Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Hitting the Century Mark

On Saturday, Cake Man posted the 100th post on the site. On behalf of the League, I'd like to say thank you to all our readers. It's been fun so far, and we're only getting warmed up.

Personal Statement/Statement of Purpose

One of the things I've found incredibly difficult about applying for graduate school is composing the personal statement and statement of purpose for my six applications, respectively. The differences aren't supposed to be as subtle as their similar names might suggest. The personal statement is, for the most part, supposed to be open ended, with Brown going so far as saying that it can include my "hopes, fears, and dreams." Meanwhile, the statement of purpose is supposed to be more scholarly, really exploring why I want to pursue a Master's degree, the research I'm interested in doing, and, to some extent, how all that plays into the bigger picture of my career aspirations.

It almost seems silly that it's been so difficult. I know why I want to be a writer, I know why I want to pursue a MFA, and I know how all these things play into my past and future, mostly because I've been experiencing it all my life. I don't remember what on earth I wrote for my essays on my undergrad apps, but I don't remember feeling like getting into college was somehow larger than just myself. I feel that way now. I feel like there are avenues in my history that have led me to this moment, and I'm certain, with more tangible certainty than I had seven years ago, that when all this is over my life will be set on a course that will be so radically different from what it has been. There's a certain sense of permanence, of promise. I'm standing at the threshold of my adulthood, and I'm mature enough to understand that. A year ago I was considering applying to grad school just for the sake of it, but now it's something totally different. Maybe I'm wrong, but I'm ready for my life to change for the better. The swirling gases of my interests and ideas are taking on physical shape and the things I want out of my life are finally dangling in front of me. I'm ready to reach for them, and at moments it's scary.

But compared to what I was doing two years ago? I was waiting tables and drinking way too much chardonnay after my shifts ended and I was auditioning because I was in New York and that's what I'd somehow convinced myself that's what I wanted to do. I was wasting away, not challenging myself, flailing in every direction. I don't want to take anything away from those times because I couldn't make it to wherever here is without them, but I had no clue what I wanted, not out of my life, not out of myself, not out of my relationships. It was a meaningless existence, and so I wonder, what is this personal statement? How I rebounded from that?

How do you put into words that you're a writer? Can any of us pinpoint it? I remember writing a scene in the first playwriting class I ever took. I wrote this very quiet, very sweet scene and when it was read aloud in class, the scene itself jumped from the page. It was like I could feel the breeze and the headlights on the highway (all part of the setting, mind you). It was more real and more true than anything I'd ever done in my entire life, and that power shook me, and I've been hooked ever since. I can't not write. I am not myself if I've gone too long without putting something down on paper. My brain clouds up, my mood dampens. I'm just awful to be around, but when I'm creating something, all is right with the world because everything that is so bad is seen through the filter of possibility granted to every writer brave enough to view the world through the filter of his imagination.

I love The League. I love how we've forced each other to write despite our day jobs. I love the one to two pages I've been able to write per night, even if I don't always see my ideas through before scratching the itch of a new one. However, I've been at this pace for almost three years, and I know that if I can't retreat away from this city, from my job, from just about everything and devote two to three years to just writing, I'm only going to get so good, and I feel like my ceiling is rapidly approaching. It's not a fair statement, really. I would eventually break through, but slowly, painfully, and I have too many stories to tell to waste so much time.

I was talking to my mother about a month back and she, more or less, speculated aloud whether writing wasn't just some pipe dream, my flavor of the month. I was at a loss for words because my parents have never been anything but supportive of me. With most of everything I could possibly say stuck in my throat at the time, I told her that writing is the only thing I can do. It took me a minute to spit it out, and the words were said so exhaustively that they just had to be true.

I wouldn't say I'm in a hurry to get on with some grand next phase of my life, but I've always been someone that doesn't like to meander. I like to pick a direction and go, to keep moving, to learn along the way. I observe people out of train windows and at stop lights while sitting in the back of a cab. I piddled and rambled for enough time to realize what it is I need to do with this time I've been given. So when I write these statements to these admissions boards, could I be this candid? Can I say all this? Does anyone care?

This entry is proof that you can write a forever about something that feels so emotionally obvious but is so ironically difficult to corral with words.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

I Renounce Thee

Recently, there've been a few actors who have renounced their earlier work. Brad Pitt even went so far as to apologize to critics for his work in such films as Seven Years in Tibet and Meet Joe Black. My questions is... why?

Even when I was in school, I developed a mentality that I wasn't going to write anything that I wasn't gung-ho about. Sure, I started out writing just because it was an assignment. But I quickly changed my ways.

As writers, so much of our struggle is getting that first sale and, afterwards, continuing our careers. Sure, you sell a few, you're in demand for about five minutes. I don't thin it's really any different for actors.

Unlike actors, though, people don't see our faces. Like, ever. Sometimes, we're not even credited on something we write/re-write. But an actor will always be publicly preserved in any film he or she is in. There's no denying that they did that.

Bottom line: when you're starting out, whether you're an actor or a writer or a director, you have to focus on starting your career. Ideally, you like what you're working on. You learn as you age in the industry. You stop taking certain roles or writing certain scripts, or if you really need the money, you do so under a fake name. You gain leverage. But none of that can come about unless you break in. Unless you start your career.

But would I ever renounce anything I wrote? I certainly hope I never feel a need to.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

One Worth Reading

When my friend Liz found out that I was starting to take myself seriously as a writer, and this was quite a few years ago, she recommended that I pick up Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times. It took me almost half a year to finally take her up on that suggestion, but I was grateful once I actually picked up the book.

The essays in Writers on Writing aren't necessarily about any one thing. Each writer took it upon him or herself to interpret the subject matter and address what I'm sure they found most important. The result is a delicately woven journey into the psyche of a writer, the obstacles that one faces, the precarious lifestyle. There are tips and tricks (one writer goes into great detail about how he blindfolds himself when he writes - sometimes having to disregard a whole afternoon's work if his fingers started on the wrong keys!), and while they're refreshing, interesting, and worth trying, the true value of the book comes in the essays that ramble and wander, the ones where the writers were honest and open enough to approach what it is to live as a writer in this world. At times they read like sad realizations of a life doomed to be constantly unfulfilled, but there's a sense of obligation, compromised reward, and ultimately, love.

Since reading it, I've mentioned the book in various writing classes that I've taken, usually joking that it can serve as therapy - to hear the voices of established authors discuss their struggles and musings, to know that you're not the first person to ever feel stuck or elated, to know someone's going through the same thing you are. The more I think about it though, the more I realize that it's not actually a joke at all; the book serves that purpose exactly, and if you're a writer at all, in any medium - be it prose, screen, stage - you owe it to yourself to purchase it, keep on your book shelf, and when you're feeling lost, allow it to guide you back to the page.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Shooting the Moon

I wonder how many people achieve their career goals. You hear it all the time: someone with a life-long dream to become President only became a Congressman; a high school football star wound up only being a third-string NFL quarterback; the law school grad who wanted to make a difference as a federal judge was only a prosecutor. To most people, their accomplishments would be revered. But in their minds, they failed.

I think about that in terms of the film industry. I know M. Night Shyamalan wanted to be the next Hitchcock, but now audiences have gotten over him. I wonder if my old professor resented that he only had one script made because he dreamed of becoming a big-time director. I read articles about all these screenwriters who talk about failing in their pursuits even though they had written some of my favorite films.

It’s easy for us lowly creatures trying to break into the industry to say these guys take things for granted. Surely a Spielberg-wannabe who only became a screenwriter would take solace in relating his career to someone like us. But let’s turn the tables: are we really setting the bar high enough?

I think of the old adage that says if you shoot for the stars, you’ll at least hit the moon. What then of the people who only shoot for the moon? Within the artistic hierarchy that is Hollywood, I wonder if that’s where prospective screenwriters typically aim. I know people who just want to get a script made. But that's just a stepping-stone for my friends who want to become A-list writers, with an outside dream of winning an Oscar. And that in turn is a step for those who want to revolutionize film as we know it.

The number of people in the world who actually realize their goals must be small; the number of people in the film industry who do so must be minute. The hardest thing about the industry to grasp – at least for a guy from a blue-collar town – is that all the effort in the world will not guarantee success. And at NYU I was surrounded by professors whose knowledge of screenwriting I would kill for, but who, in their own expectations, failed to meet their goals.

Coming up short is disappointing, and in many cases can be uncontrollable. I think that has led me and my friends to make our goals more realistic. But maybe we need to aim for the stars. And if we only hit the moon, maybe we'll have the serenity to appreciate the view.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

To Read or Not to Read?

This is something I'd like to give a shot at doing, a bit more of an interactive part of the blog. We all know that there are handfuls of books out there about writing, about craft, about selling a screenplay, about pitching, about schmoozing your way to a three picture deal.

But are they worth reading? Do some offer information or insight that's of value? Are they just a waste of money that could be better spent on something else, like alcohol? What books have you read, and which of them would you recommend and which would you tell people to avoid?

In this section, which I'll call "To Read or Not to Read," The League invites people to submit short yet effective reviews of screenwriting (or related) how-to books that they have read. Every time a review is left, we will post it.
Just send an email to swritersleague@yahoo.com to leave your review. Please place BOOK REVIEW in the subject of your email, so as we don't accidentally discard it. Then, check back a few days later to see your post, and potential responses to it.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


I managed to get a ticket to the New York premiere of "Sleuth" last week. The film starts Michael Caine and Jude Law as the two and only actors in the entire picture. It is a remake of a film that was an adaptation of a play. Harold Pinter helmed this latest incarnation.

I liked it.

The dialogue was witty. Michael Caine once again proved his knack for comedy. And, as a whole, the plot was driving. I thought.

But it is an interesting example of what is a relatively rare film: the filmed play. Essentially, that's what this was. A play. Some films based on plays take on a whole life of their own. They add characters. They add settings. They add whole realms of situations so that the play is lost, and all but the fundamental idea of the original work is preserved. This was not the case (neither was "Proof,"which came out a few years ago).

Maybe it's because I like dialogue, maybe it's just because I like to see films with big stars where people aren't just running around with guns the whole time. Maybe it's a combination of a lot of things. But, for me, whereas some people get bored out of their minds by films that are essentially plays, I enjoy them. I like listening to people speak. And, furthermore, I like seeing actors act. It's one thing to run around shooting an uzi the whole time. it's quite another to actually deliver lines that are more than a one-sentence hip catchphrase.

I'd recommend people try to see this film, for I feel it's one that works as a dialogue heavy, single-set film. Not all work. I think this one does, and it gives hope to the dialogue writer in me.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Some Advice from a Great

A few weeks ago, a few of the Leaguers and I had the great fortune to see a screening of "Feast of Love" directed by Robert Benton. I should say this now: the previous sentence is not praise for the movie! None of us enjoyed the film from a writing point of view. There were some poor choices, some inaccuracies, and some all-out glaring improbabilities. However, we did get to listen to Robert Benton --who has written such films as "Bonnie and Clyde" (his first, actually), "Kramer vs. Kramer," and "Superman" to name but a few-- speak.

Naturally, we asked him questions. Here is just a bit of what he told us. (So as to not be his biographer, I will mostly focus on advice he gave us.)

He's dyslexic. As a child, he couldn't really even read. But he drew. And he listened to stories. And he watched movies. He studied structure from what he saw in theaters, and when he got old enough, he solicited the help of a friend in writing a movie about a famous American gangster couple. That script turned out to be the much acclaimed "Bonnie and Clyde." Moral is: don't give up. According to him, "Your worst enemy is your own despair." If you give into the notion that you will never make it, you probably won't.

One of the things he told us was that he typically does 40 to 50 drafts of a screenplay. 40 to 50! Now, I know that's not the way a lot of us do things. We normally aim for the sky on round one, but know that the key is just to get the words on the page, have a better sense of what we're trying to accomplish on round two (which usually looks completely different from round one), and then might incorporate some of round one back into a healthy mix of round two for round three. From there, it's polishing. But, it's important to keep in mind what Benton said, which was a quote from someone who escapes me at the moment, "It doesn't matter how many times you do it, as long as you do it right."

Lastly, he said what I found to be the most interesting bit. Essentially, he warned against going out and making the same kind of movies that everyone else is making, the kind that most professionals are probably telling you to make. Why? Because there are a million other people doing just that. There's no room for anyone else to do it. Sure, you might make a blockbuster. People might know your name. But only until the exact same movie with a different cast and setting opens the next week. Then, you're forgotten. Granted, many writers have amazing careers because they actively write for the masses, but most of their names are unfamiliar. If you want to truly impact the motion picture industry, do it on your terms. Not someone else's.