Friday, October 23, 2009

"A Writer's Handicap"

I’m not sure which part to begin with, the embarrassing part, or the disgusting part. I’m leaning towards starting with the embarrassing part, in hopes of building up some good will by volunteering something embarrassing, and then hitting you with the disgusting part, which you’re unlikely to appreciate at all. Yeah, I think I’ll do that.

(Upon further pondering, it appears that my entire life strategy may hinge upon the idea of wanting to be liked, which, if you don’t have time to read this whole thing, may, in a nutshell, be my “Writer’s Handicap.”

Okay. The embarrassing part:

I’m acquainted with this guy who won two Oscars for writing screenplays. Though a generation older than me, the man is brimming with enthusiasm and twinkle. He told me told, I believe without my having asked him, that what he looked forward to most in movies when he watched them growing up was the kissing.

Now, understand, it is ingrained in my genetic predisposition to find ways of making myself feel bad. I don’t know why. It’s there, and I live with it. I hear an Oscar-winning, make that a double-Oscar-winning screenwriter, tell me that what he looked forward to most when he watched movies growing up was the kissing, and I immediately conclude:

“I have no chance being successful as a movie writer.”

Why not?

Because the thing I looked forward to least in movies when watching them growing up was the kissing. (No, second least. The first least was the violence.) Moreover – and this is the embarrassing part – I still don’t like watching kissing in movies.

I still look away.


Because kissing, to me, is personal. And personal, to me, means private. And private, to me, means you look away.

(Also, though this is, admittedly, more on an intellectual level, I’m aware that people kissing in movies don’t mean it. Not, I mean, as the people they are. Kissing in movies involves one actor kissing another actor, because that’s their job. The script says, “They kiss”, so they kiss. They’re simply following instructions.

This setup has always triggered a squirmy reaction, supplementing my discomfort on the “privacy” grounds. Two strangers, people who may never have met before working on this movie – passionately doing…whatever the script calls for them to do. And that’s okay, because passionately kissing or doing whatever they’re being asked to do in the script, is a professional requirement. I’ve got a goofy smile on my face right now, because it seems so bizarre.

An actor returns from work to their partner, of whatever relationship or gender, and the partner asks, “What did you do today?”, and the actor says, “I simulated some stuff. It was totally choreographed. There were hundreds of people watching. It was nothing.” And the spouse says, “Great. What do you want for dinner”? To paraphrase Butch Cassidy, I couldn’t do that. Could you do that? How can they do that?”)

(One possible answer is they can’t.)

Returning to the topic at hand, okay, so some double-Oscar-winning screenwriter looked forward to the kissing in movies. Is that necessarily a death sentence to me as a screenwriter?

I would have to say absolutely.


That double-Oscar-winning screenwriter’s reaction to kissing in movies is radically more in sync with the general movie-going public’s reaction to kissing in movies than mine is.

Which, who are we kidding, it is.

With the consequent implications relative to my ability to connect with the general movie-going public. Spelling it out: There’s a good chance I will not be able to.

Okay – having, hopefully adequately, softened you up – we now proceed to the disgusting part.

I’m back in Toronto, decades ago. I’ve been invited to a small gathering to discuss, with a trained professional, the creation of a new comedy improv group. The first thing the trained professional wants is for us go around the room and say what we hope to get out of participating in this group.

The first couple of aspirants say they want to learn and practice improv techniques, with the hope of, down the line, mounting a live public performance. It is now my turn. And I say something like this:

“I don’t want to be in a show. It’s just that I spend a lot of time in my head, thinking my own thoughts. I came here to get some idea of what ordina….”

I hear what I’m about to say. “I came here to get some idea of what ordinary people think.” That’s right. I’m about to call everyone else in the room “ordinary.” I stop myself in the middle, because I realize how insulting that’s going to sound. Nobody wants to be called “ordinary.” And that’s just what I was about to do.

I somehow wormed my way out of my faux pas. But I never went back there.

A lot of people will misunderstand what I was trying to say. I’m hoping you’re not part of that group. When I was blundering my way towards distinguishing myself from “ordinary” people, I wasn’t saying trying to say I was special.

I was saying I was different.

And not in a celebrational, multi-cultural manner.

I was saying I was “different” is the sense of not being normal, where “not being normal” is defined not judgmentally, but mathematically, as in, not part of the vast majority of people.

How do you imagine having a career writing for a mass audience when you’re not normal? Like, for example, when your least favorite part watching movies (actually second least besides the violence) is the kissing, and, I would guess, a very large number of people like that part the most, or at least it’s up in their Top Five?

Now you might suggest, “If you’re not into a certain activity personally, you could pretend.” That’s true, and a lot of writers do that. Randy Newman wrote “Short People” and “Davy, the Fat Boy”, and he’s neither particularly short nor particularly fat. On the other hand, Randy’s not writing about being short or fat; he’s writing about reacting to someone else being short or fat. In a mean way. The thing is, I’ve met Randy Newman. And he’s not mean at all. He’s very nice. Yet, he seems to be able to be mean in his songs.

In a certain way, I have no imagination. I mean this is the sense that, if I haven’t experienced something personally, or it’s not something which, in some way, strongly resonates with something I’ve experienced personally, I can’t write about it. At least, not in my mind, convincingly. Can I write devious? Not like devious people can. (Or writers who can imagine being devious.) Can I write “smoothly persuasive”? “Mean-spirited”? “White hot rage?” “Craftily manipulative”? “Silkily seductive”? (I just giggled.)

How did I make it as far as I did? I restricted myself to formats, like the network half-hour comedy, where the range of permissible emotions and experiences were, then at least, and I suspect still to a great degree, enormously limited. I was also (not always unhappily) bound by traditional joke rhythms, and highly constricting storytelling formulas. Added to that, whenever possible, I went heavily in for absurdist comic logic, which, though often clever, is, by definition, a cerebral rather than an emotion-driven technique, thus sidestepping a wide range of uncomfortable feelings.

I did what I could. But I found it virtually impossible to expand my range. (Not to mention the courage that would have taken.) Now, I write a blog, once again working securely within my comfort zone.

I called this “A Writer’s Handicap.”

I believe I have made my case.


Lord Lillis said...

My advice to you? Go kiss Dr. M.

sean said...

I (attempt) to do improv and and attempting to become a writer as well...the problem I have is that the more I write, the writer instinct gets in the way of the improv, because I'm not the only 'writer' onstage! Any tips?

Corinne said...

Wow. I thought I was the only one who thought like that.

I agree my first hate is violence. Light kissing I can handle. What I abhor is being embarrassed or someone else being embarrassed. Growing up, I'd skim over the embarrassing parts in books or have to go to the bathroom or other such thing during embarrassing parts in shows. It would take many "repeats" to desensitize myself to handle it. I still will distract myself during such moments if they are particularly cringe worthy.

One of the most embarrassing moment of my adult life?

My ultra conservative Lutheran, very particular Father in Law (with whom I have a very "polite", careful, yet caring relationship with) and I happened to be alone together one evening. Settling into watch TV, he suggests a new TV show that he's seen ads for. Have I watched it? I replied I haven't and he turns it on.

From across the room.

The man has the remote.

On screen a couple enters a house. Lots of people. Wonderful party.

Turns out to be a houseful of Swingers. The conversation and action goes from there.

I'm mortified. I try desperately to figure out how to get the remote out of the hands of the person whom I have a very critical, polite relationship with. An eternity later (probably less than 5 minutes but seemed significantly longer) he suggests he changes the channel. I think I said, "YES!" before he completed the sentence.

I never watched Nip and Tuck again.

Brian Scully said...

I looked forward to the kissing scenes in movies when I was a kid so I could make a quick trip to the concession stand for more Necco wafers and Good N' Plenty... and maybe still have time for a quick piss before the movie got back to the action or laughs. And yeah, I totally write what I know... which as it turns out now has a lot to do with snacks and pissing.

Tim Susman said...

The thing is, there are always going to be writers who magically are in tune with the majority of people who (a) greenlight movies, (b) pay money to go to movies, (c) vote on awards, or (d) all of the above. The rest of us will all look at them with a mixture of jealousy and scorn.

But the truth is, there are a lot of people we're in tune with, too. Most of us. I think there's something to be said for writing sitcoms, week after week, creating characters over a period of months who become part of people's lives.

I'm personally very happy you focused on sitcoms. Let the guys who like kissing write their screenplays. I'll pop in another episode of "Cheers" and watch some of my favorite characters one more time.

Whether or not they kiss.

Joe said...

Where was the disgusting part?