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Create Now, Critique Later

How to balance perspective with creative passions

When addressing the life of the creative person in Hollywood—a writer, actor, director, etc.—I often stress the wisdom in taking the “long view” regarding one’s career. In other words, to remember that the ups and downs will smooth out over the years, and that a consistent, long-term commitment to artistic growth and the development of craft is what provides the ultimate satisfaction. However, in another recent column, I also suggested that real creativity only occurs in the here-and-now.

I want to explore this seeming paradox, particularly in light of a therapy session I had recently with a screenwriter patient. She was about a third of the way through a new spec screenplay, one which represented a huge leap in terms of scope and content, and she was in the throes of powerful feelings of doubt and confusion. Would all the elements of plot, character and theme come together successfully? Did she have the talent, stamina and craft to keep at it, when the end was so many months away? What if the whole thing collapsed, half-finished, a painful and fruitless waste of months of work?

“If only I could step back from all of it,” she said. “Get some perspective.”

“You will be able to have perspective,” I said. “When the script is finished. You can see the thing as a whole.”

“Yeah, but I want that perspective now.” She gave me a wry smile, but I knew she was only half-kidding.

As we struggled with her conflicts about the script, I kept thinking of something Kierkegaard said: “Life can only be understood backwards; unfortunately, we have to live it forward.” What he meant is that, in hindsight, the choices and events in our life probably form a recognizable pattern, or possess a kind of thematic logic. But embedded as we are in our moment-to-moment daily life, we haven’t the perspective to fully grasp the implications of decisions, behaviors and events we take part in.

I realized that this was the dilemma for my patient. Embedded in the daily struggle to make this scene work, that character come to life—to create the hoped-for mood and tone as the pages of the screenplay flowed together—she was forced to stay in the here-and-now. The more she took creative risks, the more she mined her own feelings and experiences to give meaning and weight to her characters and scenes, the more fully in the world of the script she dwelt. In other words, she couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

The hell of it is, good writing is only about the trees, not the forest. You’re planting your trees, one at a time, day after day—until, after many weeks or months, you get to stand back and look it over as a whole and say, “So this is what the forest looks like. I’ll be damned.”

The plain fact is, the more fully engaged with your creative process, the less perspective you can have. “The eye cannot see itself,” as the Buddhists say. Now here’s why I think that’s a good thing.

As my patient and I investigated her concerns about the script, it became clear that the perspective she desired was in fact a yearning for control. Her screenplay—which, after all, she was writing on spec—represented a real creative and financial risk. Elements of the story were autobiographical, and intensely painful, and were played out against a large and colorful canvas, spanning decades.

The difficulty of the task daunted her, and exposed her to painful feelings of inadequacy. Even more shaming was the notion that attempting to write a film like this revealed the depth of her pride and grandiosity, traits that were particularly frowned upon in her immediate family.

Given such a set of concerns and associations, who wouldn’t want to have control over the writing? To be absolutely certain that the script was working, the writing was going well, that the finished product would be a critical and financial success. In short, that the end result would justify the pains of its creation.

As my patient worked her way toward this understanding, she saw the inherent contradiction in what she yearned for. If she was going to risk writing the screenplay, which meant living daily with her doubts and fears about it, she’d have to give up the idea of “perspective.” Which, in this case, meant control over the outcome.

“But only in the heat of the writing,” I reminded her. “There does come a time when it’s necessary and appropriate to take perspective, and that’s when the first draft is done. Remember, writing may occur in the here-and-now, but editing takes place in the there-and-then.”

“I know,” she said. “Thank God.”

By session’s end, she was ready to go home and risk planting another tree. For the truly committed creative artist, in Hollywood or elsewhere, that’s as good as it gets.

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