I originally wrote this for the alumni newsletter of the Act One: Writing for Hollywood program. My kids are older now, but it all still applies!
EVERYTHING I NEED TO KNOW ABOUT SCREENWRITING I LEARNED FROM A KINDERGARTNER…
A friend and new mom called me the other day and asked, “How do you get it all done?” To which I promptly laughed out loud. They say if you want to get something done, ask a busy person. I say, if you really need to get something done, ask a mother. And that includes screenwriting.
I’ve had two babies since we moved to L.A. eight years ago – they are now six and one. I love them dearly, but they definitely make it harder to write. The day my oldest started preschool was a sweet, sweet day in my career. But I soon realized that I did some of my best writing while she was home with me. Why? I was sleep-deprived, over-scheduled and unable to commit as much time to writing! Now that my second is home with me, I’m seeing some of the habits that I’m forced to adopt and how they can work to the benefit of any writer, with or without kids…
One thing I wasn’t very good at before I had kids was incubation – letting an idea germinate, sitting and doing nothing and letting my subconscious work it out. I would go straight to the computer and attempt to type something. That’s how you get it done, right? But now I’m forced to take breaks from the keyboard and let my brain idle. Rocking the baby to sleep, stacking and restacking blocks, pushing the stroller around the neighborhood – these are times when my mind wanders, and sometimes it wanders right off in the direction my characters need to go. I’ve found that when I’m stuck on a scene, taking the time to let it simmer while doing something else (instead of trying to force my way through it as I would have before) often leads me to a better solution.
Justin naps for two hours, if I’m lucky. There’s no luxury of procrastination because it’s the only time I’ve got. I try to treat his naps like mini deadlines, and break my work down into little goals – a scene, a character voice, a section of rewrites. It’s Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” approach. You do a little at a time until the whole script is com- plete. I’ve found that these small goals keep me encouraged because I see progress, even if it’s only one step forward.
CROSSING THE BRAIN LINE
I’d wager that most writers don’t spend a lot of time crawling around on the floor, but maybe we should. Child development experts are still debating this idea, but they say that babies who skip crawling and go straight to walking have a higher percentage of dyslexia. Some theorize that the alternating hand and leg motions of crawling stimulate the left and right sides of the brain to work together. Even if it doesn’t literally get creative juices flowing, an unusual action like crawling forces you out of your regular habits and makes you look at things from a different angle. Try it and see what happens!
CLEAR, SIMPLE STAKES
My six-year-old is mature enough now to understand a little about what I do. When I’m working hard on a deadline, she wants to know what I’m writing about. This is a good test for me – can I explain it to a six-year- old? Even when the plot of the story is over her head, she understands physical and emotional stakes. If I’ve got a solid story, then there is always a way to boil it down to those stakes and explain it in language that she can understand. If I can’t do it that simply, I know my story has a core problem that must be addressed.
EXPOSE YOUR HUMANITY
I read a quote from someone in the biz who was jokingly criticizing a Hollywood executive that was expecting. “How dare she get pregnant and expose her humanity?” her colleague wrote. I’m not sure if that says more about the pregnant woman or the colleague, but for writers, exposing your humanity is essential if you’re going to write truthfully. Let’s face it, there’s a lot of falsity and image posturing in our line of work. Kids don’t let you get away with anything. And having people that mean more to you than any career accomplishment is a healthy balance. They may make it harder to write, but they also give you more experiences and emotions to write about. Kids don’t care about the box office of your latest film, or what somebody said about you/your work in the trades. They love you for the things that matter. No wonder Angelina Jolie keeps popping them out!
If you don’t have any kids of your own, borrow some and see what you can learn. Mine are available, especially at deadline times!