Writing for the Public, Writing for the Self November 7, 2017

“Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice; journalism what will be grasped at once, and they require separate techniques.”

I’m still on about the long-gone British critic Cyril Connolly, having started to read him when I remembered his famous quote about the pram in the hall being the enemy of art.

The one about journalism and literature is far smarter, and tied to another of his famous aphorisms:

“Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.”

The fact is, most writers have to jockey between the two to survive, at least if writing for the public implies journalism, blogs and other forms of promotion as well as commercial blockbusters. Not that journalism pays what it did when Connolly supported himself as a reviewer and editor, or that most forms of promotion pay anything at all.

But trying to build an audience for one’s more essential work means changing hats frequently, sometimes in the course of a day, flipping from writing an allusive short story to churning out a loud blog. I’ve found that commercial and non-commercial work does require separate techniques, along with a different set of skills. And that it sometimes ends in the loss of voice, and of self.

Im back teaching this term in the feature film program at the Canadian Film Centre, where I’m a Writer Mentor and teach a unit on the business of writing. Building a screenwriting career involves balancing commercial and non-commercial work, art house films, wide releases, webcasts and TV.

I always ask screenwriting residents to start by defining their essential projects, the scripts closest to their hearts—in prose terms, the literary work—and to separate them off from the sort of work they’re willing to do for hire. What’s the difference?

In film, it’s often a question of control. There are some projects where writers insist on holding tight to their original concepts, hoping to make the film they see in their heads. On other projects—including original scripts, stories they’ve made up out of nothing—they’re willing to bend in order to get something made, to build a c.v., make connections, create opportunities to get other projects off the ground and, pretty crucially, to eat.

Film is a collaborative medium, far more so than literature, and writers working with directors on feature films always risk ending up with no self at all, becoming tools of a strong director’s (or producer’s or studio’s) vision.

This can be a good thing. Sometimes writers are lucky enough to work with such talented creative partners that they can massively elevate their games. For this to happen, they need to be open to learning from the directors and producers instead of turning defensive, clutching their scripts to their chests and bleating, “My words. Mine.” (And being fired.)

On the other hand, with the wrong partners, filmmaking can be a lousy experience and result in a lousy film. Taking bad notes is never good, unless you really need the money. (See above re: being fired.)

Especially with their heart projects, screenwriters need to learn how to manoeuvre directors and producers out of lousy ideas and into good approaches. It’s a question of tact, of keeping the project front and centre, and of all partners learning to put the film ahead of egos. This includes the screenwriter, and (hint) can involve leading a director to believe that your idea is actually her idea, much as you’d like to take credit yourself.

Is this easy? No. But in film, subordinating the ego is crucial for both commercial and non-commercial projects. Conversely, so is being stubborn when you need to. To my mind, the key to a successful career is knowing when to dig in your heels and when to gracefully cede control, or at least appear to do so.

I’m not sure whether there’s an analogy here to commercial and literary writing. Maybe there’s a sense in which a commercial writer cedes a degree of control to her audience by writing what she thinks the public wants. Meanwhile, literary authors write to their own vision, playing writer and director in one, although there’s always a dance with editors in which (hint) it isn’t a bad idea to allow the editor think she was the one who came up with your brilliant thought during the editing process.

Circling back toward Connolly’s aphorism, it’s also a good idea to learn how to move rapidly between the different types of writing. Otherwise, you don’t have enough time to do both, and it will always be the non-commercial work that suffers.

I started working as a journalist when I was in university, just seventeen, at a time when you were still able to earn your living that way. I also started writing my first (very bad) novel. It took me years to learn how to switch gears—switch mentalities, switch speeds, turn off the perfectionist filters when I was going commercial—and to do this quickly. Now I can finish a blog, close my eyes for a moment, make a cup of tea, then switch back to the novella I’m writing.

(Although today—here’s the romantic life as a writer for you—I actually have to do the laundry.)

The only helpful thing I can tell emerging writers on the subject is that practice helps. Switching gears is a learned skill, and I always ask students not to be too hard on themselves if they find it impossible at first. One day, they’ll find they can. They’ll have to.

Which leads to a final Connolly.

“No education is worth having that does not teach the lesson of concentration on a task, however unattractive. These lessons, if not learnt early, will be learnt, if at all, with pain and grief in later life.”

In this case, I think he’s right.

 

This blog originally appeared on Open Book, where I was writer-in-residence for the month of June. You can check out all the month’s blogs here.