Friday, June 29, 2018

The Avid Stripping of Writers’ Personalities

“Observant and unobtrusive is not who you are,” I told my friend after she asked me to read her writing sample. “You are loud and opinionated. You are in people’s faces. You take presence in a room. You are funny. You are insightful. You are passionate. You are not ‘neutral and objective.’ You know you’re a genius and I know you’re a genius, so why are you so hesitant to show that?”

Amongst our group in high school, she had a bit of a reputation for snobbery when it came to things like music and literature, the sort of person who would dislike a band because it grew popular. I love her deeply, but over time we’ve had some clashing of opinions on what constitutes good art.

I don’t take much heed in reputation, and I really can’t stand when someone likes to like something because of the way it makes them seem.

She refuses to read Stephen King because ‘it’ll affect how she writes.’ She won’t read Hunger Games because after reading Hemingway, ‘everything is lackluster in comparison.’ Later, she admitted to me that, "No body likes to read," and I would put money on the belief that she’s never sat down with The Old Man and the Sea on a leisurely summer day.

A screenwriter, I once asked her opinion on what a screenwriting teacher had once told me. The professor in question hadn’t actually written a full-length script, his claim to fame working as a spec reader for Disney, choosing which scripts in the slush pile to pass on to the big guns. A fellow student wrote the lines:

“She is running late, headed to the airport. She hails a taxi.”

…to which he said that you should not ever put in the direction something that isn’t easily shown. Makes sense. Instead of saying, 'heading to the airport,' it’d be better to write, “She snatches her passport off the nightstand.”

But the question comes of “She is running late,” and my professor’s emphatic insistence that little details are left for the director and actor to choose. Perhaps painting a picture of, “She looks at her watch and taps her toe, arm stretched out at the street,” would be more immersive, but even little things like, “Arm stretched out at the street,” could be misinterpreted in text form while, “Hailing a taxi,” would be obvious on screen when the actor clearly understands what she’s trying to do, even though it's telling intent. In my opinion, it’s easier to do and show something visually than it is to say and explain it. People can infer from the nuance in an image better than the limitation of a description. Which is to say, if I told an actress, "You're running late," she is more capable of showing it than if I were to give a play-by-play of how to show it.

My friend immediately, without thought, stood by the rule. Only talk in visuals. Okie doke then.

When she gave me a script to read at a much later date, I found it incredibly inhibited for this reason. In her insistence to “show don’t tell,” some information struggled to be conveyed. An easy example, one minor character she gave a name instead of calling, “CAMERAMAN,” which she refused to do because it would require inference.

Except that audiences are smarter than we believe, and visuals are easier to remember than names. While ‘Jared’ was forgettable in the script, in the short ten minute film, his face, and presence as a background character, would be accepted. By calling him CAMERAMAN, it’s a simplistic way of clarifying for the script reader what is going on, while the director would be intelligent enough to convey who he is through images, or decide that the “CAMERAMAN” label wasn’t important for a visual audience. In essence, I, a reader, forgot who Jared was frequently, but I would remember a face, and I would remember the dude carrying around a camera.

This is not uncommon in screenplays, nor was it the only time in her script in which I felt the consequences of objectively describing visuals outweighed the benefits of trusting the director’s ability to translate it to screen. It was unclear and impersonal, perfunctory and objective.

She later gave me another script that had decent pacing and striking emotions, but the same issue of her descriptions made it difficult to understand what she was going for. How much time had passed? Are we supposed to be creeped out by this suitor, or is he charming? Is her bed empty because you're saying she needs to fill it, or are you saying how the man from the last scene left? A lot of these story-based questions would have been easily understood if she added more visual details in her highly visual script. Yet, when I suggested it, not only did she claim that "it's not my job!" but inferred that I was saying the script was complete crap when all I told her was to describe the scene as she saw it more thoroughly. "Well, people who read scripts like my writing!" I never said I didn't like your writing.

I told her that the impact of her writing was lessened by her refusal to explain herself, and that she did not come off as this magnanimous writer who was letting the director make creative decisions, but rather as someone who didn't understand how well or poorly she was expressing her ideas to someone who couldn't read her mind. The script was almost unproduceable unless you had her standing there to tell you what she meant, and any director who picked it up to do whatever he would with it wasn't going to care if she talked in specifics or generalities. He didn't need her permission to change ideas.

Conversely, I find that most people who believe in simplicity, technical accuracy, and writing rules tend to be pretty clear and easy to read; that’s the benefit, it’s often why they do it. It’s one of the compliments I offer before encouraging them to take more risks. In reality, the rules are for people like me, overly opinionated, anti-authority, and convoluted thinking, helping us trim down the density, lecturing, and peculiarity in order to accurately convey what we mean. I believe in the writing rules as excellent tools to fix things… just not the default.

At one point, my friend told me her biggest complaint as a writer were her lack of motivation in writing at all and her minimalist descriptions.  Her writing sample, an essay written for school, was easy to read. It wasn’t based on the principle of show don’t tell, but just a summation of events of a movie. She wanted to know if it was a good sample of her writing.

Truth was, I had been sort of holding back my opinion up until that point. We had different tastes in literature, and I was skeptical if what she said she liked was really her thing at all. It’s difficult to help someone ‘improve’ when you don’t have a clear idea on what they consider improvement. I can always help someone write something that I would like, but what I like isn’t always what is best for their audience. I like a little bit of challenge and poetry, passion, and personality. Hemingway doesn’t work for me and I have a hard time even empathizing with someone who sincerely finds him interesting. I can’t tell you how to successfully write like Hemingway because it would be removed speculation on why he worked for others.

I knew why she had chosen that piece of writing for her sample though—because she had it on hand. Through her own admission she struggled to get things out there, and my full opinion is that she just needs to sit down and write something she is passionate about if she wants to improve herself. Practice, self-trust, and experimentation. She needed less advice from people and more genuine reflection of self.

I have never told her this, and unless she happens to read this post, I probably never will, but I consider a great deal of her foundational rules to come from idiots: inexperienced professors community college professors who don’t believe in their students, rule-abiders telling the ordinaries to keep their heads down.

Those who spent a little too long in academia, those who listen a little too well, tend to lose themselves in the process. Some will create perfectly fine works with no complaints from their partners, nothing wrong with their pieces, yet lack enthusiasm and novelty. Others will strive to hide themselves from every word, removing their perspective and personality for the sake of “immersion” and accuracy. Their writing will be perfunctory and succinct, cold and dry, detailing events without imagination or energy.

Writing rules tend to homogenize styles, often advocating that “no style” is what a person must learn before he can toy around with wording and voice. But of course this is ridiculous. There is no such thing as no style, only means to redirect focus. You keep making ignorable choices, there will be nothing to direct that focus to. The tools are intended to help you not distract from the important things, but you get to decide what those important things are.

You will never learn how to sew couture by perfecting the black T, and you will grow bored if you’re not making something that you’re excited about. Don’t churn out the same cold, objective fiction in hopes of being able to write something amazing eventually. Aim to write something amazing and then reflect on why it was or wasn’t. Write from the heart before turning to the advice of others to fix what went wrong. Don’t write for acceptance and then try to insert passion later. It’s incredibly difficult to get passionate about something that just gets the job done.

My friend is an interesting person. She has great insights and a vibrant personality. She puts energy into the room, is emotional, intelligent, and has a lot of astounding experiences. None of that shows in her writing. She tries to describe events as they occurred, around characters who act without clear internal life. Sure, they have motive, but only as the formula says so. She tells a story through what happens, never hinting at the thoughts of the participants or the viewers.

Writing is about imagination, communication, and sharing a perspective or interest. People care when others care, when the writers care, when the characters care. People care about passion. They care about new ideas, new takes on the old.

Sure, being an unobtrusive writer is a great style, one that can be successful, but it should be written by unobtrusive people, observers who notice things others don’t, who may be subtle about their insights, but still have their reasons for describing what they see, reasons that become apparent to the savvy reader. Can you become this person? I think so, but do you actually want to?

I wouldn’t have my friend any other way. I wouldn’t call her an observer or objective, but that’s why I love her. She has a lot of interesting things to say and the ability to make you listen, but she throws it all away in the name of some ‘rule’ that even the speaker admits isn’t going to be true later on in your career.

A lot of new writers try too hard. They distract with flamboyance, fall back on laziness, and don’t have the precision to keep the reader’s attention on what is actually important. And though the writing rules effectively teach you how to tackle those problems, good writing is still about being yourself, it's about being honest. Do not strip who you really are or what you really care about because no good will come of it. People will like you for the qualities you’ve been naturally developing your entire life.

Take risks, have imagination, be yourself.

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