Friday, 28 June 2013

Creative Frustration

After last week's lull, I've found inspiration this week in a terrifically candid interview with filmmaker Christopher McQuarrie. McQuarrie won an Oscar for his screenplay of the Usual Suspects and recently wrote and directed the Tom Cruise vehicle Jack Reacher, a lean, 70s style thriller that I was surprised to find myself enjoying a hell of a lot. He's a guy who's been bounced around by the movie industry and the interview makes for fascinating reading, dealing with the vogue for style over story in modern filmmaking, and providing a penetrating insight about what it's like to be the guy on the other side of the studio desk, frantically trying not to screw up a multi-million-dollar franchise.

The main thing that struck me again and again during the interview was McQuarrie's creative frustration with where he is and what he's achieved. He wants to be an auteur, making films for himself, and yet to earn a living he's had to adapt to the corporate system, to give the audience and the movie studios what they want. He says:
"Don't be surprised when you write a script that you know is good and nobody buys it. And nobody wants to read it. Because no one [in Hollywood] is interested in making your script. They have a huge mandate on their table: all this product that they have to generate and they need people to help them do it. And so I stopped being a person who looked at them as if they were people who were not giving me a chance and started looking at them as people who were terribly lost and desperately in need of help."
This new outlook was key to McQuarrie's recent career resurgence. And yet:
"Does that make me a happier filmmaker? No. Am I more fulfilled? No. Now I'm working a lot more and a lot more is getting made. But am I getting closer to having the power to make films that I really want to make? No."
This is a microcosm that defines many of us trying to make it in the writing game – the business of making a living as a writer can actively get in the way of creative satisfaction. And yet there are others who seem able to follow their muse on every project and still attract a sizable audience. Is this just luck? Or is there a certain visionary quality that marks out some creative people, while the rest of us toil away as mere craftsmen (and women)?

Like McQuarrie, I'd love to have the kind of unique mind and skill set that would allow me to set myself apart from the rest of the market. But I also have to be aware of my own limitations, that my abilities lie in relatively conventional areas such as character, dialogue and story, not in linguistic fireworks or indelible imagery. Right now, children's writing feels like a great place for someone with my skills, but perhaps the market is already shifting, becoming more interested in surface concepts such as concept rather than the deeper satisfaction provided by a good story well told. I spent a lot of time in the early years of my writing trying to manipulate existing storytelling forms to deliver something truly new, without a great deal of success. Perhaps I see the world too conventionally to become a true visionary? Or maybe the world of author-led fiction may yet help me to unlock a truly distinctive, popular voice?

Ultimately, though, perhaps there's nothing wrong with being a mere craftsman who has the ability to construct an appealing story with wit and verve. Creative frustration does serve a very definite purpose, which is to keep pushing you towards towards new creative goals. Too many auteurs settle into a comfortable rut, safe in the knowledge that their devoted fans will continue to follow them, no matter how self-indulgent and repetitive their work becomes. So it's probably a good thing that McQuarrie stays frustrated and (more importantly) stays focused on the task at hand:
"You can't control success any more than you can control failure. You just have to keep making movies."



  1. Very interesting and very true to other creative disciplines. Once compromise opens the door, then what? And I agree, you just have to keep doing what you do. You can't help it. Thanks for the heads up about this interview.

  2. << Creative frustration does serve a very definite purpose, which is to keep pushing you towards new creative goals.>>

    Yes, I couldn't agree more. But there's a fine line, when that frustration reaches boiling point, and it feels like there's nowhere to go. The it can take a lot - sometimes too much - to keep the creative spirit fired up.

    1. After I posted the blog today, I was sure I must have written on this subject before, and I had! Back in 2011, I had posited the idea of creative satisfaction being a combination of frustration and contentment:

  3. Great post - and the quotation at the end was for all of us creative types, I think.

  4. I have found it incredibly liberating to work on a completely personal creative project that took several months to make but earns me no money plus it is so esoteric most people don't understand it. Yup! Talking about my webcomic here. It felt good to throw something out into the internet and not worry too much about where it would end up or whether anyone would want to buy it. I don't think that D&B will lead to anything in any direct kind of way but it has been an opportunity to offload and it has made me reconsider what I want to do next. It wasn't a sensible thing to do - at the same time I worked on it I needed to fit in paid work and family life. Perhaps I wouldn't have done it if I had had any idea of how hard that would be at times but I am glad I went ahead.
    Maybe being too aware of your limitations can be limiting? Perhaps those limitations don't actually exist anyway? Sometimes it is good to run with an idea with the wind in your hair and if you do it might give you confidence plus a fresh perspective on other projects.

    1. Well, everything I write is for no money! (at least so far). But I totally get what you're saying about removing the shackles and just going for something, I am often too hesitant about starting a project where I can't see a clear endpoint.

      Rather than limitations, perhaps it's better to talk about restrictions - the guiding principles that keep a project on the rails. I tend to suffer from excessive ambition, and that can lead to a scenario I've named "writer's bloat" where the book loses focus and with it my interest.

    2. True, focus is very important and so is maintaining some kind of sense within your story. But perhaps it is also important to nibble at the boundaries of what you think you are capable of?

  5. "Too many auteurs settle into a comfortable rut, safe in the knowledge that their devoted fans will continue to follow them," I've given up on a few who've gone ruttish.
    very interesting, Nick.
    Think it all boils down to 'just keep swimming, keep on swimming'