Some fine lessons from a writer

I’ve just finished reading an excellent piece by Susanna Grant, the writer of Pocahontas/Erin Brockovich.

I highly recommend reading the hell out of it, but if you don’t have time to do that, or you want to know which bits of it I found most interesting, read on…

Her Pocahontas experience, writing animation for Disney was not great, and yet also great:

And then there was the work, which was constant. There isn’t any scene in that movie that was rewritten any fewer than 30 times.

We wrote and rewrote and rewrote, often addressing notes from people who hadn’t even read the scene on which they were giving notes.

We wrote, literally, until we ran out of time.

And it sounds kind of hellish, and it was kind of hellish, but here’s the thing: Much like freshman year, despite all it’s frustrations, it was a fantastic experience. I wouldn’t change for anything.

I learned more in my year-and-a-half as one-third of Jim than I would have on 10 live-action development deals.

I learned how to throw something out if it isn’t working. Or if someone very powerful doesn’t think it’s working.

I learned to trust that I’d come up with something just as good or better.

I learned when to shut up in a meeting, which is a very valuable thing to learn.

I learned that I’m not always right, which is a very painful thing to learn.

But most importantly, I learned how to have a good time.

A lot of unpleasant things are going to happen to you in your careers and they will be infuriating.

Believe me, taking script notes from a Transylvanian artist whose only words of English were, “Script should be more like Witness. Make likeWitness.’” — I know frustration.

But if you can remind yourself that you’re getting paid to write, that you’re making a living as a creative person and remember what a privilege that is, those frustrations will be a lot less burdensome.

Those are important things to learn in many creative businesses. We all have meetings with people who are paying for what we’re making, and they all want us to change what we’ve created. Life gets much less frustrating when you learn how to bend with the wind rather than standing firm until it snaps you in half. And you are getting paid to do something other than empty the dog poo bin in a park, or wipe up toddler vomit, or stand for parliament on behalf of UKIP. Count your blessings, for they are likely to be legion.


A producer friend of mine happened to tell me about a woman whose life rights she just optioned named Erin Brockovich.

The moment I heard about Erin, I knew I wanted to write the script.

“Yes, please,” I said. “Sign me up, I’ll do it, whatever.”

She said, “Well, we’d love to, but we’re out to Callie Khouri right now.”

A few weeks later I called her up and said, “Hi, how are you doing? Heard from Callie?”

And she said, “Yes, Callie passed. Now, we’re out to Paul Attanasio.”

A few weeks later, I called her up and said, “Hi, heard from Paul?”

It went on like this. I’d call, she’d mention an A-list writer, we went back and forth.

Finally, they all passed and I think she just got tired of hearing from me and she said she would introduce me to Erin.

As long as she approved, I could have the job.

Bless her heart, Erin did approve. We got along great.

So, yeah… persistence. There’s an aspect of persistence that I don’t think we always recognise: rule-breaking. You can try, try again, but you can also force yourself through the status quo or the accepted way of being. How and when you do that can only be your call, but until you stop thinking of obstacles as such, they will always remain obstacles. In Susanna’s case, politely refusing to bother her friend would have meant no Oscar nomination. Being a bit annoying made her career.

That also applies to this advice:

You must write what you want to write.

Don’t listen to people who tell you you shouldn’t write something. Or if you do write something, it will never get made.

I’ve been told that a movie about toxic waste would never get made.

I’ve been told that a movie about someone in rehab would never get made.

I was told that if that someone was a woman, it would definitely never get made.

And I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been told that a movie with a female lead will never get made.

There are no rules. Write what you want.

Write what moves you. Write something beautiful and unique to you.

Write something that no one else could write.

How many people do you know who write things that no one else could write? Pretty much none, I’d guess. So look at the size of that gap in the market. It’s all anyone wants, but no one does it, so people settle for Adam Sandler comedies and umpteen Marvel rehashes of the exact same plot because they have to make something.

It’s the same in advertising: nearly all ads are a pale version of something you’ve already seen. If that’s the kind of thing you’re doing that might be why you’re not as successful as you’d like to be, and it might be why the industry as a whole is so moribund.

Try something new today. What’s the worst that could happen?