Call it the Tarantino Syndrome: you work on movies all day. All your friends work on movies, or have a script on their computer (or both). You go to the movies on your day off. After a few years, you can’t help quoting movies to each other, while your (increasingly scarce) non-film friends (or those who’ve had children and only watch “Bob the Builder” or “Spongebob” or “Sesame Street” anymore) look at you like you’re nuts.
It’s not a wonder that films sometimes resemble nothing so much as faded copies of other movies, just like the ones of certain jokes or newsclips you used to make when you worked in an office. (I used to work in a copy shop, I know). If you feel like your script is stale or references other movies too much, try reaching outside the film world a bit for inspiration/research. [Disclaimer: I love Tarantino. But… you know what I mean.]
One of the bad things about the web is that it delivers us more of what we expect. Serendipity, indirection, and unselfconsciousness are the keys to inspiration. Antibiotics were discovered because a researcher left a petri dish out and it collected mold (mold that happened to kill the bacteria). Tin and copper, both softer metals, make bronze, which is stronger than both. The superimposed shot of Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson in Persona – that was an accident. A good artist or scientist learns to appreciate a happy accident and even to look for them, in a way.
I read a lot of non-fiction. I have a free subscription to Forbes, and have – at one time or another – subscribed to Harper’s, The New Yorker, Smithsonian, Scientific American, Doubletake, Bitch, 21c, Topic… some of these mags aren’t published anymore (sadly), and most I found while browsing in Hudson News looking for other things. It’s harder to have that experience on the web, but it’s possible if you have a diverse community of friends (Twitter can sometimes be a great resource this way).
I also browse street booksellers, yardsales and used book stores. Sometimes I’ll buy a music CD or a book because I like the cover, or the brief dustjacket description. If nothing else, you’ll learn a lot about topics you previously knew nothing about, which will make your party conversation more interesting.
I’ll sometimes try different music channels on iTunes, or hit up streaming sites (YouTube, Netflix, or Hulu being great examples). PBS has a lot of shows online these days, though frankly their players aren’t so great. My current favorite internet radio stations are www.classicandjazz.net, and WMHB.ORG. The former plays – you guessed it – classical and jazz. The latter is a college radio station, so it plays just about everything.
Every now and then (less often these days), I’ll go to a part of the city I don’t usually travel to. A good writing exercise is to pick someone you see on the street, and try to get inside their head: what are they thinking about? What is their world like? Focusing on someone or something else always helps me get unselfconscious, which is another thing that keeps one’s work fresh (and what makes pulp movies sometimes more fun than “serious fare”).
Here are some books that have bent my mind, discussing subjects I hardly ever thought about seriously before:
Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. A great book about comics, their essential elements and artistic conventions. It’s also a comic book itself!
No End To Her: Soap Opera and the Female Subject, by Martha P. Nochimson. Nochimson performs a great, readable feminist analysis of soap opera, a topic I’d previously dismissed out of hand. This book made me rethink a lot of assumptions about what constitutes good narrative and characters.
How Buildings Learn, by Stewart Brand. A great analysis of architecture over time – how buildings adapt to new owners, needs, conditions, and fads.
The Rise and Decline of the State, by Martin van Crevald. An amazing synthesis of history, political philosophy, military tactics and anthropology. The book is the narrative of the rise and current decline of the nation state.
So there’s a cursory glance at my efforts to learn new stuff, keep my writing fresh, and at least find something else to think about besides the cost of sticks of straight track, the benefits contribution formula on an IA Tier I shoot in a non-production center town, and why the hell are all my characters talking alike? What do you do to keep your brain fresh?