Tarantino won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar Sunday night for “Django Unchained”. Good for him. But it was what he said about it that I want to thank him for.
He saved it for the end, when the “Jaws” music was just starting to rise. That was the music they played this year when someone took too long thanking too many obscure people. Dun—dun—dun–dun–dun-dun-dun-dundundunDUNDUN …
Yes, he almost got sharked. But fortunately, he said this before the Oscars timekeepers bit off his legs: “This is the year for writers.”
And he was really, really right. The Oscar nominees this year in the categories of Best Original Screenplay, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture covered a wide gamut. “Life of Pi” vs. “Lincoln”. “Amour” vs. “Django Unchained”. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” vs. “Zero Dark Thirty”. But they all had one thing in common.
Tarantino acknowledged this in his characteristically vernacular acceptance speech. After he thanked all and sundry, he tipped his hat – almost as a seeming afterthought – to all the other superb writers he had had to beat out. He did more than that, he figuratively took his hat right off and bowed deeply to his fellow talents.
That’s what I want to thank him for. For his thanks to the other writers who made these award categories tough. And for the driving truth behind it …
It all starts with the writing.
Sometimes I think we writers don’t realize our potential power. We make stories, and stories make a difference. They change people.
Yet we often write with the subconscious goal of pleasing people, rather than provoking them. Especially if we’re unpublished. We want the thumbs up from an editor, a publisher, a critic. And, of course, every single reader who picks up our book.
We sit somewhere alone, fingers glued to a keyboard, and we try to get lost in our story. It’s just us and our words. The next day, maybe, we read what we wrote. We react to it. Maybe we’re still in love with our turns-of-phrase at that point. Or maybe we make a bad face and want to delete delete delete. Maybe we imagine how an agent would react – our agent, if we have one. Most of us don’t.
Maybe we read our own stuff and worry. Of course we worry, we all worry. What judgement will be pronounced on our words? Will it elevate them to ‘published’ status, or crush them? How can we tweak it to make sure someone – someone in the publishing industry, that is – will like it? Will like it at least well enough to turn the page. What do the writing books say? What’s the magic formula?
“My work is kind of unmistakably me, and I like that about it. But you know, you are either going to really dig it or you’re gonna be against it.” That’s what Quentin Tarantino said on Oscar day to CBS News Sunday Morning.
Maybe he was inoculating himself against disappointment, knowing the Oscars’ judgement was about to be passed on his work just a few hours later. After all, it had been 18 years since he’d won his first Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for the jarring “Pulp Fiction”.
Nevertheless, his were words of great courage.
He doesn’t write for the approval of everyone. And, I suspect, neither do the other writers who were nominated this year. Like David Magee, who adapted Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. Or Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin, who wrote the screenplay for “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” These are not tame, mainstream stories. They’re creatively bold and commercially risky.
You don’t write boldly, from the heart, in hopes of getting a B+ from the teacher. You write like this to evoke a visceral response from your readers, or your viewers. To make them laugh, or cry, or get angry. To touch them. To surprise them. Not by being manipulative, like the unimaginative, formulaic fare that never gets nominated for serious awards. But by burrowing deep into people’s hearts with a story that won’t let them go. With words that bring that story to life, then keep haunting like ghosts when the story is done.
I want to thank Quentin Tarantino for reminding me that I don’t want to spend my life writing just to get published. That’s too low a bar.
Don’t get me wrong. I want to get published and I have no illusions about how tough that is to achieve in a market where unsolicited manuscripts make useful doorstops, and every adult who’s ever read a book seems to think he or she can write one. But what Tarantino’s words Sunday triggered for me were two obvious epiphanies:
- Reach has to exceed grasp.
- Creative integrity has to have attitude.
Great writing pushes people. It pushes the writer, and it pushes the reader. It takes courage and confidence to write with the intent of provoking a strong reaction, knowing that some of the reactions you’ll provoke will be negative. Rejection hurts.
But here’s the bad news: rejection is inevitable. The publishing business is a numbers game, and the numbers don’t favour unpublished authors, who are inherently commercially risky.
I heard a senior publisher at the Aloha Writers Conference in January describe his discovery of a new writer, a ‘fresh voice’. He was genuinely excited and proud. It was very encouraging. Here was a big name in the business from a big publishing house, and here he was taking a risk on new, unproven talent.
“How many unpublished authors did you take on last year?” I asked him, full of hope.
“Two,” he said.
So how can I increase my chances of winning this lottery? I’ve come to the conclusion that the only thing that makes sense is to aim higher. Way higher. Audaciously higher. Writing by the ‘rules’ isn’t enough anymore. Writing to impress an agent, an editor, a publisher isn’t enough anymore. Writing a book that’s better than average isn’t enough anymore.
The baseline necessities – talent, craft, imagination, determination, endurance – will only take an aspiring writer so far. Raising the bar requires vast quantities of courage and attitude. It’s the difference between aiming to make a movie, and aiming to win an Oscar.
On the other hand, if my Tarantino-inspired ambitions never come to fruition, I can take pride in the knowledge that my unpublished manuscript doorstop is truly a thing of beauty.