And that’s one reason I became a screenwriter: so that I could spread those ideas to others. But now I realize that ideas are actually poison for a screenwriter.
myself of my addiction to ideas has been a big struggle. As with any other withdrawal,
you gain the ability to see what you’re doing wrong long before you learn to stop yourself…
ago, it was announced that there had been another mass shooting that seemed vaguely
political in nature, but none of the reporters could figure out what the shooter’s
ideology was. This was
increasingly annoying to me throughout the day, because I needed to know where
to slot this in my brain: if the killer was on “my side” then I had to prepare
my explanations for why this was one bad apple, and if the killer was on “the
other side”, then I couldn’t wait to launch into attack-mode, tarring the other
side with this guy’s brush.
Finally, they announced that the guy had no ideology, but he was just
home from fighting in Afghanistan.
I felt a great weight leave me, and I announced to Betsy, “I’m
not surprised, the incidents of PTSD for those guys is a lot higher than
As soon as I
said it, I realized what an ass I was. I had desperately searched for
some pre-established narrative in my head until I found one that could explain
the horror away, so that I could stop thinking about it. I had waited all day for the chance to say, “I’m not surprised…” because if I was surprised then I might have to learn something.
An idea is a
set of smug certainties that allow you to stop looking, listening and
learning. Observation is the
antidote to those certainties.
Ideas are rigid, observations adapt. Ideas make you seem smart, observations make you smarter ...But for a
writer, the most important distinction is this: Ideas are generic, and
observations are specific.
try to write down ten observations.
Then re-read them and make sure that none of them carry the tainted
whiff of your ideas. Write down
what you see and hear on the street, not what you expected
to see and hear, and not what you presume is actually going on. This is really
hard. At first, all you will see
are things that confirm your pre-conceived notions.
But wait, isn’t this an overly conservative worldview?
After all, to have ideas is to be active, but to merely observe is to be
passive and complacent, right? That’s what I used to believe, but now I feel the opposite.
comes to changing the world, nothing is more powerful than a truthful observation. If you want to take on the meat
industry, you don’t write a healthy-eating manifesto, you write “The
Jungle”. If you want to say
something meaningful about race, don’t pile up a bunch of high-minded,
heavy-handed parables, like in Crash,
pile up a ton of true-to-life observations, like on “Homicide” or “The Wire”.
Ideas, I now
see, are the true recipe for passivity, and observations are the true spur to
action. But you can’t observe anything if you’re using your ideas as an
excuse not to pay attention. The
worst bias a writer can have is confirmation bias.