As a team, we read and write a lot of scripts for training videos. If there is one thing I’ve learned it is that there is no perfect script (or essay or blog post or email). But there is a process for writing that you can use to approach perfection. Before that even, you need to identify as a writer. To head in this direction with me, let’s first meet Brian Koppelman.
Brian is best known as the co-creator, showrunner, and executive producer of Billions. He is also the co-writer of the movies Ocean’s Thirteen and Rounders. The man clearly has writing chops. But more than that, he’s an incredibly clear thinker about what helps him write so well.
Over the course of two articles, we’ll explore how he wrestled with the singularly difficult question of identifying as a writer and, in Part 2, his process for writing Billions so we can apply that to any type of writing.
So to begin, let’s first answer the question, am I a writer?
Momentum > Direction
For many of us, sitting down to a blank page is more terrifying than Best Buy on Black Friday.
Just getting started is half the battle. Brian’s advice is:
“You have to calculate less. The more you try to game this stuff out, the more it becomes clear the odds are against you and you can’t win.”
He goes on to describe how most people who achieve something great are unrelenting in their determination to do it.
“Momentum is an incredibly powerful tool as is inertia an incredibly powerful force.”
His advice is to commit to something small and commit to doing it every day for a few days. It’s an idea inspired by a book called Elastic Habits: How to Create Smarter Habits That Adapt to Your Day (this is a great summary).
Make it easy for yourself to start a streak. Make your goals elastic by having a Mini version, a Plus version, and an Elite version of the goal.
For example, when writing a script:
- Mini goal: jot down one idea from your day or for the story.
- Plus goal: sketch out one character or scene.
- Elite goal: outline an entire video/episode.
If you want to write more, start a streak.
Put a poster on your wall, commit to writing every day, and soon, you’ll get to a point where you refuse to break the streak. pic.twitter.com/r028VXig5V
— David Perell (@david_perell) July 5, 2020
Ok great, I want to start a writing streak, but how?
Perhaps you’re waiting for a sign or holding out until a certain thing happens. Maybe you first need to finish a big project. Then you’ll start writing. Perhaps you are waiting to quit your job to be a writer.
All you need to do to start your writing streak is to write.
“I think sometimes taking huge drastic action that’s external to the actual project or external to the actual mission is dramatic. And it feels great in the moment. But it turns out to be another way of self-sabotage. Right? I must quit my job in order that I may paint. Well, that’s not true. What you need to do if you want to paint is paint.”
Thanks Brian, but where do I fit this writing in?
Wake up earlier. That’s exactly what I’m doing now to write this article.
You’d be amazed at what you can do if you wake up an hour earlier. This doesn’t just apply to writing, of course, it’s true for anything in life. But let’s check in with Brian to see how he applies this to writing.
“I literally just got up an hour earlier to write. One page a day. Even if you take off Sundays, one page a day is about 310 pages in a year. One page a day. You can write a page in a half hour. 310 pages is a novel. That’s three screenplays. It’s an endless amount of short stories.”
One page a day. Focus on building that habit, and the rest will follow.
But what if I don’t have anything to write about?
You don’t always have to write about the article you’re working on or the training video script you need to complete by the end of the week. Sometimes you can just write down whatever is on your mind. That’s where Morning Pages comes in.
“Morning pages are a technique. I’ve seen versions of it in various sorts of creativity classes, but Julia Cameron really codified the way that I do it in her seminal book The Artists Way.”
Here is a breakdown of Brian’s approach to Morning Pages.
- Three longhand pages every morning.
- Use a pen or pencil.
- Just keep your pen going.
- Don’t try to write. You’re not crafting sentences, you’re not thinking about paragraphs, all you’re doing is moving your pen across the page until you fill three pages.
So what do you write about?
“It’s a stream of consciousness man. It’s whatever is on your mind. You might find yourself writing about the same thing for three or four days in a row. And that thing might then teach you about something you need to deal with in your life. And you reveal yourself.”
I can do this! But who wants to read my writing anyway?
I have grappled with this form of Imposter Syndrome ever since I started writing in school. In fact, I remember first writing about things I thought others wanted to read. I still do sometimes. The result is a piece of prose packed with cliches that promote the feeling that this writer didn’t feel what they claim to have felt.
Do you feel this fear of not being special, not being good enough too? Of not exposing that part of yourself that you hold most dear, for fear of being rejected?
Yeah. Well, we’re not alone, me and you. The truth is everyone feels this to some extent.
Brian urges us to not focus on the results, but on the process itself.
“What I’ve discovered is that’s all just stuff. It’s what Steven Pressfield in his book War of Art calls resistance. To me, as soon as I get past it, and start doing the work, I remember that the external result doesn’t matter at all.”
I would add, who are you NOT to be creating? You owe it to yourself and to those around you to share your thoughts and ideas. Writing is thinking in that it forces you to articulate your ideas and communicate them in a way others can relate. By reading your work, people can come to understand how you think, and perhaps, just perhaps, be inspired by your sparks of creativity.
“If I allow these creative impulses to die, it would be like a real death. And like any form of death, it would be toxic. And this toxicity would leak out of me onto those that I loved. And I realized that as soon as I allowed myself to do the work, all that stuff went away, dissipated. If I wanted to tell my children that they should chase their dreams, I had to, or I’d be a liar.”
You’re right, I owe it to myself. So when do I become a writer?
I think you know the answer to this one deep inside: you’re a writer because you write. You just have to make that soul-wrenching commitment to wrangle your ideas into a coherent shape and fight that inner critic that wants to prevent you from doing this. You have to do the work.
“As long as I wrote every day I was a writer. I didn’t need someone else to say it. I needed to do that work. And if I did it, I could tell it to myself. And if I could tell it to myself, I was that thing.”
I am ready to be that thing!
Me too! Now that you’re ready to identify as a writer, we need to talk about the writing process. Brian has some great advice from Billions to share with us, but that will have to wait until Part 2.
For now, let me leave you with this.
“The moment I was waking up earlier, going into a room, generating pages, I started walking straighter. I started, as I say, moving more lightly through the world.”