Monday, October 04, 2010

A Few Thoughts on Learning


“Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn.” -- Benjamin Franklin

Before I start this blog post I will warn you that there is a little bit of swearing and a bit of imagery that may be slightly off-putting to some. But I think the lesson of this post is an important one and worth the risk of offending.

I am often taken aback by students and others I talk to who say they want to learn about something, but then reject information about their subject of interest.

An aspiring screenwriter once approached me. She told me that she was looking for the secret to engaging an audience. She said that there must be a way to hold an audience spellbound and keep their attention. She spoke with the passion of a person on a quest for the secret to the universe. She went on for a while wondering aloud if there was some trick or technique that might help her engage an audience in this way.

I told her that she should read interviews with Alfred Hitchcock, because he was quite articulate about how to involve an audience in your story.

The woman scoffed and said, “I don’t like Hitchcock’s movies, so I don’t care what he said.”

My head still spins when I think about it. Hitchcock had a fifty-year career all because he knew how to play an audience like a fiddle. His nickname is Master of Suspense. The man has a list of classics as long as my arm and this would-be screenwriter blew him off like a one-hit-wonder.

The truth is she didn’t want the answer to her question—she wanted to be on her intellectual quest. For her, pondering this “unanswerable” question was its own reward.

One of the other things is that people will say to me that they’d like to take my class, just to learn screenwriting. They will say, these people, that they already know how to write because they write poetry or something.

They have already made they assumption that they have they aren’t learning a new craft, but merely learning a few technical details particular to screenwriting. This is like a biologist deciding that he can build a rocket ship because he is a scientist after all. How different can it be?

I see this all the time: People dismissing new information with confidence—even cockiness—born of ignorance.

I was once introduced to the friend of a good friend of mine. Both of these people are trained martial artists. This woman, during our chance meeting on the street, mentioned that she was creating her very own martial art. This sounded ridiculous to me, and I wondered just who she thought she was.
When she and my friend were finished with their visits we said our Nice-to-meet-yous and she walked off.

As soon as she was gone, my friend turned to me and said that this woman was the best martial artist he had ever seen—she knew many martial arts and was a champion in them. Whenever she wanted to learn a new form, she never told her teacher who she was; she would take the class as if she was a beginner. She learned the basics and worked her way up to the top.

This is a person who can put her ego aside in order to learn something new. Impressive.

More than once I have finished teaching a class and students have excitedly told me how much they learned. And they say that they want to learn more. If I give them a list of movies to watch, they often point out the films that they have already seen and tell me that they don’t need to see those. Or they will watch some of the films and report back on which ones they didn’t like.

Understand that after the class they tell me how much I changed they way they “see” stories, and yet they blow off the very thing I know will help them learn more: patient study.

First, they shouldn’t refuse to watch a film they have seen because now they are looking with new eyes. They know more than they knew when they saw it before. And secondly, if they don’t like a film on my list, what they should do is ask themselves why I thought they could learn from it.

I had one student who watched, and didn’t like, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. He had no idea why I thought it was good. But you know what he did? He watched it again. And again. And again. Until he saw what I saw. Now he loves the film and sees the craftsmanship that was invisible to him before. He did the very same thing with Hitchcock’s Rear Window. He now loves that film as well. And he has learned too how to be a better storyteller.

The following story is a little vulgar, but worth telling to make my point, I think.

I used to know a man from a West African village. We once talked about his manhood initiation ritual. He said to me in his thick accent, “In my village when you are a boy in manhood training you must go take a shit (he pronounced it sheet) in the woods.” He paused. “Then you sit all day and you watch your sheet.” Then he paused for a long while. I had no idea what he was getting at. Then he said, “Then you see everything that depends on your sheet.” The boys learn, from this exercise, their vital connection to the rest of the living world. This is a profound lesson to emerge from such seemingly pointless act.

Remember that sometimes when someone is trying to teach you something new, your job is not to judge what he or she asks you to do, but to fully understand why you should do it.

If you do this, you may be surprised by what you have allowed yourself to learn.


Will J said...

Really nice post. That last story helped a lot! I sometimes forget to always be learning and some days it comes back to slap me in the face.

I have a question about watching and rewatching films. Right now I've been studying the three act structure: how/where the story transitions from one act to another and summarizing each film into the seven steps you discuss in your book. I've also been trying to get a better grasp of Act I and how important it is.

When you watch films, do you take notes about the structure and how each scene fits into the armature? What sort of stuff did you focus on? Sorry if this is a broad question.

Brian McD said...

Hello Will,

Thanks for reading the blog and for getting the book.

Seeing where one act ends and another begins can be really hard at first for some people. It will help to watch classics. Filmmakers and screenwriters used to know more about this stuff than most do now. So if you watch a current film it may not even have a first act for you to see.

Some films have a “fuzzy” break between one act and another and it can be hard to see. But in older films they would often fade to black at the end of act one because they thought it as a curtain falling. Billy Wilder likes to do this. So if you watch Sunset Blvd, for example, you will see a shade being pulled down as the camera irises to black at the end of act one.

Wilder’s film Ace in the Hole also has a nice fade to black to signify the end of act one. Looking at those movies might help you see things easier when there is no fade out.

Tootsie has a very good first act. Very good.

Remember that act one sets up everything you need to know to understand the story to come. It tells you who the main character is. It tells you what they want and what’s stopping them from getting it. It tells you what is at stake if they don’t get what they want. It also tells you what the world is like and the kind of story you are in for – a Raiders of the Lost Ark or an Eat Pray Love.

When a first act is good when it is over you feel like the story is really starting. If you work at it you will be able to feel this transition. Don’t rush it. It will come.

After you become good at spotting these transitions you will wonder how you missed them before. Once you see them you can’t not see them.

Watch the episode of The Simpsons Selma’s Choice. Great first act. The whole piece is very well structured. They don’t seem to write with that kind of care on that show any more. Watch that episode and study its structure.

About 15 years ago I started numbering a sheet of paper from 1 to 120 and write notes on what happened at each minute of the film. That helped a lot. It helps you see patterns.

The main thing is to study, study, study and to understand that you are not in a race. Settle into the process and let it take all the time it takes. You’ll learn more if you aren’t in a hurry. And you will learn deeply rather than superficially.

I hope that helps.

-- Brian

ERIK said...

This is the single best entry you've written for this site, man.

One for the books.

DD said...

I just realized that I completely ripped off Hitchcock when I was telling you about my "kids at the lunch table with the gun" example the other day. I subconsciously stole his example and altered it to be mine. I was sure that I had thought that up on my own! Great post.

Will J said...

Thanks so much, Brian! This really helps. I'll definitely keep studying and look into the ones you mentioned. I remember leaning back in my seat to take a quick breather during that curtain moment in Sunset Blvd, haha.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Brian. The beginner's mind approach forces humility and openness which I know can only help me grow more deeply as a writer.

Thanks also for the encouragement to not rush it. It's easy to forget and feel rushed to "figure everything out" about writing, which is of course impossible. :)

Wildsky said...

A new book?! Yay! I've really loved Invisible Ink.

Also, I'm in the market for a good graphic novel illustrator, and I remember from your class that you're well versed in the comic world. Could you recommend anyone in particular?