A few years ago, I was mentoring a young screenwriter in a program I helped found, when I complimented him on his “voice” as a writer. He looked sort of puzzled and asked what I meant by that. I realized I was talking to a 22 year-old who had written, at this point, exactly one script. Although he had a few problems with story structure, it was clear he was talented and had a distinct, quirky sense of humor that genuinely popped off the page. I did my best to explain what I meant by "having a voice.” It was like a thumbprint, I explained and that I suspected that if I were handed another of his scripts with no title page attached, I would still be able to recognize it as his writing. He smiled a little and I could see a tinge of pride in his eyes.
Finding your voice as an artist takes time. I learned this gradually. When I was new to writing, I was plagued by self-doubt. I’m still plagued by self-doubt, but now it’s more of the professional variety. I can remember booking a writing job early in my career and then being overwhelmed by the fear that I didn’t know how to execute it. I knew virtually nothing about the subject matter (rap music and feminism) and had sort of bluffed my way through the pitch. Gripped by a growing terror that I was going to finally be found out for the fraud that I was, I did what all highly gifted, professional writers do. I procrastinated.
I’ve developed a great many talents in my career, but procrastination is probably the one in which I can take the most pride. Over time, I’ve developed it into something of an art form. Occasionally, I can grab the reins and get right down to work, but often there is an extended period of dancing around the task at hand. The reason for this is simple. I fear sucking. I dread typing the first couple of pages because I know how it will make me feel – like a big fat loser who can’t string even a few coherent sentences together. It becomes almost impossible to hold my mind in the present since my imagination is already skipping into the future when the producers will be reading this piece of shit and wondering why the hell they ever hired me.
Eventually, when the self-loathing reaches an unbearable pitch, I sit down and the work begins. I stop worrying about what might happen and start trying to carve out a story that might be slightly entertaining to watch. My big moment of revelation came when I shamefully admitted to another writer that I was sort of paralyzed on the rapper project. The writer asked me how I had gotten the job. I recounted how I was approached by the producer with the initial story idea and how I had pitched it to the studio. “And they are paying you, how much?” the writer asked with a certain parental tone in his voice. “The most I’ve ever been paid,” I answered guiltily. “Well,” the writer continued, “Nobody held a gun to their head and made them do it. You must have told them a very entertaining story. They’re not stupid.” For a moment, I wondered if he was right.
The writer sighed. “David, they hired you for your take on the story. You must have brought something into the room that made them see what you had in mind. Now, all you have to do it write it.” I began to relax as a few things finally dawned on me. There was no way to second guess what my employers would be expecting. Everything in this business is a crap shoot. My job wasn’t to write the ultimate rapper comedy. It was to write my version of a rapper comedy. Yes, I needed to educate myself, but I didn’t need to become the subject of my story. I was there to do what I do well; be funny, instill a little heart into the proceedings and keep things moving.
Happily, the script I finally delivered was pretty darn funny. The second draft was (in my humble opinion) even funnier. Sadly, for a myriad of reasons, the movie never got made. Despite that, the whole experience remained a good lesson. What all writers are paid for is their point of view; their “take” on the story. Their voice. Developing a voice only happens by using it and by paying attention to how others are using theirs. Mimicking what worked for the last guy or gal rarely results in a strong career. Bringing your particular humanity, life experience and imagination to a project is always your strongest suit. And truthfully, it’s nice to have a certain awareness of who you are and what you’ve got to offer. It builds confidence and with that comes a little courage. These days the challenges of any assignment provide me with more surprises than anxiety; although anxiety plays (and will always play) a certain defining role. I don’t kid myself about that.
I’m happy to report that the young man I mentored a few years ago is now a produced screenwriter. Although his movie wasn’t a mega-hit, he’s now in the game and once in a while, we grab lunch and catch up. I’d like to say that he reminds me of myself at his age, but he really doesn’t. He’s very much his own person with his own unique way of looking at things. I could never in a million years write what he is going to write in his career and by the same token, he will never write anything like me. Although I envy him his youth, I’ve got plenty on my plate to keep me busy until retirement. What I really hope is that we will all get to benefit from seeing more of his particular “voice” back on screen -- sometime soon!
Copyright 2010 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 http://www.partsandlabor.tv/
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