(Excerpted from the upcoming release Little Gems: Better Notes on Story and Screenwriting, By Barbara NIcolosi and Vicki Peterson)
The professional writer’s life is marked by its lack of real marks. It is a life without uniform or dress code, without schedule, colleagues or bosses, without regular salary and generally without an office. Of course, when things are going, you can have all of these – except the uniform – but, on the whole, writers make their living in isolated and largely unseen ways, without any externally imposed structures.
What follows is the list we call “What Comes With the Territory” of being a Professional Screenwriter. We have compiled the list from the most common complaints and causes of quitting that we have heard from our many students and writing mentees over the years. Tragically, because they haven’t taken the time to think ahead about what lies in store in the real life of a writer, many people experience the things on the list as negatives. Really, they are just neutral. If you experience these things it is not that you are doing the screenwriter thing badly. It just means that you are just doing it.
What you need is a strategy to cope with all of these realities of the screenwriting life, so that you can turn what might be personal and career stumbling blocks into stepping stones.
“A creation of importance can only be created when its author
isolates himself; it is a child of solitude.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
What you have to sell is not written down anywhere. It doesn’t even lie within you somewhere as if you can just tap into that place and pull it out. The stuff of storytelling is a combination of elements that you pull out of your memory and experience, sifted through the wisdom life has given you and dressed up by your imagination and finally meted out onto paper through your intelligence about the screen art form.
You will be successful in making all these largely spiritual functions work together, in so far as you can make yourself retreat into your own head and heart away from distractions and other voices. You will have to be alone with the blank page, the empty screen, the quiet room, until you are able to fill them up from the store of what is inside you.
Isolation is hard. There is a reason “solitary confinement” is among the harshest punishments society can inflict on a criminal. There is no soft-pedaling the reality of having to be by yourself, working away for long periods straining at creativity.
We humans dread isolation because it is boring. Isolation is lonely. Isolation is draining, emotionally, psychologically, mentally and even physically. Once, an old Italian nun noted to us that the most exhausting part of her religious life was her eight-day annual silent retreat. “Every year, I think it will be the death of me,” she noted with a wry smile.
Finally, isolation can be frightening because in silence very often voices emerge from inside of us that we are running from in our noisy lives; voices of remorse or guilt, voices of loss and suffering never dealt with, voices of fear and the memory of humiliation and failure.
There are several ways that isolation or the dread of it gets writers into trouble.
First and foremost, the fear of isolation is what causes writers to procrastinate and avoid starting work at all. Procrastination leads to self-loathing. It sets people into making false excuses for why they don’t have anything to show for their time, and this just adds to the feelings of guilt. Procrastinators expend tremendous energy in accounting for their failure to get it done. It’s their crazy brother-in-law. It’s their car that broke down. It’s a printer that needs a cartridge or the local Staples that is out of three-hole paper. It’s that the weather was too good or too bad, or that they are suffering from some mysterious illness.
Besides being a source of always more self-loathing and wretchedness, all these protestations amount to just wasted breath. In a very short time, everybody who is working on a project knows everything, and so, everybody knows who are the folks who just can’t deliver.
Other ways that the fear and pressures of isolation cause writers to act out are:
➢ Can make you morose and uncommunicative;
➢ Can make you slovenly in your living areas and dress;
➢ Can make you demanding with your family and friends;
➢ Can cause bad choices just to get the job done;
➢ Can tempt you to steal other’s ideas to solve your creative problems;
➢ Can make you long for the un-examined life;
Our strategy for coping with the isolation required for creativity is to turn the isolation into solitude. Isolation means that a writer is alone. Solitude means that a writer has gone off to be alone with Someone. The “Someone” here is God, the Being from whom you draw your being and Who inspires your creativity regardless of what you call that Being and what by what religion you identify yourself.
It is undeniable that writing is a spiritual process. None of us know from where the impulse to connect and create springs, but all of us who are engaged in these tasks have experienced the mysterious muse descending on us in what seems like a whim giving us things to say that feel like they are coming from beyond us. Writers n the zone know that sometimes, writing feels like dictation, as though the labors at the craft have suddenly become a doorway into a depth we didn’t know we had.
Solitude is a reunion where isolation is a punishment. Solitude is a communion and sharing where isolation is a lone voice bouncing off walls that may not make any sense at all. Solitude is good and renewing, where isolation is draining. Paraphrasing the Book of Genesis in the Bible, “It is not good for the writer to be alone.”
Another strategy for coping with isolation is to vigorously balance the time spent working lone with time spent interacting with friends and family. In the same way you have to order yourself to withdraw, you need to order yourself to advance into the company and consolation you can find in other people.