Trial and error

Judith Beheading Holofernes

A few weeks ago, I read a beautiful novel by Marguerite Yourcenar called “Un homme obscur”. A short passage in it made me think of my own experience as a scriptwriter. The book details the life and death of Nathanaël, a simple man of humble education, whose clarity of mind is profoundly moving. At a certain point in the story, which takes place in the 18th century, Nathanaël is working as a servant in the house of a rich man. He witnesses the meetings of the rich man and his friends, who regularly talk about art. Here’s a tentative translation of the paragraph in question:

“The man, who claimed to be an art expert, was in awe before the diagonal drawing of Judith and the subtle proportions between characters and columns in Tite. But it seemed to Nathanaël that these refined commendations did not take into account the humble task of the artisan, busy with his scrubs and brushes, pigments and oils. In their toiling, those men must have taken unexpected paths; they must have made mistakes and turned them into boons. That always happens. Those rich amateurs tended to simplify or complicate everything.”

I have heard enough authors (including mega-titans like Philip Roth) talk about the difficulties and frustrations of writing to know that, even if I sometimes feel excruciatingly unfit for the job, writing is just plain hard – however talented you may be. When seeing a finished film, it is tempting to speak about proportions and diagonals, to discern and discuss the intentions of the author. It is, in fact, the best thing that can happen to your work – other people seeing clear lines and shapes, and perhaps admiring you for so brilliantly having created them. But the actual making of the thing is mainly trial and error.

From Wikipedia: Trial and error is a fundamental method of solving problems. It is characterised by repeated, varied attempts which are continued until success, or until the agent stops trying. It is an unsystematic method which does not employ insight, theory or organised methodology.

You may object that there are, of course, truckloads of available theory and methodology that can be used to produce a screenplay. And that a writer must have some grip on what he actually wants to say. I cannot but comply. That founding quest(ion) that takes you to writing, all the existing science of screenwriting, are fundamental. Another fundamental thing is having exterior eyes, kind readers that provide feedback on the stuff you’ve been cooking. But all of this, I would argue, just narrows the field of your own trial and error. You don’t know what you are doing until you do it. The amount of failure required to produce success is overwhelming.

Failed. Try again.

Failed. Try again.

Failed. Try again.

Failed. Try again.

Did it. Do it better.

Is better. Do it even better.

Oh. I thought it was good but it isn’t.

Failed. Try again.

Failed. Try again.

So:

Read the books. Search inside yourself. Have companions. And most importantly: be persistent. You will fail. You will almost always fail.