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The “Yes” Session

line The “Yes” Session

The one thing we know for certain about creativity is that it’s fragile. Since we don’t know where it comes from—and don’t know where or why it goes—we’d be well advised to treat it well when it’s here.

At the inaugural meeting of a new writers’ group on Saturday, exactly how to help each other was the question of the hour. Writing is intensely solitary, taking place almost entirely within the skull of one person. How can we help each other without being negative? Critics like to talk about “constructive criticism”—does such an animal exist?

The answer is: Yes. The process is both simple and powerful.

During the meeting, I remembered something I’d read last year about the extraordinary creative process that Chuck Jones (director of such animated legends as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and the Road Runner) followed at Warner Brothers. Since producing an animated film takes lots of moving parts, the chances for a film’s success would depend upon the effectiveness of the collaboration between all those involved—the writers, directors and the production people.

Following the inception of a story idea or premise and some rough storyboard sketches, three directors (including Chuck), three writers, and the production chief would assemble. Chuck will pick up the tale from here:

This session was, I believe, an event unique to Warner Bros. Unique at that time, perhaps anytime. Because this was not a brainstorming session in the usual sense, it was a “yes” session, not an “anything goes” session. Anything went, but only if it was positive, supportive, and affirmative to the premise. No negatives were allowed. If you could not contribute, you kept quiet. For want of a better term, I have always called it…

THE “YES” SESSION. Again, the “yes” session is not a brainstorming session; repeat, it is not a session in which anything goes. The purpose is to advance an idea or ideas, not an emotional outburst for the emotional benefit of the participants or as a story man’s confession of a buried affair with a girl’s track shoe. The “yes” session only has one objective: to write a story.

The “yes” session imposes only one discipline: the abolition of the word “no.” Anyone can say “no.” It is the first word a child learns and often the first word he speaks. It is a cheap word because it requires no explanation, and many men and women have acquired a reputation for intelligence who know only this word and have used it in place of thought on every occasion. The “yes” session lasts only for two hours, but a person who can only say “no” finds it an eternity. Negative-minded people have been known to finally inflate and burst with accumulated negatives and say something positive, because it is also true that a person who heretofore can only say “no” is also a person who must say something.

A “no” is defined as any negative: “I don’t like it.” “There must be a better way.” “I don’t like to criticize, but…” “I’ve heard that one before.” “I don’t know.” Or: “Oh, for Christ’s sake, Chuck.” All are roadblocks impeding the advancement and exploration of the value of an idea and are forbidden.

Of course, all story ideas are not good or useful, and if you find you cannot contribute, then silence is proper, but it is surprising how meaty and muscular a little old stringy “yes” (which is another name for a premise) can become in as little as fifteen or twenty minutes, when everyone present unreservedly commits his immediate impulsive and positive response to it. And, of course, the enlightened self-interest of pouring your contributions unreservedly out in another director’s story session is sufficient motivation; your turn will inevitably come to present an idea to the group in another session, and at such a time you, too, will want, need, and expect full cooperation. A good premise always generates the most astonishing results.

From Chuck Amuck, by Chuck Jones (Avon Books, 1989), p. 150-52.