Toronto-based writer and filmmaker Nedda Sarshar speaks with InvisiBlog’s guest editor Amanda Ghazale Aziz on figuring out what format works best for each story, learning how to write scripts, and working on documentaries.
Amanda Ghazale Aziz: The fact that most writers write beyond one genre and form is obvious, but it’s something I’ve been interested in talking about with people I’ve interviewed on the blog because the answer on how they do it varies. What kind of work have you been doing more of these days?
Nedda Sarshar: I used to write strictly nonfiction, but now I’m spending more and more time writing screenplays. I have some resolutions in 2020 to get myself to finalize a short film and a spec script. Sometimes the only way for me to figure out where a screenplay is going is to turn it into a short story, and oftentimes I find myself thinking “I like it better this way.” I’m not sure how writers can stick to one genre over another, because for me if it feels forced when I’m not doing it right.
How do you figure which story works best in what format? Does genre, form, or narrative come to you first when writing?
Story always comes first. I once wrote an essay about my grandmother that I really liked and wanted to workshop, and when I was at the Banff Centre in 2018 for an Emerging Writers residency to workshop it, someone in my group mentioned that I could consider turning this piece into a nonfiction media project, and it was like a spark went off! I’d spent three years trying to get this piece to work as nonfiction, but it took reimagining it as something else to realize where it needed to go.
I would say that no matter which format you’re going for, you have to start putting words on the page. After that, through feedback and your own edits, you can always rewrite or change it— but you need a solid draft to build on.
Sometimes it is a matter of format! And you’ve worked on documentaries, too. I was wondering if you could tell me the process of writing nonfiction versus fiction for the screen?
The thing with doing documentaries is you have to take what is being handed to you. When I made a documentary, I had a list of questions I was going to ask an interviewee but realized that it was going to show if it felt too scripted. So instead we just turned the camera on and tried to capture the reality of a situation and then in the editing room made it tie into the truth of the narrative we were trying to spin. It took longer than we thought and it meant immersing yourself as an observer in the subject you were trying to tell a story about but it was well worth it.
With narrative, you do not have to wait for drama— you come in with a script that serves as your guide. It’s not a perfect guide and it’s important to adjust to it, but at least you know where your drama is going to be happening and what direction it should be taking.
Any advice on getting through the technical aspects of screenwriting if you’re new it?
I remember not wanting to start because I felt I had to get the format right. The “technical” formats of screenwriting can always come later, you’ll be surprised how easy it is to pick up. If I were to go back I would tell myself to stop reading “how-to’s” with screenwriting that were bringing me more anxiety, and just start reading other screenplays. Also join some screenwriting groups online. I’m a member of InkCanada on Facebook and the advice and community that you get from a group like that is worth more than any class you’ll actually take in screenwriting.
What films and TV shows have you been watching lately? And what are the ones you revisit?
Since I work at the TIFF Bell Lightbox I get to watch feature films regularly, so it’s hard to pick. I also make an effort to go to other film festivals in Toronto, like the Regent Park Film Festival. I saw Lulu Wang’s The Farewell at RPFF and it was my favourite movie of 2019. I’ve watched it a dozen times since then, and always have a new experience. I love stories that bring the trials and messiness of diasporas to life— it’s the sort of story that I want to be creating.
What do you know now that you didn’t know before when you had started out as a writer?
That it doesn’t always work out. Hopefully one day me and everyone else are making money entirely off of our writing. But that might not happen, and it’s important to start this process with a lot of self-forgiveness and patience. Along the way the artistic thing to do is to look at the world around you and the materials that you have been given to create stories.
Nedda Sarshar hails from an Iranian immigrant family in Toronto, Ontario. She graduated from Syracuse University in 2017 with a Bachelor of Arts in Writing, Policy Studies, and Citizenship and Civic Engagement. She has attended the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity’s Emerging Writers Program, as well as has written for This Magazine.