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.
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.
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.