Creativity First, Rules Last: A Tale of Two Screenplays

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Back in the early 2000s, I spent a lot of time writing screenplays, short fiction, and blog posts. At a certain point, an old acquaintance with Hollywood ties kindly agreed to read my second feature length screenplay. When we had a phone call to talk about it, he started with a question about my influences.

Slightly jarred by his query, I was nonetheless aware that he was doing me a favour, so I shared that there was a lot of pre-scandal Woody Allen in my upbringing, as well as old, fast-talking black and white films like It Happened One Night, His Gal Friday and the punchy/campy banter of musicals like Guys & Dolls and Kiss Me Kate.

I’m pretty sure he’d met my parents at least once, but I also mentioned the fact that I was raised in a loud, perpetual ebb and flow of academic and artistic conversation and debate. My relationship to language has always been oral/aural first, tied to storytelling and woven with music. With this history in mind, I went on to tell my acquaintance that I had screen-writerly crushes on Amy Sherman-Palladino and Aaron Sorkin – both known for their fast-paced, dialogue-heavy screenwriting.

“Ah! Yes!” My acquaintance said, “That makes sense. The thing is, Sulya, Aaron Sorkin can write like that because he’s Aaron Sorkin.”

His ensuing chuckle absolutely insinuated that I should know exactly what he meant.

And, I did. I just didn’t think it made any sense.

In case you don’t already know, the primary rule of receiving feedback is: AVOID BEING DEFENSIVE.

Thus, I certainly couldn’t interrupt him to say: “But, isn’t that just a pointless tautology that stifles creativity and innovation and promotes other forms of inhibitive, circular decision-making?”

I also could not say: “Aaron Sorkin is Aaron Sorkin because he’s good and someone with some influence saw how good he was. So, if my writing sucks just say so and I’ll do what I can to make it better. Otherwise, what the hell are we talking about?”

The more we talked, the less I found out about my actual writing and the more I found out about his interpretation of Hollywood expectations. I honestly cannot be sure he read the whole screenplay nor if he liked anything about it or hated anything about it. I have no memory or notes that indicate anything other than that I wrote too much dialogue and no one was going to even look at my work because the industry will only tolerate that kind of writing from established writers.

In other words, we get into this type of mess (and sooooooo many devastating others) because so many people believe that “how things are” is “how they will always be” and forget entirely that we create what is with every decision we make.

So attuned to “rules” and “systems,” and often mired in hierarchies and privileges and history, most of us honestly do not understand that everything we do is a set of choices and that we can always make new ones.

The people who have helped Aaron Sorkin build an increasingly diverse creative life in film clearly decided that even though he wrote a lot of dialogue he was worth choosing, worth championing.

And, here’s the thing, my acquaintance genuinely meant well.

By market standards, I was a novice-nobody where Sorkin was at least a successful playwright and my acquaintance did know the industry. In his experience and worldview, a prospective reader of my screenplay needed to be able to flip through the first 10 pages of my piece and see what is considered a healthy, “conventional” balance of dialogue to scene description. Without our early-life connection, my acquaintance would likely have never read the piece at all. Especially, I learned later, because so many people cannot write dialogue well.

For the sake of my case and credibility, I will add here that my first feature length screenplay also had a lot of long passages of dialogue. Due entirely to the chutzpah of my then producing partner, it received a “rewrite and resubmit” response from an established producer (that I didn’t understand was actually “good” and so I failed entirely to follow-up. Yeah. That happened.). It was championed by an interesting, working American actor and producer and he got a group of equally interesting Vancouver actors to do a table read.

Not one of these generous humans asked me about my influences.

All of them gave me feedback I could actually use to make it better.

I even managed to get the very-popular-at-the-time actress for whom I had written a primary role to read it. Her response was certainly not to ask where to sign, but she did specifically say that she, “would love to say the things this character says.”

All of this to say that I have literally no doubt that my second feature, the one read by my acquaintance, needed work. That’s why I was asking for feedback. Further, I know I will never be Aaron Sorkin, because I am Sulya Fenichel instead. I also know that I can write dialogue well enough that it can find its own, unique ways to impact people and storytelling.

The key here is that none of us can get better without meaningful feedback and no one can get meaningful feedback on our actual ideas from someone who thinks their primary job is to help us navigate the written or unwritten rules of an institution.

Meaningful feedback can only happen if someone meets you where you are.

Right there.

On your page.

Your canvas.

Your hunk of marble or clay.

Through your camera’s lens.

In the layers of your business idea.

Your song, podcast, poster series.

Or in the heart of your family project.

Early drafts are for big feedback, brainstorming, perspective, and the meaty hard work of playfulness and joy.

Later drafts are for technique, institutional conformity, and fine-tuning.

And sometimes the best ideas and styles are never going to play neatly by the rules. Sometimes the work that just doesn’t “fit” the institutional structures will be invisible to that institution until it finds allies and champions.

Allies and champions will never look at a first draft of your work and ask you who your influences are.

Allies and champions will never tell you, you can’t do something because you aren’t someone else.

Allies and champions are there to engage with your ideas.

They’re there to get to know you.

They exist to help you become a better you.

If you want new ways to make money (perfectly reasonable), or you want to use your skills and experience to serve issues you care about (perfectly reasonable), or you want to be recognized by a fantastic, reputable publishing house/film company/music producer (perfectly reasonable), you will have to learn to play by some of the rules to even get through the front door.

But, that’s never


where creativity should start.

Not ever.

So, as you look for people to support you in your projects, look first for real allies and champions.

Remember that most human rules are choices that people make together, not sacrosanct laws of the universe. Dig deep and create with all that you are to make your work as good as it can be. Help it jump the hoops of wherever you would like it to go next, and stay open to the possibility that maybe it will still need to travel a less direct path through the maze.

Mostly though, know with absolute clarity that whatever it is that fires you up can only receive generative, genuine, and meaningful support in its early stages from someone who knows that creativity comes first and rules come last.

Leave a comment