An answer prompted by a Katie Heaney, Why Does Writing Suck?
The first thing to say is that when I talk about writing, I mean screenwriting. I write other stuff, the kind of thing you’re reading now, but for me writing is screenwriting.
I know most of what I write sits unread. All of the screenplays I’ve written get, how best to say this, they get silence. Zero acknowledgement that they’ve even been looked at.
That detail makes me feel as if it’s 1977 and I’m eight years old, standing toe to concrete with the Berlin Wall. I’m looking up at this huge expanse of grey, topped with a baffle of weather-worn pipe. It’s big, bigger than big, the kind of big that makes me feel small. So small I’m scared, overwhelmed, because I was told by my dad, if I ever climbed to the top, I’d be shot by the tower guards on the other side.
Writing is like climbing that wall, only to find an entire squad of marksmen ignoring me.
I started writing because I wanted to direct features. I was trying to take control of my career, making choices for myself. I set off toward a place I want to live the rest of my life. I watch films, a lot of films, and I thought that was knowledge enough to let me write a screenplay. Perhaps I understood how to visualise a story, maybe, but not to create one with meaning. I know it’s possible to tell a story by presenting a series of random images. Our brains are hardwired to make connections, connect what we see. Art school taught me that. But to organise a thought, and to express it dramatically, is a wall-high challenge.
A screenplay at its core is funding document. It’s the anatomy of a film, on paper, designed to raise money. The screenplay lets everyone involved know where they’re going before they start. It has a very specific form, with certain standards, and is heavy with expectations. It has to be a compelling read, that offers insight and emotion, and inspire readers. Otherwise why would anyone invest in the film. The form is easy enough to master, the execution are not. To keep going, I’ve strung together things I’ve read, mixing ingredients as if baking bread. I tell myself that if I just keep writing, put in the time mastering the craft, I’ll eventually get good. When I’m good enough, I’ll be able to break through the Wall, walk past the guards, and continue my journey. I’ll get paid to write.
How likely is that? Who knows? But the space created by the answers, let’s wheel after ever-rolling-tyre-of-self-doubt roll over me. The internal voice that tells me, the works not good enough, you’re an idiot, you can’t spell, you’re too slow, no one wants to hear what you have to say, your characters are flat, the plot’s weak, you’re confusing the reader.
I am forever a child, standing toe to concrete with the Berlin Wall. It doesn’t matter which way I turn, all I see is wall! I’ve written on the concrete, left evidence I was there, that I’m here, but those marks are just hand prints on the wall of a cave, not a filmed piece of writing.
What’s the point? Why bother? What’s on the other side of the wall anyway? In 1977 it was the DDR, the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, in all of its Cold War drab. A harsh life captured by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck in his 2006 film, The Lives of Others. Is that really what I want? That kind of paranoia? The pressure to conform? The logic of my metaphor has me standing in West Berlin, toe to concrete with the Wall, trying to write my way into a repressive regime. I must be mad. A sane person would just turn and walk the other way. The ambitious person might follow the Wall until they find a checkpoint. If all of their papers are in order, they’d be allowed to enter, won’t they?
For some reason, this idea of the ambitious person makes me think of the journalist, speaking truth to power. I’m reminded of the time Noam Chomsky schooled Andrew Marr about journalists, and their grand illusion, or should that be collusion? Chomsky makes the point that unless the individual journalist shares the views of the ruling classes, they’ll never be allowed to progress within the industry. Nonconformity is weeded out. They’re only there, at the top of their profession, because their thinking aligns with the needs of the powerful. Is that what I have to do? Is that where I’m going wrong? Am I a nonconformist? Have I mistaken nonconformity for originality?
I’ve spent the weekend trying to fathom that question. The “look up” function on my Mac tells me that nonconformity is a “failure or refusal to conform to a prevailing rule or practice”. When I think back to my days at art school, nonconformity was prized, the fulcrum of originality. It’s where most artists function, rejecting the old in search of the new. Art galleries are full of people who lived their entire creative life in the antithesis stage of the Hegelian dialectic. Famous artist are defined by the way their work deviated from the practice of their predecessors. The more radicle the shift the more highly they are regarded. Is that true?
Is nonconformity all about context? Does the art-world prizes a sort of radical creativity journalism does not? Could the function of journalism be governed by a different set of rules? I think the answer to all three questions is yes. Which prompts my next question is, do they share anything? Where do the two disciplines overlap? Could they both favour the notion of the heroic individual? Artist as the tortured genius. Journalist as the crusader speaking truth to power. Is that the connection?
Most screenplays tell the story of an heroic individual. A protagonist battling their antagonist, overcoming impossible odds, making heroic sacrifices to change their world. Things may end badly for them, but they were tested, and rose to the challenge. If I were to play the protagonist in my own story, am I battling conformity? I live in a world full of people who prize individualism, people who live their best life without realising, their best life looks just like all the other best lives. Drive around Clapham Common on a sunny Saturday afternoon and you’ll see what I mean. Small groups collected on one patch of green, shoulder by foot with hundreds of similar groups. Is that what’s waiting for me beyond the Wall, the kind of individualism that encourages people to ignore fields of empty common?
If the antagonist in my story is conformity, I want to walk the two miles to find an empty stretch of beach. Plough my own furrow, not seed someone else’s. I don’t hate people, I just don’t own the need to be near them all the time, to play team sports, or drink beer on Friday night, or play Frisbee. Has it hindered my progress, stunted my growth, got in the way? I think probably yes. It wouldn’t be my antagonist if it hadn’t. So I must battle on, force my way past the fields of conformist souls.
None of this answers the question, why do I write? I writer to organise my thoughts, to quiet the continuous monologue that runs through my mind, to explain myself to anyone who will listen, to make a contribution, change the world, plot my own story, find a way past that bloody wall.