The screenwriter, author and therapist talks about writing what you love, building a tolerance to rejection and inviting in the shadow side.
Dennis Palumbo is the author of Writing from the Inside Out: Transforming Your Psychological Blocks to Release the Writer Within—one of my absolute favorite books on writing (I have an autographed copy). He is also a licensed psychotherapist in Los Angeles specializing in creative issues. Dennis was a Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter and more,) before changing careers and becoming a licensed psychotherapist. When I asked for an interesting, quirky, something-different fact about his life he told me this: “I guess an interesting fact is that I lived and trekked in the Himalayas in Nepal for three months. I did this at the time I was wrestling with the idea of a career change, and, though it’s a cliche, when I returned from that spiritual experience, I knew I wanted to change my life.”
Meredith: Does rejection have a purpose, as far as creativity is concerned?
DENNIS: Tough question. The truth is, rejection’s main purpose is to help the writer build up a tolerance for rejection. Sometimes, if the writer’s lucky, an editor’s or agent’s rejection letter contains valuable information about what’s working and what isn’t, but it’s still up to the writer to decide how much to accept of these opinions. The hardest thing for a writer to understand is that, while rejection is experienced personally, it usually isn’t intended as personal. Writing is either rejected or accepted based on the (sometimes fickle) whims of the marketplace. We all know stories about manuscripts that were rejected all over town, and then finally sold, and then go on to be huge successes. So even while dealing with the pain of rejection, writers need to remember, in the words of screenwriter William Goldman, “Nobody knows anything.” So toss those rejection slips and keep writing!
Meredith: Writing—or the dream of calling oneself an author or writer—seems, for many, to have this highly addictive, seductiveness about it. Like: I’d really be someone if I could write. Or be a writer, author, etc. But it’s not writing that imbues itself with these characteristics, it’s the person. Why, do you think, it’s such a seductive slope? Have you ever been seduced?
DENNIS: Of course I’ve been seduced by this. I don’t know any writers that haven’t been. Remember, when writing, you’re putting the deepest, most personal aspects of your heart, soul and imagination out into the world, and asking the world to take notice. It’s a remarkably brave, and dangerous, thing to do. In addition, few of us have the strength of character to retain good feelings about ourselves without some kind of external validation. Writers are especially vulnerable to this, since the raw materials of our craft is how we think and feel.
Meredith: Might there be something to be said about setting a place for the shadow side of ourselves, the part riddled with fear and anxiety, when we sit down to write? Kind of like, inviting it in?
DENNIS: “Inviting in the shadow side” is the only way to write. I once had a writer patient say, “If only I could take all my doubts, fears and anxieties and just shove them out of the room—then I could write.” To which I answered, “Write about what? Those very feelings are the stuff from which good writing emerges.” As Jung reminds us, it’s only by accepting and integrating our shadow side into our consciousness that we become whole. The same is true for our writing. We have within us everything we need to get into the heads of any character we conceive, from nun to serial killer. As writers, it’s our job to access those feelings and use them to create vivid narrative.
Meredith: Ira Glass, host of This American Life said something about stories a long time ago: “Keep following the thread where instinct takes you. Force yourself to wait things out.” Is this how you write?
DENNIS:More or less. I always say, I write to find out what I’m thinking. When I was a Hollywood screenwriter, I always resisted using outlines and treatments. I much preferred writing a terrible first draft, and then building up from there. I like what Doctorow said about writing: he said it was like driving on a winding road at night. Your headlights only throw light about ten feet ahead of you, but sooner or later you get home.
Meredith: You have a quote at the very end of Writing from the Inside Out, from Shunryu Suzuki: “In the beginner’s mind, there are many
possibilities; in the expert’s mind, there are few.” There is this collective sense that experts are better, but perhaps, in a roundabout way, what it suggests is that more power comes to the beginner, because the beginner sees hope. Like, if you’re going to be an expert, be an expert in being a beginner/newcomer. What’s your take?
DENNIS: I love that quote because it reminds us that everything is possible to someone who’s open to his or her own experience and impulse. People are always so willing to tell writers what they can’t or can do, what readers are buying, what the market is looking for, etc., and this “conventional wisdom” can drive a stake in the heart of creativity and imagination.My feeling is, write what you love, and if it’s your time, and the stars align, others will love it, too. There are no formulas for success, just as there’s no “solution” to life. Most innovators, in every field, usually end up proving the experts wrong about something. If possible, always be a beginner.
Visit Dennis’s website and check out the other books he’s written. Then take a look at his “Hollywood on the Couch” blog at The Huffington Post . Oh, and click here to see his favorite writing quotes.