Home schooling is more popular than ever for a variety of reasons. But the one common thread among all home and alternative learning adherents is that our public schools and many private institutions are failing. This is the case from elementary to baccalaureate levels of learning. My primary complaint about traditional education is that it produces cookie-cutter products with a shallow pool of resources to draw from in post-academic pursuits.
This is especially true in the field of screenwriting. I spent large slices of time and no small amount of cash dashing around among various schools and classes trying to find the magic bullet that would mould me into the next William Goldman. Instead, they moulded me into images of themselves – or at least attempted to. To the chagrin of several gurus, I didn’t take the bait. For that I was no class favorite and didn’t get any favors or jumpstarts into the industry that the more pliable students received. In one case, the instructor’s critique of a fairly good screenplay of mine was purposely returned to me several days past a deadline for entering a highly regarded script competition at a well-known university. By the way, networking is a selling point many institutions toss around. Don’t believe it. No one, I repeat, no one is going to provide any worthwhile networking benefit to a classmate. It’s every student for themselves – and rightly so. The others in the class are current or future competitors and everyone knows it.
So, whether I’m a slow learner, or the victim of useless academics, I have now resorted to home schooling. And it’s working. I have two produced scripts (not masterpieces by any stretch of the imagination) and a couple of feature length films that will be produced. And, for the most part, I owe this to a sumptuous diet of reading screenplays.
I read one screenplay every morning. I don’t bother to take notes. That’s a mistake made in a traditional classroom environment. The best note taking is that which is embedded in the human brain. Note-taking, by definition, gives you only notes – watered down and compacted versions of the extensive information the brain takes in automatically. Immediate results may not be apparent, but heaps of knowledge is safely tucked away in nerve cell bodies and their dendrites. One might not be able to pass an exam on the plays of Chayefsky, but it’s there. And when you dive into your own work it emerges.
I also assign myself supplemental books to read. Reading that matters. Reading that I enjoy and that fits my self-designed curriculum. Books like Egri’s “The Art of Dramatic Writing,” Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” and off-the-beaten-path works like “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott. These books are marked up, underlined, bookmarked, and fully annotated by the time I’m finished.
I keep works like “Writing from the Inside Out” always on my desk. I dog-ear the pages in this excellent book by Dennis Palumbo for easy access to specific sections on battling psychological blocks and reviving inspiration.
My advice to aspiring writers is to get some education in the arts. Gain in-depth knowledge of literature, philosophy, and history. After you’ve got a deep intellectual well to draw from, translate what you know into telling stories. Get a good volume on formatting, like “The Hollywood Standard.” Study it and refer to it as you write. Most screenwriting software does the formatting for you so you can concentrate on the story and not the technical stuff.
“So,” you ask, “don’t I need some viable academic credentials to break into the industry?” Absolutely not. A good play is a good play. You’re not required to turn in a résumé with a script. The best class you can take on screenwriting is one on the art of getting read by a studio insider (if such a class were available). An article entitled “PRIMETIME: Should I Go To College To Become a Screenwriter?” written by Chad Gervich for Script Magazine, lists the following as the most essential qualifications for success in screenwriting:
- A deep well of life experiences
- Personal stories to write about and explore
- A strong vision, a specific way of seeing the world, or—as people say in Hollywood—a unique “voice”
- An incredible work ethic, a willingness to work tirelessly and endlessly
- Top-notch communication skills
- The ability to read and think critically and articulate your thoughts
- A network of professional contacts (which you’ll develop once you’re here, so don’t worry about this now)
Now comes the big moment you’ve been waiting for: The definition of autodidactism.
- autodidact |ˌôtōˈdīˌdakt|
- a self-taught person.
- DERIVATIVES: autodidactic |-ˌdīˈdaktik| adjective
- ORIGIN mid 18th cent.: from Greek autodidaktos ‘self-taught,’ from autos ‘self’ + didaskein ‘teach.’
The essence of becoming a screenwriting autodidact is purchasing or downloading a ton of screenplays. And not just the hits, either. You can learn almost as much from a washout as from a winner. Read every day. Watch movies (although this is highly overrated as a learning tool).Write. Write. Write. Enter lots of competitions – a great source of feedback, a little money, and the possibility of taking a screenplay to the next level.
O.K., autodidactics of the world unite! We should form our own union. The Guild of Autodidactic Screenwriters (GAS). At the very least, surrounded by your books in a cozy office or nook, everyday is a school day.