A Writer’s Dilemma

I love telling stories. Even before I was a writer – when I was still drawing and thought I was going to be a professional artist – what I liked most about creating art was the story aspect. What was going on in this snapshot of a moment? Other people might look at my work and simply think it was a representation of my frame of mind at the time (admittedly, my later work was like that), but for me there was so much more happening. The people in my drawings had character. They had wants and desires. They had lives. Whenever I showed my art to anyone it always took a superhuman effort to remain silent lest I prattle on and on about the back story of…a flower or whatever the subject was.

Now that I’m a professional writer, all I want to do is craft and tell wonderful stories. The reality that every professional writer (i.e. a compensated writer) faces is that professional writing is rarely done alone. What that means is that there’s a long line of people who need to approve your writing before it sees the light of day and you receive a single cent – unless you’re getting an advance, but that’s beside the point. The bottom line is that a writer’s work changes from the final draft in his or her head to the final draft that is consumed by the public. It behooves every writer then to distance themselves from their work appropriately. The question then becomes: How detached from a work should a writer be?

On one end of the spectrum are the writers who really have no artistic integrity and simply write for a paycheck. These are the hacks of the world, sticking to formula and never defending anything they write. I know that calling them “hacks” is rather pejorative, but I don’t mean it as harshly as it sounds. We all have to make a living and I can think of a lot of jobs that are far worse than grinding out predictable story arcs for books, movies and TV. I’d be more than happy writing a bunch of unfunny sketches for late night every week.

On the other end of the spectrum are the writers who have transformed their being into a literary work. To change a word, adjust the margins or fix a typo is to alter the framework of what makes them who they are. Whatever the final medium the work is for must present the source material exactly as it appears on the page. The writers that fall into this group usually don’t have much experience and are young. I think every writer starts off here. I certainly did.

I’m exaggerating a little; I was never so naïve as to think my work wouldn’t change. After all, that’s why editors were created. It’s a whole profession designed specifically for changing work. I did, however, think that my work was so good that little would have to be changed if anything. But after my first screenplay was rejected (read the whole story here: Part I, Part II, Part III), I slowly embraced compromise. At the end of the day, a writer wants to be read. At the end of the day, a professional writer wants to get paid. If changing character names, dialogue or stripping out branding will accomplish that goal and the alternative wont, then it’s time to learn to love the next revision.

With that said, my mindset has leaned hackish for quite some time. Writing is a business and as the old saying implies, business is the opposite of personal. Recently, however, I’ve written something that’s extremely personal and that I want to be made into a movie. It’s semi-autobiographical, so how could I not be deeply attached to it? So even though I am practically hackish, I’m emotionally on the other side of the spectrum regarding this work. The problem is that I wrote this screenplay knowing that it would require successfully making the longest long shot in the world – above and beyond the normal entertainment industry walls that keep would-be talent corralled in obscurity. My screenplay is based on my experiences with a real life performer. I wrote her into the movie and it’s named after her, so she would have to sign off on it before it got made.

I’ll spare you the emoting and just let you know that it didn’t get past her manager. Basically, his client isn’t interested in acting right now. And that’s a real shame because this story is amazing. (I know; the guy who wrote Soul Plane probably thought the same thing, but this one really is good!) Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a pretty cynical guy – I call it being realistic, but whatever. Knowing that, I have so much faith in the quality of this story that I foresaw nothing but success for this script. Granted, the script wasn’t rejected per se – I don’t think the manager even read it – so this rejection isn’t a referendum on my talent, but the fact the script isn’t going anywhere is heartbreaking.

My life typically doesn’t go the way I want it to go, so I’m pretty used to disappointment. So when I read the manager’s email it didn’t floor me in the way that I imagine normal people are affected by personally horrible news. Intellectually, I recognized that I was sad and if we trace emotions to a chemical source then I can reliably say that I could feel the chemicals building up inside me. This was confirmed the next morning when I woke up with what I call a “depression hangover”. I think people who have experienced severe depressions will know what I mean. Depression hangovers consist of waking up and instantly being disappointed that you woke up at all. For those of you who live lives without strife, imagine having  the best and most realistic dream ever – perhaps a dead loved one is alive and well or the person you want most holds you and tells you he or she loves you – and then waking up to your reality. That’s only a small fraction of how bad a depression hangover feels. The dream doesn’t even matter (I was waking up from a dream of George W. Bush as a rapping villain in a video game); it’s simply having a complete lack of will to live, because you feel helpless to change your circumstances.

The only reason I got out of bed that day was because it was Easter Sunday and I had to meet my parents for Mass. It’s a good thing I went because I had a conversation with God and he sorted out my mind and now I’m more or less over the disappointment. I’m not particularly religious – I always give up Catholicism for Lent – and I don’t necessarily believe in God, so factor all of that into the previous few sentences. I will state, however, that I was glad the Church was there that morning.

So that brings me to my dilemma: I’m not sure if the performer I have in mind will ever lay her eyes on my script, but I have to assume she never will. On the other hand, I still want this story to be told. That means rewriting the screenplay with another performer in mind. Since the movie is about a singer, my sights are set on the likes of Miley Cyrus. I bristle at the thought of how much the script is going to have to change to fit her life. Even if I have her play a fictional character, there’s still the matter of catering to her audience’s sensibilities.

Is my desire to see this story on the big screen strong enough to overcome my personal attachment to the original work in order to turn it into something nearly unrecognizable? If yes, then will the new version still be the old story? If no, then why am I going to change it? I don’t know and I’m struggling to find the answer.