Alan first taught a summer creative writing workshop at UCLA in 1998, and has been teaching and lecturing on the creative process in Los Angeles and at colleges around the country ever since. He has taught everyone from award-winning authors to A-list screenwriters, journalists, poets, actors, professional athletes, war veterans, housewives, doctors, lawyers, television showrunners, Emmy-winning directors, first-time writers, and anyone else with a story to tell.
• Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, and moved to a small town in Ontario, Canada, called Guelph when I was five-years old. I grew up in Guelph.
• What kind of a family did you grow up with?
My father is a doctor, a psychiatrist more specifically. And my mother was a Phys Ed teacher, until she had four kids in four years. I have two brothers and a sister. All of them are very smart, very ambitious. Two of them went to medical school and became doctors, while my other brother went to Business school and is now into real estate and manufacturing and all sorts of other things.
I, on the other hand, was the one who spent his days staring at clouds and living in his imagination. I had the brilliant idea of marching into my high school principal’s office three months prior to graduation and announcing that I was quitting school to go on the road and be a stand-up comic. (I had a weekend gig two hours away—in retrospect I’m not sure I needed to quit school for it.)
• What was your first paying job?
We moved to a farm when I was ten. My two brothers and I spent that first summer picking rocks. We picked rocks for six to eight hours a day, clearing the fields by hand. My father paid us a dollar an hour. I made four hundred dollars that summer.
• When did you first decide you wanted to write?
When I was three, my mother asked me what I wanted for Christmas, and I told her “a pencil.” I didn’t know how to spell yet, but for some reason I desperately wanted to write. There was something deeply satisfying about the idea of putting my thoughts down on paper. To this day I prefer to write by hand because I find the simple act of moving my hand across the page rather therapeutic.
• Why did you set up the L.A. Writers Lab?
I was always helping my friends with their screenplays, and when I started selling my work I began getting deluged with calls to read and help them with their work. I decided it was easier to set up a formal workshop where I could help them.
I am also fascinated with the creative process – far more interested in that than the result. I love working with writers who have been blocked and helping them write the story that they’ve been struggling with for years. This is why I created the 90-Day Novel and 90-Day Screenplay workshops.
The subconscious is where the truth lies. It’s where all of the complexity and paradox of our experiences are disseminated and it’s where patterns are explored. Logic is immaterial to our subconscious, which is why it is so difficult for writers to begin, and so thrilling once they’ve begun. It’s not so much a matter of ‘can I rely on my subconscious?’ It’s really that we have no other choice. I don’t believe it’s possible to write anything more than a grocery list from our pre-frontal cortex. We don’t have the bandwidth.
Now, though we must rely on our subconscious, I don’t believe that’s a guarantee that we’ll get to the end of our story. The 90-Day process involves marrying the wildness of our subconscious to the rigor of story structure. There are key universal experiences in the hero’s journey. By exploring these experiences in the world of our story, images appear and it actually becomes possible to move beyond our limited idea of our story to a more vivid and dynamic version. The truth is that our idea of our story is never the whole story. Writers tend to get stuck when they either rely solely on their subconscious, or solely on “plotting.”
I teach story structure as an experiential model rather than a conceptual model, which is a fancy way of saying that we can reduce any transformation in our life to a series of experiences. There is nothing formulaic about this approach. I tell writers that everything we can imagine belongs in our story if we’re willing to distill our ideas to their nature. I teach writers how to ask better questions of their subconscious in order to understand their story in a new way.
• What are your upcoming writing projects?
I’m currently writing a thriller for a film producer, and just completing a new novel called Days Are Gone, about a woman who leaves her upwardly mobile marriage and ends up in a small town, where she begins a relationship with a guy who is on parole for committing a terrible crime. It’s about how we forgive ourselves for our pasts in order to move on. I’m publishing it through my new literary press, Writers Tribe Books. I recently sold my movie adaptation of my first novel, Diamond Dogs, to Quad Productions, who just did a movie called The Intouchables. Diamond Dogs will be shot in the States and will be their first English-speaking movie.
Here's the trailer for The Intouchables.
• You have established not one, but two, separate publishing houses. Tell us a little about them.
It happened by accident. The 90-Day Novel Press publishes books on writing. I wrote The 90-Day Novel just as this whole self-publishing craze was heating up and the traditional publishing industry was dying. I had been procrastinating for a year in sending my agent a book proposal, and then one day I just decided that I was going to publish it myself. I knew the book was not a traditional writing book—it was much more of a right-brain book that explored the mechanics of the story process from an intuitive place. Quite frankly, I wrote the book that I wish existed when I started writing, and it’s become a bestseller here in the U.S.
Writers Tribe Books publishes literary fiction and was another accident. With the traditional publishers dying on the vine, I started getting calls from friends of mine—some really great novelists, but because their last book didn’t land on the bestseller list they were getting dropped by their publishers. The traditional publishing model cannot support the work of mid-list authors. Publishing has become like Hollywood—they need huge hits to survive. But since I don’t have Fifth Avenue rent to pay I can afford to publish authors who I just love, and rather than giving them a huge advance, we split the profits, and it becomes more of a partnership model.
• What are three things you wish someone had told you about screenwriting when you were starting out?
1) Build a body of work. Don’t spend three years on one project.
2) Be willing to fail. Keep putting your work out.
3) Write the story that you want to tell. Don’t concern yourself with what you think the “marketplace” is looking for.
|Peter Finch is mad as hell, and he's not gonna take this any more.|
Here are ten in no particular order. I could give you ten more tomorrow that could supplant these ten.
- Network (1976)
- One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
- Chinatown (1974)
- The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
- Casablanca (1942)
- It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
- Goodfellas (1990)
- Apocalypse Now (1979)
- Annie Hall (1977)
- On The Waterfront (1954)
Here's a five minute clip of Alan Watt talking about how story works.
First posted: 23 November 2012