I decided to work on another screenplay. I enrolled in a screenwriting course at George Brown College. That didn’t work so well. Instead of inspiring me to write, it stopped me from writing all together. Perhaps the professor had read the Flannery O’Conner quote,“Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.” and took it to heart.
I’m not sure why it affected me so much. Perhaps, it was because the teacher was a professional screenwriter and I was supposed to get notes on the script from another professional screenwriter who made promises but never followed through. A bit of a one-two punch. Or it could have been memories from my past haunting my present. Or, a combination of the two. Or just my own insecurities and the course may have worked brilliantly for others.
In the class, every student had to bring a portion of their screenplay and have it read aloud by other students. I brought my new screenplay, which I’d only written about 10 pages of, rather than Lavender.
This one was a comedy. I was as nervous as a cat in a dog pound. With a thriller, people can politely say, after reading it, how much they liked it, even if they thought it was crap. With comedy they can go for the false compliment, too, but if they didn’t laugh when they were supposed to, then you know it’s shite they’re spouting. Polite shite, but shite.
My fellow students laughed when they were supposed to.
But then the professor had a go. It didn’t matter if they laughed I wasn’t following format to the letter—or number, since certain things have to happen on certain pages. Which wasn’t so bad, I could do that in the editing process if need be. But she went onto say that I needed to have an outline of the whole story done before writing began and that I should go no further until the outline was complete. Also, no one, under any circumstances, should ever start a screenplay unless they already know the ending. If a person can’t do these things, then they have no business writing.
It was like high school math class, it didn’t matter if you got the right answer you had to show you followed the formula you were given.
The comments caused a flashback to my first week of high school when I said I wanted to be a writer and was told that I was a poor speller and therefore would never be able to be a writer. And another one from grade six when I wrote a story about my cat, Tootsie, that died. My teacher said I could go to the county finals and read it out in the competition but only if I changed the ending so that the cat lived. If it was a fictional story changing the ending wouldn’t have been that big a deal, but it was my beloved Tootsie who used to sleep above my head when I was sick.
“But she died,” I said. “I can’t bring her back to life.”
“You think about it,” the teacher said. “But if you don’t change the ending, you won’t be going to the competition. And I think you could win.”
I let Tootsie rest in peace. The teacher let me go to the competition but not to compete. She wanted me to see what I was missing out on. I believe, in hindsight, that that teacher may have been a bit of a sadist.
The professor at George Brown hit a trigger, and I, again, took it to heart.
I tried to turn the negative into a positive, years later, when I found myself in the position to help and encourage young writers. I was more giving than, perhaps, I would have been otherwise. I was honest, but I careful not to do anything to discourage—especially when I was a writer-in-residence with secondary school students. Double especially with kids at risk since, while often putting on a tough front, I knew were more fragile. Words are powerful things. So is silence. I did the best I could at the time. I hope I didn’t let any of them down, too badly.
I also tried to let the students create in the way that worked best for them, rather than trying to follow a formula or mould them into my image. There are structures, and formula’s that make screenplays more marketable, and there is a craft and rules to writing, but the actual writing method, the evoking of the creative spirit and how it manifests itself, varies wildly from writer to writer.
As for outlines and always having to know the ending before you start, or you won’t get anywhere, I later read that Neil Simon never plans any of his plays and often what brings him back to the pen and page is wanting to know how the story will end. And he’s done all right for himself—for years being the most produced playwright after Shakespeare. Not that I’m comparing myself, or my students, to Neil Simon. I’m only saying that there is no one sure-fire way, and if Neil Simon had taken that course as a young man, and listened, we wouldn’t have The Odd Couple, or Brighten Beach Memories, or any of his other multitude of works.
Single method philosophies, and stringent rules, come in handy more for writing How tobooks and teaching classes than they do for the actual writing process.
I had no idea where I was going with Just J, but just tried to let J lead me and not to get in her way. She was not someone who you’d want to get in the way of, anyway, so that made it a little easier.
With Chill I didn’t know the ending until I was in the office with Sean and Chill and I thought, okay, how am I going to get them out of this one? With another novel I’m working on, I saw the ending first and worked backwards. With Lavender, I knew somethings ahead of time and had a vague notion of others, but trying to stick to the notes I’d made too closely was more of a detriment than an asset.
However, before I found out about every writer having their own individual way of doing things, being told, by a professional, that mine wouldn’t work, even if I was producing (though not yet produced), left me discouraged. The screenplay that made my fellow students laugh when they were supposed to, still sits, unfinished, in a drawer. I’ve never shared anything before completion, again. Until now, I guess, since this is still a work-in-progress. But I lived the rough draft, so I don’t know if this counts.
With fiction, even with an extremely rough draft, I can see it in my head and it’s fully grown and able to defend itself. It just grew wild and needs to be trimmed and tended so that, hopefully, there’ll be fruits for my labour. But, it’s easy to kill something when it’s budding, a good frost will do it. That’s why I prefer to feel, and try to relay, a certain amount of warmth.
But at the time the effect of the criticism of method, which I didn’t know how to change, was enough that along with my unfinished my new screenplay, Lavender also went into a drawer.
And my life, again, was about to go through some pretty major changes.