Being a writer is hard. In an interview, storytelling legend and screenwriting teacher to the stars, Robert McKee, explains:
“Your job as a writer is to make sense out of life. Comic or tragic and anything in between, but you have to make sense out of life. You understand what that means? Making sense out of life? And this is why most people can’t do it. Because they can’t make sense out of life, let alone make sense out of life and then express it in writing.”
As writers, it’s our duty to live in our heads. And there’s no place more enticing, more exciting, yet at the same time more dangerous and more terrifying than the human mind. Time and again, we have to venture into this place from which some never make it back. Whatever we bring home we have to process, to shape, to form. Until somehow, something worth saying emerges, which often never happens. And so we have to go back.
For the times we do go “oh, that’s interesting,” we then have to chisel an arrow out of the marble block of messy information. An arrow loaded with emotion, dipped in reason, and wrapped in gold. Because otherwise, it’ll never land in the reader’s heart. And at the end of it?
After all the turmoil, the struggle, and the pain, the best we can do is fire the arrow into a sea of dark faces. Because even if we don’t play for the applause, in the end, our fate lies in the hands of the audience. Always. So the best we can do is show up, shoot, and pray.
See What I Did There?
If you’re a writer, there’s a good chance that whatever advice I was going to share next, you’d listen. You might not take it, but at least, you’d consider it. Why? Because from the first line, you empathized with me. I’m a writer too. You get that. You agree that it’s hard. You get me. And I get you. Empathy is the single most valuable reaction you can trigger in a reader.
We just established how tough a job writing is. Getting your reader to the point where they’d even consider what you have to say next? That’s the dream. In fact, if you can’t trigger empathy in the first paragraph, the first chapter, the first episode, your arrow will never hit its mark.
That’s the real lesson I learned from Robert McKee.
“You have to feel there’s a shared humanity. Without empathy, there’s no involvement. Empathy is so powerful, it builds in long form. Season after season, these people become your friends. You worry about them. You think about them more than you do [about] your friends.”
A Bed in a Corn Field
There’s an old, famous German pop singer. His name is Jürgen Drews. In 1976, he had his big breakthrough with a song entitled ‘Ein Bett im Kornfeld’ (‘A Bed In A Corn Field’). It was a cover of the Bellamy Brothers’s ‘Let Your Love Flow.’ Right after the original hit’s five-week #1 run, his German adaptation topped the billboard charts for another eleven weeks. He performed the song all over the place. A star was born.
In the 80s, Drews tried to break through internationally, but never took off. He had a few minor hits, but mostly, people still wanted to hear ‘Ein Bett im Kornfeld.’ In 1995, he re-recorded the song, and again, it was a big hit. Since 1999, he’s known as the ‘King of Mallorca,’ German tourists’ #1 party destination with lots of cheap beer, light entertainment, and forgettable events.
Drews still goes there every holiday season, where he performs ‘Ein Bett im Kornfeld’ every night. He gets up to $20,000 for as little as 20 minutes of showmanship. And he hates it. He’s 73, on his third wife, and he looks tired.
Jürgen Drews never managed to spark his audience’s empathy.
He built his entire career on one cover song. ‘Ein Bett im Kornfeld’ is the only thing we’ll ever remember him for. Jürgen Drews is famous, rich, and successful. But he’s also miserable. Because he couldn’t make sense out of life.
Divide and Prosper
Here are the first lines from some of my latest articles:
- I met my ex-girlfriend on Tinder.
- “Give me a lever long enough, and I shall move the world.”
- I used to think beyond 7th grade math is only useful for physicists and statisticians.
- There is a class of entertainment that is underrated, in spite of its external success: stories about telling stories.
- “If you’re not a genius, don’t bother.”
None of them are perfect, but all of them offer the reader a chance to empathize. They’re opinions, experiences, quotes. A few of which you may relate to, some of which you might recognize, but all of which you can agree or disagree with.
Rick Rubin says the best art divides the audience. The point is not to hook the most readers possible. The point is to not end like Jürgen Drews.
No Such Thing as Writing
McKee says his seminars are no walk in the park. He wants it that way:
“One of my missions in these lectures is to drive dilettantes out the door. There’s a certain kind of person who would teach a subject like this and pretend anybody can do it. ‘Anybody can do it, all you have to do is some formula,’ and that’s just bullshit. Hardly one person in a hundred can do it, truth be told. And I make that really clear to them. You’re in over your heads. You’ve got no idea how difficult this is. If you love the art in yourself, you will survive.”
To love the art in yourself is to have empathy when you look into the mirror. Because that’s where it starts. An old industry adage says there’s no such thing as writing, just rewriting. What it really means is forgive yourself.
Stephen King once wrote a sports column for his town’s weekly newspaper. When he submitted his first piece, the editor crossed out a few rumors, fixed some facts, and removed most of the adjectives. Then he gave King the best writing advice he ever got:
“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story,” he said. “When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”
You can’t make sense out of life in a single story and you certainly can’t do it on the first try. It takes compassion to accept that. If you can’t do that, the best you can hope for is ‘Ein Bett im Kornfeld.’
Being a writer is hard. But it beats telling the same story for the rest of your life. Cut yourself some slack. Love the art in yourself. And if you don’t feel empathy in the first line?
Then you rewrite the intro.