Sunday, May 18, 2008

How Bad Could It Be?

Today was the day. This was it. I was going to start that damn script. I had finally landed my first big deal writing assignment in L.A. This wasn’t a rewrite or a polish. This was a new adaptation of a classy, challenging novel. I’d fought hard to get the job. I had a unique take on the material and my employers were behind me. Yes, this was the day. Definitely. For sure. There was only one problem. I had been saying “this is the day,” every morning for almost a month. I had agreed to deliver my first draft in seven weeks and now half the allotted time was gone and I hadn’t even started. In reality, every time I sat down at the computer, my chest would tighten. I felt nauseated and confused; my head swimming like I was getting the flu. When I stared at the screen, visions of disaster swirled before my eyes. I'd spent the last five years of my life cajoling and elbowing my way into the screenwriting business. Now I was in it. But something was suddenly occurring to me; something that I probably should have considered before applying for the job: I had no fucking talent.

And now for a little backstory. I fell into writing quite by accident. I was a New York theatre actor who, on a lark, thought I might be able to write my way into my next gig. Amazingly, that first script poured out of me like water. It only took ten days and the original draft was never revised all that much. I thought it would always be like that. One smooth, painless birth after another. But instead, new work was sporadic. I frequently found myself sitting on my ass for months at a time, waiting for some great inspiration to inhabit me and send my fingers flying across the keys. Now in Los Angeles, I was in a whole new game, competing with top notch people who really knew their stuff. Luckily, a young producer had taken a chance on me. Knowing I was unproven, he initially kept me on a pretty short leash. For weeks, I was required to hand in numerous outlines and treatments (and revisions of those outlines and treatments). In frustration, I called my agent who eventually got him off my back. At last, I was free to start writing. And that’s when it happened. The enormity of the task hit me like a speeding truck and I found myself paralyzed and drowning in self-doubt.

Unable to stall any longer, I sat finally down and began. It was slow, excruciating, horrible work. Each sentence was worse than the one before. Each piece of dialogue as stiff and brittle as chalk. I was writing a script with no shred of inventiveness. No spark. No wit. It was total garbage. Every second spent doing it was an eternity. Finally unable to withstand the sheer agony of it, I packed it in for the day. Even now, I'm not sure how I survived it. It was the longest fifteen minutes of my life. The next day I returned and lasted for an hour before lunch (and maybe an hour after). In an effort to end the torture, I just started hammering it out it as fast as I could. I no longer cared what the characters said. They could say anything they wanted. I just stared at my outline and kept typing. I had no idea what I was doing. When my ex called to check on me, I confessed the sad truth. He was skeptical. “How bad could it be?” he asked. “It’s like ‘Showgirls,’” I replied, “But not as funny.” A few days later, I finally reached the end of the draft. I had before me 127 pages of something (I knew not what).

That night, I poured myself a stiff drink and started to read. It was horrible beyond imagining. It looked like it had been written by a disturbed child. It was crap. And there was so much of it. Page after humiliating page. Then about 30 pages in, there was a joke. I had written it spontaneously, but it was funny. A few pages past that, I found a short scene that wasn’t so bad. I began to read with renewed interest. A little hope emerged. This pile of refuse in front of me was not my script. But my script was in there. I could almost see it. I just had to shovel it out. A few days before, I had had nothing. Now, I had “something” – something I could change.

That experience taught me the single most important skill required to be a writer: The willingness to do it badly. Writing is so personal that even now I don’t like admitting that there are many days when I suck at it. Every time I start something new, I always feel like I’ve walked into a room where the lights are off, the furniture’s been rearranged and the floor has been recently waxed. I won’t do well in there initially. It’s not possible. I have to give my eyes time to adjust to the dark. It’s a wonderful thing to give yourself permission to suck. It saved my career. Now, when the Muse unexpectedly departs for Palm Springs midweek, leaving me talentless and alone, I've learned to just to keep going. Eventually, she'll send a postcard. Years after learning this lesson the hard way, I encountered a book that explains this part of the writing process beautifully: Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird.” (I’ve recommended it a zillion times).

Naturally, I love the days when the words tumble effortlessly onto the page. But that’s pretty rare. In my experience, most script problems usually boil down to a writer not wanting to change something they deem “good,” because if they do, they’ll be forced to replace it with some stupid, bad-sounding shit. And that’s terrifying, because now you've let go of something that "sort of" worked in the hope that somehow you'll be able to spin the newly-inserted shit back into gold before you have to show it to someone. No wonder writers are so crazy. What sane person would want to take that gamble? But that is precisely the chance each of has to take if we want to build a mousetrap that actually works. The great acting teacher, Sanford Meisner used to say “Bad theatre is the manure from which good theatre grows.” Having come from a semi-agricultural background, this speaks to me. I always assumed that writing well meant you sat down and wrote well. Now, it’s the “not-knowing-what-the-hell-I’m-going-to-do” part that primarily keeps me interested in the work. It’s like that song that Julie Andrews sings in “The Sound of Music” about her love of brown paper packages tied up with string. Who the hell knows what’s inside there? Might be some good shit.

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment

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David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being secretly middle-class in Hollywood at


Marc said...

That's a pretty good breakdown of the writing process. The go-to rule I always return to, the one I keep reminding myself of as a mantra, is "all writing is rewriting." I must absolutely be willing to alter everything I've ever written. Which is what makes the 2nd draft the hardest. After I've changed it once, then I can let go of doing so repeatedly. But that first letting go, that acceptance that I'll never come out with it just right the first time--that's a bitch.
Also love what you said about muses sending a postcard--eventually.

Michelle said...

I sweat bullets when I have to crank out the first 20 pages. I feel like 'who the hell told me I was any good at this.'
But somehow - once I get past act one I find my way:)
I've actually come to enjoy rewrites. It is my second go at getting it right.


David S. said...

I recently read a book about Stradivarius. He wasn't the "genius" everybody thinks he was, who just cranked perfect violins out of his shop every day. In reality he spent a lifetime perfecting his craft; and for every instrument he sold, there were dozens that got pitched in the fire.