On the other hand, there has to be a balance between being too personal and being so close to your story that you can't be objective.
What do I mean by this? Well, there are some writers who are so obsessed with writing their personal story that they can't get the objective distance to make their screenplay work.
When I've critiqued writers who write scripts that are too personal, they usually become defensive. "But that's how it really happened," they argue when they receive constructive criticism. Guess what? It really doesn't matter if that's how it really happened, unless one's writing a documentary script.
These writers were just too personally involved in the story to be able to look at it with the necessary objectivity of a professional "writer's eye." It's important to have distance from your subject matter in order to make the necessary changes and revisions to make your screenplay a great one.
However, when the wounds are too raw, writing about the personal experience can be like rubbing "salt in the wound." This is what happened to a middle-age man, whom I'll call Jack. He wanted to write a script about a recently widowed man struggling to be on his own. The main character, married for 26 years, was trying to be independent and deal with all of the problems besetting a man living alone. He had to learn to cook, clean and develop a new social life, while still experiencing the painful feelings of divorce.
Jack had a lot of problems trying to write his story and couldn't get a handle on it. I spoke with him and soon discovered that he was too close to the story, because he was actually going through the pains of his wife's recent death. Every time he'd write a particular scene he'd begin to re-experience his pain all over again. Since he wasn't detached and couldn't get enough distance to look at his screenplay objectively he couldn't write it. In reality, Jack was writing his actual life story as he was living it. This didn't make for an exciting script and his writing wasn't dramatic. It also wasn't healthy for him to write about such a painful situation so soon after it had occurred.
When other students began to give him suggestions he would respond defensively, "Well, that's the way it really happened." He was too emotionally involved with his own real life drama to maintain the necessary distance from his work.
I finally persuaded Jack to put his script aside for the time being and write about something else that wasn't so emotionally upset ting. He eventually chose another story that wasn't so personal, but one which interested him.
With his new story Jack was finally able to become objective and listen to advice from others as he worked on his script. He wasn't defensive and he made changes without getting angry. I began to notice a real change in Jack's personality as he worked on his new script. He soon began to enjoy working on his new screenplay so much, that it helped him forget a lot of his own personal pain. He became less depressed and more optimistic about his own future.
I know some day Jack will probably go back and write his original story about his wife's death. It could make a good script, but not until he is emotionally removed enough to write it and remain dispassionate about the subject.
Jack certainly isn't the only writer I know who eventually had to give up a story. There's really a fine balance between writing what you know and being able to keep the proper emotional distance from your work. Each of you should strive to look at your work as a professional writer and choose material that has meaning for you and which allows you to make changes when you have to without any resistance.
What is also important is for you to take a personal story and make it dramatic and entertaining, while putting your truth into it. You can only do this if you are passionate about your story, yet objective enough to change it if it doesn't work.
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