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MEET THE READER: "Great Writing Advice from Laura Linney and Steven Spielberg (Sort of)"

How do you press on when you’ve lost faith in your ideas and in your abilities? Ray Morton shares advice on how to press on and push past self-doubt.

A while back, the wonderful, award-nominated, and award-winning actress Laura Linney was a guest Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast.

During the interview, Linney talked about the process of rehearsing a play. In describing the process, Linney said that when rehearsals begin, everyone in the company is happy and enthusiastic and is convinced the production is going to be great. But then there comes a point – usually about three weeks into the six-week process – where that enthusiasm vanishes and everything feels terrible: the text – which was once deemed so wonderful that everyone wanted to work on the project – now seems lousy; the performers and creative team all feel they are doing a terrible job; and everyone is convinced the production is going to flop. Linney was describing all of this from the actor’s perspective, but listening to her I thought what she was saying was more than relevant to screenwriters as well.

[LEARN: From Idea to Story to Screenplay]

You come up with an idea for a movie that you think is great. Full of energy and enthusiasm you get to work – crafting your cards/beat sheet/outline/treatment, banging out your rough draft, and then revising, revising, revising. The process begins with the highest of hopes, but inevitably there comes a point where that hope starts to dim – where that idea you once thought so was great now doesn’t seem great at all (and perhaps even seems terrible); where the story doesn’t work and you can’t figure out how to get it to work no matter how hard you try; and where you feel like you have lost all of your talent and ability until you become convinced that you never actually had any to begin with.

I don’t think there’s any screenwriter out there – even those who have had long, successful careers -- who doesn’t reach this point at least once with every script. And many writers get stuck there – they get frustrated and give up, either by trashing the script and starting another or by giving up writing altogether. To these folks, I say listen to Laura Linney. Later in that same podcast, she talked about the importance of not letting this down moment stop her – how she just keeps rehearsing until everything finally comes together. And this is what I encourage all writers to do – when you hit that discouraging patch, press on. If you keep writing and rewriting, eventually the script will come together.

The question, of course, is how do you press on when you’ve lost faith in your ideas and in your abilities?

[Meet the Reader: “But it seemed like such a good idea…”]

To address the latter, I can offer some basic therapy techniques. The first is to remember that thoughts are not facts – just because you think you don’t know what you’re doing or that you’ve lost your talent or that you’ve never had any to begin with doesn’t mean it’s true. If such thoughts occur to you, jot them down on a piece of paper or in a notebook or a journal to get them out of your head. And then put them aside and then make a realistic assessment of yourself. Have you been able to tell a good idea from a bad one in the past? Have you produced competent work before? Has your previous work gotten a good response? If the answers to any of these questions are yes, then there’s no reason to think anything has suddenly changed now. To confirm your assessment, give your work to a trusted confidante you know will tell you the truth – if they tell you it’s good, then believe that it’s good. If the negative thoughts are still coming, recognize them for what they are – your anxiety hijacking your perfectionism and taking it for a self-destructive joy ride. Learn how to meditate so you can learn how not to attach to the negativity and then get back to work.

To address the former, I can offer a technique I use myself, one that was inspired by another great creative – Steven Spielberg. Spielberg has said that one of his most important jobs as a director is to remember each morning why he wanted to make the movie and what his initial vision for the movie was – things that can easily get lost in the grind and the minutia of the filmmaking process. Inspired by these notions, I make it a practice at the start of every writing process to write a note to myself explaining what I originally found so exciting about the idea that I wanted to turn it into a screenplay. I also write down my vision for the project – the tone I want it to have, what I feel the key moments and dramatic highlights of the piece are, what I think is entertaining about it, and what feeling I want the reader/audience to have when they finish reading the script/watching the movie. I keep this note on my desk and whenever I find myself becoming discouraged, I take it out and read it over and it reminds me why I wanted to write this script in the first place. Usually, that’s enough to get me over the hump or to keep me going until natural creative momentum gets me over it.

[MEET THE READER: Five Questions to Ask (and Answer) Before You Start Writing]

To build a successful career as a screenwriter, you need to have several vital attributes: talent, a proficient level of craft, and persistence. It is more than likely that you will need to write quite a few scripts before you sell one or land an assignment, which means you have to keep at it and you have to finish what you start. Self-doubt is the enemy of persistence. It is inevitable you will be struck by it at least once during the creation of every project, so you need to find a way to push past it and carry on. If you do, there’s a good chance you’ll end up with a script that Laura Linney might want to star in. And Steven Spielberg might want to direct. It’ll never happen? Maybe. But it might. Unless you give up on your script and yourself. And then it will certainly never happen.

Press on.

Copyright © 2021 by Ray Morton

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