Sunday, February 26, 2012


When you write stories for others to read, you set yourself up for pain as well as pleasure. The writing is the pleasure. Readers often review what you write, and sometimes that can induce pain (especially when it is honest). Still, it’s a part of being a writer, and if you can’t accept it, then you need to find another line of work

I learned early on that writing is a tough business, especially when it is for film. Putting your work up on a big screen in a dark room and sitting with your client and his representatives for the first screening has to be one of the most ego-hammering things a writer can do. From the first flicker of the first frame, all the way to the last, you are hyper-tuned to every response of every member of that audience: a shrug, a shift in posture, a gesture, and of course, the spoken comment: any of those can stab you in the heart. If there is something in the film you have agonized over, anything the audience does can set your mind racing: How can I defend that? What will I do to cover that plot point if I have to change it? Did the client really smile at that line, or was he suffering from indigestion after that fancy lunch he just paid for?

In time you learn to accept what your client says, and even welcome comments if they are true and relevant. Not, "My wife Ethel says . . ." Then you know you are in trouble. More along the lines of "What we really need to say here is . . ." That’s a sign you have reached your target, but that you have the opportunity to improve your aim.

I remember one screening of a documentary I had not only written but also directed and edited for a government client. I had probably 75 or more films behind me by then, some for really tough clients, and the process overall no longer caused too much anxiety. In the screening room were the head of the agency, his deputy, a lower ranking minion and one or two others. The screening went as well as those things can. When the lights in the screening room went up, I walked to the front and faced my audience. At first nobody said anything. The others were waiting for the big guy to make the first move. Finally he smiled and said the equivalent of "I Like it. Fine job." Music swells, heartbeat returns to normal. "One or two minor things," (fight that knot in your gut) and he pointed out what really were minor and fixable points, and then he sat back. I looked at the other members of the audience and received nods and a few positive comments, from almost all of those present. Finally I said: "Anything else, from anybody?"

An otherwise silent member of the staff, an assistant to some department chief, wriggled a bit in his chair, and then said: "I’m trying to think of some."

I said, "Ralph, just because you’re here doesn’t mean you have to comment." Big laugh, and forever after, that kind of response was known among my staff as "Ralphing."

Years later I put that part of my life behind me and began to focus on being a storyteller, writing for an audience of one: myself. No cameras, no screens (except for Kindle). I’ve had many comments from readers, mostly kind, always constructive, but never, I’m happy to note, what I would have considered "Ralphing."

The lesson I learned long ago is clear: if you are going to write, or paint, or make films or sing songs, you must learn to leave your ego at the keyboard (or whatever tool you use). There is no place in a creative person’s life for the kind of pain and anxiety and tears your ego can thrust upon you. If my readers have something to offer, a comment or an insight or even a disagreement with something I’ve said, I want to know it. I’m still learning, still perfecting my craft, still hoping to find the word or phrase or story that will define me and enlighten you.

I just hope you aren’t "Ralph."

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