"You can’t fail if you never begin, right? The act of sitting down and finally writing out that great story in your head is an act of confrontation—with yourself. Your limitations. Your inadequacies. It can be paralyzing, because our egos won’t allow us to look foolish. The chief fear is potentially finding out you’re not as good as you think you are." - Lee Blaylock
Coppage: Nostalgia can be both uplifting and troublesome. From knowing you and viewing your social media accounts, you share current pictures and well as memories engaging with toys and memorabilia from your childhood in the 80’s and 90’s. When you approach a new project, do you hope to be completely new and removed from the past, or do you allow nostalgia to direct your creative process?
Blaylock: I spend a lot of time worrying about being original. I strive to bring something new—a different perspective, a unique approach—to the story. But everything’s been done before; every story has been told. So, it’s a challenge.
Nostalgia is never a factor in creating new ideas. None have ever sprung from a wistful longing for the past. Yet personally, I’m very sentimental, almost an archivist of memories, whether they’re pictures, video, letters, cards, etc.
Yet at this particular time in my life, nostalgia is in full bloom, due to me being a father of two boys. Many of the toys and cartoons I enjoyed as a child are currently back to the fore in popular culture (He-Man, Ghostbusters, Transformers, G.I. Joe), and of course, I’m buying all the toys for my kids. And, as you’ve seen, posting pictures of them on Instagram.
A wonderful thing about being a parent: our kids function as a bridge to our own childhoods, allowing us to examine ourselves in that innocent state—as we were before life really got its hands on us—and in some ways, return to it. There hasn’t been a time in my life that I’ve enjoyed as much as I’m enjoying it now, being a father. I’ve never been this cool.
Coppage: You work in numerous creative fields, from photography and lifecasting to film production and writing. The old saying goes, “you can’t serve two masters.” Do you see all these creative fields competing for your time? Furthermore, how do you juggle them?
Blaylock: I occasionally joke that I’m collector of hobbies. But it’s really just a zeal for learning and need for expression. The sculpting and lifecasting aren’t something I do all the time. I put it away for months. Working with clay is comforting and familiar; you develop a muscle memory for it, like riding a bike, so you can pick it back up easily. It engages a different part of the brain than what is needed for writing, allowing you to power down the latter and give it rest. Recharge time is essential.
Video production and photography ended up as a way to make money, but those interests began as mediums for self-expression. While the jobs paid the rent (and not always; it’s a very fickle and inconsistent market), there was a conflict between serving clients and serving myself. Then I took high-stress, full-time jobs doing both photos and video, and the workload ran me into the ground. Consequently, my love for both dwindled. I don’t pick up a camera much these days. But when I do pick it up again, it won’t be for someone else.
The two things that vie for my time now are the writing and reading. My boys require a lot of my attention, and I’m happy to give it to them, but that doesn’t leave me a lot of time for reading. The writing is priority, so it comes first, which means I claw for time to read. When you aren’t inspired, reading is necessary in refilling the well. It takes me months to finish a small 300-page novel, because I’m forced to do it in sips.
I’ve developed another hobby (bad habit) over the past year: buying loads of vintage editions of books. We’re running out of room!
Coppage: I have admired your work ethic as a writer. You appear to dedicate time each day to write. I often tell folks that for me, the concept of a muse to influence the artist to create is fickle, and usually it is discipline and creating a schedule or “space” to allow a focus on the creation process. Would you agree with this? Could you go further to describe your creative process? Is it different for each medium?
Blaylock: You’re absolutely right about creating a schedule. The routine is just as important, perhaps more, than talent.
Many talented and aspiring writers have a rich inner life, head swimming with amazing ideas, but they never commit to sitting down and transcribing those waking dreams. Mostly that is fear instead of lack of discipline. You can’t fail if you never begin, right? The act of sitting down and finally writing out that great story in your head is an act of confrontation—with yourself. Your limitations. Your inadequacies. It can be paralyzing, because our egos won’t allow us to look foolish. The chief fear is potentially finding out you’re not as good as you think you are.
…Which is why I used to struggle with perfectionism. When I couldn’t achieve it, I abandoned the story. I’m not sure what brought it on (perhaps marriage), but there was a mellowing in my personality, and I stopped treating my prose as if were precious. I’m not sure who said it, but there’s a quote I enjoy sharing with other aspiring writers: the first draft is merely filling the sandbox so you can build your castles in the second. Don’t be discouraged by a rough first draft. It’s always going to be ugly and uneven. Neil Gaiman said that the second draft is making the reader believe you knew what you were doing all along. Writing is, after all, rewriting.
You have to come to the story every day, preferably in the same place, same time, and access that part of your brain that dreams up things. Develop a kind of muscle memory in your imagination. The beginning is always hard, and there might well be a few discouraging days, but if you keep returning, one day, like a switch flipping on, you’ll find a fluency, and the words will start pouring out. I’ve experienced this many times, enough to trust in it, yet I always forget about how hard the beginning is. So I tell myself, You’ve been here before, just push through. It helps to not even think about finishing and to just settle into the habit.
As far as my creative process, how I come up with ideas…I have two modes: baseline (me not thinking about story) and wandering brain (actively working on a story). I sometimes describe it as throwing out nets, dragging up the flotsam of junk I’ve tossed into my subconscious (because, as a writer, you’re always observing, always storing for later use), or setting my brain to “Receiving Mode,” in which I raise my antennae, set my receiver to wide band, and just listen. It’s being hyper-observant to what you see and hear; intentionally pairing opposite things, seeing if they spark some new third thing. You have to be able to pull back the wandering brain, though, because it can be quite annoying for people trying to have a conversation with you.
Some ideas come to you teeming with an energy, an urgency, and those are the ones I seize on. The writing process begins with me asking myself, does this idea want to be a screenplay or a novel? They’re different mediums, have different rules, different audiences, and achieve different things. Main characters usually come with the idea, but you most always have to pad out the story with a supporting cast. I’ll spend some time plotting, giving careful consideration to structure and point-of-view. And at some point, I just start writing. And keep writing until I finish. It’s that simple…and that hard.
Coppage: Let’s talk about writing both a screenplay and a novel. This maybe an incorrect assumption, but screenplays appear to have the tendency to be focused more on dialogue to carry the story whereas a novel has more exposition. When you are starting out these projects, how do you develop your characters? Are the processes the same or different?
Blaylock: A screenplay is a story told in pictures, sound, dialogue, and lines of description. It’s all external. Whereas a novel allows you to access the interior lives of its characters, read their thoughts, understand their intentions without having to show it visually.
When you’re writing a screenplay, you’re writing for a medium that is, above all else, visual. You don’t have to include any speaking roles. Films were originally exhibited without sound. You might have heard the phrase, “the language of cinema.” In film school, you learn about pictorial semiotics (the study of signs), and how the shape and arrangement of images impart meaning. We absorb this language, and understand it all unconsciously, when we begin to first watch movies, but at a point in history, this visual language did not exist. It had to be codified by those early filmmaking pioneers. All the various compositional frames (the long shot, the medium shot, the closeup)…the duration of the shot, the movement of the shot…figure expression within the frame…light and color: each new composition can be seen as a statement unto itself, and when paired with others, creates phrasing. Ultimately, a whole movie is longform poetry in visual form. It’s a language that is universally understood, like music and mathematics. And all that to say: you don’t need dialogue.
But let me completely contradict everything I just wrote by acknowledging modern audiences aren’t interested in silent films. A movie is enriched by good dialogue. Dialogue serves two functions: it reveals character and moves the story forward.
A screenplay has a very rigid structure and page-limit (90 to 120 pages, each page roughly equaling one minute of screen time). It forces the writer to compress. I’ve read a movie described as “slices of time,” those most dramatically impactful moments from a longer, contiguous block. The challenge in writing a screenplay is figuring out what slices to include. Writing a script, you have to continually remind yourself that you’re creating a blueprint, one which many departments of a film production will use as a reference guide, and avoid getting carried away with description. It’s not going to be read for its colorful turns of phrase. You also must be aware of the conventions of your genre of choice—whether it’s mystery, police procedural, medical drama, romance, horror—enough to give the audience the familiar they seek…but with your own unique take.
Filmmaking is an unhappy marriage between commerce and art, and at the end, it’s always going to come down to the producers and investors asking, Is this going to make us money? Ultimately, you’re writing to entertain.
Tom Petty once said, “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.” Be mindful of pacing. In Late, Out Early is a good rule of thumb for writing scenes; you enter each scene after things are already happening, and you duck out before they come to their natural end. It keeps the momentum going.
Final word on screenwriting (although there’s much more to it): it’s always about the people, not the situation. Characters should seldom get what they want, but always get what they need (read into that all you want).
Oh, to answer your question about novel writing: a novel is made up of many, many more words. Ha!
Coppage: The Mississippi Delta is known for its people and stories. How has being raised in Mississippi influence your writing style or creative process?
Blaylock: I’m not sure my development as a writer is unique to a geographical region. Loneliness, loss, and economic hardship have produced writers from all over the country. If there is anything uniquely Deltan (is that a word? It is now) in my development, I was and still am unconscious of it. Unless it was the pressures discouraging me from being a writer at all.
My peers weren’t a very literate group. I’m not saying kids couldn’t read or write, it’s just that I never heard or saw literacy encouraged in the schools or in the culture of the town itself, beyond basic grade competency for testing. And believe me, I was listening—looking, really, for others like me. “I want to be a writer” wasn’t a cool thing to aspire to, at least in the schools I attended. Being on the football team was the agreed-upon path for those seeking any kind of social currency. During my teenage years, I never met anyone who was actively writing and working towards being a novelist like I was. That’s not a brag but a statement about my solitary journey.
(Greenville, strangely enough, has produced more than its fair share of writers and musicians throughout its history. I’m just going to assume it’s because of the water, which, if the reader doesn’t know, is brown straight from the tap. It’s not dirty, however, just tinted by the tannin in the water table. Safe to drink!).
I did develop certain thematic preoccupations from my observations and experiences while growing up there. Greenville’s history is rich and complex—but its recent history is quite fascinating. You and I are the generation of kids who grew up during its almost sudden and rapid economic decline at the end of the 80s. The reasons for the decline are too many to list here, but we grew up into adults watching our childhood homes literally decay before us. But then, nothing lasts forever. I have conflicting emotions about the city. In my childhood memories, Greenville shines bright, but the sight of it in its current state is so offensive and abrasive to that memory, it’s hard to reconcile the two. It’s upsetting.
There’s been a lot of lively debates online between those that moved away and those who stayed. The ones that left in the diaspora have the ability to retain the Greenville-that-was in their memories, preserved, untainted—a luxury the ones who live there don’t have. (The online arguments in the Greenville groups about past and present are a rich vein to mine for future stories!).
Coppage: Anything else you want to make sure you have the opportunity to say? How can folks find you and learn more about your projects?
A: I want to acknowledge the teachers who encouraged me. I wrote my first story in fifth grade, but it wasn’t until sixth that I made a conscious decision to be a writer. Sherrie Russel taught that class. She lived behind us, too, and I dropped in a few times during the summer. I had started reading novels and was preparing new stories—and she provided me a little space and grace to move into that identity, letting me babble endlessly about my interests in her kitchen. (This interview prompted me to search for her, and I found that, sadly, she passed away earlier this year from cancer). I was incredibly fortunate in my freshman year to have Sandra McGaugh as my English teacher. She was always supportive and spoke praises of those early juvenile writings. I’ve never forgotten her kind words. Richard Enriquez, my sophomore World History teacher, was also quite supportive. There were a few others, but I forget their names. We moved around a lot. But teachers should never underestimate his/her power for promoting growth in a student. Their support and encouragement can be lifelines. One nudge might be all that’s needed for a kid to dig in and pursue his/her dreams. Theirs might be the only encouragement they ever hear.
A caution (two, actually): Writers should not be introverts. Most people have the idea they come prepackaged that way. But a writer cannot be insular, cannot be closed-off. You must be a voracious consumer and seeker of experience, as well an observer. “People watch” all you want, imitate their speech patterns, transcribe their idiosyncrasies…but your character composites will ultimately be mere simulacrum unless you imbue them with life: a part of you, your life, enriched by experience. Life is experiential. If you want to create real people on the page, you have to get to know real people. You must live first before you have anything worth writing about, otherwise it’s all imitation of life.
Likewise, try as many different foods as possible, see as many new places as possible (paying attention to every sound, smell, texture), expand your musical tastes (or at least your knowledge of genres), watch movies you don’t normally watch—classics (especially Hitchcock), horror, Japanese (Kurosawa and Miyazaki)—and take every opportunity to enlarge your frame of reference. Create a vast library in your head. Never stop adding to it. A writer finds everything interesting.
Lastly (caution #2), reject demands upon your work that result in it becoming more politically correct, throw off all forms of thought policing, and oppose the gatekeepers in your field who demand conformity and compliance to cultural trends. If the possibility of the Twitter mob coming after you scares you, because you wrote something that doesn’t comply with the cultural totalitarians’ worldview, then you don’t need to even bother pursuing writing. Our country needs fiercely aggressive individualistic voices that will not bend the knee to the cancel mob. Avoid “woke” narratives in your own stories. A woke creative is just a conformist, and any product springing from such a mind is neutered and self-censored before it even reaches the page, because it can only put forward ideas which have been approved, because it must conform to an ideology. Agenda-driven, quota-driven storytelling, where the writer or filmmaker is just marking off his or her intersectional checklist, makes for poor entertainment. It’s regressive, saying nothing new, fixated only on lecturing the audience while propping up its own elitist worldview. It’s insufferable narcissism. There’s no real freedom of thought or expression in the realm of woke. I encourage you to say the unpopular thing. Say the thing they tell you you absolutely cannot say. If you fear being cancelled for saying it, then it’s what you unequivocally have to say. That doesn’t mean to simply shock for the sake of being shocking, or scrape the bottom of the barrel for laughs. I’m saying, Do what is right for your story; don’t serve someone else’s agenda. Stay true to your voice.
It’s not art if someone tells you where to put the paint.
You can follow me on Instagram @jleeblaylock