My nephew invited me to attend a presentation at the University of Pittsburgh’s Steeltown Film Spotlight Program last week. The speaker was Melisa Wallack, the Academy Award Nominated screenwriter of The Dallas Buyers Club, starring Matthew McConaughey. I had no idea what to expect from the experience. My nephew is a creative guy with a degree in film production and was enthusiastic about exploring our common writing interest. I think he knew I needed a creative push. His instincts were spot on.
Although Ms. Wallack is a scriptwriter, not a novelist (she says writing novels is way too intimidating!), I found the story of her writing journey fascinating. Dallas Buyers Club was her first script and it was 20 years in the making. Her commitment to her story resonated as I recalled my own decades-long journey to the fruition of my first novel. In Ms. Wallack’s case, while patiently standing by DBC, she successfully wrote scripts for Mirror, Mirror, Meet Bill, and Last Witch Hunter, among other projects. Not a bad resume.
As she spoke and took questions from the mostly-student audience, I found myself absorbed in her message: Never stop writing. Never stop believing in a good story. A student asked her what she does when a scene isn’t working. Her answer? “Trash it.” She said it’s pointless to agonize over it. “If you know it’s not working, whether it’s a scene or story, then trash it and move on.” I remember the first time I got a nagging feeling that a scene needed to go. It felt as if I was considering cutting off a limb. The feeling grew to certainty; still I struggled until I actually did it. Holy cow! What liberation. I had learned a powerful lesson. That offending scene was actually stifling the story. To hear this acclaimed Hollywood writer describe the same epiphany was validating.
The evening continued with discussions about various aspects of filmmaking, and although Ms. Wallack professed novel writing completely different, “story” is the universal theme. Most in the room wanted to know the secret of commercial success. Wallack talked about formula writing for steady income, but then shifted focus. Her passion is a domestic violence project that probably would never get picked up by a Hollywood production company. She’s writing it anyway because it must be told. The emotion flowed from her as she spoke and I understood her need to tell a specific story. I walked out with an energy I haven’t felt in a while. That night I scrapped the story I’d planned and gave myself over to the story in my heart. I’ll let you know how it works out.
Thanks for reading and Happy Holidays!