Listening to Larry Gelbart


For weeks I have been warming up to start another script. I procrastinate so much that it is not funny. For example I re-read about writing scripts. The annoying thing about many writing gurus is that they KNOW. Yet great practitioners speak differently: with much more reverence, sensitivity and curiosity about the world.

For example: Larry Gelbart (of M*S*H and Tootsie fame) in May issue of “Written By”, in a conversation with Phil Rosenthal and facilitated by Richard Stayton, says:

“I need to write. I need to know what I think about things, and I don’t generally know until I find myself writing whatever it is that I feel.”

I like this thought. I read it as justification of my own huge narrative shortcomings. It is OK not to know. The saying points to writing as a process of clarifying intent. As a research into nature of things. It makes me more relaxed about approaching a new story, not fully knowing where it is going. Not knowing “what it is all about” and gradually discovering it in the process is (to me) the best part of writing. Or film editing. Both can be close to each other, just done with different tools. Particularly when one edits an essayistic documentary, where often the structure and the meaning are born during the editing process (I tend to do this a lot.)

Another aspect of the quote is that it specifies the direction for writing process: from feeling to understanding. Feeling is enough to justify embarking on a writing search. I don’t have to know the arrival point. Actually, I better not know it if I am honestly committed to solving a problem. It opens the search for discovery, allows to see unexpected. Otherwise I just try to justify my already formulated opinion. Because, if there is a solution already, why bother to honestly seek it? In reality a true search often brings unexpected results. Don’t transformative journeys reinvent their objectives?

The audience senses sincerity (or its lack) in a storyteller. The struggle and search “along the way” validates the story, makes the communication more real. This way the audience is not preached to but invited to participate in something they probably would also experience themselves, should they try.

On the other hand, precision is necessity. Otherwise we get self indulging, unclear stories. Isn’t “Tootsie? so satisfying because it is so logically put together? So well designed? Don’t all great films work this way?

The conclusion seems to be the hardest one to implement: keep the middle ground, follow the golden rule, be mindful of both processes (discovering and designing). No shortcuts. No single technique. It is relatively easy to follow either “the writing technology” or “the inner search.” Yet, the screen requires both clarity and mystery.

The sincere “I know that I don’t know” seems in this process to be the most priceless and the most difficult to bring forth. So, enough of being a smart ass, Pawel. Put your paws on the keyboard and just do it.

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