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  • Writer's pictureJenny Waldo


--- Author Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club) interviewed on NPR's 1A

I feel the need to amplify this quote as well as store it somewhere where I can revisit from time to time because I’ve never heard another writer so explicitly express what the act of writing is like for me. As creatives, we often feel alone and probably misunderstood. There isn’t one way to be creative. There are rules to be broken, with the only exception in writing and film that it all needs to flow along at least a portion of the Narrative Arc. Rituals created by one artist can’t be replicated by another. Strengths can’t be learned but weaknesses can be overcome through rewrites and experience. But why do we do this in the first place?

I had never been a strong reader and the pressure and expectations I was under by my father never helped me be a stronger reader, until I found a way to escape into the books I read. Escape from those pressures. Escape from my parents arguing. Escape from observation. Reading was the one thing that could never be criticized, even if we were on family vacation. And I think once I felt and absorbed the power that those stories brought to me, it unlocked this desperate need to tell my own.

Writing, for me, began as a life-saving task. Struggling through my own mental health in a volatile family environment that was full of love and fear and a generational question of who I was going to be and how I was going to act in the world and create some kind of legacy to add to the legacy…writing in a journal became a way to pour out all the questions and emotions and frustrations as I fought to become who I was. Much of that fight was within myself – trying to figure it all out as soon as possible, the writing myself toward understanding Chuck describes, which certainly did happen at times. To some extent, I had hoped to have a record of what I was experiencing because the gaslighting of our happy family was one I couldn’t stomach and made my head spin trying to stay oriented. But it’s an impartial and imperfect record. Much of the time I just hurled obscenities across the page in an attempt to simply feel better.

I had other interests and over time, my journaling started to entertain a more creative direction. The photograph in my mind that I was describing became a frame in a movie of a larger story…what was that story and who were the characters living it? And thus my screenwriting path began to take shape in the summer of 1997.

I teach filmmaking now and have worked on various films in various capacities over the years, including writing and directing my debut feature, Acid Test. As a teacher, and whenever I go to networking events, I meet people who are just starting out in the industry. And I wonder: why are they doing this? Everyone that I know who has time in this industry knows how hard it is. Brutal. Many have quit or even lost their lives over it. It can be soul-crushing. Even the most successful will claim that they “fail 90% of the time.” In an industry that is both an art and a business, the needs of the artist and the needs of commerce can create incredible heights of financially successful artistry, incredible depths of nothingness, and everything in between. The ongoing strikes right now are a testament to that.

Having left Los Angeles pretty early in my career, I missed many professional opportunities but I also missed a lot of that psychological burden. I remain focused on the art and what I can do. But even my most optimistic days and idealism have faced the crush of rejection, making me question whether I want to stay on this path, pursuing this career and this artform.

But hearing Chuck Palahniuk speak about his writing teacher’s advice on what to write, I remembered the why. Because it’s not about the money or the career. I have told people, often, that being a filmmaker is an addiction, a disease I can’t escape from. I write even when I’ve had corporate jobs. I think about and make films in my spare time. It’s in my blood. It needs a way out. It finds a way out.

It's funny how the themes and the lessons of your life come back over and over and over again, to remind you, to push you deeper into your recovery, to get you to the next step in the journey. Thinking about where I started and where I am today in light of Chuck’s comment, I would say the unresolvable in my life is how and why we can love people who hurt us and how and why we hurt the ones we love the most. It drove me to write Acid Test as a short film and then as a feature. I’m not sure I’ve resolved it because I’m currently reading a new series where the main character is facing these same questions in her own journey and the resonance is palpable. The irrationality of life and love, how unknowable it all is. It’s terrifying. And then, it’s over. But I feel more settled in the knowledge that these contradictions exist, they are true, they are maybe the truest thing about being human, and that we can still love people in spite of, or at least beyond them.

I know there are still stories percolating dealing with this great unresolvable in my life, but I also have others that explore different questions and different struggles. The great question of why I write, why I’m a filmmaker, the thing in my blood that drives me onward, is part of the greater human struggle of why we’re here at all. What is the meaning of existence?

So, thank you, Chuck Palahniuk, for gifting me the words gifted to you by Tom Spanbauer that shed light on a process that has driven me for 26 years and gives room for the reality that there is no resolution, but maybe there is some understanding.

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