By Sam Zalutsky, Screenwriting Faculty, Spalding’s School of Creative & Professional Writing
I was recently reading James Baldwin’s short essay, “The Creative Process,” from 1962. And with apologies for the gendered language, it offers wonderful insights about the artist’s role in society. Baldwin writes: “Perhaps the primary distinction of the artist is that he must actively cultivate that state which most men, necessarily, must avoid; the state of being alone.”
That state of being alone can be incredibly uncomfortable for us writers even in normal times. But it is one that we know well. We muddle our way through confusion and ambiguity. We manage fear and lack of certainty. We reflect on our stories, which are some twisted and tweaked version of our own lives. And we discover new levels of empathy and understanding for other people (all our characters) that we didn’t know we had. We look for connection, we reveal emotion, and we have vision.
My emotional state during the COVID-19 pandemic sometimes feels like I’m gripping the side of a car on the Coney Island Cyclone, an old rickety rollercoaster (and I hate rollercoasters). But when I look out at the larger confusion of this time, part of me wants to say “Welcome to our world” to all the other workers who are now forced to navigate that aloneness Baldwin directs us to cultivate. Unless you’re a health care worker, grocery store clerk, or some other essential service provider facing the pandemic head on, you must learn to find value and strength in new ways, and often alone. Just like us storytellers. And so perhaps we are especially equipped to help guide others through these challenging times. We have the skills for this moment whether we can see it or not. We’re not on the front lines but our work is still essential. But we know how to help.
Amidst all this uncertainty, I recently finished a draft of a new screenplay, one that I had started in the fall. It didn’t happen like it usually does. Most of the time I copy my synopsis into Final Draft and then go page by page fleshing out each scene. But when I arrived at main climax/end of Act II, I felt stuck. I knew what was supposed to happen: The hero needed to escape. But I couldn’t figure out how he got out, what the geography was, and what internal and external resources he relied on to change his situation against impossible odds. So after many hours staring at the screen I jumped forward and wrote the end, a much happier part of the script. Isn’t it so satisfying to write those final scenes? And then I wrote backwards, filling in as I went, tricking my mind into working through the script in a new way. It’s definitely a “shitty first draft.” But it is a finished draft.
We as a culture are in a climactic moment, at the cusp of a major transformation. Many of us realize that we can’t continue living the way we’ve been living. We will emerge a changed society, but the path through isn’t clear. So how will we make our way through? Maybe you are able to write. Or maybe there is something else that feeds you. Cooking. Or delivering groceries for your neighbors. Or one more Zoom call with a loved one. There are no rules on how to navigate right now. But we writers and artists know how to nourish souls and engage with our humanity.
Baldwin also writes in his essay: “The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.”
We are in a particularly dark patch right now. But we will get through it. Keep blazing roads, my friends! We know how to do it.
You can find Baldwin’s essay “The Creative Process” at Open Space of Democracy.
Sam Zalutsky is a NYC-based filmmaker and photographer. His feature, Seaside, a revenge thriller set on the Oregon Coast, is streaming now on most major platforms. You can see more of his work at Sazam Productions.