Defending Josh Olson

When I
was in grad school at UCLA, one of my professors always said one of a writer’s
most important skills was the ability to see things—without judging—from
different characters’ perspectives, especially villains’ and bad guys’.  He used to give us an exercise, asking:
“How was Hitler right?”  (And
before I continue, let me say: I am NOT NOT NOT comparing anyone to
Hitler.  That’s obviously
ridiculous and grotesque… and the best way to invalidate an argument.  It’s simply an exercise a professor
used to illustrate a point.)  As a
result, whenever I’m writing a story… or in an argument in real life… I always
try to see things from the opposite perspective.  I try to put myself in the other person’s skin and look
through their eyes.  What are they
thinking? What do they want to accomplish?  How do they see me? 
How are they right?  Where
am I wrong?

I have
spent the last weekend thinking about this bizarre battle of words with Josh
.  I’ve talked to writers of
all levels: amateurs, professionals, writers in different mediums.  Some people agree with Josh; some
people don’t.  Others agree with
me; others don’t.  Some think Josh was right on the money; others think he was too extreme and unnecessary.  I have reread
Josh’s original post, as well as all the responses on The Village Voice, across
the web, and in my personal inbox.

But the
comment that helped me the most came from a conversation with a friend, a
professional TV writer, who said…

first time I read Josh’s post, I thought he was an arrogant prick.  The second time I read Josh’s post, I
thought he was an arrogant prick. 
The third time I read Josh’s post, I thought, ‘He’s not being a prick,
he’s begging for mercy.  He wanted
to do the ‘right’ thing, help this acquaintance, and he got shafted.  He wants us to understand why he can’t
do this anymore.  And yeah—it’s
painfully frustrating.  He would
LIKE to help this guy… and others like him… but every time he does he gets

Now, keep
in mind—in my original post, I agreed with almost everything Josh said.  I said, “It’s unprofessional, and a
massive imposition, to ask strangers or acquaintances to read your work.”
  I said, “Part of your job as a
professional writer… is to be able to gauge relationships and know when to ask
favors.  If you can’t do this, you’re not ready to work professionally.”
  I even agreed with Josh’s anger toward
the “inappropriate screenwriter.”

issue was: I have no problem encouraging people to write for the sheer sake of
writing.  I have been soundly
smacked for this, by Josh, Kay Reindl, and a host of other people… but I stand
by it.  I wish more people—talented
or not—DID write… and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with encouraging

said that… when reading Josh’s piece through my friend’s lens, something
interesting happened…

I didn’t
see Josh as someone who wanted to discourage people from writing.  I saw him as someone who constantly
WANTED to be encouraging– or at least honest and supportive, even if that honesty and support came in the form of hard-to-hear criticism– but every time he tried, he got hurt.  He would give feedback, advice,
suggestions… and in return, he got insulted, screwed, rebuffed.  Reading his “friend’s” treatment was
the last straw.  He just couldn’t
be encouraging anymore.

And as I
thought about this more, here’s what struck me:

Josh’s article has
dredged up scorn and resentment on both sides... 

Some people are resentful that Josh has “forgotten where he came
from.”  Others, those who champion
Josh, feel emboldened to wield scorn or resentment toward aspiring,
unprofessional writers.

both wrong.

I don’t
think Josh is trying to convey scorn or resentment at all.  I think he’s trying to convey the agony
and frustration of a man who feels tortured.  A man who wants to do the right thing, help, support, and even– when appropriate– encourage other writers, and can’t.  Because
whenever he does this favor, he winds up feeling abused, insulted, taken
advantage of.  This experience with his “acquaintance” is just the latest incident.  He’s begging us to
understand his position and let him off the hook.  “Please don’t ask me to read your script.  It’s unprofessional, it damages us both,
and I can’t do it anymore.”

He’s angry… but he’s also HURT.

People on BOTH sides have
misread him.  Again, some have
viewed Josh’s piece as a personal, scornful attack… and others have taken his
piece as a permission to BE scornful. 

Kay Reindl on her blog: “…You suck as a writer. How do I know this?
Because I’ve read your fucking script. I read it when you submitted it to an
agent or a TeeVee show or, God help me, a screenwriting competition.”
   HankG in the Voice‘s comments: “Here’s a strategy all for
you bitter little screenwriter wannabes… if you’re interesting and generous and
not too annoying, maybe, just maybe, that professional [screenwriter] will
OFFER to read your shitty, pathetic script.”
  Michael Zavis: “Enjoy crawling over each other in the
Valley of Obscurity, losers.”

NONE of these seem to echo Josh’s initial attitude, when he agrees to read his acquaintance’s script, give some feedback, and offer suggestions.  He doesn’t necessarily want to do it, but since he agrees, he wants to do a fair and honest job.  In fact, it’s a big leap from Josh’s Do you have any idea how hard it is to tell someone that they’ve spent
a year wasting their time?… You want
to make absolutely certain that it comes across honestly and WITHOUT CRUELTY”
to “You suck as a writer”… “your shitty, pathetic script”… “the Valley of Obscurity, loser.”

In other words, people on both sides have picked up on the same element– a tone which, whether you call it “arrogance” or not, is certainly in the piece.  And whereas some have taken it as a personal affront, others have taken it as the RIGHT to arrogance.

So whose
fault is it, if fault is to be given, for misunderstanding? 
Is it readers’ fault, including mine, for not reading Josh’s piece closely or thoughtfully
enough?  Maybe.  Josh’s piece was clearly meant to be
provocative, to elicit a strong response… but maybe people ran with their
instant reactions of hurt, indignation, or righteous superiority and didn’t bother to read further.

Is it
Josh’s fault?  If the piece didn’t
accurately convey what he was feeling/thinking, then it certainly didn’t
fulfill its intent.  And I’m not saying the piece DIDN’T fulfill its intent; I’m just saying that Josh has taken
a lot of heat and continues to defend himself, and—at some point—you can’t just
claim, “People are missing my point.” 

(And if Josh’s detractors are missing the point, so are the
supporters who use his piece as license to mock and disparage other people.)

So where
does this leave us?… 

I will admit:
I have a new understanding and appreciation of Josh’s post, even if I don’t necessarily agree with how Josh said all of what he said… and I think his tone sometimes muddies his message.  (Josh claims he’s only on the “receiving end” of arrogance, but it’s certainly been easy for readers, both Josh’s detractors and supporters, to find arrogance in that piece.  It may not be intentional, but even his “friends” seem to find it.)

I also
stand by what I’ve said this past week. 
More people SHOULD be writing… and should be encouraged to write… and
many– perhaps sadly, even mistakenly– took Josh’s piece, or parts of the piece, as a
massive, personal “fuck you” to all aspiring writers… or as permission to echo a “fuck you” to aspiring writers. 

I don’t think this was
Josh’s intent, although I certainly think this was the intent of some of those
who responded in support of Josh.

And if
Josh is going to take issue with people who misread his piece in one way, I
hope he takes issue with those who misread it in another.  Using his words as a license to spit
on, insult, and mock aspirants is as much a bastardization of his thoughts and intent as
anything else.

ultimately, I think Josh’s piece… or parts of Josh’s piece… were misread
because they were so easily capable of being misread.  I don’t know if that’s a writer’s fault or a reader’s fault,
and it’s probably a bit of both.

(And two
final thoughts:

1:  Attacking Josh for a best ADAPTED
screenplay nomination (or for doing Peter Jackson‘s Halo adaptation) is ludicrous.  Adapting someone else’s work– whether a graphic novel, a short story, or a video game– is just as difficult—and sometimes MORE
difficult—than writing something original.

2:  Josh—attacking me, however subtly, as a
teacher is also ludicrous.  We can
disagree and debate the points and topics in these writings, which your piece
launched in a very public forum… we can even disagree on the merits of McKee or
screenwriting classes in general… but having never taken one of my classes,
it’s not fair or relevant of you to suddenly comment on my qualifications as a
teacher.  I may be the best teacher
you’ve ever seen… or the worst… but you certainly don’t know.)

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3 thoughts on “Defending Josh Olson

  1. cc

    personally, i don’t have a problem with josh or kay or anyone not wanting to read someone’s script. my problem is with the judgments and insults being visited upon aspiring writers. even if handing someone your script is considered by most an egregious breech of etiquette, i hardly think doing so makes you a swampcrawler.

    and regardless of what josh olson believes, you cannot tell someone they should not be a writer based on one sentence or even one page. olson’s conclusions are so exaggerated in their scope as to be valueless.

    the real offense seems to be in the mere belief by some that they too can one day be where josh and kay are today. Thinking that you can write, thinking that you’re any good in the face of absolute declarations by the likes of the olsons and reindls of the world that "your writing sucks."

  2. Steve

    If your analysis is correct, who is the audience for the original article? Certainly not the inconsiderate amateur writers he nominally addresses as "you." Why would he need all the subtext in that case? And wouldn’t most professional writers already feel the same way Olson does? So we’re left with amateur writers who feel they’re too cool to send their scripts to Olson. Which is a pretty paltry reason to write such a diatribe, whether it’s subtle or bombastic.

  3. Dan Calvisi

    Hi Chad, nice post. Fyi I just posted a long response in the comments on your original post on Friday 9/18. Sorry for the length, but I think it has some good points, IMHO. I hope to be in touch, so I’ll hit you up on Ye Olde Facebook.