Monday, March 15, 2010

Feedback




Several years ago, when I lived in New York, some friends and I were involved in something which, like it or not, was often referred to as a men's group. Not that there's anything wrong with being in a men's group. It's just that the term carries with it certain connotations and associations, such as the image of a group of bare-chested men sitting around a campfire whining about how their Daddies didn't love them enough. Rest assured that in our group, all whining took place with the participants fully clothed. Besides, our group was really more of a friend's group than a men's group.

And to be fair, whining was not something our group condoned. I found this out the hard way one night, whining about my chronic issue: why do women always treat me like crap? I was about midway through my presentation when the guys stopped me short. We've heard this all before, they said. And we don't need to hear it again. Until you come up with some kind of solution or at least a new attitude, consider this subject off-limits.

I was stunned. What a bunch of assholes! I thought these guys were supposed to be my friends! Here I had trusted them with my deepest darkest fears and they turn around and kick me in the teeth. Besides, if I can't complain about my lousy love life, what the hell else am I gonna talk about?

But I didn't argue. I was hurt and I felt humiliated, but on some level, I also knew they were right. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized just how right they were. By the time the next meeting rolled around, I was truly grateful to have such good friends, who were willing to risk hurting my feelings in order to give me the kick in the ass that I desperately needed. And over the years, I have come to see that moment as one of the most important defining moments in my life.

When I left New York for Hollywood, I left my group behind. They are still together, though. Still meeting on a regular basis to listen to each other's problems and give each other corrective ass-kicks when necessary. I miss having that kind of support and guidance. For a while I toyed with the idea of forming a West Coast chapter. At one point, three members of the original group were living here in LA. But it never came together. Too much space out here. Not enough community.

Meanwhile, I was working on my writing as much as possible, and running into the same issue over and over again: You need to have other people read your stuff so you can see if you are doing it right. You need to have feedback. Now, occasionally, I have been lucky enough to find someone who was interested in one of my scripts and would actually give me 'notes' on it. But these opportunities came rarely, and often after receiving the notes I would be left on my own to try and figure out what they meant, without being able, for whatever reason, to follow-up with the person who gave them.

This is why, I learned, writer's join writer's groups. And if you think men's groups have a bad rap, my idea of a writer's group was a thousand times worse. Who in their right mind would volunteer to sit in a room full of writers and listen to them blather on and on about their stupid little characters or their dopey plot points or their ridiculous "themes"? Not me. I'd rather have my roots planed.

But then I met a fellow screenwriter who was in such a writer's group and was always telling me how helpful it was. How the other writer's could keep you from falling into the same old traps and show you where you needed to go with your story. It sounded wonderful, like my old friend's group but with writers. How cool. I wondered if I could join his writer's group. But, it seemed that his group was very restricted. He told me they weren't accepting anyone new -- too many people and they would lose focus. I didn't believe him. I figured he just wanted to keep his precious group to himself. A lot of writers are like that out here. Afraid if they give anything away, there won't be enough for themselves.

So, I tried to start my own group. I attended a series of screenwriting seminars and collected email addresses from the other writers. By the end, I had a pretty good list -- around thirty names. I figured that would winnow itself down to about ten, which would be just the right amount. I even checked into renting a meeting room at the Farmer's Market where we could all get together. I sent out several rounds of emails, trying to arrange a schedule everyone could agree to. But, what I found was that out of thirty people, only one or two were actually interested enough to follow through. And one of them lived in San Francisco.

So, I gave up on the idea forming my own writer's group. But I was still getting comments on my scripts like, "it's 80 percent there," and, "the writing's not quite where it needs to be." Real helpful. Obviously I needed better feedback. Then, one day out of the blue, a friend sent me an email about a writer's group that was looking for members. I checked it out. This group meets every week and holds staged readings of 30-page excerpts from members screenplays. Then the rest of the group offers comments. It sounded intense, but also incredibly helpful.

So, I submitted some sample scripts and went to a few meetings, doing my best to contribute intelligent-sounding notes during the commentary section. I was pretty impressed by the quality of the writing as well as the notes. Several of the writers have had their works produced, and all are very good at articulating their criticisms and suggestions. Plus there is a pool of very talented actors who volunteer to come in and read the scripts onstage every week. It's a great way to find out if your dialogue is working or not.

After a couple of weeks, I was asked to join. Within a month I had my first 30 pages presented to the group. It was very cool to hear my work being read onstage. The actors did a great job. Afterwards I took my place on the stage to absorb the comments of my peers. And, boy did they let me have it. I wanted feedback? Oh, I got feedback alright. I had no idea there were so many things I could be doing wrong. It was kind of brutal. I just kept smiling and writing, hoping it would all be over soon.

Then something amazing happened. One of the writers made a suggestion. And then somebody else picked up on it and expanded on it. Then others did, too. And before I knew it, I had a whole new approach to my script. A script I've been working on for years. And not just a new approach, the right approach. It really clicked. And I could tell by the reaction, that everyone else agreed. They had solved my problem. A problem I never knew I had.

Suddenly I realized what a writer's group was really for. Much like my friend's group back in NYC, these people were here to help me. They care about the same things I care about. They want me to make my script better. And I want to do the same for them.

I went back to my old script with a burst of energy, working to incorporate the excellent advice I'd gotten. It felt like a brand new movie. I couldn't wait to get it back up onstage to show the group what I had done. I even began writing some of the parts to fit the characterizations created by the actors. They were helping me, too. And I wanted to write better lines and create more interesting characters for them to perform. It was a blast. Who knew writing could be so much fun?

I don't know why it took me so long to find a group like this to work with. But I know what my Mom would say: She would say that I found this group because I was ready to find it. That I needed to reach a point where I could accept the feedback and criticism and be open to new ideas. Among other things, I have learned not to contradict my Mom on matters such as these. She is usually right. I'm just glad I finally got here, wherever 'here' is, because I am ready to make the most of it.

Because to me, it's not just a writer's group, it's a friend's group.