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I’m not particularly good at giving writing advice to aspiring screenwriters. What I’ve learned over the years is that what works for me as a writer doesn’t much work for others — and vice versa.
At film school, an excited workshop teacher once implored us students to outline our script ideas using a 72-beat model he swore by. When it came time to write the actual script, all the discovery and revelation had been stripped from the process. I felt like I was transcribing a grocery list. My script was bloodless. Others found the experience revelatory.
More recently, a writer friend suggested I rent an office to escape my noisy household. It had done wonders for his creativity. The quiet! The escape! The unbothered life! I conceded and found an ad on Craigslist. The owner of an environmental testing company was scaling back and could offer me a space in his building. The office wasn’t much — four walls, a window, various topographical maps on the walls and lots of ants. I went in at 6 each morning, opened my computer and sat there. Mostly I watched the silent streams of ants. Sometimes I’d listen to the group sessions from the drug rehabilitation facility next door or Jan, my neighbor, talking about a sister who was ill. What I didn’t do was write.
I should have known better. My experience with writing is that it rarely involves sitting at a desk and typing. For me, writing happens only at the end of something, when a scene has been conceived, analyzed, edited, tweaked, volleyed, batted around and finally decided on. That process happens in the mind while out walking, pondering shadows, staring at grass, flowers or butterflies, or watching my kids bounce on trampolines or play ball. I didn’t need an office for any of that. In fact, the office removed the environment that was brimming with inspiration. After two months I told the landlord it wasn’t working out and, no, it had nothing to do with the ants. The only piece of writing advice I’ve ever been comfortable offering aspiring writers is this: Know your ending.
I have found that when I know where a story begins and ends, emotionally, I have the courage to start writing. When the bookends are in place, the middle becomes a playground of experimentation, discovery and revelation where characters speak, change, grow and evolve. But those two anchors are vital, making sure that I never veer too far off the flight path, that the landing runway is distant but always visible.
Mare Sheehan is a difficult character to like. She’s coarse, stubborn, mercurial. There are reasons behind this, of course. Her son, Kevin, struggling with mental illness and addiction, took his own life in the attic of the family home. That space is now cursed and closed-off, a sealed tomb. The guilt Mare bears, though, is impossible to miss. She’s played magnificently by Kate Winslet, and the audience registers every ounce of regret, fear, shame and heartbreak on Mare’s face. Kate makes Mare’s pain universal by making it so specific.
I read once that suicide creates two deaths for surviving family members — the physical death of the loved one and the death of the hope that the loved one could eventually get better. Mare’s suffering from both. Badly. If we begin with Mare incapable of confronting grief, then a fitting end to her journey is her willingness to finally face the pain. But how? Where?
While conceiving Mare of Easttown‘s story, I met a wonderful, generous grief therapist from Philadelphia named Ariel Stern. While discussing Mare’s grief and recovery, I asked Ariel if Mare would perhaps visit a favorite spot she shared with her son, a park or a beach where she and Kevin had experienced brighter times. Ariel’s response surprised me. She suggested that Mare visit the place where Kevin died. I was taken aback initially. Visiting the spot of Kevin’s death felt potentially traumatic, forcing Mare to relive an exceptionally painful moment that could threaten to send her spiraling or retreating. But Ariel slowly convinced me of its value. Mare would have to confront the ghost in her life if she ever wished to move past it. She would have to go back up to the attic. Mare’s journey would end with a few small, massive steps up.
I had the ending I needed, and I could start writing. The bookends were firmly in place.
This story first appeared in the June 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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