How did Ricky Gervais (The Office, Extras, After Life) learn not only how to write — but to write effectively?
Welcome to our ongoing Learning from the Masters and Industry Insiders series, where we seek out and feature excellent videos, interviews, and discussions of the art, craft, and business of screenwriting and pull the best words of wisdom, writing tips, and screenwriting advice.
Here we turn to the Fast Company video Ricky Gervais Tells A Story About How He Learned To Write that features his inspiring story about how he learned how to write authentically for the first time — accompanied by our own elaboration.
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Don’t Just Write Your Version of Other People’s Stories
“Probably the biggest single influence of my creative process was something my old English teacher said to me when I was about thirteen or fourteen. He said, ‘Just write about what you know.’ I usually wrote about things I saw on [television]. Whenever we had to write a story, it was about a maverick cop or, you know, a cowboy.” He laughs.
Ricky goes on to say that he always thought his versions of those stories were the best. But when he handed them in, he’d always get low grades.
His teacher would tell him that it was too melodramatic and that he should, again, write what he knows.
Gervais laughs, “I thought my stories were so [good]. You know, who wouldn’t like a story called Jezic, about a maverick cop who doesn’t play by the rules?”
One day, he decided that he was going to try to teach his teacher a lesson by attempting to write the most boring story he could think of. His mother used to take care of an elderly woman. To Gervais, that clicked. That was the most boring story he could tell.
So he followed his mother as she did various tasks around this older woman’s home. He decided to focus on the most mundane details. Again, he was doing so thinking that he was teaching his English teacher a lesson in writing — that his exciting cop and cowboy stories were better than this underwhelming subject material of his mother and an old lady.
“I wrote in every detail. I thought I was being really clever going, ‘We went around. Came in. There was the smell of tea and lavender. And mold. And my mum started to clean the floor.’ And I did it all [thinking] I was being so funny and getting my own back on this teacher.”
Little Ricky handed the paper in. His teacher was handing out the graded stories, and he tossed it onto Ricky’s desk. He expected his regular terrible grade only to see that it was marked with an A.
He looked up to his teacher in shock and watched as the teacher nodded his head.
“It was the proudest moment of my life. It sort of taught me that being honest is what counts — trying to make the ordinary extraordinary. It’s so much better than starting with the extraordinary. Because (that) doesn’t really connect.”
Cookie-cutter movies and shows like procedurals do serve a purpose. They entertain. And beyond that, they are safe for the audience. But they are instantly forgettable the majority of the time.
Writing what you know isn’t just about writing on subjects you’ve mastered. It’s about taking moments, feelings, and emotions from your life and injecting those truths into any project that you take on.
We’re all human beings. And most people will identify with the truth that you share. That is how you create cathartic experiences for the audience.
“As a creator and director, it’s your job to make an audience as excited and fascinated about a subject as you are — and real life does that.”
Watch Ricky Gervais tell the story himself!
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