It looks like a typing malfunction, that title, doesn’t it? But it isn’t. After almost a decade teaching screenwriting courses, script editing and telling people how to approach film agents, I’ve pretty much fielded every ‘how to’ question that you could imagine. A lot of my work involves reading first screenplays by first-time writers and they’re often accompanied by questions – ‘How do I improve it?’ ‘How do I finish it?’ ‘How do I sell it?’ (guess which question gets asked the most there…)
As I prepare myself to answer these questions, I find an overwhelming desire to answer in the form of a counter question.
‘Why do you want to improve it?’ ‘Why do you want to finish it?’ ‘Why do you want to sell it?’ ‘Why do you want to write?’ ‘Why the hell did you write this, anyway?’
Motivation is an issue that most authors desperately explore for their characters but rarely for themselves. Fledgling writers spend months, years sometimes, labouring over a project which will land on my desk and I’ll know by the first page will go no further. Why do they do that?
Richard Bach, author of Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, once wrote a piece about writing and described how much he hated the process and the point at which he picked up a pencil to write was the point where he knew that if he didn’t, his head would be clogged with this pesky idea. I think there are only two reasons to write – because you can’t not or because you have something to say. If you’re writing for pleasure, then that is pure and wonderful and the act of writing alone should be enough for you. It doesn’t matter if it makes it further than your notebook and outside consultation should be irrelevant. If you have something to say, you are fulfilling the role of a writer within society. You’re passing on wisdom and intelligence, contributing to and expanding culture. That is noble and fantastic.
But what if you’re doing neither of these things? Well, then you fall into the loathsome category of ‘wannabe’ – like the rest of us. Our motivation to write? Saying goodbye to the day-job. Endless kudos. Respect of one’s peers. This is fine, it’s human. But it’s not reason enough to pick up a pencil.
It’s reason enough to spend a while meditating on what you have to say and how your life experience and acquired wisdom could help expand culture and entertain people. Don’t think about film agents. Don’t think strategically. Write because you love it and because you have something to say. Be JK Rowling, not Dan Brown.
Harry Bingham invited Jon Spira noted film writer to contribute the above piece. Jon is a script editor at the Writers’ Workshop which runs online scriptwriting courses (http://www.writersworkshop.co.uk/screenwriting_course.asp)
and help with film agents (http://www.writersworkshop.co.uk/film.asp).