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Yes, Write What You Know – BUT KNOW A LOT

Written by Bill Mesce

 

On the first day of teaching my first university creative writing class several years ago, I asked my 30 students, as a way of getting a read on their abilities, to write me a short piece about anything; no limits, no requirements, just show me your stuff, guys. About a quarter of them wrote the same story. Oh, I don’t mean they copied from each other, or from some common source. I guess it would be more accurate to say they wrote what were more or less similar stories. Some wrote it in the first person, some in the third, some with a certain flair, others limping through, some were from a male perspective, others the female, but the plots were so uncannily similar, I expected that crazy-haired scientist from History Channel’s Ancient Aliens to show up declaring this as proof of extraterrestrial meddling in human affairs. These various-but-similar stories all went something like this:

The Main Character is new to college, and meets a Certain Someone. M.C.’s friends all tell him/her that C.S. is bad for him/her, but M.C. doesn’t listen. M.C. is in love, figures his/her friends don’t really understand the connection M.C. has with Certain Someone, and they’re also misjudging C.S. who isn’t the jerk they think he/she is. Except he/she is the jerk they think he/she is, and he/she hurts M.C. by being abusive, or cheating, or both. M.C. dumps C.S. (or is dumped by C.S.), returns to his/her friends whom are all supportive and welcome him/her back to sanity, with the piece ending on something of an “I will survive!” note.

You could sense there was a strong element of the autobiographical in all of these pieces, and when we discussed this phenomenon in class, the relevant authors acknowledged as much. They’d written what they knew.

Most of my students were in the 18-22 range, and they had written about what was, evidently, their first (more or less) adult relationship. It had been recent, and was burned into their psyches with that fire which tends to mark first grand passions. They were writing about a joy and a pain exhilaratingly new and fresh to them, about strong feelings they hadn’t felt before, about a seismic emotional event which signified to them, “You are no longer a kid, Kid; welcome to Life.”

Marc Webb, director of (500) Days of Summer (2009), put it quite nicely, I think: “It’s such a thrilling part about being in a relationship at a young age, and all your feelings are apocalyptic, all your emotions are so huge” (I’m citing Webb because I consider Summer to be one of the best movies about young love and young heartbreak, so we’re going to be working with him and his Summer screenwriters, Scott Neustadter   and Michael H. Weber, in a bit).

What my students didn’t know was that just because all this walking-on-the-beach-in-the-beginning and burying-myself-in-a-quart-of-Haagen-Dazs-afterward was fresh and new and novel to them didn’t mean it was really fresh and new and novel. Actually – and if you’re of a certain age, you’ll bear me out on this – it’s something damned near all young people go through. Anybody in that classroom who hadn’t gone through it yet was probably going to ride that roller coaster before they graduated. It’s practically a rite of passage. What convent or hermitage were you hiding in if you didn’t get your heart broken at least once when you were young?

Let me beat this poor dead horse a little more: teens since forever have been going through this, have been experiencing the same first-romance angst since Grok the Neanderthal got dumped by cave girl Oona who went off to the mastodon roast with some high foreheaded Cro-Magnon dude. It’s a universal; it’s an eternal; it’s how human beings grow up.

Good writers have known this forever, too. Ever see Romeo and Juliet, which might be the first recorded teen-romance-gone-bad story? (FYI: it wasn’t even a new story when Shakespeare wrote it; R & J started as an old Italian tale first adapted into poetic form by Arthur Brooke in 1562, then, as Palace of Pleasure, into prose by William Painter in 1566, before ol’ Willy gave it a whack for the stage in the mid-1590s).

Look, let’s be real. You can’t write anything other than what you know. Nothing’s going down on the page that’s not in your head. Your characters can only know what you know, be created out of what you can draw on, experience what comes out of your gray matter. So, the question to ask after proclaiming, Write What You Know, is, So, Just What Do You Know?

And then you have the complication that inexperienced writers, and especially young inexperienced writers, whether they’re creating for the page, the stage, or the screen – and the tale of the brokenhearted duo related by so many of my students is an example – is they don’t know what they don’t know, and they don’t even know what they think they do know…ya know?

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Does this mean you don’t write that movie inspired by your first big heartbreak? You don’t write about that first romance gone bad? That time your dog died? About being the misunderstood artsy-fartsy member of the family? Coming home from college for Christmas and realizing you’ve changed and now don’t feel like you fit because nobody at home has? The first time someone in your family died? That last wild night with your friends before you went off to college/joined the military/got a “real” job/got married? And so on.

Take heart; I’m not saying stay away from this stuff. I’m just saying that, as a writer of any sort, you need to grow the same way any human being grows, and part of that is realizing you’re not the first upright being to walk the planet and experience what you experience. But…

There is always something you can bring to the game no one else can, because no one else is you.

So, when it comes to Write What You Know, I want to make a couple of points about what you, well, what you need to know.

Reshuffling the Deck

(500) Days of Summer pulled in over $60 million worldwide against a $7.5 million budget which, for a small, indie flick generating interest mostly by word of mouth, is a spectacular return. It was a film festival favorite with fest accolades including winning Best Screenplay at the Independent Spirit Awards, as well as a nom for the Writers Guild of America awards. It was a critics’ darling as well (Rotten Tomatoes scores it at 87% among “Top Critics”). Considering Summer is, in broad outline, kinda/sorta the same story my students were telling, what did Neustadter/Weber do to save an old, familiar tale from feeling old and familiar?

Well, first, for those of you who haven’t seen the movie – and if you’re seriously interested in screenwriting, make that a “must” – a brief encapsulization.

Tom (Jason Gordon-Levitt) works at a greeting card company where he meets free-spirited oddball Summer (Zooey Deschanel). Connection turns into relationship, and over the course of that relationship Tom falls in love with Summer, but the relationship hits rocks because Summer is only, as the high school kids say, “in like” with Tom. They break up, Summer marries someone else, Tom becomes despondent, recovers but is more cynical about romance, until, at a job interview, he bumps into a girl named…Autumn. Life goes on.

As my students demonstrated, there’s not a lot you can do with this plot-wise. In real life, these things seem to have an inexorable, frightfully predictable arc, and unless you cheat that arc the way most schlocky rom-coms do to give us an utterly contrived feel-good ending, there’s not a hell of a lot of wrinkles you can get into it.

But Neustadter/Weber do do something. They reshuffle the deck.

The 500 days of the title are the span of Tom and Summer’s relationship, running from the day they first meet to the day they finally say goodbye. To get around the suspense-sapping inevitability which kills most romantic films, Neustadter/Weber don’t deliver us those days in sequential order. For instance, the opening scene is from deep in those 500 days when the relationship between Tom and Summer is already showing cracks. Wrote Roger Ebert in his glowing review of the film, “Here’s a movie that begins by telling us how it will end and is about how the hero has no idea why.”

By bouncing back and forth through the 500 days, the writers keep us hooked by stoking our hunger for the connections between these strategically delivered points on the chronological line. Probably the most memorable juxtaposition of points comes when Tom and Summer, to be discrete, ahem, “consummate” their relationship. Tom leaves his apartment the next day walking on air. He’s singing, he’s dancing – literally – and Webb/Neustadter/Weber pull out all the stops to turn his first giddy steps on the street into an elaborate dance number in the park as passers-by join in as a screen-filling chorus line, and even a couple of animated birds flit around Tom to make the extravaganza even more extravagant. It’s a lovely homage/lampoon of Old Hollywood musicals, and the perfect capture of that feeling of being young and reveling in a consummated love.

The dance number reaches its climax, a beat, smash cut to a day months hence. The elevator doors at Tom’s work open up and there’s Tom: disheveled, looking like he hasn’t bathed in days, and as emotionally beaten-down as he appears. It’s jarring, it’s comical, and it’s mysterious: how the hell did we get from where we just were to this?

The screenplay is a beautifully structured piece (the back-and-forths aren’t random, but quite effectively tactical) and energizes what would be, delivered in chronological order, a rather predictable story even if well told. Wrote Film Threat’s Scott Knopf, “…what’s remarkable about (500) Days of Summer is how the film explores new ways to tell the world’s oldest story.”

My point here is that Neustadter and Weber know this; they’ve done the homework, they know there’s been a zillion stories with a similar arc. You can’t make significant changes to that arc without betraying the authenticity of its heart, but you can make tactical choices to give it a dynamism it wouldn’t necessarily have if told in a conventional way.

But, as I said, Neustadter/Weber know this. They’ve done the homework.

Do the homework.

Not Knowing Then What You Know Now

Let me digress to make a point.

Like a lot of high schoolers of my generation, I was assigned to read S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders for an English class. Today, The Outsiders would be classified as a Young Adult novel. Hinton wrote the book in 1965 when she was just 18, inspired by friction between rival gangs in her high school.

Despite the book still selling thousands of copies each year, and its being considered a Y/A classic, as I recall, most of us reading the book in my school in the early 1970s considered it corny, gooey, and already dated. Ok, that’s a subjective, evidently minority literary opinion, but go with me here.

We were also assigned to read at some point J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Although it, too, has a teen protagonist, Catcher has never been considered a Y/A novel, but one of the major works in the American literary canon. And, despite its having been published in 1951, we didn’t consider it dated. Even though it takes place in a New York City that, even in our day, hadn’t existed for quite some time, I still don’t know anybody who considers the book dated. Or corny. Or gooey. As biographer Ian Hamilton wrote in his 1988 work, In Search of J.D. Salinger, by the end of the 1950s Catcher had “…become the book all brooding adolescents had to buy, the indispensible manual from which cool styles of disaffectation could be borrowed.”

I’ll go Hamilton one better. Brooding adolescents didn’t have to borrow anything from Catcher. The great, unceasing strength of Salinger’s novel is that it timelessly captures the feeling of being a disaffected, brooding adolescent. Skirts may lengthen and shorten, lapels narrow and widen, but broody teens will always be broody teens (a lesson that comes home when you get old enough to be raising your own broody teens).

Putting literary ability aside, one of the keys to the vast difference (in my view) of the dramatic muscle in the two books is this: Hinton wrote her novel when she was 18. Salinger was 32 when his book was published, and by that time he’d already served in WW II, hitting the beaches on D-Day and surviving the brutal fights of the Huertgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge (from what I’ve read, Salinger may have come out of those experiences suffering some form of what we now call PTSD).

In other words, one was a book about teens written by a teen, and the other was a book about a teen written by an adult. Salinger had the benefit of being able to stand outside the experience, to give it a perspective, an understanding of where the feelings and passages of adolescence fit in a larger arc; of the difference between what an unreliable narrator says and thinks they feel, and what’s really going on. Read Catcher in the Rye as a teen, and you identify with its narrator, Holden Caulfield. Read it 10-20 years later, and you realize Holden creates a lot of his own problems, that he’s insecure, overly judgmental, still learning (and not adjusting to the fact that) the world is randomly unfair, and that his own disaffection isn’t moral superiority but the unhealed, un-understood wound of the death of his younger brother from leukemia.

The Outsiders, on the other hand, reminds me of a line from a knock I once heard a film critic lay on the Brat Pack films of John Hughes in the 1980s (i.e. Sixteen Candles [1984], The Breakfast Club [1985], Pretty in Pink [1986]), a sensibility cloned into non-Hughes flicks like St. Elmo’s Fire (1985). The knock was that these were movies which took teens as seriously as they took themselves. Hughes may not have been a kid, like Hinton, when he wrote these pieces, but they’re still essentially adolescent fantasy-fulfillments, filled with teen self-importance and those apocalyptic emotions Marc Webb mentioned, but empty of the outside perspective which would show them to be tempests in the teapot of our younger selves.

Which brings us back (I know you’ve been waiting) to (500) Days of Summer.

Neustadter was inspired by his own heartbreak from his college days in the early 2000s before he brought the piece to Weber for collaboration. But by the time Summer was produced, both writers and the director were in their mid-30s. They were writing from what they knew (especially Neustadter), but with the ability to look back and more clearly understand what had really happened…and what hadn’t. Said Weber to The Guardian at the time of the film’s release, “We’ve all been in the trenches of love, we’ve all gone through the highs and lows, so Scott and I felt that the only way to tell this story was to come at it from a completely real place.”

Their director, Marc Webb obviously shared the same sensibility, and, judging by remarks he made in the same piece, was also keenly aware of how transitory that time in our lives is. Said Webb, “When your heart is broken, it consumes you. And it’s an emotion I wanted to make a movie about, before I forgot how it felt” (FYI, Shakespeare was in his 30s when he wrote Romeo and Juliet).

It’s that same balance – an appreciation of how impactful youthful events are at the time, but a reflection on their true significance (or lack thereof) – one sees in such perennially affecting homages to young days gone by in movies like George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973, co-written by Lucas and inspired by his teen years growing up in southern California), Summer of ’42 (1971, inspired by the memoirs of its screenwriter, Herman Raucher), The Sterile Cuckoo (1969), The Graduate (1967), The Paper Chase (1973, adapted from John Jay Osborne, Jr.’s novel which was inspired by his own time at Harvard Law School), and Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976, a semiautobiographical account of writer/director Paul Mazursky’s days as a struggling young actor in New York).

Am I saying you don’t get to write about being young until you get old? That’s up to you and how much you’re willing to invest. This isn’t about time; it’s about your willingness to question your perceptions, the things you think you know, to look around, to read, to watch, to learn about the human animal of which you are one. You can speed up the learning process by first acknowledging that there is a learning process and that your assumptions are not necessarily true.

Again, turning to the words of Marc Webb: “That Happily Ever After is a great way to tell stories when you’re young but eventually it loses its meaning because it’s just not true.”

Even When It’s Not About You, You Probably Don’t Know What You Think You Know

Recently, I landed a rewrite job on a screenplay by an as-yet unproduced writer which involved a family of serial home invaders, the cops on their tail, and – hold on to your hats – Devil worship.

A lot of the issues I had to address in the screenplay came out of the writer evidently not knowing a lot about cops, or criminals for that matter, or much about Devil worship. Even with something as arcane as Devil worship and Satanic ritual, I knew more than he did simply by remembering bits and pieces I’d picked up from news stories over the years. That was, at least, enough to get on the internet and ask the right questions.

I interviewed veteran made-for-TV movie/mini-series producer Gerald W. Abrams (prepare yourself for ruthless self-promotion) for my book, The Rules of Screenwriting and Why You Should Break Them, and he described this as consistent trait in bad screenwriting: “The most common fault among badly written screenplays is when the writer is writing about something he (or she) doesn’t know anything about. It’s like an actor failing at holding a foreign accent. It’s just immediately apparent.”

I’ve been kicking around a while, and what I often see in screenplays by new writers is that they’ve learned a lot from other movies and TV shows. Trust me, gang; the movies and TV are hardly the Encyclopedia Britannica, or even Wikipedia. Even when you do catch something that’s trying to be true to reality, well, it can get to be like a game of telephone, with what you wind up with not quite looking like what you thought you took in.

I worked for a large company for most of my professional life (you think something as iffy as screenwriting was going to pay the bills?). That company, in turn, was a division of a still larger organization. As a result, when I see movies taking place in the world of Big Business, they often drive me up the wall because I can tell, “Jesus, the guy who wrote this has never been in those offices!” (You want to see it done right? 2011’s Margin Call from writer/director J.C. Chandor).

Through people inside and outside of that company, I’ve also had some exposure to the political arena. Same thing; I see movies about conspiracies and wheeling and dealing by politicos and so on and so forth and I just shake my head (Recommended: The Candidate [1972], sharply written by Jeremy Larner and directed just as sharply by Michael Ritchie).

Legal dramas? Same thing. I’ve been friends with my lawyer for over 30 years, he’s helped me with background info on some of my work. What I’ve learned from him is that a lot if not most of what you see in the way of courtroom dramas just ain’t gonna happen in real life. Some of it is, in fact – from a legal perspective – even ludicrous (Antidote: Otto Preminger’s 1959 Anatomy of a Murder, with Wendell Mayes adapting John D. Voelker’s novel).

I’ve had the good fortune to become acquaintances with Sonny Grosso, one of the most decorated detectives in NYPD history, and who was one of the real-life cops who broke the famous “French Connection” case; yes, the same case that became the basis for Robin Moore’s bestselling book which, in turn, became the Oscar-winning film. Being an advisor on the film led to Grosso’s being asked to advise on other films, and when he finally retired from the department, he took the next step and went into producing for film and TV himself. He also wrote or collaborated on some true-crime books. For my book (more ruthless self-promotion) No Rule That Isn’t a Dare: How Writers Connect with Readers, we discussed attaining authenticity. I brought up the crime fiction of George V. Higgins (The Friends of Eddie Coyle) and how it benefitted from Higgins’ career as a federal prosecutor; and how the espionage tales of John LeCarre had the plus of LeCarre’s career in the U.K.’s MI6 intelligence service.

So I asked Grosso, “What can an author learn working with a cop that he/she can’t get from research?”

“Six million fucking things.”

Higgins, who passed away in 1999, said something similar: “The disability of much American literature is that it’s written by college professors sitting on their big fat rusty-dusties who don’t know anything about the law, politics or any subject in which real people make livings.”

Granted, how much about police procedure do you need to know to write something as over-the-top as a Die Hard (1988) or a Lethal Weapon (1987)? But if you aspire to something more substantial, don’t assume that just because you’ve watched every episode of Criminal Minds or any of the Law & Order brands that you’re some kind of expert; that you actually know anything.

I was once in the audience for a panel of TV industry veterans at NYU some years back. One of them – five-time-Emmy-winner Bill Persky – was asked what he thought the difference was between TV in the present day and when he’d gotten his start writing on the old classic, The Dick Van Dyke Show. Persky said that there was hardly an episode of Van Dyke which hadn’t started by one of the writers coming into the writers’ room on Monday saying, “Hey, guess what happened to me over the weekend?” Now, he said, a lot of what he saw seemed to be TV shows inspired by other TV shows.

The jobs your characters have, the way they talk and dress, the car they own, the way they play with their kids, the way they deal with the plots you put them into – don’t try pulling that out of your ass or cloning it from other works. Again: Do the homework. Research, observe, listen. If you don’t, your scripts will be populated with people who will either all sound and act like some variant of you, or they’re going to sound and act like something you, well, something you pulled out of your ass, the kind of thing which makes someone in the audience think, No way this person could exist in real life.

You’re Not Working on Documentaries: You Can Extrapolate

I know this sounds like I’m hammering home the idea of, “Keep it real! Keep it real!”

To which you would justifiably say, “Then how do we get our Star Wars and our Marvel flicks and etc.?”

Several months ago on this site, Ray Grewal wrote an article worth your time: “Write About What You Know But Never Limit Your Imagination to What You’ve Experienced.” (http://www.shorescripts.com/wordpress/write-about-what-you-know-but-never-limit-your-imagination-to-what-youve-experienced/)

He used the example of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy as an example of extrapolating what you know even into the realms of the fantastic and fanciful. Let me quote from Grewal’s piece:

But the passages (of LOTR) have a deeper resonance for those who know because it is impossible to read/hear…them and not think about what inspired them: Tolkien’s experiences in the First World War and the disconnect the soldiers who survived felt when they returned home.

There are many allusions to WWI in The Lord of the Rings: the rising threat of danger and destruction amassing in the East as Sauron assembles his armies mirrors the rise of Germany; the decimation of natural forests to build factories to service the war effort around Isengard was what Tolkien witnessed happen to the countryside around Birmingham; the alliance of many people from different countries speaking different languages coming together to fight a common foe in Sauron equates to the alliance of Russia, France and the UK against the alliance of Germany and Austria-Hungary ; the talk of how the War of the Rings will be the great war to end all wars echoes what most thought about WWI when 70 million troops were mobilised and 16 million people died.

That under all the magic and fantasmagoria of LOTR – and this goes for Peter Jackson’s epic film triptych as well – is something sincere and real is at least part of what gives the saga the heart and resonance which has kept it popular for seventy-odd years. The reader/viewer doesn’t have to get the allusions, but they’re what powers the story, they’re the difference between LOTR and the countless quest stories that have tried to ape it. You can be honest without being true-to-life; real without being realistic.

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Back in the early days of computer programming, programmers had an acronym: GIGO. It stood for Garbage In, Garbage Out, meaning that the quality of a system’s output could only be as good as the quality of the programming. You’ve got that gray blob of a computer between your ears; how good is the input? How hard do you work at packing it with good data?

I recently read an essay by Roger Rosenblatt in The New York Times Book Review where he talks about the “invisible forces that produce and affect the work.” He gives the example of the great cartoonist, Jules Feiffer, who’s less-than-supportive mom threatened him before his first strip appeared that nobody looking like her better show up in his work or there’d be hell to pay. Writes Rosenblatt:

Confident that his drawing looked nothing like his mother, Jules assured her she was safe. When the strip came out, Jules…stared at it. There was his mother.

As writers – as people – we are the sum total of our experiences, and prisoners of our biases, presumptions, prejudices, assumptions, emotional scars. To be better at your storytelling, you have to get out of your own head; it can be pretty confining in there. You have to step back and try to understand that you do have these flaws (we all do), that they are, indeed, flaws, and that they’re limiting your work (if not your life). You have to be constantly asking yourself, Why do you think you know what you know? Are your assumptions based on fact or simply because you like the way they sit in your head? Are you looking to confirm your prejudices, or are you challenging them? Are you aware that the whole world is not like your one little corner of it, that there are places on the globe – places in your own country – which have completely different values and worldviews from yours, that yours may be neither better nor worse than theirs, just different? What do you really, truly, honest-to-God know? About anything? 

And, yeah, if this seems like an awful lot of work for something that used to be fun for you, well, tough; it is an awful lot of work. But it’s the difference between the schlockmeister and the craftsman. Unless you’re a supreme literary geek, you don’t know who Arthur Brooke or William Painter were, but you know William Shakespeare’s take on Romeo and Juliet; he brought something to the material that they didn’t and which keeps it connecting to audiences over four centuries later. I’m not telling you to drive yourself nuts trying to turn your work into a cinematic classic, but you have to ask yourself the same questions as a screenwriter – or any kind of creative person – that you should ask yourself as a person: How stupid do you want to be? How smart do you want to be?

I told you earlier that you could bring something to even the most familiar piece of material that no one else could, because no one else is you. That’s your voice. It could be an uninformed, rambling mumble, or it could be a clear, ringing peal that says, Yeah, we’ve all been through this, but nobody can tell it like I can.