Live life, then write

ZoologyFew, if any, writers have practiced the craft of storytelling their entire lives.

Sure, almost all of us have written since we first learned how, but few saw this expression as anything more than personal amusement or a passing phase. And when we completed our last essay in high school or college, most put the quill aside for more socially acceptable vocations.

In my case, it was a life in Science, getting first a degree in zoology and then a degree in molecular biology. Others went to law school or into medicine. Yet others worked a production line or took up a trade.

In any event, we all largely dismissed writing from our lives or at best, saw it as a hobby on par with doodling.

And yet, despite putting our pens away and mothballing our creative tendencies, these years were not lost. Quite to the contrary, these years have been invaluable to making you the writer and storyteller that you are today.

Friends will sometimes ask me to speak to their adolescent and college-aged children who have expressed an interest in writing. They want their offspring to understand both the opportunities and challenges of the lives they desire. And I am happy to oblige.

Where the kids are willing to share with me, I listen to their interests and goals, offering insights where I can. But in almost every conversation, my ultimate piece of advice is the same.

Live a life and experience your world.

This is not to say you should give up on your writing, even for a brief period. Dear god, no.

Write. Write. And keep writing.

My point is more that your writing will be so much deeper, richer and more meaningful when you have life experience under your belt. Your greatest asset as a writer is the time you’ve spent interacting with your world, even when only as an observer.

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You write the people you know, the lives you’ve led

Life exposes you to the amazing diversity of people and perspectives that populate this planet.

Life teaches you about human interaction, in terms of both relationships and conflict.

Life unveils the subtleties and nuances in communication, and the insane power of silence and subtext.

Life is how you instinctively know what to write next. How your character will respond to an event or statement. Why your stories will resonate with others who have similarly lived lives.

And because my life has been different from yours—at least in the minutiae—we will write different takes on a story even when given the exact same starting material.

As you can imagine, the advice is not always welcomed. Life can feel like a delay to the gratification of self-expression.

And yet, not only is it not a delay, a life lived is the embodiment of the self in self-expression.

Your life lived is your truth, and good storytelling (even fictional) is about truth.

 

To improve your storytelling skills, check out:

So, What’s Your Story? (web site)

So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook)

Bizarre faces

Without a strong understanding of self, there is only empty expression

Surprise, but never lie

Roff

I recently saw the following advice from filmmaker and screenwriter Don Roff posted on the Facebook page of the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards:

Always mystify, torture, mislead and surprise the audience as much as possible. — Don Roff

Although I agree with the sentiment, I don’t think it is complete (Note: I was unable to locate the source of the quote to learn if Roff said more on the subject). Thus, I offer the following codicil:

Mislead and surprise, but NEVER lie to your audience. Everything must be possible within the context of the universe you have built in your story. If you lose the trust of the audience, you’ve lost them forever.

Do what you want to be

University grad Xingyi Yan, 21, has taken a placard to the street in a bid to land a job in advertising or marketing. (Credit: MARTA IWANEK / TORONTO STAR)

University grad Xingyi Yan, 21, has taken a placard to the street in a bid to land a job in advertising or marketing. (Credit: MARTA IWANEK / TORONTO STAR)

This past week, I read an item in The Toronto Star about a young university graduate who was finding it difficult to get a job. To highlight her availability, she took to standing outside Union Station, Toronto’s main transit hub, wearing a placard.

She’s hardly alone, unfortunately, and I applaud her moxy for putting herself in the middle of the pedestrian business traffic, but I question how effective her plan will be.

The young woman is interested in a career in marketing and advertising. Unfortunately, her sign suggests she does not have the creative talent for such a job. It’s a white sign with black letters that tells me her problem, not how she’ll solve mine. Even her choice of location tells me she doesn’t understand modern marketing and advertising.

>99% of commuters at Union Station not in a position to hire

>99% of commuters at Union Station not in a position to hire

More than 99% of the people walking past her every day are not interested in her goals and cannot do anything for her. She’d have been much better off jumping online for a couple of minutes to learn the locations of all the major marketing and advertising firms in the city and camping outside their doors.

That’s what I did when I was looking for a job years ago, after completing my M.Sc. studies. I didn’t wear a placard, but I did post “Lab Technician Available” signs around the research wings of the universities and teaching hospitals around Toronto and nearby Hamilton.

And the signs didn’t just announce that I was available. They also listed the laboratory techniques in which I was proficient, and therefore, how I could help your lab.

I got a lot of interviews out of that campaign and landed a couple of job offers.

Just over a decade ago, while working for a couple of science magazines in Washington, DC, my group needed to hire a couple of writers. As one of the hiring managers, I met all of the candidates and routinely participated in the same conversation:

“I’ve always loved writing,” the candidate would gleefully tell me.

“Well, that certainly helps with this job,” I would smile. “What have you published?”

The candidate’s smile would waver.

“Well, nothing,” he or she would hesitate. “But I love writing.”

“Great. Do you have any samples?”

An embarrassed shuffle in the chair.

“Um, no,” the candidate would visibly shrink in the seat. “It’s mostly just personal writing.”

By this point, I would have been willing to look at that.

To a person, I would offer the same advice at the end of our conversation:

“I can’t say how this process will go, but if I can make a recommendation: If you want to write science, write science…for anyone…whether paid or for free. If I can’t see your writing, how do I know you can write?”

If you say that you’re dying to do something, then prove that to prospective employers by actually doing it.

I would never apply for a job as a screenwriter without several screenplays in my pocket. And I’m pretty confident that it is not enough to stand on the corner of Hollywood & Vine in Los Angeles offering my services (at least not screenwriting services).

hollywood_and_Vine3

And when you do the thing you’re dying to do, make sure you do it well.

If my screenplays are shit, why should anyone hire me? If the placard you’re using to market yourself is unimpressive, why would a marketing company hire you?

Your effort doesn’t have to be professional-grade necessarily—what individual had that kind of budget?—but if it’s not exceptional in some manner, why would I make an exception and hire you?

I wish the young student well. She has taken the first step, but has so many more to go before she is likely ready.

First page of new screenplay (opinions please)

Hey guys,

I am working on a new screenplay and would love your split second reaction to this opening page.

Does it grab your attention? Are you intrigued? Do you want to know what happens next?

Any thoughts…positive, negative, inflammatory…are welcomed.

And so the new story begins

And so the new story begins