I used to think that creativity was this realm of endless possibilities and exploration. It was when I realized that creativity is expanded by restraints that I truly began to understand the immeasurable value behind it.
Adam Mazer, an American screenwriter with the face behind “You Don’t Know Jack” and “Breach” recently visited my university. Like Deanne Fitzmaurice, he stood in front of a group of students on a warm Thursday afternoon and elaborated on his success with screenwriting. We listened to him tell stories about how he developed a long-lasting relationship with Eric O’Neill, the FBI agent who worked closely with Robert Hanssen, hands behind the worst intelligence disaster the American nation has seen, and Eric was eventually the catalyst to bring him down. Adam provided feedback on how he gained a relationship with his subject, stating that trust is the most important thing to develop. Within that trust, he as the writer, had to decide where the heart of the story actually was; in this case the story lived within Eric O’Neill and the battle he faced as he befriended an evil man as he simultaneously brought him down. It gave the story someone to root for, and it brought a new perspective to a horrific event. Adam Mazer’s second project included working with Jack Kevorkian, AKA Doctor Death. He portrayed the life behind the scenes of Jack’s career of assisted suicide and the controversy that he faced along the way. Again, we were faced with a new perspective. We watched several clips from both films, but the ones we saw from “You Don’t Know Jack” left several in the room speechless and tear-filled. We were impressed from the raw emotion we could feel coming from the 2-dimensional screen, the personality of one of the most hated men in the world, and in the words of Adam Mazer: “this is Jack.” The different perspectives we saw from both these stories allowed us, as viewers, to reevaluate our own opinions of the lives of the main characters and to ponder what we really thought. The point is, it left us thinking.
After hearing the stories of how both films were inspired and after getting over my awe at being in the same room as a famous screenwriter, I started to move past the cool stories and interesting movie clips and into the deeper lesson Adam was trying to teach us.
At one point, he said, “You are going to fail, A LOT.” (shocker right?! Don’t all the successful people in the world say that?) He continued and said, “If you are honest with yourself about your failure, your eyes will be opened and you’ll be able to look at your work with a new vision and improve it.” There is immense power in being brutally honest with ourselves if we want to be successful, no matter how painful it is. This means that instead of taking our work to our best friend and our moms, where we will find praise and admiration, we need to instead be presenting our work to those who will pick it apart and destroy it, only to improve it. If we want our work to be compelling, whether it’s a script, a novel, a piece of art, a song, etc. we need to be willing to have it rejected time and time again. But the failed pieces of art are what come together to form the one that soars.
While Adam tends to write biographically, he really stressed the importance of leaving details out, and this is ultimately where I gained a deeper appreciation for restraining my creativity in order to expand it. I learned that you can’t treat your audience like they’re stupid, nor can you undermine their own ability to imagine things. You must leave some things unexplained. Let the writing bring the “why” to the story. Let the writing bring the hard questions, the deep conversation about the film on the way home from the theater, the book club discussions, and the late-night pondering. While you may or may not know the why of your own story, leave it unsettled. Let the audience wonder. Because that is where their best creativity comes in. It is bound by restraints, and it is free to explore complex solutions. That is why we write.