Any creative person who has ever had that feeling of having a major breakthrough in the creative process – that moment when you find the key to a scene, a character, the theme of your story – knows how rare those moments can be. There are countless quotes from luminaries of yesteryear that will remind you that inspiration isn’t “business as usual”. It’s quite the opposite.
Inspiration is like waiting for sleep to come: you’ll be tossing and turning for what feels like ages until you find yourself waking up the next morning having had a good night’s sleep (hopefully). You’ll be at your desk, or in a coffee shop, staring at the flashing cursor on a virtual, but really blank, page. And then your force yourself to type the magic words that go: Fade in. You got this, you’ve done it before. Before you know it, you’ve got a first draft.
Then you’ve got to do a second draft to re-assess the structure. Then you’ve got to do a third draft to make sure that the theme of your story is apparent. Then you realise that you may want to make a character’s motivation more apparent. Then there’s the dialogue. Then there’s something else and before you know it you’ve done half a dozen drafts and you can’t see the end of it. You know you’re close but you can’t.
Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling described the best moment of the writing process as being two-thirds into a book, when the plot comes together and she’s done most of the work and she can see the end.
Managing a career in the creative industries is an incredible challenge that requires resourcefulness, toughness, single-mindedness, relentlessness and all around the attitude of a torpedo going that was just launched towards its target —and that’s just if you’re lucky enough to have made it your day job.
Maybe you’re at the stage when you’re doing a film on your iPhone with your mates every weekend. In that case, you’ll need all of the above, times ten.
Does that sound depressing? Maybe. Maybe not. At any rate, there’s an upside to it. (And if you’ve got that single-minded torpedo attitude, you’ll be one to look at upsides to fuel you.)
Creativity is a muscle. And just like every other muscle, you need to train it and keep using it in order to know how it works and be more efficient when using it. That way, you’ll be ready when the day comes that you need or want to run a marathon. That way, people will notice how good you are when you’re applying for a job. That way, your work will get better as well.
I may be a partisan of the fact that there is no progress in art, or only marginally so, but I do think that there is an improvement in how to use one’s tools, and that includes your creativity. A director will improve their skills at figuring out a theme, a style or a characterisation. A producer will figure out how to make a production leaner, or more efficient and provide the best circumstances for other creative to do their best work.
The rewards for this are obviously not immediate. The learning process is long and frustrating, and if you can’t motivate yourself no one else will do it for you. But the only opportunity that you will have to learn about yourself and your process is when you’re actually doing the work and flexing those muscles.
Everyone gets stuck sometimes. There is a story of Robert De Niro walking on a set and intimidating everyone around him, simply by virtue of him being Robert De Niro, and when the cameras started rolling, he let them roll and didn’t do anything. He just whispered “I don’t have it… I don’t have it…” until he eventually found a way to deliver the lines, and found the place where his lines were supposed to be coming from.
That is why everyone needs training. It can be formal – university – or informal -watching movies non-stop and making them as well. Either way you need to practice and get feedback in order to get better at what you do, and be ready all the time.
Screenwriting guru William C. Martell tweeted a story the other day about just that: being ready. In the 70’s, the head of Paramount Studios Robert Evans (the man who helmed The Godfather, Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown and many other classics), was doing a Q&A session. At the end of the event, he asked anyone in the audience to give him their script and promised he would read them —but Martell didn’t have a script. He finishes his post by asking his reader: if you ran into Steven Spielberg himself at the grocery store, would you be ready?
Would you have a script to shove (politely) into his hands? Would you have a showreel to redirect him to? If you’ve practised your craft and have kept pursuing your endeavours, you’ll have something substantial enough that he can commission you for a rewrite, or maybe hire you for another job.
That’s why the most important film you can make is the next one. It may not be your masterwork, it may not be the one that will get Spielberg to call you (plus you’ve already met him at the store anyways), but it’ll show that you are industrious enough and practiced enough that you’re a force to reckon with and you’re someone they’d want to work with.