WHY DO WE WANT TO BE WRITERS?

Post by JIM UHLS — Writer of “Fight Club,”  co-writer of “Jumper,” writer-exec-producer, “Semper Fi,” and paid to write many scripts that have not yet been made.

As a preface to this entry, I’d like to frame what follows in such a way as to avoid misunderstandings.

I will often address my statements to “you.” This doesn’t mean I’m a self-aggrandizing, know-it-all prick. Necessarily.

I am writing to myself as much as I am to you. — To myself in the present, or, in some pathetic cases, to myself in the past. Sometimes I will use “we” or “us,” but most often not, because that becomes tiresome. But I’m always including myself.

Once this gate has been opened, my stream of statements will flow, unbridled — and these statements may sound authoritarian. But they are only my opinions. And my advice is the same I have given, or continue to give, to myself; and is melded with advice I’ve received — and either followed, or failed to follow — from others.

Mistakes I mention are ones I’ve made, or have witnessed being made by people I respect. I think of us as all in the same struggle, no matter what level any of us occupy in the professional world. Everyone has to start on the journey of screenwriting and continue. The pure creative act of writing has nothing to do with “distance markers” of professional stature. Well, maybe a little, with those lucky sons of bitches that get a lot of their movies made. But. It’s the quality of the work we do that matters.

If there are facts contained herein, you may extract them, wipe off the enormous amount of exaggerated, emotional spin I’ve used to throw them into the air, and test them out in the open, for yourselves.

Please keep all this in mind. You may still draw the conclusion that what you’re reading is from a self-aggrandizing, know-it-all prick, but I hope that is not your reaction — in public.

I will also use the words “he, him, his” for third-person, when referring to various professions. It is manifestly obvious that women can do all the jobs in this business as well as men. But if I were to always write “he or she,” it would drive me/you/him/her crazy.

You may be seeking encouragement. If what I write does not cause you to flee town in a cab, with no intention of paying, rather, with a gun to the head of the driver and your other hand clutching a list of addresses of people in seven states who might let you crash on the sofa for a month — then, I’ve given you encouragement.

I’ll now set the tone properly, by starting with what I consider to be the core of the black hole of screenwriting:

If you feel strongly, passionately that you are right about something — that your premise is solid, that your character is completely realized, that your scene is crackling with heat, that your lines are killer dialogue, that your script is ready to “go out” — if you know, in your heart, that you are right —

— You are wrong.

— Sometimes.

The rest of the time, you’re right.

— But that only correlates to each aspect of the craft, if you are a good judge of them in the writing of others. However much you lack in judgement about any specific aspect raises your percentage of being wrong about that aspect in your own work. If you’re bad at judging the strength of a scene or a character, generally, you will be wrong about your own more often.

So, in all, there is a wilderness of uncertainty — through which you make your way as well as you can — but any point of being wrong can be a hole into which you’ll fall.

Being right sometimes and wrong sometimes about your own material: what is this concept, anyway?

The best I can cough up is:

It’s the paradox of being a writer.

[You all know that “paradox” is a good word to toss out to sound like a bullshit philosopher, even when comparing ink pens.]

This paradox is:

If there’s no passion, there’s nothing good coming out of you; but, if there’s no objectivity, then the raw material coming out of you — despite its fire — is unshaped enough to be judged as bad work.

And I’m sorry to add — the fact that you’re right sometimes even if most times — is not a good thing.

It only adds another layer of complexity and uncertainty to the problem:

— When do you “know” that you’re “right,” in the heat of your passionate conviction that you are ?

Well, my purpose here is not to solve these problems or even offer possible solutions.

I want to simply point out some of the challenges we all face as writers —

— and see if, over time, I can create so much confusion and insecurity in you about your own abilities, that you become physically incapable of moving your hands toward a keyboard.

It’s not my “mission,” or anything like that.

I just like to fuck with your heads.

But all of you like to fuck with people’s heads, too.

It’s a distinct personality trait of writers. All of you either do it, want to do it, or do it without self-awareness.

— Look at what we do to our characters. We make them do things they’d never do; say things they’d never say; force them to realize things they’d never realize — or force them to not realize that which should be patently obvious — as if they had been hit with a shockwave of temporary moronism.

And, of course, we repeatedly make them take time out from being fully dimensional humans and force them to advance the plot and explain to the audience what the hell is going on.

I mean, come on — that’s fucking with people.

It has been suggested …

[”It has been suggested” is a great preface before quoting a statement or idea when you have absolutely no idea who said it first. Reporters use this phrase often for a different reason. They want to preface their question by insinuating that what they’re asking about is common, widespread knowledge: “It has been suggested that you eat babies, Senator. Care to comment?”]

Anyway, it has been suggested that a person becomes a writer to control invented people and environments due to the painful frustration that he cannot control his own actual environment.

— Well … fuck, YES. It works. So, all of the non-writers around us can find their own way to deal with their painful, twisted, festering powerlessness. We’ve got ours.

I actually know, from an unquestionable authority, that this need to create and control imagined people and environments is the primary motivation for becoming a writer. A fully-licensed, board-certified psychiatrist told it to me in the maximum-security lock-down psychiatric wing of county general — and it was before the sedative he injected into me had fully taken effect. I was still fighting the straps. — So don’t tell me I wasn’t lucid when I heard him say it.

Writers. Here we all are, creating and controlling our imagined people in our imagined environments. It would be great. But — we have to deal with the paradox.

Much as I hate to do this, I must point out yet another layer of complexity to the paradox:

There are no “facts.” There is no “right,” no “wrong.” There are only opinions — yours, and those of others. So, the real question is — when do you have the best opinion about your material — and when do you not have the best opinion?

Well … that’s a matter of opinion.

This mind-bending, subtle, vaporous, intangible and evil paradox presents to us a problem that cannot be solved, only dealt with, as capably as one can.

We procrastinate.

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6 thoughts on “WHY DO WE WANT TO BE WRITERS?

  1. Jim Mitchem says:

    Fucking with people’s heads is exactly why I write. Of course I’m an ad writer now, but the only reason I’m even good at it is because I can crawl up inside of people’s heads and get them to do what my client pays me to want them to do. Still, it’s just fucking with people’s heads. And because I can’t break free from the paradox of making money to keep my family in bread and cheese, I fail to attack the really juicy stuff that festers inside of me. The stuff that will let me really fuck with people’s heads. The ideas that will cause emotional reactions in people that advertising can’t touch. So yes, I procrastinate. And sell my time. And worry about why I bother.

  2. Kevin Costello says:

    Fantastic read! And perfect argument fodder for the next time someone throws around the whole ‘insecure writer’ thing. Not just a cliché, but it also ignores the insight and humility it takes to own up to the paradox. We trust our instinct because it’s all we’ve got… and the stats vary.

  3. Johnny B says:

    This is pretty f*ing awesome. Writing feels like anarchy sometimes. No rules. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it don’t! Thanks, Mr Uhls.

  4. Brad N says:

    Yes on all counts. I was told one of my recent specs was too outside the norm, but man it was good and got a reaction. That accomplishes something, at least for me.

  5. Tatiana says:

    Sometimes when I’m doing my procrastinating in theOffice, I imagine thought bubbles above people’s heads. Now I know what’s in yours, Jim. As always, wilder and freer than my own imagination.

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