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Posts Tagged ‘Goethe’

“It is impossible to imagine Goethe or Beethoven being good at billiards or golf.”
H.L. Mencken

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Last night I finished the last episode of season five of LOST, so now I’m ready for the final season which starts next week. And for whatever reason the TV show Northern Exposure crossed my mind. Probably because that’s one of my top five TV programs of all time. Loved the small town and the interesting characters. Loved the writing.

I’ve always said I wanted to live in the fictitious town Cicely Alaska and I imagine it played into my psyche when I moved to Iowa almost seven years ago. (Though in real life my experience has been that if you want to visit a real life Cicely-like place try Ely, Minnesota or Talkeentna, Alaska.) But I find there are traces of Cicely, Alaska everywhere.

It’s hard to believe that Northern Exposure started airing 20 years ago. Can 1990 really be 20 years ago?  It was a simpler time before people were blogging, text messaging while driving, nor was there even the Internet as we know it. A time when part of the nation leaned on a DJ at KBHR for a little prime time philosophy.

Even if you didn’t agree with all his philosophy, you had to appreciate the words and the thought process (as well as John Corbett’s voice).

Goethe’s final words: “More light.” Ever since we crawled out of that primordial slime, that’s been our unifying cry: “More light.” Sunlight. Torchlight. Candelight. Neon. Incandescent. Lights that banish the darkness from our caves, to illuminate our roads, the insides of our refrigerators. Big floods for the night games at Soldier’s field. Little tiny flashlight for those books we read under the covers when we’re supposed to be asleep. Light is more than watts and footcandles. Light is metaphor. Thy word is a lamp unto my feet. “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” “Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom, Lead Thou me on!” “The night is dark, and I am far from home.” “Lead Thou me on! Arise, shine, for thy light has come.” Light is knowledge. Light is life. Light is light.
Chris in the morning (John Corbett)
Northern Exposure
Written by Diane Frolov & Andrew Schneider

Scott W. Smith

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2008-2009SFI

A few days ago I learned that I received two more Emmy nominations by the Upper Midwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. That makes four in two years. And though there are many great screenwriting blogs out there, I was thrilled last year that Screenwriting from Iowa was the first screenwriting blog ever to win an Emmy.

But this year the blog didn’t even get a nomination. My nominations this year were for location lighting for a commercial I shot film noir style and editing (along with Steve Holm) an advanced media project.  I made a decision at the end of last year to slightly change the direction of the blog and I knew that come award time it might hurt me. But I had a bigger goal in mind.

I decided to go daily and instead of the long 1,000 and 2,000 words essays I would try to keep my posts under 500 words and sometimes just put a quote up. Since my views on the post had remained level for that entire first year I thought I needed to do something to rev this thing up a little. (WordPress makes this easy to track as the above chart shows.) I was hoping maybe that I could double my views by trying this approach.

That’s were I was off a little. I quadrupled my views. So while there is a little sting from not getting a nomination for the blog this year,  the fact that this month is my highest month of views makes up for it. Heck, one would like to have both–but life doesn’t always work that way. (In fact, it usually doesn’t.) Of course, I’d trade the whole thing in to be telling you that a film I wrote is a box office success and a critics favorite. 

But here’s my point today…keep flipping your pancakes. That’s an expression I first heard from an acting teacher in L.A. when he told the class that they had to learn how to flip pancakes. What he meant was they needed to be able to do Ibsen, Chekov and Shakespeare while at the same time be ready to audition for a small film or TV roll—or even a commercial.

You learn along the way and you never know what is going to be your breakthrough moment. But the chances are it’s going to happen while you’re in motion. Remember the Goethe quote; “In action there is power, grace and magic.”   And the Richard Foster quote I am fond on mentioning, “We tend to overestimate what we can do in one year and underestimate what we can do in ten.”

So while I have my own screenwriting goals I am also plugging away on growing creatively with the projects that come my way. And while nine years ago I would have said that I didn’t think one could do the jack-of-all trade well,  I am pleased to have Emmy nominations in producing, lighting, editing and writing. 

And my work isn’t just in Iowa. This week I was editing a project that I shot in Brazil and this morning I fly to New York for a shoot. So keep writing, keep meeting people and showing them your work…but don’t be afraid to start flipping some pancakes. If you’ve never picked up a camera, pick one up and shoot some footage. If you’ve never edited, find an editor friend to give you a tour of Final Cut Pro. And spend a little time getting to know Lynda.com.

I could be wrong but I don’t think this technology is going backwards anytime soon.

 

Scott W. Smith
River Run Productions 

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“I finally figured out we are somewhere between the end of the line and the middle of nowhere.”
Dr. Joel Fleischman
Northern Exposure

Goethe’s final words: “More light.” Ever since we crawled out of that primordial slime, that’s been our unifying cry: “More light.” Sunlight. Torchlight. Candlight. Neon. Incandescent. Lights that banish the darkness from our caves, to illuminate our roads, the insides of our refrigerator.”

Chris in Morning
KBHR, Cicely, Alaska
Northern Exposure

When Sarah (Barracuda) Palin was chosen as John McCain’s running mate it was textbook solid screenwriting inspired. A nice twist in the story. If it were a movie and she ends up VP I’d call it Mrs. Palin Goes to Washington. Kind of a remake of the Jimmy Stewart classic.

How do you offset the first African-American presidential candidate who makes his acceptance speech before more than 80,000 people at the Democratic National Convention in Denver on 45th anniversary to the day of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech? How do you offset Obama being raised by a single mom and forgoing a Wall Street career to do social work on the south side of Chicago?

How do you take advantage of millions of women who are upset that Hillary Clinton is not the presidential or VP candidate? How does McCain avoid being seen as just rich and elitist and out of touch with the countries economic problems?

You head north…to Alaska, that’s what you do. You choose their female governor as your running mate.  A “hockey mom” with five kids (pro-family)  including one with Downs Syndrome (pro-life) , a moose hunter (NRA), whose husband is part Yup’ik Eskimo (multiethnic) and a commercial fisherman (working class) and union worker (union), whose parents were teachers (middle class), who has faith (evangelicals), who has brought reform to government there (change), who fought the “bridge to nowhere” (fiscally responsible), whose son joined the Army last year on September 11 (patriotism), and who comes from an area more than 3,500 miles from Washington D.C. (beltway outsider).

As a former broadcaster she is media savvy and can read a teleprompter. And her selection as the first VP GOP candidate came on the 88th anniversary of women being allowed to vote. And to top it off the former Miss Wasilla has the whole sexy librarian thing going on with the glasses and wearing her hair up.

I’ll leave it to others to debate whether she’s qualified for the White House, but there is no debate she has a heck of a story. And stories outside L.A. is what this blog is all about.

Is choosing Palin a Hail Mary pass by McCain? If so, he’s old enough to remember when Doug Flutie’s desperation pass beat the mighty Miami Hurricanes back in ’84. Sometimes the high risk pass works.

And for the media, picking Palin is a slice of Hollywood. A political narrative full of conflict. Peggy Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Palin’s candidacy “will be either dramatically successful or dramatically not; it won’t be something in between.”

We know screenwriter Gary Ross (Big, Seabiscuit) has written presidential speeches for the Democrats. The talent pool of Republican or conservative screenwriters is not quite as deep (99 to 1?), but I wonder what writer or filmmaker they’ve employed. (Perhaps John Milius, Clint Eastwood, Dennis Hopper or David Mamet.)

Maybe it was Hillary’s Hollywood people (Spielberg or Murphy Brown creator Diane English)  suggestion since a Republican victory is Mrs. Clinton’s only chance to make a run in ’12.

No matter the outcome of the election, from a dramatic standpoint McCain couldn’t have written a better script. Well, Palin could have been born in Cedar Falls, Iowa to an African-American mother and a Hispanic father and have captured Bigfoot last week–but let’s not get carried away.

Truth is stranger than fiction.

Alaska has been at the heart of many good stories as well as being full of folklore. Say, did you hear the “Little known facts” about Palin? “The Northern Lights are really just the reflection from Sarah Palin’s eyes.” “Sarah Palin doesn’t need a gun to hunt. She has been known to throw a bullet through an adult bull elk.” (Do you know how long it took for Chuck Norris to get that kind of street cred? She did it in one day.)

On second thought, Sarah Palin appears to have more in common with Erin Brockovich than she does Jimmy Stewart. (“You may want to re-think those ties.” Erin, in the movie written by Susannah Grant.) But let’s get back to Alaska.

Stories do flow from Alaska; Jack London’s Call of the Wild, Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, Never Cry Wolf, and Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia written by Hilary Seltz , Pulitzer Prize winner John McPhee’s Coming into the Country, Johnny Horton’s number one hit North to Alaska, documentaries by Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North)  and Warner Herzog (Grizzly Man) and more recently the Sean Penn movie Into the Wild from the Jon Krakauer book.

But my favorite set of stories that are Alaska-based is what I think of as one of the all-time great TV programs – Northern Exposure. (In my book it’s right up there with The Twilight Zone and Seinfeld.) Though the show was filmed in Roslyn, Washington it retains the feel of a small eccentric, creative town you’d like to think exists in Alaska. Some say it is based on the quirky little town of Talkeetna, Alaska and others say the quirky town of Ely, Minnesota, a town near the Canadian border in the Boundary Waters.

In part because of my love for the show I’ve been to  Roslyn, Talkeetna and Ely. (However, I’ve never been to Moosefest.)  I do think the show Northern Exposure in part lead me to Cedar Falls, Iowa. Growing up in Florida steeped on Jimmy Buffett’s songs about Key West, the Caribbean, and paradise mixed with a heavy dose of Walt Disney’s version of Main Street, I think I have always been looking for my own personal Margaritaville. (A place where “My old red bike gets me ’round.”)

Even if you didn’t get into Northern Exposure you’d have to give it points for originality. Where else in the history of TV have you seen two people arm wrestle over the doctrine of transubstantiation or see someone have a conversation with a human-sized dust mite? And isn’t there a little spunky Maggie O’Connell (Janie Turner) in Palin? Yes, Palin even owns a float plane. I’m sure Noexers (as fans of the show are called) have already connected John & Cindy McCain with the older/younger couple Shelly & Holling.

Is it more than a coincidence that one of the co-creators of Northern Exposure went to college just a little over an hour from Cedar Falls? John Falsey is one more MFA graduate from the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. The Emmy, Peabody, Golden Globe winning producer/writer also worked on St. Elsewhere, The White Shadow and I’ll Fly Away. (I don’t know much of what he’s done in the last decade. “Where have you gone John Falsey?” Maybe he cashed in and moved to his own personal Cicely, Alaska.)

And I guess this blog is my own little version of Northern Exposures resident radio DJ Chris in the Morning (John Corbett). Trying to do my best to wax philosophically while making odd connections.

Cedar Falls is a little bigger than Cicely Alaska, but it’s got enough characteristics to feel similar and it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than Key West, FL, Seal Beach, CA, or Crested Butte, CO. No oceans or mountains here (though we do have a river and killer bike trails) but we have a perfect view of the political process as I pointed out in Politics, Power & Screenwriting.

I’m sure will see plenty of Mrs. Palin which will make up for all the times I saw Obama last year. (I think the guy was stalking me.) If John McCain and Sarah Palin don’t make it to the White House I think they could have shots at a career in Hollywood. At least a reality show.

And whoever is our next president I wish they add to their packed political campaign platform a decree for films to be better. Yesterday I walked out of two movies in one day for the first time in my life. On second thought, that’s really not the government’s job–it’s yours, so get busy writing.

And just to tie this all together as we say goodbye for now you might not know that the beautiful, haunting song that was played at the end of the last episode of Northern Exposure was written and performed by Iris DeMent — a folk artist who is married to another folk artist named Greg Brown from Iowa City and where I believe they both now live.

If you’ve never heard “Our Town” or if it’s been a while since you’ve heard it, do yourself a favor and listen to the link below. The song resonates every bone of my body and I hope it hits a nerve or two for you. (And if you’ve never seen the show at all check it out because it is a fine example of great writing.)

September 4 Update: From a public speaking perspective you’d have to pull for an Obama-Palin ticket. Palin: “The difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull?.. Lipstick.” Great writing and great delivery. All of this reminds me of that great Jon Stewart quip at the 2008 Oscars: “Normally when you see a black man or a woman president, an asteroid is about to hit the Statue of Liberty.”

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“All the good ideas I ever had came to me while I was milking a cow.” Grant Wood (Iowa painter, American Gothic)

 

ideas.jpg

“The way to have a great idea is to have lots of ideas.”
Linus Pauling
1901-1994
Nobel Prize Winning American Scientist

Where do creative ideas come from?

Katie Couric once asked Jerry Seinfeld where his funny ideas came from and he said, “That’s like asking where trees come from.”

 

I hate to disagree with Seinfeld, but I think a better answer is ideas come from everywhere.

Here’s the formula that I’ve come up with; A+B = C.  There doesn’t that help? (Can someone pass that along to Jerry?) This is how Seinfeld connects things: “Now why does moisture ruin leather? I don’t get this. Aren’t cows outside most of the time?” Basic, funny and original.

People that are a lot smarter than me call it dialectical logic. That’s when you connect two unrelated things. A+B= C is simply the result of something new after we’ve connect two unrelated things.

When I was a kid there was this commercial for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups where a guy comes around the corner eating peanut butter from a jar (like we all walk around doing) and another guys from around the other corner eating chocolate and they run into each other. The one guys say, “Your chocolate is in my peanut butter” and the other guy says, “Your peanut butter is in my chocolate.” But they try the PB/Chocolate mix and both decide it’s good.

A (peanut butter) + B (chocolate) = Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. (By the way, that’s why these blogs are so long because I keep making connections.) My goal is make them shorter.

Illustrator Gary Kelley says, “Creativity is connecting influences.” If you go into his studio you’ll find a menagerie of art books and torn out photos from magazines that are there to inspire him. Sometimes he tapes them to his easel.

Creativity is not something that only a few mystical souls can tap into. (Granted the quality of the Seinfeld’s creative ideas is what sets him apart.) Nor is it just limited to the arts.

The story goes that back in the 60’s when a couple guys bolted a sail to a door and made the first windsurfer and became very wealthy from their new invention. Thomas Edison’s inventions were the results of lots of creativity–as well as a lot of trail and error.

Another story goes that the founder of the zillion selling “Dummies” books was in a bookstore and overheard a guy ask a salesperson, “Do you have a basic book on computers? Like computers for dummies.”

(This story has been disputed. As they say, success has many fathers.)

Jack London said, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

Many of us are guilty of saying, “if I could just head to the beach or the mountains and just get a little place without all the day-to-day distractions then I could really get some ideas down on paper. No kids, no work issues. No people problems. Just a place of nirvana were the my creativity would be free-flowing.”

There’s a word for that—fantasy. And being from Orlando originally I can tell you that’s not Fantasyland. Ask anyone who’s ever worked at Disney World about kids, work issues and people problems. (Speaking of Fantasyland, does anyone else miss Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride?)

There was an episode on The Andy Griffith Show were Andy wants to be a writer and he get the typewriter and the cabin in the woods and he’s ready to go. As soon as he tidies up the place. It’s easy for writers to find reasons not to write.

After I go to this seminar…

When I get a new computer…

When I get that new software…

Then I’m really going to start writing. I’ve done all those things. I also used to buy pants a little tight because I was going to lose a few pounds. As the saying goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

You need to go at inspiration with a club? Okay, but how do you do that?

“In action, there is power, grace and magic.” Goethe

You simply start writing. It may just be notes on a paper, but it’s a start. (I like Vicki King’s book How to Write A Screenplay in 20 Days because she pushes you to write.) It may not be any good. It probably won’t sell. (Though Stallone says he wrote Rocky in less than a week.) But you will learn a ton about writing and yourself. And it will give you confidence for the next script.

Musician Jimmy Buffett said on a 60 Minutes interview, “I’m not an every note kind of guy, I’m a capture the magic kind of guy.”

When you start writing you are taking those first steps toward capturing the magic.

The creative process is hard to explain and hard to show on film. But the movie Pollack with Ed Harris has a wonderful scene where we see the spark of creativity that became Pollack’s signature style. He’s in the process of painting when he accidentally spills some paint on the canvas and he does it again and then again. He has an epiphany, and it happens not while he’s reading a book on painting, but while he’s painting.

Creativity is a messy process. You’re going to get paint on your shoes. But you will make discoveries in the process.

A great example in the photography world is Ansel Adams. Adams was a brilliant photographer though it took decades of photographs before the world came to understand that. He would often go into the mountains with a donkey carrying his large format cameras and would often camp out to watch what the light would do.

He is known particularly for his early photographs in Yosemite National Park, but one of his most famous photographs is called Moon Over Hernandez.  He captured that photograph late one afternoon while driving in New Mexico. By the time he pulled over and set up his 8X10 camera the light was fading fast and he couldn’t find his light meter so he had to guess on the exposure. His experience paid off but he was only able to take one shot before the light was gone on the cross that grabbed his eye. It is one of his most recognizable photographs.

He had a firm understand of his craft so he could recognize and opportunity when he saw it. He captured the magic.

Stephen King says that a writer he is like a paleontologist. He sees something interesting buried in the dirt and he goes over and brushes away the dirt. He’s unearthing stories.

What is important is to write down what you find. Comedian Rodney Dangerfield was asked how he came up with so much material and he said that three funny things happen to everybody everyday, he just writes them down.

One real estate expert says the secret to his success is “Always be looking.” When you need to find a deal on a house over the weekend it’s difficult. But if you’re always looking there’s a good chance you’ll find a good investment.

You need to cultivate looking for ideas. It may come in an article you read, a person you meet, or seemingly out of nowhere. Think of it like filling a blender with things that interest you. You mix it all together and out of the overflow comes your original ideas.

It is all about discovery.  Recently I heard on the radio a fellow talk about what it’s like to re-enter the world after being in prison for years. He said when you first get out you’re in sensory overload. Colors are more vibrant; you hear sounds more clearly. He said when he first got out he wanted to run to people and say, “Do you see those colors?” His senses were alive.

Keeping your senses alive to the world around you heightens your experiences and makes you feel alive.  And when our senses are alive we are more likely to be creative (idea-prone) because we are making new connections.

“ An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.” James Webb Young

Or A + B = C

“An idea is a feat of association.” Poet Robert Frost

A + B = C

Arthur Koestler: wrote a whole book on the creative process and says this: “The Creative act…uncovers, selects, reshuffles, combines, synthesizes already existing facts, ideas, faculties, skills.”

 

Stephen King writes, “Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”

The more you have in your brain to select and reshuffle, the more creative you will be. My favorite quote in regards to this comes from a creative giant of our day Apple & Pixar’s Steven Jobs:

“Expose yourself to the best things humans have done and then try to bring those things into what you are doing.”

Paul Schrader who wrote Taxidriver once thought he could write a screenplay with Bob Dylan but realized he couldn’t because while most people think in terms of one, two, three, A, B, C and Dylan thinks in terms of One, blue, banana. ( So in Dylan’s case it may be 1 + Blue + Banana = The Times They Are a-Changin’.)

Just a different way of connecting the dots. Like that fellow in A Beautiful Mind with his string connecting letters in newspapers. Although that’s a result where the mind goes into the realm of bizarre in making connections that aren’t healthy.

But I love the scene in Jerry Maguire after Jerry has been fired and he stands before the entire office and asked who is coming with him on his new venture. No one moves. His secretary says she’s close to another pay raise. Total embarrassment for the Tom Cruise character. He’s humiliated so what does he do? He turns to the fish tank and says “The fish are coming with me.”

And the fish becomes a motif throughout the film.

Chances are if you asked the screenwriter Cameron Crowe how he came up with that scene he wouldn’t know. But he captured the magic.

Pieces of April was written by Peter Hedges (who grew up in Des Moines, Iowa by the way) and is a story about a wayward young girl who wants to make amends with her family as her mother is dying of cancer and she wants to cook dinner for everyone at her small New York City apartment.

As her family drives in from the suburbs her oven breaks and her single goal in life is to find a way to get the turkey cooked so it doesn’t turn into another family disaster. It’s a wonderful film. Hedges said he heard a similar true story years ago and connected it with his mother dying of cancer.

So when you hear a story or have a thought that strikes your fancy write it down. Your own background and twist on life will give it originality. Juno was not the first unplanned pregnancy movie in history or even of 2007. But Diablo Cody’s slant gave it originality and that originality was what earned her an Academy Award. (Though I must add that just because your ideas is original don’t expect it to always be that well received.)

Cody has said in interviews that she doesn’t know where the idea for Juno came from. You can control the influences you put in your life, trying to force results is moving beyond the veil of mystery.

If Grant Wood really did get his best ideas while milking cows it could have been the regular, mundane, repetitive work that was the key.

Julia Cameron writes about this in The Artist’s Way. She quotes Einstein as having asked, “Why do I get my best ideas in the shower?” She said Steven Spielberg claims some of his best ideas come while driving on freeways. Many writers, (like Hemingway) have been regular swimmers and others (Stephen King) have been walkers. All activities that seem to stimulate creative ideas.

Musician Jack Johnson hits the waves as he told Rolling Stone magazine (March 8, 2008), “You’ve got to fill up your mind. When I get home from a tour, I put away the guitar and surf a lot. After a while, the songs just start comin’.”

One person who often tops many people’s “most creative” list is comedian Robin Williams who is an avid bicyclist. That is an artist brain activity that fills the brain with images. One of the things that makes Williams fun to watch as he does improv is the rapid-fire way his brain makes connections. (He is not only unusually gifted, but many people forget that he was trained at Julliard.)

An excellent book on ideas is How To Get Ideas by former advertising art director Jack Foster. And the documentary Comedian with Jerry Seinfeld shows the hard work of making funny connections as we watch him develop fresh comedy material.

Your creativity comes out of the overflow of the people, places, and things you pour into your life. So be curious and connected. Fill your blender with influences and the next time you need a creative surge remember the simple formula A+B=C.

If that doesn’t work try milking a cow.

Photo & Text Copyright @2008 Scott W. Smith

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schoolhouse.jpg

“I wrote screenplays as a way to get into production. I wrote six or seven before I sold one.”
Lawrence Kasden
screenwriter, Raiders of the Lost Ark

There is an age-old question; Can writing be taught?

Don’t be silly, of course it can.

When it comes to most things in life we expect that we must be taught how to do them properly. We are taught how to ride a bike, swim, our A-B-C’s, to a drive a car, how to be a doctor or a mechanic. Talent and drive will play a part in how well we do something, but Tiger Woods’ dad taught him how to hit a golf ball and Archie Manning taught his boys (Peyton & Eli, Super Bowl MVPs) how to throw a football.

For some reason when it comes to the arts many yield to the old saying that that is a talent we are simply born with. I took the photo of the little red school house yesterday just for this blog. (I took the barn photo at the top as well while driving to a short film I was working on this summer.) I was taught in high school and college about lighting, composition, exposures, etc. I took bad pictures and teachers told me what I did wrong. I read books and studied great photographers. I learned how to be a photographer. (It probably didn’t hurt that my mom was an art teacher.) While I don’t claim to be the next Ansel Adams, that skill has paid a few bills.

Here’s what the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop states on their website:

“Though we agree in part with the popular insistence that writing cannot be taught, we exist and proceed on the assumption that talent can be developed. If one can ‘learn’ to play the violin or to paint, one can ‘learn’ to write, though no processes of externally induced training can ensure that one will do it well.”

Okay, so maybe they had a lawyer look over that document so it essentially says writing can’t be taught but it is something you can learn. Fine. I’m in their camp on this matter. If they don’t want to use the T word that’s their prerogative. With their track record they can call whatever goes on there whatever they want. (But I do think we’re dealing with a degree of semantics between educating, training, honing skills, inspiring, developing, encouraging and teaching.)

Often when people talk about being self-taught they mean they weren’t taught in the formal sense of going to school and taking classes. But make no mistake, they were taught. One can learn in a variety of ways outside a classroom, but having a mentor is the best way to learn a trade. That is the way the Renaissance painters learned. It was a tradition passed down for generations in various trades be it a shoe smith, a glass blower, or a carpenter. In the United States that model has been eclipsed a good deal by academia.

How would someone go about teaching themselves how to write if they lived, say, in the middle-of-nowhere? Here’s what screenwriter Joe Eszterhas wrote, “Inhale a writer you admire. Knowing nothing about writing a play, Paddy Chayefsky (Network) taught himself playwriting by sitting down at the typewriter and copying Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour word for word. He said, ‘I studied every line of it and kept asking myself, Why did she write this particular line.'” That’s a passion for learning.

Now probably the majority of writers these days do come from a college educated background. But it’s not a requirement. Neil Simon said the closest he got to college was walking by NYU. At one time Simon had three plays running on Broadway and has had a string of hit films. Where did he learn how to write? He credits his older brother Danny.

Academy Award winning writer of Pulp Fiction Quentin Tarantino said, “When people ask me if I went to film school I tell them, no, I went to films.” That was his education. He also studied acting and a filmmaking workshop or two.

Some writers come from law school (John Grisham) and some from medical school (Michael Crichton. Who, by the way, wrote Twister shot here in Iowa–can’t pass those opportunities.) Writers come from everywhere.

And writers keep writing. One thing I will keep shouting on this blog is that screenwriters that get produced are relentless. I just read an interview with Geoff Rodkey, who said after his screenplay Daddy Day Care was released, “I’ve written something like eighteen screenplays, and this is the only one that’s ever been made.” Sure the reviews were less than glowing, but my hat goes off to anyone who can pull in $100 million in the box office.

And what do writers do before that breakthrough? They keep writing.

“I felt the years go by without accomplishment. Occasionally I wrote a short story that no one bought. I called myself a writer though I had no true subject matter. Yet from time to time I sat at a table and wrote, although it took years for my work to impress me.”
Bernard Malamud (The Natural and Pulitzer Prize winner The Fixer)

“Learning to write is not a linear process. There is no logical A-B-C way to become a good writer,” says Natalie Goldberg.

There may not be a logical way to being a good writer, but having a good mentor or teacher is probably the most common factor found in successful writers. You’re fortunate if you can find one in your life. This is not to be confused with a screenwriting guru who passes though town over the weekend. They can be helpful as I’ve pointed out before, but are best seen as a quick motivational jolt.  A mentor or teacher guides you through the ups and downs of your learning process. They invest in you as a writer and as a person. They nurture your writing.

Lew Hunter who helped found the masters in screenwriting program at UCLA used to open his home in Burbank to writers. Since retiring he now runs Lew Hunter’s Superior Summer Screenwriting Colony in Nebraska. He used to teach fellow Nebraskan Alexander Payne (Sideways).

“I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”
John Steinbeck

Though none of my feature screenplays have been produced I have had the opportunity to hear actors say words I have written for short films, radio dramas, one-act plays and video productions. I’ve had over a 100 newspaper and magazine articles published. And I have carved out a 20-year career working in media production. And it all began with one teacher at Lake Howell High School who took an interest in developing in me a skill in writing that I didn’t really know I had. (Honestly, I signed up for her creative writing class because it looked like an easy elective.)

“A teacher who can arouse a feeling for one single good action, for one single good poem, accomplishes more than he who fills our memory with rows and rows of natural objects, classified with name and form.”
Goethe

So this Monday Night when ABC airs a new version of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” (starring Sean Combs) I will be watching and thinking of Dr. Annye Refoe who showed the Sidney Poitier film version to our creative writing class. For it was there I began to see and appreciate powerful writing.

Somewhere in Hansberry’s education growing up in Chicago and later at the University of Wisconsin-Madison she learned how to write. And she took some negative experiences that had happened in her life and turned them into something that we’re still watching today. If you’re a writer, I hope your work finds that kind of light. And if you’re a teacher, may you help your students write one single good poem, or perhaps a single good screenplay.

Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith

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