Sunday, September 23, 2012

On Tortoises and Hares

Time now for a story on tortoises and hares.

I usually stick to the subject of screencraft on this blog, and rarely diverge into anything that resembles career advice, but this is a topic that straddles both areas. Most of you should be familiar with the most famous of Aesop's fables. A Tortoise challenges a Hare (that's a rabbit) to a race. The Hare thinks the race will be easy, so instead of taking the task seriously, wastes the race goofing off. The Tortoise, on the other hand, keeps its head down and plows forward, one step at a time. Because the Tortoise maintains its focus and dedication, it eventually reached the finish line while the Hare does not. The moral: “Slow and steady wins the race.”

But what does this moral actually mean, and what the heck does it have to do with the subject of this blog? The point is, every aspiring screenwriter starts out thinking he or she is going to be the Hare. Furthermore, everybody wants to be the Hare. Being the Hare is easy. Young writers want to believe all they have to do is put together one or two drafts of a single screenplay, and their career will take off from there. But then, they meet disappointment. That one quickie script is not enough to bring success. So, they try again with a second screenplay, scrabbled together with the same amount of time and effort. But that screenplay also does not meet the writer's aspirations. It would be great if writing a great screenplay required only a modest amount of time and effort, but that is simply not the case. Even seasoned writers consistently fall prey to the Hare mentality. Every time a writer starts a new project, he or she would love to think all it will take this time around is three or four drafts to knock it out of the park. However, those three or four drafts inevitably turn into nine, ten, or fifteen. What they originally hoped to be a sprint always turns into a marathon.

It is not that the writer is fooling him or herself. It is just that the writer is indulging in wishful thinking. Everyone wants to be a Hare, because no one wants to accept the alternative. No one relishes the thought of being the Tortoise, dragging its ass along in the hot sun for days on end. Being the Tortoise requires more patience and perseverance than many should ever be asked to give.

Despite this, aspiring writers continuously prop up their hopes with supposed tales of past Haredom. They cite Callie Khouri with Thelma & Louise. Diablo Cody with Juno. Even if we ignore the fact that sixteen years passed between these two incredible freshman efforts, stories like these usually turn out to be more legend than fact. I refuse to believe that Thelma & Louise or Juno were their creators' first attempts at writing. Even so, these works demanded far more than a handful of drafts before they were worthy of the Academy Award. Writers love to mention how Sylvester Stallone invented his own stardom by writing Rocky from the back of a van. However, few realize that Stallone had to write forty drafts of the script before it was ready to produce. Even fewer know that Rocky was not even the first of Stallone's scripts to be purchased or optioned. Stallone had a previous script optioned which was never produced, and knowing other instances where Stallone bent the truth to create the Rocky legend, Stallone probably had written several other early screenplays that he conveniently lost for posterity.

The thing is, in the world of screenwriting, not only does the Hare never win, but Hares do not even exist! There are only two types of screenwriters: Tortoises, and Tortoises who think they are Hares. One will finish the race, one will not. Guess which is which.

Anyone interested in a career writing movies should know from the start that it will be a long, hard road. Even worse, it is a road whose length is unknown. It may take two years to complete your journey, it may take twenty-five. The only way to know is to keep moving forward until the destination arrives. But remember Lao-tzu: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” A single first step and a lot more after that. This is what every day must be to a developing screenwriter. Every time he or she sits down to work, that is one more step closer to the ultimate destination. The only way to finish the journey is to keep your head down and keep grinding forward. Slow and steady. Focused and dedicated. Do not think about where you stand now. Think about where your work will get you in a month, in a year, in two years. Then, put in the work today to get there tomorrow. Maybe developing as a screenwriter it is not so much like being a tortoise as it is like a mole digging its way to daylight. The mole must claw through mile after mile of dirt before it breaks through. Only the mole, stuck in its dark little tunnel, cannot tell how or when this will happen. All it knows is that is must keep on digging if it ever wants to get there. The mole does not curse the fact that it has to dig. Digging is what it was born to do.

Don't be Hare-brained. A Tortoise who thinks like a Hare will start the race without any realization of how hard it will be or how long it will take. It will plod forward for a while, become frustrated at its progress, and then quit. All that hard work went for nothing because the Tortoise could not understand the reality of its situation. A successful Tortoise is one who knows he or she is a Tortoise and accepts that fact. It acknowledges that it can only move so fast, shrugs its shoulders, and gets moving. The Tortoise cannot force itself to move faster than natural. If it does, it will only burn itself out and collapse far from the finish line. All things must progress at their natural pace, and so must your development as a screenwriter. It may take a long time, but as long as the writer remains honest with themselves and their work, and finds the strength of will to keep at it, he or she will get there eventually. A Tortoise will only find happiness once it learns to be patient. Which more than can be said for the undisciplined, impatient, easily distracted Hare. Like they say about a marathon, the victory is not in winning the race, but simply reaching the finish line, no matter how long it takes.

"In this there is no measuring with time. A year doesn't matter; ten years are nothing. To be an artist means not to compute or count; it means to ripen as the tree, which does not force its sap, but stands unshaken in the storms of spring with no fear that summer might not follow. It will come regardless. But it comes only to those who live as though eternity stretches before them, carefree, silent, and endless. I learn it daily, learn it with many pains, for which I am grateful: Patience is all!"
- Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

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