Monday, December 7, 2009

Showing Up

When I first started writing I rarely had any sort of game plan and usually only worked when I felt inspired to do so. If, as I was typing away, I became aware of some flaw or otherwise gnarly problem in my story, I would usually flee the scene; telling myself that all I needed was a little break (like a month or two) until my batteries recharged. However, what I was actually doing was secretly hoping that the literary pixies would come in the night and fix all that was wrong with my script so I could hand it off to my agent, who would then spin said masterpiece into both gold and prizes.

Many creative people attempt to write at some point in their lives. Lots of actors I know have had an idea for what they thought would make a great movie (often starring themselves). I’ve also known a few execs and a couple of producers who’ve tried their hand at churning out the next big hit. Unfortunately, impatience usually gets the best of these folks and the finished product is often a combination of one good idea tangled up in a nest of really bad ones. The sad truth is writing requires two things that a lot of people don’t really have: Time and patience.

To be completely honest, it took me about 10 years to learn how to write. The biggest hurdle was finding the guts to simply sit down and attempt to put words on paper; not brilliant words; just words. The act of returning to the chair on a daily basis ain’t easy to master. One of my personal heroes, William Goldman, says that even now (after two Oscars) his first task before starting a project is to convince himself that he can actually do it. Staying put can also be dicey. Some days, it can feel like my office chair is lined with extremely sharp tacks. Other days, after 20 minutes of typing, I convince myself what I really need is a nice long weekend. This thought usually occurs to me on Tuesday.

I do know a couple of writers who dutifully show up every day; same time, same place and just begin. I don’t happen to be one of them. To my credit, when I’m gainfully employed or am on some kind of deadline, I’m extremely disciplined. Having producers snapping at my heels is sort of good for me. When the work is going well, I love the thrill of the hunt. At other times, like when my characters are telling me to go to hell and leave them alone, it's not so much fun.

My hardest stretches always come when I’m on my own; fishing for the next big idea or just noodling around on a pet project. My enthusiasm tends to ebb and flow. Small questions start turning into big doubts. Big doubts morph into churning anxiety. This, in turn, usually leads to a hearty round of masturbation, followed by a snack and maybe seeing who’s on Oprah today.

When I mentor young writers I don’t harass them about keeping specific office hours, but I do talk about the importance of returning to writing with some real regularity. Spending too much time away from writing makes me lose my nerve and nerve is something every writer needs. Believe it or not, talent is a living, breathing entity. To work as an artist you have to have an amicable relationship with your talent and it's good to keep in mind that (as in life) long distance relationships are hard to maintain and rarely work out.

My advice? If you are writing something, then write it. Develop a little healthy curiosity and see how it turns out. If for some reason, you wake up and realize you’d rather take a bullet in the head than do the work, then sit down and read what you have. In fact, read it every day until you start working on it again. I promise you new ideas will emerge each time. New edits and improvements will start to occur to you. When that happens, don’t fart around. Act on them.

One thing I don’t advise is waiting on the muse. If for any reason, you are not one of those people who can work every day at a specific time or in a comfortable location, then learn how to create that space in your head -- and honor it. Writing can be sort of miraculous, but miracles don’t just happen. They are worked for. As another one of my personal heroes Billy Wilder once said, “The muse needs to know where to find you.”

Copyright 2009 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.

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


Scott Ganyo said...

"The biggest hurdle was finding the guts to simply sit down and attempt to put words on paper; not brilliant words; just words."

Testify, my brother! To have such audacity to believe your words matter is a steep hill to climb, indeed. As such, I'm still climbing.

Sage, Nathan said...

Thanks for the terrific blog post. It's nice to know there's someone else out there who can get bogged down in anxiety, masturbate, have a snack, and then flip on the TV (and in that order) while trying to write a script. Thankfully I'm not a mutant.