Almost all advice given to writers by supposed experts is wrong

BRIAN KOPPELMAN is a screenwriter, novelist, director, and producer. Prior to his hit show Billions, which he co-created and executive produced (and co- wrote on spec), he was best known as the co-writer of Rounders and Ocean’s Thirteen, as well as a producer of The Illusionist and The Lucky Ones. He has directed films such as Solitary Man, starring Michael Douglas. Brian also hosts The Moment podcast. One of my favorite episodes is with John Hamburg, who wrote and directed I Love You, Man and wrote Meet the Parents, among many other films. It’s like film school and an MFA in screenwriting wrapped into one conversation.

What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?
These are the books I have given away/recommended the most. They have all also been crucial in my life.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

Awaken the Giant Within by Tony Robbins City of Thieves by David Benioff

I know that’s four books, but each one is worth talking about a bit. The Murakami book is the single best distillation of the kind of focus, commitment, and sense of mission it takes to become a great artist. He is ostensibly writing about his running life—and he is widely regarded as a great distance runner— but what he’s really talking about is how to strip away everything you don’t need in order to achieve your purpose. It’s a rigorous, inspiring book that challenges the reader to step up. It’s also gorgeously written nonfiction by, to me, the world’s best writer of fiction.

The Artist’s Way contains the single best tool for becoming unblocked that I have ever come across [which is morning pages]. If you have the sense, deep inside you, that you are running away from your true purpose, this book will help you break through.

Tony Robbins’ work has always been useful to me. That’s one of the reasons my creative partner, David Levien, and I executive produced I Am Not Your Guru, the documentary about Tony. This book was the first of his I read, and it asked me crucial questions about the stories I was telling myself that were limiting my growth. I don’t know anyone who couldn’t benefit from a little Tony.

And, lastly, City of Thieves by Benioff. This book is just a joy. Fiction has a real utility, and it’s one I think high achievers sometimes forget, and that is: fictions stirs you up inside, unsettles you, forces you to engage with that which isn’t easily solved. This book does all that and delights along the way. I’ve given it to 100 people. All of them thanked me and gave away a bunch themselves.

How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours?
For a period of time, we sold one pilot idea a year to a premium cable network. We would tell them the idea, they would pay us to write it, and then we’d deliver the script, only to have them tell us they no longer wanted to make that kind of show. Each time they flushed one of these scripts, it killed me. I fell in love with each show and saw how to make it, but I didn’t own it anymore. The last time this happened, it hurt in a different way. The way that makes you sit up and say: no more. So the next time we had a great idea for a show, we decided to write it on spec instead of selling it in advance. The notion being, if someone wanted to buy the finished pilot script, we’d have some leverage in the dealmaking, might be able to insist on them actually making it. Turned out that the next idea was Billions.

[Billions ended up costarring Emmy and Golden Globe winners Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis. It had the best-ever series debut as a Showtime original series, and it has recently been renewed for a third season.]

What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?

Ping-Pong. I love everything about the game. Jerome Charyn’s great book about pong, Sizzling Chops and Devilish Spins, captures the way the game makes me feel. I know it seems like a silly sport, but when you are inside of it, it’s the opposite of that. It moves fast, requires deep strategy, asks you to control your fear, to commit to your shots, to bounce back and get ready for the next shot the moment you hit the first. I have been playing four or five times a week for almost a year, and I only wish I’d committed this deeply years before.

What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months (or in recent memory)?
My Butterfly Petr Korbel table tennis racket. Because when I bought it, I knew I was really committing to my training as a Ping-Pong player. I have always loved the game, always told myself I’d try to get good someday. Buying it said that day is now.

What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
Almost all advice given to writers by supposed experts is wrong. Because almost all of it tells the aspirant to engage in some kind of calculation about marketing before setting out to write. Now, in nonfiction, this may make sense. But that’s not my thing. For artists, the most important thing is total engagement. So I always tell writers to follow their curiosity, obsessions, and fascinations.

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