The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August and this is Episode 321 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Last week, I was in London. This week, Craig is in London. We were literally flying through the air at the same time in opposite directions. But luckily, I found someone in the Pacific Time Zone to help us out.
Grant Faulkner joins us from Berkeley where he is Executive Director of the National Novel Writing Month, a.k.a. NaNoWriMo. He is a writer and novelist himself, but the reason I mostly wanted him on the show this week is his great new book about writing. Grant, welcome to the show.
Grant Faulkner: Thank you for having me, John. I’m really looking forward to talking creativity today.
John: So, I said you were in Berkeley. Is that actually accurate? Because last time I met you, you were in San Francisco.
Grant: I am in Berkeley, and the NaNoWriMo headquarters is in Berkeley as well.
John: Can you talk us through what NaNoWriMo is for folks who don’t know the program?
Grant: Yeah. NaNoWriMo is many, many things, but I won’t go into the whole hour-long description of it, which is really kind of what it requires. But just to go through the rudiments, it is a challenge to write 50,000 words in 30 days during the month of November. And so, it was developed really around the premise that everyone has a story to tell and that everyone’s story matters. But sometimes, so many people say, “I’m going to write my novel or my script some day,” you know, like that mythical “someday” when life is just easy and beautiful and you have money and a beautiful office and expanses of time.
But someday just rarely happens. In fact, I just read this in The New York Times, they did a survey and 81% of Americans say they want to write a book someday, but most of them of course don’t. And so, we exist to say “Make your creativity a priority for a month, in the month of November” and we want to ignite people’s creativity and help them realize their creative dreams.
John: So, I was aware of NaNoWriMo for a lot of years, and I’d never actually considered pursuing it until two years ago. I found myself at the end of October and realizing like, “Well, I don’t have a script that I have to write next, and I think I will actually just start writing a book and I will do that in November.”
So, I sat down at my computer. I was in Austin. I was there for the Austin Film Festival. And I started writing this book and it became Arlo Finch. So, my first book is actually a NaNoWriMo book.
John: Thank you to the program and also for the impetus. Most of our listeners are screenwriters. And so, 50,000 words, that doesn’t necessarily track to sort of what screenwriters do, but that’s sort of like — it’s a script. Maybe it’s sort of a script and a half. It’s a lot of words. So in order to hit 50,000 words, I think it’s 1,650 words per day that you’re supposed to be writing?
Grant: Yeah, 1,677 to be precise. And I was so impressed because you not only wrote Arlo Finch during NaNoWriMo, but you sold it, right?
John: So, that’s not entirely fair because I wrote about 15,000 words. I got nowhere near the 50,000 words.
John: But I wrote the first six or seven chapters of it and that’s what actually became the book that we went out and sold. So, I sold Arlo Finch off the initial chapters, the outline for the whole book and that’s what’s got the whole thing started. So, it was a great sort of framework for getting me to sit down and actually just do the work of getting just started. So, I really, really enjoy it.
But since the time I did it, I talked to a lot of other people who have written during NaNoWriMo, and some of those people have sold books, but a lot of people just like, you know, actually sat down and like strung words together for the first time in a year. So I think you’re doing an incredible service to people who are curious about writing, who aspire to write, who wouldn’t otherwise have the motivation to do it.
Grant: Yeah. And it’s interesting to me because I think sometimes people think that NaNoWriMo is all about, you know, helping people not only write their novels but publish their novels, as if that’s always the end goal. And I’m really actually impressed by the number of people who sign up every year just to write a novel and to do it in a community of other writers. So, that whole notion of creativity for creativity’s sake I think is really valuable, even if your aspiration is to publish, just kind of keeping that notion, that sort of childlike approach, being playful with your words.
John: Absolutely. And I think the childlike focus comes into some of the other programs you guys do. You have the Young Writers Program which we help out with, with our Writer Emergency Packs but you’re in–
John: Like, 2,000 classrooms every year to sort of help young writers sort of get started in the process. There’s programs designed for really little kids and for middle grade kids. But I think it’s great that you’re sort of getting people thinking about writing as a thing you do even if you don’t intend to become a professional paid writer.
Grant: Yeah. And our Young Writers Program, what is remarkable about it for me, since I was a teen of course before NaNoWriMo was founded in 1999, and I’ll talk to 17-year-olds who have written five, six, seven novels during our Young Writers Program and they might have published some of them with a self-publishing company. And I never — when I was a teen, no one wrote novels. I was a geeky reader, writer and I wrote a long short story at most.
And so, I think like this year, we will have 80,000 teens sign up for our Young Writers Program and close to 350,000 writers for the NaNoWriMo main site. And then, with our Young Writers, we provide Common Core-aligned curriculum for teachers, free workbooks that can be downloaded. We send out novel writing kits and resources to 2,500 classrooms which include your Writer Emergency Pack which is actually good for any age of writer, I think. I like pulling out a card every once in a while.
So, yeah, our premise is just the world is a better place with more creators in it, and our approach to igniting people’s creativity is through writing.
John: So, for anybody who has questions about NaNoWriMo, they should go to nanowrimo.org and check out all the great work you do. But I want to focus today on the other great work you do which is this new book that I have in my hands. It’s a handsome little book called, Pep Talks for Writers — 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo. It’s published by Chronicle Books here in the US. It is about an inch thick. If you threw it at somebody, it would hurt them, which I think is a good measure for a book.
What was the impetus behind writing this?
Grant: Yeah. And for what I said earlier, one of the, you know, kind of breakthrough successes we have every year is when people find themselves as writers and creators during November and find themselves in our NaNoWriMo community. And they want to — they so often want to keep that creative momentum going all year long, but it can be really tough. I mean, you can’t do NaNoWriMo every month and I wouldn’t advise that. But I would like people to stay creative year-round and to finish those novels they wrote or just make creativity a priority in their lives.
And so, I wrote these 52 insights. The insights are really kind of short essays. Each essay is about two or three pages, I think. And then, each essay ends with an action that you can take within a one-week period. It’s not meant to be like a five-year plan or something like that. So, yeah, that was the purpose. And so, each essay is really just taking a different angle of creativity and help people reflect on being creative with their lives in a variety of different ways, whether it’s setting goals and deadlines to finish that novel or whether it’s going out in the world and practicing becoming a better observer, so just a range of topics.
John: Yeah. What I like about it so much is that so often these books are kind of “Yay, writing,” like, “Writing is fantastic. Writing is the best thing ever and just like follow these steps and you’ll be so happy.” And what I liked about your book is that, while I think overall it’s going towards a positive place, you’re really acknowledging some of the pitfalls and problems that sort of keep people from writing — either from starting to write or keep people from continuing to write. It’s a very challenging thing to sort of really dig in on. And even 20 years into this, I found myself nodding at a lot of the things that you point out about part of the reasons why it can kind of suck to write.
And so, I want to dig in to some of those today while I have you on the show to see sort of what insights you have and sort of what advice you can have to people no matter what they’re writing, be it a book, be it a short story, be it a screenplay, sort of get them through to that next step and that next draft.
So, if you’re ready, I just wanted to kind of dig in if we can.
Grant: That sounds great.
John: One thing you identify, something you call in one of the early chapters, “the Other Syndrome”, that writing is something that other people do. Like, can you talk to me about what you mean by other syndrome and I think we can probably tie it into something we’ve talked about in the podcast before, “Impostor Syndrome,” in a sense that I’m not really a writer. Where did that come from for you?
Grant: Yeah. I’ve never talked to anyone who didn’t struggle with this. “I am not a writer” is one way to put it or “I am not a real writer.” And so, I think, you know, for instance like me, I grew up in a small town in Iowa. And so, when I was growing up, real writers — they lived in New York City or Paris. They were adults. They just weren’t me. I didn’t have access to that writing world. And so, I think everybody can probably find a reason of how they feel other than what they determine a real writer is.
And I think if you don’t claim the “I am a writer” with some boldness, it will show with the words you write on the page. You won’t be able to write as bravely if you don’t claim it. If you say “I’m aspiring to write or be a writer. I want to be a writer –” I mean, the definition of being a writer is that you write. And I think the real part is even perhaps more inhibiting because I think what people mean by real is that they’ve been — you’re not a real writer until you’re published. And one publication can, you know, whatever, boost your confidence and make you feel like you are a real writer, it’s a really kind of flimsy and transitory feeling.
I find it like just kind of strange how I’ll wake up in the morning to write and open up my laptop and have a new assignment and I will just really struggle with those first words. It would be like the last thing I want to do is to write. Even though I’ve done it hundreds or thousands of times before and done it with success, each new project is like a totally new thing. And you can go back into all those sort of low moments of self-esteem or lack of belief in yourself no matter where you are in your writing journey.
John: Yeah. Let’s dig into psychologically why people have this sense that other people are writers but what I’m doing is not writing. And so, you were talking about growing up in a small town in Iowa. I think there is a sense that when we see writers portrayed in media, they’re always these people who live in big cities, off by themselves and who, like, they cloister themselves in their little rooms and they type these brilliant things and the editors love them. And if they do go out, it’s to mingle with other writers who wear little ascots. Like, it’s a very fancy kind of thing.
John: Writing is a really invisible process. It’s like just a person sitting there, doing something. You don’t see them on a daily basis. You don’t see people who are creative writers out there in the world so much. You might pass that person at the coffee shop who’s working, but like you’re not seeing them doing their work as much as you’re seeing an athlete practicing or playing the game.
John: You don’t see them the way you see musicians. Writing is just a thing that happens.
John: Last week on the podcast, we answered a question from a listener who asked like, “Is it okay to call myself a screenwriter versus an aspiring screenwriter?”
John: And I think our basic answer was a lot like what you said, is that identify yourself by the verb, not the noun. And if you are a person who writes, then you are a writer and that’s absolutely fair to say. And so, I think your idea of the “Other Syndrome” though also ties into I think we talked about it in the show before, which is the “Impostor Syndrome,” which is even when you’re doing it, even when you’re getting paid for it, you always have that sense of like “Oh, no. At some point, they’re going to figure out that I’m not really the person they should be trusting to do this work.”
I love that you included this quote that I’d never seen before. I’ll read the quote here. “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out that I’ve run a game on everybody. They’re going to find me out.’” It’s a quote by Maya Angelou. And so, here’s a woman who’s remarkably successful as a writer and yet she still says that each time she sets out to do a new project, she’s like, “This is the one they’re going to realize that I’m not that good, that I didn’t deserve that praise before.”
And in your book, you talked through some of the reasons why even really successful writers have that sense. Like, what do you think that is?
Grant: Per what you were saying earlier, I think one reason that people don’t feel like they’re writers or that they aren’t real writers is that they’re only reading the final draft of their favorite writers, right? The novels they love have been through, who knows, five or ten edits and had professional editors look at them. Whereas, like most of us are sitting with our rough draft and it’s so easy to see how it might not measure up to what we want it to be.
So, writing is so crazily difficult and challenging and I think that that flows into what Maya Angelou was saying as well is that it’s an activity of self-doubt. It has like so many masochistic components to it. The joy and the meaning one finds from the kind of painful exercises is just such a different type of joy than you might find in other activities. And so, I think a writer is just constantly wrestling with that self-doubt no matter where they are in their writing career.
And I think if you feel, depending on the degree that you feel the “Other Syndrome,’ I actually think there are whole different layers. I mean, I’ve done an exercise where I’ll write “I am a writer” in the middle of a circle and then draw concentric circles going out to the perimeter. And I think some people are on the out, like the very edge of the first concentric circle and some people are really close to that middle, I am a writer. And so, I’m imagining Maya Angelou might have been on that closer to the perimeter. So, her natural self-doubt as a writer might really rear an ugly head from time to time.
But, yeah, I think the thing is, is that publishing also doesn’t solve these things. Fame doesn’t solve these things. Awards don’t solve these things. As a writer, you’re always struggling with yourself and your ability to put the right words on the page.
John: You talk in your book about the inner editor and how the inner editor is that force inside you that is constantly pushing you and it can be pushing you in a good way or pushing you in a bad way. It’s like that coach who sort of calls you out on all your mistakes and good coaches can sort of push you to your best work and bad coaches can make you quit the team.
John: I think that’s an aspect of this “Impostor Syndrome” as well. You have this inner critic who is saying, “You are not good enough. Look at how brilliant that other writer’s work is and how bad your work is.” But of course, as you point out, you’re only comparing this crappy first thing you’ve written, this crappy first draft you’ve written to the finished masterpieces of that other thing. So, naturally, it’s not going to be as good.
John: You’re always thinking about the worst of your stuff versus the best of theirs.
Grant: Exactly. And we’re not even the best judge of our own stuff, you know. I mean, I think writers just because of that inner editor, which can be — your inner editor has its place and you might banish it during the first draft, but you need it later on because your inner editor wants you to succeed, but it can have a harsh voice. And I think sometimes writers — I mean, we internalize that inner editor and it helps us refine and revise our novels but it can also, you know, I think add to our self-doubt sometimes.
And so, you know, I think when you’re comparing your draft to a published author’s, your eyes probably aren’t the best at that point to judge it.
John: Absolutely. Let’s talk a little bit about process because the classic NaNoWriMo process is basically a quantity kind of goal. Like, you basically just like turn off your inner critic, like, don’t listen to that voice that says, “This isn’t good enough,” just like keep generating pages and go through it.
Do you find that that needs to switch at any point? Can people keep writing at that pace and that speed? There’s a screenwriter who’s out there today who does a lot of work who famously can write zillions and zillions and zillions of words and yet the people will call them out on quality. Do you find that people who go through NaNoWriMo process, what happens in those other 11 months? Like, what is the next step for them after all those words?
Grant: Yeah. We definitely — I think I do know one person in the world who did NaNoWriMo every month for an entire year. She wrote 12 novels, 50,000 words a month and she’s a rarity and we don’t advise people to do that. After NaNoWriMo is over — you know, 50,000 words, a lot of people aren’t finished to start. They might need to write another 25,000 or 50,000 words to finish. So, I recommend that they finish because I think there’s just something so rewarding about, you know, writing The End after writing a whole rough draft and then revise of course, you know, and revise, you know, multiple times.
So, sometimes I think people think that we think that you can write a novel in a month and publish it in a month and that’s certainly not the case.
John: Yeah. One of the numbers you point out in your book is that if you wrote just 250 words a day, you’d get to 80,000 words in a year. 80,000 words is a pretty good sized book.
Grant: It is.
John: That’s a book to be proud of. It may not be the best book ever, but it would be about an inch thick and that’s sort of a way to measure sort of what you’ve done. So, you know, consistency even at smaller amounts can be a huge help as well. But how do you then sort of reengage the inner critique, that inner editor, after you sort of try to ignore him or her during that initial process? Like, what’s the way of sort of inviting that creature back in?
Grant: Yeah. I think writing a rough draft and banishing the inner editor, it takes practice especially for someone like me because I wrote with an inner editor very present in my writing life until I discovered NaNoWriMo. So, I still — I write pretty slowly because my editor is always somewhere whispering in my ear, “You can refine that sentence a little bit more before going on.”
I think editing and revising takes a lot of practice. I think a lot of people — I’ll see writers revise for the first time and they’ll really kind of only revise on the sentence level. You know, they’ll brush up their grammar and stuff, and revision is such a deeper process. One of my favorite quotes about revision comes from the author, Karen Russell, who said that 90% of her rough draft doesn’t make it into her final draft. I mean, I think you have to open to totally, dramatically changing what you wrote in that first draft, you know, and I always advise people not to attach themselves too much to the plotline or whatever it is in that rough draft because it’s just going to change so much.
And I think Karen Russell is not an anomaly. Most writers I talk to or most novelists, so they say the same thing. The rough draft sometimes as a story just changes so dramatically. It’s barely recognizable. In fact, I just talked with a NaNoWriMo writer who, she did NaNoWriMo I think like 9 or 10 years ago and that 50,000 words that she wrote, she just published her book, but most of those words she said it was kind of a seed of the idea.
So, the rough draft, you’re really exploring. You’re really trying to take different pathways and not be too attached to them. You’re really just trying to open up and find your story. And if I can impart one more quote, I just heard of this as well, Barbara Kingsolver says she starts on negative page 100. So, she’s writing 100 pages just to get to the beginning, just to figure out what she’s really saying. I think the rough draft can even be like a kind of like planning stage. You know, it doesn’t get talked about like that, but, you know, call it zero draft. You can write a rough draft and then outline it afterwards and then, you know, almost write a whole new story.
So, yeah, there are so many different ways to go about it and even though we do have this framework for NaNoWriMo, NaNoWriMo is a creative experiment from its beginnings and I try to experiment with my own creative process every year because that was the gift that NaNoWriMo gave me. The reason I did it back in 2009 was because I felt like I was in a — my creative process was in a rut. And so, I just want to shake it up and it led me to, you know, take these risks on the page that I wouldn’t have ordinarily if I’ve been writing in my kind of ponderous, precious mode.
John: Let’s go back a little bit there because you went to a masters writing program, didn’t you?
Grant: Yeah. I did. Yeah.
John: So, talk us through it. So, a small town in Iowa, and then, what was the process that got you started as a writer and also that led you to NaNoWriMo?
Grant: Yeah. I think there was something in me that was kind of predetermined to be a writer. I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t want to be a writer. So, even when I was going down other possible, you know, career paths, it was always an idea writing some way.
I went to a study abroad program when I was 20 and basically sat in France and read novels in cafes and said, “This is the life for me.” So, I decided to be a writer and never looked back, never had Plan B. And so, yeah, in my mid-20s, I went and got my masters at San Francisco State. But then, that’s when the writing got really tough. It was when I was in my 20s, I was totally broke and needed to make a living and I worked as a journalist and worked in corporate communications and then finally found my way to the National Writing Project which is a wonderful nonprofit in Berkeley dedicated to helping teachers teach writing better. And then, that led me to the NaNoWriMo board.
Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo, invited me on and I’ve been here for six years. So, I feel blessed that I’ve managed to find a job in writing that speaks to — you know, I’m a very mission-driven person. So, I really love that this organization helps so many people become creators and, you know, it’s like I get to think of creativity and talk with people who are engaged in writing every day. So, I’m always learning something.
John: But, let’s circle back to this Masters of Creative Writing Program that you took at San Francisco State.
John: So, what was that like because that sounds like kind of the fantasy, like, “Well, of course, he’s a writer because he went to that amazing program.” So, what were you actually doing during your time there and what was the process of like dealing with other students in the program?
Grant: Yeah. I went there somewhat casually. A lot of people are very directed and they choose, you know, very prestigious writing programs, but I was living in San Francisco and I enjoyed my life and just wanted to stay here. And I was reading and writing every moment I could when I wasn’t working, and I just thought I should get a degree for it.
So, I wasn’t really driven purposefully. You know, I didn’t have grand visions of learning things, in particular. But I think the things that I learned were the value of developing a writing community. It provided that, and I think a writing community can serve you in so many different ways, whether it’s getting feedback from your peers and friends or whether you’re getting inspiration from them or wisdom from their experience or networking opportunities.
Some of the professors definitely introduced me to new ways to write, Robert Gluck in particular. He taught experimental fiction. But, yeah, I can’t say that I had — you know, I think a lot of people go to programs and they want to find this mentor who will love them and that mentor will then, you know, open every door in the world for them to get published. And I think that does happen but it’s very rare. And so, I think you have to really think — I mean, if I were going to go back and do it, I would really think about what do I want out of this. I wouldn’t be so casual.
John: One of the questions we get most often on the podcast is, “Should I go to film school?” And I think our answers tend to be very much what you describe is that film schools are a great place to be surrounded by people who are trying to do the same things you’re trying to do and get that community, but you can’t go into it expecting “I’m going to go through this program and suddenly I will have the success in this field,” especially in something as esoteric and strange as writing. It’s hard to anticipate that you’re going to be able to graduate from that program and suddenly, you know, all the gates will be open to you.
Grant: It’s really true and what’s interesting to me is the number of people who go to MFA programs and they don’t write now, and they’ll quit writing soon afterwards. And I’m always like, “Why did you do it? That was a huge investment of time and money.” And I think it speaks to like what really makes a writer or a screenwriter is that inner passion. It doesn’t matter whether you have a degree in it. It doesn’t matter if you’ve taken any classes in writing at all.
You know, in fact, Chris Baty who founded NaNoWriMo, he hadn’t taken any writing workshops or anything like that. And I think especially with the novel, I don’t know if this applies to scriptwriting so much, but I imagine it does to a large part, is that the best way to learn to write a novel is by writing one, you know. You can’t really read about how to write a novel or just listen to someone lecture on it. You have to experience it in tandem with a larger conversation around it and you can find the conversation in books and in writing communities like NaNoWriMo, of course.
John: One of the things you talked about quite a bit in the book is sort of the virtue of being a beginner and sort of like how to sort of remember what it’s like to be a beginner so that you can, you know, approach things with an openness and interactiveness. There’s a quote you used by Matsuo Basho, “Seek not to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.” And which is basically a great way of expressing to sort of be able to retain that sense of openness and curiosity that you have as a beginner.
And I think that may have been one of the main reasons I wanted to do NaNoWriMo is because I’m really good at screenwriting. I sort of think I know how screenwriting works. I really didn’t know how writing books worked. And it was so thrilling to be a beginner again at something and I think part of the reason why I keep trying new things is that I’m sort of a dilettante and hopping in between things is because it’s so much more fun to explore something new than to sort of than to sort of keep trudging over the same terrain again and again.
Grant: Yeah. And I think the more you stay in one field and kind of specialize in it, the more your sort of expert rigidity just keeps getting more and more rigid. It’s even hard for me sometimes to go back to my beginning stages of why I wrote to begin with. And NaNoWriMo provides that in the sense of the community. I get to talk to a lot of beginning writers and they help me remember that sort of — you know, it’s just so strange. It’s like traveling to a new city that you’ve never been to before. You’re just experiencing the world in such freshness.
And I do think that we lose that kind of childlike appreciation of storytelling the longer that we write. And so, the more that we can do to go back and remind ourselves about it and you mentioned one — I mean, the one thing that I love is like learn something new. Like, when I started playing the guitar five years ago, it was such an interesting experience to be a total beginner in another art form. And so, I think people should like embrace that really as a new year’s resolution. Learn one thing new every year because it brings you back to that beginner’s mind, and then you can apply that to your writing.
John: Absolutely. One of the things, a truism that we hear again and again about writing, we hear about screenplays but I think even more so about books is to write what you know.
John: And I like what you were sort of going into about that idea because so often it will be brought up, and it will be sort of immediately dismissed because like, well, that’s stupid because I don’t know anything about, you know, space travel, but I love to write about space. And, you know, there’s so many examples that people writing things that they couldn’t possibly have firsthand knowledge of it, yet it really works.
Where I think you do a good job of sort of digging deeper is looking at what you’re really trying to get out with writing, what you know, which is sort of the emotional memory, the stuff underneath the experience that is so crucial about writing what you know. What things should people be looking for when someone says, “Write what you know”?
Grant: Yeah. I think “write what you know” is funny. That’s like one of the top three probably maxims of writing, right? Like, people are always saying, “Write what you know.” And I remember when I first heard that. I was like, “What does that mean?” You know, because, if I take it at its literal face value, I think that I have to write about only those things I’ve experienced in my life like my small town in Iowa. But it’s not really about that.
I think like just what you said, you should never limit yourself. Like, if I — I don’t know, if I want to write about aliens on another planet, if I want to write about a region I’ve never been to in the world which I’ve done, you know, if I want to write about characters, whatever they are, like neuroscientists, so, I don’t know any neuroscientists, but we should give ourselves that permission because it’s part of the reason we write is to see the world through people’s eyes and to explore the world in different ways.
And so, I like the method acting or method writing approach that you’re really applying your own personal emotional experience to the characters you’re creating. Actually, there’s a Shelley Winters quote where she says, “Act with your scars.” And so, you can apply your scars to any character. But I do think that, you know, that requires, like method acting, a lot of introspection and not just like tossing yourself into characters willy-nilly but really thinking about the purpose of what scar and what experience of that scar is appropriate for certain characters.
John: When I read writing that feels very real, when the characters seem like they have flesh and blood, I do think it’s because the author has invested a bit of him or herself into their experience. And so, that, you know, author has a very clear sense of that character’s inner emotional life because he or she is using some things from their own life to sort of proxy for it.
When I was doing the script for Big Fish, there’s a sequence at the end where Will is sort of going through the story of his father’s death and I knew this is going to be an incredibly emotional thing for the character but also for the audience watching it. And so, I would — this incredibly method writing where I would bring myself to tears and then start writing.
John: And it seems crazy and why would you do it that way, but I’m pretty sure the only reason why I got to those specific words and those images was because I was at that emotional state as I was writing it. And that’s a, you know, it was an incredibly valuable exercise for me is to sort of let myself feel those feelings and then let those characters express themselves while I was feeling those feelings. And, you know, I would just encourage people to try those things because really what’s the harm of trying those things? And there’s something sort of embarrassing about feeling strong emotions or to psych yourself up into a place. But you do it for other things. You’ll rev yourself up before giving a speech. You’ll do other things to sort of get you into the emotional state. Get yourself into the right emotional state for the writing that you’re doing.
And that’s really what we’re talking about in terms of write what you know. Write those feelings that you know. Use the things that are specific and unique to you to help create some specific and unique moments for your story.
Grant: Yeah, that’s a great point. I think the stories that I connect with most I think, I agree with you, the writer or the creator has done something that is just so personal. He or she has made themselves vulnerable in a way that, you know, they’ve gone deeper. And so, I really think vulnerability on the page is more important than any craft advice, you know, or craft tips that you might write with.
And that’s where — with Shelley Winters, like act with your scars, it’s really going deep, you know. Like, be willing to reveal your scars on the page and go there.
John: You also bring up the idea of using a pseudonym to sort of give yourself permission to write something that you yourself wouldn’t feel personally comfortable writing. So, J.K. Rowling with her Robert Galbraith books, like she basically created a whole other character who is the person who is writing those books. And it’s a nice way of like, you know, giving herself some arm’s distance so she felt safe to have this other guy be writing those books, but also so she could write herself more into it.
It seems like it’s sort of an impossible sort of, you know, double twist. But by creating somebody, a proxy for herself, she could, you know, more personally invest in what she was writing. Have you had any experience with that personally?
Grant: I have, yeah. I know some somewhat renowned writers who have written what with a pseudonym or through a persona and they’ve done it to be more vulnerable on the page. You know, to be more powerful and write more bravely. Like just that shield, I guess, that the persona gives them helps them do that.
I mean, I think really, in the end, every time we sit down to write, we’re doing it through a filter of some persona, you know. Like I might think I’m writing with my natural self, but I think like there are ways to shift that, you know. What is your natural self, really? I sometimes like to pretend I’m somebody else just to try to access a different voice.
John: For me, you know, John August is the person I became sort of when I was 21, so I ended up switching from my born last name to use my dad’s last, middle and full name.
John: And so, like it really was a process like, well, John August is the person who could do this. But the other John maybe couldn’t do this, but John August could do this. Like I was literally a different person who could do these things that were, you know, terrifying to the other John.
Whether I had to legally change my name or not, I think if I had given myself a pen name or permission to do those things, it might have been easier. I feel like the people who write fanfiction and slash fiction and do all that amazing work in that space. I think some of the reason why they’re able to do so much and sometimes do such great work is because they are writing under not their real names. And so, they can expose themselves more, because there’s no way to trace it back to them.
Like, the fact that they are 17 years old and living in Missoula, Montana is not an issue because they are just some avatar on a forum and some name they made up. I think that may be one of the things that’s giving them permission to write as much as they’re writing.
Grant: Yeah. And I think in some ways it’s interesting. Going back to the beginning of our conversation, that statement I am a writer or I am a real writer. You know, do whatever it takes to do that. And if it takes using a pseudonym or a persona or an avatar, you know, that’s a perfectly legitimate way to claim that identity.
John: For NaNoWriMo, has fanfiction or slash fiction become an issue in terms of like the kinds of work that people are doing? Do you guys talk about that at all as an organization or as part of your mission statement?
Grant: Yeah. I mean, our premise is we want people to tell their stories and we don’t really care what those stories are. We don’t judge the quality or the topics of people’s stories. So we do get a lot of fanfic writers and I think that’s great, actually. I mean, in some ways, I think all writing is a variation of fanfiction. We’re all writing through the voices and the stories that we’ve experienced. I love the metaphor of Odysseus, you know, being handed down from one oral storyteller to the next. And that is a kind of process of fanfiction, too. We’re always building on the original story.
So I think fanfiction actually is a wonderful way to learn to write because you’re taking these known characters and known plot lines and then going crazy with them.
John: It takes the pressure off of like, oh, I have to create something brand new, or I couldn’t create something brand new, I can use these things that already exist out there in the world. And of course we’ve seen that like, yes, you can do that but if you do that well enough, you can basically change the characters’ names and suddenly you have “Fifty Shades of Grey,” you have one of the biggest books of all time.
So, you know, I think it’s a way of giving yourself permission to be creative that you might not feel that you’re entitled to otherwise.
Grant: Yeah. And it may be similar to using a pseudonym or a persona, maybe writing through this known world is a way to feel safe and express yourself, you know, and be vulnerable on the page.
John: In your section on writer’s block, you talk about throw-away writing or basically the writing you might do at the start of your day so that, you know, it takes the pressure off of things that you don’t expect they have to be good so that it can — you know, there’s less consequence for it. And I think fanfiction could be one of those examples.
You talk about some exercises like Ray Bradbury’s list of nouns. Can you describe that to us?
Grant: Yeah. Ray Bradbury, I think he was the one actually, like his phrase throw-away writing, I think that came from him maybe. He says that every writer needs to write — I can’t remember if he says every writer needs to write thousands or hundreds of thousands of throwaway words. But I think that that’s a good way to view it because you’re essentially practicing writing through those words.
And when he first started becoming a writer and just in that kind of moment of like, “What do I write about?” Maybe instead of going to write what I know, he did this approach, he wrote down 20 nouns and he just made a list and they were totally random. And then he would write these very tiny little essays, like 100 or 200 words which he called pensays. And he would write them about each noun.
And within that sort of meditation on these words, he would piece together, like kind of the interaction of his subconscious and these real words, a story. And that’s how he wrote many of his most famous novels and stories, including “Something Wicked This Way Comes.”
John: In the book you go through a list of like these are the nouns that were interesting to him and he sort of looks for the factions between them and that became the basis of the story.
I always find it real interesting when people describe writer’s block as if they like, “I have no idea what to write.” And so rarely in my life has that actually been a factor. It’s more the factor of like, “Man, I just really don’t feel like writing,” or, “I really don’t feel like writing this next thing.”
John: And I kind of wish everyone would agree on a different set of words for describing those two different phenomena because they’re not really the same thing.
Grant: Not at all.
John: So, often I know exactly what I want to write, what I need to write, what I’m compelled to write. It’s just like it’s just torture to actually sit down and get into that next thing. And yet, through books and through movies, we have sort of romanticized this kind of ritualistic idea of writer’s block where it’s like this shrine to which we sacrifice ourselves. And it’s just rarely like that in my daily experience, and yet, you know, we as writers still talk about it.
Grant: Yeah. I think shrine is the word. Too many people sort of worship at that shrine almost. They’ll go years without writing and claim it’s just because they have writer’s block. And I think even when sort of famous writers have had it, it’s been overly mythologized.
I oftentimes think it can be just an excuse. Or as you put it, it’s more like it refers to other things like “I don’t feel like writing today” or “I have too many things happening in my life to be creative.” And I think there are so many ways to get around it, whether you’re using Ray Bradbury’s list of nouns, or a photo, or any kind of prompt. There’s a million prompt books out there that you can buy.
But just putting down one sentence on the page, I’ve never experienced a moment when that one sentence didn’t lead to a second and a third sentence. Writing is largely about beginning and establishing or creating some creative momentum. And, you know, there are throwaway words — you know, Julia Cameron, she has the technique, morning notes, where she says it advises people just to sit down and write anything, wither it’s like a list of 20 nouns or like a diary journal or diary entry, or whatever it is. Just to put the pen on the paper, write a couple of pages, throw them away and then begin on your real writing.
So there’s just so many ways to start writing that I think I would just banish the notion of writer’s block from your mind.
John: You have an interesting notion of muse. And so we talked about like the muse comes and like the muse sort of whispers in your ear and tells you the brilliant things to write. And like the fear for a writer is that like, oh, the muse won’t show up today. But you described it as a very different thing. You described it sort of more as a group of tiny pixies.
Grant: [laughs] Yeah. Well, I think, you know, the classic notion of the muse comes from Greece where they’re — you know, if you go into a museum, you’ll see a lot of, especially with old paintings, these paintings with the muse, you know, strumming her harp near the writer. And the idea with the muse is like whispering the story into the writer.
I mean, I don’t think that’s really the way the muse works. I think too often we’re waiting for that thunderbolt of inspiration to strike from the sky. And at least in my life, that kind of huge moment of inspiration, it happens just so rarely there’s no way I could build a creative process around it.
And so, yeah, per your comment about pixies, I think just putting the words down on the page and focusing on them, and I call them like little sprites that are whispering to you. Yeah, you’ll find the inspiration more likely on the page than you will from the thunderbolt in the sky.
John: Yeah. For me, I find it’s the combined momentum of like “Those words fit well together, okay, the whole sentence works well together, okay, that thing he’s saying leads to this thing leads to that thing.” Eventually, you know, there’s flow that happens and it’s just the right things are stacking up in the right way. But to wait for some great muse to strike you with either amazing inspiration or exactly the right words to express those ideas is rarely sort of what the real experience is like.
And, yeah, again, it’s one of those things like writer’s block where we’ve romanticized it to the degree that there is like, you know, this profound lightning bolt that comes out of nowhere that tells you what to do. And maybe you’ll get a few of those in your life where things really do happen that way, where if you’re Kevin Williamson, suddenly you go off and like in three days you write Scream because you just had like this vision for what it’s going to be.
But most writing isn’t that way. And I think we need to sort of really focus on the day-to-day of what most writing is like.
Grant: Yeah. And, you know, back at when you were saying like our movies always present writer’s block and contribute to that mythology, growing up, I thought that that’s all that writers did. They sat there by their typewriter with a, you know, shot of Scotch and a cup of coffee and a bunch of cigarettes and they’re wadding up paper constantly and throwing it at the waste basket. But that, for me, is more a metaphor of experimenting on the page. That’s the way I would like to interpret it instead of writer’s block.
And the fact is even when you’re having those moments where like, I don’t feel like writing today, like you mentioned, I mean we all have those moments, but so many times we have to sit down and write. And the fact that we do it in those sort of bad moments, I mean the next day, I’m always like, “Woo, thank God I wrote yesterday.” My present self thanks my past self so much because now I can like sit down and edit these words no matter how crappy they are.
John: There’s a movie from 2015, Trumbo, which talks about sort of this writer’s process and sort of the blacklist and like there’s all these wonderful novel things. But I see the scenes of him like, you know, in the bathtub typing with his Scotch. And even if it’s true, it’s frustrating because I just feel like there’s going to be another generation of people watching that movie thinking like, “Oh, that’s what screenwriting is. It’s sitting in a bathtub being cruel to your family while you smoke and drink Scotch.”
And maybe two or three of those things are accurate for most screenwriters, but the bathtub thing, no, most writers are not in bathtubs their whole life.
Grant: [laughs] Yeah. I haven’t tried the writing in the bathtub. Maybe that’ll be my next book.
John: Yeah. Craig and I are both big advocates of the shower, so there’s the shower for those moments where like you can’t figure out what to write next.
John: Something about the shower drops your inhibitions and you start being able to make stuff happen.
Grant: I think if you’re looking for an a-ha moment, yeah, go to the shower. They haven’t done research on this, but I’m pretty sure more big ideas have come in the shower than anyplace else.
John: I’ll tell you that one of the things I found most interesting about writing prose after writing screenplays for so long is the process of writing a scene for me in a screenplay is I can just sort of sit quietly and sort of loop through the scenes so they can sort of see like, okay, this is what’s happening in the scene and I think it’s of course very rough blocks and then as they sort of keep looping through the scene, I could that, okay, like this is the personalities of people in the scene, they’re moving through the scene. There’s a few things from like this. And I can basically visualize it here as the whole scene because scenes are short, they are mostly about three minutes long. So I can visualize and hear what it’s like. And once I have that, I can sort of quickly scribble it down and then just do the better version of it.
What I found so fascinating about doing prose by comparison is like you can’t do that. A person’s buffer is not big enough to hold a whole chapter or even, you know, a page. And so I have to really tie it down to sort of like paragraph by paragraph. Like I can’t sort of build it all in my head and then put it on the paper. I actually have to create the whole thing on the paper sort of line by line. That’s been one of the biggest and most interesting changes and challenges I found switching over to prose fiction after doing screenplays for so long.
Grant: Yeah. Like the three-minute scene you’re writing, so much of the work of that is happening with the camera, right?
John: Mm-hmm. Absolutely.
Grant: And so in a novel like the — all the camera work has to happen on the page, is that right? Is that difference?
John: I think there’s a lot of it because screenplays are so minimalist, it’s just going to be like there’s a dialogue and enough scene description to let us feel what is specific and unique about that scene in those moments. So there’s such an economy to screenwriting, that to get to that prose section you have like, “Oh, I can use all the words I want. I can describe all the sentences, I can do all these things.” But it’s also all those words tend to be sort of necessary to do certain things. And so finding your way through that sentence that feels good and that it will feel good next to that next sentence and the sentence after that. Those things are just such different challenges than what I normally deal with as a screenwriter.
John: I mean a lot of you take scene description really seriously, so I will slave over those sentences for a long time. But, you know, books are basically entirely scene description, and that’s just a lot of words and a lot of really precise details to these words to make things make sense. That’s I think — to the degree to which my inner editor was kicking in as I was writing for Arlo Finch, was like I can’t use the word because I used that word two paragraphs ago. And so I’m going to find different words so that I’m not repeating myself. Those are the challenges that you just don’t face as a screenwriter.
Grant: Yeah. And I think what — as a novelist, too, you’ve got to find that right balance, you know. You got to keep the narrative moving or the suspension, the tension of it. So you just can’t go off too deeply into description, at least depending on what you’re writing, you know. It’s a tough balance to strike sometimes.
And I do things that’s being — like writing scripts is good for novelists. I think a lot of novelists have a tough time moving the action forward. And, you know, by writing a script, you’re just naturally more focused on keeping the story moving. And so going — you know, and I mean because novels in some ways, they don’t have any boundaries.
Grant: So you can go into backstory for 50 or 100 pages and some people — some writers like William Faulkner have been successful in that, but most of the time you’re not contributing to the suspense and tension of the forward moving narrative.
John: Agreed. I thought we’d wrap up this discussion of your book by talking about envy because you do a nice job describing it. You have a quote here. “Envy is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” And so I was looking that up online to see who the person was who said that and it turns that you can find baically that same quote with almost every other negative word stuck into the word of the place of envy. So a grudge or revenge. And so basically any negative emotion is sort of like that drinking of poison, but it’s really kind of what it feels like. I remember early in my career being really envious of David Benioff. And then I got to know him, and like he’s a great guy so I thought it was ridiculous for me to be envious of him.
And yet, I also do wonder if just a tiny bit of envy can be good motivation for a writer starting out. Like it’s somebody that helps convince them to sit down to work because if I’m not working, that other person is working because — do you feel that? Or is it only a negative thing?
Grant: Yeah. I think envy can be a real creativity killer. I think comparing yourself to another — you’re setting yourself up, you know, as I put it in the book. Like Jonathan Franzen was my version of your David Benioff, you know. And when I encountered him on Time Magazine as the great American novelist, you know, I did — I was deeply envious, but later I did sort of my — you know, I realized, okay, I’m projecting this on him. He doesn’t know who I am, for one. And no one is keeping score, you know. No matter if it’s Jonathan Franzen or one of my best friends down the street who’s a writer having more success, I would be the only one keeping score. So Jonathan Franzen might have 100 points, right? I have two. But no one else is keeping score, so it’s totally negative energy that I’m putting into the world and mostly on myself. I’m the one drinking the poison.
But I actually do agree with you. I think there is a type of envy that can be motivating and can make you work harder and strive for more and try to get, you know, better and practice more and more determined. I’m trying to remember the author. I think it was Harold Bloom, the literary critic that wrote a book called — where I took this idea of the anxiety of influence. And his working premise was that every generation of writers is competing against all of history. So everyone is in their way trying to rise to the top. And I think that can be a healthy type of envy, at least if you kind of keep it in balance.
John: Yeah. I can definitely see that. And you’re always — for me, it was that I was able to look at other writers like Kevin Williamson, you know, as I started off. I could look at them and sort of see like they have a template. I could use that as like a — I could imagine myself getting to their place because they existed and so I was grateful for them to have been out there.
And then sometimes when people are more at a peer level, I could look at sort of like, oh, David wants to go down on this path. Well, I’m going this path. I could ask myself, have I chosen the right path? And both cases, like, yeah, you know what I chose a good reasonable path. And, you know, I think it was useful to see that there are other people out there doing different things. And I could sort of compare what they were doing versus what I was doing, and eventually stopped worrying about whether they were having more fun than I was having.
Grant: Yeah. I gotta say, one of the main benefits of growing older as a writer is that my envy decreases. And, again, it goes back to I think some of what we said earlier. It’s like why did we get into this in the first place, you know? I mean I started writing, you know, for many different reasons especially when I was a kid. I just wanted to tell a story just for the sake of it. I didn’t get into writing to compare myself to other people and to try to one up them or do better. So again I say it is that beginner’s mind moment where I think you’ve got to go back and think about the source of your creativity and what you were — why you write and why, you know, why — because it’s a tough profession, right? Instead of like — and envy is not going to get you through the tough spots of your writing journey, you know. You’re — the source, the real reason you do it is the thing that’s going to keep you going. In the end, that’s what success is always for me. It’s not the number of books that I sell or publish. It’s about sitting down every day and making meaning of the world through my stories.
John: That’s a great place to leave that on. So on our podcast, every week, we give a One Cool Thing. So do you have a One Cool Thing you could share with us? Something you’ve liked. It could be a book, a movie, something out there that you want people to know about.
Grant: Yeah. There’s something because I’ve been so absorbed in my book and National Novel Writing Month that I’ve barely been doing anything else, so I haven’t gone to many movies or plays or listened to much new music lately. But I do want to mention I’ve been reading Leonard Cohen’s biography since he died about a year ago. And he’s influenced me a lot since I was very young. And part of the reason I’m reading it is that I decided that I’m the type of person who — I experienced a lot of different things that may be only mainly on the top surface level. And so one of the things I wanted to do more in life is go deeper.
And so this biography is called I’m Your Man. It was written just before he died or published maybe a year before. And I’m reading it and one quote that came out that I thought I’d share with people is form Leonard Cohen’s mentor and older poet called Irving Layton and he would say like, “Leonard, are you making sure you’re doing it wrong?” And I thought that that was like actually great. Like I think every once in a while artists and writers should think, maybe I should do the wrong thing here, not the right thing, because sometimes the wrong thing leads to a more interesting story.
So I’m just going to mention Leonard Cohen’s biography, I’m Your Man. And another reason I’m reading it actually is because I love his voice, like his singing voice, but also his poetic voice. And when I have a writing hero like that, I really like to sort of live in their voice. So sometimes when I’m writing something it’s almost like the persona of conversation we’re having. Like I might write something kind of through his voice.
John: Very cool. My One Cool Thing is called “The Last Invention of Man: How AI Might Take over the World.” It is by Max Tegmark from MIT. And so it’s not quite a short story. It’s not quite an article. It’s more sort of an imagination of sort of how a group of motivated people could use AI or the ability for AI to keep improving upon itself to, you know, becoming incredibly powerful. So I don’t agree with a lot of what’s in here and particularly like Tegmark speculates that one of the first things that this AI would do would be to basically generate a bunch of like really good CG movies and sort of basically take over Hollywood and take over the entertainment industry with computer-generated movies that made a lot of money to help fund all the rest of the innovation that they’re going to do.
I think he is underestimating sort of how challenging it is to do the creative work we’re doing and also how long the feedback cycle is to know sort of like whether that creative decision was the right one, that sort of propels you forward in time. But I still think it’s a really interesting thought experiment, so I’ll point people to “The Last Invention of Man” and you could tell what you think of that.
That is our show for this week. Grant, thank you so much for being on the episode. It was great to talk through with you. If people want to find your book, where should they buy your book?
Grant: Yeah. It’s in all the usual places. So, you know, online, you can go to your favorite online book retailer. I won’t recommend one. But it is published by Chronicle Books if you want to buy it there. And then yeah, it should be most bookstores I believe.
John: And if people want to do NaNoWriMo this year, what advice would you give them?
Grant: I would advise them to sign up on nanowrimo.org. I would advise them to tell themselves, I’m a writer. I would tell them to believe that you can write the 50,000 words in a month. And before you do so, though, have a strategy. Go on a time hunt and think about where you can find time in your days because that’s the number excuse I hear, I’m too busy. So all of us are too busy, but if you cut out social media, if you cut out some binge watching, if you don’t go a couple of dinner parties, if you wake up an hour early sometimes or write on your lunch break, you can write a novel in November and that’s a gift.
John: That’s awesome. All right. Our show is produced by Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Rajesh Naroth. If you have an outro for us to listen to, you can send us a link to email@example.com. It’s also a place you can send longer questions. But short questions, I’m on Twitter, @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. Grant, you’re on Twitter, are you not?
Grant: I am. @grantfaulkner. F-A-U-L-K-N-E-R. Some people spell it F-A-L-K. But F-A-U-L-K.
John: Fantastic. That’s also a place where you can tweet at him to tell him how much you liked him on the show and that you’d purchased his book. You can find us on Apple Podcast. Just search for Scriptnotes Podcast. Leave us your review. We’d love that. Craig just — he stays up every night just reading reviews. It’s the only thing that keeps him going. You can find the notes for this episode at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you find the transcripts that goes about a week after the episode airs. We have all the back episodes of Scriptnotes. Now available at scriptnotes.net. And the first 300 episodes on the Scriptnotes USB drive so that you can click a link in the show notes to get to those. Grant Faulkner, thank you so much for being on the podcast this week.
Grant: Thank you, John.
John: Good luck with your book. Good luck with the month of November which you now own. So it’s going to be busy for you.
Grant: I hope you’re going to write a novel with us again this year, John.
John: I’m not going to write a whole novel, but I’m going to finish the second Arlo Finch in November.
John: So that’s my goal and mission.
Grant: Great. Well, thanks too much for having me.
John: Okay. Thanks, Grant. Bye.
- Grant Faulkner’s website and Wikipedia entry.
- Pep Talks for Writers by Grant Faulkner is available here.
- You can participate in NaNoWriMo, too!
- I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons
- The Last Invention of Man: How AI might take over the world by Max Tegmark
- The Scriptnotes Listeners’ Guide!
- The USB drives!
- John August on Twitter
- Grant Faulkner on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Find past episodes
- Outro by Rajesh Naroth (send us yours!)
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