Take Off Your Writer’s Hat
Skill number two is: take off your writer's hat. So here's the thing about writing. This is how people think that writing works. They thing that you, it's this upward progression, forever writing words and making them great and going forward in time, and it's just not true. That is not the way that writing works. That's the way that reading works. So reading is an incredibly linear activity. You start at the beginning of a book, you open the page, you turn the page, you move through the work. It doesn't matter how fractured the chronology is in the book that you're reading, it is a linear experience and the writer has crafted that linear experience for you. But that's not the way the writing works. It is not linear. And that's a big confusion that writer's have. I love to use examples, there's a beautiful memoir by a guy named Darin Strauss called Half a Life. And Half a Life is a memoir, is a terribly tragic story of a guy who's 36 years old and he is remembering when he is 18, which ...
was half his life ago. He accidentally killed a girl in his high school senior class. She was on a bike, he was in a car, it was a tragic accident, and he is remembering half a life later what that accident was, what it meant to it, how it's impacted his life, it's incredibly moving and powerful. And the narrative is very fractured, it's very chopped up, but sometimes the chapters are two sentences long, sometimes they're, he loops back around again and again to the funeral, to the accident, to the funeral, to 10 years later, to 20, it's a very fractured, but the reading of it is linear. The reader goes through it page by page by page by page. The writer chose to present in a fractured way on purpose and his purpose was because he wanted us to feel that unsettledness, that lack of resolution, his, you know, form follows function, he made that choice for his writing and it's very powerful. So the idea that your writing process is not linear even if the result is linear. So what this means for writers is that writing is a thing that we have to practice, and practice means throwing out pages. If you take nothing away from today, that's what I want you to take away. Sometimes when I teach writing I literally put a shredder in the middle of the classroom. And young kids especially love this, like middle school and stuff, it's like write something and come and shred it. Nobody's gonna read it, nobody's, I don't care about that, what I care is that authentic what you really think, what you really know, what you really wanna say, that's what we're trying to get. And if you think about any other art form, a really great thing to think about here are musicians. Musicians practice all day long making music nobody's ever gonna hear. They have to do that, if they don't do that, we don't wanna hear them, right? So that idea of practicing something no one's ever gonna hear, it's not tangible, it's not functional, it's just, you know, you're doing your scales, you're practicing, you're slowing it down, that musical idea. Writers need to do this, too, and they need to get in the practice of throwing words out. There's nothing worse to me than a writer who's holding on tightly to what they've written. Because it's like their words are so precious. Your words are not precious. And that, getting out of that mindset, like, there are more words. (audience laughter) You can write them. Just because you wrote them, doesn't mean that they're good or you have to hold on to them or they have to be in the book, or they have to be the thing. So if somebody comes to you and says, these 300 pages are great but really I think you should throw them out and start again. Okay, listen to why. Why are they saying that, what are they seeing, what is not working in here? The most heart-broken writers are the ones who hold on so tightly to their work that they won't change it, they won't listen, and they hammer away at this thing again and again and again, and they fuss around the edges, but they won't let go of it, it's the worst, it's the worst problem. So I like to say that writing really looks like this: It's iterative process, it is not a linear process. It goes around and around and around and you go back and you circle around, and you learn something and then you go back and then you apply it, and you're practicing all the time until you get, until you get it right. This is what taking off the writer's hat is about. It means, okay, I'm not gonna hold on so tightly to my words, I'm not gonna consider them so precious. I'm gonna let myself be a practicer, not just a writer. Not just, but I put the words on the page and therefore they must be good and I must hold on to them. Take that writer's hat off, take your perspective, look at it, get the feedback, and if you need to throw something out, throw it out. That's what writers who succeed do. I like to say that words a renewable resource. And the little download for this class is just a little graphic I made to remind you of that. You can pin it up on your bulletin board. There are always new words, you can come up with new words and other word and yes, it's a terrible thing to realize that something you spent a long time on isn't gonna work, or isn't doing what you want it to do. But it's, you know, it's like an opportunity cost. Well, okay, you wait, you know, I guess you could say you wasted that time, I don't it's ever a waste of time, it's the process, it's your process, and it's that circular going around process. And if you can get that into your head, you're going to be a better writer, your writing is going to be better. Are there any questions about that linear, not linear, yes?
So in the past, this was a long time ago, I was writing a play with people that were very close to me, and we were doing an original play and my girlfriend who I lived with was my editor, which you just said that's a red flag, right, so but my question is, if you disagree with the person who's editing your work, you feel like it has lost it's substance, and in this case it was good because actually the actor came to me and said, what does this mean, I don't know what it means.
And you're like
And I said, yeah. And so I changed it, and then she was like, thank you, now I know what it means. So but I guess maybe a little advice about grappling around that process, because I feel like as a writer that experience was a very traumatic experience for me because it's not that I completely disagreed with my editor, it's that it was too close of a relationship and I felt like she wasn't getting what I said, and do you know what I'm saying?
Totally know what you're saying. And it happens all the time and here's what I say to that. You have to know that you're the god of your own story. I always say that. You are the god of your own story. And you have a right to tell that story the way that you want, you don't have to have anybody else give you permission to tell that story. And you've gotta start there. If you're going to seek feedback, because, I'm mean, we all do this, right, all day long we do this. Is it any good, do you think anyone's gonna like it? Do you think it'll sell? I mean I hear that every single day, I get it. But you've gotta know this is what I wanna write, this is the argument I wanna make, I'm gonna put a stake in the ground, I'm gonna do whatever it takes, and this is my vision. That's your job and then the feedback that you're getting, your job is to discern: is this helping me bring my vision to life? So instead of going to the feedback, meaning like, is it good, are people gonna like it? Like I mean, I get that. Yeah, do that, and have somebody tell you we don't know. That's what I tell everybody. We don't know until you do it, we don't know. An idea means nothing, it's the execution that means something. So you've gotta have that vision, and then when you get the feedback, you measure it against what you were hoping to do. So you use it as, what I always say with feedback is, if you, if it hits a nerve in you, and you know, usually you know, you're like oh, I tried to get away with that and it didn't work. Like, you usually know, or I didn't like that scene, I didn't like that piece of dialogue, it didn't. I knew but I was hoping and that, that resonates, the feedback, somebody comes back and mentions that, the feedback resonates with you, you can pretty well assume, okay I gotta change that. But if somebody comes with some feedback and you're like, mmmmm, that's not speaking to me, I don't get that, what you wanna do is enter into that discussion, like, tell me why you're saying that. What do you see in that, why are you telling me that I have to throw out this scene or this line or these 300 pages or whatever? Like, have a dialogue about the meaning and the content. What we do, the reason I say don't go to the people you live with or that you love, is that because you immediately get into the emotion and the thing, like, you don't love me because you don't love my thing. Or you know, you're jealous of me, or like you immediately flip into the emotion rather than sticking with the story. Like if you could've taken the emotion out of that relationship you would've been able to say, tell me why you're fighting me on this. Tell my why you won't let me put this down, like, you would've had, you know, a substantive conversation around that. Which is why hiring a professional is often so useful, cause the professional there's no emotion. And the, you can, so this happens to me, you know, constantly, I'll say, this is what I see, this is what I think, this is what I believe. And if the writer comes back and they say, well no, because this is what I was trying to do. And this is what I wanted, and this is why I made these decisions. Then I can say, okay, I get that, but it's not there. So how can we get it to be there? To match your vision. So it's, what I'm asking you, is actually sort of impossible, which is to put the emotion out of it and focus on the content of it. And be really careful who you bring into your writing sphere. You have to trust, um, there's a book that I, you should run out and get called Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull, who is the co-founder of Pixar. And it's a super interesting history of Pixar. But there's a section of the book, it's sort of in the middle, where Catmull talks about the brain trust at Pixar. And the brain trust is this small group of about 6 or producers who critique works in progress. And he takes you through Toy Story, that first Toy Story, and it's unbelievable because the first, before Toy Story was what we all Toy Story to be, it was like this whiny cowboy story. And you know, like, the process of discernment around that was, the writers didn't want to write a whiny cowboy story but that's what they started with. And so what the, he takes you through how professionals who don't have emotion pull out of the writer what their vision is, and help the writer see that, and help the writer know that. And what I always tell people because I'm not a fan of writing groups, I think writing groups do so much damage because people are just sorta sitting there going, well I like this, well I don't, well I think it should be not a thriller with the minister, or it should a mystery with the minister. You know, and it's like, what is that? What you want is that substantive conversation and if you can, uh, Catmull actually has rules you can follow for giving feedback. And if your writing group follows those rules you're gonna be in really good shape. And he calls it Giving Good Notes. And good notes have to do with why, what was your intention, how can you get it there, right, those kind of questions. So have your friend read them with you. That's what I would do.
Well this was a really old story, but I feel like, as a writer, because you know, it's like, as I'm sure everybody can feel this in the room, like it's, it is very precious when you first put it down. I don't feel the same way, I'm older now, so I've changed a lot, but I do feel like sometimes when you have a bad experience like that it causes you to have quite a block.
Oh, for sure.
Because it, yeah, so it can kinda, it can be damaging if you don't know how to work your way out of it. Do you know what I'm saying?
Absolutely. And it's just being intentional about that, about what you're trying to do, you know, you're the god of your story. Decide who to bring into your process. Be, I mean I hate to say this 'cause it sounds pejorative, but be a grown up about your writing. Right? I mean, I can say that to my own self, too. You know, it's, but I liked it. You know, you're just being a toddler and we all go there super fast, but like, be a grown up and know your intention, know what you wanna do. And I think you'll get there.