My first foray into prose writing was an intended (i.e., never written) novel called “The Monrovians”. Prior to that point, I was a songwriter and one of my songs was inspired by my time at James Monroe High School in New York City. I thought I might be able to resurrect the exhilaration and angst of those youthful years in the South Bronx, struggling to lift myself out of a dead-end existence. Perhaps it was the movie “The Warriors (1969)” that solidified my determination to “tell my story”. Or maybe it was the old adage “write what you know” (attributed to the immortal Mark Twain) that sent me down that easily navigated road. In any event, the effort was short-lived when I quickly came to the conclusion that what I know and what I’ve experienced is simply not all that interesting.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had many amazing moments in my life, even prior to becoming an indie film producer. Many of those moments translate into bad memories that I wouldn’t want to relive anyway. But they were defining moments in my development as a human being, an adult, a Jew, a husband, a father, and a humanitarian. But the cumulative effect of my childhood and youthful experience, when laid out end-to-end, make a less viable story than even “Heaven’s Gate” or “Ishtar”. It didn’t take much for me to figure out that “write what you know” does not mean “write about yourself”. Neither does it mean that you should just write about what you see around you. Every story, be it a novel or a screenplay, needs to be about well-developed characters in compelling situations. More often than not, it requires that you shake off your ego and put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
I admire Spike Lee on many levels: as a screenwriter, a filmmaker, educator, film historian, Knicks fan, etc. He’s a contemporary of mine, attending John Dewey High in Brooklyn while I was attending James Monroe. We probably grew up in very similar neighborhoods. (We’re even of the same diminutive stature, 5’6” tall.) I get Spike Lee. There’s no need to explain where his and my life experiences diverge. But growing up in working class, ethnically diverse New York communities is a shared culture. Being marginalized by our communities while maintaining strong ethnic identities is a shared experience. Yet, we took different paths in life. Lee chose to follow his passion into filmmaking quite early in his life. Let’s focus on him from this point forward.
Here is a person raised in South Brooklyn, who travels up to Times Square in Manhattan to go to the movies. Why is that? Because movies are his passion. And the only way to watch movies is in the classic movie houses that were built for cinema. Moreover, there was a film revolution going on as Lee was approaching manhood. The year 1971 brought us “Shaft” and 1972 brought us “Superfly”. Here was a melding of Lee’s culture and his passion. Black heroes killing bad guys and getting the girl. Audiences going berserk with glee. Was it their reality? No, it was not. It was their dream. Or more accurately, it was a melding of parts of their reality with what they wanted most: to be the hero for a change. The Black Experience, turned on its ear, and young film buff Spike Lee absorbed it like a sponge.
While Lee’s earlier films, like “Do The Right Thing” and “Macolm X”, reflected a harsher, closer-to-home reality, his style and sensibilities evolved. He smoothly interspersed history (“4 Little Girls”), sports (“He Got Game”), literary adaptation (“Miracle At St Anna”) and musical-comedy(“Chi-Raq”) into his repertoire, because these all became (or had been) integral to the development of his own life experience. Even the semi-autobiographical “Crooklyn” was not really about Spike Lee, but rather a representation of his family’s struggles back on Coney Island. This collaboration with his siblings may never have been made by Lee on his own. But having pursued the project, its success lies, not in its accurate portrayals, but in Spike Lee’s own stellar storytelling abilities that elevate the movie beyond the biographical facts.
Storytellers — the really good ones — will do thorough research in order to understand their subject matter, even if it might seem to be something they already ought to be familiar with. Some research is intentional, whereas other is by osmosis. You tend to absorb what interests you, particularly if you relate to it intellectually or emotionally. It doesn’t have to be part of your normal life experience. Indeed, you should go out of your way to find that which is unfamiliar to you, if it broadens your perspective. After that, you must always come back to the compelling story. Reject the impulse to write about yourself directly, even if you find yourself to be your most interesting character. Instead, try writing about that other you that finds themself on a fabulous hero’s journey that takes them to a place you’ve never been before. Sorry, but we really don’t want to hear about you. We want to hear a wonderful story. And we want to hear you tell it!
About Joe Gruberman:
Joe Gruberman is an Arizona-based writer, educator, and award-winning multimedia producer. His latest two films, ELEVEN ELEVEN and RAISING BUCHANAN, are available on most streaming platforms.