"" Rob Parnell's Writing Academy Blog: October 2010

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Culture of Positivity

Being a fan of Charlie Kaufman's early screenplays - Adaptation, Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - I sat down last night to watch the film he recently wrote and directed, Synodoche, New York.

I had high expectations I guess - perhaps too high. I had assumed that Kaufman's quirkiness came from a need to be original. Alas, the film betrayed his true fascination - in a line from the movie, he even says, "I realize now that nobody's interested in my misery."

And why should they be?

Kaufman's universe is a bleak one. Our lives are seedy and pointless and become all the more complex, or rather painfully complicated, as we strive to examine and make sense of them.

There's no joy in Synodoche, only angst, regret and loneliness. No love, only misunderstanding, lack of connection and fear - and the ever present specter of death.

The only line I found uplifting in an otherwise dire waste of screen time was: "There are no extras. Everyone of us is a star in our own lives." But even this I think Kaufman meant in a bad way, like it was somehow wrong that we might be self obsessed when each one of the billions of us can't possibly be that important.

Fair enough. I'm sure most people might disagree...

It's interesting to me because Hollywood screenwriters often talk about Charlie Kaufman in reverential terms - as a writer of integrity and vision, formerly shunned by 'the system'.

Ironically I think it was Kaufman's determination to succeed despite the need to 'commercialize' his ideas that made his work compelling.

Now that he's rich enough to do it himself - we can see exactly why Hollywood tries so very hard to make writers create fun and entertaining projects that are appealing to a wide audience.

Because, when you make a movie like Synodoche for apparently intelligent adults (instead of aiming at fourteen year olds) you end up with a self indulgent mess of drivel that nobody wants to go and see - unless you're feeling suicidal, I suppose.

There are many ways of getting a message across. I know that there are some writers out there that have grown cynical of the constant barrage of 'positivity' they are called upon to write.

Indeed many writers complain to me that they can't get their 'downbeat' stories published or taken seriously.

But that's because publishers, agents and producers know we live in a largely adolescent culture where the most voracious markets want fantasy (with a small F), action and escapism.

Seeing joy and love and justice on our screens fills us with hope - for our own lives and for that of our own species.

On a fundamental level I believe humanity doesn't want to wallow in nihilistic self absorption. Not all the time anyway. If you want to tell stories with a 'tough' edge (whatever that means) then you, as a writer, must also show the counter-balance.

Because writers should strive to be objective - and see both sides.

Hollywood is apparently famous for creating the 'happy ending'. In terms of creating successful, popular movies, they have enough experience to know that it works. They know that when you tell a story, you need to leave the audience on a positive note.

But this was no Hollywood invention. The happy ending is, as Carl Jung explained a long time ago now, an archetypal symbol hardwired into our collective psyche. It's been that way since we crawled out of the swamp - and is indeed perhaps symbolic of that mythical event.

Writers shouldn't think that a happy ending is a cop out. It's not.

You can be as brutal and confronting as you like - just watch the average modern horror movie to know that. But without love and hope, without the vanquishing of evil and the protection of the innocent, there's no real point to a story...

We all know this deep down - but the artist in us will occasionally resist what we might regard as the cliche.

Of course death is inevitable - but so is our desire to triumph and create a better, more compassionate world. It doesn't matter that this seems like a vain exercise in futility. It's part of who we are.

To quote Kaufman, we may be "just the tiniest fleck of insignificance in a vast uncaring universe" - but surely that's the point.

We really don't want - or need - to believe that.

And surely the legacy we would want to leave behind is that despite all the pain and suffering, our spirit made us strong and resourceful.

And as writers, we need to remind our audience of that as much as we can.

There may be a thousand bad things that can happen to us but, when it comes down to the final judgment, we are capable of transcending the body and becoming spiritual beings full of love and joy - and of maintaining a never ending optimism for the future.

And what's wrong with that?

If you never felt positive, you'd never write anything - and nobody would ever know about your misery and despair.

Not that they'd be interested in it anyway, of course.

Keep writing!

Rob Parnell
Your Success is My Concern


"Before I came here I was confused about this subject. Having listened to your lecture I am still confused. But on a higher level." Enrico Fermi

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Be Your Own Mentor

A lot of people ask me how I manage to get so much done. I often wonder myself.

I was lucky. When I'd done schooling, I decided I didn't want to work for a living. Of course I had to - for a while. I did some pretty horrible jobs, gravitating from factory to office work because I noticed that the office workers seemed to get an easier time of things - and got paid more.

Of course I could have done the life journey properly and got a nice cushy career type job in a bank or a corporate company. It's not as if I wasn't bright enough. I was even offered a few positions like that. But, much to the chagrin of my mother, I chose not to take them - mainly because it seemed like a cop out. The easy option.

I deliberately chose the hard way - because I wanted to loathe the 9 to 5 I suppose. I'd watched my Dad living a life of quiet desperation for twenty years and I believed there had to be a better way to exist. Actually, I guess that's a kind of adolescent way of thinking - a rebel without a cause mentality. But at the time 'the hard way' seemed, if not fulfilling, then purposeful.

Getting a music career off the ground wasn't hard in retrospect, but it took more time than was absolutely necessary. When I was seventeen I sent a demo to EMI Music - which was rejected of course - and it took another ten years to eventually get signed to EMI as a rock artiste. I got distracted along the way - as tends to happen when you're young and think you have all the time in the world.

But even in those days I knew that finishing projects was what it was all about. A song is a not a song until it's written and recorded and in someone's office.

You can't get gigs without a demo - and because studio time is expensive I begged a home recording set up from a manager that stood me well for over a decade. Even EMI thought I had a 24-track studio I worked out of - which was actually a home 4-track in my bedroom. (Sorry to have to tell you now, Clive!)

I still do that now. Except technology is cheaper and smaller nowadays - so I have a 64-track set up in my house with guitars and keyboards and FX that make me sound like a cross between U2 and Beethoven on a good day. God - what wouldn't I have done if I had access to all these toys when I was a kid!

Fact is, when it comes to getting things done, writing is the same as music. No-one can take you seriously unless they see that you've completed a manuscript and are consistently sending it out.

Ideas and hopes and dreams are one thing. They can make you feel good - and they can take you a long way into the right mindset to be creative.

But in order to compete, you need to finish what you start.

I know many writers with great projects that they start and get bored with - or run out of time to progress - and then a year or so later start another project where the same thing happens.

It's natural. You brain is a marvelous instrument, capable of limitless creativity, but just like a child, it gets bored with the same old thing and will want to move on.

That's why you have to work quickly - or push through the blocks - to get a project finished before you get bored of it.

Many writers assume that it's their perfectionism that makes them work on a project over and over, taking years to feel some sort of satisfaction over the finished product. But this is to misunderstand how the mind works.

Basically, every three to six months, your brain has changed physiology. So in effect you're a different person two to four times a year. If you've ever tried to get a project finished by committee you'll know how hard it is to get more than two people to agree on something. It's the same with YOU.

Take too long over a project and you're merely handing it over to a newer you each time - and each time you'll review the ideas, or their execution, find them wanting, and most likely feel the need to start over again.

This is why you must finish at least the first draft quickly. Get it all down before the excitement inevitably wears off.

This is the real "secret" to success.

It doesn't matter whether a particular project is perfect or not. Finishing it is what counts. Only then can you know whether it works. Only then do you feel you are capable of other, larger and more complex commitments.

When I mentor writers, I like to make sure they're used to finishing small projects. Articles, short stories, even blogs.

Because the ability to finish is the revealer of character. Many writers complain to me that they feel unmotivated around the half way or three quarter mark of their novels. And nine times out of ten we can trace back the problem to their inability to finish even small projects.

It's not the work that's hard - it's the mentality that's wrong. The mindset wasn't pre-programmed for completion.

I think this is the real problem with the 9 to 5 mentality. There's a very real sense that work is never really over - and that there's always going to be more time.

When you're an artist, especially a working artist, this paradigm no longer applies.

If you want to be a paid writer, you need to get used to finishing what you start. Good or bad - you'll never know unless you can hold it up and say: "It's done."

Be your own mentor - and force yourself to get things finished!

Write down your goals, make time to work on them, and whip yourself - and your work - into shape. As fast as you can.

And don't forget to send your stuff out into the world.

That's where it will really begin to take effect.

Keep writing!

Rob Parnell


"It is better to resist at the beginning than at the end." Leonardo da Vinci

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