Writing and the Creative Life: One key to creativity… naps?

August 5th, 2016 by

I was doing my usual thing yesterday, working my way through a virtual pile of emails, organizing my daily To Do list, and generally being a productive busy bee when I saw this tweet from fellow screenwriter Arash Amel:

Writing tip for the day: sometimes when you don’t feel like writing, just stop. Have a nap.

Have a nap. That jarred something in my memory, so I started digging into the archives of my blog and found a post I wrote over 5 years ago called “Naps: Key to Creativity?” The piece cited a New York Times article which examined scientific research between the connection of sleep and creativity:

“There is a cultural bias against sleep that sees it as akin to shutting down, or even to death,” explains Dr. Jeffrey Ellenbogen, a neurologist at Harvard Medical School and director of the Sleep Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Most people, Dr. Ellenbogen says, think of the sleeping brain as similar to a computer that has “gone to sleep” — it does nothing productive. Wrong. Sleep enhances performance, learning and memory. Most unappreciated of all, sleep improves creative ability to generate aha! moments and to uncover novel connections among seemingly unrelated ideas.

Steven Jobs, the chief executive of Apple, once defined creativity as “just connecting things.” Sleep assists the brain in flagging unrelated ideas and memories, forging connections among them that increase the odds that a creative idea or insight will surface.

So some scientists and entrepreneurs think sleep is beneficial. But what about arty types? Again from the NYT article:

“It’s more that sleep brings a change of approach,” explains Mark Holmes, an art director at Pixar Animation Studios who worked on the film “Wall-E.” “You can get tunnel vision when you’re hammering away at a problem. You keep going down this same path, again and again, just tweaking, making incremental changes at best. ” He continues: “Sleep erases that. It resets you. You wake up and realize — wait a minute! — there is another way to do this.”

And how does that “reset work:

“Sleep makes a unique contribution,” explains Mark Jung-Beeman, a psychologist at Northwestern University who studies the neural bases of insight and creative cognition.

Some sort of incubation period, in which a person leaves an idea for a while, is crucial to creativity. During the incubation period, sleep may help the brain process a problem.

“When you think you’re not thinking about something, you probably are,” says Dr. Jung-Beeman, who has a doctorate in experimental psychology.

When you think you’re not thinking about something, you probably are. Like when you are dreaming:

Another theory is that typical approaches to problem-solving may decay or weaken during sleep, enabling the brain to switch to more innovative alternatives. A classic switching story, recounted in “A Popular History of American Invention” in 1924, involves Elias Howe’s invention of the automated sewing machine: after much frustration with his original model, which used a needle with an eye in the middle, Howe dreamed that he was being attacked by painted warriors brandishing spears with holes in the sharp end. He patented a new design based on the dream spears; by the time the patent expired in 1867, he had earned more than $2 million in royalties.

My predominant instinct when writing a story is to immerse myself in it in the most comprehensive fashion possible. Oftentimes that involves endless hours devoted to research, character development, brainstorming and plotting. I know the value of a direct approach to the creative process, slogging into and through the story universe with lots of intentional effort and thought.

Yet I know that in some intangible way, writing a story involves a type of magic, a metaphorical way of referring to an indirect approach to the process.

And what could be more indirect than giving oneself over to a nap?

So the next time you are stuck or feeling uninspired, consider doing what Arash Amel suggests: Take a nap. The answers you seek may be lurking in your dreams.

Writing and the Creative Life is a series in which we explore creativity from the practical to the psychological, the latest in brain science to a spiritual take on the subject. Hopefully the more we understand about our creative self, the better we will become as writers. If you have any good reading material in this vein, please post in comments. If you have a particular observation you think readers will benefit from and you would like to explore in a guest post, email me.

[Originally posted October 31, 2013]

Interview: Arash Amel (Black List 2011, 2014)

March 28th, 2016 by

One of the best ways to learn the craft is read what professional screenwriters have to say about it. To that end for the next few weeks, I will be featuring interviews I have conducted with Black List screenwriters.

Today: My July 2013 interview with Arash Amel whose scripts Grace of Monaco and Seducing Ingrid Bergman made the Black List in 2011 and 2014 respectively. Other projects include The Infinity Principle, Soldiers of the Sun, and the recently produced Titan on which Arash also served as producer.

Here are links to the six installments of the entire interview:

Part 1: “I’m a great believer in breaking rules, and I’m a great believer in one size doesn’t fit everybody. We’re not lawyers. We’re not accountants. There is no right way of learning how to write a screenplay.”

Part 2: “So after 20 years of basically kind of being the ugly duckling in one country, suddenly in one screenplay everybody in another country opened the doors and said welcome…it made me believe in the Hollywood dream. And I still remember the first time I stepped onto Paramount’s lot in 2006 — it was like stepping into a fairly tale.”

Part 3: “I am a great believer in the psychology of character in screenplay. I think that almost any story becomes a visual enactment of the psychological dilemmas faced by the lead character. If you can make that connection, you elevate your characters to a mythic level.”

Part 4: “The essence and what fascinates me as a writer is that human condition. I think movies, for me, are always a metaphor for internal conflict. That’s how you get to actually really truthful and genuine characters that audiences can relate to.”

Part 5: “Every screenplay is a movie, every movie is at minimum a $10 to $20 million dollar start-up enterprise. For a brief period of time, you’re the general manager. No one can move unless you’ve written.”

Part 6: “I find that the theme grows from the characters… It’s, ‘What is my character trying to achieve? What do they love? What do they exemplify, and what are they afraid of?’ Those questions lead me to answer what the theme for the character is.”

Arash is repped by CAA and Grandview.

Twitter: @arashamel.

Arash Amel on the “magic” and “moments” of writing

February 25th, 2016 by

Screenwriter Arash Amel took to Twitter last night to remind us of something so basic to writing, we may tend to forget it:

Absolutely spot on. Always come back to the joy of this simplest aspect of the craft. We do well to heed Arash’s comments. He is a two-time Black List writer with Grace of Monaco (2011) and Seducing Ingrid Bergman (2014), and the movie project The Titan is now in production based on his story which he is also producing. Arash has multiple other projects in development including WarGames and Solders of the Sun.

You can read my July 2013 interview with Arash here.

Twitter: @arashamel.

IMDb: Arash Amel.

Writing and the Creative Life: One key to creativity… naps?

January 14th, 2016 by

I was doing my usual thing yesterday, working my way through a virtual pile of emails, organizing my daily To Do list, and generally being a productive busy bee when I saw this tweet from fellow screenwriter Arash Amel:

Writing tip for the day: sometimes when you don’t feel like writing, just stop. Have a nap.

Have a nap. That jarred something in my memory, so I started digging into the archives of my blog and found a post I wrote over 5 years ago called “Naps: Key to Creativity?” The piece cited a New York Times article which examined scientific research between the connection of sleep and creativity:

“There is a cultural bias against sleep that sees it as akin to shutting down, or even to death,” explains Dr. Jeffrey Ellenbogen, a neurologist at Harvard Medical School and director of the Sleep Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Most people, Dr. Ellenbogen says, think of the sleeping brain as similar to a computer that has “gone to sleep” — it does nothing productive. Wrong. Sleep enhances performance, learning and memory. Most unappreciated of all, sleep improves creative ability to generate aha! moments and to uncover novel connections among seemingly unrelated ideas.

Steven Jobs, the chief executive of Apple, once defined creativity as “just connecting things.” Sleep assists the brain in flagging unrelated ideas and memories, forging connections among them that increase the odds that a creative idea or insight will surface.

So some scientists and entrepreneurs think sleep is beneficial. But what about arty types? Again from the NYT article:

“It’s more that sleep brings a change of approach,” explains Mark Holmes, an art director at Pixar Animation Studios who worked on the film “Wall-E.” “You can get tunnel vision when you’re hammering away at a problem. You keep going down this same path, again and again, just tweaking, making incremental changes at best. ” He continues: “Sleep erases that. It resets you. You wake up and realize — wait a minute! — there is another way to do this.”

And how does that “reset work:

“Sleep makes a unique contribution,” explains Mark Jung-Beeman, a psychologist at Northwestern University who studies the neural bases of insight and creative cognition.

Some sort of incubation period, in which a person leaves an idea for a while, is crucial to creativity. During the incubation period, sleep may help the brain process a problem.

“When you think you’re not thinking about something, you probably are,” says Dr. Jung-Beeman, who has a doctorate in experimental psychology.

When you think you’re not thinking about something, you probably are. Like when you are dreaming:

Another theory is that typical approaches to problem-solving may decay or weaken during sleep, enabling the brain to switch to more innovative alternatives. A classic switching story, recounted in “A Popular History of American Invention” in 1924, involves Elias Howe’s invention of the automated sewing machine: after much frustration with his original model, which used a needle with an eye in the middle, Howe dreamed that he was being attacked by painted warriors brandishing spears with holes in the sharp end. He patented a new design based on the dream spears; by the time the patent expired in 1867, he had earned more than $2 million in royalties.

My predominant instinct when writing a story is to immerse myself in it in the most comprehensive fashion possible. Oftentimes that involves endless hours devoted to research, character development, brainstorming and plotting. I know the value of a direct approach to the creative process, slogging into and through the story universe with lots of intentional effort and thought.

Yet I know that in some intangible way, writing a story involves a type of magic, a metaphorical way of referring to an indirect approach to the process.

And what could be more indirect than giving oneself over to a nap?

So the next time you are stuck or feeling uninspired, consider doing what Arash Amel suggests: Take a nap. The answers you seek may be lurking in your dreams.

Writing and the Creative Life is a weekly series in which we explore creativity from the practical to the psychological, the latest in brain science to a spiritual take on the subject. Hopefully the more we understand about our creative self, the better we will become as writers. If you have any good reading material in this vein, please post in comments. If you have a particular observation you think readers will benefit from and you would like to explore in a guest post, email me.

[Originally posted October 31st, 2013]

Go Into The Story Black List Writer Interviews

August 31st, 2015 by

In the month of August, I have been featuring insights on the craft from Black List writers I have interviewed over the years. That inspired me to complete something I’ve wanted to do for a long time: Aggregate links to all of the Black List interviews I have done.

Black List logo

Here they are:

Arash Amel (2011, 2014 Black List)

Nikole Beckwith (2012 Black List)

Roberto Bentivegna (2012 Black List)

Carter Blanchard (2012 Black List)

Christopher Borrelli (2009 Black List)

Elijah Bynum (2013 Black List)

Damien Chazelle (2010, 2012 Black List)

Spenser Cohen (2013 Black List)

James DiLapo (2012 Black List)

Geoff LaTulippe (2008 Black List)

Brian Duffield (2010, 2011, 2014 Black List)

Stephany Folsom (2013 Black List)

F. Scott Frazier (2011, 2014 Black List)

Jeremiah Friedman and Nick Palmer (2010 Black List)

Joshua Golden (2014 Black List)

David Guggenheim (2010, 2012 Black List)

Julia Hart (2012 Black List)

Eric Heisserer (2012, 2014 Black List)

Jason Mark Hellerman (2013 Black List)

Brad Ingelsby (2008, 2012 Black List)

Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman (2012 Black List)

Lisa Joy (2013 Black List)

Kyle Killen (2008 Black List)

Eric Koenig (2014 Black List)

Justin Kremer (2012, 2014 Black List)

Daniel Kunka (2014 Black List)

Seth Lochhead (2006 Black List)

Kelly Marcel (2011 Black List)

Donald Margulies (2013 Black List)

Chris McCoy (2007, 2009, 2011 Black List)

Jeff Morris (2009 Black List)

Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (2005, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2012 Black List)

Declan O’Dwyer (2013 Black List)

Ashley Powell (2012 Black List)

Chris Roessner (2012 Black List)

Stephanie Shannon (2013 Black List)

Will Simmons (2012 Black List)

Chris Sparling (2009, 2010, 2013 Black List)

Barbara Stepansky (2013 Black List)

Michael Werwie (2012 Black List)

Gary Whitta (2007 Black List)

I consider interviews to be the equivalent of primary source material. In other words, when you read interviews with writers such as these, you are getting information from people who are on the front lines of the movie and TV business.

Interviews with over 40 Black List writers. You should read them. Who knows you may gleam some key insight which could transform your approach to writing.

Black List writers on the craft: Theme (Part 1)

August 24th, 2015 by

Over the years, I have interviewed over 40 Black List screenwriters. This month, I am running a series featuring one topic per week related to the craft of writing.

Black List logo

This week: How do you understand and work with the concept of ‘theme’?

The diversity of responses among the Black List writers I have interviewed is fascinating. Some writers start with theme. Some find themes during the story-crafting process. Some don’t even think about it. But today, we start off a basic question: What is theme?

Geoff LaTulippe: “Theme, to me, is the ultimate notion that you’re trying to get across with your story. Love is Hard. Space is Dangerous. Hope is Lost. Whatever it is, you have to ask yourself, ‘If I had to give it to the audience in one sentence, what would be the POINT of all this?'”

Will Simmons: “Theme is the nucleus for every screenplay. Each scene should be an exploration of the thematic undercurrent. A poignant theme will lend itself to a variety of interpretations, which the characters can embody and externalize. It should grow in complexity as the story progresses and characters struggle to survive the journey.”

Chris Borrelli: “For me, I would almost say, what am I trying to say? What am I trying to…and there is something I’m trying to say, in whatever I…and sometimes there’s multiple themes…one will stand out for me.”

Brad Ingelsby: “I wish I had the best way to define what theme is. I know what it means to me, I guess. If you look at the main character, what is the story really about to that person? Why are we going on this journey with them?”

Arash Amel: “For me, personally, it grows out of my characters. It’s, ‘What is my character trying to achieve? What do they love? What do they exemplify, and what are they afraid of?’ Those questions lead me to answer what the theme for the character is, for the lead character, and then that comes in and underpins pretty much the whole of the movie and then flavors the subtext.”

Rajiv Joseph: “I feel that every story has to have an idea that transcends the action and the characters… We can both write funny, cute dialogue until we’re blue in the face and it’s not going to mean anything. Always, no matter how silly a movie might be, I think there has to be some deeper idea that’s its soul.”

Lisa Joy: “For me, theme is the soul of a script. It’s the sense or feeling stitched in fine thread throughout the pages. It’s the part of a script that a reader can take away and relate to or apply to their own lives long after they’ve forgotten the snippets of dialogue or plot points of the script itself.”

Stephany Folsom: “To me, stories are supposed to convey something about our human experience and why we’re here. Theme isn’t what I lead with. But theme has to be there or else it’s not a movie. What’s the point of telling a story if it doesn’t have something to say about life?”

Takeaways:

* Theme has something to do with the point of the story, the meaning of the story, the “nucleus” of the story. This take embraces the intellectual / thoughtful aspect of a story.

* But there’s also this: Theme is the “soul” of the story, something deriving from the characters which ties into our “human experience.” Here theme is more about the emotional / psychological dimension of a story.

This aligns with my theory: That a script’s central theme is best understood as the emotional meaning of a story. But here is another actionable take on the concept:

Ashleigh Powell: “Theme is something that has always felt very elusive and intimidating to me. Maybe it comes from reading a lot of literature, having to dissect and analyze and write serious essays on the importance of ‘THEME’ in a story. But I recently read a piece of advice… this comes from Tawnya Bhattacharya from the Script Anatomy blog… that has really struck with me: ‘Theme is the opposite of your main character’s flaw.’ You start the story with the main character’s flaw, you show how that character is transforming over the course of their journey, and by the end of it they’ve completed an arc and realized the theme. I think there is something beautifully simplified about that approach.”

Identify what the Protagonist’s Disunity nature is, jump to its opposite nature (Unity), and that informs what your story’s central theme is.

No matter the various interpretations put forth by Black List writers I’ve interviewed, they all agree on one thing: Theme is critical in writing a story.

How about you? What’s your definition of theme? How do you go about working with themes in your stories?

Come back tomorrow for more about this important subject: Theme.

Black List writers on the craft: Story Concepts (Part 4)

August 6th, 2015 by

Over the years, I have interviewed over 40 Black List screenwriters. This month, I will run a series featuring one topic per week related to the craft of writing.

Black List logo

This week: How do you come up with story concepts?

In this set of responses, the writers express how they find inspiration from feelings:

Nikole Beckwith: “I really think that ultimately any story idea I ever come up with comes directly from an emotional experience. It just like manifests itself in different ways… Regardless of the actual story it all comes from somewhere inside of you, so your perspective and your story will reveal itself… you have it. Your stories are already in you. You don’t have to press yourself for them to appear. They will appear if you just let them.”

Jason Mark Hellerman: “A lot of times, it’s what I’m dealing with in my personal life, but it’s what I want to talk about, but I’m too afraid to.”

Seth Lochhead: “And then there’s music. Sometimes music creates a feeling and I am compelled to capture that feeling.”

Arash Amel: “I start with a feeling. I try to listen to sort of the voice in my head that kind of goes, ‘What kind of a movie do I feel like writing now? What haven’t I done?'”

Something personal. An emotional experience. Capture the feeling. And this: “Your stories are already in you… they will appear if you just let them.”

When I read these comments, I’m reminded of this:

“Trust your feelings.”

Who knew that in addition to being a Jedi knight, Obi-Wan Kenobi was a screenwriting guru, too!

Using source material or real life as inspiration for story ideas seems pretty logical. Coming from a more emotionally grounded perspective feels more right-brain. Intuitive. Instinctual. The Heart in contrast to the Head.

There’s a clear upside to this approach. The final question I ask in assessing a potential story concept is, “What is my emotional connection to the material?” Starting from that place puts you squarely on target to answer that question.

How about you? Do you look to feelings and emotions for inspiration for your stories? Have you written stories arising from feelings? If so, please stop by comments and share with us.

For Part 1 of the series on story concepts, go here.

Part 2, here.

Part 3, here.

Tomorrow and for the rest of this week, we will learn how other Black List writers I have interviewed generate story concepts and the variety of ways they engage in that practice.

Writing and the Creative Life: One key to creativity… naps?

October 31st, 2013 by

I was doing my usual thing yesterday, working my way through a virtual pile of emails, organizing my daily To Do list, and generally being a productive busy bee when I saw this tweet from fellow screenwriter Arash Amel:

Writing tip for the day: sometimes when you don’t feel like writing, just stop. Have a nap.

Have a nap. That jarred something in my memory, so I started digging into the archives of my blog and found a post I wrote over 5 years ago called “Naps: Key to Creativity?” The piece cited a New York Times article which examined scientific research between the connection of sleep and creativity:

“There is a cultural bias against sleep that sees it as akin to shutting down, or even to death,” explains Dr. Jeffrey Ellenbogen, a neurologist at Harvard Medical School and director of the Sleep Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Most people, Dr. Ellenbogen says, think of the sleeping brain as similar to a computer that has “gone to sleep” — it does nothing productive. Wrong. Sleep enhances performance, learning and memory. Most unappreciated of all, sleep improves creative ability to generate aha! moments and to uncover novel connections among seemingly unrelated ideas.

Steven Jobs, the chief executive of Apple, once defined creativity as “just connecting things.” Sleep assists the brain in flagging unrelated ideas and memories, forging connections among them that increase the odds that a creative idea or insight will surface.

So some scientists and entrepreneurs think sleep is beneficial. But what about arty types? Again from the NYT article:

“It’s more that sleep brings a change of approach,” explains Mark Holmes, an art director at Pixar Animation Studios who worked on the film “Wall-E.” “You can get tunnel vision when you’re hammering away at a problem. You keep going down this same path, again and again, just tweaking, making incremental changes at best. ” He continues: “Sleep erases that. It resets you. You wake up and realize — wait a minute! — there is another way to do this.”

And how does that “reset work:

“Sleep makes a unique contribution,” explains Mark Jung-Beeman, a psychologist at Northwestern University who studies the neural bases of insight and creative cognition.

Some sort of incubation period, in which a person leaves an idea for a while, is crucial to creativity. During the incubation period, sleep may help the brain process a problem.

“When you think you’re not thinking about something, you probably are,” says Dr. Jung-Beeman, who has a doctorate in experimental psychology.

When you think you’re not thinking about something, you probably are. Like when you are dreaming:

Another theory is that typical approaches to problem-solving may decay or weaken during sleep, enabling the brain to switch to more innovative alternatives. A classic switching story, recounted in “A Popular History of American Invention” in 1924, involves Elias Howe’s invention of the automated sewing machine: after much frustration with his original model, which used a needle with an eye in the middle, Howe dreamed that he was being attacked by painted warriors brandishing spears with holes in the sharp end. He patented a new design based on the dream spears; by the time the patent expired in 1867, he had earned more than $2 million in royalties.

My predominant instinct when writing a story is to immerse myself in it in the most comprehensive fashion possible. Oftentimes that involves endless hours devoted to research, character development, brainstorming and plotting. I know the value of a direct approach to the creative process, slogging into and through the story universe with lots of intentional effort and thought.

Yet I know that in some intangible way, writing a story involves a type of magic, a metaphorical way of referring to an indirect approach to the process.

And what could be more indirect than giving oneself over to a nap?

So the next time you are stuck or feeling uninspired, consider doing what Arash Amel suggests: Take a nap. The answers you seek may be lurking in your dreams.

Writing and the Creative Life is a weekly series in which we explore creativity from the practical to the psychological, the latest in brain science to a spiritual take on the subject. Hopefully the more we understand about our creative self, the better we will become as writers. If you have any good reading material in this vein, please post in comments. If you have a particular observation you think readers will benefit from and you would like to explore in a guest post, email me.

Spec Script Sale: “Soldiers of the Sun”

August 14th, 2013 by

Universal acquires action science fiction spec script “Soldiers of the Sun” written by Arash Amel. From THR:

Sun is set in a post-apocalyptic future and focuses on a squad of soldiers that searches for a fabled city of gold while on a tour of duty in Mexico liberating it from an alien race known as Orcs.

—-

Sun is the third spec Amel has sold in as many years and marks a return to the sci-fi action genre. The rising screenwriter has been generating buzz for his true-life bio-scripts, including the upcoming Grace of Monaco, which began life as a spec. The movie now stars Nicole Kidman as Grace Kelly and will open November 27 in limited release.  He also has scripts centering on actress Ingrid Bergman and war journalist Marie Colvin in development but initially broke through with his sci-fi and action screenplays such as The Infinity Principle.

This project is an original franchise. Vin Diesel is attached to star and he knows something about franchises [see: Fast and Furious].

Amel is repped by CAA.

By my count, this is the 64th spec script sale in 2013.

There were 69 spec script sales year-to-date in 2012.

To read my exclusive interview with Arash Amel, go here.

Congratulations, Arash!

Screenwriting 101: Arash Amel

August 6th, 2013 by

screenplay“I am a great believer in the psychology of character in screenplay. I think that almost any story becomes a visual enactment of the psychological dilemmas faced by the lead character. If you can make that connection, you elevate your characters to a mythic level.”

— Arash Amiel [GITS Interview, July 3, 2013]