Friday, June 15, 2012

What makes a writer

My director friend Paul Lynch suggested that I do a post on what makes a writer. Easy enough to say, but I'm not sure there is anything that separates us from the others. And I'm sure other writers will say that my take on it is wrong. 

So here goes.

I really believe that writers are born, at least some of them. I wasn't so much a writer as a kid, but I read comics all the time and I went to see every movie I could in a little village in northern Manitoba. I've talked about the town in past blogs so I won't bore you with that.

There's an English saying that suggests the person at 7 is the person he/she will be. It's actually not hard to prove that; there is a documentary series made in Britain which follows a group of English people from every life style, poor to filthy rich over their lifetime.

It began with 7 Up, the name of the first doc. Each subsequent documentary caught up with them every 7 years. Thus the 2nd doc was 14 UP. I think they're now in their late 50's. It's a really great series of docs that aired in England but you can find them on Netflix I would think.

And it proved, for the most part, that the people they interviewed at 7 were amazingly similar to what they were at their 40's (the last one I saw).  The rich ones quit the series halfway thru while the lower classes remained. 

So... how does that fit me?

What was the last movie I wrote?

The Town that Christmas Forgot.

It's a story about a city family whose car breakdown causes them to be stranded in a small remote town.

Sounds familar, right? There's also my best screenplay, Emperor of Mars, which is unabashedly my life at 12, which I recently turned into a novel. 

There are other scripts I wrote, but if you look at them, many are set in small towns or rural areas. And I never really knew it until someone pointed it out.

So how come I write city stories too?

I moved at 12 to the Windsor/Detroit area, coming from a village of 500 people to a city across the river of 5 million. And I absorbed every bit of it.

I believe writers reflect their upbringing, whatever happens to to them, good or bad, will reflect in what they right. I lived a perfectly normal life as a kid, lower middle class slightly and relatively satisfied. I did have tons of comic books and I did go see every movie I could but my ideas began to form in high school.

I was never really good at composition, and never won a writing contest. Rather it took me a long time to learn how to write something good, and that was a personal story, Emperor of Mars. For once, I had the story which included a true story about a radio broadcast where a supposed Martian was going to come to earth.

It only took me 8 years to figure out how to write something that was both entertaining and well written. Up to then, I was copying scripts I had read.

The Emperor script was followed by another script that got made, Betrayal of Silence, which was a drama about teen abuse in a Catholic foster  home. I still think it was one of my best scripts. A bit of trivia about it -- they filmed the first draft, no rewrites. That's rare.  And I knew the Catholic world, having attended Catholic school, although mine was with nuns and lay teachers.

Betrayal of Silencs still holds up today, although it's impossible to find. All I have is a VHS copy.

The old saying, "write what you know" is true, at least for me. I wrote one supernatural suspense film, and until now, never considered writing another.  But with the cult fanbase out there, I at least owe them one more shot at Ghostkeeper.

Lessons here are this; if you're going to write, write what is familiar. That doesn't mean that you can't write anything you want, but be true to yourself and your history, that's where the real good stuff comes from.

Finally, I remember what happened when I tried to write out of my world, I wrote a big action piece and the response was "that's not Jim". What? I didn't know what they meant. What they meant was that the action piece didn't have my heart and soul into it. And they could tell.

I wish I could conceal that more, but I am what I am. And they know it.

(Mon: What you need to know how to write)

1 comment:

  1. The 7-Up you mention has just been on over here as 56-Up so it should be at a Netflix near you soon.
    The problem with them as they get older is that they have to keep showing clips of the old shows and the more shows they make the more of the old clips have to be included which means the current one has to be limited.
    In 56-Up one posh boy and the middle class boy that was missing have come back – the middle class one because he has something to sell: he's 56 and he's started a career in music so he's in a band – not very good either; too folksy.
    And the really posh one does a lot of work for charity and does the programme to help publicise that cause. He revealed in 56-Up that his father died when he was 9 and his mother had to struggle to get him through school and college; so it hasn't always been easy.
    The irony of the whole series is the other posh one, Charles Furneaux, who hasn't appeared in it since he was 21, is a BBC Documentary film maker who tried to sue the makers of the programme to get all images and mentions of him removed.
    The most interesting character is now the taxi driver who wanted to be a jockey.
    This series was used when I studied sociology about 30 years ago and the saying “Give me a child of seven and I'll show you the man” comes from the Jesuits.