Friday, October 31, 2008

"Arrogance"

Yesterday, I talked about confidence, a writer’s fundamental need to believe in what they’re communicating, and in the method (the words, the tone, the style) they’ve chosen to communicate it. My advice in this area is unwavering. For your greatest chance at success…

Write like yourself.

I wrote like myself for over thirty years (I still do in this blog), and it worked out pretty well. When my agent warned me that the business was changing – comedies were getting dumber and sexier – he urged me to alter my approach. For my agent, and I didn’t disagree, this was a “Red Alert” situation. A new wind was a-blowin’. It was “Change or die.”

I can’t do “dumber and sexier.” My mind doesn’t work that way. I also knew there were natural “dumber and sexier” writers out there, whose minds work exactly that way. Even if I altered my approach, my efforts would be poor and painful imitations of those naturals. (As theirs would be if they ventured to write like me.)

I remember once seeing a comedy pilot, written by a TV writer I greatly admired. He was sliding in the business and saw this as his last chance at staying in the game. I watched the pilot with growing distaste. Here was an intelligent, insightful funny writer trying to be sexy, superficial and dumb. It was difficult to look at. A Bubby (Granny) in a miniskirt.

Write like yourself. It’s the only rule I’ve got.

Now…

This is subtle. Not the concept, my transition. You know the experiment where they drop a frog in a pot of water, and they raise the temperature so gradually that the frog can’t sense that the water’s heating up until, unaware of the danger, it finally boils to death? I’m talking about that kind of subtle.

You develop your style, a synthesization of instinct, training and experience. Your success gives you confidence in your style. You can rely it. It works. And other people agree.

Confidence is essential. Without it, you’d sit mute at the computer. “What do I do and how do I do it?”

You know what to do. You write like yourself. The awareness that “It worked before, it’ll work again” is soothing and reassuring. Your confidence gets you in the game.

It’s sort of like religion. You have a certainty in your beliefs. But sometimes, as with religion, you forget that other people have different beliefs.

If you recall yesterday’s posting, you’ll remember my telling a friend of mine, a writer of successful but superficial comedies:

“I don’t why anyone would write if they don’t have anything to say.”

That crashing sound is me, shattering the only rule I’ve got. I had told this writer, who was sailing along in his career, that there was something deficient in his writing like himself, and what he really needed to do was to

…write like me.*

* It is highly questionable that everything I wrote, especially for television, was a trumpeting expression of something I had to say. On too many occasions, I didn’t even write like me.

This holier than Thou pronouncement is my first memory of messing up in this manner. (I mess up in various manners.) Imperceptibly, though it was probably screamingly perceptible to my writer friend, my confidence had evolved ever so gradually into arrogance.

“Don’t write like yourself. Write like me.”

Sadly, I have repeated this transgression in various venues, most often in “Rewrite Rooms”, where I regularly ignored the only rule I’ve got and I berated other writers for writing like themselves. Their joke pitches may have rocked the room with laughter, but if they seemed to me to be inconsistent with the character delivering them or they muddied an important story point…

I don’t know. Maybe I was just jealous.

Eh. No, not “eh” yet. There’s one more.

John Lahr. (“Just Trying to Help” – April 2, 2008.)

Lahr is the first class New Yorker theater critic whose writing shimmers with insight and panache. What (unsolicited) advice did I give him? In his always readable reviews, he’d sprinkle in words whose meanings I didn’t understand, like louche and Manichean, and I suggested he use more regular words instead. The message I was sending this universally acclaimed theater critic?

“Don’t write like yourself. Write like me.”

Oh, man.

Confidence is mandatory. Arrogance? The froggie is cooked.

3 comments:

Racicot said...

Morning Earl,

I'm trying to staff for the first time this coming spring... and EVERY imagination of me sitting in that Room involves hedging my arrogance. And making writers laugh, of course.

wanda said...

But you're all grown ups. If you had to withhold every piece of advice, for fear of it being taken wrong, why accumulate any confidence in your successes in the first place?

If a person respects you on any level, they'll go the extra mile to understand your meaning. And probably vice versa, but don't beat yourself up too much.

I'm no paid critic, but it seems the audience you seek to entertain is "shared humanity", which is kind of a slap in the face, because it's the most profitable audience to entertain, because it includes us all. How could the industry let an asset like you slip out the door?

I still don't know, and I'm being totally honest. That tape that tells you that "times have changed" is somebody's bad opinion. I don't care what kind of car they drive.

The greatest unrecognized part of your gift, is your skill at being a medium. You often put words to this blog that have haunted me all the day before, as if you have some chord to "what needs to be written".

Don't lose faith or question the experiences that have led you to where you are. Maybe it's high time arrogant Earl flaunted some of his tail feathers. In my opinion, you deserve center stage.

len said...

hi earl
lenny wise here. glad to see you're sharing your insights with the world