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By Randal Stevens · May 3, 2010
Centuries ago, some guy who lived alone in the desert made up the Seven Deadly Sins to justify his importance to the Church. Just now, I made up the Seven Deadly Consequences to justify (perhaps futilely) my importance to this blog. The Seven Deadly Consequences are just like the Sins, but are not actions; they are reactions. Specifically, the Consequences are reactions that occur when you should be writing, but you’re not. They won’t have any effect on your immortal soul, but they come with equivalent amounts of crushing guilt! This first entry is focusing on the Consequence of pride.
Pride is one of the odder Consequences considering you wouldn’t think it’s possible to become prideful of something you haven’t done. But I assure you that the longer you go without writing, the more prideful you’ll become of the things you’ve written in the past – sometimes, not even that.
In most traditions, pride is actually considered to be the most serious of the Seven Deadly Whathaveyous, seen as the ultimate source from which the others arise. I’m not really sure I agree with that, but there’s no doubt that like its cohorts, pride is rooted in the positive. The dictionary definition of pride is “a feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one’s own achievement.” On this level, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with pride; indeed, pride is encouraged and expected when one achieves something noteworthy, such as completing that first feature-length screenplay. Writing a screenplay is not an easy task – writing a good one even more difficult – so completing one that is well received by many warrants a pat on the back and a mini celebration of yourself: go out and get drunk, get laid, eat a Double Down, you’ve earned it (unless you’re Aaron Seltzer and/or Jason Friedberg, then you should jam a roofing nail up your nasal cavity and throw yourself down the stairs).
Clearly, there’s nothing deadly about this kind of pride. The kind of pride to which I’m referring is also referred to by another name: hubris. Hubris is the Cain to pride’s Abel, defined as “a desire to be more important or attractive than others, failing to acknowledge the good work of others and excessive love of self.” Some of you undoubtedly see a connection between these two sides of the coin, but are still confused as to how inactivity can lead to thinking you’re better than anyone else out there. If anything, a barren writer should logically retreat into self-doubt, self-loathing and creative lethargy. Those are certainly part of it, but as the days go by and and the laptop gathers dust, you begin falling back and relying on your meager library of writing as a frame of reference for judging other writing around you. If you have only completed a screenplay or two, you won’t be as well equipped to give guidance or constructive criticism to others, will you?
But it doesn’t stop at having a small frame of reference. After a while you become defensive of your work, almost hostile when it comes to people offering criticisms or critiques. If, God forbid, your screenplay isn’t very good then you’re stuck with a sinking ship. Guys like William Goldman or Eric Roth probably have so many screenplays and screenplay ideas lying around that if one is a failure, they shrug it off and move on to the next one. But if you’re not writing, you don’t have that comfort blanket of moving onto something else, of knowing that you have many irons in the fire. Your one screenplay becomes your calling card by default and thusly, you become prideful of that idea by default.
The analogy I always give is that of the creation of a natural pearl. Natural pearls, as opposed to cultured pearls, are created when a microscopic intruder or parasite enters a bivalve mollusk and settles inside the shell. The mollusk, irritated by the intruder, “forms a pearl sac of external mantle tissue cells and secretes the calcium carbonate and conchiolin to cover the irritant.” It repeats this process over and over until a pearl is produced. “Well, that’s fine,” you may say. “Pearls are lovely.” Actually, natural pearls aren’t necessarily lovely – the round ones are actually rather rare – and often, the development of a pearl can lead to damage to the shell around the pearl. Essentially, a pearl can be harmful to its host. As can pride.
How to Avoid the Consequence of Pride
Read a lot of good screenplays. If all you rely on is what you learned in school and trust that your skills will naturally develop in time, then let me save you the trouble and say you’re sorely mistaken. There are plenty of websites out there with large catalogs of popular and award-winning screenplays to read for free and seeing what’s really good will set up in your mind a frame of reference, a friendly challenge for you to meet.
I would also recommend an accountability partner who will be honest with you without being harsh, letting you know when something you’ve written hasn’t worked and encouraging you to change it or keep going when things are going well.