HOW I STOOD UP FOR MY WORDS WITHOUT BITCH SLAPPING ANYONE
Or the Art of Anger Management For Writers
Let’s talk about anger.
I was alerted by a friend on the by now famous incident that happened during the Oscars. Chris Rock, the host, made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head and how he was looking forward to GI JANE 2, the movie. Whether or not Chris was aware that Jada, Will Smith’s wife, suffered from a medical condition known as alopecia that causes hair loss, is not clear. But Jada did not like the joke. In response, Will Smith went up on stage and right in front of a worldwide audience, bitch slapped Chris Rock.
The slap ricocheted around the world.
So let’s talk about Anger.
And how once…
I Nearly Bit Off A Finger
I was giving notes to a director who showed me the first cut of an episode of a sitcom series. As a head writer and co-executive producer of a series, it was my job to view the director’s cut, give notes, and then the director would work with the editor on the next cut. This was necessary as the head writer overlooks the story arc of the entire season, and has to ensure each episode fits nicely into the overall narrative arc.
This particular first cut had problems.
The scene was set in a living room and the conversation was between five characters. For some reason, the director had each actor stand up every time the character delivered a line. When comedy depends heavily on the rhythm of dialogue, timing is everything. Add two seconds between a setup and a punchline and it’s as good as amputating the legs from a joke, causing it to fall flat. And that was what the director did, every time he made each actor stand up to deliver the line. When I inquired, very gently, why he was doing that, as it was not written in the script, the director sprang to his feet, his face livid with rage, and began to rant about how it was a boring scene, and that he was trying to inject humor because apparently, I did not understand comedy. Here, he thrust his right forefinger in front of my face mere inches from my philtrum, which is the space between your upper lip and nose, to emphasize — I DID NOT UNDERSTAND COMEDY.
When someone points a finger, and delivers a scathing insult to your philtrum, there are really only three responses.
First response? Stand. Retort — YOU don’t know SHIT about comedy. And counter thrust your finger at the philtrum opposite yours.
Second response? Bite that accusing finger. Hard.
Third response? Keep calm. And tell the director, sorry but this cut isn’t working, we’ve to sit and make it work, together.
I decided on the third response as it was absurd to have a meltdown over a bloody sitcom.
Since you can’t keep standing and pointing as you look like a silly twat, the director did the only thing he could do. He stormed off in a hissy fit. It was my first time I’ve seen a director pull off an act of hissy-fitting in front of me.
Now, looking back, I realize my response could so easily have been retaliatory. Like Sean Connery said in The Untouchables, when the director brought a knife to the fight, I could have brought a gun. I am no Will Smith on Oscar night, but I remembered the quickening of my pulse as my temper rose to a bite-finger level. I didn’t know how I managed to mentally step away.
Perhaps I was channeling what Seneca advised.
Seneca was a Roman Stoic philosopher in ancient Greece. He wrote an essay titled On Anger, which is still relevant to this day. You can check out the entire essay in How To Keep Your Cool, translated by James Romm, published by Princeton University Press.
Anger is a brief madness. In equal degrees, it is unable to govern itself, forgetful of decorum, ignorant of friendships, obstinate and intent on finishing what it begins, deaf to reason and advice, stirred up by empty provocations, unsuited to distinguishing what’s just and true, and resembles nothing so much as a collapsing building that breaks apart upon that which it crushes.
Seneca then went on to suggest some ways to avoid giving in to anger.
He recommended spending time with those who are most easy going and calmest, as we tend to take on the natures of our associates. The drunkard instils a love of hard drink in his fellows, Seneca says, and how as greed spreads its contagion to those who come near it, so do virtues follow the same principle in their own way. A better crowd benefits unsteady minds. Just as we should draw near to calm people, we should avoid and run far from those who we know are going to stir up our anger. The arrogant will offend you with their scorn. The acerbic with their insults. The impudent with their slights. The spiteful with their malice. The boastful and false with their vanity.
All these could be summed up in that director who pointed his finger at my face and belittled my writing ability. Seneca described the effects of anger on your temperament, and even though he lived hundreds of years ago, his words still ring true.
Just as there are warning signs of an impending storm, there are advance signals of anger. Your vision dims, you feel a nervous trembling, your head whirls.
I did feel anger and outrage. But I was able to stand outside myself and see those emotions for what they were. Instigators for me to lose my reason. And so I stood my ground. And the director walked away.
What else did Seneca advise?
Angry people should let their minds be given over to enjoyable arts. Pythagoras played the lyre to resolve troubles of the mind.
Woody Allen played jazz. Me. I play for the umpteenth time my classical guitar. And re-watch my favorite comedies, Cheers, Mash, and Silicon Valley.
Save for that one finger pointing incident, the experience of working on that show was great. Contrast that with my experience of writing…
The First Episode Of Under One Roof, The Most Successful Sitcom In Singapore
I was starting out as a writer. It was my first sitcom episode. I was attempting to write a monologue to be delivered by an actor. A monologue that not only had to summarize the theme of the entire episode, but tell a funny story on its own. I remembered lying on my bed at three in the morning, penning the story on paper, crossing out words, mouthing out loud the sentences, crossing out more words, and finally, at 430 am, typing up the story and delivering it to the team.
It was a story of how the char siew pau or pork dumpling got its red dot. I sat in on the rehearsals. I was open to any feedback from anyone, especially the actor, Moses Lim, who would be performing this monologue. I had gone through the lines so many times in my head that I was numb. I did not know if the story was funny anymore. I was filled with dread.
Until Moses Lim performed.
He spoke every word as written. He used his body, hands, and face, to service the words and the story. And boy, did it work. I learnt two things then.
1. Moses Lim was a gifted comedic actor.
2. I could write comedy.
More importantly, I could write comedy because someone performed my words exactly as written, and the words worked.
And knowing that boosted my confidence and taught me that….
A Writer Must Be Precious About His Words
It’s not to serve a writer’s ego. It’s so that the writer can tell that what he has put into flesh, can walk. And any director, or producer, who changes the words, resulting in a scene that does not work, does a disservice to the writer’s education. You, as the writer, would not have learnt anything other than the fact that your words were changed and what was changed did not work. And not knowing if your scene construction had worked, means you continue to live in Doubt’s shadow. You can’t bring your experience as a writer to the next project because in the previous project, you did not know if your writing was any good.
Because you did not stand up for your words.
As a writer, you’re the first audience to any story. After you have gone through several drafts of your script, you’re now ready to present your work to the world. Whatever happens next, whether your words and the order in which you put them, has conveyed accurately the emotion and the story, will depend on the audience. The audience will teach you and bring you to another level as a writer. And for that to happen, YOU, the writer, must always be doing the writing. Not the director, not the producer, not anyone else.
In your career in the creative arts, you will come across all kinds of personalities, who will sling arrows at your words, and find ways to wound your enthusiasm. Arrogant directors. Unreasonable network executives. Incompetent producers. Jealous writers. Before you let the urge to punch/bite/slap hijack your brain, remember to step back, and consider the words of wise Seneca.
Anger is a brief madness.
Stand up for your words.
But do it with quiet fortitude.
But stand up for your words.