J. Robinson Wheeler's  Writing
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On Writing

Writing is something that has always come easy to me. My brain seemed to come innately wired to do it. Coming up with ideas is the hard part. Once I have an idea, the actual writing of it comes really fast. On balance, I don't end up writing any faster than other people. In the first screenwriting class I took, the other students took 10 weeks to write their screenplays, doing maybe 10 pages a week. I spent the first six weeks turning in nothing concrete except a scene or two, then I locked myself into my bedroom (yes, literally) and I wrote a 90 page screenplay in one weekend. Then I spent the next four weeks doing nothing, because I needed to recover from the exhertion. So, really, it took the same 10 weeks for me as it did for the others, it's just the distribution of time and energy that was different.

I am always complaining about writer's block, about not having any good ideas, and then all of a sudden I'll get inspired and knock another big piece of writing out very quickly. Maybe speed isn't everything, but it's the only speed I've got, and I do have something of a track record for producing quality material even at the speed I work. That being said, I have the ego to imagine brilliance where there might be ample room for improvement with a few rewrites. It's something I'm learning to do, still, to rewrite. You can't coast on the gimmicks you came innately wired with forever.

I remember that I was reluctant to write at first. I didn't trust that I had anything to say, or enough to say. The first writing assignment I remember was at the beginning of kindergarten or first grade. I was at a Montessori school in Austin for both of those grades, so they're a little blurred in my mind. It was probably the second year. I was asked to write an essay, and I didn't know what the word "essay" meant. I ended up writing about the swingset we'd just gotten for our backyard.

The next bit of writing that I remember was in second grade. It was nearing Christmas, and we were supposed to write a piece with the theme being "Three wishes." I wrote it as a little story. We recently found this story, and it was nowhere near as good as I remembered it, although I suppose if you were really searching for evidence of a nascent writer, you could find one or two traces in there. By the fourth grade, I was writing longer and longer stories. I would compose them in my head and then write them down, sometimes shortening them because my hand would get tired before I ran out of words.

In seventh grade, there was kind of a story contest in English class. Everyone would write a story, and we'd read them out loud, and then there would be a silent vote (everyone put your heads down and raise your hand when I say the name of the person you think wrote the best story). I wrote a wild tale of me and two friends investigating a video arcade where there had been mysterious disappearances. It was sort of an homage to the "Three Investigators" series of mystery books, which I was big into at the time. Anyway, before we know it, the three of us are sucked into the videogames, experiencing them in a kind of immersive, virtual reality type way. Like, for "Asteroids" we ended up on the bridge of the little spaceship, looking out its viewscreens at these onrushing rocks. It won the contest. I remember being guilty about this, because a girl in the class had written a really beautiful story, grounded in reality and exploring complex emotions. You know, something that seemed like real writing to me, not just a bunch of crowd-pleasing hoo-hah. I was glad I won, but I honestly felt that she had deserved to.

In eighth grade, for an English class project on satire, I wrote a series of comedy sketches, kind of strung together with a connecting thread. The idea was to videotape it, which we did (again with two friends, but not the same two. Well, one was the same and another was new). It was a sketch comedy movie, about a half hour long. Some of it was pretty good, and some of it was okay, but it was a good project, and counts as the first script I ever wrote.

By the time I was 15, I was getting involved in the Austin BBS scene, gravitating towards those with a creative bent. There were some exceptional continuing-story boards, where anyone could write the next little chapter, and I flexed a lot of creative muscles working on those. I had to figure out what the general style was, and then match the creativity and general direction of the top contributors. One of them, called "The Pub," I remember with a great deal of fondness and pride. There were other outlets for contributing original fiction of your own, and I wrote a number of things for these as well.

The big project in 11th grade was to write a play. I took a number of ideas I'd been carrying around for quite a number of years and put them into the play, kind of thrilled to finally have a vehicle (and a deadline) for them. We were only required to write ten or twelve pages or something, and I turned in a full-length play with six scenes (three acts with two scenes each, sort of), a comedy murder mystery that was accurately described as "Agatha Christie meets Fawlty Towers." It was set in a hotel run by a really grouchy man with a harping wife, and then this murder happened. Or didn't. Or did. Or didn't.

At the same time as this, yet another friend and I started writing a twelve-part horror movie cliffhanger serial called "The Locker Shark." I wrote the first six episodes, then lost the seventh and eighth due to a computer crash, and then couldn't quite pick up the pieces. My friend eventually took up where I left off and finished the rest, in a completely different style. I wasn't quite happy about that at the time, but it's fun to now have a complete script for this project we meant to shoot on video but never did. (We shot a couple of scenes of it the next year, but it was impossible to get anyone, including ourselves, to actually take the exercise seriously.)

Yet again also at the same time as this, our school put on its first annnual Shakespeare festival. My buddies and I were all on the student journalism staff (I was the editor/publisher of the student newspaper), and our teacher let it be known that we weren't selling enough yearbooks. Our mission was to promote the yearbook during the Shakespeare festival. So, I started writing comedy sketches. Our class's performance of The Tempest washed out of the competition before the final round, which was sad, but we kept doing the comedy sketches to growing enthusiasm and laughter. At the end of it, the panel of judges gave us a special award for our sketches, saying that we had captured the essential good spirit of the competition.

When I went off to college, I fully expected to stay busily creative. What happened was that I just couldn't find a venue at Stanford for the kinds of writing I'd been doing for years. Early freshman year, there was a call for entries in the annual "Winter One-Acts," a set of short plays by student authors. I sat down and banged out what is unambiguously a "Fawlty Towers" episode with cosmetic differences. My submission was rejected, and I was crushed. I then tried to get on the writing staff of the annual Big Game "Gaities" revue, and failed. The guy wanted me to be spontaneously funny during the interview, and I wasn't able to do that. Next, I took a history class on Pre-WWII Germany, and there was one assignment that allowed for creative writing. I wrote a nice little short story, something that I remember my family liking quite a bit, about the changes in one German family during this period. I got a terrible grade on the assignment because it was a history paper, not a creative writing exercise, and I got some facts wrong because they didn't fit the story I was trying to tell. It was dumb, and I got the grade I deserved, but it was still another setback. It's sad that these setbacks made me pretty much stop writing altogether, but that's what happened.

In between my junior and senior years, I took a special screenwriting class. The instructor was this crusty old gent named Richard Boyle. The movie Salvador is based on him. He had just come from USC's screenwriting program, where he had taught the class in which John Singleton wrote Boyz N The Hood. I set out with the clear intent to write a script that would sell, so I went high-concept: Secret Agent Mom -- about a single mother of two kids who lives a double life as a James Bond type secret agent. I wrote the first ten or twelve pages of it and then didn't work on it for a while. Everyone else was getting towards having 40 or 50 pages. Boyle eventually announced, on a Thursday, that complete first-drafts were due Monday. This deadline had been announced at the beginning of the session, and he was going to stick by it. I went back to the apartment I was sharing with two college buddies and did the classic move: I locked myself into my room for the entire weekend, and I just cranked, forcing myself to get it out of my head and onto paper. I finished it on Monday morning, printed it at school, and took it to class -- where I discovered that I was the only one who finished their first draft. Everyone else considered it an impossible deadline. We spent that Monday class reading my script, and everyone liked it. It was eventually sent to a Hollywood agent, who said, "Hey, I read the whole thing -- and I never do that with first-time screenwriters!" He also said he couldn't accept it because, even though it was fun, it was pretty predictable, especially where the kids get kidnapped at the bad guy. I had to laugh. Of course it was predictable! I was trying to copy the "formula" I'd seen used a million times. This is what sells, right? I mean, it's all you guys seem to produce, right? Oh well.

My senior year, I took a creative writing class, intent on getting back into form. I wanted to be a writer, I decided. I'll try taking a class. I wrote two stories for that class, one of which was just me getting weird stuff off my chest, the other one was much more personal and serious, and I'm proud of it. The professor hated both of them. He had a certain style he liked, and I knew I could imitate the style he wanted if I set my mind to it, but at that point in my life I was unable to do something just because it would please a teacher. That's how you get A's, but I was tired of it. Let me write what I want to write. If I had to do it over, or if I were taking that class right now, I would probably go ahead and aim something right at the teacher, write in that style he liked, and see that as my creative challenge: to tell the story I want to tell, but just tailor it to what he wants to see. Anyway, other students in the class liked my writing, but it was very frustrating to have this professor being openly sarcastic and deprecatory about my work.

For my final degree project, I lobbied for the opportunity to write another screenplay. My advisor was against it, but he eventually agreed. I wrote a terrible script. I was trying to write a Preston Sturges kind of thing, and my ideas kept changing and changing, and weeks went by, months went by. I should have just kept talking to my advisor, but instead I talked to friends, who just gave me confusing ideas. I ended up with a really muddled final product that had one or two nice scenes, maybe. My advisor gave me an A for the effort, I think, but he wished I would have relied on his input more often, I think. I recently found a stash of drafts, going all the way back to my initial proposal -- which, if I'd stuck to it, might have been a not bad screwball comedy.

That fall I went off to film school, and one of the first things I said to myself was that I was determined to become a writer, and that meant writing every day. I started keeping a journal, something I still keep to this day. I wrote some weird things that were hybrids of free verse and screenwriting. Nothing coherent really came out. I had a screenwriting class with the lady who created Cagney and Lacey, and she thought I had a real gift but that it was still too raw to be up to professional screenwriting standards. The thing she used to say was that I was writing "lines on the way to lines." By that she meant, instead of writing lines of dialogue for characters to say, I was writing down my raw ideas of what the scene should be about, putting those raw words into the characters' mouths. If the scene is about Frank being worried, one thing Frank doesn't need to say is "I'm worried." One day, she invited the class to her place at Venice beach, and I brought along some of my student videos from Stanford. Everyone enjoyed them, and afterwards she pulled me aside and told me that now she finally knew what was missing from the writing I'd been doing for her class: "Your marvellous sense of humor." I realized that, yeah, for someone who took a long time getting to the point where he could write something without cracking a joke, I hadn't written anything with any sense of humor to it in years. Life just didn't seem funny any more, I remember thinking to myself.

Eventually, I left film school and came back to Austin, where I set about writing scripts, starting with things that were leftovers from USC. I started writing in notebooks instead of on a computer. In 1996, I decided I would try to write a script a month to get rid of the backlog of unfinished script ideas. I figured it would be like writing Secret Agent Mom in a weekend, only with a little more leeway. I wrote three and a half scripts in four months, and then couldn't keep it up. However, later that summer, I wrote another full-length play, a satire on my film school experiences. That winter, I wrote another short play, a comedy this time, because I was tired of being so serious all the time.

I've also written short stories, humor pieces, random essays, magazine articles, film criticism, a novella, and a six-episode television series in the years since I returned to Austin. I'm always trying to write something new, and I'm always trying to finish what I've already started. Sometimes I sit around and think how nice it would be to make a living doing it, and that I think what I'm doing is constantly practicing to keep in shape -- so that if an oppotunity ever does come, I can pounce on it with all my writing muscles warmed up and ready to go. Until then, I'll just sit, and wait, and write.

---jrw 09-20-03


 

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