Good writers are the ultimate eavesdroppers

In his book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell says, “Modern literature is devoted, in great measure, to a courageous, open-eyed observation of the sickeningly broken figuration’s that abound before us, around us, and within.”  In other words, story telling is really about observing humanity.

Let me be perfectly candid: Screenwriters are not exempt from these important observations.

I truly believe that the best writers are not afraid to ask questions.  Maybe my work as a journalist is seeping through, but in order for us to create convincing characters, we need to have a real grasp on psychology.  We should be open-minded, and never write with an agenda, but write as an expression of what is within and about what is external.

I have never understood the writer who hides away from humanity.  Naturally, writing is solitary by nature, but when I am not writing, I am out and about—watching and listening to people.  Perhaps good writers are the ultimate eavesdroppers.

If you’ve never seen Norah Baumbach’s film, The Squid and the Whale, I’d like to recommend it. The story is about a family in crisis, and Baumbach successfully utilizes the themes of divorce, infidelity and relational dysfunction (sounds like Psychology 101), and we are drawn into the drama of a family as they all try to make sense of life.  You know, something that happens around us everyday.

Baumbach hits the audience with a scene-by-scene depiction of a family that is jaded by denial.  One of the greatest universal appeals in this screenplay is the author’s ability to write a brutally honest story about a family being forced to change in the midst of serious crisis.

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Whether the story is dramatic or comedic is not even the issue, because, according to Joseph Campbell, comedy and tragedy work parallel.  He says, “The happy ending of the fairy tale, the myth, and the divine comedy of the soul, is to be read, not as a contradiction, but as a transcendence of the universal tragedy of man.” Regardless of our station in life, we are all evolving.  Campbell’s hero never sits idle, but moves through time and space—changing from the inside out.  This is a reflection of life. Life, as we know it—a “call to adventure,” as Campbell puts it.

Good stories and well-drawn characters remind us of life.  In them we see reflections of history and unforgettable moments.  Moments comprised of birth and death, heartache and rapture, conflict in relationships, pain and suffering, love and war, happiness and sorrow, and justice and injustice.

Fellow writers…good writing is not something that just happens.  It’s not like picking up a journal, writing your thoughts down with utter abandonment while sipping a latte, and then suddenly getting published or produced.  There’s no magical formula, and no genie to wiggle her nose with the promise of a next best seller.  Like anything in life, if a writer wants to excel, he or she must surrender to the process, and it’s rigorous.  It means letting preconceived ideas go, and not holding onto writing that’s redundant just because you like a scene or a character.  It means to scrutinize your work and hold it against other works that have stood the test of time.  It means to be thoroughly honest while being captivatingly creative and transcendent.  “Story is about eternal, universal forms, not formulas…story is about mastering the art, not second-guessing the marketplace,” says Robert McKee.  The truth is…there are no shortcuts.

Having an open mind means to step outside of the box.  Writing is a journey that all of us creative minds must embrace, and like the characters we create, there is a moment in time where we “must” choose to drop all predetermined plans and welcome with open arms the challenge set before us.

Writing is a sacred place of both discovery and methodology.  It’s an amalgam of both worlds, and that process for me has been to find a balance between creative artistry and theory.  Part of that discovery is observing the way we humans respond to life. To not be afraid to let go of writing that doesn’t work (a couple of screenplays ago, I deleted 30 pages of script and laughed hysterically).  Letting go is a part of embracing the art of storytelling.  It’s not just about myth.  It’s about life.

So, are you (as a writer) ready to embrace the journey of storytelling?  Are you ready to be honest and transcendent?  Are you willing to learn what “really” makes a character tick?

“The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.” – Joseph Campbell

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6 thoughts on “Good writers are the ultimate eavesdroppers

  1. What you siad about writers being eavesdroppers reminded me of something I just read: in the novel Misery, Paul Sheldon remembers how he got the idea for his novel Fast Cars when he saw a parking attendant trying to jack a car (or something like that). That’s a form of eavesdropping, in a way.

  2. Campbell might argue that, as a writer, you have to grasp not only the psychology, but more importantly the mythology – for it is mythology in which human psychology has its roots. Even more fundamental than this, and Campbell’s major tenant, was the pursuit of bliss, which he saw as the fundamental essence and motivation of human existence. All mythology, and subsequent psychology stems from the pursuit of bliss. I wonder if film succeeds or fails on the same principles – that is , if the viewer finds something in the film (happy or sad) that leads to a state of bliss then it has achieved it’s goal perhaps. Not all films lead to a state of bliss, nor should they, but maybe exist in an intermediary or extreme state where the viewer is left to contemplate a world that is contrary to bliss or some intermediary state of conflicted feelings. That is stirring the emotions to excite a human response.

    Anyway, I think you make many good points for the writer inside each of us, and to step outside oneself to have a look is good. I remember the editor at Amazing Stories, George H. Scithers, told me something more than 30 years ago now: “Don’t confuse idea with story”. I never forgot that and it has stayed with me all these years in my writings. Nice post, Carla, and your perspective is to be appreciated – Bravo!

    • You’re absolutely right about Campbell embracing bliss and the importance of mythology. You’re certainly right too, that all films don’t achieve that goal, however, if a film that has universal appeal, and brings the audience to catharsis, it is indeed (at least in my estimation) successful. As you put it, it’s “Stirring the emotions to excite a human response…” My Scithers was indeed correct about no confusing “idea” with “story.”

      So glad you enjoyed the post Bruno! Grazie!

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