To Write, One Must Read Pt. 1

By Randal Stevens · August 16, 2010


Let's be honest – writers are weird people.  If you think about it, there must be something slightly off about a person who needlessly and continuously dredges the depths of their intellects and souls – either implicitly or explicitly – for an indeterminate amount of time in order to complete a piece of work that may never be seen by anyone outside of their immediate circle of friends and family.  The really successful writers of all media, in fact, are often times even more fucked up than those who have toiled away in their parents' basements until their mid-40s with nothing to show for it:


– Edgar Allan Poe (author, subpar poet): Mommy issues, borderline pedophilia and a raging alcoholic.  Died penniless under mystery circumstances.

– J.D. Salinger (author): Couldn't handle his own success; went 45 years without publishing an original work, almost 30 without a public interview.

– David Foster Wallace (author, essayist, humorist)Suffered from depression for more than 20 years, gave up medication after severe side effects, depression returned with a vengeance resulting in suicide by hanging.

– Emily Dickinson (poet)Suffered from extreme agoraphobia to the point of never leaving her room later in life; friendships were mostly maintained through correspondence.  

– Jim Morrison (songwriter, poet, writer)Father issues; high IQ that resulted in deficiencies when relating to other people; loved heroin a bit too much.

– Paul Schrader: Raised in such an extreme Calvinist family, he didn't see his first movie until the age of 18 – The Absent-Minded Professor – after which he immediately suffered a full blown panic attack.  Responded later in life with a love of guns and blow. 

– Roman Polanski: Come on. 


I don't bring up these examples to make struggling writers feel inadequate (or in a strange way, too adequate) about themselves.  "Randal, I'm not addicted to blow, nor do I have Freudian issues or a strange sexual fetish," you may say.  "I cannot be a successful writer!"  First off, let me just say that that's not a bad thing.  Your romantic and platonic relationships will probably be much healthier if you're not cursing your mother during blow-induced autoerotic asphyxiation sessions every other night.  


Secondly, you don't need to be a graduate level study in psychosis in order to be an effective writer.  For the love of God, just write!  However, if you're the type of person who wants to see others jump off the high diving board first so you can see that it's safe, then perhaps you need some inspiration from those whom you admire.  The problem there, is that those whom you admire are probably immensely successful and won't take your calls.  Or nude photos.  Luckily, their knowledge and experiences are easily accessible to you in easy to digest print format.


Enter "Screenwriters' Masterclass," a book consisting of a series of interviews with screenwriters.  Edited by industry insider Kevin Conroy Scott, the book is an aspiring screenwriter's treasure trove of knowledge, with anecdotes and experiences about the screenwriting process from conception to completion straight from the mouths of the writers who brought their stories to life.  These interviews are great for regurgitating film trivia later on in life – "hey, did you know that Darren Aronofsky got the idea for Pi when he was taking a spiritual math class?" – but their true value comes from hearing about the struggles and neurosis that riddled the writing of some of the best screenplays of the last 20 years and the tactics their writers used to complete the process.  


Every writer, you see, has different ways of getting the creative juices flowing and different methods they use to cope with challenges.  When I took a creative writing class in college, I once heard the story of a man who, upon waking up, would not get out of bed and begin his writing until he heard the number "28" on the radio.  Sometimes he was up right away, sometimes he wouldn't move until well into the live-long day.  As an aspiring writer, that kind of story reeked of horseshit to me, not because I didn't believe his story, but that I found it useless if not counterproductive to me personally.  But as a guy who looks back at pages of notebook scribbles and feels that those filled pages are a sign of progress, I was encouraged to hear Wes Anderson actually writes out his screenplays by hand before he types one single word of a screenplay.  Similarly, I  found a note of solidarity with Aronofsky – a man far smarter and more successful than I – when I read that he finds loneliness to be the most difficult part of screenwriting.  Are you the type of person sees nothing but the flaws in your work upon completion?  Perhaps you'll feel vindication in knowing that Alex Garland finds the ending of 28 Days Later… to be infuriating in its open-endedness.  


You're not alone, folks.  We all have our quirks, our struggles and our eccentricities when it comes to writing.  Personally, I can't write a word unless there's something going on in the background.  As I write this blog, I have Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines playing on my TV and I'm only paying partial attention to what's going on.  It's not that I think I'll pick up any inspiration for my writing from Ahnold's third go-around as a cybernetic organism, but it's comforting to me to know that if I encounter a block, my train of thought won't be derailed by the intrusion of sheer empty silence.  My brain will keep working because, even if it's not writing, it's at least processing someone else's writing.  It's almost like dancing to music – I know that if  stop dancing, the music will keep going and I jump back in at anytime.  


Maybe you feel the same way, maybe you don't.  Maybe you're surprised at how similar you and I are, maybe you can't make heads or tails of what I'm writing.  Doesn't matter.  There may be someone out there who approaches writing the way you do and that person may have already made lots of money doing so.  You won't know until you read what they've already written.