Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Essay a Day, #1: Stealing Other People's Stories

Drafter's Note: Hey, friends! I'm embarking on a semi-awesome, semi-terrifying challenge with some new writing cohorts over at Essay a Day: writing one essay (in whatever format/style that takes) each day for the month of October. Let's do this thing... DAY ONE:

All my Oscars have been for screenwriting. 

I’m reasonably sure this is true. 

Maybe way back, back before I traded in my plans of acting for a stage manager’s headset and binder, maybe I accepted a few for acting. But the overwhelming majority of my wins have been for writing stories that were filled in with famous faces and spread thickly across screens in dark rooms full of strangers.

[Sidebar: While it can be awkward, I’ve found the bathroom is the best place for accepting. The steamy mirror creates a glow similar to that of stage lights; your wet hair is easily swept into something classic or cutting edge; the towel can be cinched to sveltify the waist and press the girls into some sort of cleavage. I’ve done a lot of research, and this is where I’m coming down in the discussion: bathrooms are best.]

I’ve only occasionally wavered--while stepping over the thank-yous and nods of honor to the vanquished peers--on which award I held. I’ve typically accepted for Original Screenplay--it seemed purer, more mine. Adapted would do only if it was from my own book. To take someone else’s work, dicing and forcing it into lines of dialogue and scenery, seemed cheating.* But it’s in the tripping over details that you remember it’s just shower steam. The orchestra would have long-since played you off the stage (screenwriters get no extra time, we all know). Your former microphone slices through your perfectly--ehh, uniquely, anyway--swept hair, and it falls into its everydayness. As do your breasts. And waist.

The details had always seemed pretty secure, freeing me up to focus on hair and cleavage. But I went to see a movie last night--just an ordinary movie, but I’d just finished the source-material novel a few weeks ago, and I was so sure I was going to growl at the adaptation (as good English majors always do) but instead... It was adapted. A better word might be perfected. It was like somebody read this mediocre novel and said, “For a rough draft, not bad.” And went in and removed that stupid characterization and fixed the bit with the sister-in-law. And (with the inarguable help of a casting director to be reckoned with) utterly nailed it. 

And for the first time, far from my fogged mirror and hairbrush, I actually, really get the good-artists-steal thing. Because every rewrite is its own creation and every revision is a first breath. We all wear hand-me-down words, phrases found at the second-hand store or buried in Mom’s closet. Nothing is pure, no words are mine. And that’s more than okay--it’s an opportunity: to remake, refashion, redraft, re--- everything.

This silly, unimportant, forgettable movie has me rethinking more than just who I’m wearing. Already I’m fingering through the mental files of stories I wished were better, characters I wanted different endings for. Stealing? Certainly. Bettering? That remains to be seen. I hope so. 

Because--oh man. This is such a shock. I--who are we kidding, I was hoping for this, but I can’t believe I’m really here. Okay, sorry! Focus: so many people to thank...

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* Yes, I know some fantastic writing falls into this award category, simmer down. And because I’m a sucker for some facts, a few personal favorite, award-winning (real awards, shower steam nowhere in sight) "stealers" over the years: Philip G. Epstein, Julius J. Epstein, & Howard Koch -- Casablanca (1943). Joseph Mankiewicz -- All About Eve (1950). William Godman -- All the Presidents Men (1978). Eric Roth -- Forrest Gump (1994). Aaron Sorkin -- The Social Network (2010)

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