How did you become a writer?
I grew up in a large, chaotic household. There were six of us under the age of seven, and two sets of twins. One afternoon when I was 10, I was flipping through the channels on our big black-and-white and landed on Each Dawn I Die, an old Jimmy-Cagney-in-Prison movie. Jimmy kicked and screamed as a guard dragged him off to solitary. I didn’t quite understand what he was complaining about. He got his own room in a quiet corner of the prison. Meals delivered. And lots and lots of alone time. I decided that I wanted a career that provided similar amenities, or at the very least, a quiet room to create order out of chaos.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.)
As I was writing this and that, I read my favorite authors (Barry Hannah, Robert Olmstead, Ian McEwan, Mark Helperin, etc.) but very often I’d finish a book and think, Jesus, I’ll never be as good as that guy, so why bother? Two teachers and an editor pulled me from this pit of self-doubt and encouraged me carry on. My 10th grade history teacher convinced me that I had a “voice,” and though I’m sure I didn’t know what that voice was, he put me on the path to find it. A history professor read a humor piece I’d written in the college newspaper and became the only person in my life who ever suggested that I become a screenwriter. And the editor at the trade magazine where I worked after college slaughtered my copy, teaching me more about writing in three years than I’d ever learned. Mostly, he taught me to keep it short.
When and where do you write?
I get up between 4 A.M. and 6 A.M., make coffee, shuffle into my home office and get to work before the world gets noisy. On good days I’m in there all day, playing darts.
What are you working on now?
I’m finishing an animated feature film for 20th Century Fox. I’d tell you what it’s about but then I’d have to kill you. Yes, working in animation is like working for the CIA. Tell the competition that you’re writing a story about a talking otter and you could end up dead. Or worse, unemployed. Also, I’m adapting a children’s book, Frindle, by Andrew Clements, that I hope to direct this fall. And I’m laboring over a cover letter to publishers and agents, trying to convince them that my recently completed young adult novel is fantastic.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
In 1998, I spent six months writing the same 65 pages over and over again. It was my true Shining moment. Desperate to break out of this creative vacuum, I showed the pages to my agent. He said, “This needs work.” I threw the pages out and decided to try something unrelated to anything I had ever written. That led me to a little fatherhood 500-word column in my son’s nursery school newsletter. Somehow my ruminations on fatherhood opened up a creative compartment that had been closed through the Shining year, and my flow returned.
What’s your advice to writers?
1. Turn off the Internet. 2. Stay in the chair. 3. When you’re stuck, do something (preferably legal) that takes you out of your creative routine. 4. Turn off the Internet. 5. Forgive yourself. You don’t suck, you’re just writing a first draft. 6. Turn off the Internet. 7. Write every day. 8. Give the email a rest. 9. Writing is like parenting. If you’re patient and firm the words will obey, if you’re impatient you’ll have a rebellion on your hands. 10. Only write if you must, otherwise invest in a Bait & Tackle shop.
Sam Harper is a writer, screenwriter, and director. He was Associate Editor at Advertising Age magazine, and has been published in Parenting, Fatherhood Today, and Laugh Your Shorts Off: Short Stories to Make You Giggle By Award Winning Writers. His columns on parenthood appear on various web sites. His movie credits include Rookie Of The Year (1993), Just Married (2003), Cheaper by The Dozen (2003),Cheaper By The Dozen 2 (2005), Open Season (2007), Housebroken (2009), and the upcoming Rio (April, 2011). He also did un-credited work on Night At The Museum, The Little Rascals, Dunston Checks In, Fat Albert, Like Mike, Aliens In the Attic, Garfield, and Marmaduke.