Thursday, November 29, 2012

Gurus and Mentors

To the average Angeleno (and even moreso to people outside L.A.) screenwriters are a semi-amusing cliche: neurotic navel-gazers drinking too much caffeine and alcohol and fretting about all kinds of first-world problems.  Actual in-depth explorations into the life of the average writer are rarely published in the mainstream; instead, they're typically confined to the subsection of print and online media that is specifically By Screenwriters, For Screenwriters: magazines like Creative Screenwriting and Scr(i)pt, or the self-published blogs of individual writers (like, say, the one you're reading).

I was pretty intrigued, therefore, when the L.A. Times Review of Books published an article that is premised on the exact kind of navel-gazing that usually keeps us writers from being seen outside the walls of our own community.  The piece, written by Jonathan Zimmerman, is titled, "A Three Act Journey in the Land of the Screenwriting Gurus," and it explores a topic that is a perpetual hot button among screenwriters -- namely, the vast (and ever-increasing) numbers of screenwriting how-to guides.

Zimmerman's story is familiar to me and, I imagine, to most writers like me.  He wanted to be a screenwriter, but he grew up far away from The Industry (in Rhode Island), and thus it made sense to turn to screenwriting books as a primary source of knowledge on the subject.  One book turned into 25, and eventually he found that he was relying on how-to books so extensively that his work no longer even looked like his own: "Years later, I see as much Vogler [the author of one popular screenwriting guide] in the script as myself. It is stilted and feels foreign, like an awkward paint-by-numbers attempt at classical storytelling. Rather than writing, I’d been regurgitating undigested bits of Vogler onto the page, and the results were as unappetizing as they sound."  

He is far from alone in this experience.  Most screenwriting books are their own little bibles.  (One of them is even called The Screenwriter's Bible.)  They preach an orthodoxy that is designed to guide you through every word of your script, and writers both new and experienced can easily be tempted to follow them just as religiously as people tend to do with other holy books.  I've been in writing groups where people criticized my work simply by pointing out that it didn't follow the prescriptions of certain screenwriting books.  It is frankly a pretty spineless way of giving feedback, because you're ostensibly taking your own opinion out of the equation and outsourcing your criticism to a supposedly omniscient third party.  And yes, I'm sure I've done it myself on occasion.  Looking another writer in the eye and telling her that you, personally, have problems with her script is not an easy thing to do, especially for those of us who have very consciously chosen an introvert-friendly profession.  Likewise, when it comes to the actual writing, inventing your own stories and characters whole-cloth never ceases to be a frightening proposition.  Much easier in both cases to have a rock-hard set of principles to rely on, so that all you have to do is fill in the blanks.  

Eventually, Zimmerman decides that he'll need to abandon his screenwriting book crutches if he's truly going to move forward in his career.  It's a noble conclusion, but the guy's only written three scripts.  I'll bet you lunch at The Ivy that he dives back into the guides at least a couple more times.  And I don't blame him.  I've sworn off screenwriting books several times, which obviously means that I've also gone back on that vow several times.  In that time, I've come to the conclusion that these books are appealing to many of us not just because they're a synthetic cure-all for our creative woes, but because they're filling a genuine void -- taking the place of something that is sorely lacking in the world of screenwriting.  And that thing is mentorship.

In many professions, mentorship is a given. If you get into medical school, you're going to spend a lot of time around actual doctors, watching them do their jobs and getting plenty of feedback on your own techniques.  But if you want to be a screenwriter?  There's nothing remotely similar in place, unless you're lucky enough to have an aunt or uncle or family friend who's a successful writer and willing to show you the ropes.  (The Writers Guild has some mentorship programs, but they're only available to Guild members, which is kind of like starting your medical residency once you've already been hired as a surgeon.)  We are essentially on our own from the moment we decide to pursue a career in the field -- even our closest friends and family members don't usually understand what it is we're doing.  Is it any wonder that we could be drawn in by a book that promises to sit down with us and talk about how this whole thing works, what we're doing wrong, and what we need to do to succeed?

Obviously, screenwriting books are a dismal substitute for actual mentorship.  Most of the people who write these books are not mentors, but "gurus," to use Zimmerman's terminology.  They are not moved to write these books as a result of their stature in the industry (in fact, very few of them are successful working writers), but rather because they just happen to have figured out the principles of good screenwriting and they want to share their knowledge with the community.  Mentorship is a far less lofty principle, and yet far more useful.  You don't have to be brilliant, or even above average, to be a mentor.  You just have to be willing to show the next generation how you do what you do.  It sounds like a simple concept, but good luck finding it if you're an aspiring writer, because it's just not part of the infrastructure of the profession.  And as long as that's the case, self-professed screenwriting gurus will always be able to earn a living on the backs of the Jonathan Zimmermans of the world.