Sorcery for Writers and Readers (and those who love them)

By Steven Barnes

I recently attended a screening of director William Friedkin’s classic “Sorcerer”, a   1977 adventure film starring Roy Scheider as a man on an impossible mission. It is a gritty, nasty, impeccably made film doomed to obscurity probably for the sin of using a supernaturally suggestive title designed to sucker in fans of “The Exorcist.” Audiences resented the bait-and-switch, and a perfectly beautiful adventure film got exiled to the slag-heaps of history.

More on that later. But one thing that happened during the Q & A afterward (hosted by Oscar nominee Josh Olson, a lovely guy) was that Friedkin was asked what advice he has for young filmmakers. He didn’t hesitate a moment: “Watch Alfred Hitchcock” he said, and then went into a short lecture on the critical importance of modeling the expert work of the masters.

Aspiring writers might translate this to: “read the work of the masters.” The rest of the human race might simply say: “find people who are excellent at the arenas that interest you, and walk in their shoes.”

There is nothing sadder than talking to an amateur, unpublished writer who will not read, for fear that she will accidentally imitate this or that writer. This is so incredibly wrong-headed, almost exactly the opposite of the successful approach. Invariably, the “best” in any field have an encyclopedic knowledge of those who have come before. Listening to former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson talk about the vast library of fight films he studied as a teenager is a revelation: no, the man was not just a physical marvel and an emotional disaster area. He was also a scholar of his sport.

Perhaps the most critical arena to investigate and model is the beliefs of experts, masters, successful people in any field: I promise you that they are very different from the beliefs of the average folks.

What does the expert, the successful person believe about his craft or life? It’s importance? Meaning? The origin of his creativity and focus? What does the expert believe about the nature of human existence? The purpose of life? The worth of art and commerce?

What you are looking for is the DIFFERENCE between the beliefs of successful people, and the beliefs held by…well, not to put too fine a line on it, failures. And it doesn’t matter what the arena is…those who succeed have different beliefs from those who fail. Always. In business: failures don’t match their actions to their abilities. Try too much or too little. Blame external circumstances with beliefs like “it takes money to make money” and “money is the root of all evil” etc. Writers who fail blame the market, avoid submitting their stories for fear of rejection, and so forth.

In relationships, “failures” exhibit an inability to separate their specific and individual experiences from broad-based beliefs about an entire gender. These are women and men who harbor the worst kinds of negative stereotypes about each other, or resort to dishonesty in an attempt to get sex. Who, in other words, have no confidence that honesty and openness will be rewarded. They look at their past failures as meaning either that there is something wrong with the opposite sex, or there is something “unfixable” about themselves. Very unfortunate.

And physically, of course…well, I don’t want to go into some of the horribly self-defeating internal dialogue people have about their bodies. We store so much negative emotion here that it is rare someone will try to lose weight or gain muscle without a boatload of negative voices trying to convince you that body shifting is impossibly complex, or too risky, or too painful.

It is critical that you understand the impact of your belief systems on your behaviors.

And by the way: what could one learn about Hitchcock’s beliefs from his films? Look at the way he was both hypnotized by, and wary of, human sexuality. Study “Saboteur” or “North By NorthWest” for some clues about patriotism, social obligation, even romance and human psychology. Hitch worked with his writers deeply and carefully, and his influence can be felt in every line of dialogue, every frame of film. By studying Hitch, it is possible to sense the interaction of elements you may not have even considered. Specifically to the creation of film scripts, Hitch believed in creating the VISUAL IMAGE SYSTEMS of the work first, as if writing a silent film. Only then was dialogue added. This is a powerful technique, one that would save a beginner years of trial and error, if only he had investigated the methods of this master.

I repeat: if you want to increase your skill and success in a given arena, study the work and lives of people who are more successful than you. Associate with them, read interviews with them or biographies about them. Note what they talk about, how they speak of their arenas.

Then…if you have the stomach for it, specifically study the attitudes and work of those who fail in your chosen arena. I promise you: their emotional attitudes are very different, whether it is about relationships, fitness, or success.

Study your arena, and make your choice. For writers, readers, anyone interested in living or performing at a higher level. or simply getting more of the critical juice from life. I personally was blessed with the opportunity to observe a Master of the writing arts at very close range, over the course of decades.

When it comes to role models, I couldn’t have done better than Larry Niven. But if I hadn’t found him, I would have found someone else. It’s your life. Find your mentors and role models.

Life is too short to reinvent the wheel every day.

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