I found my voice as a writer when I was a graduate screenwriting student at UCLA. Although I had been writing for a number of years, it was at UCLA that I finally understood and accepted failure as a positive possibility. Good writing is ambitious. Which means that good writers must be willing to fail.
I had one professor that specifically pushed me forward. Not because of any answers he offered, but because of the questions he posed. This professor was a bit eccentric and his feedback was often in need of deciphering. But I always walked away with important questions to ask myself. After all, aren’t questions always more interesting than answers?
This guest post is by Johnny Shaw. Shaw was born and raised on the Calexico/ Mexicali border, the setting for his novels DOVE SEASON, BIG MARIA, PLASTER CITY and the recently released, FLOODGATE. He has won both the Spotted Owl Award and the Anthony Award. His shorter work has appeared in Plots With Guns, Thuglit, Shotgun Honey, Crime Factory, and numerous anthologies. Johnny also acts as the editor-in-chief and is a frequent contributor for the online fiction quarterly BLOOD & TACOS, a loving homage to the men’s adventure paperbacks of the 1970′s & 1980′s. Johnny received his MFA in Screenwriting from UCLA and over the course of his writing career has seen his screenplays optioned, sold and produced. Johnny lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife, artist Roxanne Patruznick (the painter of the author’s portrait above).
We were in class one day, a small graduate seminar. Someone read their most recent pages. The scene opened with a man walking down a dirt road. There’s a farm with a cow and some chickens next to the barn, the sun low in the sky. An old barbed wire fence and a rusted-out hulk of a tractor. A quiet, idyllic scene that took about two minutes, but nothing happened.
We listened attentively, nothing really wrong with the pages, well-written. The professor finally said, “You know, that’s a beautiful description. I could see the scene clearly. But, the way I figure it, you may as well have him (bleeped!) the cow.”
That was it. That was the extent of his feedback. And one of the best lessons I ever learned.
The other students laughed or found it insulting. It is my belief that he was trying to get that writer to surprise himself (and because you’re thinking it: no, I wasn’t that writer). To not play it safe. And to not dismiss some of the more marginal thoughts for a story.
Great writing cannot be created without risk. Originality is hard, because it is risky. By definition, if you are creating something new, you are in uncharted territory. When you are attempting to do something original, you are more likely to fail. However, the attempt itself is success. Because when it works, you’ve created something that is entirely yours, that wouldn’t exist unless you had created it. Anything less would be to aspire to mediocrity.
The professor that suggested the sage advice about the cow offered something that would have never occurred to the writer. Probably the wrong choice for his story, but it would make it pretty unique. That’s what we, as writers, have to do. Allow ourselves to go in directions that we’re not necessarily comfortable going in.
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Should You Watch What You Write?
Have any of you censored yourself? Not written something because you were afraid you would offend? Reveal too much? That it was only funny to you?
That’s self-censorship of the worst kind. When you write, you write for yourself as the only audience member. You write a movie you would pay to see, a book you would buy in hardcover, a play you would wait for in line in winter. “Bad” or “Good” is for other people to decide. The most important thing is that it is yours. That is your voice.
Do not write for other people, second-guessing what “they” will like. That’s a sure path to mediocrity. If you’re going to fail, fail spectacularly. Jump off the building, not the stoop.
I can write jokes all day that will make my mother laugh. I might not find a single one of them funny. That’s craft. That’s also dishonest. It’s fake. I’d rather write a joke that cracks me up that nobody else gets (and trust me, it happens more than I’d like to admit) than a joke that kills that I don’t find funny.
Don’t settle. The whole reason why we write is to see where our brain will take us. Get crazy. Go too far. Write about things that surprise you. Get out there and (bleep!) that cow.
Check Out These Great Upcoming Writers’ Conferences:
- Oct. 28–30, 2016: Writer’s Digest Novel Writing Conference (Los Angeles, CA)
- Feb. 11, 2017: Writers Conference of Minnesota (St. Paul, MN)
- Feb. 16–19, 2017: San Francisco Writers Conference (San Francisco, CA)
- Feb. 25, 2017: Atlanta Writing Workshop (Atlanta, GA)
- Feb. 26–March 3, 2017: Writers Winter Escape Cruise (conference/cruise departing Miami)
- April 22, 2017: The Kentucky Writing Workshop (Louisville)
- May 20, 2017: San Diego Get Published Conference (San Diego)
- July 8, 2017: Cleveland Writing Conference (Cleveland)
- Aug. 18-20, 2017: Writer’s Digest Conference (New York City)
- Sept. 16, 2017: Florida Writing Workshop (Tampa Bay)
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.