At the first panel for the ScreenCraft Writer Summit in Atlanta, six experts from across the screenwriting world shared the lessons they learned early in their career that have carried them through. I ducked in and out of the event with urgent work things. Sorry Speakers! You were awesome. Seriously, everyone should look up JJ Klein, Scott Carr, Max Borenstein, Jeannette Francis, Eric Haywood, and Jacob Krueger. I also attended a talk with Laeta Kalogridis, where her experiences supported the lessons I had heard earlier.
This morning collective of panelists have created incredible stories. Here are snippets, of the morning, spanning over a range of experiences and outlooks. They are a dazzling group of badasses. And I think that most of their advice boils down to the same statement. Great screenwriters are humble. They have lots of other positive traits too. But this is the lesson that everyone had to learn early on in their career, and continue using. Humble sounds old fashioned. I picture Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web. I might like that story, but I don’t want to be Wilbur when I grow up. But here, humble means open, receptive, grounded. Looking for opportunities to learn and listen. Pushing your ego to the side for a minute, so you can see what else is going on.
HOW TO WIELD HUMILITY DURING DEVELOPMENT
The speakers were full of clever quips about the notes process and the range of people delivering the notes. The executives have good intentions, but the system is flawed. The vast majority of screenwriters don’t have the luxury of saying “no” to notes. So we accept notes as a given and move forward. JJ says that the process should be a positive collaboration. Laeta told a story about how furious one set of notes made her. But she let the rage pass, discussed it with her collaborators, and figured out how to incorporate the notes within a few hours. As a teenager, Max got honest feedback on his writing from a mentor. So Max learned to lick his wounds and try again. Every screenwriter has the gut “eff you” initial reaction to notes, according to Max. But keep this reaction to yourself. JJ’s advice to screenwriters when they’re receiving notes is to listen, sit back, and digest. No matter the setting or scale of the script, writers lose an opportunity to strengthen their script if they don’t pause, take a step back, and hear what their collaborators are saying.
HUMILITY WHEN WRITING
The same trait that may make it feel like you’re being flayed alive when you’re hearing notes, is what makes writing powerful. Vulnerability shows on the page, and this artistic integrity is the core of good work, no matter the other factors swirling around it. This is a contradiction. The screenwriter has to trust that strength of the story will shine through, and cannot be canceled by notes, and could be strengthened. Or, if that intention is obliterated for one project, trust that it will shine through next time. Max says that optimism is embedded into the act of writing. He encourages writers to embark on the next thing with as much stupidity and optimism as you started with.
HUMILITY IN A WRITERS ROOM
When Eric Haywood started his first job on the writing staff for a network primetime show, he didn’t talk. After two weeks of silence, he pitched an idea, and the room went dead silent. He went home convinced that he would be fired. But after a few days, he saw a high-level writer pitch an idea, and receive the same dead silence. Eric learned the lesson that everyone bombs, and it’s not fatal. So the industry feels like it has end-of- the-world stakes sometimes. Your ego may tell you that any second of failure is unacceptable. But it’s not true.
HUMBLE IS NOT JUST FOR WILBUR
Jacob Krueger says that all first drafts are crap, no matter your level. Professional writers are just more comfortable writing badly than you are. The way you get lucky is by working really hard. I have trouble digesting that I need to put my ego aside pretty often if I want to be successful. I feel like I’ve worked really hard for the skills and confidence that I’ve gained. But humility doesn’t have to contradict bravery and sense of self. I’m convinced that they can work together. Humility can be great.
Charlotte Stauffer is an Atlanta-born screenwriter. She’s currently working at the Georgia Film Academy, and running a table read series called The Page On Stage with the Atlanta Film Society.