Writing may be one of the only fields in which everyone believes they can take a good crack at it. After all, as the saying goes, everyone has at least one good novel in them – and maybe one good screenplay too.
You wouldn’t expect somebody from another profession to believe they could, without training, code a website, or build a house, or balance the books, or … you get the idea. Yet, most people believe they can write a good story.
And that’s understandable. Writing is one of the core skills; the majority of us have it on some level, and many of us too have instinctive storytelling abilities. That’s why I’ll always have friends or family coming up to me at parties or gatherings and telling me this great idea for a story they have, and that they’re thinking about writing a novel or screenplay.
“Well, write it down,” I tell them. “Get it down on paper, and see where you stand.”
“Ah I’m not good at that part.” They’ll usually reply.
“Which part? The writing?”
In all seriousness, I do believe that some of the ideas pitched to me have been pretty solid – and I’m always constantly surprised by my brother’s own storytelling advice, this coming from a guy who couldn’t have picked a field further apart from mine. If I feel that I have a natural ability for understanding story, then I believe he possesses it too on some level. But what separates us is that I dedicated my time to pursuing writing. That’s it, really. He went one way, and I went the other.
However, he’ll admit that he doesn’t have the ability to get his thoughts down on paper. He cannot formulate them beyond daydreams. The thoughts of writing fill him with dread, and it’s the last thing that he wants to do with the time on this world he’s been given. Me, on the other hand, writing is all I want to do with my time. And I’d like to think I’ve become pretty good at it through sheer practise.
Some writers do take offence when somebody who has never written so much as a scrap says that they could write too, if only they could find the time of course.
“Hey that thing you do. I could do it too, and I might do it. Just need to find the time.” – For some reason it sounds less of an insult when it’s directed at a writer.
But I also truly believe that everyone thinks they’re a writer until they’re staring at a blank page. That empty sheet of paper, crisp or pixelated, is like staring into an abyss, and there are few who dare journey inside. As writers, we’ll go there. It’s a dangerous place, and there’s a range of emotions waiting. Just thinking about it right now is making me feel a little ill, but giddy at the same time. Like when you bang out a great Act One, and suddenly find yourself stranded at sea. How do you recover? Well, we find a way. That’s why we do what we do.
The problem solving. The translation of thoughts into written form. The mapping, formulating, and designs of our stories. The action! Yes, these are what separate writers from those who are waiting … and waiting … to begin. The action being the key component. Writer’s write.
I graduated in writing, that counts right?
While I feel that a small amount of storytelling ability is ‘gifted’ to you, the rest comes to you through sheer dedication. For instance, one could attain their Masters or PHD in writing, yet the guy down the street, who left school at 13, and has struggled from low-end job to job, can all of a sudden land that coveted publishing contract, or strike gold with a winning screenplay. He may be untrained academically, but he has trained himself harder through discipline, dedication, and by directing that natural ability.
Education is important, and I’m not trying to downplay its value – I attained my Masters in Screenwriting many, many years ago, but why would a title place me higher than any other writer? Sure I learnt some wonderful tips during my course, and through a rigid structure I was able to finish my first feature screenplay, but if I had taught myself, and encouraged my own natural ability, I don’t believe I would be any worse off.
I think the title – be it Degree or Masters, or whatever – lends a sort of complacency. One goes into these types of courses believing that if they graduate they will be in demand. Studios will certainly pay attention because of the qualification, right? But the reality is that you have to work just as hard to break into the industry as if you had no qualification at all. That can be a tough blow to recover from for some. And I know that many of my classmates, all those years ago, ended up moving away from the industry and following different fields. There could be a myriad of reasons for defection, but I believe that the road was harder than they had imagined.
I recall our professors asking us what our end goal was upon graduating. Students were encouraged to believe that their screenplay would be optioned, sold, and then transformed into the next great hit. I was rather more realistic – you may say pessimistic perhaps – and simply said that my goal was to finish my first feature screenplay, to get that solid foundation behind me. After all, a life is long for learning, and I knew that the road ahead was long. My answer was met with disdain, and I was encouraged to re-evaluate my own goal.
In those immediate years following graduation I was treated to group messages from former classmates, who talked endlessly about the screenplays that they were planning on writing, of the films that they were watching and drawing inspiration from, of the workshops that they were planning on attending across the country. And yet, never any messages came in regarding the actual writing. You know, that thing that writers are supposed to do?
So you see I’m not surprised that so many moved on to different fields, especially with this industry being as ruthless and tough as it is. And when I say all this, I’m not being pejorative about academics, I’m merely trying to stress that a writer writes, and a good writer can be found in any walk of life. And they may not yet have the talent required, but they are writing, and for as long as they are writing they are learning.
So, truly, the educational qualifications mean little to me. Just as much as the voices who come to me telling me that they have this one great idea. Really you’re just wasting both of our time. Because they do not realise that it’s the difference between the writer and the planner, the reason why all writers are writing, why all writers who are to become writers will write, and why my friends and extended family have been planning screenplays for over a decade.
I’ll leave it at this: If you are planning on writing a screenplay, just do me one favour: Next time you bring it up, don’t tell me what you’re going to do, just go ahead and do it.