The 5-Question [Screenwriter+Author+Therapist for Creative Issues] Interview: Dennis Palumbo

by Meredith Resnick

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 gPalumbopico 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.

PalumboBookcover

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.

[Thanks, Dennis!]

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Kim Hooper

Another great interview. This hit home for me:
“…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.”
Great stuff. I’ll have to get his book!

LitPark

Thanks so much for an insightful, heart-filled interview. I especially love how you talk about what a brave and dangerous thing it is to expose your heart.

Alexandra

Really interesting perspective you brought us here, Meredith. I liked the part about following one’s instinct. In the collapsing world of publishing, it is hard to believe in one’s book after rejection by a dozen mainstream publishers, but the writer does have to remember it isn’t personal, as Dennis points out, pick oneself up, brush oneself off, and keep submitting. Thanks for the encouragement!

Jackie Dishner

I am totally in alignment with Palumbo’s thoughts. I’m not an outliner, either. I’m not good with too much structure. The structure I use is all in the mind. Sometimes, that can be a scary place. But it works for me. I remember hearing Joyce Carol Oates speak about this before as well, that she didn’t need to be that organized to write. Her words then–and this was about 15 years ago or more–gave me permission to write the way that worked best for me. BTW, I blogged about your post today, Meredith, at BIKE WITH JACKIE. And now I think I’ve gotta get Palumbo’s book. It’s one I don’t have!

Vera Dragicevich

Interesting article and has resonance across all creative fields. The process of working in any creative field is oh so different from that “seductive” lure you mention. Inviting the shadow in can have a lot to do with one’s vulnerability to being seen and in putting something down on paper can give it a kind of permanence, but it’s a contrast (maybe of intimacy with one’s audience?) to the fear one might experience in live performance.

Sheryl

Terrific interview. Lots of great points to think about. There are so many special nuggets in here that validate the fact that so many times writing is one of the most difficult and gut- wrenching things to do; and that rejection- while it always feels so personal – is so often a whim of the sometimes fickle marketplace.

Jill Badonsky

Meredith,

Your questions are distinctively thought provoking.. it’s a pleasure just to see what you ask at each interview… and I know they tap into a depth of thinking many of us authors never visited prior to your presentation of the question.

Tiffani

Love the last Q&A. With so much focus on platform-building and becoming an expert in your specialty, sometimes it’s good to step back and look at things with a beginner’s eyes. What can you learn? What new angle can you tackle?

Thanks, Meredith!

Gutsy Writer

What hit home for me was the adventure and life change that happened for Dennis after he trekked in the Himalayas in Nepal for three months. Always seeking adventure, I believe we open our minds to new ways when we experience new things.

Susan Matthewson

I appreciate the comments about letting your writing take you where it wants to go. I’m a writer who always thinks I SHOULD have an outline, I SHOULD be more organized, I SHOULD have note cards. However, on the few occasions I have tried to “organize” myself, I find that by the time I get organized, I’ve organized myself right out of the desire to write. Much better for me to let it meander, mosey, follow its own nose like a hound on the scent. That means, of course, that I sometimes never find out what I’m really writing about until about the fifth revision, when all of a sudden, the destination becomes clear and I find the path I was searching for–and often that means starting over completely, but this time with a clear sense of direction.

Jordan Levinson

“Always be a beginner” is such a great thought. Terrific interview.

Kristen J. Gough

Insightful interview. My take away will be his thoughts about success, “There are no formulas for success, just as there’s no “solution” to life.” How true, especially in writing.

Meredith

I LOVE the notion of inviting the shadow side in when I write. In fact, I have no choice – it’s always there. So might as well make it welcome.

Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell

Wonderful, as always.

Barb

Wow–just filled with wonderful, thought-provoking comments. I love the idea of a terrible first draft–at least if you write SOMETHING, you’ve got something to improve.

Sarah Henry

Not surprised that Palumbo is one of your favorite writers on writing. He has a lot of insightful things to say on the subject.

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