Old school writing lessons

Eavesdropping on David Mamet’s Quick Masterclass at All That Matters 2020

By Karl de Mesa

David Mamet

At 72 years old, David Mamet has definitely earned the tag of American arts icon. Growing up in Chicago, he worked odd jobs as a waiter, cabdriver, and real-estate agent, until he eventually started his career in the arts as a playwright. And though his accomplishments in drama are astounding, there are two iconic moments in his oeuvre of movies that are personally damn memorable. First is the scene in the 1992 movie adaptation of his play Glengarry Glen Ross, for which Mamet won a Pulitzer Prize, about the high testosterone, chest-thumping world of real estate salesmen. 

It’s where Blake (played by Alec Baldwin), the guy from head office who comes down to tell everyone that under-performers will be shit canned, tells the aging rank and file salesman Jack Lemmon “Coffee is for closers.” And then proceeds to tell the rest of the room: “First prize is a Cadillac Eldorado, second prize is a set of steak knives, and the third prize is you’re fired.”

More resonant for me is 2008’s Redbelt, an offspring of Mamet’s infatuation with jiu-jitsu and the martial arts in general. This was before Chiwetel Ejiofor (who here plays Mike Terry, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt) became a big star with 12 Years a Slave or being on Doctor Strange. And though the film is largely prickly and thorny in its expression of conflict between personal, martial honor, and spiritual purity versus the empowerment of material wealth and comfort, it’s Mamet being acute in capturing emotively what many in the fighting world struggle with when they do gain a measure of fame and success. 

At one point, Terry’s wife Sondra (played by Alice Braga) asks him bluntly:

“You think it is noble? The code of the warrior?” 

Terry replies nonchalantly, “No. I think it is correct.” 

She continues then and says: “My father made money, my brothers make money, and you are somehow too pure. And what about the fighter’s family Mike? What do they eat while he is being so pure?”

Beyond these two quintessentially Mamet moments for me was the chance to learn at the feet of a master storyteller at the All That Matters 2020, Asia’s leading entertainment industry conference. 

This workshop and series of talks happened from Sept. 14 to18, now held 100 percent online, featuring world-class business leaders, creators, and artists from across the globe, as they tried to reimagine the future of music, sports, gaming, and online entertainment in the context of accelerated change brought about by the Covid pandemic, which has forced many industries to reassess their models and strategies.

Mamet was one of the speakers on re-visualizing creativity and storytelling post-pandemic.

Though the hoary-headed senior was at turns snarky and quirky, sardonic and curmudgeonly, he was always straightforward and truthful, never pandering to any garden variety, slam book queries one can Google. 

Here are excerpts of the storytelling lessons that writers of any level and experience can take from the man who wrote 1997’s Wag the Dog. 


I started writing because I got held up. I was driving a cab, I worked on a lot of jobs. When I was a kid, I didn’t really have any skills so I worked a lot of entry level jobs. And one of them was I was a cab driver for a year. And then I was doing pretty good but I got held up. And then the yellow cab company said, “Well, if you get held up, you can come down to the yellow cab company and prove you were held up. We’ll give you $12 to make up for however much money that you lost.” So I went down there and I spent a day when they were kicking me from pillar to post and I thought: There’s got to be an easier way to make a living! So I started writing.


I boil them down, and I write them down, and I rewrite them. I try to find the kernel: that which one cannot throw away. So if you look at movies, there’s always at least one scene in probably a bunch of scenes you can throw away. You don’t need them. How do I know? Because that’s the scene in the movie theater where you go to get the popcorn. Why do you go to get the popcorn in that scene? Because you know, when it starts, that you don’t have to see it to understand the movie. And if you’d be sitting at home, that’s where you’re gonna have to go into the other room. So what I tried to do is get rid of that scene to hold the audience’s attention. Because if I can hold the audience’s attention, I can buy little booties for my wife. And if I can’t hold the audience’s attention, I gotta go back to driving a cab.


I write every day. But writing also includes reading and napping. So if I can make sure that the last two take up the majority of my day, I can be a happy camper. When I’m making up fantasies, if there’s an historical event involved, I want to make sure that I don’t get it wrong. So there’s a lot of great research tools, among them Wikipedia. But other than that, I just make it up. Because that’s what interests me.


I’ve never known how to cater for any audience. I mean, I figure I got a pretty bizarre imagination and a precise sense of humor. So if I can amuse myself, I figure I can probably amuse someone else. That’s not always true, but that’s the only test you have. So there’s no one in the world who knows how to cater to someone else’s imagination. All that they can do is prostitute themselves and write for someone who in their imagination is stupider than Michael Bay. 


I’ve been using a typewriter for 50 years and I like it. So you know, I don’t think it’s much different than a chef having his favorite pans and his favorite spatula. It’s just what you’re used to. You like the feel of it. I tried reading and writing on the computer a couple times but I don’t like the touch. It’s so different. It’s like the difference between, say, if I did play the piano. Playing an actual piano and playing an electronic piano. 


I’ll be damned if I know the answer . But I was reading a book I wrote a while ago called On Directing Film. Pretty good book! And in it, I noticed that some writer ridiculed a screenwriter, because the screenwriter was blind. So they think “Well, how can you be a screenwriter if you’re blind?” You don’t have to see anything. To be a screenwriter, you have to be able to imagine. That’s what you need to be able to do. Whether you imagine it as pictures, or you imagine words on a page, they’re all ideas. For example: When we tell a joke we say to people going down the street, there’s a manhole in the middle of the street. One person turns to the other and says, “Why are you wearing that hat?”

Okay, so now you’re listening to me, right? I’m not either imagining the words, nor am I imagining the manhole. I’m just telling you a story. And that’s what dramatic writing is.


I do writing for a living. I’ve always done it for a living. So young people want to be able to make their own discoveries. Also, it’s in the way that I saw things. You know I was born right after World War II—it’s very different from the way people see things who were born after Sept. 11, right? So I’m holding on by my teeth to writing because I like it. And I don’t know what else to do. Technology always changes. You know performing in my lifetime changed from vaudeville—which was live entertainment—to radio, from radio to the movies, and from movies to television. And that’s all in 100 years. So every time it changed, everything went out the window as it’s doing now.


Well, I think the only real true measure of success is when you’ve achieved all the fame and all the money in the world. Everyone else? Well, and also anyone else who’s competing with you dies.