I can explain

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Michael (Jeff Goldblum): Don’t knock rationalization. Where would we be without it? I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They’re more important than sex.

Sam (Tom Berenger): Ah, come on. Nothing’s more important than sex.

Michael: Oh yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalization?

 

Many of us struggle to accept feedback, and in saying that, I put the emphasis on the word “accept”.

It is easy to receive feedback, but to accept feedback takes a certain degree of confidence that most of us struggle to achieve, and the earlier we are in the development of our Art, the worse our ability. It is a cruel irony that this struggle is at its zenith when we most need the feedback.

It seems that the minute someone offers feedback, even if we’ve requested it, our initial response is to explain why the work is the way it is or why the feedback provider is wrong. As Jeff Goldblum’s character in The Big Chill put so eloquently, we rationalize.

Now, before you try to explain why you rationalize or try to convince me that you don’t—you know you were going to—let me tell you that it is a natural response that was bred into us from our earliest days.

As a child, if you came home late or missed an appointment, you were likely met with an angry parent asking where you were. Unfortunately, for the most part, parents don’t actually hear the answer, because with the rarest of exceptions, your answer is unlikely to ameliorate the punishment.

And any attempt on your part to simply accept responsibility with “I am sorry, Mummy. That was disrespectful of me and I shall try to be more thoughtful in the future.” (all 5-year-olds talk like that, right?), was met with continued pressure to explain yourself.

Fast-forward 20, 30, 40, 50 years. A classmate, instructor or colleague has just read your manuscript and has trouble with one or two things. The instinctive reaction—thanks Mom and Dad—is to respond “Uh-huh. Well, you see…”

We immediately want to explain why we made such an astounding choice. We feel we need to prove we’re not stupid or crazy, and in some cases, to prove that our readers are. And this instinct is even worse when we either can’t remember why we made that specific choice—the “I dunno” scenario—or we thought it was a bad choice but felt we had no better ideas—the “I’m a talentless hack” scenario.

If we can just suck all of the oxygen out of the room, the reader will suffocate and no one need know of our disgrace.

STOP! BREATHE! RELAX!

Shut up and listen. Don’t respond other than to indicate that you’re following what the person is telling you.

You’re not being attacked. They don’t hate you. They’re not trying to convince the world that you’re a terrible human being.

Fight the urge to explain yourself and instead think about what you are being told. You may not understand right away, so feel free to ask for clarifications (not offer rebuttals). Take the input away and mull on it.

This is an opportunity to learn something about your work, your abilities and yourself. Take advantage of that.

You likely asked for the feedback, either implicitly or explicitly, and your reader has something to tell you. They may be right. They may be wrong. Annoyingly, it is likely to be somewhere in between. Regardless, they have had a reaction to your work, and you must respect that.

You do not, however, have to act on their feedback. If, after sober reflection, you feel that the feedback is not for your work, then move on, confident that you have heard and considered what they said.

Ahhh.

See? There is still air; you’re not choking. The skies have not darkened. Wagner does not play. You need not walk into the light.

It is tempting rationalize, to try to explain away our feared shortcomings. It has been programmed into us.

Rationalization is a natural reaction, but it isn’t necessary.

(Image used without permission due to alien infestation.)

What more did you need?

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There is an allegory that was better told by Karl Malden on The West Wing, but it goes something along the lines of:

There was a man who lived by a river, and one day, he heard a weather report that said the river was going to flood and that everyone should move to higher ground. A devout man, he said, “God will protect me. I do not have to leave my home.”

The rains started and a policeman came knocking on the man’s door, telling him he had to evacuate. The man smiled and said, “The Lord will protect me. I’ll be okay.”

The river flooded and the man was stranded on his roof, when a rescuer in a boat rowed by, telling him to get into the boat. The man shook his head and said “I have prayed and God will protect me.”

Eventually, the river swept the house away and the man drowned, and when he got to heaven, he stood confused before God and asked, “Lord, you let me drown. I am a good man, why did you not protect me?”

And God looked down and replied, “I sent you a weather report, a police officer and a rescuer in a boat. What more did you need?”

 

I recount this story because I have a colleague who is going through similar stages with her screenplay.

After months of feedback from writing groups and instructors that suggested several issues with her screenplay, the most prominent being the passivity of her protagonist and complete lack of conflict in her story, my colleague stood fast by her story. She defended her choices vigorously and left us in no doubt that she was going down the right road.

As it is her story, that is her right, and so many of us stopped discussing these issues with her.

More recently, she’s had the opportunity to send her screenplay to a film producer she knows, who was more than happy to give my colleague her thoughts. A few days later, she shared the feedback with us and smack in the middle was several issues related to the behaviour and actions of the protagonist. My colleague was unimpressed and vaulted upon her Steed of Rationalization, charging into the night.

A week or so later, my colleague received feedback from a film director and again, was smacked with a lack of central conflict and a passive protagonist. And again, this elicited response of being misunderstood and dismissive anger.

And the screenwriting gods looked down and replied, “I sent you a screenwriters group, a film producer and a film director. What more did you need?”

 

We all want people to agree with our views, particularly when it comes to something as personal as our art. Agreement validates us as individuals and confirms that our art has merit in the world beyond.

But in the search for that agreement, we must be prepared for disagreement. And while it is always our prerogative to ignore contrary opinions, we lose the right to complain when the contrary feedback is consistent and still we choose ignore it (or worse, rail against it).

I don’t believe that anyone has to accept external feedback; positive or negative. But if you want your art to be more than mental masturbation, you should be prepared to listen to all input and incorporate what makes sense to improve your art.

Otherwise, shut up and let the rest of us evacuate the flood plain.

The 12 Steps of Improvisational Screenplay Writing

Step 1. Write “FADE IN”

Step 2. Write a location, starting with “INT.” or “EXT.”

Step 3. Write a time of day after your location

Step 4. In two lines, write a description of that location as you see it in your mind’s eye

Step 5. Write down the name of a character.

Step 6. In a line, write a description of that character.

Step 7. In a line or two, write a description of what that character is doing at the location.

Step 8. Write the name of something with which that character is interacting, be it a person, object or something more ephemeral.

Step 9. In a line, write a description of that thing with which the character is interacting.

Step 10. In the middle of the page, write the name of your first character.

Step 11. Below that name, write an emotionally charged statement that this character says about the thing with which he or she is interacting, the nature of the interaction, or a total non-sequitur to confuse the hell out of people.

Step 12. In writing, rationalize these choices for the next 95 pages.

(I never said I’d help you make a movie, just a screenplay)