The Odyssey of Writing
In his opening presentation to the TSC, Mazzara recounted the story of The Odyssey and used it as a metaphor for his own journey as a writer, comparing the setbacks and challenges experienced by Odysseus to his own.
As Mazzara explains, the story of Odysseus’s return home after the Trojan War is a story of changing winds. Such is the case with writers. When we decide to become writers, we have a lot of anxiety blowing in our heads. They can drive you insane. And bad news; those winds don’t go away, no matter how successful you become as a writer.
That anxiety permeates every scene you write. And once you start working with others, those people add to the confusion in your head.
Writers constantly look for validation, he says, they look for love. In this way, actors and writers have much in common as both groups are looking to receive love and adoration. The big difference is that writers know they’ll never get it, whereas actors maintain the delusion.
The chaos in writers’ heads also sets them at odds with the rest of the film and television industry, which is designed to run under more control. Thus a snarky relationship develops, with people in the industry constantly putting down or belittling writers and diminishing their works. The example he cites is the discussion of whether Shakespeare wrote his plays or it was a British lord with absolutely no record of having written a single literary word.
Mazzara says you simply have to get into a space where you are purely working on the work for the sake of the work. You have to learn to live with the anxiety.
He then looked at the concept of hubris and ego. In recounting the story of Odysseus blinding the Cyclops, he noted that as long as Odysseus remained “Nobody”, he was safe and managed to escape the island. It wasn’t until he stood on the prow of his escaping ship and proclaimed that it was Odysseus who blinded the Cyclops that things really went to hell.
When we write, Mazzara says, we have to remove our ego. We are only the steward of the story. The story wants to be told and we are merely the instrument by which this happens. And when working in groups, we have to be generous with each other and avoid taking credit.
He suggests that there is a tendency to try to manage our anxiety by taking the credit for work we have done or to which we have contributed, but we have to avoid this at all costs.
Mazzara then gets to the part of The Odyssey where Odysseus reaches Ithaca but finds his home invaded by suitors for his wife. Disguised as a beggar, he sets up a challenge that whomever can string Odysseus’s bow and fire an arrow through a series of axe heads will win the hand of Penelope. After all others have failed, the ridiculed beggar is given the opportunity and despite not being known for his strength, Odysseus strings the bow, makes the shot and then slaughters his disrespectful competitors.
All this to say that writing is about sticking to your strengths and doing it your own way. Mazzara showed loose sheets of foolscap on which he hand wrote his presentation because that’s the way he writes, by hand, on paper. When he tries to write on the computer, he finds himself editing his material and reworking lines as he writes them. On paper though, he can let the writing flow and works his way through the material in his head. However it works for you, he says, be sure you stay in the moment, stay in the story.
We all feel anxiety about conforming to how others do things. He is adamant that we have to fight this urge. As he describes it, it was a lonely journey for him to see that his method of writing works despite being antithetical to the way Hollywood works. Writing, he says, needs to be effortless.
As far as writing as part of a group in a writers’ room, he makes the comparison to a musical group heading into a recording studio, where everyone makes a contribution to the final product. Change one of the players or eliminate one component and the final product is different.
And finally, he says, there is a moment when you get your shit together and you know you can make it work. That is the moment you’ve come home.
In the Q&A, when asked about the bloody slaughter and carnage phase of The Odyssey, Mazzara said that was the editing phase of screenwriting, when the sheets are covered with red ink and look like they’ve been dipped in blood. In fact, he said, to lighten the blow on other writers, he refuses to use a red pen.