He won’t read your script, and he’s happy about it. (Photo: Wikipedia)
Friends occasionally ask me to read their screenplays, their poems, their unpublished novels. I fear some have the illusion that if I’m enthusiastic enough about what they’ve written, I can pick up a phone, whisper a few words to my contact at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and bingo! Publishers Weekly here we come! Faster than you can say Michiko Kakutani.
Such is laughably far from being the case. I know what they’re thinking: it only takes an hour or two to read the screenplay, a half an hour to read a wad of poems, and the novel only a few hours longer than either. What they don’t realize is that they’re asking me to plunge into their world for that duration, and it can take a couple days, in some cases, before I recover my equilibrium enough to reenter whatever world I was writing about in my own work – the world of 20th century French thought, for example, or Cold War Russian poetry. As a writer, one hordes one’s minutes, hours, days – like fishing little bits of gold out of the dust in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada – even if most of it seems to be spent staring at a screen, or checking the various email accounts, or clicking on CNN to see if something exploded.
Josh Olson, who wrote the screenplay for The History of Violence, knows what I’m talking about. As he writes in The Village Voice:
“Now, I normally have a standard response to people who ask me to read their scripts, and it’s the simple truth: I have two piles next to my bed. One is scripts from good friends, and the other is manuscripts and books and scripts my agents have sent to me that I have to read for work. Every time I pick up a friend’s script, I feel guilty that I’m ignoring work. Every time I pick something up from the other pile, I feel guilty that I’m ignoring my friends. If I read yours before any of that, I’d be an awful person.”
And it’s true. A professional writer is for the most part a professional reader. There are tons of things I should be reading all the time, just to keep up. Not only new novels, but new poets, and essays and biographies. Not to mention the book review sections (I used to read five every week, back when there were five in the country.) And one should always, regularly, return to “The Greats” – Dostoevsky, Dante, Eliot and Auden. Reading just for the fun of it? That’s one of the guiltiest pleasures I know.
But then Olson goes off the deep end, with his repeated refrain, “No, I won’t read your fucking script!” In fact, that’s the title of the piece. Friends of friends, hangers-on, friends of friends of hangers-on, they are all asking him. I guess it’s that way in Hollywood. He finally fell prey in a weak moment to a wannabe screenwriter who was dating a friend:
“But hell, this was a two page synopsis, and there was no time to go into either song or dance, and it was just easier to take it. How long can two pages take?
Weeks, is the answer.
Don’t even ask. (Viggo Mortensen as Tom Stall)
And this is why I will not read your fucking script.
It rarely takes more than a page to recognize that you’re in the presence of someone who can write, but it only takes a sentence to know you’re dealing with someone who can’t.
(By the way, here’s a simple way to find out if you’re a writer. If you disagree with that statement, you’re not a writer. Because, you see, writers are also readers.)
My first draft was ridiculous. I started with specific notes, and after a while, found I’d written three pages on the first two paragraphs. That wasn’t the right approach. So I tossed it, and by the time I was done, I’d come up with something that was relatively brief, to the point, and considerate as hell. The main point I made was that he’d fallen prey to a fallacy that nails a lot of first timers. He was way more interested in telling his one story than in being a writer. It was like buying all the parts to a car and starting to build it before learning the basics of auto mechanics. You’ll learn a lot along the way, I said, but you’ll never have a car that runs.
(I should mention that while I was composing my response, he pulled the ultimate amateur move, and sent me an e-mail saying, “If you haven’t read it yet, don’t! I have a new draft. Read this!” In other words, “The draft I told you was ready for professional input, wasn’t actually.”) …
So. I read the thing. And it hurt, man. It really hurt. I was dying to find something positive to say, and there was nothing. And the truth is, saying something positive about this thing would be the nastiest, meanest and most dishonest thing I could do. Because here’s the thing: not only is it cruel to encourage the hopeless, but you cannot discourage a writer. If someone can talk you out of being a writer, you’re not a writer. If I can talk you out of being a writer, I’ve done you a favor, because now you’ll be free to pursue your real talent, whatever that may be. And, for the record, everybody has one. The lucky ones figure out what that is. The unlucky ones keep on writing shitty screenplays and asking me to read them.”
Make that a double for Olson. (William Hurt as Richie Cusack)
And that’s certainly part of it. When you are reading something for a friend, or a friend of a friend, or someone who’s dating a friend, it’s not like pounding out a few words on a blog. You know they’re waiting for your feedback. Their protestations to the contrary, you don’t know how much criticism they can take. Mostly they really are looking for “a pat on the head,” as Olson says. You will look into the whites of their eyes, and you don’t want to cause their pain, let alone unleash their rage.
However, here’s the dirty little truth: sometimes I ask people to read my stuff, too. And Olson doesn’t quite come clean about the revised draft. We’re all revising, constantly, restlessly. We all hope the next one will be perfect. And even though we have to refuse to read a manuscript – or we won’t get our own work done – we are hoping we won’t be refused when our time comes. There are thousands and thousands of us, all across the country – up and down the professional ladder of success – waving our manuscripts, our screenplays, our sheaf of poems, bleating, “Please read mine! Please read mine!” There’s no one left to read.
But please don’t send them to Olson. He’s made it clear that he won’t read your fucking script: “If that seems unfair, I’ll make you a deal. In return for you not asking me to read your fucking script, I will not ask you to wash my fucking car, or take my fucking picture, or represent me in fucking court, or take out my fucking gall bladder, or whatever the fuck it is that you do for a living.” So there.
You can read his whole rant here. And yes, I didn’t realize when I first read it that it was published in 2009. That’s how far behind I am in my reading.