My Peat Moss Analogy
We are all like peat moss. I know, odd analogy. But in Scotland, the ancient home of my ancestors, the peat bogs are numerous and have been part of the people’s lives since the dawn of time. Anciently, even as now, much light, heat and progress came from the burning of peat moss in Scotland. You’re like peat moss. So am I. Million-year old peat moss. Because that’s how long ago the peat within us “stored” sunshine over the millennia and then, after a couple of million years in the ground, was dug up and ‘gave back it’s light.’ That’s us. We have all this light stored up inside us from the ages before we came to be. And now we have seventy or eighty years (give or take) to send that light back to the world.
How are you doing with your stored light?
I was thinking the other day that I wasn’t doing as well as I could. I believe all of us are ancient spirits but very young bodies (no matter your chronological age) and we have just so much time to share ourselves with the world. And just what are we sharing? I don’t know about you but I’ve shared a lot of things I wish I hadn’t. So I liken it to creative endeavors. In my case, screenwriting.
David Thomson said, “To bring a film to the screen is to wrestle with monsters dressed as clowns” I agree. Letting the peat moss burn within us is excruciating sometimes. When I was getting ready to bring “Derby Stallion” to the screen I found myself faced with the greatest obstacle I have ever faced — an executive producer who pretty much hated me and my approach. To this day, I have no idea why. Or even why she hired me. But this person took every occasion during the production to tear me down. Preferably, in front of others. A lot of others. It was galling. Embarrassing. And distinctly shut out my “light.” I remember calling my wife one night from Georgia and telling her I had no idea why I was there because it certainly wasn’t to make a movie.
My peat moss was barely lit during those six weeks.
And yet, as I look back on it — I learned a lot (and was rewarded in many other ways) more than with any other production I’ve brought to the screen. No, it wasn’t that way when I was shooting the film, but later I realized how lucky I had been. Meeting Zac Efron. Working with a terrific crew. Getting the job done INSPITE of the “obstacle”— a producer who disliked me intensely. Know why? Because we learn nothing from our successes. Only our failures. Taking that job was probably a mistake but it was a magnificent one in terms of learning.
It’s like anything — when you begin …you’re 90 percent artist and 2 percent critic. When you finish, it’s just the opposite. I had the opportunity to read Kurt Vonnegut’s “8 Basics of Writing” and learned what I hadn’t understood up to that point. They are writing helps but also they are “living” helps. I recap them now (he’s gone but I don’t think he will mind).
- Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
- Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
- Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
- Start as close to the end as possible.
- Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
- Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
- Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
I particularly like number 4: “Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance action.” In my case, as a screenwriter, it’s every scene. Vonnegut learned to light the fire. He learned that the sun had endowed him with a great deal of creative ‘fire’ and all it needed was someone or something to light it.
How is your creative fire? Has your peat moss lost it spark? Remember, you’re never too old.
Think about it.