Mark Travis: It seems these days that many writers are driven by the idea of selling their scripts over really telling a good story. You mention in the introduction to your best-selling book The 90-Day Novel, that we need to “make the story more important than the result.” I think this is very true but I’m curious, how have you been able, in your own writing to keep yourself focused on the story and not on the possible or potential result?
Al Watt: Well, let’s face it, we teach what we need to learn. I had an epiphany on March 23rd, 1998. I remember the date because I wrote it in my journal. I had been writing for years, mostly screenplays, and was not selling anything. I was a writing client at one of the biggest talent agencies in town, got lots of meetings, but nobody was buying my scripts. My epiphany was this: I realized that I was a mediocre writer. Seriously. I did the math. If you write every single day for thirteen years and sell nothing, you’ve got to have a problem. But here’s the thing; I loved writing more than anything. I knew I was going to be a writer for the rest of my life whether I liked it or not, and so I decided that I was going to write for myself. I let go of all ideas of what the marketplace wanted, ideas of what was commercial and what people might like and wrote this dark little story that had been in my head for years. I wrote it as a novel, even though I knew nothing about the publishing world. I didn’t even think I would show it to anyone. Of course, you know what happened… I ended up selling it for a fortune, it won a bunch of awards, and then I got hired to adapt it into a screenplay. The point is, when I let go of having a screenwriting career, I got one. Now, the challenge for me, and it never ends, is to continue to return to that beginner’s mind. It’s humbly to accept that I’m really just a channel for the story that wants to come through me. When I try to control the process, my writing is mediocre at best. When I let it rip, anything can happen.
MT: You were asked once when you were on a panel at Festival America in Paris what you think the author’s role in the modern world is. How did you answer that question then, or, how would you answer it now?
AW: I mumbled. I can’t remember what my answer was. I was embarrassed that anyone expected me to have one. I think it’s different for everyone. I could give you a lofty answer about we are to reflect the times in which we live, which is probably true, but I think if anyone actually set out to achieve that goal their head would explode. I write because the physical act of putting my ideas on a page keeps me sane.
MT: One of my favorite quotes by you is “trust the story that lives within”. It seems such a simple concept, but not necessarily an easy one. How did you arrive at this idea? And how have you been able to connect with and trust the story within in your own writing? And how would you advise any of us to reach that place of trust?
AW: I believe that our subconscious is the seat of our genius. Genius is available to everyone. It’s a willingness to tap into our primal selves. That can be really terrifying. When I work with writers, there is no question that they have a brilliant story to tell – every single one of them – the challenge is in allowing it to emerge. My job is to create an environment that allows them to feel safe enough to explore, and then to teach them the questions to ask of their subconscious so that the story can emerge. I will never tell a writer, “you should do this, or you should do that.” It isn’t my story – it’s their story. Trust isn’t a goal that we reach, it is the result of accepting ourselves, both good and bad. If a writer aspires to confidence, he will never write anything, but if he accepts his lack of confidence, what he writes will likely be truthful and engaging.
MT: Another of my favorites from you is “the desire to write is connected to the desire to evolve”. Absolutely love that. How do you see story as necessary in our evolution, whether as individuals or as societies? And how do you feel that you have evolved as a result of your own writing?
AW: I think story is the most powerful way to explore a theme or idea, because story holds characters accountable to universal law. If you’re in a theater with a thousand people and a character on the screen does something that you don’t believe, chances are 999 other people think it’s bullshit too. You can feel it in the theater the moment a movie goes off the rails. The energy shifts.
As writers, when an idea comes to us, we tend to get very excited about it, and then as we begin writing, we see how this idea is actually a setup. It demands that we confront aspects of ourselves that we had not anticipated. A key ingredient in evolution is shedding what no longer serves us. If you think of evolution in psychological or even emotional terms, story demands that we shed our old idea of who we are for a larger more noble idea. Unless, of course, it is a cautionary tale, in which case he who refuses to adapt succumbs to his Darwinian fate.
MT: You advocate writing the first draft – whether a novel, screenplay, play, memoir – in 90-days. What’s the benefit of that approach? When you wrote Diamond Dogs did you do the first draft following the 90-day approach? Or has this been developed since that work was finished? And how has this new approach affected your own writing?
AW: I actually wrote the first draft of Diamond Dogs in forty-four days while I was on the road doing standup. That experience was the genesis of The 90-Day Novel.
The point is to get the first draft down fast, and to outrun our logical mind. Many professional writers, from Stephen King to John Steinbeck have discovered that when you write your first draft quickly you tend to bypass all of the left-brain critical voices that prevent the story from finding its way onto the page. The irony is that what was impossible to achieve in ten years becomes possible in three months. By letting go of the idea that it has to be perfect, or even good, we make room for our subconscious to do its work. Ironically, that’s when the work springs to life. The fact is, we have a tendency to confuse perfectionism with excellence. The two have little to do with each other. One is a disease, while the other is a process. The 90-Day Novel process involves marrying the wildness of our subconscious to the rigor of story structure. There are key universal experiences in the hero’s journey. By exploring these experiences in the world of our story, images appear and it actually becomes possible to move beyond our limited idea of our story to a more vivid and dynamic version. The truth is that our idea of our story is never the whole story. Writers tend to get stuck when they either rely solely on their subconscious, or solely on “plotting.” I teach story structure as an experiential model rather than a conceptual model, which is a fancy way of saying that we can reduce any transformation in our life to a series of experiences. There is nothing formulaic about this approach. I tell writers that everything we can imagine belongs in our story if we’re willing to distill our ideas to their nature. And that’s what I teach. I teach writers how to ask better questions of their subconscious in order to understand their story in a new way.