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Five Lessons in Screenwriting from Mr. Johnny Cash
- You have a responsibility as an Artist to give voice to the voiceless: Johnny Cash understood that Art is Powerful. That it has the capacity to weasel past our carefully-reasoned objections to change, and thereby impact us at the real core of our decision-making--our emotions. So he wrote songs that spoke for the disenfranchised. He shone a light on Native American struggles. He pointed out the uselessness of the American Penal System. He cried out on behalf of the poor. As a screenwriter, I hope to do what Johnny did, and to use my work to make a difference.
- But at the same time, don't be afraid to be silly: The same guy who wrote Man in Black--whose heart broke for the poor and powerless--also popularized such comedic gems as Boy Named Sue and One Piece at a Time. He knew that life's hard, and that to get through, from time to time you've gotta have yourself a laugh. So when I write, I try to remember that it's okay to have fun with it. Not every screenplay has to cure cancer.
- Expose Yourself: One thing Cash did well was to put his entire Self into his work. People love Johnny in part because they feel they know him... the real him--that interior self that most of us go to great lengths to conceal. When in his latter years he covered the Nine Inch Nails song, Hurt, he made that hurt it his own, and we went away from it feeling a little less alone in our own pain. This honesty (or "taking the piss out of yourself," as my Australian friend calls it) is the key to making a human connection with a work of Art, and it's something I aspire to emulate.
- Collaborate Widely: Johnny Cash worked with everybody. I mean, everybody. He knew that Art is at its best a communal act, and that the story of the Solitary-Artist-Genius is a deeply destructive myth. So he sought out the best and brightest to work with, and as a result left a body of work that is exponentially richer than anything he could've come up with on his own. This one's easy for a screenwriter, because to get a film made you have to collaborate with dozens or even hundreds of other people. Still, Johnny Cash reminds me that this is a good thing, and that I can be grateful for it.
- Die Trying: Johnny Cash was making music right up to the end. When his fingers were crabbed with arthritis. When asthma was running him down hard. When health issues accrued from a life of hard-livin' and hard-playin' were bringing him low... Johnny kept doing his thing. He didn't need the money. What he needed was to keep expressing. Keep collaborating. Keep sharing his struggles, his faith, his doubt, and his hope. For this, Johnny Cash will be remembered with love and respect, and I only hope that if I'm given the chance he had... after a long life of hard-writin' and hard-lovin', I'll fall face-first on my keyboard and go out with a banggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggg
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