What Time Is It? October 13th, 2008

In a blog entry I made almost a year ago (Nov 11: “It’s About Time”) I asserted that “time” to humans is about judgment; that Groundhog Day is about the theme of “Time” to the degree that it is about Phil’s changing judgments as to what to do at any given time, and that these choices defined who he was.   I asserted that Phil was time itself, and so am I, and so are you. 

The big thing going on in my life right now besides watching my net-worth tumble is, of course, I’m once again teaching screenwriting.  Students want to know the rules of structure and I get to explain it to them.  This is a tricky business since the biggest rule is that the rules may not be helpful.   I tell them, “Follow the structural paradigms – unless they feel wrong.”  Alternately I tell them, “Write whatever you want.  If the script isn’t working, however, try comparing what you’ve done to the structural paradigms.”  In other words, the rules are helpful, except when they’re not.   How does a writer decide when to follow the structural orthodoxy and when to abandon it? 

That’s up to the writer.  That is, in fact, what makes each writer unique: judgment.  Is it time to follow the rules or is it time to make up some new ones?  It is because of this judgment that screenwriting is an art and screenwriters are artists.  This is no paint by numbers situation.  You can’t assemble this bicycle from a kit.  Writing reflects that part of humanity that can somehow be learned, but cannot in fact be taught.   

As I watch the economic crisis unfolding and Reagan uber-conservative free-market capitalists crawling over each other to socialize the banks, I am once again drawn to this question of time and judgment.  The question: what time is it? 

The most doctrinaire of doctrinarians in the economic and political worlds see their neatly structured world crumbling.  The rules that seemed so clear to them for so long if applied at this moment of time would bring disaster, and so with utter bewilderment they abandon their most cherished beliefs, choosing to bend rather than break. 

I’ve heard it said that a conservative is just a liberal who has been mugged, and that there are no atheists in foxholes.  Our most hallowed structures fall when the right time and place challenge them beyond reason.   

A lesson I might give my students would be to take the truest, most sacrosanct unbendable truth they know, and then to write a story proving it wrong.   Could you do that?  Could you imagine a character and a set of conditions that would disprove your truth?  I bet you could.  I bet a lot of conservative economists who could not imagine such a scenario before could well imagine one now.

Some people cling to structure regardless of the situation, showing no judgment at all.  I had a high school biology teacher who liked to proclaim that there is more than one way to skin a cat, that there are, in fact two ways: a right way and a wrong way.   I think he really believed it.  And it may be true – until someone comes up with a better “right” way.  A new tool.  A different kind of cat.  Maybe certain time constraints would change the cat-skinning priorities (a new best way for when you’re in a hurry), or maybe a specific new need for cat-skin would necessitate different skinning techniques.  It is unlikely that my teacher would have discovered any of these alternatives as long as he was certain of how right he was.

I have always been drawn to respect people with personal codes, people who stand up for their beliefs come what may.  I’m attracted to their integrity and strength. People who stand for nothing would, as the song goes, fall for anything.   But of course, those other people, the ones who do rigidly stand for something, they can also fall for anything.   People who believe strongly in following our leaders no matter what they say and do, no matter how conditions may have changed, well, who’s crying now?

You can’t follow the rules into a great screenplay.  You need to react to realities in the screenplay itself as well as those in the marketplace and in the greater viewing society.  You need to apply your intelligence, sensibility, experiences and creativity.  No rules can measure those things and tell you what choices to make.  That’s a human choice, a judgment call. 

And right now, at this time, when I’m looking for leadership in the economic and political arenas, the qualities of a leader that I’m looking for have nothing to do with labels and structures and doctrines.  I’d just like to see someone up there who knows the time of day.


Comment by A Long
2008-10-14 07:07:06

A few questions for you. You posted, “I’ve heard it said that a conservative is just a liberal who has been mugged, and that there are no atheists in foxholes. ”

What would a liberal be? A conservative who has lost their job/money? (Maybe to a ruthless business concern–an even worse form of mugger.)

And have you ever heard it said that someone “swears like a trooper?”

You posted, “Our most hallowed structures fall when the right time and place challenge them beyond reason… A lesson I might give my students would be to take the truest, most sacrosanct unbendable truth they know, and then to write a story proving it wrong.”

A law school education will teach a person that every coin has two sides and that every hair can be split. Still, it is hard to become comfortable with the need to see what’s on the other side of some coins or to split certain hairs. The very thing you are challenging your students to do could lead to a fresh way of looking at things–or it could lead to a rationale for plunging into another dark age. Where does discretion enter into this exploration?

Comment by danny
2008-10-14 18:40:02

“What would a liberal be? A conservative who has lost their job/money?” Good example, and not so hard to imagine.

You ask where discretion enters the picture. Another word for discretion might be “Judgment”, and that is my point exactly. A lawyer may be trained to argue any viewpoint imaginable, but it is the judgment of the jury that determines the wise or otherwise appropriate application of arguments. In his own life the hair-splitting coin-tossing lawyer is the jury as well.

As you suggest, a screenwriter who challenges his or her cherished beliefs is expanding his consciousness, learning to empathize with a person who they at one time only saw as an “other”, seeing the possibilities in the impossible. That’s part of what makes us valuable to society.

Many great religions encourage us to walk in another man’s shoes, which is an aspect of what I’m talking about. And after a nice, long walk, should you stay in the other guys Birkenstocks or should you return to your Nikes? Nobody can tell you that. Is it always time for Nikes? Is it always time for Birkenstocks? Is it ever time for loafers? Is it ever time for bad shoe analogies?

I’ll say it again: judgment – it’s who we are.

Comment by J
2008-10-19 09:01:44

I like what you said about the Rules. Everyone talks my head off about Screenplay Rules. Go eff yourself and your Rules.

You can’t teach someone to write a great screenplay. You can teach them to write a mediocre screenplay that someone might buy because things explode, but if a person don’t have the talent – a person don’t have the talent.

I only like Rules when it comes to dodgeball . I need to know when it’s okay to chuck a plastic ball at someone.

Comment by A Long
2008-11-11 14:19:24

You’ve given insights into the writer’s world and some sage advice. It leaves me wondering, additionally, if you believe in any superstitions or if you follow any rituals when you write. Athletes have all kinds of rituals, superstitions, crochets, talismans, and lucky/unlucky omens regarding their performance and of their sport. Do you (or do writers you’ve met) rely on such things?

Comment by danny
2008-11-13 07:13:41

My own rituals border on procrastination. For instance, I might answer my email, or respond to a query like this one. I’ll clean up my desk, straighten, launder, file… Or I’ll just get right to work. The deeper I’m into a project, the easier it is to just go for it. In fact, my workspace becomes quite the dump towards the end of a project, to the point where you could say I have a ritual of letting my environment go to seed until the script is completed, at which point I thoroughly clean the space before beginning something new.

I have a writer friend who does an elaborate ritual before setting to work that involves waving a pencil or paintbrush in a certain way and spinning while reciting something. It’s purposely goofy and is meant to put him into a loose, happy, uninhibited state of mind. I have another writer friend who has no rituals, but her writing desk is covered with meaningful talismen, and this is the only place where she writes.

How ’bout you?

Comment by A Long
2008-11-15 05:00:22

Although I’m not a professional writer, I do have a few crotchets. Have a photo of Frank Sullivan at his typewriter, resting above my computer. (Frank Sullivan is one of my favorite humorists.) On a good day I pick up playful vibes from that image.

Also have a small sign taped underneath the shelf above my computer monitor with the big, bold words “This Way Out” printed on it. That comes from another favorite movie (“Groundhog Day” is still number one on my list.) “Stranger Than Fiction.” I love the scene where Harold is running through the corridor to the subway (searching for a phone) and in the background you see an illuminated sign reading “This Way Out.” Anyway, to me it suggests the creative possibilities sitting before me in my computer.

Guess that’s it… oh, and I’m a morning person, so my best stuff tends to come together early in the day. Many times the “night shift” passes on writing suggestions on their way out and upon awakening I have to get to the computer to put them down before I forget what they were. Does it get any lazier than that? I’m writing while I’m sleeping.

Comment by Randy
2009-01-31 23:54:38

When I was starting out and freelancing for a living, I would put the amount of the negotiated price of an article in front of my typewriter. Actually, since I didn’t have the actual money, I put an imaginary check in front of me. It helps in both directions: this is the amount I’m going to earn; this is the amount I’m going to earn (and deserves this and only this much work). Another talisman is a photo or image for the article. If what I’m writing is not about this picture, then there should be a darned good reason. The other is what I call “the dream method.” This involves reading everything, doing any interviews and transcripts, in other words gathering all the materials. Then sleeping with the intention of waking up to write the piece. Richard Feynman (sp?) in one of his autobiographies, which should be read anyway, talks about controlling and remembering one’s dreams. I haven’t achieved that level, and read about it after inventing (or re-inventing — I’m sure I wasn’t the first) the dream method.
Talk about procrastination (!) but it works. The writer must trick his or her mind into becoming a scribe of things deep inside. If tears are coming to your eyes when you write something, I think it’s a good sign. But this material especially should come under scrutiny later. Still, if it moves you, it may move someone else. The life of a writer is so hard, it is impossible to warn anyone enough. But if you have chosen this path, give yourself over to the rituals that help. Baseball pitchers, with all their superstitions, must get their luck from the same place. It’s an acknowledgment that your best might not be good enough, that you need every help you can get, that it’s not about you, it’s about the thing you make. The writer is the window for the reader — the channel and the carrier — into ideas. The writer may be welcome, like Mark Twain or Dave Barry, but is usually most appreciated when he just shuts up and drives. So the talisman, for me, is to remind me that the job may not get done, and to ask for help. And when the words come, be grateful and humble. And if they are good, sell them. And take joy in your fate to be a writer, because it is hard, good work that most people don’t understand. They understand the product, but not the work. And if you understand the work, you know it’s sometimes good right off the bat, and sometimes it just isn’t working. That’s when you look at the talisman — the money or the photo or dream again — and ask for an answer. It could be you headed off in a wrong direction. Or that the whole project is boring. Or that you can’t imagine your audience. Oh yes, I forgot, you have to know your audience. That’s the big talisman. A writing teacher told us the reader is the most enlightened, intelligent person you can imagine. It helps me to remember also that they want to read or hear what you are writing, typically because they paid for it. Whether this person understands and feels the writing is the big mojo. You serve them, you carry them, you take them to the next place in the writing. You might be the only reader, at least for now. Does this writing grab me by the lapels and pull me right up to its face and say, “Listen, what I’m about to tell you is worth hearing. I know you can stop reading this at any moment. You must not do that. Who I am is not important; you need only to know I am the Teller. What I am about to tell you does not concern me except that I am utterly dedicated to bringing you with me. There will be dark areas where I will shine just enough light for you to proceed. At every step, I will show you the way and if I don’t, I know you will stop reading. This is our agreement, reader, and I take it seriously. Now let us begin.” If you keep that reader and that agreement in mind, you won’t screw up. You can’t screw up. It may not be the greatest trip in the world, but you are going to get your reader through it. You are like Phil in Groundhog Day when he takes on the responsibility for the safety and well being of the townspeople. Can you imagine that responsibility? The one good thing: it’s a finite universe, and a writer can research and think about the topic, just as Phil got to know the needs of everyone in Puxatawny (sp?). And you only have to do it once!
I don’t respond to a lot of blogs but I was watching Groundhog Day for the umpteenth time and again searching for every scrap of information on this timeless story, which, like Ken Grimwood’s Replay, asks the audience to imagine all the time in the world. The ability to edit one’s life in a do-over, like a writer fixes a text. And to imagine what parts you would take away and, especially, add. For this writer, Groundhog Day is the essence of the process. The choices, the packing in of the good, the removal of the bad or nonessential — the editing of a day. And the recombination of elements, until the needs of the reader take precedence — like the prevention of injury to the boy. When those needs have competed, and the distillation and prioritization done, the piece is written.
In my mind, I have written and re-written Groundhog Day, The Missing Scenes. The possibility for depravity and cruelty in hopes of being stopped by a higher power. The self indulgence in all its possible ramifications. The boundary seeking in every direction — cars are stopped but not snowmobiles. Telephones work for awhile at least — the possible discovery, and connection of people. The science that could come out of repeating an experiment thousands of times. The skills and knowledge that one could choose to acquire. The patience and courage. Phil would wire himself with explosives to avoid pain from risky stunts or just to reboot the day. The curiosity and inventiveness to overcome boredom and take the day to the next level. The virtuosity, not just in TV weather reporting, piano, and ice sculpting, but in all the arts and sciences. To live 10,000 years in a finite time and space, but with infinite possibilities. The seeking out of another person who was going through the same ordeal. The possibility of knowing wrongdoing around the world and trying to right it, or mistakes about to happen and avoiding them, or good that would happen with just the right guidance. Fixing flats and catching boys could be handled by believing helpers, informed early in the day; leaving Phil to explore every nook and cranny of every space in a day’s travel, every human contact, every book, film, piece of music, every experience imaginable. The idea of Groundhog Day is irresistible to a writer, who tries on so many combinations of verbs and nouns and prepositions and phrasings in writing a sentence before it is finished. To polish a day like a text to achieve the maximum evil, the maximum pleasure, the maximum good, the maximum knowledge; knowing that the only consequence would be a personal memory and a chance to try again.
Another mental toy is imagining Phil’s life after regaining mortality. What would he attempt to accomplish with his knowledge and skill. How would he live in a town where he knows everything and it dawns on the townspeople that he knows all their secrets, perhaps even suspecting that he might have slept with many of them. As time passed, his omniscience would be eroded gradually by change. Would he forget not to take risks? Would he miss being a god and try to recreate the experience in ordinary time? Would he set to writing 10,000 years of memoirs and how the world works?

I hope you will write either of these, Danny. I promise to buy either a book or a DVD.

Comment by danny
2008-11-16 07:45:46

…proving once again that screenwriting is a dream job.

Comment by Susan
2009-01-05 00:58:33

Hi Danny

Happy New Year from an erstwhile blog lurker (I wrote how writing got me into al anon). Per Stanley Fish, Groundhog Day made the Top Ten list of all times, the only outright comedy of the bunch! Kudos.


Not that you should write another comedy soon.
Unless you can make it look like X-Box or Guitar Hero.

Cheers, Susan

Comment by Caroline
2012-09-01 19:50:29

Writer’s block sometimes paeluqs me for days at a time. I find that changing where I write often helps to get me out of the funk and back to churning out the words.

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