write what you know about what you don’t

I was talking about fiction and screenplays with a bright and cool young woman who told me a story about a guy at a production company where she used to work. He was known for hitting on the interns and looking for hot girls on the Web and it doesn’t sound like people there took him very seriously or felt comfortable around him. So they found it completely in character when he began shopping around “the stripper script”. That was what they came to call it. It wasn’t about a stripper. It had been written by a stripper. He said he’d stumbled across her blog online, thought it was great, thought she had a unique, funny voice, reached out to her. They thought, Right. They assumed he was trying to sleep with her. Then, when the screenplay was being passed around, and the guy was struggling — and struggling — to raise money to make it, everybody said, Okay, the script isn’t bad. It’s actually kind of good. But he’ll never get funds for it! Who the hell is going to put money into a movie about a teenage girl getting pregnant? Who wants to pay ten bucks to see that?

“And now that movie — that stripper script — has just been nominated for Best Picture,” she said. She seemed a little dazed.

She also told me about all the awful scripts she read for this production company, and what an education she found it to be. I asked, “What was the most common mistake writers made, what kind of flaw did you see over and over?”**

“Narcissism,” she said immediately. “A lot of struggling screenwriters writing screenplays about struggling screenwriters. They haven’t realized yet that no one cares.” Then she added, “We’re the self-esteem generation. We were all raised to believe that we’re each one of us like a saviour or something. Right from the time we were born.” Which doesn’t seem to make for good scripts*.

She also told me that before she met me at dinner she had looked me up on the Internet and read a little bit of my blog.*** She had just come back from Sundance last night, she said, and as she read my post about “that Josh Hartnett movie with that guy friend of yours and you said you didn’t know the title” she realized, Hey, I saw this! She’s talking about that movie AUGUST! How funny.

I made a mental note to write about her reaction to my blog, in my blog.

And now the cycle is complete.

*The ‘write what you know’ maxim doesn’t help. My favorite part of a novel called MATRIMONY by Joshua Henkin is when the aspiring writer protagonist tells a friend what his writing professor instructed the class in an attempt to lessen the flow of student stories that were either about colonies on Mars or keg parties. “Write what you know about what you don’t know, or write what you don’t know about what you know.” I love that. I think it is absolutely dead-on, and I wish someone had given me that advice amid the painful self-consciousness of my late teens and early twenties, when I found the ‘write what you know’ thing more crippling than helpful.

** I ask this question whenever I meet someone who reads professionally. They are usually quick to answer. When I asked my agent the most common reason she rejects manuscripts — when she likes the premise enough to request the first 50 pages, and then the writing enough to request the whole manuscript [the vast, vast majority of submissions don’t get that far] — she said, “The book is too muddled at the center. It doesn’t come together the way it should, so that when you put it down you still don’t really know what it’s about, or where the author was going with it.”

*** I’m always surprised when someone I know or meet in real life tells me they’ve read my blog. Except for Jason. Hi Jason.


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