There's an old joke. A mother's at the seaside with her baby boy, who's playing in the sand by the water's edge. Suddenly a big wave crashes over the boy and sweeps him out to sea. The mother hysterically scans the ocean but he's gone, gone, gone, so she falls to her knees on the shore and sobbing, calls out to God.
"God, please God, I'll do anything, but you have to bring my boy back! Take me instead, strike me dead this instant, submit me to a thousand tortures, but please -- I'll give up all my money, everything I have in this life, I'll build a temple or a church in your name, whatever you want! But oh merciful God, I'm begging you, please give me back my child! "
There's a peal of thunder and a bolt of sunlight pierces the sea, and lo and behold, another big wave rolls to the shore and the baby boy is returned. Crying with joy, exclaiming a dozen thank-yous, the mother clutches her child to her bosom, and then holds him out for a loving look. She turns back to God. "God," she says. "He was wearing a little hat..."
This story is cited in the service of an observation, born of giving and taking many a writing class in a number of mediums. It used to happen in that musical theater workshop I was telling you about in the last post, and once in awhile it happens in screenwriting classes I teach.
Someone brings in a piece that's damn good -- tantamount to a miracle -- and people start making comments and giving feedback, and -- bless their hearts, it comes out of genuine enthusiasm, the other writers are jazzed and excited by the good energy that comes out of a successful piece, but -- before long, because everyone's so hellbent on improving the piece (that is, pursuing their own vision of perfect), the poor writer who came in with these wonderful pages has a couple of pages worth of notes that have picked the piece to pieces.
The work, I would say, is being little-hatted to death.
Since I've been lately discoursing on notes and the hazards of taking notes, the Little Hat syndrome originally came up in that context -- too many notes that sweat the small stuff can indeed dampen a largely successful draft -- but I think it has broader applications. I feel this way sometimes when a good movie's in the theaters and everybody (for everybody's a critic) starts carping about this, that and the other little thing they feel is wrong with it (this is especially true of Los Angeles, as it was true of New York when I lived there -- twin cities of the We Know Better complex). These locals have a compulsive need to have an opinion, as if being able to critique something intelligently (hey, you can't put one over on us) is a badge of honor for being, however peripherally, a part of the Biz. And they lose sight of the fact that the existence of an actual good movie is nothing short of miraculous.
Well, you know what? As someone who's been working in the salt mines of story analysis for years, in the trenches of script consultation, in the belly of the studio beast, I am here to tell you that even getting a half-decent movie made is awesome. It is an amazing feat. There are so many things that can and do go wrong in the creation of these misshapen monsters known as movies that I for one am genuinely, honestly blown away when a good one manages to make it to the multiplex.
For this reason, I find that there's nothing more exasperating than listening to a neophyte screenwriter (e.g. someone who hasn't even completed a viable first draft of an original screenplay) rake a current success over the coals for all its supposed shortcomings. One such student was little-hatting The Queen in a recent class of mine, and it was all I could do to keep myself from leaping over the desk and collaring the poor sod and screaming in his face, "Have you ever in your entire life come even vaguely close to writing anything half as good as one page in that script?!"
Fortunately for all of us, I've never done such a thing. I'm a regular prince of decorum, I am, I'm the very freaking soul of diplomacy in such matters -- ask anyone who's ever taken one of my classes. Or for that matter, come on in and see for yourself.
Two weeks from tomorrow, I'll be teaching a four-day intensive version of my Writing the Romantic Comedy course at the UCLA Extension Writers Studio in Westwood. The Writers Studio is one of the few teaching environments I know of that is determinedly anti-Little Hat in principle. Our mission there is to help make the miracle of you birthing your best work happen, as opposed to ham-stringing your newborn creation with so many considerations that it can't even walk, let alone sing.
Nine additional courses will be at the Studio, Thursday through Sunday, February 8-11, and I can vouch for these instructors -- among them, Barbara Abercombie (Writing the Personal Essay), Keith Giglio (Getting it Write: Writing the Story Before Writing the Script) and Leon Martell (Creating Memorable Characters and Dialogue) -- as being first and foremost in the service of writers' intentions. If you're an interested and able writer looking to manifest those intentions, visit the Studio website or give the Writers' Program a call (Leigh-Michil George at 310-206-2612 will be happy to answer any and all questions).
As for the rest of us, perhaps the next time you encounter a piece of work that works, you might consider all the odds it had to overcome to come out that good. And maybe you won't be quite so quick to pick it apart. Something so right is something to marvel at, I say -- even if it arrives bareheaded.