What is it that makes a great writer great? What can we learn from them and hope to emulate?
What? What’s he on? Humility? I thought the top 1 attribute was a massive ego.
Maybe, and then again maybe not. What I admire in the greatest artists of all kinds – screenwriters, novelists, poets and also directors, painters, sculptors, composers, singer-songwriters, street jugglers – is their lack of ego. I mean, yes, when you get them on chat shows they can sound off to save England, but when they get to engage with their material, that’s when the humility shows.
It’s when you’re face to face with the story, the characters, the situation, that’s when you have to put aside all your grand designs and your clever metaphors and your award-winning structural games and be totally and utterly – yes, humbly – at the service of your craft.
I learned this first and foremost in the cutting rooms – starting as a lowly and menial assistant editor, whose main job was to make coffee and log every shot in the rushes. It doesn’t matter what you wanted to shoot, what you intended to shoot and what you thought you had shot. All that matters is what the material tells you to do. (And how good the coffee is).
That, and not the clever ideas that you are sure will win you the Oscar/BAFTA/Booker/Orange Prize, is what actually wins the audience – and if you’re lucky the awards that follow.
The fact is that it’s your story and your characters that ultimately dictate the shape of the structure (three acts or five acts or thirty-two episodes), the tone of the dialogue, the development of the theme, all that. In fact, it’s your original premise that first dictates the development of your story and characters. And who knows where the premise comes from?
Schubert used to say he didn’t invent songs, he found them in the air and wrote them down. Stephen King writes about the process of writing (in On Writing– brilliant book) and likens it to an archaeologist slowly and painstakingly brushing the earth away from a skeleton to reveal its true shape. Note that neither of them talk about playing God, having clever ideas or making something out of nothing.
This is the humility of the craftsman.