Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Storyteller's Rulebook #130: Practice Loving Everybody

Did we all read the great ScriptShadow interview with Lorene Scafaria, writer/director of the upcoming A Friend at the End of the World?  Here’s a brilliant thing she said:
  • “I think it helps that I look at myself with a critical eye and I look at the people around me with a sympathetic one, so I try to love every character but also know what they're doing wrong.” 
A lot of writers get this dead wrong.  They think: “I don’t believe in negativity, so I’m going to love myself and my own work unreservedly!”  Um, no.  The courage to be hyper-critical about your own work, and yet keep working, is crucial for a screenwriting career, or any career. 

This is a collective medium.  If your script sells, it’ll be made into a movie by a collective of artists, then it’ll be shown to an audience that will make a collective judgment about it.  In this business, collectives decides how good your work is, not any one person, and certainly not you.

Negativity is in fact a huge problem, but the negativity you need to worry about is not the inwardly-directed kind, it’s all the negativity you’ll feel towards everybody else.  Envy towards your more-successful peers, disdain for your less-successful peers, exasperation with fickle producers, flat-out rage towards your own management…

…And the worst form of negativity is the negativity towards your own characters.  A good writer, like any good god, loves everybody in their world.  You love your villain as much as your hero.  You love the messenger boy as much as the main character.  You love not only your geeky heroine, but also the cheerleader who picks on her.  Think about how much Shakespeare loves Hamlet’s lowly gravedigger, or even pompous Polonious.

As you walk down the street, practice loving everybody.  That Wall Streeter with slicked-back hair.  That sneering kid with his pants down around his knees.  That lovey-dovey mom cheering on her toddler’s tantrum.  Ask yourself: How did they end up here? Is this what they wanted to be? Like you and everybody else, these people had their hopes and dreams quashed long ago.  Look at what is lacking in these people and ask, “Who took it away from them?  What would they do if they could have it back?”   

But wait, let’s get back to that negativity towards yourself.  How do you keep writing, if you no longer think what you’re writing is automatic gold?  We’ll pick up there tomorrow…


j.s. said...

Any writer who wants his/her work to get beyond the most superficial level must take this one up as an imperative. I'm not exactly a Buddhist but I do try and meditate daily and I have learned a lot about the ideal of practicing compassion for all living things from teachers like Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh.

I was just having a conversation about this very thing with a writer friend who finds it easier to love her characters than her peers (or as she sees almost all of them: her competition, many of whom unfairly seem to be succeeding without aspiring to or achieving work at the level she's aiming for). I'm trying to get her to see the futility of seeing the world that way, even the world of screenwriting.

What it boils down to for me is that, like you said, a screenwriter's work is judged collectively. You need to have the humility and perspective to deal with that. And to accept the fact that the real competition in this relative meritocracy is yourself. So embrace that compassion for all that is and write something that is both fully you and truly great and the industry will likely beat a path to your door.

j.s. said...

I guess the other big thing about practicing radical compassion/empathy in your work and your life -- and you hint at this in your post -- is that it's not only about being a better person or a writer in the abstract.

As the Buddha himself came to understand, embracing radical compassion is an utterly practical way to live because it may also be simply the only way to see things as they truly are and thus to make accurate judgments about what to do and how to live.

If your judgment of your own work or others' is obscured by fear, resentment and other heavy-duty emotions, it's almost impossible to learn anything meaningful, to do your best work and to grow toward your full potential.

Matt Bird said...

Very well said.

J.A. said...

Great post, and great comments. This is something I wish I had understood years ago. I only recently realized that many people who try to do creative work come up against the same obstacles. Fear, resentment, self-hatred mixed with egotistical thinking...

I guess the key is to judge your work harshly, but not yourself. And accept that it is the best you can do right now. Maybe tomorrow you will do better. But only if you don't stop.