In the Pit: On Writing and Revision

The goal of my self study is to refocus my creative practice by completing work on two screenplay rewrites and to start production on a personal documentary film. While the rewrites have been going well, I won’t be able to do any work on the documentary due to unforeseen travel restrictions. 

I’m finding it interesting to apply my own storytelling strategies, the ones I’m in the process of teaching to seniors who are writing screenplays as part of their senior project, to my own practice. I’m asking them to dive deep into their characters’ backstories, to know all there is to know about their characters’ public and private lives. It’s a good reminder lesson for my own work to dive deep into character. I’m especially enjoying exploring my characters private lives. What a character does when they are alone speaks volumes about who they are and helps the audience better understand why they are doing what they do in public. I like to remind my students of scenes in popular movies when characters are alone.

One example that I reference is Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Paul Schrader, the screenwriter, not only knew his character’s deepest secrets, he included some of them in the screenplay. Because Travis is such a complicated character, who does some questionable things, we need to learn about his interior life in order to make him more sympathetic. There are many other examples of complex characters who we get to know through their behavior while alone.

Another thing that I teach students is the idea that there is no such thing as a bad first draft. I learned this from William Goldman who told me that it doesn’t matter too much what you write when you sit in “the Pit”, as he called it, but you can’t get up until you write something. He also said that writing three pages a day, no matter what the quality of the pages, was recommended. I preach this to my students all the time but rarely apply these rules to myself. So as part of my self study I’m doing my best to follow my own advice. A few years ago, a student who was writing a screenplay as part of his senior project reported, during his senior project presentation, that the most important thing he had learned during the process was to keep writing no matter what. 

It has been a great experience for me to rewrite two screenplays that I originally wrote in graduate school. I always tell my students that any work they make, whether written or filmed should be considered a first draft. Very rarely do we see published work that hasn’t been rewritten or re-edited multiple times. Some screenplays are rewritten dozens of times. I like to remind myself of this fact when I sit down to revise my work. I also feel that I’m experiencing what my students go through when I require them to create another draft of a piece of work. 

Revising work is an essential part of creating work but is also a challenging part. I often notice how some students are eager to be finished quickly with a project without considering the quality of their work. As part of my practice I make clear that the first time they share work it’s so they can get feedback and have some guidance while revising. I have found that if I make it clear from the start that there will be at least one revision, students are prepared to share a first draft. I’m applying this same technique on myself during this self study. If I know that everything I write will be edited and revised it frees me to explore scenes that I know may not work but will allow me to advance nonetheless. 

In my first post I mentioned how I was going to approach this process in the same way I would a Marathon or bike race. As I find myself at the halfway point, I’m feeling like I need the same mental endurance to reach the finish line.

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