Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Great Guru Showdown, Part 3: Are Gurus Helpful?

Story gurus have been around for a long time, but their track record is spotty at best. We associate Aristotle with the golden age of Greek theater (Sophocles, Aeschylus, etc.), but if you actually check the dates, you notice something disturbing: his study didn’t mark the beginning of the golden age but rather the sudden end of it.

Likewise, we associate the first screenwriting guru, Syd Field, with the American film renaissance of the ‘70s, but his book appeared in 1979, the year that that renaissance spectacularly wrecked itself (on the rocky shoals of Apocalypse Now and Heaven’s Gate) and the overall quality of Hollywood screenwriting has never fully recovered.

Is this coincidence, or not? Did Aristotle and Field directly cause the downfall of their beloved art forms by giving bad advice? Or is there a more innocent explanation: Did they perhaps write their advice books in a futile attempt to stop a downward trend in quality that had already begun? Or is there a third, subtler factor at work…

Goodhart’s Law states that, “once a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” In any field, it’s worthwhile to analyze several years’ worth of work and determine which methods tended to lead to success and which methods tended to lead to failure, but if you then mandate that only the “good” methods are allowed from then on, it hardly ever works. It could be that those methods weren’t the cause of the success, but a byproduct of it. Or maybe they only work if they’re learned through long experience, but they fail when they’re imposed from the outside.

“So what the hell are you doing with this blog, Matt? Aren’t you the one who’s always laying down rules for storytellers to follow? Are you trying to ruin us??” Of course I am- You’re my competition, you little fools! Wait, no, that’s not true. True confession: I run this blog mostly to teach myself things that I need to learn, and you people are just bystanders. I’ve never insisted that I can transform anybody from a grocery clerk into a millionaire screenwriter in three easy steps. I try to run this blog in a spirit of inquiry, not didacticism...

Absorbing someone else’s rules is a tricky proposition. If you haven’t already learned these things on your own, you’ll be dubious, but if you have, you’ll tear your hair out and ask, “Where were you when I needed you??” Ultimately, there’s no substitute for the learning power of making your own mistakes.

Advice, any advice, is useful only in certain situations. If you’ve already got your own self-generated angel on your shoulder telling you to do the right thing, but you can’t stop listening to the devil that’s tempting you to make the same old mistakes, then good advice can be very useful: a stern and steady voice to confirm and amplify your own wisdom. In the same situation, of course, bad advice can be very dangerous.

And so, hauling a heavy backpack filled with grains of salt, let’s look at what some gurus have had to say…

No comments: