Don't Write Stories that Happened to You
I know, I know. It’s a very mixed message: “Write what you know!” “Stay Objective and don't be sentimental!” Ugh there must be some happy medium, right? Well I have an idea…
When I was 18, I began a writing adventure that would come to change my life forever. I was new to LA - going to school and living in Santa Monica. There was a story I wanted to write - something that had happened to me incredibly recently.
It revolved around a woman who had taken me under her wing in, Directing me in Hamlet and other plays for a Shakespeare Festival in Washington State.
Forty years young, she was surviving cancer, living in a grave-keeper’s house, and in the middle of a divorce from a transitioning transgender woman. Her life was really very incredible and beautiful.
I wanted to include all the great stuff she and I had done together: swordfighting, writing music, painting, performing in public spaces, open mic nights, writing books, walks in the graveyard. The story was looking really exciting, and it would at least make a fantastic trailer. Best part? It was all true!
One night, while I was in West Hollywood dancing (so it was practically a LIFETIME ago) I met a young producer’s assistant, Colleen. She was fun, super-smart, and eager to help me if she could. Our first meeting was set!
Next week, I took a bus to her humble Beverly Hills office. She had read the script and made extensive (I mean pages and pages!) of notes.
The dilemma was simple: when it came to specific scenes, there were a lot of details not pertinent to the story at hand - things more often than not, that really happened. Memories. These small details were terrifically compelling, interesting, and exciting… for one audience member: myself.
“But that’s how it happened! It was sooooo crazy! Can you believe it?!” Well… TBH, no. And more importantly, I don’t care.
If it doesn’t serve a purpose to the story, it doesn’t belong.
This is what we call the “pit of sentimentality” - an easy trap for writers to fall into. Therefore, a subject you know, but can also be objective about - like your Grandmother’s Neighbor’s Co-Worker’s cancer survival - is going to have more potential for object greatness.
Back to my script: I eventually took every painful note - we met weekly over several months - washed away all the unnecessary junk, and simplified the story and arc. Blind faith led to one bang-up script. With Colleen’s objective and honest criticism, I was proud to finish my first full-length screenplay, "Brenda, Baby".
I want to take a moment to say thanks to Colleen. Without you, I would never have known what writing a story was all about - affecting the audience at hand.
Colleen Evanson, by the way, is a kick-ass hollywood writer now, and an incredible Vine artists (as proven here). Also catch her on twitter. As she says, she's like Tina Fey, but you haven't heard of her.
Here’s my idea: Stay objective, stay affective. And listen to the really really smart people you run into on dance floors in West Hollywood.
Seriously, though. Go ahead and write things that happened to you, but listen to feedback with an open heart and mind, don’t assume anyone is attacking your story just because they don’t relate to it. Especially listen to writers whose work you admire. They only want you to do great things, too.
“Write what you sort of know!” “Stay somewhat Objective!” Ahhhh, doesn’t that feel better?