Listening to Yourself: How I Learned to be a Better, More Courageous Writer

By Emma Fissenden

Photo courtesy of Emma Fissenden. 

Courage.

What a word. It's a fickle, slippery, wily beast that hides in the darkest recesses of our hearts. I had to go hunting for it in the last year in an attempt to conquer my fears, or if not conquer, then to use the fear to push me forward. It's probably one of the biggest things that helped drag me kicking and screaming through my ridiculous, five-year attempt to achieve my Screenwriting MFA.

Sometime in the last year, I watched a video of voice actor Troy Baker, who spoke about how fear is the only thing getting in the way of you doing anything, about how if we simply gave ourselves over to that fear we'd never do anything. However, if we let go of it, or used it to push ourselves forward, then we could become more than we are. We could widen our horizons, achieve our goals. It's a video I kept going back to again and again and each time, I was filled with bravery. But it was a fleeting feeling. A few hours later, after I took a look at the work I'd done, I ended up doubting myself and my direction once again.

It took me a full four out of five years in this course to actually begin making meaningful decisions about my thesis because I didn't have the courage. Most of my experiences involved me either riding the high of finishing a draft and declaring myself done or sinking into a deep, dark paralysis. My fear wouldn't let me move forward. My fear kept me back, kept me from seeing the story I wanted to write. In the first few years, the few decisions I struggled to make were entirely generalized. I had to begin making decisions about my characters and my story and where those decisions would go. More importantly, I needed to understand the screenplay's story, listen to my main character Azra, and let her guide me through it. The first few conversations I had with my supervisor went a little like this:

Thesis Supervisor: “What's the story about?”
Me: “Oh, a girl going on a journey through a world changed but mostly recovered from nuclear fallout.”
Thesis Supervisor(trying to pry any kind of decision from my obstinate head): “And why is she taking this journey?”
Me: “Oh, uh—I guess she has to because [insert generalized narrative].”

After all of these early meetings, I'd run for the fucking hills (read: my apartment), hoping that I'd be able to hide from any kind of deep, serious thinking until the night before our next meeting. I was deeply afraid of failing, so afraid I'd often do nothing. Over the course of the next year or two, I'd write hundreds and hundreds of pages full of development work: endless outlines, character profiles, details of the world. It was never-ending. And then came the drafts. I'd naively sworn to myself that I'd never be that writer. I'd be brilliant and never need to write endless drafts. Two? Three? Sure. Eleven? If you'd told me I'd end up writing this many, I'd have called you several awful names and hidden in bed. After about the fourth or fifth draft, I'd send the draft to my Supervisor with a note like this:

Me: “I'm done! I love this draft and I really hope it's working now!
Thesis Supervisor: “Yeah, no.”

She didn't really say that, of course—she was kinder and more understanding—but that was the gist of her emails. We went through this process maybe another three or four times, with me beating myself up about my failing to meet my own insane goals, to magically have this project come together without doing the hard work. I ended up in a pit of depression and I didn't know who to turn to or what to do.

Letting go of my fear opened doors for me, allowed me to make decisions, allowed me to pull together a good working draft. More importantly, it gave me the courage to start building myself into the person I wanted to be. I'm not there yet (who is?) but it's my failure through this thesis process that taught me about myself, taught me about my boundaries and what I'm willing to give up.

In your first year you have to submit your ideas for your thesis project to attract a potential committee. It's a strange process, especially if, like me, you have no idea what the living hell you're doing. I played it safe and stuck to stereotypical tropes for my precis, so I'm sure you can probably imagine the reactions of a few people in the department. I listened to them and their negative reactions, and I took them personally. I let them into my core. The better thing to have done, if I were able to go back in time, would have been to take a deep breath and forge forward rather than let the encounter crush my spirit as much as it did.

Over the next few years, my supervisor held my hand and coaxed me through the process of developing the thesis project. Sometimes I misunderstood her copious notes and saw them as a rejection of everything I'd written, which in turn led to self-sabotage. At first I began to push her away, refusing to look at anything to do with the thesis for a good six months because I was deeply afraid of what she might say. She wasn't saying anything awful. She was honest. She pointed out things that needed looking at: characters who spoke in the same way, unmotivated action, places where things I set up didn't pay off. There was a lack of things coming full circle in the script—as if I couldn't even bear to look at what I'd written to edit it. It was an inorganic mess of good ideas executed with the finesse of an amateur.

When someone I was close to told me giving up on the degree was an “option,” I balked. I freaked out, raged for a few days, was unable to get my head around her words. And then something in me clicked. At first it was pure stubbornness. I wanted to show her that I could do this. I began making solid decisions about the kind of story I wanted to write. I made brave choices. I had actual conversations with my supervisor and we collaborated as I made progress on a new draft. And once I reached “Fade Out," I sat back and took a deep breath. I'd done it. It took courage to listen to myself, to listen to others with an open ear, to see what I could do with edit notes without accepting everything I was told to do without question. To collaborate with others instead of hide from them.

It's difficult to know who's best to listen to. How do you really know who has your best interests at heart and who isn't interested in your success? I had to figure out who I could trust for myself. For the most part, teachers and mentors in university arts courses are interested in helping you, but I've found that there are a few who don't want to listen to you as you. They're listening to you from their own subjective biases. Some are able to get past their initial judgments of your worth and actually support you. Some aren't. And that's okay. It's something I had to get used to, to be able to stick up for myself and my creative decisions and ideas but also not expect everyone to jive with them. You're not going to please everyone, or write anything most will like. If you're lucky, a select few will really love what you've written and if you've been brave enough to listen to your own voice, you might even be slightly proud of your work as well.

Have courage. Listen to yourself. You're going to be okay.


Emma Fissenden is a writer of all trades. She contributes work to The Mary Sue, holds a Screenwriting MFA and is the new EIC of Noble Gas Quarterly. When she's not tackling her next gigantic to do list, she's playing far too many video games. You can follow her on Twitter at @efissenden.