The first engagement

Greg Nelson (BA’88) reflects on the process of writing—and rewriting—stories

Greg Nelson David Stobbe

Greg Nelson’s career has taught him to embrace the unexpected. One of the 2018 Alumni of Influence, Nelson’s credits as a writer and producer span television, theatre and radio. He is best known for his work on the CBC Radio series Afghanada and for TV dramas such as Rookie Blue, Frontier and Orphan Black.

NO BATTLE PLAN ever survives the first engagement.”

These words were written by a 19th-century Prussian general named Field Marshal Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke. (Remember him?) It’s a classic military adage, but I first heard it in a TV writers’ room.

We had been “breaking the season.” It’s one of the ways a TV show is made. A team of writers sits around a table and stares at a whiteboard. The writers talk and talk and talk and make decisions about what is going to happen in each episode—what diseases (if it’s a medical show) or cases (law show) or crimes (cop show) will occur, which characters will fall in love, who will triumph, who will fail and how and when and where. The result is a giant chart on the wall, with all the blanks filled in: a battle plan for the campaign to come.

We had just completed this painstaking process. After weeks of work, the chart was finished and we were standing back and admiring it, in all its multicoloured glory. And one of my colleagues, who has a penchant for fatalism, smiled and cheerfully blew it to pieces:

No battle plan ever survives the first engagement.

His point was: everything would soon fall apart. It was inevitable. The network and actors and producers and directors would bring new ideas, or we would lose a shooting location, or simply come up with something better. Our battle plan would be thrown out the window, chaos would reign and we would be scrambling.

He was right. It happens every time. Above all, we should expect the unexpected. I knew this, and yet I wasn’t bothered. I found it exciting. I’m going to try and explain why.

Early in my career, I hated writing outlines. They were another kind of battle plan—a prose description of what would happen, scene by scene, in my play. To me, at that time, they were the equivalent of sitting in the back of a car listening to someone drone on and on, describing in excruciating detail every single thing that happened in the movie they just saw. You can’t escape; you can only pray that they will stop talking as any desire you had to see the movie yourself evaporates.

An outline was hard and thankless work. It demanded that I work out the story in advance, when I only had the vaguest sense of what it might be. It forced me to think about turning points and character arcs and shape and structure when all I wanted to do was write. I wanted to feel the dialogue flowing, see where it took me, listen to my characters, not direct them. I was chasing inspiration—that elusive and exalted feeling of pure creation—waiting for the words to come pouring out from who-knows-where. Writing was a mystery, after all, and I was an artist. An outline killed it for me. It made me want to stop writing. It made me feel like I was failing.

And so I avoided them. And I continued to bash doggedly away in the dark, chasing inspiration, writing page after page of winding dialogue in the vain hope that it would lead me to a story. 

What I didn’t yet understand is that, at a very basic level, I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t have the craft or even the most basic tools for the job. 

And, as a result, pretty much everything I wrote was awful. 

There have always been geniuses. Mozart wrote symphonies at the age of eight, and Shakespeare was… well, Shakespeare. But for the rest of us, talent isn’t a gift or an accident. It’s hard work. It’s the result of labour and study and fierce desire and dogged perseverance. Inspiration doesn’t come from who-knows-where. It comes from the hours spent staring at an empty page, or wide awake at 3:00 am in a panic of “I can’t do this, I’m a fraud.” It comes from going to a movie and taking notes. It comes from taking a play/book/script/screenplay and tearing it apart, breaking it down, scene by scene, act by act, figuring out how it works, understanding its DNA. And then doing it again, with another script. And then 30 more. It comes from exhaustive research. It comes from sitting alone at your desk, late at night, grinding out an outline, hating every moment, every word. It comes from failing over and over—getting it wrong a hundred times before you get it right.

It comes from having a battle plan. And it comes from throwing it out.

It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been writing. Every time you sit down in front of the blank page, that fear and doubt comes rushing back. “Who am I fooling?” But if I’ve learned one thing in my years of writing, it’s this: if you put in the time and labour and study…. If you are patient, and if, above all else, you manage somehow to find some faith in yourself… inspiration will arrive. 

Eventually, of course, I got the message. I stopped the endless pages of dialogue, and I learned how to write. I learned what Charlie Chaplin (another genius) discovered when he made the transition from silent movies to talkies: First you write the movie, then you add the dialogue.

One of my favourite stories about writing comes from the celebrated American playwright John Guare. At the age of 51, Guare wrote the play Six Degrees of Separation, which, before becoming a cultural meme, was made into a wonderful film starring Donald Sutherland, Stockard Channing and a very young Will Smith. When Guare was asked how long it took to write Six Degrees, this is what he said: the typing happened quickly, a matter of weeks. But to actually write the play…? It took 51 years.

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