Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Chocolate Milk

Back in my late teens/early 20s, I briefly entertained the idea of channeling my creativity into making movies. A beloved high school teacher gave me the idea. After taking his AP English class in 11th grade, I took his cinematography class my senior year, partly because I love movies and partly because I love this teacher so much. Others in my class took it as an "easy A" -- how hard is it to watch movies? -- but Mr. Hood took the art of film quite seriously, and therefore, so did I. One day after class we got to talking and he asked me, "If you love movies so much, why don't you go to film school and learn how to make them?"

By then I had already gotten into college, a school with no film program. But, my academic advisor there was trying to start a film study major. I agreed to be his guinea pig.

In between dropping out of that school and moving to New York City a few months later, I got a job on an independent movie crew filming in Miami. Don't bother asking what movie; even if it had ever been released, I promise you would not have heard of it.

My dream of becoming the next Quentin Tarantino died when I realized I have neither the energy nor the patience to work on a movie set for the rest of my life, but not before I received some words of wisdom that have stuck with me even now, nearly 19 years later. Before shooting began, I met the movie's director and we chatted about film and filmmaking and the art of storytelling. He told me this: There are no original ideas anymore. Don't try to come up with an original idea. Just try to tell a familiar story in an original way.

I thought of this the other day when a friend of mine posted a question on Facebook: how could he come up with ideas for stories to write? I told him to just get writing, it doesn't matter what. It doesn't matter if it's completely nonsensical. You can't revise what isn't there. You can't even delete what isn't there. The only way to not write is to not write.

As a writer, I know how easy it is to psyche myself out of writing. Ideas are not what I lack; crafting those ideas into non-cliche, non-done-to-death stories is the hard part. 

But writing, like most art, is like chocolate milk. If you don't put chocolate into milk, you will never get chocolate milk. There's no shortage of ways to do this: you can use Hershey's syrup, you can use fancy imported cocoa powder, you can melt a chocolate bar in a pot of milk on the stove. 

What you create might be great, or it might be crap. If it's crap, you start over. If it's great, you remember what worked so you can do it again. But great or not, you have to at least put a bit of chocolate into a glass of milk. And sure, someone else can make chocolate milk for you, but then the next time you want chocolate milk how will you know what to do? If you want to get good at making chocolate milk start with the basics: chocolate syrup and milk. Go from there. The very worst thing you can do is paralyze yourself with fear: fear that the chocolate milk will taste bad. It might. So what? At least you tried. At least you *did* something. There are always other ways to try, other attempts you can make.   

Don't try to have an original idea. Don't even try to do an old idea in an original way; not at first. Write it all down, and then sort it out. You can't drink chocolate milk without making it first. Just write.

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