as an ethereal and fleeting force in our lives, we’ve encouraged countless billions of people around the world to put off their creative ambitions until the time is right and the muse is present. No, friends. Creativity is a muscle. If you want power and acceleration out of your muscles, you need to train those muscles well.
Going to the gym sucks until it doesn’t. I’m sorry to break this to you so unceremoniously, but creative work functions in precisely the same way. Don’t expect to be overcome with some magical urge to work! Fight through your resistance, and put in the time to develop your craft. Over weeks, months, and years of labor, your resistance to the process gradually erodes and you find a deeper level of appreciation for the craft. No matter how “organic” your process is, you’re not going to find the pleasure in the work unless you start working - and start working regularly.
If your dream is to become a writer, then I offer you the wisdom of our esteemed and prolific colleague, screenwriter Bill Martell. Getting two pages a day, every day, means you’re making progress on your project. Even if those pages are garbage, they move you closer to the moment when you can start rewriting a finished work. Some days, certainly, you’ll find a rhythm to the work and you’ll wind up writing more. Other days, two pages is all you get…
...but even if two pages a day is all you can manage, that’s six screenplays a year. Two pages a day for 365 days is easily two novels. If the writing doesn’t feel natural, or if it doesn’t flow in a satisfying way, don’t worry about it. Find your flow through practice. Learn to compartmentalize the more distracting parts of your life, and get your work done.
Back in my post on “Cashing In Your Million Dollar Idea,” I floated the controversial observation that ideas have no actual value in Hollywood and that anyone who believes differently is in for a very rough landing in showbusiness. When a person has creative skill, that’s because we developed that skill in order to express our ideas. No great writer, director, actor or designer needs an “idea guy” whispering brilliance into our ear. Every single one of us has our hands full, just trying to keep up with our own crazy imaginations.
You can have that, too. Like I keep saying, the ability to come up with ideas is something we can train into ourselves. When my own life starts getting restrictive, and when I’m putting too much time into uncreative work to properly keep my skills sharp, I make sure to post one #FreeMovieIdea on Twitter every single day. If you log onto Twitter and you run a search under that hashtag, you’ll see that I’ve posted literally thousands of them. Consequently, I’m very good at coming up with movie ideas on the fly.
If you need help putting together a project to accommodate some specific financial or logistic resource, call me. In 24 hours, I’ll have three strong pitches for you. Am I posting this outrageous claim on the internet because I’m so brazenly full of crap that I’ll say anything for attention, or am I saying this because I can deliver on my promise regardless of who asks me for this kind of help or what their needs are? Put me to the test, by all means. Just know that I’ll be asking you some specific questions about the liquidity of your development money before I start brainstorming on your behalf.
You can have this very same level of confidence in your ability to generate ideas. Buy yourself a notebook, or start a text file on your phone. Once a day, every day, write down a “throwaway” idea for a movie. Don’t stress out over whether it’s good, and don’t bother developing it any further than that. Just write it down.
Inside of a month, you’ll have two projects you feel just as excited about as you do about that one, special, priceless “baby” that’s supposed to define your whole creative identity. Inside of a year, you’ll stop attaching to ideas altogether. Once you’ve grown into the principle that all ideas are created equal, you start putting your trust in the strength of your craft and the strength of your community.
Probably the most important tool for exercising one’s imagination is daydreaming. Plenty of people train themselves out of this habit, as they grow up. Train yourself back into it.
Picture a movie you love, in your mind’s eye. Follow the main character through that movie. When they reach a moment or a setting in the film that you find particularly interesting, let them walk on without you. Stay in that scene, and explore the area. Open the cupboards and the doors, and find out what’s inside.
Daydreaming, really, is just about asking questions and making up the answers. Just pick a question that’s interesting to you, and then develop a response that feels complete. Saturn’s most interesting moon, Titan, has an atmosphere so thick that it’s almost a liquid. Nobody can see what’s down there. What’s down there, do you suppose?
Maybe this showbusiness joke is too old for the kids, but Carnegie Hall is a famous symphony hall in New York… and the answer is “practice, practice, practice!” If you’re having trouble finding the will to work, what with all the trauma and uncertainty of our times, I hear you. How many times have we all heard someone say “It just seems like a lot of people are having a hard time, right now?” Yes. Of course.
Getting strong in your craft is the only solution. Your creative muscles have atrophied, or you never built them up to begin with. Work them out. Don’t push too hard, but push a little harder every day!
If you’re having trouble coming up with ideas you feel passionate about, don’t sweat it. Just come up with any ideas you can. Write them down, and move on. Sooner than you think, you’ll be able to come up with ideas that tickle your creative fancy anytime you need them.
If you’re waiting for the right time to make something, stop waiting. You’re missing the chance to put that thing out into the world. Knuckle down, and go to the frigging gym.
If a homeless cripple can get his pages in, I know you can too.
Writer, director, and producer Tennyson E. Stead is an emerging leader in New Hollywood with a lifetime of stagework, a successful film development and finance career, and a body of screenwriting encompassing more than 40 projects. In collaboration with producer Lucinda Bruce, Stead is writing and directing a sci-fi heist feature with his company 8 Sided Films entitled Quantum Theory. When Stead is not writing and directing feature films, he’s keeping busy as a working script doctor, he’s working in the theater, or he’s developing content for gaming and transmedia. Here is a list of the articles Stead has written for the Stage 32 community:
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