Jeff Leisawitz on Creativity, Why Writers Write, and Feedback

B. O'MalleyLast updated: Screenwriting

This weekend, I was able to interview author, screenwriter, filmmaker, and musician Jeff Leisawitz, who helps filmmakers, screenwriters, and other creative people find their creative voice and inspiration, and get on track towards pursuing their goals. His book, Not F*ing Around— The No Bullsh*t Guide for Getting Your Creative Dreams Off the Ground (available here) has been called “a motivating kick in the ass,” amongst other good things.

Nothing short of inspiring creative people by imbuing them with practical, real-world workflows, mindsets, and habits? That’s what Jeff does. So I wanted to know a little bit more about what makes a guy like that tick, so I could take away whatever I could, and apply it to my own creative life, and to my work. So I asked:

Q: Jeff, your mission is all about inspiring and empowering creative individuals. What is the most common bit of wisdom, career advice, or inspiration you find yourself giving to screenwriters in particular, when it comes to getting them inspired, or to keep them inspired creatively?

LEISAWITZ: The biggest piece of advice I can give to a screenwriter or any creative type, is to know what exactly is driving you. If you’re writing a story or singing a song or painting a picture and you don’t know why you’re doing it, you can’t fully access all of your energy, truth, emotion and intelligence.

For instance, my screenplay, PANACEA’S DREAM, is about a scientist and shaman who invent a pill that cures any illness. The pill works. But they don’t know why it works.

Thematically, this story is all about the duality between faith and science. This topic has been stirring around my head and heart for decades. By understanding that this screenplay is really a fictional expression of a deep question that I cannot resolve, it energizes the narrative and gives it life. Because it means something to me. This is key. Your art, your stories, have to matter to you. If not, the’ll always be flat and lifeless on some level.

Why are you writing what you’re writing? If it’s for money, that’s not a great answer. If it’s to explore the nuances of relationships, to finding our power, to overcoming a specific type of adversity, or something like that, then you’re on the right track.

Keep asking ‘why.’

Q: When you offer that wisdom or advice, what’s the most common “pushback” response you receive from screenwriters, or the most common excuse they give for resisting your advice or wisdom?

L: I don’t generally get push-back or resistance on this one. What I do sometimes get is blank stares. One woman was pitching her screenplay to me as practice for a pitch fest. She was telling me how it was about a young woman in NYC in the 70 in the fashion industry whose life was falling apart into sex and drugs. The big reveal at the end was that the character had been kidnapped as a child and was playing out the trauma in her adult life.

I asked her why she wrote this story. She said because she was in the fashion industry in NYC in the 70s. I asked her why the sex and drugs. Because she was kind of into it back then. I asked her why she wrote this story. She didn’t really know. Finally she spilled it. She was actually kidnaped as a child and this was her story. But she had distanced herself so much from it, that it lost some of it’s primal energy. Tapping into that emotion, pain and triumph will step her story up in big ways. We changed the pitch and she ended up with a half dozen producers wanting to read it. Sweet!

This is why real writers write. To express and to heal. So dig in deep. Get conscious about your motives. The energy and resonance of your screenplays will expand in ways you can’t even imagine.

Q: As a screenwriter yourself, what’s an example of a thing you do, or a place you go to, either physically or mentally, to reignite your own screenwriting inspiration or creativity?

A basic move is to create some kind of ritual in your workspace that tells your subconscious it’s time to be creative. Light a special candle, sip a special whiskey. Stare at a favorite movie poster. Really, anything can be that trigger as long as it’s connected with focusing on your creativity or writing. Then, when you light that candle or sip that whiskey, your subconscious goes into creativity mode. This isn’t just my idea. It’s science. It works.

A more internal driver is what we discussed a bit earlier. Ask questions. What are your core conflicts? What makes you crazy? What will you never really understand? What battles do you fight? Then, infuse your characters with traits that both push and resist these ideas. Come up with a core conflict. From there the characters will pretty much write the story.

Q: Our business Screenplay Readers provides script feedback to screenwriters, and script coverage for agents and producers, so brutally honest criticism is mandatory for us to help our clients, but 1 out of 300 or so newer screenwriters can’t seem to handle receiving it. What are a couple of key things you recommend for a who’s screenwriter asking for, or even paying for critical feedback on her screenplay or teleplay, to do to prepare themselves for critical feedback they may not want to hear?

First, it takes an extraordinary amount of courage to be a writer or creative of any kind. To work so hard, to be so vulnerable and to put yourself out there in any way, is something that many mortals simply are not willing to do. So, anyone who writes, asks for feedback, and/ or puts their work out there, is a hero. No shit. A full-on hero. At least in my book.

The next piece to consider is something that nearly every artist gets mixed up at times. I sure did. As creators, we often confuse what we do (write a screenplay, play a song, etc.) with who we are. And yes, good art comes from deep within us, but the expression of this is not the same as who we actually are. So… when we get negative or critical feedback from someone, it’s easy to internalize the message as, ‘I’m no good’ rather than, ‘My dialogue and structure could better.’ That’s a huge difference and something to always remember.

The last major piece to remember is that criticism is good for you (especially when its coming from a qualified source). Every single successful screenwriter, artist, musician, etc. knows that failure is actually feedback. You can’t know how to do something right until you do it wrong. Until you understand how to do it better. So if you’re serious about screenwriting, or anything else, you need to listen deeply to criticism and consider it. Sometimes it’ll be way off. Your reviewer is always going to be biased in some way. After all, the whole thing is subjective. But if you get three readers telling you the same thing could be better, chances are pretty damn good that they’re on to something.

Nobody wants to hear it, but difficult feedback is an absolutely critical step to success.

Q: If I can pry, what’s the most painful bit of criticism or screenplay feedback you’ve received? Did it change your writing? Did it impact your creativity or inspiration?

Please pry!

Years ago I worked with Richard Walter, Chairman of the Screenwriting Dept. at UCLA. He is absolutely one of the top teachers in the biz. Since I was up here in Seattle and he was in LA, I’d send him my script and a few weeks later I’d get his notes and feedback in the mail. His first notes were literally fourteen typed pages. Outch! Geez. I thought my screenplay was better than that. I was kinda pissed. What did this guy know? So I sat on it for a few weeks while I settled down. Then I went through the notes one at a time and made the changes. A month or two later I was satisfied. Not only satisfied, it was obvious to me that the screenplay was way way better. So I sent it back to Richard.

A few weeks later I went to the mailbox. This time he had sixteen pages of notes! WTF? I grumbled, fixed it all up, and was psyched at the revisions. This circle continued for three years and fourteen drafts. No shit.

At the end of the day, Richard and I both agreed that the screenplay was rock solid. He told me that I could potentially sell it to a studio for cool million. Not that that would actually happen, but it was that good.

I’ve been hustling that screenplay (and others) for years. I still haven’t sold it. But I know that after all of the blood and sweat and hours of banging my head against the wall, that my script is actually that good. Now hopefully a studio suit with a checkbook will figure it out and we’ll ink a deal!

Jeff Leisawitz burns with a mission— to inspire screenwriters, musicians, filmmakers, entrepreneurs (and everyone else) to amp up their creativity, help their hearts and shine in the world. 

Jeff hosts online workshops for screenwriters and storytellers. Learn how to tell stories that matter. In the meantime, check out his book Not F*ing Around— The No Bullsh*t Guide for Getting Your Creative Dreams Off the Ground.  

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