Three Weekends, and Doing What You Can

Two weekends ago was  a “writing cave” weekend—basically an 11-hour day and a 13-hour day of polishing a draft and application materials of Lovers in Their Right Mind to submit to the the Film Independent Screenwriters Lab.  Wish us luck!

Last weekend was more fun because my next deadline–for Pole Cats–is not until May 1st, which  meant I still needed to be writing, but could afford to do so less efficiently for a few days. So on Saturday  I had writing date with a friend at a coffee shop. We sat outside and I saw the sun and stuff.  We also talked. That was awesome.

On the way home, I thought, “I’d like to read the script for Bridesmaids,” so I stopped at the WGA Library , which, if you don’t know it, is a library housed at the Writers Guild. It’s open to the public and they have tons of bound scripts.

A hundred-and twenty pages into the script I found  this bold-type note:

“from this point on, draft is very rough. We didn’t get to this point until this morning. wanted to see if we’re going in the right direction with annie uniting the bridesmaid’s and saving the day.”

Reading this I had a picture  in my head of the writers (Amy Mumulo and Kristen Wiig)  burning the midnight oil before having to show this script to someone, and realizing there wasn’t enough time – or maybe enough energy – to polish it clear to the end, so deciding to write this note, and hitting send.

This made me happy for reasons I’m not sure I can accurately articulate, but of course am going to try…(right after I note that in no way are the writers  copping out here. The 120 pages up to their note are really good, and that the pages  after their note are STILL pretty darn good– quite close to what ended up in the final production. So close that this is the draft they gave to the WGA library. Whatever I’m about to say does not refer to  turning in something of sub-par quality)

Why I like this note:

First, because it is not an unfamiliar circumstance to be up against a deadline and know that there are still things undone, so I feel some sense of camaraderie  And it’s fun to feel like you share something (anything) with more successful writers.  When I first ran into this situation I thought it was because I was still in school and not good enough or fast enough.  And then, when I was getting paid for my first rewrite, I figured I wasn’t as good or as fast as other writers my producer and execs were used to working with. But now I think it’s just the nature of the process.

As a writer, you are given (or set for yourself) some particular task, and then you are given (or give yourself) a deadline. These are both arbitrary.  Unless the pass (a “pass” is what we writers call moving through the script making either large or small changes) is very mechanical, no one really knows if the time frame is right for the amount of work. Although I’m sure experience is helpful in guessing more accurately, everyone is still pretty much guessing, . Sometimes you can aim low in terms of your ambitions to insure you meet a deadline, and sometimes you aim high, and then you might fall a little bit short. Hopefully it’s not yet the last draft,  so you know you’ll go back and get it in the next revision.

Writing happens in layers, like painting a wall where the old color shows through, but you can’t cover it up right away- you have to wait for the first coat to dry and then go back over it. And that’s only after you’ve spackled and sanded–and sometimes you’ve misjudged what the paint can cover so you have to go back and spackle and sand down a rough patch and then paint it again. Everyone has a vague sense of what it is to paint a wall, but only people who have painted walls look at walls and think about how many coats it took, or the thought that went in to the color selection.  And if you’ve painted walls, if you see a  room that’s not quite finished, you have a sense of what the room has been, and where it’s going so it’s like seeing the past and the future at the same time. This script draft was like that–and nowhere more tangible than in this note.

The second reason this made me happy was that it seem like these writers are in a place where they have the freedom to say “the draft is a little rough.”  It’s always my instinct to acknowledge flaws in the work. To me, this is saying, “Hey, I know what I’m doing, I know the standard we’re aiming for–and we’re going to  get there, but we’re not there yet.” But what I’ve been told is that acknowledging weakness is rarely understood as confidence. Instead it comes across as insecure, and might sway people to see flaws they wouldn’t have otherwise noticed. As a woman in particular, it’s dangerous to come off as apologizing, or self-deprecating, because people are quick to lose confidence in you. And, of course, I’ve been told, a man would never point out weaknesses in his own work, he’d leave that for others to do.  Because mostly, even though you are put on a “team” to create a work, and it seems like that team is there to support each other, the underpinnings of the structure are innately adversarial. Everyone has to protect themselves from the perception that they might lack either competence or good judgement.  The second you lose authority, or people’s faith, whomever brought you on board is in danger too.  So almost everyone is  in danger of having either creative control or their job taken away…and no one is more vulnerable than the writer.

So writing a note like this is also a gesture of trust. They must trust that whomever they’re sending this script to is not someone who will use it as a reason to question their abilities and start thinking about who can replace them, but is someone they feel is actually on their team. It might be they are working with someone (Judd Apatow?) whom they don’t have to sequester, and who might actually give input toward what they’re working on and help make it better.

Clearly I’m postulating a lot, but while some people dream of the perfect romance, I think I’ve always dreamed of the perfect artistic collaboration.  I know the ideal can only be illusory, but still–it makes me happy.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled activities…In my case, as May 1st approaches, it’s another “writing cave weekend.”