Over the course of the 24 weeks I am working with the writers in The Quest, each will write a weekly dispatch to share with the GITS community. There are several reasons for doing this, the main one educational: Hopefully you will learn something of value for your own understanding of the craft from the experiences of the Questers. I should also add they are a great group of people, so I expect you will enjoy getting to know them.
Today: Waka compares writing to running a half-marathon:
For this week’s Dispatch, I’ve decided to jump on the sports analogy bandwagon with Paul and Troy and discuss how a recent half-marathon I ran parallels the trials and tribulations of an everyday screenwriter (while incorporating concepts from this week’s lecture on “Scene”)
Beginning: Before having kids, I used to race a lot. I wasn’t particularly fast, but I’d still race, and it was a pursuit I enjoyed quite a bit. Pregnancies, C-sections, and babies resulted in an almost decade-long hiatus from competition. This year, though, my sister-in-law (and former running partner) suggested we try a half-marathon. Although I was a little nervous about the prospect, I agreed. She let me choose which race, and I let my lazy, comfort-loving side rule in this decision. Race at 6:00 AM, are you crazy? No way I’m waking up that early. Race in April? April in Portland can be cold and rainy. In July? Hmm. The timing is good, but it could be too hot. A race in July along a shady trail starting at 8:30? That’s the one! Little did I know, in my effort to sleep in and sweat as little as possible, I chose a race with some of the most difficult terrain I’d ever run on and a 320-foot elevation gain in 0.6 miles, followed by another elevation gain of 300 feet in less than 1 mile. It was only after paying the registration fee that I realized this race was going to be a lot harder than I anticipated.
When I began screenwriting, I also had no idea I was getting into. Do any of us? I don’t think you really can know until once you’re in it. I took a five-week class, received some encouragement from the instructor and thought I was all set. I gave myself five years to “make it.” Let’s just say it’s been more than five years, and my journey has been a lot like a 320-foot elevation gain in 0.6 miles.
Middle: The morning of my race, my 5 year-old asked me, “Mommy, are you gonna win?” I laughed. I hated to burst his bubble, but I told him the only way I was going to win was if all the people faster than me ran off a cliff. This image made him laugh (and I could tell he was actually giving this option some thought). He then asked me, “Are you sure you’re not going to win?” I could see in his eyes he really wanted me to give him something he could root for so I told him, “Well, the big thing is I’d like to finish. And not walk at all.” A fire lit up in his eyes and he yelled, “Don’t walk, Mama! Don’t walk EVER!” My oldest told me, “Just don’t die.”
During races longer than 10K, you’ll often find yourself trading places with the same people for a good portion of the run. During this race, it was a tall guy with his hair in a bun, and a woman in a hot pink running skirt. At about mile 5, for the first time in years, I felt my competitive running instincts kick in and I started to trash-talk them in my head: “Hey Guy-with-a-bun, think you can beat me? No guy with a bun is gonna beat me! Hey Pink-mini-skirt-lady, no way I’m gonna let you pass me. Who runs in a skirt? Omigod, are you wearing makeup? This is a half-marathon lady, not 15 minutes on the elliptical while you wait to get hit on!” A funny thing happened, though, each time I’d start to worry about guy-with-a-bun and pink-mini-skirt-lady, I would trip. The trail was riddled with rocks, gravel, and errant tree roots. Face-planting was a serious concern of mine heading into this race. When I forced myself to stop worrying about these two runners, whaddaya know, I found my footing.
In my writing, I’ve also had a tendency to worry too much about other people. First, there’s the concern about what other people in the industry are doing in relation to your project. For instance, Social Network came out right about the same time I was pitching Unfriended. The TV series Up All Night came out when I was trying to pitch Afterbirth. And this week, a fellow Quester alerted me to the fact that a project with a similar (but not the same, thank goodness) premise sold after a bidding war.
Then, there’s the worry about how other writers are faring. I have a very good friend who started writing screenplays about two years ago. She doesn’t particularly like movies and TV even less, but something about the medium intrigued her. I helped her start out by giving her my extra copy of Save the Cat. She checked out books on formatting from the library. At the time, she had read only two scripts in her life: one of mine and Pulp Fiction. Then, she got out some yellow legal paper and wrote her first screenplay freehand. She typed it up in Word, let only her teenage daughter read it for feedback, submitted it to the Nicholl and talked about how awesome it was going to be when (not if) we became finalists. I didn’t have the heart to tell her, “Aw sweetie, nobody wins the Nicholl.” And I thought to myself, this is also a necessary step in a screenwriter’s journey. Crushing Disappointment. Lo and behold, she was a quarterfinalist.
I wish I was a better person and could say I was happy. I was not. I was so jealous. I wallowed. I couldn’t write. I was depressed. Mired in top 20%, 15%, and 2 positive reads, me with my FinalDraft software and years of writing experience, I. Was. Bummed. At some point, though, I told myself to snap out of it. Her writing didn’t affect mine. Her success didn’t affect mine. I reminded myself, the best cure for the writing blues is TO WRITE. And that’s what I did. Other projects, other people – sure, it’s good to be aware, but if you focus on them and not your writing, you will trip. I firmly believe if you put your head down and focus on your writing, you’ll find your footing.
End: Toward the end of the race, I was just ready to be done. I had no idea where Guy-with-a-Bun or Pink-skirt-lady were and I didn’t care. About 2 miles to go, I felt my right calf start to ball up in a painful knot. No, no, no, no, I thought, I just want to finish. I knew my husband and my boys would be waiting for me at the end, and I wanted them to see me run across that finish line, not hobble. I heard cheers. The Finish Line. I sprinted. I saw my boys. Smiled. Finished. No walking.
Unlike my race, I don’t know when my writing journey will end. The Quest has been a huge source of information, support, and encouragement. A kind of Gatorade energy chew at mile 6? 10? 12.5?
A week ago, I found out the results from the race and I was shocked. Time wise, it had been my slowest half-marathon ever, this I knew right after the race. However, I didn’t know I placed 5th in my age group. Not quite winning, and a whole lot better than dying, but two more spots and I would have placed (for my age group, just keeping it real). My sister-in-law told me, “The secret for us is to keep from falling apart slower than everyone else.”
With my writing, I think this is also something I should keep in mind. Sure, there are those kids who sell their first script right before graduation. There’s the person whose best friend is Director of Development at [insert Big Studio name here] and their script sells in the mid-six figures. I acknowledge that’s not the path my writing will take. But, if I continue to train/learn, and fall apart more slowly than everyone else, one of these days, you’ll see me, maybe between 80-85 years old, and medal (Oscar? Razzie?) in hand (for my age group).
Scene Type: Action Scene
Structural Goal: Running a race
Emotional Goal: Prove I can still do this
Theme: Never give up
I’m a runner. Well, at my age definitely more of a jogger. And like Waka, I’ve done an off-road half-marathon in Death Valley no less. So I can relate to this metaphor in a big way.
Writing is like running. Not a sprint. Not middle distance. But the long stuff. Half-marathons. Marathons. Ultra-marathons. Every story is a slog, grinding our way through character development, brainstorming, plotting, writing, rewriting.
If we’re outside looking in, there’s no time pressure per se… unless you consider the fact that everyone else is writing a screenplay [it sure seems that way] and one of them could beat you to the punch with your million dollar spec idea.
And if you are on the inside, a working screenwriter, everyone from your reps to producers to execs want your script yesterday.
Which is to say even if we are in effect running a marathon when we write a story, like Waka, we cannot walk. No, we have to keep running, moving forward, making progress, always putting one foot after the other toward FADE OUT.
Moreover we’re always learning, never totally nailing the craft, so again a marathon, our writing career a long-term prospect.
But perhaps the most salient point from Waka’s dispatch is Guy-with-a-bun and Pink-skirt-lady. We can get caught up in who sold what, who’s writing what, the whole comparison game, but that is a 100 yard dash toward creative destruction.
As Waka suggests, we need to run our own race with each story we tell.
I am reminded of this verse (2 Timothy 4:7) attributed to Paul:
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
If we can honestly say that about each story we complete, then that would have been a marathon worth running.
Tomorrow: Another Dispatch From The Quest.
About Waka: Kansan turned Californian turned Oregonian. Fan of Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, Richard Curtis, Tina Fey (who isn’t?), & I still use a $30 Tracfone @wakatb.