James Sadwith is a screenwriter, producer, and Emmy Award-winning director, best known for his many television productions, which have won or been nominated for a combined total of more than 35 Emmy and Golden Globe Awards. He won an Emmy for best director for his PBS miniseries Sinatra. Most recently, Sadwith wrote and directed the 2016 feature film Coming Through the Rye, which is based on his own experiences as a teenager tracking down and visiting the reclusive author J.D. Salinger. The film won multiple awards on the film festival circuit before being released in select movie theaters in October 2016 to strong reviews in the New York Times, the Hollywood Reporter, and RogerEbert.com, among others.
What is the most important thing you’ve learned about writing?
I think the most important thing I’ve learned about writing – well, there’s two most important things. One is I find that I do my best writing when I tune everything else out. Whether it’s when I stop listening to the news, or I’m just thinking about characters when I’m driving. Then they start to live and breathe. I just find I focus much better if I isolate myself, at least media-wise, when I’m trying to get a handle on my characters and trying to let them develop.
The other most important thing for me is to write every day. Or at least treat it like a job, like a 9-to-5 job. Because I find that on days when I feel least inspired, I sit there and I force myself to write and force myself to type keys and see what comes out. Sometimes a day or two or three days later when I’ve looked at the material, I’m thinking: “That’s not half bad. That’s pretty good.” And then there [are] days when I feel completely inspired, and it feels like the words are just flowing out, the muse is on my shoulder, and I’m writing for four or five hours straight. And I look at that stuff the next day or two days later, and just as often as not, I’m thinking, “Oh my god, that sucks.” So I think for me, it’s treating it like a job, and not just waiting for the muse. So if I find myself stuck – where once again there’s no internet and no phone – and I can just sit there for three, four, five hours. I’ll take a break, or take a walk or something like that, but just letting it percolate in my mind for that period of time without interruptions is much better.
How have those things helped you as a writer?
Well, certainly, they both help me get past blocks. Because if I say, “OK, I’m going to type something, like a typing exercise to get the fingers moving,” it gets me past that block. And like I say, as often as not, that’s sometimes some of my best material. And it’s the same thing with shutting off external stimuli that can distract you. Both of them keep me moving forward. And then another aspect of moving forward is I try not to reread my material until I’m a ways down the road.
Let’s say I’ve been writing for four days or five days, and I start to feel stuck. I might go back and look at what I’ve written then. But I don’t try every day to go back over the same material. I think that’s a real trap. For me, I like to finish something before I show it to other people, because I’m afraid. One, if they really like it, that’ll make me feel like I’m done; and two, if they don’t like it, sometimes that can really stop me. Whereas, if I go over it myself later, I can see things that I want to correct that other people might not look at. Then I don’t get that negative feedback, which can sometimes really bring things to a screeching halt.
—Gabriel Packard is the author of the novel The Painted Ocean, published in 2016 by Corsair/Little, Brown.