FORT IN BRAIN
Like most writers, I was always a writer. It's like, the second I learned to read, I wanted to write shit too (I wasn't literally writing "shit" in my writings though til much later in life). In 1st grade I was the precocious punk writing one page illustrated stories on Big Chief tablets. By 6th grade I was winning minor awards in contests I was the only one to enter. By high school I was writing short screenplays for short films I never got around to filming. I was just goofing around.
When I got to Syracuse it was like I finally had permission to write stuff that mattered. No, that's not it. I was finally forced to write stuff that mattered. For a grade. Screenwriting 101 was taught by an upstate NY oddball who had a mullet, an obsession with Native Americans, and wore those cut-off Everlast sweatshirts 1980s boxers employed. Our sole assignment for the entire semester was to craft one feature-length screenplay. I'd been waiting for the day I'd get to write a screenplay since I'd fallen in love with the movies in my early teens and I was sure my first one would be amazing. I quickly learned screenwriting is much harder than I would have guessed.
When you don't have much life experience you have no choice but to think meta. I'd never done shit in my life so I had no choice but to write a screenplay about a guy who hadn't done shit in his life either and was trying to write a screenplay about it. (You'll notice most works by young writers have characters that just sit around all day doing nothing but dreaming about writing something great one day.)
This is how I came up with "Fort in Brain," an overly talky piece about a young man named Fort--I can't recall why that was his name--so stuck with living in his own brain and trying to figure out his own life, that he soon acquires that ability to root around in other people's brains.
When you don't know how to craft a story, especially a screenplay, you have to use hacky techniques and, boy, "Fort in Brain" was rife with them: voice-overs and narration and dream sequences and other worthless tricks more accomplished films don't need to use.*
When you don't have good plot-lines and compelling ideas, you need to add tons of unnecessary cursing and sexuality and "Fort in Brain" was loaded with it. But, it was the kind of unnecessary cursing and sexuality of a man that didn't know it from real life, but rather from having watched too many sitcoms and episodes of HBO's "Real Sex" quietly in his room as a kid.
Luckily, more so than writing a quality screenplay, or even getting a good grade, I found myself writing "Fort in Brain" to impress a girl, a young arts-loving lady who lived in my dorm. She seemed to love "Fort in Brain" and, I can't believe I'm actually saying this, but my shoddy uber-sexual screenplay kind of worked as foreplay. Once a week she'd come over to read my newest 10 pages--the weekly assignment--sitting silently on the corner of my twin bed, and then we'd hook up afterward. (Only later, as an adult, did I realize she probably hooked up with me DESPITE my terribly-written, uber-sexual screenplay).
The crazy thing is, though "Fort in Brain" really sucked, I was kinda onto something. Just two years later, in 1999, Charlie Kaufman's "Being John Malkovich" would rock the film world as the most original script in years. It too was about a man who was able to root around in another man's brain (although, in this case, the eccentric, titular Oscar nominee as opposed to the boring schmoes Fort attended film school with). That movie ended up being my favorite movie of the year, but, more importantly, really boosted my confidence as a writer. Actually, more so, as an idea man. I now knew I had good enough ideas for the big screen. Good enough ideas to actually touch people! I just wasn't sure if I had the gumption to pull off the audacity of them. I started wondering: if I thought of ideas and then Charlie Kaufman executed them, would they be masterpieces? Likewise, if Charlie Kaufman gave me his ideas and then I tried to write them, would they be dreck?
I realized I needed to focus more on craft. Screenwriting is, if anything, more about craft than quality of writing. And, you have to fuck up quite a few screenplays before you innately start knowing the three-act structure and can just focus on the creativity and quality of writing. I reached that point after four terrible screenplays and it took me about ten before I'd really mastered it. Of course, just like in my childhood, I never succeeded at getting any of these screenplays on the big screen so my mastering of form was just artistic masturbation. Done quietly and in a room by myself.
So I switched to prose and quickly found I loved it a lot more than screenwriting. I should have been doing it all along. My learned skills in screenplay plotting surprising helped me in crafting a book and, as of today, "How to Fail" is the one and only novel I've ever written. I didn't need to fuck up several novels to finally get a good one. I'm assuming I can thank screenwriting for that, going all the way back to "Fort in Brain." "How to Fail" is just as cursey and uber-sexual as "Fort in Brain," perhaps more so (I've learned a lot more about both cursing and sex in the last decade) so I suppose I haven't changed much as a writer. It even has some meta stuff. I'm just now better at telling the story, and have lived a real life in the intervening years which I can now draw from. But I still write "shit" in my writings. I'll always write shit in my writings.
*Of course, 8 of my favorite 25 films of all time have voice-over so go figure: Annie Hall (in a way), Goodfellas, Apocalypse Now, A Clockwork Orange, Citizen Kane (kinda), Taxi Driver, Manhattan, and Magnolia (intro).
This is the first of a series I have just created. For other writers out there, I want to know what the first thing you ever wrote was. Post on your blog and add a link to my comments. If you don't have a blog, just post below.