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PODCAST - The 2017 Screenwriting Challenge
The 2017 Screenwriting Challenge!
By Jacob Krueger
The 2017 Screenwriting Challenge!
We’re going to do something special this podcast, because the holidays are a particularly challenging time for writers. And the New Year can come with its own added pressures.
We all do our best as writers when we get into a rhythm, but during the holiday season that rhythm can be really hard to maintain. Your schedule gets jammed up, you’ve got parties, you’ve got gifts to buy, you’ve got family visits, you’ve got stress, and you’ve got a little too much vacation time. The next thing you know you haven’t written.
Of course that’s not even the real problem. The real problem is getting started up again. Ideally you want writing to be part of your daily routine. You want it to be as natural for you as brushing your teeth, getting dressed for work, drinking your morning coffee. But for most writers, this is rarely the case. Many of us write in fits and starts, waiting for those moments of inspiration and spending most of our time beating ourselves up when the inspiration doesn’t come. Then just when we get started on a new rhythm, something happens to interrupt it.
I’m always amused when I participate in writing panels, because invariably there’s a young writer who asks that all-important question: “How do you know when you’re really a writer?”
What you get to do then is you get to watch famous writers lie their butts off. You get to watch one panelist after another insist, “What real writers do is write. You know you’re a writer when you write…”
Having worked as a writer for most of my professional life, I can tell you that that’s not the truth. It doesn’t really matter if you’re an Academy Award winner or a first-time writer.
Most of what writers do is not writing. What writers really do is procrastinate.
Writers are brilliant at finding really important tasks to interfere with their writing. You set aside a couple minutes to write, and suddenly those dirty dishes really start to call to you. The next thing you know, you’ve cleaned your whole kitchen, scrubbed your shower tiles to a sparkling sheen, reorganized your closet, updated your Facebook photos, and you’ve still not written a single word.
You’re upset with yourself. And, at the same time, a part of you feels like you didn’t have a choice, that time just got away from you.
Then you start to punish yourself. You tell yourself, “I’ll write for twice as long tomorrow.” Maybe you wrote for 2 hours today, then you’ll write for 4 hours tomorrow. Then tomorrow comes, and 4 hours seems like an impossible amount of time.
Even if you do manage to bang out a few pages, it’s hard to find any joy when you’re feeling like that. The next thing you know, you’ve gone a whole week, month, or maybe even a year without writing.
Under these circumstances, it’s really easy to doubt if you’re a writer at all. You may even be tempted to give up on writing entirely. You may feel so blocked that you don’t see any way out.
At the same time, you know that giving up on writing would be giving up on the best part of yourself.
So what are you supposed to do?
I’m going to tell you that the difference between successful and unsuccessful writers is not that one group never procrastinates, or that one group never gets blocked. The difference is that successful writers are better at managing their procrastination.
Successful writers are better at maintaining their creative rhythm, even when the inspiration is not flowing.
Today’s podcast is actually going to take place in 2 parts. First, I have a special guest appearance by Jessica Hinds. Jessica teaches the Meditative Writing and the Craft classes at our Studio.
If you don’t know about Meditative Writing, it is one of the most extraordinary tools that I’ve experienced as a writer. Jess actually taught this technique to me at one of our first Costa Rica screenwriting retreats. I truly did not expect my writing to get shaken up and changed again at that point in my career. I can tell you that it was hugely transformative for my writing, and I hope it will be for you.
Jess is going to start off with a little lecture about what you can do and how you can use Meditative Writing techniques over the holiday period to keep your writing in flow.
The second part of this podcast is a challenge. This is an old tradition that I began when I first started the Studio that I’m very excited to bring back. This is the 2017 Screenwriting Challenge, and here’s how it’s going to work.
On January 1, the first day of the New Year, I want you to go out and buy yourself a really beautiful journal. Spend some money, buy something that speaks to your personality, something that makes you feel like a writer. Think of it as an investment in something that you are going to use every single day.
Then starting on January 2, I want you to write a page a day — just one.
It doesn’t have to be a good page. It doesn’t have to be a great page. It doesn’t even have to be an average page. It can be a terrible page.
What I’m asking you to do is, for 20 days straight, show up at your journal and do some writing.
You can do this writing quickly. Set your clock to wake up 7 minutes early. As soon as you open your eyes, grab your journal and start writing. Take 7 minutes to write as much or as little comes out, and do it badly. Don’t worry about making it good. This is not anything that anybody else is going to read.
What we’re actually working on here is building a rhythm.
So don’t worry about editing. Don’t worry about planning. Don’t worry about thinking. Just go ahead and write whatever comes out as quickly as you possibly can. It may be a scene, it may be parts of a scene. It may be a line of dialogue, or a monologue, or just thoughts about your character.
This is not journal writing. This is creative writing. So, I want you to pick a character, and I want you to play with them in your pages. The writing you do each day may flow together or may not flow together at all. Don’t try to make it good. Just allow your first instincts to find their way onto the page, writing nonstop at the quickest pace that you can keep.
Don’t worry about finishing. You have only 7 minutes, so whatever you leave unfinished can become a part of the starting point for the next day’s writing.
You’re going to repeat this process every day for 20 days, writing for 7 minutes every morning first thing, until writing is such a natural part of your daily routine that it occurs without even thinking about it.
You may find yourself continuing one storyline or writing a new one every morning. If you get stuck, rewrite the scene from the day before from memory. It’s not important what you write. It’s important that you write.
It’s this rhythm that’s going to make you a successful writer.
So if you sleep through one day, find 7 minutes to catch up later. Take your journal with you on the subway. Lock yourself in a bathroom at work. Stay up 7 minutes later that night.
Notice how that 7 minutes in the morning sets you thinking about your writing all through the day. Notice how the work that used to tear you away from your writing now seems to be like a place where your writing can bubble in the background. Notice the scenes that come to you, the ideas about your structure, the desire that starts to grow in you throughout the day to find a few minutes to sit down and write.
We also have some exciting events that are designed to help you with the challenge and to keep you going.
On Sunday, January 8, we are opening up the Studio. We’re going to have a whole day long of free writing exercises and writing space. You can come for as little or as long as you want. We’re going to have different teachers all bringing their own writing exercises to you.
It’s going to be first come, first served. We’re going to have as many chairs as we possibly can. If you’d like you can also Zoom in and attend the workshops online.
If you want to find out more or to RSVP, just go to WriteYourScreenplay.com/challenge.
So January 8 it’s going to be a whole day of writing exercises and free writing space for our entire community.
Then on January 20, we’re going to have a big party celebrating the end of the challenge, and that starts at 7 PM. If you’re in New York City, you can come and meet our community of writers, mingle with people like you, share stories, and have a really good time with the entire Studio staff. January 20 is also the celebration of our first year at our new location, so it’s going to be a big party and a lot of fun! You can also RSVP for that at WriteYourScreenplay.com/challenge.
So now without further ado, here’s Jessica Hinds with some wonderful ways that you can use Meditative Writing to keep your writing going during the holidays.
I teach Meditative Writing. Honestly, it surprises me that it started just as me being a weirdo, writing the way that I write, and I didn’t even realize that I was meditating. One day Jake asked me, “What’s your process?” I told him my process. He said, “That sounds really cool, you should try teaching that.” I said, “I am a complete weirdo, I am a freak, there is no way this would work for anyone else. He said, “Let’s give it a shot.”
So I‘m very surprised that this class has become so valuable for so many people. It started out being primarily screenwriters in the class, because that’s who we’re working with. Then it became screenwriters and TV writers, and then it became screenwriters, TV writers, and playwrights. Then we started getting poets, and then memoirists, and then novelists. Now even in our master class I’ve got three singer-songwriters, a journalist, and a stand-up comedian. It’s not surprising, but the concept originally came from how I naturally sit down to write.
The reason Meditative Writing works is that no matter what type of artist you are, it’s completely process-based. Most of the time what you’re doing in class is very product-based. It’s easier to teach product-based stuff because you have this tangible thing in front of you, and a lot of books are written about the product of the screenplay.
To go back to that very wonderful saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and you give feed him for a lifetime.” That’s what the class is doing.
Meditative Writing looks at writing from a point of view of psychology, economics, neuroscience, cognitive behavioral techniques, neuro-linguistic programming.
It really is this process of sitting down to be creative. How does it function in our brain? What really motivates us? What really gets in our way? We can learn how to approach the writing and approach our creativity in a way that makes it easy and regularly effective as brushing your teeth. If writing was as easy as brushing your teeth, what wonderful products would come about without ever having to polish up that product?
If someone writes 300 screenplays, eventually they’ll get good at screenwriting.
So just by focusing primarily on the truth of how a human being sits down and approaches writing, it’s completely adaptive to whoever is in the class. I’m not teaching you my way. I’m not teaching about the voices that come into my head. I’m asking the students, “Alright, when you sit down to write what actually happens?”
When you have this urge to write, often you have it on your calendar and you sit down and suddenly everything seems more important than writing… and you end up cleaning out your closet.
We learn to really look at what was the emotion, what was the image, what was the memory, what was the future projection that popped up in your head?
Then we learn how to interact with your brain and the neural pathways that are unique to you in order to rewire them in a way that makes it easier for you to write. It first comes from an awareness of what’s actually happening in your body.
Before I can even give you any tools you have to go with what’s actually happening for you. I think again about the danger of books. I think being in a class, the benefit of the class is that you have this person in front of you who can answer your questions.
I never tell you, “Oh, you need to go do this,” because I don’t know if your procrastination comes from fear of the future, fear of repeating the past, or if it comes from the deep desire to rebel.
My personal procrastination comes from the deep desire to rebel. It’s highly attached to growing up in a strict, religious household. So I know how to interact with my procrastination in a way where I’ve set up a system where I’m happy when I start to procrastinate because it’s what fuels me being able to work on multiple projects at once.
Another part of meditative writing is learning to look at what’s really going on in your processing and say, “How can we rewire your processing to create what you want?”
If it’s something we can’t really rewire, then how do we set you up and set up the world around you in your writing process to actually benefit from that thing that you think is getting in your way?
Let’s first start with the language that we’re using for writing, because if you’re saying to yourself, “I need to write,” or “I have to write today,” you are chemically asking your body to make it harder for you to write.
Just looking at the words that you use, think about the words “have to.” When you say, “I have to do something,” what comes up for you? You’re thinking, “obligation, lack of control, I’m a child.”
If you have to do something, it also implies to your brain that what you’re saying is, “I don’t actually want to do this thing. I have to do this thing.”
That’s not really true, because honestly you don’t have to do anything.
You don’t have to pay your taxes. The government might come after you, but that is still a choice. You don’t have to eat dinner. You can go hungry. There is nothing you absolutely have to do. You always have a choice.
When you recognize that choice, you want to chemically brace your body to be more excited to write.
Whenever you’re talking about your writing or anything you want to be doing more of — eating healthy or working out at the gym — watch for when you’re about to say, “I have to,” or “I need to,” and reframe the question for yourself to be actually more truthful to reality, which is to say, “I choose to.” Don’t wake up and say, “I have to write.” Wake up and say, “I choose to write.”
When you honor that truth, that it is a choice, you feel empowered. If you have choices, you say, ”I’m responsible. I’m a good writer, but I’m choosing to write even if I don’t feel like it, even if I’m hungover.” That confirms for your body, it creates a little bit of a dopamine association with you writing, which is great because now your body is primed to feeling like writing is fun, writing is your choice.
No matter what, that makes us feel empowered, rather than this thing you feel obligated to do because of some dream that we had when we were 10 years old.
I think just by looking at the language you’re using in regard to your writing, and making sure that every time you write you’re saying, “I’m choosing to do this right now,” especially if it’s hard. Right away it’s going to create a neural pathway in your brain that will continue to make it easier and easier for you to write. Also you won’t be lying to yourself because you don’t have to do anything. You don’t need to do most things.
“I have to” is just the biggest lie that people tell themselves a hundred times a day.
And it just makes you feel shitty about your life because it makes you feel you have to run around doing a bunch of things.
“I have to go to work.” You can totally not go to work and see what happens. You can get fired and see what happens. I’m not recommending it, but I’m saying it’s a choice.
”I choose to go to work, even though I may not like this job. I choose to go to work even though this is hard, even though I’m tired, even though I’m a really responsible great adult.” And that makes you feel better about yourself and better about your choices.
The more you find that appreciation for who you are and where you’re at, the more likely you are going to to do the things that make time for the things that really will make you happy, which hopefully includes writing.
I think any writing exercise can be helpful for someone when they’re stuck. I recommend that you start collecting writing exercises (or come to our free event on January 8th and learn some new ones from our teachers!). Get yourself a little folder in your Dropbox or Google Docs, and when you hear of a cool writing assignment or exercise, put it in there and you will eventually have this list and you can wake up every day and pull from that list.
To start, just put on a song, because a lot of people are very affected by music. Sometimes I just put on a song and listen, and I just write whatever truth starts coming out from that song. You can do it with a painting. You can do it even with a household appliance.
I once wrote about 30 pages about the lock on the door at my coffee shop, because I was working on a TV pilot and it just was not happening. I recognized that I was blocked.
The interesting thing about feeling blocked at the moment is it’s a very temporary thing. So I just looked up and the first thing I saw was this lock on the door of my coffee shop. I noticed how scratched it was, but I noticed it was scratched in this way that seemed too perfect. So I thought this must’ve been a design element.
Then for some reason it turned into this story about these elves that work in companies to scratch up these locks and then go home and see what type of locks they have on their own doors. It is ridiculous, it’s terrible, it’s not anything I have any desire to actually show to another human being, but when I looked up and realized it had been two hours and I’d written dozens of pages, I knew I wasn’t blocked anymore.
Anything that gets you writing, even if you’re like this one student who asked, “What if you’re just numb? You say write whatever you’re feeling. What if I feel nothing?” Write about the weirdness of feeling nothing. Numb is a feeling. Everyone feels numb differently. When I feel numb, most of the time something really big emotionally has happened to me and I go numb as a survival technique. It is a unique numbness that feels like I’m just in the wrapper of my body, but I know there’s all this gooey chocolate and nugget underneath. I just don’t have access to it at the moment, but I can sense it even though I’m numb to it.
You can start on that and keep going, going, going. You can write about how you don’t know what to write and get really deep into that.
Specifically, this is actually less of a writing assignment, but I think it’s actually more helpful because it will get you writing. One of the hardest things to do is starting to write. An exercise that is very helpful is to get people into the correct area of their brain to write from.
The reason that we tend to get stuck is because our focus in our brain is in a part of the brain that doesn’t have access to novel thought or creativity.
Rather than just giving any exercise, this is a really fabulous exercise that will put you into the part of the brain that gives you access to the most amount of creativity and novel thinking. It’s kind of like doing 10 push-ups. If creativity is a muscle, which I believe it is, this is an amazing exercise that I recommend people do on a daily basis if they would like to become more creative. It’s one of the few things found in studies that helps specifically that you can do.
All you need is pen and paper and five minutes. If you allow yourself to do this before you write, you’ll be writing from the creative part of your brain and you’ll also know that you’re learning how to access that part of your brain quicker and how to trust it more often and build it up so that muscle gets bigger.
What you want to do is get a piece of paper or some index cards and write down 20 to 100 normal everyday objects — chair, toothbrush, cup, pen, umbrella — just random stuff that we’ve all seen that you might have lying around the house. Cut them up and put them in a hat or a box.
When you wake up and start to write, set a timer for 5 minutes, and whatever item you pull out of the box, in 5 minutes, you’re going to come up with as many possible uses for this object other than the one it was originally invented for. The key here is not for them to be good uses, not to be correct, in fact they’re supposed to be incorrect. The goal here is to get as many as possible, so you time yourself because you want to be able to track how many you did today, how many you came up with the next day, and see that number go up and up. The higher the number, the more powerful that muscle of creativity is. I’ve done this exercise in my class in about 2 to 3 minutes. I’ve seen people come up with 4 things, and I’ve had people come up with 36 things. The more you do it, the easier it becomes.
The reason this expands our creativity is because if you were to look at it in the brain, it’s almost like all the parts of the brain lighting up at once like on a Christmas tree the sparkly lights go on and off. Creativity is the ability for these lights to go on and off, all the way from the top of the tree to the bottom of the tree, to the left side of the tree, to the right side of the tree, rather than moving in the sort of logical snakelike pattern from one side to the other.
When you remove the judgment, your left side of the brain is going to say, “Oh, it’s an umbrella, it’s there to keep you from getting wet.”
We are purposely looking for things that are incorrect. You shut down that judgment. You pull yourself out of the left side of the brain. You fully immerse yourself in the right side of the brain and you get to come up with all these wonderful things, like an umbrella is just a tiny cocktail accessory for a giant in a martini perhaps, or maybe it’s used as a sword, or maybe it’s used as a baseball bat. You can come up with all of these different things, and this will put you in the proper place in the brain where you’re going to write more creatively and with less judgment. If you do this consistently and track that number, you can really see that growth and improvement.
That’s actually an exercise that I do in a lot of my classes, because it’s something you can do over and over again and you can really see the results of your process growing, even though it’s not necessarily leading to story. It’s just a really good exercise that I would recommend for everybody.
In my process, I really wasn’t interested in meditation, in the same way that I wasn’t actually interested in screenwriting.
I think some things in life just hunt you down. If someone asked me five years ago if I would like to do meditation, I probably would’ve laughed in their face, made fun of them, and walked away. I would’ve made some remark about not being a hippie and wandered off.
Without knowing it though, I started meditating at a very young age. I grew up in a household that was not always peaceful and calm. We had a lake in our backyard, so when things got really crazy in the house I would go out to the dock on the lake and would just watch the water and look at the moon and at the way the moon interacted with Mount Diablo, the mountain range aptly named. That eventually turned into writing poetry there.
So my process of meditating into writing came out of a need, because there was so much craziness going on in my home. That sort of naturally happened. It honestly wasn’t until I started working here at the Studio, and Jake asked me to tell him about my process. He identified that as meditation. I said, “I don’t meditate, and I’ve never taken a meditation class.” When I thought about meditation, whether I realized I’m doing it or not, I started looking into it. I started doing it on purpose instead of accidentally. So now I love it!
I think that the research I’ve also done on some of the most creative and ingenious people everywhere from the art world to the sports world to owners in Silicon Valley, leaders of the various nations, the people who most of us look at as really amazing for what they’ve done. One of the things they all have in common is they all have a regular meditation practice. It’s so ancient and natural to the human body. Otherwise I would’ve tripped up on it when I was a child, but I really didn’t choose it. It kind of chose me.
I think an interesting point to take from the way that meditation developed for me as a writer, is that it is what I do that I love doing the most. It’s my baby of a class. No one else is really doing this in the way that I’m doing it. I managed to help so many people, and I identify so much now as a teacher and truly love doing that. It’s given so much meaning to my life. It has helped my writing so much and helped my ability to interact with the community and get a lot more gigs because of this mindfulness that I have. It’s important to realize that what you need is rarely the thing that you think it is. It’s really the thing that you’re seeking after desperately. To know that I could look back at my childhood and say, “Screw you people.” I could be very upset about growing up in a situation and that there are a lot of things that happened in my childhood that we think should never happen to children.
Honestly, if it wasn’t for that trauma and craziness, I never would’ve stumbled upon this thing.
That’s not to say that we should create negative environments for children. In the same way as my dyslexia. I would never go back and take that away, because I was forced to be more creative and work harder than most kids in order to write. That work ethic has gotten me much further than anything else. If you are in a situation where you think, “Oh, my home life isn’t conducive to being a writer or this artist that I want to be.” In my situation, I’m dyslexic, or whatever you think is getting in your way. Actually it’s probably the thing that is going to make you the unique writer you need to be in order to accomplish the dreams and get all the stuff that you want. So I’d rather people take that away in regard to how I apply this to my own life rather than noticing, ah, Jessica’s childhood.
There’s a lot of really useful lessons I’ve learned in regard to creativity and writing, but also just being a functional human being. Teaching the Meditative Writing class, not a single week goes by where I don’t reconfirm something that was really revolutionary at one point. I discover something new every single day. New cells are developing in our bodies. You are not the same person you were when you woke up this morning. Learning these lessons over and over again is extraordinarily helpful, recognizing that obstacles are things that get in your way. Obstacles are things that you can either use to help you get where you’re going, or you can choose to let them be the excuse for why you didn’t get there. It’s completely up to you what that obstacle is used for.
Just recognize how impermanent everything is. Every time you revisit a memory, it changes. Every time you look at the wall, the actual image of that wall changes, depending on what you are choosing to focus on. So recognize that there is nothing that is really permanent about us, and that every part of the reality and every part of who you think you are as a writer is an active choice, an active story that you’re choosing to tell yourself at that moment.
The opposite of that is ego. Ego is really just the holding on to a false sense of permanence.
If you wake up and claim, “I am a writer,” and you put yourself on the label of “I’m a writer,” and being a writer means the following things to you, there’s going to be a lot of fear.
What if you write and people don’t like it? That makes you no longer a writer. It makes you a bad writer. You’re holding on to the ego of being a good writer, because you think being a good writer is something that can be a permanent state for you. It’s going to build a lot of fear, because you’re scared of losing this thing. But if you recognize that there is no such thing as a permanent state, you can’t just be a “good” writer. You can choose to write and that will make you a writer that day, but only for that day. You’re either writing or you’re not writing. It all comes down to recognizing that you’re choosing to tell yourself a story that there is a permanent state — something inside of you. That’s the false story and that’s not true, and that is making your life more difficult and making it harder for you to write.
Anytime you feel fear, actually that fear really does come from ego, even just the ego of being alive. A lot of people have a fear of death. That’s just because you have ego about being alive. Don’t have ego about being alive. Recognize that you might die tomorrow, and that’s okay. Being alive and walking this earth is a temporary state. Being a good writer is a temporary state, because today you being a good writer changes sentence to sentence. The most prolific writers have recognized that in order to be a prolific writer you have to write lots of bad writing.
Ernest Hemingway said the first draft of everything is shit. The only reason writing is difficult for you is because you are telling yourself a story about your writing. Most of the time it comes from this cleaning up, again this false sense of permanence. Everything a writer writes is not great. That just doesn’t happen. There’s no singer whose every note is great. They’re really smart and only show people the best stuff. I think that’s something that’s been easier for me to experience with writing but has been very hard for me to experience in other parts of my life. As a friend, as a daughter, as a significant other, I have a harder time being kind to myself, which I think most writers could really work on.
One of the most powerful things I’ve learned from meditative writing and from teaching meditative writing is that every single moment you have the ability to choose to tell yourself this story that is absolutely true. That helps you to become the writer you want to become, rather than clinging to a story that may or may not be true. It is harder for you to write, because it’s serving the ego, which a lot of times people call fear. But again, all fear comes back to the ego of attachment. When you get attached to your home, you’re scared to lose your job. This can just cycle down. That’s probably been a really effective lesson for me.
I’ve had so many fears. Death has never been one of them. I think because I had so much anxiety. I was diagnosed with three different types of anxiety disorders. I was on three different kinds of medication. I was scared of speaking to another human being, even a barista was hard for me. There were times in my life when things were so shitty, I was so miserable and unhappy. that I’d be on a plane thinking, “What if the plane goes down?” Honestly, all I felt was relief. Great, if I die, I don’t have to worry about anything, I don’t have to figure out how to keep a 4.0 in order to keep my scholarship in school, and figure out how to become a famous writer, and how to deal with my family. I was so overwhelmed, I was so scared of everything that death actually seemed like a way out. I don’t recommend people pushing it that far.
That is one place where I think I’m a little bit abnormal. I’m more scared of crickets than I am of dying, even when I engage in activities that are more dangerous, like skydiving or crossing the street in New York City, which is actually more dangerous than being in a plane. Hugging a lion does not scare me. Hunting does not scare me. But crickets!
So I dove into that. What is this ego really about? It’s because they can move so quickly. For me, I don’t mind being in dangerous situations when I can see the danger. This makes sense. If I can see the danger, I can keep my eye on it. I’ve always gotten hurt the most when I wasn’t able to see that there was something dangerous, like charming nice people, but on the inside they’re very dangerous. That’s actually what’s harmed me the most. The fact that a cricket can jump so quickly, and I can’t just keep my eye on it, that does make more sense. If I can see a poisonous snake, that’s fine. I can watch it move, but anything that can go from here to here in the blink of an eye feels more threatening to me due to things that I’ve been through, thanks to a therapy session.
There’s this thing I like to call the beast of success. Anytime we choose to go after something we want, whether it’s writing a screenplay, or going to the gym, or being able to dance the samba, every single time you interact with that activity you are either feeding the beast of success or you are feeding the beast of failure.
You’ve got 2 beasts on either side. Some of us have tried to write, or we’ve tried to go to the gym, and we failed so many times that our beast of failure has morphed into this 18-foot gremlin monster thing that is just so intimidating. Our beast of success is this cute little Chihuahua, and that beast of failure is so big and overwhelming that it feels impossible. If we think about that, the accomplishment of goals, especially very difficult goals, I want to continue to feed the beast of success so it become so overwhelmingly large that that beast of failure is so tiny and insignificant it no longer is very effective.
The key to this is looking at your goal setting in a very specific way. If you say, “I want to run the New York City Marathon today,” your brain is going to do a little analysis and it’s going to say that’s impossible. It’s going to flood your brain with the stress hormone, and then you’re not going to engage in that activity, and you are going to feed the beast of failure. I’m sure many people have done this. You think you want to work on your script, and you sit down to write. Suddenly, this energy takes over you that you may call writer’s block. You may just get up and and walk away, or just stare at your screen. Then you get to the end of that time you were supposed to be writing, and you think, “Wow, I wrote nothing. I’m a failure.” Then you feed the beast of failure and your brain floods with cortisol. The beast of failure really is just this kind of metaphor for the stress hormone being released into the brain.
So the next time you sit down to write, your brain remembers — we flooded with the stress hormone the last time we did this, we fed the beast of failure. We don’t want to do that. Your brain really doesn’t like being a failure. Your brain does not like feeding the beast of failure. Your brain really just wants to get that dopamine. That’s why drug addictions happen, because most drugs just mess with dopamine in the brain and your brain says, “Yes, yes, yes, we want to do that all the time.” Suddenly your beast of success is really huge.
Most people have really good intentions. They sit down and say, “I want to do great things and aim for the stars, and I want to do everything.” That’s awesome to fantasize about, but when you set your goals so high that they are not capable of being accomplished in that day, you are working against your brain chemistry, and you are choosing to feed the beast of failure. If every time you do something and fail, you are going to stop doing that. But if every time you do something, your brain floods with cortisol and you feel successful, and that beast of success grows up to be a giant, like my 72-foot dragon, who I love. It’s very difficult to find parking for a 72-foot dragon, but it makes me feel very safe when I’m walking around Brooklyn. It’s about being really smart and using this brain chemistry in your favor.
So when you sit down to write make sure that you absolutely write a goal, because what’s happening if you don’t write down your goal is you are leaving that goal up to whatever image is popping up from your unconscious mind. To use an example from the last time I fed my beast of failure accidentally, I was working on a book that was intersecting the science research I’ve been doing with the creative work that I do.
Since I don’t have a degree in the sciences — I just have a Master’s in writing — I sat down to work on this book and immediately my whole body was saying, ”Nope, nope, nope.” My limbic system tripped and I ran away and fed my beast of failure. I asked myself, “What was that thing that popped up in my head in between “I’m going to sit down to write” and “There’s no way I’m writing right now”? I found that I had projected into the future an image of an Amazon.com review of my book. Essentially it was this review of someone saying, “What does this woman know about the sciences? She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” When I realized how silly that was, I was sitting down to write the first page of the first draft of a book that maybe I will choose to try to publish, and maybe someone will actually say yes to publishing, and someone would have to be crazy enough to buy it. The review is so far ahead of what’s happening to help in any way, shape, or form.
I didn’t choose my goal first to manage the craziness of my brain and my ability to jump into the future and back into the past. I set a goal of publishing and then getting rejected already, so that’s impossible. I can’t sit down and write my book and publish it, and have someone read and review it, all in one sitting. That’s not a very helpful goal. If I see that image even pop up in my head I can then manage that monkey part of my brain that wants to run away to the future and say, “I am not here to write this book and have it positively reviewed. My job right now is simply to write one page of my book, and that I absolutely can accomplish.” If you make the goal so simple, so small, that of course you could do that, you’re going to be feeding the beast of success, and dopamine is going to flood your brain. The next day you sit down to write, you’re going to feel like that was really great. We got a lot of dopamine.
Success is building higher and higher and essentially you get to a place where writing feels as easy as putting on your shoes, because we all have been successful putting on our shoes for the past hundred times we’ve put on our shoes. Putting on your shoes and writing is the same thing, just basic motor skills, just our body moving around doing something.
If you set your goal every single time you write and make sure it’s a goal that feels so easy anyone can do it, you can definitely do that today.
Then you know your enemy. Feeding the beast of success and looking at taking care of that process first, eventually you will end up with the product. The place where most people push back on is they want to get their screenplay done so much quicker. If you work with your brain chemistry to make it easier for you to write, you will get it done quicker. The reason people don’t make it in the industry is less about the story being difficult. It’s more about the fact that they just give up and stop writing, because writing is so hard. The key here is that writing wasn’t always hard. Most of us wrote fine when we were kids. It goes back to the ego. Then one day we decided to become a writer, and we cling to this permanent thing. We can help avoid that clinging-ness that gets in our way.
If you want to call it a New Year’s resolution, that’s fine, but every single time you write, ask yourself this question. A lot of people outside the industry, who are really obsessed with process, ask themselves this question anytime they’re faced with a difficult task, something that feels impossible. Ask yourself, “What would this look like if it were really easy?”
With writing, when I think about that book, what would this look like if it were really easy? I would write one page, and I know I can write one page. That’s great because every book that has ever been written was written one page at a time.
If I told you right now that all of you listening could walk to San Francisco next year, that seems crazy. That’s over 3,000 miles. You absolutely could. If you set the goal of walking to San Francisco, your brain right now thinks about it, because we can’t do that right now today. We can’t accomplish that in one sitting, so it stresses your brain out. But if I said you can take steps to the west today, you’d probably say you do that every day in your apartment. All you need to do to walk from here to San Francisco is just take 10 steps to the west every single day, and eventually you will end up in San Francisco.
The same is true for writing a script, a novel, a book, or whatever you want to work on. You cannot do more than writing one word at a time. Even if your goal is to write only 10 sentences or 10 words every day, you will get there. Making the goal so easy that you have absolutely no excuse not to do it every day, you’re going to end up writing more because you are priming your brain, feeding that beast of success. When you beast of success is huge, there is no fear. Your brain knows it’s going to get a dopamine release. It’s going to get that sweet reward, that dessert, every single time you write. It’s going to happen. It’s going to be easy. Then you have to worry about figuring out story, the marketing, the treatment, and all the other stuff that most people talk about. I just don’t think that stuff is as difficult as the psychological trauma of sitting down and writing day after day, especially for screenwriters, who might work for years on a project. Even if you get it done and are getting nothing made, you’re looking at an average of maybe 10 years. If you’re feeling a dopamine release and feeding your beast of success only every 10 years, there is no way you can keep doing this thing and giving yourself to this thing. Imagine a relationship in which you got a thank you only every 10 years. Hopefully, you would leave that person!
Whatever helps you more. If you’re more of a scientific person, you can really think about it as, “Let me make sure I’m getting a dopamine release every single time I write,” which means picking a goal that is so easy you cannot fail. If metaphors and visuals work stronger for you, really visualize your beast of success and your beast of failure. My beast of success is a giant Chinese dragon. There’s this empty lot across from the coffee shop where I write, and that’s where I park my dragon. It’s the only place it fits. I have this relationship to it, and it’s wonderful. Sometimes it feels very difficult, and I can feel scared. My dragon pops up and I see that dragon, and I don’t need to be scared, I’ve got a 72-foot dragon hanging out with me. And my beast of failure is very tiny. Right now, he’s like a little worm to my side. I’m not going to be mean to him. I don’t think people should be mean to their beasts of failure. They deserve a little bit of love too. Just allow that beast of failure to be small enough that you can take care of it, and can hold it, and actually feel sorry for it, and have compassion for it, and recognize that our failures are part of what make us really awesome. Small enough that it’s manageable and not taking over, pulling you around on a leash.
Whichever one of those metaphors speaks to your mind is fine. If you’re going to set goals make sure it feels super easy to accomplish. Pick something that feels really easy, and then cut it in half to make it even easier. Make sure it’s completely objective so you can’t talk your way out of it. Sometimes we want to be kind of mean to ourselves and try to convince ourselves that we didn’t do it. So picking something subjective, like “good” pages, doesn’t help. We’ve all had that experience of writing something and feeling like it’s amazing. Then you read it the next day and you feel like it’s a giant pile of turds. Then you read it a , and you think it’s amazing.
Pick objective things like 3 pages. It’s going to be far more effective than “good” pages. Just know that “good” and “bad” are different to different people. I had an argument today with a writer friend of mine about the movie Noah by Darren Aronofsky. He said, ”That movie was amazing!” I said, “That movie was a giant turd, what are you talking about?”
Pick something objective. I know for a fact that I cannot talk myself out of this being a really great goal. Whether you’re doing it for New Year’s or you’re doing it every single day when you write. You should be setting those goals specifically and feeding your beast of success. Use the brain chemistry inside your head to help you get where you want to go, because if you’re not, you are actively choosing failure, you are actively choosing to make things harder for yourself. If you realize that if you keep actively choosing to make things harder for yourself to get what you want, internally you’ve got two different belief systems going on that are struggling with each other. You need to figure out how you can make both of them serve you or how you can get rid of one of those belief systems so that you can do those things that you want to do. Either it’s going to immediately transform you and help you get the dopamine release and make writing easier, or it’s going to point to what the problem is. Then you’ve got to dig in and figure that out, which is a whole other process of stuff.
I hope you enjoyed that special guest podcast with Jessica Hinds.
Remember, on Sunday, January 8, from 10 AM to 6 PM, we are opening the entire Studio to our community. We’re going to have a day full of free writing events, free writing space. We’re going to open all the classrooms and all the offices. We’re bringing our different teachers to teach different writing exercises in one room, and in the other room we’ll have a silent writing space where you can just sit and write. It’s going to be first come, first served, but it should be a lot of fun. We’re going to try to have as many chairs as we possibly can. If you want to come, please let us know.
You can join the challenge, and you can RSVP for the writing exercises and writing space. Again, it’s first come, first served, but we will cut it off at some point. So you can do that online at our website writeyourscreenplay.com/challenge.
January 20 is actually a really special day for us, because it celebrates a full year at our new space. If you followed my Build Out Your Script series of podcasts, you know what a journey it’s been for us.
If you’re part of our community already, you know the extraordinary art and the extraordinary writing that is now happening at this new location. We’re incredibly proud and we’re going to have a giant party on January 20, celebrating not only the end of the screenwriting challenge, but also our first year at our new space. We hope you can join us. Again, that will be free. Come, meet writers like you, share stories about the challenge, talk to each other, network, and have a good time schmoozing with our entire community and our staff. That will be on January 20 at 7 PM.
I hope you enjoyed this podcast. For more information about the challenge or to officially join, go to our website writeyourscreenplay.com/challenge.
Happy New Year!