How did you become a writer?
JD: I wish I could say that from the time I was little I filled up notebooks full of dreadful stories and poems. The truth is that when I was eight my parents divorced (don’t worry, I’m resigned to it) and my mother moved us to New York. Summers I visited my father in Los Angeles. In those days he was working with a writing partner in his apartment freelancing shows like Bachelor Father and McHale’s Navy. When he was out, I’d go to his Royal portable and pull out whatever script he was working on, slip in a clean sheet of canary yellow paper and type exactly what he’d written. I remember thinking this was what I want to do. Of course it was years and years before I worked up enough courage to try something of my own.
PD: I had a much more difficult time than Jeffrey did in becoming a writer because I didn’t have the luxury of divorced parents. I did it the old fashioned way…as a doctoral student they told me I had to publish stuff or I’d never work in an academic town again. There’s an old joke…when asked at a party about his occupation, a guy answered I’m an editor for an educational publisher…my job is to edit out the interesting parts. I got tired of academic writing, started developing my own voice. After having published 20 books, I’m pretty good at recognizing it, but I don’t know how the 43 people who’ve bought my books over the years feel about it. I find writing for movies and TV much more fun.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
PD: I have been lucky over the years to have had many friends with critical voices providing great, though sometimes harsh, criticism that has helped me immensely. I really miss them and sometimes wonder what they’re up to. My favorite novelist is Vladamir Nabokov. I’ve also been a big fan of Theatre of the Absurd and revere Eugene Ionesco. I also love everything I’ve seen and read by Harold Pinter. When it comes to screenwriters, that’s easy for me. My two favorites are Woody Allen and William Goldman. My printer doesn’t have enough ink for me to make an exhaustive list, but at the risk of embarrassing him…Jeffrey has made the cut.
JD: I have been fortunate enough to have had three great teachers. My Dad was a writer and producer who started in the 40’s writing for MGM and went on to produce The Odd Couple and Bewitched. He looked at all my drafts before I turned them in. In graduate school at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop I studied with Richard Yates, author of Revolutionary Road. Finally, I studied for several years with Neil Simon’s brother Danny who Woody Allen credits with teaching him how to write. From all three I learned that plot is meaningless. What counts are great characters, conflict and a story that moves. I also learned that complacency is dangerous. There is always more to do and more to learn.
I recommend reading lots of short fiction and plays. I’ve learned a lot about compression and character arc from Mamet, Richard Russo (who writes both amazing movies and Pulitzer Prize-winning novels), Elaine May, the late great and sadly overlooked Irwin Shaw and Wendy Wasserstein. Let’s not leave out Chekov. I read and reread Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond scripts regularly. For my money there is no writer working today as good as Aaron Sorkin. He has what all writers should hope to develop: a unique voice.
When and where do you write?
JD: In a perfect world (the summer) I like to write from 9:30 a.m. until 2 and feel I did a decent day’s work. But who lives in a perfect world? Because I work at a university I’ve learned to write at night but I can’t say it’s an optimal time. I can rewrite pretty much anywhere but when I’m composing I’m afraid I’m one of those unfortunate people who has to be alone in his office, who can’t have iTunes on or be switching between the page and Google. I write first drafts on paper with the computer off. I have incredible hearing, especially for things I don’t want to hear. A conversation two flights up and four rooms over can set me back a precious half hour. It has to be deadly silent. Morgue-like. Crypt-like. In my house it rarely is which probably accounts for my Herculean output over the years.
PD: I marvel at people who sit in coffee shops and restaurants, especially outdoor ones with their laptops and keep their eyes on the screen for long periods of time. When there is any noise, movement or a pulse anywhere near me, there’s not enough Ritalin or Adderall in the world to combat my ADD. Once I’m in a quiet environment, I’m a happy guy and have no constraints. Mornings, late at night…or in between. I’m currently involved with writing six book manuscripts and a mini-series. I’m always in the mood for working on one of them.
What are you working on now?
PD: The current project range from a book about using principles from the psychology of persuasion to make presentations to a mini-series about a 19th century musician. As Jeffrey mentioned, he and I have limited our current work to three book manuscripts, but as soon as they are close to done…there’ll be more. I love writing alone and I love working with friends. There is nothing more wonderful than a dynamic collaboration where the result is something you’re proud of that you know you couldn’t have ever done alone.
JD: I’m writing short stories and completing a full-length play. I am also working on developing a short story into a feature. But for real fun Peter and I are working on three book projects together. Aside from the fact that he’s been telling me the same jokes every day for six years, it’s wonderful to spitball with him. Develop projects. He has skills I couldn’t develop if I had two lifetimes to do it but at the same time he allows me to do the things I do well. Note to Writers: The only kind of partner worth having is one who has different skills than you do.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
JD: You’re kidding with this question, right? The only person I’ve ever met who doesn’t is my partner, bless his heart. You’ll have to ask him his secret. For me it’s all about letting go of trying to be “good.” I block when I try to write well. One secret I’ve discovered and that I pass along to my students is to allow myself to write my rough draft in any order in comes to me. I don’t wait for order. I’d be waiting forever. What order you write a piece doesn’t matter because no one is going to see it, you can stitch it together later. That’s what rewriting is for.
PD: If I said “yes” I’d be making a liar out of Jeffrey…I could never do that. What I’m good at is writing a lot of stuff I don’t like. Sometimes I think that a block would be preferable. Thank the Lord for editing.
What’s your advice to new writers?
PD: Grow old writing. The advice I give to new writers is to never judge a first draft (unless it’s great…which it almost never is…). New writers look at the first pass at a project, find problems and then degrade themselves. Jeffrey and I joke about our first draft being the third edit. I’m a compulsive editor. I have an idea about what my writing should be like. I keep editing until all of it does. I think this is the secret to good writing mixed with an additional step of marrying rich.
JD: Read. Write. Rewrite. Go to movies, go to plays, go to museums. Sit in a Starbuck’s and write down what people are saying. Get a notebook…nothing fancy; nothing that will feel like it is too good to write in. Make notes on everything. Carry around a voice recorder. Listen. When you read screenplays and teleplays read early drafts not shooting scripts. Write despite what you feel about your work. It’s only your opinion. Maybe you shouldn’t feel you know enough to assume it stinks.
I believe it was Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, Body Heat) who said that being a writer is like having homework for the rest of your life. That is some of the best advice I’ve ever heard.
Peter Desberg and Jeffrey Davis provide readers a unique glimpse into the intelligent and quirky inner workings of the comedic mind with their book Show Me the Funny! At the Writers Table with Hollywood’s Top Comedy Writers. The book presents 28 top comedy screenwriters from the revered figures of television's “Golden Age” to today's favorite movie jokesters. Desberg is a joke writer, California State University Dominguez Hills professor and a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in the area of stage fright. Davis is a produced screenwriter, playwright and the Screenwriting Department Chair and associate professor of film and TV writing at Loyola Marymount University. Find out more information by visiting www.smtfo.com or ‘like’ them on Facebook.com/SMTFfans or follow them on Twitter @ShowMeFun2.