How to Be a Jackass (or: Why I Probably Don’t Want to Talk About the New Thing I’m Writing)

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About a year ago I was riding the Amtrak train from Penn Station to Rensselaer, on my way to my sister’s house in Lake George, New York. This was after a grueling flight from Buenos Aires with a layover in Atlanta, on absolutely no sleep. I was beyond tired, nodding out in my seat, not really making much sense out of the chaos surrounding me, but somehow getting by on sheer mechanics. I’ve long been under the impression that my creativity thrives in such precarious states of exhaustion. That the drowsiness and fatigue and general inability to focus somehow result in drawing associations that would’ve otherwise been obscured by the fog of common sense. I don’t know if there’s any science to back this up or if it’s just a holdover from years and years of cognitively reframing my chronic procrastination.

So as I was fading in and out of consciousness in my seat, my creative side was concocting all sorts of strange scenarios incorporating the bits and pieces of information that I was able to discern during each brief moment of lucidity. I suddenly took notice of the train attendant– this waifish, auburn-haired, remarkably attractive young woman wearing a comically ill-fitting uniform. I started to draw up ideas about who she was. What she came to New York to do. Why she was a train attendant. I started to wonder about her family, about her environment, about what she did every day after work, and about all the crap she probably had to put up with on the job. I wondered if she’d ever met any weirdos who developed unhealthy obsessions with her, or if she developed any strange obsessions of her own. If she was perpetually tormented, or a tormentor herself.

She looked nothing like this.
She looked nothing like this.

Within just about 10 minutes, I had developed a rough outline of a story: a farcical comedy-adventure about love and misery and mental illness and trains. It had laughs, romance, international criminal rings, gunfights, sex and all kinds of wackiness. When my sister Cristina and my brother Jonathan picked me up at the train station, I excitedly guided them through this Coen-esque adventure, throwing in ideas as I thought of them, egged on by their positive response. That very night, I typed up a version of this rough treatment and proceeded to send it along to various friends (industry and otherwise). For the rest of my stay in New York, I’d talk about it at social gatherings. I’d bring it up in conversations with new acquaintances, fine-tuning and rearranging the story with every reading. The response was unanimous. Everybody thought it was just great. Everybody thought it was sweet and funny. Everybody was excited. Everybody encouraged me to keep writing. It was great.

A year or so later, that rough outline has built a cozy little nest for itself in the Incomplete folder of my computer documents, with no immediate plans to move out. Stalled, stagnant, flatlined. The momentum had dissipated into a halt. The moment had passed. Why? Why was that initial flurry of creativity suddenly exhausted? What sucked the wind out of my sails?

With screenwriting, as with any art– be it song, painting, poetry or interpretative dancing– there are many possible reasons for coming up with an idea, and many other potential reasons for following it through to completion. Some are guided by whimsy, others respond to patronage, some get a thrill out of audience reaction, others feel this burning sensation from the pit of their stomach which tells them that this thing they’re making is important and absolutely needs to be said, and that it needs to be seen by the world– that foolish but admirably resilient (and remarkably powerful) conviction that there’s nothing more important than making it happen, and that you’ll just implode if they don’t get it off their chest somehow. There are all kinds of variations and permutations and combinations of these motivators, and they’re not specific to the artist as much as each individual project.

Some are motivated by hanging out with their famous friends, like me here with my buds. Look, there's no real use for this picture here, but there's a lot of text and it's a funny picture. Deal with it.
Some are motivated by hanging out with their famous friends, like me and my buds. Look, there’s no real use for this picture here, but there’s a lot of text and it’s a funny picture; deal with it.

The last screenplay I completed and sold was one of those projects that had to be completed, it just had to. I had to get it out, like my chest would start to cave in if I held it in for too long. So I wrote this deeply personal story, redrafted it a few times, then handed it on to languish at some executive’s desk. Boom. It’s out of my hands, but I got through it, and I was able to sell other people on it. This new idea? Nothing like that. It wasn’t tied to my sense of identity in any way. It wasn’t making grand proclamations about the world as I saw it. It didn’t even transmit a clear message. It was just a silly idea I came up with when I was riding the train, and I didn’t feel that deep-rooted sense of responsibility to finish it. Why was I so excited about it at first, then? If it was such a dumb idea, why couldn’t I stop talking about it for weeks? What got me all riled up, drafting outlines and talking about it at length with pretty much everyone I knew?

It was their reaction. It was their positive reinforcement. It was, in essence, the attention.

By talking at great lengths about an idea that I had, but hadn’t actually seen through to completion yet, I was awarded with a barrage of “oh wow how cool!”s and “you’re so creative!”s and “wow, I couldn’t possibly have thought of that myself!”s. Basically, I got the adulation from having made something great without all the hassle of actually having to make it. And once I get that, I am sated, and the desire to actually make the damn thing quickly fades away, like the last remnants of a dream upon waking. Since I’m describing it in the most hyperbolic ways possible, I’m avoiding the risk of nitpickers or negative feedback focusing on the details. As far as positive reinforcement goes, I get all the reward without actually risking a misfire, kind of like cheating. Well, not “kind of”, that’s exactly what it is– it’s basking in the glow of my supposed genius based on a hypothetical, an unfinished draft. Except when I’m talking about it, I’m not actually aware that that’s what I’m doing. It’s an obscure negotiation that goes on in a shady room somewhere in my subconscious. And upon realizing this, I started to think of dozens of other instances of this in my life– ideas that are entertained for a bit, talked about at length, reveled in the positive feedback, and then abandoned. That’s no way to treat a friend.

I didn’t have this problem with the last one because, well, that one was just too big, too important, too me. This one was a passing whimsy. But I want to be able to pursue those, too; if everything I wrote had to come from some place deep in my very being, I’d never come up with anything. I just don’t have too many important things to say. Big or small, I want to be able to chase that elusive muse where it takes me instead of taking shortcuts and detours to get some cheap praise. C’mon. How gauche is that? First you write the thing, then you bask in the glory of your unrelenting genius. So I think, for the time being, I’m done talking about what I have in the pipeline. Wanna find out? Good. I’ll tell you when it’s done.

You can proofread it if you want. Just go easy on the praise, I might never get around to pitching it.

7 thoughts on “How to Be a Jackass (or: Why I Probably Don’t Want to Talk About the New Thing I’m Writing)

  1. Could it also be egotistical guilt on the part of those who praise? Oh I forgot to encourage him and now we’ve lost a masterpiece! How many books have been talked away and how many deservedly so? But the only one who can decide that in the end – you are so right there – is the writer. When I saw the title of your post I thought – omg he’s going to talk about the new JackAss film and wondered how you’d make it interesting. Lol. No I haven’t seen any of them. Thanks for the post as always.

    1. Oh man. I won’t lie, I actually get a sick pleasure out of watching those Jackass films, in a “how many ways can they think of to hurt their genitals?” kind of way. But far be it from me to defend the work of Johnny Knoxville and company. I actually watched about half of Bad Grandpa recently. The only thing shocking about it was how unfunny it was.

  2. Jorge that picture of you with Liam Neeson etc is outstanding, it gave me a good laugh crude photoshop and all. The creative process is complex sometimes and I totally understand how one could be stalled by getting positive feedbck on a simple idea. But it needs to escalate. Good on you for identifying this and keeping on. You are talented, I have read your screenplays and you have a unique and powerful voice, never stop telling your stories my friend. Be Well

  3. First of all, YOU GOT TO SIT WITH NEXT TO MICHAEL CAINE in what seems like the BEST drinking party ever? I’m totes jealous! I want to know what you told them to make them laugh that way. I do think that we always praise even if we think it’s a rubbish idea. I don’t know if it’s a human thing – but even on shows like American Idol, you hear people audition because a billion people have told them they have good voices, even when they don’t. However, you really do have a way with words – this is not a fiction and you are incredibly self aware. I mean, how many people call themselves up on their bullshit. Purely for selfish reasons though, I hope you do finish that screenplay. I want to know this story!

    1. Hah! I wish I had gotten to hang out with these gents. Unfortunately, as you may have figured out, this photo was Photoshopped by the great Kyle Lees (author of Ski Ninjas: http://www.skininjas.com) as a joke. Thanks for the encouragement, I’ll get to finishing it one day. For now, I’m on to other things that move me a little more.

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