The Truth about Making It as a Writer - A Personal Interview with Screenwriter Whitnee Armstrong
Making it as a writer, in any industry, means getting words on a page. The first words typed are the shabbiest, in everyone’s opinion. If you camp at shabby, you will stay there. Whitnee Armstrong refuses to dwell on her first messy words each morning, and instead marches her fingers across the keyboard every day. She has written commercial scripts for big companies like Kaiser Permanente, stage scripts for local theatres, television sets for TBNSalsa, and most recently, breathtaking wedding vows.
We sat down to chat with Whitnee about her process. By the end of the interview it was clear, Whitnee believes a true storyteller is someone who gets out there and gets a little messy in this life. Enjoy a snippet from her personal writing collection and be sure to follow her on social media for even more great content.
MK: What makes a great story?
WA: A memorable story forms a link between the storyteller and the audience, so they feel they are irreversibly connected.
MK: Does any one memorable story pop into your mind?
WA: Growing up, my dad told us one story I loved! He and his younger brother were left at home for a morning. They were on a tight leash because upon leaving the house my grandma told them, “This house better be sparkling clean when I get back!”
They looked at each other mischievously and said, “Sparkling?” And proceeded to break into my grandma’s crafting closet.
When my grandma got home, she found the entire house. Covered. In. Glitter.
My dad says it was the worst whooping he ever received. That story is cute, has a fun play on words, and delivers a satisfying ending. The reason this story stuck with me throughout my life is because of the feelings it evokes.
MK: What about the glitter you sprinkle on your writing? Tell us some of your tips and tricks for enhancing your creative process.
WA: To help my writing shine, I will write out all my story beats on note cards so I can move them around. I use different washi tape designs to signify each story line, and that helps me organize the thoughts. Keeping little elements of the process simultaneously fun and functional helps me stay in the creative realm. Especially when I am slogging through the more structural elements of a story.
MK: When you create a character, how do you get to know them? What goes into designing their backstory?
WA: I love creating backstory, which led me to pursue writing as a vocation. I was studying acting in college and would spend hours before the show thinking of my characters’ past experiences. I tried to create reasons for why they acted certain ways. Now, when I create new characters, I always spend a little time on each of their backstories. The main characters get a page or so and the supporting characters about a paragraph. Figuring out who these characters are is what gives my story legs.
MK: Grief and humor often show up together in stories and in life. How can a story benefit from a struggle between the two emotions?
WA: My favorite stories are dramedies, stories that deal with grief and humor in equal measure. Grief is such a powerful and suffocating emotion. It demands to be felt. Humans can only take so much though. Humor helps the characters - and the audience - through grief. In the darkest moments of hardship, we need to take a breath from the pain.
One of my favorite books turned movie is The Descendants, starring George Clooney. It is about a man who must take his comatose wife off life support, shortly after discovering she was having an affair. It is one of the funniest movies I have ever seen - somehow not in an irreverent way. I connect with stories, like this one, that balance humor and grief in a messy, beautiful sort of way.
MK: What about some of the hardships you have faced in your writing career? What advice can you give to readers about pursuing something that is not easy for them?
WA: Sitting down to write is like uncorking a bottle. You want to pour the beautiful, tasty wine onto the page. But there are times when the cork is stuck, or the bottle is empty, or the wine somehow froze overnight and now everyone is dying of thirst because I cannot come up with the stupid words! If I focus on the emptiness of the bottle for too long, it turns into a long time without writing anything. Only when I refuse to stop writing does that cork loosen. By writing all the stupid things that will never make it into a final draft do the important, truthful, and beautiful things make themselves known.
You must keep writing.
The other biggest obstacle for me is emotional. I should be confident to call myself a writer. I have written short films and commercials. I have written for online videos and talk shows that aired. My portfolio of completed screenplays continues to grow. I performed spoken word poetry and dabbled in writing music.
When people ask me at parties what I do, do I proclaim with class, “I am a screenwriter!”
I give some sort of round about answer about things I do in order to make a living. Then I proceed to feel horrible about myself for not being where I assumed I would be in my career at this point of my life.
It is a rotten feeling. You might be familiar with it.
But you know what? What do writers do? They write. Do I write? Every day. By that definition, I am a writer. So if you are feeling disheartened and self-conscious about claiming your title as a writer, I say give yourself a little pep talk. If you slog through the hypothetical desert every day to put any amount of words on the page, then you are a writer. Claim it my friend. The rest will follow.
MK: Thank you so much for your uplifting words, Whitnee. It is so good to be working our way through the desert with you. We wish you all the best on your future writing projects!
If you like Whitnee’s style be sure to follow her on social media @whitnee.s.armstrong and stay up to date on all of the exciting things coming. Below are a few of Whitnee’s top picks.