One of the events that took place at New York Comic Con this past weekend was a writers workshop moderated by J. Michael Straczynski. Now, since we couldn’t be everywhere at once we received some help in the form of guest writer, Cameron Crump, who attended the workshop and was kind enough to let us in on what took place!
It was a small, tan windowless meeting space buried in the inauspicious 1C hallway at the heart of the glass castle that is the Jacob Javits Center, amidst one of the biggest public events in pop culture where the creator of Babylon 5, screenwriter of World War Z, and legendary comic book author J. Michael Straczynski entered and began speaking frankly with humor and cynicism about the craft of writing. The panel was billed as a writing workshop but right from the start Straczynski set the record straight: this was going to be an informal Q&A aimed at helping the writers in the room through whatever issues were ailing them. “You guys are asking the questions, so if this panel sucks, it’s on you,” he quipped.
Born in Paterson, NJ, Straczynski is from a blue collar background where no one thought much about writing as a profession: “Where I’m from you either worked on cars or went to jail.” It seemed as if this lens tempered his work ethic and led to his first piece of general advice for the room: write every day. “You need to treat it like a job,” Straczynski stated to the large crowd, as a matter of developing the “tools in your tool box” that would make you a better writer. The job of developing the voice of the writer is held paramount in his advice because the thing that every writer is selling is their individual perspective: “no one can write a better story about you than you.” His advice continued to take on themes of being true to yourself in the art of writing, weaving hardcore writing craft (“Incident does not equal story,”) with humorous profanity laced banter and biting truisms (“We always tell ourselves we have no choice to hide the fact that we do have a choice and we just made it.”) Straczynski spoke about the challenges he faced as an up and coming writer working at school newspapers and later recounting a personal story about the cost of being true to himself during his tenure at People Magazine, a place he regarded as “the tenth circle of Hell”.
Straczynski also placed a high emphasis on convictions and the merits of standing by your beliefs. When asked a question about whether or not a writer should make a change to his work at the behest of his editor, even as the writer firmly disagreed with the suggestion, Straczynski responded, “You cannot approach [standing up for yourself] from a place of fear.” He then paraphrased Harlan Ellison, saying, “‘the chief commodity that a writer has to sell is courage. If he is a coward, he is a heretic and a sell-out and a fink because writing is a holy chore…’ I believe that to my soul.” Being a huge admirer of his work, I asked my own question about avoiding clichés, to which he replied, “Say you and I were to cast a movie about Nazis in WWII and we had to cast a role for a Nazi sergeant… There are gonna be five obvious ways to play that role and we’re gonna get five guys playing the role that way… but the sixth guy plays the role quiet…That’s the guy you go with.” He told me to find the most obvious ways first and then go the least obvious way which usually has the greatest amount of contrast, giving the example of Thor next to the residents of Broxton, Oklahoma during a town hall meeting as seen in his 2007 run on the Marvel title.
One of the most poignant Straczynski-isms he left the audience with that day was, “Becoming a writer isn’t hard, staying a writer is.” It was a sentiment that echoed as he recounted the year and a half he spent out of work after leaving People Magazine, during which time he had to sell a valuable family heirloom just to get by. He also recounted some startling statistics about writing as a career path. “If you are looking for a big paycheck, you are in the wrong area,” saying only one percent of writers makes six figures while the majority make considerably less from their writing. Straczynski implored the writers in the room to see the “holy chore” as its own reward found through hard work and diligence, ultimately finding value in telling “small stories” with our unique voice as to have the biggest impact on the world. Any of his fans can tell you that J. Michael Straczynski does just that on a regular basis.
Once again, thank you to guest writer, Cameron and be sure to keep checking for more NYCC 2013 articles over the next few days!