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Write On

Archive for February, 2011

Don’t Beat Yourself Up

Boxing glovesPreviously, I discussed how comparing yourself to other writers can be valuable. This week, I wanted to say something about how you shouldn’t make such comparisons. This is the point where any robots reading will have a paradox-inspired meltdown, but as Emerson once said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Or, as I once said, “I’m contradicting myself? Huh. That’s very interest… LOOK OVER THERE.” [Footsteps. Car peeling away. Car crashing. Sirens.]

Self-doubt hampers the trancelike flow that generates great writing (or even the painful stop-start that generates pretty good writing). Why do we doubt ourselves? One reason: because—and here comes a controversial statement—writing is easy.

Calm down. Don’t revoke my guild card. I’ve come to rely on it for my steady diet of films about Leonardo DiCaprio’s wife issues. Writing is also incredibly hard (Contradiction two! I’m doubling down on that foolish consistency thing.) A brilliant script requires a rock-solid understanding of structure, a keen ear for dialogue, and a superhuman ability to stare at a glowing screen through twelve revisions. A great joke requires a lateral mind and a theasauran’s ability to pick exactly the right word. Or to make the right word up—a word like, say, “theasauran.”

And most folks can’t write at all. Believe me, my dad was a professor. I saw him suffer through enough papers to know. (Actually, for proof just read any YouTube comments section. We’re all professors’ sons now.) But for writers, writing is just a little bit easy. If it wasn’t, we’d get into something more stable, like dictator of Egypt. We started writing. We had a knack for it. We enjoyed it. So we wrote more and more, and got better and better.

Hard? Hard is talking to strangers on the phone about anything that requires a confirmation number. When it comes down to basic life skills like knowing how to fill out an insurance form, I thank God I have a wife who’s willing to take lead. I’d rather imagine a hundred imaginary worlds and write a script about each than to deal with the daily nonsense of the real world.

Add to this the pervasive myth that writing skill comes from talent and not practice, I think it’s easy to internalize the feeling that you’re getting away with something—that writing is some sort of racket. Writers find all sorts of ways to beat themselves up (yes, there are arrogant writers, but arrogance usually masks poor self-esteem). If you devalue writing in general, you begin to devalue your own writer’s instincts. You begin to look at other people, convinced they have it figured out. Instead of tapping into the flow within yourself, you worry that you need to be doing what your peers are doing. They know something you don’t. They’re really working.

Maybe they are. If comparing allows you to diagnose deficiencies in your own work, then by all means draw on that and improve. You’re not going to find all the answers magically waiting within. But don’t indulge a counterproductive wallow, either. Don’t allow an obsession with exterior things to drown out your own voice, and don’t let other people devalue your worth. There’s a lot of noise buzzing at us, all the time, and one of the ways to get to a place where writing is fun and—yes—easy, is to give yourself permission to zone out those distractions. To not worry, for once.

After all, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to compare yourself unfavorably to your friends without actively going and looking for them. I’m sure they’ll helpfully post all their successes to Facebook.

Thou Shalt Covet Thy Neighbor’s Skill

"thou shalt not covet" line on broken 10 Commandments sculpture

photo by mojoey

I once wrote a comedy script where the premise turned on an observation about Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. We may think of it as a heartwarming redemption story, but what ultimately triggers Scrooge’s change of heart? High spirits and wassail with the Ghost of Christmas Past? Regret over the way he’s treated his employee, with Christmas Present? No, he’s only truly moved to change when he’s reminded that he’s eventually going to die, and—hey—it might be nice if someone dropped by his funeral. MERRY CHRISTMAS.

The fact that Scrooge kind of ignored the carrot until he got the stick doesn’t discount his change of heart. A lot of healthy change can come from less-than-healthy motivations. You just need some self-awareness about the flaws that drive you.

Jealousy is a big driving force in my life, as I’m pretty sure it is for most of my fellow comedy writers—and probably the populace at large, though I’ll try and keep my negative generalizations local. Despite its reputation as both a deadly sin and a green-eyed monster (which, as injurious descriptions go, sounds kind of sexy), I don’t think there’s anything wrong with jealousy per se. Coveting others’ success can be a hell of a motivator to achieve. It only becomes problematic when you don’t direct that energy toward your own work, but let it feed the bitter conviction that others are undeserving.

I’ve never gotten that far. Oh, I’m shamefully jealous of my successful friends, but before I get close to resenting them, I remember they’re (1.) the most dedicated people I know, and (2.) mind-bendingly funny. This does little for my writing or my career, but it does keep me from becoming a jerk. (And it gibes with the best piece of career advice I’ve gotten—from an SNL writer whom I met when I first moved to New York—“Don’t be a dick.” The guild should embroider that on a sampler, to give out with membership cards.)

Where jealousy can improve your writing, is when you move past simple envy to examine what got someone where they are. Other people aren’t successful simply because they’re not you. They’re successful because they’re doing something you aren’t. What is it? How can you apply that knowledge to your own work? How can you change a shallow focus on outward trappings into a deeper understanding of your writing?

For instance: I put in a packet for a late night show. I didn’t get the job, but a close friend did, which gave me a unique opportunity to see what a “winning” packet looked like. I was struck by how far beyond a typical segment his material went. While we were roughly equivalent on the basic gag level, the creativity put into goosing the stock format and finding new ways to visualize the jokes put his over the top. I had been too hung up on capturing the existing voice of the show to think about the ways the host and writers might be looking to push the material further. Now when I submit a packet I (1.) try to capture the show’s voice, but also (2.) find ways to showcase my own voice within that model, and (3.) never stop at something that could merely air on the show as it is, but strive to write something that represents the show at its ideal.

Another example: a friend recommended me for a job writing online content. When I didn’t get it, she privately disclosed that part of her producers’ decision was due to my lack of experience producing web video. So, I decided I should start producing web video—and it was immediately the most successful thing I’ve done. Instead of grousing about the position, I took the note and did something about it. (Well… I don’t want to make myself out to be more well-adjusted than I am. I groused a bit. Or at length. To everyone on Gmail chat.)

Too often, jealousy stops at someone thinking, “I’m just as good as he/she/it.” (In the rare occasions you’re competing with a screenwriting toaster oven.) Even if it’s true, there’s usually a lesson to be learned by the comparison—not that you should emulate success blindly; there’s plenty of terrible material that’s wildly successful—but the exercise is a much more healthy way of dealing with that envy than to enter yourself in a race you’ll never win.

Comedy = Showing Up + Timing

“Showing up is 80 percent of life”– Woody Allen, cited in The New York Times, Aug. 21, 1977

It’s hard to discuss writing without sounding fatuous (for proof, read on). That may be one reason I don’t have a lot of pet theories or guidelines. It’s not that I don’t find certain writing rules useful, or won’t spout the occasional truism when a friend pesters me for notes. It’s more that my approach to learning about the craft is to hang out on Fairuza Balk fan-sites. Wait—that’s my approach for learning about The Craft. My approach for the other thing is to read a bunch of writing books, listen to a bunch of writing podcasts, and then take a bunch of naps, hoping that everything I’ve absorbed will synthesize itself into a grand unified system. It’s an approach that suits my lifestyle, combining, as it does, magical thinking and laziness. I turn to rules mostly when I need to solve a problem—when they’re prescriptive they hem you in. When diagnostic, they suggest solutions.

What I do enjoy is the occasional grand pronouncement. And my pick for grandest is the Woody Allen quote above (the most definitive version I was able to find, though you may have heard it as “90% of everything is just showing up”—the additional 10% is, I assume, due to inflation). It’s become my guiding principle, in ways that both comfort and taunt me.

Comfort because it reminds me that, if you make a genuine effort to pursue every avenue, year after year, someone will take note. (Not always, but surprisingly often.) Yes, it usually takes longer than you’d like, and the prize is never what you expected, but there’s real value in simply being the one hanging out, in the back of the room, long after the others have gone. If you can’t have luck, you can have longevity.

Sticking it out can be a lonely act of faith. For most of my career, it seemed every word I wrote might as profitably been tossed down a well (which is saying something—your average well pays peanuts). Then, over the past few years, things began to happen. I got my first TV staff writer interview. My webseries got noticed by the Writer’s Guild. This summer, in the space of one month, I was contacted by a cable channel to do interstitials, had a piece in Slate, was selected for a screenplay reading, and got into the New York TV Festival. Why then? Such things are often feast or famine, but I think it has to do with showing up. If you keep doing it, you become difficult to ignore.

That’s half of the good stuff—call it the “you’ve got to be in it to win it” part (although that phrase’s lottery associations are uncomfortably apt re: the odds of making it in television). The other half is the “when the student is ready the master will appear” part. I’ve talked about being a “success,” but what about being a good writer? I wasn’t tossing brilliant scripts for The Office down that well. I wasn’t even tossing scripts for Small Wonder. But, while no one was paying attention, I became more worthy of attention. Part of showing up is writing long enough to have something worth saying.

As for the taunt, it has many sides: Am I really showing up, or am I just waiting around? I know people whose page count dwarfs my own. I’m showing up, but once I’m there, am I easily forgotten? I write in part because I have no head for business, yet it requires savvy and hustle beyond imagining. Am I showing up to the right places? Comedy writing is a different beast than most other kinds. So much depends on becoming seen and known within a community of performers. Rather than writing that spec, would I be better served spending my nights at—say— stand-up shows, even if I don’t have the specific passion that stand-up demands?

And yet, mostly I find it comforting. Showing up is a more encouraging phrase than paying dues, even though it encompasses that idea and makes it easier to swallow, like putting hunks of bacon in your Brussels sprouts (actually, I like Brussels sprouts… let’s say like taking your vitamins with some whiskey, unless that reveals too much). Showing up reminds you to write that script, pay that entry fee, make those revisions, reach out to that agent. More importantly, it helps me look at the (small) success I’ve had so far and have faith that there’s more to come. Eventually that well has to fill up.

But that’s beside the point. What I really wanted to ask was: wanna drink whiskey and watch The Craft?
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Dan McCoy is the creator, co-writer, and co-star of the web series 9 AM Meeting, which won the MTV Animation Award at the 2010 New York Television Festival, and a development deal with the network. He’s spent nearly a decade skulking in the margins of the NYC comedy scene–writing for stage shows starring Emmy-winning comedians Sara Schaefer and Elliott Kalan, and performing sketch and (much more infrequently) stand-up. His freelance work has appeared on/in Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, Slate.com, Gawker, Cinemax, Whim Quarterly, and NPR’s Morning Edition. He lives in Brooklyn with his cat and his wife, not in that order.