A Writer Writes

By Jennie Jarvis

A writer writes…

This sounds like a very straightforward and obvious concept, but it amazes me how many of my students seem to try to over-complicate this simple idea. Being a professor in an MFA program, all of my students are passionate about the stories that they want to tell, but many of them get a very strict notion in their head that their narrative can only be told in one way – the way that they first conceived it.

I believe that stories are like children – I can only control them for so long before they turn into a living and breathing individual. In those early days, months or years (depending on how long I allow the story to gestate before I write it), I can try to shape them, giving them guidance as best as I can, but at some point, I have to let go and let them be who or what they want to be. I have to let my stories grow into whatever they need to be in order for them to be the most successful.

While many of my stories have grown up to be feature length screenplays, some of them have grown up to be short films, novels, short stories, graphic novels or even web series. I’ve even had experiences where I took a story all the way through what I thought would be its adulthood as a script, only to be told from multiple sources that it needed to continue to grow into another medium – like a YA novel. My most painful experience as a narrative parent has been with a story that I’ve been working on for over twenty years. It started as a novel, then moved into a script, back to a novel, back to a script and now exists somewhere in my brain, still trying to figure out what it wants to be when it grows up.

I see my students’ very strict ideas of what their story SHOULD be as a form of control. They want to control every aspect of their story because they are afraid to let go and just allow the story to be whatever it wants to be.  Some stories aren’t meant to be a screenplay regardless of how much a student might want it to be. Sometimes, a student may have dreams of winning an Oscar and selling their screenplay for six figures, but the story that is lush and alive in their mind is desperate to exist as a literary novel or a television series.

So when the question of what I write is presented to me, I have to answer that I write whatever my characters want me to write. True, most of them wind up coming out as some kind of fantasy, usually with a teenage protagonist that has at least one absent or incompetent parent. Usually, I tend to explore issues of feeling left out, desiring acceptance and love, and wanting to make a difference in the world. I play with themes of unhealthy obsessions and naiveté versus cynicism, but at the end of the day, I write whatever the voices in my head – the muses and my characters – tell me to write.

I write what is best for the story.

Today, I am working on a number of different narratives – all of them in different mediums. My primary focus is on a YA novel, but I am also editing a nonfiction self help book. I am plotting out a graphic novel and web series, and I am world building and researching my next screenplay (which may grow into another YA novel). I am dancing with these narratives in the styles that they prefer instead of trying to make them all dance the same east coast swing that I am the most comfortable with.

Coming from a directing background, I think that some of my flexibility in how I work with my story derives from my need to work with different professionals from diverse backgrounds. I’ve heard so many people who think that a director is some kind of micro-God, pulling the stings and over-controlling all aspects of a production like some kind of mad scientist. However, I find that the best directors are much more cooperative. When directing a play or a film, I would bring together the most talented people that I could and then trust them to do their jobs, while still working to make sure that all the pieces crystalized together to form one unique vision. At the end of the day, it was my job to make sure that the finished narrative was cohesive and made sense as a whole, but I couldn’t do that by taking the camera out of the cinematographer’s hand or dictating every arm and leg movement of the actors. I had to be the conductor, not the puppet master.

As a writer, my narrative orchestra consists of my characters, plot, structure, style, point of view and voice. As these pieces come together under my baton (a fine lined ball point pen), the narrative as a whole shows me in what format the story will best thrive. I just have to trust that I listened well.

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