Literary Liaisons

A blog about writing and all things story…

What is Masturbatory Writing?

In case the word has thrown you; Mas·tur·ba·to·ry – adj – Excessively self-indulgent or self-involved –  just to be clear. Anyway….


Screenwriter  Clark Kohanek

Clark Kohanek

I wanted to share a conversation I had with my brother Clark Kohanek who is a director, story consultant, screenwriter and so much more, and who lives in LA. Clark is my story guru and as a passionate student of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell few people understand human behavior like Clark does. And no, I’m not the only who thinks this.
First let me say that we all inject ourselves into our writing, sometimes intentionally, other times because we bring

Clark with his actors at film festival. they WON!

      Clark with his actors at film festival. They WON!

all that we are to our stories. When we do so consciously, it can be effective, poetic and even magical. But, when we do so compulsively and unconsciously it can become a consistent theme in all our stories and may then eat away at a good narrative.
My initial question to Clark was: Have you ever known a writer who wants to be published and who wants to find an audience, but who constantly injects him/herself into the story – and laurel5who gets in the way of their story by tripping down the slippery slope of tangents that have little to do with the narrative and actually take the reader away from said story – and or who has a fascination with gruesome details that are not fascinating to most people or don’t serve the stories economy, movement or core?
Clark’s Answer: I read a lot of stories as screenplays down here – where people write about issues that exhibit their own needs, and not the characters needs. Much like – Maddie – in your first draft of Manzanita.
Sidebar: I, Mindy, learned this lesson early on in my writing days when I was writing in my own desires, not what my character wanted, needed or would or would not do, but what I, Mindy would do or want. It wasn’t true to my character or story. I since have learned to get the hell out of the way. My character Maddie, is no longer in the book. The book is better for it.
Back to Clark: I too was guilty of the same in my early days – but as you know – that personal process doesn’t work for the worlds we’ve created. What does work – are stories that are based in the same world of ideas – where the characters “express” not exhibit, those thoughts and ideas — metaphorically. The metaphors however must be built through – relationships – how people treat one another and the decisions they make or avoid as they learn through transitions, and change at turning points.
Many of the scripts I read, although sometimes well written – are masturbatory – in that they obsess over one thought that is of interest to the writer – but not the reader, nor do they serve the characters true needs, or nature. This is particularly true when I read several works from the same author who’s themes/actions manifest, though the author is not aware out of habit and not editing content. Much of what those characters do could be summed up in a few choice words – based on subtext – instead of obsessive actions and needs that willfully play out the distemper of the writers who are processing psychological needs on the page – instead of thinking of their stories as they related to the audience.
Good writing – the author gets out the way – Great writing – we don’t realize the author was even there – Bad writing is the constant hint/whiff of ego manifesting in a story, surrounding some type of spiritual or psychological need or damage the author obsesses over or is suffering from. Compulsion is the unconscious act – Obsession is the unconscious thought.
The later can be beautiful or profound – like The Prince of Tides – IF – the author is willing to transcend the wound, heal it on the page and allow the reader in on THAT process – instead of abusing the audience as they too have been abused. That’s thoughtless, un-investigative writing.
It is our job to think – do the work – not just to write down words that FEEL GOOD. It is the juxtaposing of Content in Context to what is being written about (in a conscious way) that the power of the story plays out THROUGH the subtext of the story – not the mere actions of plot.
Bad writing is a WILLFUL act, ego oriented, based on cloaking or hiding an insecurity.
Good writing is a THOUGHTFUL act, a blend of mental prowess, research, sensitivity, conscious restraint and soulful sincerity.

Just to be clear, when I say Good or Bad, what I mean is – what is effective. And also – what is the writer trying to say?
I lean on Aristotle’s POETIC’S here. In his thin, yet profound book on writing – Aristotle makes an argument against reality as something “we can never understand – but only imitate.” Truth is subjective, honesty – although sincere – must be weighed against the subject as to not suffer the same bias, and blindness.
What artist do best is “mimic” and reflect aspects of reality that has the potential to tie into a UNIVERSAL expression of human experience. This manifest in a world of projection, where the freedom of expression gives permission to say more than we care too about who and what we are, revealing depth, creating awareness and sensitivity to the subject. It is also a place were we are sometimes undone by our zeal and need to do so. This is the beauty and risk of artistic expression, a joining of weakness and strength – and all that is human.
The contour of a line in a painting underlies the subject, suggesting separation and meaning, forming foreground and background. The power of a story is NOT in the word, but the subtext that underlies the context of the story — as a whole.
It is our job/desire/hope to pursue THAT universal expression all humanity can embrace. Not alienate the reader because of a personal issue or bias given voice to in story. That’s better served in therapy. I’m not saying there is a totality, but an attempt should be made to communicate – as though a letter from a friend from a front line in a war – be that war or contending with raising children at home, dealing with a drunken abusive spouse, a corrupt congress man or a dangerous assent up the face of Everest. Or a happy occasion like sharing the beauty of a magnificent sun set. Those communications are always expressive and to the point, and do not wander or waste time.
My (Mindy’s) Summation: When I realized after writing the first draft of my novel that I had a main protagonist that really had little to do with the story (Maddie) and that the story was really about the priest, a secondary character, I deleted Maddie’s entire story line and the story now (rightfully) belongs to that secondary character, the priest. I think of Maddie as my first guide into that story world. Without her who was really me I would never have gone so deep or so far. But once I created that world I no longer needed her. Thanks Maddie, you served me well.
It’s critical for us writers to get out of our own way. Move aside and let the characters speak in a way that is unique to them and organic to who they are. And from a marketing standpoint; when a story is universal, it’s marketable, when it transcends a wound, it’s marketable because that’s something we all want or may need to do so we’re drawn to characters who have achieved that which we strive toward. But when a story simply beats, pounds and obsesses over the wound, its marketability is limited to the people who too are in stasis, and can’t see beyond the wound to the transcendence. This offers little to the reader who doesn’t enjoy watching car accidents where everybody dies. If you’re trying to sell books, which ultimately is what most of us (writers) want, then it’s important to keep these things in mind when we edit. I’ve written a ton of stories that will never see the light of day; they’re for my eyes only. But when I write for the book buying/article reading public, I think of my readers when I’m editing; what do they seek, want, desire, wish they’d have said, wish they had the guts to do, what answers are they searching for, what loves have they lost, what regrets do they have. Whet lesson learned will resonate with readers? A finished product – and a book is a product if you want to sell it – must be as much about the reader (which is what makes it universal) as it is about the author, the characters and their unique story world.
Because, let’s be honest, if you want to write gruesome stuff then write it by all means, share it with whoever will listen, but if you want to write a story about characters in a world you created for them, and you want that story to find a broader audience than 1 % of the book buying public, then make sure that gruesome stuff actually fits the story and serves the character’s journey. If it doesn’t, but you still desire that larger audience, then you need to edit. Editing is the painful part of writing, especially if what you’ve written comes from deep in your soul. Just remember that once you’ve purged it onto the page, it’s just material and must be molded to fit the story.


5 comments on “What is Masturbatory Writing?

  1. Christine
    October 19, 2011

    When I read this, I felt like I was in college again. Very informative and thought provoking. I turned off a new TV show tonight because the opening scene, to establish the main characters, went on WAY too long. Talk about masturbatory writing! They were over-explaining – get on with the story already! Thanks for the insight.

  2. Karen
    October 12, 2011

    Always nice to read/hear Clark's words.

  3. Karen
    October 12, 2011

    Always impressed with what Clark has to say.

  4. White Feather
    October 12, 2011

    That was a fantastic post! I truly loved what Clark had to share. Very wise. I agree that there is a lot of masturbatory writing out there and many writers never get past that. Excellent summation, too. Thanks again.Resources For Writers

  5. Stephen Hayes
    October 12, 2011

    So much good information here. Like you, I once wrote a novel and inserted myself into the plot as a major character, only to realize later that the character was simply a distraction. I know I'll read this post a few more times to absorb it all. Thanks.

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