Shaista Justin

The Writer’s Finish Line

In Uncategorized on January 25, 2014 at 7:24 pm

WINNING? You are a marathon runner: you train for months on end, constantly envisioning the ultimate joy of the finish line. Finally, on the big day of the race, you put your legs in motion, you sweat, you swear, acid runs through your veins mingling with your hot blood, and finally, the big adrenalin rush at the end, you cross the finish line! Your crowd of supporters and fans cheer!!! And, before you have time to catch your breath, you know where you’ve placed! You win, or lose, or place well, or badly. Everyone rushes forward to console or celebrate with you. The joy or agony is instant.

WRITING IS NOTHING LIKE RUNNING. Except, the part where you spend months on end, alone. In fact, you are so alone, you wonder if you’ve crossed the line between reality and insanity. You talk to and about your characters as though they are real. You make inside jokes to your friends at the coffee shop about your script or novel, receiving blank stares, because, really, the joke is between you and some mythical character. Finally, after the agony of being trapped in some strange uncomfortable world that you’ve invented (“Why am I living in an apocalypse”, you ask? You see people on the street walking by you, but they are only ghosts of the dead bodies in your script. “Meh, poor dead people”, you think), you write the final words. Then you rewrite some more and rewrite some more, hammering awkward dialogue into place like a deranged smithy to create perfect smoothness and flow: you force those words submit to your will. “Submit!” You say, and eventually they do. Now complete, you touch the script/novel like it’s your wedding dress, with wonder and hope.

Then, there is the rush of accomplishment. You hit “Send” to your first readers and lean back from your computer and put your feet on your desk, hands behind your head, staring out at the window. And then, you wait. You polish your scuffed shoes and iron the wrinkly clothes you’ve winced at for months. You stare at the dishes in your sink hoping that feedback phone call you’ve been waiting for will save you from doing them. As invested or paid readers try to fit in time to adequately and fairly assess the work as their busy schedules rule their lives, your anxiety mounts. Is the structure sound? Are my characters believable? Can I afford to shoot this scene or that? Should I cut this character, scene, or location? Who can I borrow a crane from?

You can’t wait, but you do. You have to wait for your readers to respond, because this writing is worth money. It’s a work for sale. You can’t just shoot it off to investors, or distributors, or publishers etc. until you know that you’ve hit it out of the ballpark. Your ego can’t wait for the high-five, but it must because you can’t risk sending out a “fail” when it means you could lose money. So, you wait, and wait some more.

You think about sending if off to your friends or family just for the praise, but the fact is, they don’t even know what they are looking at. In the case of a screenplay, they may as well be reading an architect’s blueprint. They don’t know the markets, how well it fits the budget, or which network, distributor, or production company would be thrilled by it. They don’t understand story arcs, characterization, efficiency of locations, or even what a slug-line is. They will smile and say it’s good. Then they will confess, they don’t even know. Do this once with your work, and you will never ever do it again. There’s nothing there for you.

So, you’re back waiting for your readers. As a professional writer, sometimes, you’ve already been paid to write the work. And, even when the work is perfect, even when you are already getting paid to write it, you may not get a pat on the back at all, ever. They paid for perfection and aren’t surprised when you deliver it. The fact that the work is moving forward should be good enough for you. And it is…but it isn’t.

Where are the cheerleaders on the sidelines holding signs with your name, or preferably, the name of your work, screaming you onward? By the time your readers get back to you with changes and praise, you hardly care anymore. By the time agents gush over it, or the distributor, or investors saying “yes”, you already know. You nod and act humbled, but the moment is gone. The work is already put aside inside you. It’s like a steak you ate too fast, and sits in your gut like an anvil, until it is slowly absorbed into your bloodstream. Now, whether or not anyone likes it at all…you’ve made peace with it. It is what it is. Ugly baby, or pretty one, it will grow from there, or die young. Now, it’s out of your hands.

The race to get a script made into a film, or a novel to be published, has such a slow burn, there is no equivalent sports metaphor. Unlike a painting, which a quick look at will elicit a response, with a piece of lengthy writing, people have to commit themselves to live through the work for the days or weeks it takes to absorb. You have to be grateful anyone would spend that amount of time in your words, in your world. And, you are grateful to be honest. You know there are tons of writers who would kill to be in your exact shoes. So many writers slave away alone with no one to show their work to: no contacts, no intelligent first readers, no executive producers with access to the money, no publishers, no agents, no actors. No one. They are alone with a pulsing story on their computer that may take its first and last breath there, electronically in a Celtx, Final Draft, or Word file…but you are not.

Still, the red carpets are months, likely years away: the book launch is the same. And by the time everyone (anyone?) is there to celebrate with you, to live in the work with you, to affirm the work, you’ve already moved on to the next world beating inside you, begging you to write it and bring it to life. As far as you are concerned, the people smiling and shaking your hand: they are celebrating a ghost.

No real writer writes for the accolades. The demons that drive you propel you through the work, but they exact a price. They take you away from being in the moment, from living your life. You are inundated with feelings that are not yours. You weep for some, you laugh with others. But, no one else can share the sorrow, or the joke with you until it is complete. There are milestones to celebrate along the way, for sure, but not ones you can share. Especially that last moment…that moment when you are still lost in the world you’ve created and like Lazarus thrust back into the real world, eyes blinking at the light, there is only you, breathless, half-dead, cold and shivering with the story you had to tell…there are no arms to hold you, to warm, to welcome you back to the world of the living: you are alone. The one hand clapping is there, in mid-air, suspended.

Look, you say, I’ve just walked across the rope of the Niagara buffeted by the wind, always about to fall to my death. I’ve ripped out my entrails to foretell the future, and need to be rushed to the hospital to be sewn up and bandaged. I’ve just run across the Sahara in the blistering sun to collapse at the finish line…where did I place? Anyone? Anyone? And everyone (kindly) says…just wait.

So, you wait until your hopes for the work fade inside you like a lover you’ve waited for too long to return. The anticipation turning sour until you don’t care at all.

Then, you turn to the next story with a sigh, which has already been tugging at your fingers or has a deadline, and you start the marathon…again.

The finish line of the writer comes long before anyone else can be there to celebrate it. In Lenard Cohen’s magnificent words borrowed out of context here, with: “a cold and broken, Hallelujah”.

Hallelujah, my friends, hallelujah.

Shaista Justin

Word Bigamy or 5 Reasons Why Creative Writers Should Not Be Academics.

In Writing Advice, Writing With Words on January 2, 2013 at 11:38 pm

“I’ve seen academic life destroy the best writers of my generation.”  

Susan Sontag

 Like a self-imposed literary Rapunzel, I once dreamed of making my home in the ivory tower and earning a living researching and teaching books, as I wrote them myself. No matter how often I was told, it would ruin my creative writing, I merely shook my head in dismay and dunked my head back into a book of theory. After all, haven’t the great Toni Morrison and JM Coetzee managed to balance academic and literary careers? Am I not capable?

It’s been almost a decade since I left my English PhD incomplete, and though I sobbed miserably when I left and promised to return, like an immigrant leaving the homeland that they loved, I’ve found that I’ve finally found the better life I was searching for. Is that a bad metaphor? (Only, if your new homeland is a miserable place). The point is: I loved my past life, but, I also found one that gives me my freedom.

 5 years after my emancipation, suddenly, stories and ideas came pouring into my head like manna from heaven. 5 years after that, I have never been more creative, never had better ideas, found that I can write well in a host of genres: screenplays, and song lyrics, and plays, and marketing copy, genres I would’ve ignored otherwise. I am often asked in film pitch meetings, where I came up with such original concepts and stories. Well…I didn’t find them in a graduate class.

So, why shouldn’t you pursue an academic life if you want to be a creative writer? Here are 5 reasons:


1. Academic Constraints of Form: Poets know how to write in poetic forms, novelists the prose form of a novel etc. Academics too, write in form: academic essay form with a  lexicon (word use) often so specific to their field, that it reads like a parody of the English language. I’ve read the unpublished creative work of lots of academics, and most of it all sounds suspiciously like academic work parading as ‘creative’, or is merely bad creative writing.

2. Critic vs Creator: The academic life of an English professor, no matter how you fancy it up, is really that of a critic. Critics tend to be critics, because they are not typically not creators. (How many film critics do you know who make great films?) And, when you’re joyfully engaged in the act of making a film, or writing a poem or novel, do you really feel like racing out there to write criticism of someone else’s work? Criticism is necessary, of value, and creative in its own right, but let’s be honest, it’s not helping you to write the next trade bestseller or literary prize winner.

3. Tower vs Life: I never thought I lived in an ivory tower, until I left it. Unless you only want to write the stories of academics, you probably should be out in the world talking to the other 99% of people living other lives. The stories you’re looking for, are ‘out there’. (Let down your hair, Rapunzel!)

4. Time: You will be good at what you spend the most time doing (presuming you also have talent for that thing). An academic life is notoriously time-intensive (often, a 60-80 hour work-week). When will you find the time to write creatively? A 40 hour work-week as an accountant or administrator therefore gives you 20-40 hours more to write per week, notwithstanding family/social obligations. (I wrote most of my novel while working as a civil servant.)

5. Inspiration: Academics live with and worship mostly dead authors; their work demands that they find these writers inspiring. As a creative writer, you must treat these dead authors as your friends and peers, not gods. You MUST spend time with them, but life is where you will find your inspiration. Talk to dairy famers, or deep-sea divers, or your neighbour, or a mommy-blogger…your job as a writer is to find stories.

There are exceptions of course, as mentioned. But, these ‘exceptions’ had to fight the previous 5 inhibiters to good writing. Simply put, it’s inefficient. It’s word bigamy.

Go ahead, argue, fight with this post and say what you will…I adore my academic friends, and joyfully read their valuable and useful work and I look forward to continuing to give talks at universities and present my books and films. But, my master is my muse…and while you’re arguing, I’m going to finish my novel, present my film at a screening, pitch a TV series…and thank my lucky stars that I found the road my creative voice demands.

I wish only the same for you.

THE TEN RULES FOR WRITING FICTION (that other writers never told you)

In Writing With Words on March 3, 2011 at 6:33 am

  1. Start by Writing in Your Head: If the words stop you in your tracks, write them down. Repeat.
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