Award-winning novelist and filmmaker Christene Browne tells stories that celebrate culture and give a voice to the voiceless. Her projects have deep dived into a wide range of topics, including poverty, the history of language, and jazz. Christene joined Compound Writing’s Stew Fortier to share tips on building a successful career telling stories — both on the page and on the screen.
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1. Don’t wait. Produce and create.
There is no reason you have to be at the mercy of others for a job. Make and take your own opportunities.
“Produce. The power is in production, for you to be the actual producer. If you are a hired hand… you're waiting for those jobs to come around. But if you're a producer, you're creating the opportunities. You're writing, you're creating, and you're working with your own ideas, as well. So, there's more power in that than waiting for a job to come around. You create your own job when you're the producer.”
2. Try a different medium to stretch your thinking.
Don’t box yourself into one or two comfortable mediums. There is a lot of opportunity to discover different points of view by using a new writing genre. Christine decided quarantine would be a good time to try writing an opera.
“When you're writing a novel, you're just writing words. With opera, you have to condense those words, like writing a poem. It's not poetry, but it's almost like poetry, where you're condensing the words. And you're actually telling the full story within the words as well… you're telling this epic story in a small amount of space, a small amount of time, with a smaller number of characters…
I'm having so much fun working with a small amount of text because it's exhausting spending five years, six years writing a novel. But this, you can go through the whole thing in a week, or less than a week.
So, in terms of getting from the beginning to the end, I'm enjoying how you can create almost a short story, but there's more to it. So I haven't gotten to the stage where I'm actually adding music yet, but I'm looking forward to it. That's my next step.”
3. Working with a new topic? Pick up a children’s book on it.
To tell the best stories, you have to understand what you’re talking about. Tackling vast subjects can be intimidating, but it’s all about breaking them down and making them approachable. Children’s books contain the “ultimate distilled version of a topic.”
“A lot of times when I was doing research, I would go to the library and get a children's book on that particular topic, because whoever wrote that children's book is breaking it down for a child. So, if you can understand it from a child's standpoint, and it's broken down in an understandable way, that's how I would tackle it: just by breaking it down to the simple common denominator.”
4. Before asking a question, know the answer.
Ambitious creative projects call for copious amounts of research. In one of Christene’s most grandiose documentaries, Speaking in Tongues: The History of Language, she recounts the history of language from prehistoric times to the present day. She spent a whole year researching to prepare for interviews.
“I knew that I wanted to get the top linguists in the world in this documentary. In order to speak to them, I had to know what they were going to tell me. When I do my interview workshops, I tell my students that you need to know the answers to the question before you ask the questions.
That's why I had to spend that amount of time doing the research. So it was almost like one full year doing the research. And that was just the different aspects. I found out that linguistics is very splintered.”
5. Considering where to focus? Spend time on the things you’re passionate about.
Creative endeavors can be hard, but at the end of the day, they’re worth it. They might require lots of resources to be high-quality, so drive and passion are must-haves.
“If I can feel something strongly and I'm passionate about it, then I do it. It has to touch me in such a way that I want to spend my time.
Filmmaking, for example, is something that takes a lot of time, takes a lot of energy, takes a lot of money. So, I'm not going to pursue something that I don't love or don't want to, or that I can't spend an amount of time doing.
I make my decisions about my film work based on things that I want, but I know that it's going to take maybe years to produce. So, I have to have that passion from the beginning, to the middle, to the end.”
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