Friday, 21 January 2011

Writing Yourself Out

I've been reading Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind, an account of Hollywood in the 1970s which is both juicy and fascinating. It's one long cautionary tale about the dangers of finding success and losing your soul in the process, although it's kind of ironic that I'm worrying about this stuff when I haven't achieved the fame part yet. In fact, if I wanted to be famous, being a children's author is about the worst possible way to go about it. But that's probably another story...

Such are the book's riches, I'm sure I could spin ten or twelve posts out of it. But let me focus on just one of the hubristic heroes, Paul Schrader, the writer of Taxi Driver. Schrader was a writer driven by demons, turning out script after script in his office at Warner Bros. As Biskind puts it:
He was writing like a machine, and although he didn't know it then, he was writing himself out.
This was a theme that really spoke to me, that chilled me to the core - the idea that everyone has a finite amount of words and themes inside them, that you can only write so much before you start to repeat yourself. Schrader's career certainly burned bright for a few years and then fizzled thereafter, his films descending to the level of interesting but inessential.

I'm sure most of us don't know why we write. A lot of us don't want to know, don't want to get too close to the magical process in case it all stops working. So we write or don't write and hope that the words and ideas will keep flowing. Yet after a while we start to butt against our own limitations, start to wonder whether we've used a phrase before, if we've begun to rip off our own ideas. For instance, I wrote a scene yesterday and realised that the beginning was almost exactly the same as the opening to my previous book! I was chastened by that and I have to admit a little scared too. Surely I can't be repeating myself already?

At least I can see that there's a problem and can address it, which is not something that all creative people seem willing or able to do. I think there's a lot to be said for keeping moving and continually challenging yourself - several of the New Hollywood moguls in Biskind's book surround themselves with yes men and creative inertia ensues. But not everyone can skip madly between genres and maintain a coherent output - many people work better by pushing at the edges of their comfort zone while staying inside it.

I might not know exactly why I write, but Paul Schrader is an easier study. Back in the 70s, he was approximately 10% genius and 90% darkness, a guy driven half mad by a repressive, aggressive Christian upbringing and constant fantasies of suicide. He wrote what he knew and what he knew was himself (Robert De Niro borrowed many of his clothes and mannerisms for the role of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver). Biskind quotes another writer's conclusion that Schrader's creative decline was because "the beasts that drove him were quieted." So should he have quit the writing and directing game when he was ahead?

I have a lot of respect for the recently departed Tony Curtis and Don Van Vliet (a.k.a. Captain Beefheart) who both more or less shunned their day jobs and took up painting in later life. They realised that their best days in one art form were over and switched to another, securing their legacy and their creative pride. Imagine how we would feel about De Niro if he had quit acting after Heat? Instead he keeps churning out desultory movies for large paycheques.

Little Fockers anyone? Thought not.



  1. Presumably as you get older, your reasons for doing things alters slightly. De Niro has done the serious stuff, he proved his worth, now he just wants to do something easy and fun for vast sums of money? But also as an actor it seems like you only have to do one and then you're typecast for at least the next decade...

    I hear what you're saying about comfort zones, but I don't think it hurts to challenge yourself to move out of them - you don't necessarily need to show your sci fi epic to anyone but researching it and thinking about it for a while will mean you come back to your kid's stuff with a slightly different perspective? That way you keep going, but avoid writing your version of fockers...

  2. It is possible to run out of ideas but only if you put life on hold and stay doing the same thing.

    i think once you've got an ouvre like de niro has, you're probably allowed to relax a little, make a living. although in the world of film the footprint you leave is so indelible as to erase the good ones that came before.

  3. I'm sure that writing yourself out is a bigger problem for screenwriters because the volume of work they have to produce before they get stuff out is larger. In 'Tales from the Script' one of the screenwriters works out he's written fifty screenplays, had seven optioned and two made. So it's easy to see how you could burn out before you've even started.

  4. I think your observation "keeping moving and continually challenging yourself" is the nub of the thing. Nothing in life is constant, but if we let it become so - or try to make it so - we stagnate - too often we do so because of fear. We grow and evolve only if we are constantly exploring, trying new things - and very often that means leaving the old and the familiar behind and changing into something new - there's the the joy and the excitement, the leaving of the pupa and becoming a butterfly.

  5. Interesting post in the light of sustaining a career as a writer. if you are published for your sci fi/thriller/romance books and then want to move onto a different writing challenge, is your publisher going to support you? probably not. Your agent maybe. maybe. I do feel that the current model of a book a year for genre fiction can lead to 'write out' very quickly.

  6. Fascinating! love the 'writing yourself out' concept. We all have to continue growing and learning no matter where we are in our development as writers.