I had a conversation recently with a former studio executive turned producer in which I found myself talking about the “spirit of the spec,” essentially when a person chooses to pursue a project or goal entirely on speculation with the hopes of some eventual payoff. Not everybody would make that choice. To many, with the odds so long against success, doing something on spec is not only illogical, it’s also seemingly inane.
And yet almost all screenwriters, TV writers, novelists, short story writers, playwrights, and poets have as some part of their creative self the spirit of the spec.
After my conversation with the producer, it occurred to me this is a subject we should discuss here at GITS because it speaks to the very core of why we’re here and what we’re about as people driven by creative impulses. So today through Friday, I will post something each day exploring what it means for a writer to have the spirit of the spec.
You Write Your Story.
Probably most people imagine that when a writer writes a story, they are seated at their desk, plunking away at their keyboard, hour after hour until they finish their opus.
Yes, there is a good deal of ‘butt on chair’ time involved in writing. But when you are moved by the spirit of the spec, committing yourself wholly to your story, the fact is you are never not writing.
You are writing your story when you drive.
You are writing your story when you eat.
You are writing your story when you shower.
You are writing your story when you fold the laundry.
You are writing your story when you exercise.
You are writing your story when you sleep.
You are writing your story when you are engaged in conversation with others.
This last point can be a particularly vexing condition for your friends, family and loved ones. They know they only have a certain percentage of your attention. That at any minute, you will be there, then not there. Your body present, your mind off with your characters somewhere.
But it’s not just somewhere, is it? No, when we write our story, we create a universe in which that story exists. The characters live and breathe. We may sit and write about them for a few hours at a time, but they go on with their existence, every minute of their every day.
And frankly that’s one of the most damnable aspects of the writing process: Knowing just what to pluck out of that universe to put into our story. To my knowledge, there is only one way to determine that, summed up wonderfully by my then three year-old son when asked his advice about writing: “Go into the story, and find the animals.”
We come up with an idea and test to see if it has merit.
We act on our idea by getting curious and following the path on our journey of discovery.
Then we write our story by going into it [immersing ourselves in that place and with those characters] and finding the animals [everything of substance that prowls there — moments, scenes, dialogue, images, feelings, and so on].
The animal allusion is particularly apt because stories are organic in nature and frankly rather wild, teeming with life which is both great in terms of the vitality that exists there, but also dangerous because there are times when we lose our way… as if in a jungle.
A thick, dark jungle with lots of creepy shadows, a multitude of trailheads — which ones to take?!?! — and a constant chorus of whispered voices: Go back! Who are you kidding? This story sucks! You suck! Why are you wasting your time? You’ll never make it to the end! You’ll be humiliated if you continue! Epic fail dead ahead!
On the whole, writing is not only a daunting task, it is also a frightening one.
But when you have the spirit of the spec, you have a card you can play to trump your fears, a simple and pragmatic one: “If you don’t write it, you can’t sell it.”
There is no way around that. It’s an inescapable fact. Truth with a capital “T”.
Thus when we struggle with our story, even to the point of feeling fear about writing it, the spirit of the spec reminds us we haven’t done squat until we have that finished manuscript in hand. Everything we do is just words vanishing into thin air, an exercise in vainglory… until we type FADE OUT / THE END.
But then a moment of true existential bliss: Printing out that final draft. Feeling the heft of those pages in our hands, their warmth as they slide out of the printer, one by one. We touch them. We hug them. We smell them.
This… THIS… is what it’s all about. We have gone into the story, immersed ourselves in that universe and with those characters, given ourselves over to an all-consuming creative process in order to craft something tangible, something real. Creativity incarnate. Our story. Come to life.
And now having written our story, we are ready for the next step on our journey.
Tomorrow: You Put It Out There.
[Originally posted August 10, 2011]