Corey Mandell is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter who has written projects for Ridley Scott, Wolfgang Petersen, Harrison Ford, John Travolta, Julia Roberts, Warner Brothers, Universal, 20th Century Fox, Fox 2000, Fox Family, Working Title, Paramount, Live Planet, Beacon Films, Touchstone, Trilogy, Radiant and Walt Disney Pictures. Corey teaches screenwriting at UCLA and offers private online classes using real time video conferencing. You can follow Corey through Facebook, Twitter, and www.coreymandell.net.
One of the main differences that distinguishes amateurs from professional writers is that amateurs sometimes write. They write when they have the time or when they feel like it, or when they take a class and have an immediate deadline — whereas professionals write on a regular basis. Professionals set a writing schedule and stick to it no matter what. They understand that consistency is critical to success.
In a recent New York Times profile on Jerry Seinfeld, the comedian shared one of the reasons why constant practice is so important. When asked why he still insists on getting up on stage every week to work on his comedy, even though he’s clearly an expert with decades of experience, Seinfeld responded, “I read an article a few years ago that said when you practice a sport a lot, you literally become a broadband: the nerve pathway in your brain contains a lot more information. As soon as you stop practicing, the pathway begins shrinking back down. Reading that changed my life. I used to wonder, why am I doing these sets, getting on a stage? Don’t I know how to do this already? The answer is no. You must keep doing it. The broadband starts to narrow the moment you stop.”
Yet for many writers, sticking to a writing schedule is a difficult battle against doubt, anxiety and good old procrastination — a fight they far too often lose. So with that in mind, I’d like to share a powerful weapon you can use to help win this war.
Break the Damn Glass
There’s a story about a group of people asking a Zen master, “How can you be so happy in a world of such impermanence, where you cannot protect your loved ones from harm, illness, and death?” The master holds up the most beautiful handcrafted glass and replies, “Someone gave me this graceful delicate glass and one day the wind may blow it off the shelf, or my elbow may knock it from the table. I know this glass is already broken, so I am able to enjoy it incredibly.”
The trick is to break the glass before you sit down to write.
First, jot down all the things you’re afraid might happen when others read your script. Some will be perfectly rational fears. The studio that hired you to write it might hate what you’ve done and fire you. Or maybe it’s a spec, and your representation won’t find it strong enough to take to the market. Even worse, they might drop you as a client. Or people you respect will find the script lacking in ways you have no idea in hell how to fix.
There also might be a few irrational fears kicking around. Your spouse will detest the script so much that he or she will divorce you. Your agent, now realizing you are the world’s worst hack, will have no choice but to take out a front page ad in Variety warning everyone in the industry to avoid you. Financial ruin will follow. You will lose your house. You will live on the streets eating garbage to survive. The other wretched souls who are now your garbage-eating neighbors will mock you behind your back for thinking that your script was any good.
As you list out the irrational fears you’ll hopefully see that they are a bit on the silly side and stop worrying so much, which should help unclench you.
But what about the credible concerns?
Imagine the worst of them happening. Do whatever you can to experience these events as if they actually occurred. For instance, write out the scene where your manager calls to let you know your script didn’t get any traction and she’s dropping you as a client. Pretend this just happened. Feel what you would really feel.
Then ask yourself, what would this do to you, and what would you do about it?
Would you quit writing?
Would you be a total loser now forced to live a life devoid of all meaning and joy?
Most writers find this exercise liberating because the more we run from our fears and anxieties the more power we give them. But once we stop running and turn to face them down, they diminish.
Most people realize that if the worst were to happen with their script, they would still be okay. There would still be many wonderful and fulfilling things in their life no matter what happens with this, or any, damn script. They would realize how ridiculous it is to be putting so much emotional pressure on themselves over the outcome of a creative, and hence inherently risky, endeavor.
And what would you do if your current script did go on to fail in the marketplace? You would learn from the mistakes you made with the script and sit down to write a new, better one. Because that’s what writers do. We keep writing, constantly seeking to learn and grow.
Or, in the words of Sir Andrew Barton, “Hurt but not slain, lay down and bleed awhile, then rise and fight again.”