Belinda Downey moved from sunny Australia to cynical New York and studied screenwriting under the mentorship of Jerome Perzigian. Belinda’s writing circumnavigates drama and comedy. Currently she works in a women-owned Advertising agency in Manhattan, copywriting and art directing. Twitter: @beldowney1
Writing is both a magical and lonely existence. Your daily writing practice determines your self-worth. On a good day ideas flow like water and you feel optimistically confident about your writing skills, or at the very target least, like you’ve played with the truth serum for a few pages. Afterwards, you feel happy like Napoleon Dynamite, dancing to Jamiroquai – connected to something wonderful – no words required.
A bad day of writing connects you with something darker. You write from despair, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, typing the same thing over and over, [all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy]. On these days, The Voice in your head, an uninvited guest, poisons your thoughts with anxious negativity, yelling, “You’re a hack. No one cares about your script”. For Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation, the causation of self-doubt meant that he wrote himself (rather hilariously) into his script.
Writing from darkness sometimes has its place, but The Voice is powerful and polarizing. Your subconscious can cause great harm to you if not controlled. It must be disarmed, killed (at least for a moment) or silenced. The only way I have found so far, is to replace The Voice with a more thoughtful voice. A Voice of Reason.
For me, that reason doesn’t come from within. I have to find it elsewhere, in a writing partner. I will explore the pros and cons of co-writing, through my experience for the past year and a half. My partner happens to be male, which is an interesting experiment within itself.
In March 2012, I was struggling to silence The Voice. I was blocked and writing from a frustrated place on the hamster wheel, losing faith that my writing was going anywhere. I was putting pressure on my creativity, which according to Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic, makes your creativity run away.
A friend, Shab, suggested that Maddox and I, another existentially confused friend, attend a seminar run by well-known New York psychic, Maria Papapetros. She promised to teach us to tap into our inner intuition. I went to class armed with one simple, life-affirming question to ask, “Will I sell my TV show?”
To my surprise, Maria said, “Yes. You will sell your show to HBO (or Bravo).” Keep in mind she was rhyming, so I hope it’s the former. She expanded, “You will have two hero protagonists. And you will have a writing partner by the name of Jeremy.” What? I wasn’t expecting such specificity.
Sometimes, in my most blocked moments, I fantasized about having a writing partner. I’d imagine being part of a great writing team à la Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, or Tina Fey and Jack Burditt, or Tina Fey and anyone, Katie Dippold and Paul Feig, or The Duplass Brothers.
In October of 2015, I found the Jeremy at the Austin Film Festival. I told him about Maria and he thought it was just kooky enough that he’d try it out. We came up with an idea for a show in one weird Halloween evening. First weird: we came up with the show idea quickly. Second weird: Jeremy was dressed as The Karate Kid, well the Halloween shower curtain costume in The Karate Kid.
Has having a writing partner lived up to my expectations? How has it changed my relationship with The Voice? It is better/worse that he’s a guy? Would I be better off working with a woman? You’ll have to read on to find out.
Pro 1: A writing partner replaces The Voice with an actual person’s voice.
As I mentioned earlier, struggling with self-doubt is a natural part of being a writer, but when it gets to the point where you’re stuck in your own head, and getting nowhere, it’s time to call for backup. Having someone as creative support helps. Someone who understands what it’s like to be a writer. Their trusted voice drowns out your insidious subconscious voice. Their moral support crushes your insecurities.
Con 1:You can’t take all the credit.
Part of the reward of being a solo writer is that you get to say, “That line, that sentence, that script was all me.” Your ego has to assess if you can make the tradeoff. Some of us can’t. If your ego prefers reward over collaboration, you are probably more suited to feature writing over TV writing, where ideas are bounced around the writers room.
Pro 2:Deadlines get you to work.
When I work alone, I push deadlines back compulsively because I have no accountability. Months go by, and I’ll be faffing on the same thing, enjoying the process but getting nowhere.
It's what Steven Pressfield calls The Resistance in The War of Art. You can’t indulge The Resistance when you promised your partner a draft. Admitting to someone else that you let them down is tough. A deadline is an active way to move forward.
Con 2:He’s not a woman.
I enjoy working with a male and getting “a man’s” perspective. At the same time, I find myself wondering what it would be like writing with a woman. Most of my best friends and best writer friends are women, so naturally I let myself assume the writing relationship would be great. Women are great communicators and detail-oriented. This would be good for me. Also our shared experiences of the world bond us together in a way that’s unique to women. Perhaps this is something I need to explore in the future.
Pro 3:He’s not a woman.
Being a woman, I (mostly) understand women. Being a man, Jeremy understands the choices men make. This combined knowledge of both sexes means our characters are more authentic, relatable and believable on the page. When I write men on my own, I’m not ashamed to admit they are clichéd, selfish and arrogant. Men are that. But they are much more. If I’ve had a fight with my husband, I take it out on my male characters. On the other side, our women are interesting, flawed and full of contradictions, the best kind.
Taking on a writing partner isn’t easy. You have to show up and be prepared to rationale your creative choices. You can’t slack off. Procrastination is a solo indulgence. You have accountability, someone to brainstorm with, and someone analytically like-minded that you can talk through this crazy world with, and eventually put those feelings into your work.
Regardless of who you decide to write with, it’s about trust. Trust in their writing ability. Trust they’ll show up. Trust they respect your writing. A shared trust that you both aspire for greatness. To soldier on you have to see the same potential in them as they see in you. If you find the right person that gives you all this and more, you’re on the right track. Their gender only matters if their gender gets in the way of elevating your writing, and if the trust isn’t there. The goal is always, one day soon, to see your name next to theirs as the credits roll on your new HBO TV show. Trust in that, keeps me writing.
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