As writers we are selling ourselves. We are taking our thoughts and funneling our imagination into stories. This week’s Killer Nashville guest blogger, Ross Klaven, discusses his experiences with using your own experiences to create genuine work.
An old writer friend, who disappeared into the wilds of Canada and changed his name, gave me this advice: “If they want to buy your writing, sell your writing. If they want to buy your voice, sell your voice. If they want to buy your face, sell your face. You’ve only got you, you’ve got nothing else to sell.”
OK, this was a downbeat guy and this was phrased in a downbeat fashion. Still, it’s got a nice ring to it. Like an actor, a writer has only him or herself to use but it’s how you use yourself and your vast experience that will either get you working or will leave you at the keyboard sitting immobile in deep freeze.
My film Tigerland (starring Colin Farrell) was based in my own infantry training in the U.S. Army. Two guys from the unit got in touch with me when the film came out many years after the fact—one said I’d embellished things but he understood it was a movie, and the other said, “It’s so accurate you must have a photographic memory.”
I’d also read most of the great war novels and seen the films. So, for me, it was a weird mélange of all that. I dropped the experience into the muck and let it ferment until it took on a quality of…I don’t know what to call it. Maybe it has no category or maybe the transmission of the facts of our lives into fiction is a fundamental human action in itself and needs no translation.
The same for my novel Schmuck which is based on a character very much like my father, a radio comedian in the 1950’s and 1960’s. This book sat stalled, I could not get things right. And then one night I dreamed that I was walking through an old time radio station—the studios, the newsroom—and everything was tinged in a green mist. When I woke up, I realized that everyone in the dream was dead, and because radio is based in sound and voice, the sound and voice of my draft was dead, as well. It needed a different narrative voice, not the one I was forcing on it (apparently) but one with a little more buoyancy. That change done, the darkly comic book took off.
Triple Shot, proved to be slightly different. My novella Thump Gun Hitched is about two LA cops who get into a lot of trouble and, off the force, get into even worse trouble trying to help each other out south of the border. To write this so that the reader wouldn’t throw it across the room in disgust, I screwed together a whole series of experiences and some you might not expect. I’ve never been a cop, but years ago I was a reporter and spent way too much time with the police. I was in the military and know a little about weapons. I’ve spent some time in the desert and love that kind of landscape even though it’s always got a touch of desolation, despair and danger. But all that mixed with two other elements—a guy that I spoke with once who taught unarmed combat to cops and soldiers and who’d been a cop until, at a party, he did something dumb and ended up doing time. And some of the great Western films. I’d loved those films, always wanted to write one … and that, I think, became the wheel that gave me distance and a voice and on which I could turn lots of disparate experience to make the story a hoot to read.
The actors I know seem, for some reason, much more comfortable with using this level of “psychic reality” for their craft. I’ve known actors who used a momentary scare that turned out to be unnecessary (like being robbed with a toy gun) into a terrifying, believable fear on film. I’ve seen actors use hallucinations from an LSD trip, not to depict the surreal, but to put emotion on stage. Writers, often, seem either apologetic about how they use experience, as if it’s expressly forbidden to “write about yourself” or they see their everyday experience as mundane and not useable. Or they’re desperate to be thought imaginative, so nothing they write, they claim, has any basis in what’s hilariously called “real life.”
What you make up is most often—but not always—better than simple reporting. If you work in fiction of any kind, though, you know that everything has a fictive sheen to it. And it’s that little bit of distance on the mix of the so-called “real” and “unreal” that works, I think, and the understanding that if it’s you writing, then for better or for worse, you have nothing else, really, to offer besides yourself.
Ross Klavan’s novel, Schmuck, was published by Greenpoint Press in 2014. He recently finished the screenplay for The Colony based on the book by John Bowers. His latest writing project, Triple Shot, is a novella featuring fellow writers Charles Salzberg and Tim O’Mara. Nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, his original screenplay, Tigerland, was directed by Joel Schumacher and starred Colin Farrell. He has written screenplays for InterMedia, Walden Media, Miramax, Paramount, A&E and TNT. As a performer, Klavan’s voice has been heard in dozens of feature films including Revolutionary Road, Sometimes in April, Casino, In and Out, and You Can Count On Me as well as in numerous TV and radio commercials. In other lives, he was a member of the NYC alternative art group Four Walls and was a reporter covering New York City and London.
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