I’m currently going through the most painful facet of being a writer – and, indeed, of being any kind of artist who imagines and creates.
I feel creatively blunt. It’s not so much a writer’s block as…I don’t know, a writer’s self-loathing. I’m able to put the words down (just this morning I wrote three pages of my new screenplay), but I hate every single one of them. I look back at what I’ve written and I wonder who the hell will ever want to read this. Why do I think I’m good enough to be a successful screenwriter and author when all I can come up with is this dross?
It’s a worse feeling, I’ve discovered, than the aforementioned block. When there’s an almost physical inability to write, it’s frustrating as hell, but it at least leaves you in the land of What If? It’s annoying being unable to see your vision on the page, but at least the vision is knocking around in there somewhere. The idea still has potential. You haven’t wrecked your hopes by assuming you’re good enough to bring something to life.
What I’m going through is a feeling that I’m simply not smart enough to write good stories. The kind of stories I so love to read and watch. Oh, there’s no shortage of ideas. All my brain does now is come up with ideas, whether I’m watching a movie or walking down the street or lying in the bath; it’s conditioned to look at the world as one big story. I’m in a perennial bubble of excitement over potential; over the idea of having come up with a great idea. But the moment I try to translate these ideas into fully-formed beings, into coherent stories that people will enjoy, the bubble bursts and I fall back to Earth with that same sobering realization: I’m not good enough.
I’m aware that part of the problem stems from trying to write something good instead of just writing. The biggest mistake a writer can make is looking at the finish line. The moment you think about your book selling or script being produced – the moment you even think about one pair of eyes in the audience – you’ve lost the battle. Writing must be a selfish experience, at least in the first draft. You must write what you want to write, the way you want to write it, otherwise the work will be disingenuous. It will be obvious that it hasn’t come from a place of honesty and passion.
I’ve scrapped so many projects because I found myself trying to write to be successful, rather than because I was passionate about what I was doing.
How wonderful it would be to recapture the bursting, unshackled optimism I possessed when I first started writing stories. When I was about 13 I wrote a short story called ‘The Red Crucifix’. It was about twenty pages long, and it sucked. But I wrote it. I wrote it because I enjoyed telling the story and I loved the subject matter (vampires, influenced by From Dusk Till Dawn and John Carpenter’s wonderfully violent and trashy Vampires). The thought of an end product was the furthest thing from my mind, whether that was me selling it or just someone else reading it. All I was focused on was getting lost in this crazy story. It was a completely unbridled expression of creativity.
The same happened with my first script when I was 15 (a 132 page gangster story). I loved movies and I loved telling stories, so I decided to teach myself how to write a screenplay. Again, the first draft it was utter crap, and the proceeding five weren’t much better, but the point is I did it. And this was when I was in high school, a time of life generally filled with energy and socializing, when I was just starting to venture to house parties. But I still found the time to crank out two scripts (I wrote a horror movie about a year later) because it was just something I loved doing. No pressure or expectations.
These projects will always be important to me because they taught me the craft of screenwriting by doing rather than some nonsense ‘how to’ book written by someone who’s never written a screenplay in their life. But the point is not that they were rubbish; the point is that I completed them. Beginning to end. They were rubbish because I didn’t yet possess any real panache with the written word; the literal writing skills. What I did possess was the unhinged enthusiasm.
Now it’s flipped. I possess the writing skills (I think), but I’ve somewhat lost the freedom of my imagination. The passion for telling stories is still there and as strong as ever – the thought of writing my next story fills me with excited butterflies, and I can happily listen to people discuss the craft for hours on end – but when I physically sit down to do it, my head is burdened in a way my 15-year-old self’s wasn’t. Sure, adult life gets in the way (and I’m currently in a particularly stressful/crazy/exciting time in my life, with a move to the other side of the country and a first child imminent), but I can’t help but feel that it’s more than that. Somewhere along the line I’ve misplaced the ability to just write and not care about whether it’s good or not until the end.
I’ve always struggled with writing a novel. It’s something I’m desperate to accomplish (and if I were to stick together every opening ten or so pages I’ve written I venture I’d have a book not far off the length of The Stand…) but I keep hitting that point where I lose all faith in what I’m doing. Like my current woes, it’s usually not a case of not being able to write anything, but of writing a few pages and just despising it, which leads me to close the document and never return. More wasted potential. The longest single thing I’ve written, outside of screenplays, is a 65-page, multiple character horror/thriller. And sure enough, this was done when I was about 17. When nothing else mattered.
I suppose what I and all writers should be reminding ourselves is that we all go through it, and there’s always a way out. Trying to get through these days is like trying to swim out of a pool of treacle blindfolded, but we live for those days when writing is as easy as breathing; when our fingers simply can’t type fast enough to keep up with the genius flowing from our brains. And likewise we always need to remind ourselves that success will come with persistence. I’ve been writing actively for about 12 years now, and as I enter deeper into the second half of my twenties I can’t help but feel time is running out to achieve it. As if turning 30 ruins all chances of finding success.
Recently I’ve been growing incredibly envious of Noah Hawley, the man behind Fargo on FX. It’s such a brilliantly nuanced, off-beat and well-written show, and he runs it. He’s living my dream life, and I thought I had no chance of attaining something similar because I’ve seen no success yet, and barely any recognition (though I should remind myself that my western placed fairly well in a prestigious competition and a London-based production company brought me down to the capital to chat through it, having read and enjoyed it). But something clicked when I was reading an interview with him: the guy’s 50. He wasn’t running Fargo when he was 26.
This isn’t to say it isn’t possible to find such success earlier in life, but the simple little fact just served me that important reminder that there is, in fact, still time. Jon Hamm was still waiting tables when he was 29; Alan Rickman’s first role was aged 36; J.K. Rowling published the first Harry Potter book at 32 after years of rejection.
You and I may be stuck in the middle of that treacle pool, but there’s always a way out, and there’s always time to get there.