"X" NEVER MARKS THE SPOT by Christina Hamlett
For as many times as I’ve watched a particular film, it didn’t occur to me until recently that it contained a profound message about the craft of writing.
The scene—an early one in the story—is a 1930’s college classroom in which a restless student body is listening to their professor debunk the glamour of archaeology as a career. He ends the lecture with his personal, time-tested observation that, contrary to popular myth, “X” never marks the spot.
The professor is Indiana Jones. The film is the third in the adventure trilogy in which he and his father embark on a perilous quest for the Holy Grail. Although “X” subsequently does provide a significant signpost along the way, the end result of the journey pales in comparison to the enlightenment gleaned from the process itself.
As intently as “the Jones boys” do battle with Nazis to pursue the gift of immortality, so do writers everywhere combat rejection to pursue a sometimes elusive immortality of their own—the desire to see their names scrolling up the credits in a darkened movie theater.
The “X” philosophy was brought home several years ago when I was faced with the painful decision of terminating a new writing partnership with a young screenwriter in LA. While the good news is that she had yet to put a finished product on the table, the bad news is that her attitude toward the creative process itself will likely be a detriment to reaching her goal of becoming rich and famous.
Specifically, her zeal for schmoozing at industry events had yielded a potentially valuable contact for us. Unfortunately, the producer was only in the market for scripts featuring women over the age of 45. Rather than add an obviously contrived 20 years to our current heroine, we politely declined. Not two weeks later, one of my screenwriting students turned in a proposal for a film that would have been perfect. I suggested to my associate that, since she had personally met the producer, perhaps she could do a favor and play intermediary.
Her response was curt as well as myopic.
“I’m a struggling writer myself,” she declared. “I’m not about to start helping the competition beat me out of the chance to get noticed.”
Like the proverbial dog in the manger, she was adamant about denying someone else access to a forum which we ourselves were unable to join at the present time. The result? The producer lost a first-rate script, the writer lost a golden opportunity, and the associate lost my respect. Rather than agree to disagree on the concept of shared resources, she punctuated the end of the relationship with the declaration that she could reach her goal entirely on her own, notwithstanding that six months earlier she had vigorously campaigned to hitch her star to mine.
On the one hand, I can relate to some of her trepidation. On the other, it’s a sad commentary that we’ve so lost sight of faith in our fellow man that we’d purposely withhold resources that could ultimately benefit the literary community at large.
To illustrate with an analogy, every time the state lottery hits the double-digit millions, how willing are we to let someone step ahead of us in line at the drugstore to buy a ticket? “Yikes!” we think. “What if they end up purchasing the winning stub that might have been ours?” Will they generously insist upon sharing their newfound fortune? Or will they be too absorbed in their own Snoopy dance-of-joy as to completely forget it was the result of a stranger’s spontaneity and kindness?
It’s a chance you take. So, too, is the sharing of one’s expertise with someone we perceive to be a potential competitor in our own race to that distant “X”.
Just as doctors and lawyers are cornered at cocktail parties to dispense free advice, my accessibility as a consultant and a columnist often puts me in the dilemma of wanting to be helpful and wanting to be paid what my time and professional knowledge are actually worth. Whichever I choose, however, it would never be with the intent of holding back crucial details that could spell the difference between the requester’s success and rejection.
A case in point is the monthly women writers group I used to mentor when we still lived in Northern California. I had fueled their enthusiasm for an upcoming writing contest when one of the members asked whether I’d be entering it, too. When I said yes, she quickly remarked, “Then I guess there’s no point in any of us trying since you’re already published and will probably win.”
“If I didn’t want you to participate,” I replied, “I didn’t even have to tell you about it, much less supply the entry forms or recommend which pieces I think represent your best work. In the second place, I’d like nothing better than for one of you to come away a prize winner.”
Why? Because it would validate all of the encouragement and instruction I had been providing to them to get them to hone their craft and pursue their dream.
It’s the same approach I take with any writer who wants an agency referral, critiquing services, or just a trick of the trade that will help him or her jumpstart a career and open the door to publication.
Will they one day look back and remember the assist? Maybe. Maybe not. Even Indiana Jones was slow to recognize that the core of his survival as an adult could trace its roots to the teachings of a parent whose obsession with antiquities Indy himself had once deemed “tedious.”
Whether you’re a beginner or a pro, it’s never too late to put the lure of that all-consuming “X” in its proper perspective and to appreciate—as working writers—that we’re all in this together. Not only does the bigger treasure lay on the path between here and there, but the legacy it creates for future generations of moviegoers will be priceless in its scope and diversity.
Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is a professional script consultant whose credits to date include 25 books, 122 plays and musicals, and 5 optioned feature films. She is also a ghostwriter for The Penn Group in Manhattan. Her latest MWP title, Screenwriting for Teens is targeted to high school students who want to learn how to write film shorts.