Anyone who wants to write stories has probably read more advice than they need. Essential reading includes Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird and Stephen King's On Writing, which give writers shared community in the joys and despair of the writing process. The stories we think less about—movies—are also the most consistently popular: The Motion Picture Association of America estimates that 225 million moviegoers bought tickets to see stories unfold on the big screen in 2012, a number that has been steady in recent years.
Blending the quality of voice and wisdom found in creative writing reference books with some of the great screenwriters of our time, On Story: Screenwriters and Their Craft is a welcome gift for writers of all genres and movie lovers.
On Story is the book distillation of archival footage from the Austin Film Festival's television series of the same name. The book's co-editor, Barbara Morgan, co-founded AFF 20 years ago as a gathering intended to be a screenwriter's film festival. In the festival's first year, there were 60 panels; now there are 120. Annually, the festival hosts over 170 premieres and the weekly television series is broadcast on more than 122 stations in 67 markets.
Morgan worked with producer/consultant Maya Perez to sift through two decades of wisdom on storytelling. At the AFF headquarters, a quaint house in East Austin, Morgan and Perez described the humble beginnings of the slim volume that includes the writing witticisms, practices and inspiring stories of screenwriter-directors like Brian Helgeland (Mystic River) Daniel Petrie Jr. (Beverly Hills Cop) and Bill Wittliff (Lonesome Dove).
"We've been taping since the beginning and we had all this footage that was literally sitting in a closet," Morgan says. That's not a euphemism, Perez adds. "It was an actual closet."
Sifting through the transcripts, Perez says they found a wealth of great material they couldn't use for television and they didn't want it to go to waste. "A lot of it wasn't good enough quality to be on TV because it was shot as archive footage," Morgan says. "But after every festival we had so many people asking us, 'Could you guys put this stuff out there?' that we started this discussion about what we should do about it."
The result of compiled and edited transcripts with a few excerpts from well-known screenplays, On Story is a delightfully candid book about creative process, procrastination, self-doubt, structure, technique and inspiration. The selected screenwriters and filmmakers were chosen because they are emblematic of the AFF's most generous board members, Morgan says. That's a partial explanation for the fact that the majority of the screenwriters in On Story are white and male. Efforts to diversify AFF and the book have consistently registered with non-response, Morgan and Perez say.
"We know that they deliver and we listen to them talk for years and every time they are inspiring," Perez says of the writers who appear in On Story. Perez is a former conference director for AFF and a Michener Fellow in Screenwriting at the University of Texas at Austin’s Michener Center for Writers. "They're screenwriters that we most connect with because they give emotionally."
"They stood out, too, in those transcriptions," Morgan says. " 'Here's this thread of inspiration and a leg up, here's how you get yourself started.' Those were the people who were truthfully willing to help us that first year when no one knew who we were. That book is full of people who give back. I don't think that's something that Hollywood is known for."
Writing through fear and rejection is also not something most associate with Hollywood, but the writers in On Story share their personal battles with revision and confidence with humor and candor.
"After reading it, I thought I could be a writer and I really have no interest in being a writer," Morgan says. "You don't have to be born to this to do this and a lot of the advice in this book confirms that."
"I find it reassuring," Perez says. "I keep the book on my desk. It helps when you're stuck to be given a different way to approach it."
"It's on your desk?" Morgan says.
"It's on my desk. I'm about to blow it up and make it a poster and sign it," Perez says.
"On Story is a little like (King's) On Writing. An awful lot of people bought that book who were not writers because they wanted to hear how a mind like Stephen King’s works." The parting words of the book, in that vein, are inspirational ones; they’re words that can apply to screenwriters, novelists, poets or anyone who is interested in learning how to tell a better story. Lawrence Kasdan, who created the script for Raiders of the Lost Ark, among other films, writes: "This seems so simple, but you have to keep writing. That means keep writing, keep writing, and keep writing. You may get impatient with how things are going, and you'd be amazed how that filters out most people, because most people don't even write even a second script. If you're serious about it, you will somehow be able to keep writing these screenplays when there is very little validation coming from the world. If you can do that, then there's hope."
Joshunda Sanders is a writer and journalist. Maya Perez is photographed above by Andrea Turner.