Lewis Jackson holds a BFA in Film from Loyola Marymount University, an MA in English from Chapman University, and is presently a candidate for an MFA in Creative Writing at Chapman. His short story “Six Bullets for Harold Greene” will appear in the literary journal Margins. Jackson’s previous work includes writing and directing the short film “The Duel.”
As you hold a BFA in film, did you start out with screenwriting or have you always written prose fiction?
I started writing prose fiction when I was about twelve. I found out about a story contest at my local library and decided to write. Up until then I’d been drawing a lot of cartoons. My mother would buy me sketch pads, and I would draw comic book stories in them, mostly rip-offs of popular cartoons like Darkwing Duck or the Super Mario Brothers. My first story was a fantasy story that was inspired by the Redwall series by Brian Jacques, which I loved when I was a kid. I never finished it. My attention span wasn’t quite long enough back then.
I didn’t start writing screenplays until I got to film school. Even though a lot of people seemed to approach them as if they were entirely different, I discovered that quite a lot of what I learned in my screenwriting classes really helped a lot when I began writing prose again at Chapman. Because films are so expensive to make, there’s a real emphasis on how to communicate ideas efficiently. Screenwriting instructors emphasize story structure and character arcs a lot and, since film is a visual medium, it’s a great way for writers to familiarize themselves with the concept of “show don’t tell.”
Do you prefer one type of writing over the other?
Screenplays are a lot of fun to write if you’re very visually minded and you have some input on how it’s going to be filmed. Because film relies on so many elements in order to tell a story–art direction, costumes, actors, cinematography, sound design, music, etc.–it’s really the director who gets to tell the story, not the writer. If I was in the position of Stanley Kubrick or the Coen Brothers, then I’m sure that I’d prefer screenplays over prose. At the moment, I’m really enjoying writing prose again.
What has been the greatest gain for you as a writer from your work within the MFA program?
I’ve become a lot more disciplined. As I mentioned earlier, I never finished the first story that I tried to write when I was twelve. In fact, I don’t think I ever finished a story until I was in college, despite writing pages and pages. There’s a whole stack of notebooks at my parents’ house that are filled with attempts to write novels and short stories, all unfinished. It wasn’t until I came to Chapman and encountered published, working authors that I learned how to approach writing as a job. They set quotas for themselves and force themselves to stick to it. It was a real eye-opener that allowed to me to write a lot without getting burned out or overwhelmed.
Has any instructor in particular influenced your writing?
All the professors at Chapman have been really great, and I’ve learned a lot from them. However, it’s my first screenwriting professor from Loyola who has probably influenced me the most. She was a great teacher, really concerned with the basics of how to tell a story, how to write characters, and how to craft dialogue. On our first day of class, she actually demonstrated the concept of “show don’t tell” to all of her students using crossword puzzles. The first was a normal puzzle that you had to work to figure out while the second actually told you the answers along with the clues. For example, the first clue was: “A large, gray mammal that lives in Africa; an elephant.” Her point was that when your audience didn’t have to figure anything out on their own while watching a film, they’d get bored. Simple but very insightful. The saddest thing is that she was a great teacher, but for the life of me, I can’t remember her name. I even kept the textbook she wrote for us but didn’t put her name to. It makes me feel sad.
You have been drafting a novel, in part, for your MFA thesis project. Could you tell us a bit about the novel’s premise and what gave you the initial idea for it?
The novel is a war story set in the Western Front during World War One. It’s inspired by a real life phenomenon called “live and let live,” whereby the soldiers in the opposing armies cooperated with each other to avoid having to attack. I found out about it while watching a documentary on the war. The filmmakers had gotten a hold of a bunch of letters from disillusioned soldiers who were bragging to the folks back home about how they’d bamboozled their commanding officers into thinking that they were patrolling the enemy when they were really just sitting out in no-man’s land minding their own business. One group of German soldiers threw a note into the British trenches apologizing for an upcoming bombardment and blaming the whole thing on their commander. It brought the contrast between the generals sitting comfortably behind the lines and the soldiers suffering in the trenches to life in a really amusing way. I’d been interested in writing a story set during the war for a while, and since my stories always have a comic slant to them, I instantly saw that this would be a great premise.
My process is all about experimenting, testing new ideas and new approaches to see what works and what doesn’t. My writing professor at Loyola always said that if something isn’t working, it never will; throw it out and do something different. I think that’s a really good attitude for a writer; be ruthless with your own material. It’s one of the reasons why my war story has gone through so many false-starts. I often find that one approach doesn’t work so I go back and try a different one [and] end up with multiple versions of the same premise. It’s really helped me see where my strengths and weaknesses lie as a writer, the stuff I keep and the stuff I cut.