|01-15-2005, 01:50 AM||#1|
Creativity and luxury
I've been remembering early days when my writing was so much more difficult, so much more constipated than it is now. And the person I was seeing (a therapist) I now realize was not at all helpful in bringing an actual creative process out of me. He is an amazing person, but he was a stern father who was convinced my lyrical lack of discipline was the problem. In some ways he was right, but in many ways, he set me back.
THE DIFFICULTY OF WAITING
We are literal-minded creatures. Our first thoughts of writing, many of us, are of living an image: the image of a possessed alcohol-fueled genius pounding on a typewriter at midnight (that was mine anyway; Faulkner as he wrote "As I Lay Dying" while working the night shift at a coal mine). And we say - that is what I must do. I must fill that image.
And so we sit at a typewriter and hope to be possessed. Yet we are not. Our emptiness, our boredom terrifies us. The banality of the experience terrifies us. Because a creative act is so often a referendum on ourselves, on our self-worth. I am empty because I have no talent. I feel banality here because I am boring. What is wrong with me?
Simultaneously, while not in the Dreaded Chair, we fondle ideas that appear unbidden in cars, bathrooms, restaurants. We don't allow them to penetrate too deeply because we are suddenly possessive of our new idea, like a child. I have found an IDEA. It belongs to me. It is now my story. It is my special story.
The story is placed in a plastic container and put on a high shelf where you cannot reach it. It is touched upon in thoughts more as "my project" or "the script I will show Amy's boyfriend" when it is ready. "My spec". "My comedy".
STORY DIES WITHOUT TOUCH
I am acquainted with a person whose stories are like jewelry no one gets to wear for fear the will be stolen or lost. This person's fragility and grandiose esteem are so acute that bringing the story down from the shelf is filled with pitfalls. On the rare occasions he brings them down to show himself or others, he quickly puts it away again. Because the story is doing something frightening.
It is trying to change.
Stories want to change. They are living, growing, organic entities. The writer that is in dialogue with his or her story, who LISTENS to his or her story, who TELLS his or her story in words to other people is engaged in a process that threatens to extend far into the foreseeable future.
If we do the honest work of writing, our stories become ineffable, they fluctuate, reveal contradictions, sometimes fatal flaws. The more we touch them, the more they want to change.
But we desperately want them to stay recognizable, because we can keep our equilibrium then. We know our story is Good because we got some validation at some point. We know our story is Good and we want it to Stay Good. If it starts wiggling, if characters start heading off in unexpected directions, if they start dying or refusing to serve their plot function then the story is suddenly liquid.
The ego-mind can't rely on it. The ego-mind with its plans for publishers and producers and phone calls and brads and Staples and Amy's boyfriend's agent who said the premise was "intriguing". Ego-mind would prefer the bird in the hand.
WHY WE ARE STINGY
This constant gripping, this holding onto what We Are Certain Of in a story is the entropic side of the creative process. The releasing, the letting go, the phrase "Oh @#%$, what am i doing?" or "@#%$ it, I'm lost. This just went off a cliff" and doing something strange and new that structually DAMAGES your old foundation is the pulsing heart of story. That is how stories develop and thrive. That's how they are nurtured.
But Ego-mind is very, very stingy. Sacrificing something "real" to an "unreal" request from the unconscious is so illogical that Ego-mind will not allow it. The thing Ego-mind is most stingy with is TIME. If story demands to dissipate into something less formed as a result of a revelation of some kind, Ego-mind muscles it back into line because it would take too much TIME to Rewrite what we have already done. And if we followed the logic of the change we would have to CUT that scene that we know proves the whole story is Good. Ego-mind refuses to give Time.
But the ironies abound. In this stand-off between our Ego-mind and our unconscious (which cares only for aesthetic beauty and nothing for material results) we can spend months or years doing nothing, in a stalemate.
WHY WE MUST LIVE IN LUXURY AS WRITERS
As writers, we must be luxurious. And what is the greatest luxury we have to give ourselves?
As the world rushes around us, demanding that we become self-sufficient and Adult and our Inner Timeline demands we have the script done by October because "i made a promise to myself"....all the story wants is Time. Time spent engaging in authentic interaction.
Paul Attanassion said to me: When I started Donnie Brasco I had no children. When I finished I had a two year old and a four year old. Is that foolish to spend such time on a two hour piece of entertainment? I don't think so. I think it was necessary.
Attannassio writes entire drafts to discover one scene. And then he will start over, understanding that the whole movie's essence is expressed in that one scene, and that the other scenes must service that essence in a completely different way now.
Ron Nyswaner always starts a new draft with a blank page, even if it's just a polish. There is something about the threat/possibility of the blank page that he finds potent.
My favorite writer (that is also my friend) will yammer at me for days about a single scene in his script. I will say, shut up! It doesn't matter! It's a transition! What do you care? He dies that it is not correct. He putters, tries, gives up, sleeps, thinks, yammers at me, yammers at his wife, thinks, thinks, thinks, tries, tries something different. His story is being nurtured. He is giving it his true love, his true time.
Writing is living with an unsolved problem...and as we solve pieces of the problem, allowing the problem to rebuild itself to become unsolvable again. We must let the BEARING WALLS of the story, the thing that holds it together, go....drift away...disappear, because a properly written story is always a completely different being than the story we sat down to write.
Annie Dillard says that living with a story is like holding the hand of a dying friend. Living with one's helplessness, living with a river of change.
IF WE TREATED OURSELVES AS "PROFESSIONALS"
I cannot count the number of pre-professional writers I have been in contact with whose scripts reveal their lack of respect for themselves. Their scripts tell me they are not professionals because I can tell almost immediately that Ego-mind was running the show. Story never had a say in anything. There was only miserliness, never luxury.
If we were luxurious, we would plan four months of nothing but research on our subject. We would interview the kinds of people our story is about. We would spend an entire day eavesdropping on conversations, just listening to cadences and speech patterns, metabolizing the way people actually talk. We would go to police stations and mortuaries and churches to see and smell the immediate things that make a story feel alive on the page. We would notice and collect little pieces of truth that we could then flutter through our script like confetti.
If we were luxurious, we would rent stacks of DVD's that bore some vague peripheral relationship to our idea, because we would recognize there is no such thing as a New Plot, every screenplay has a template of some kind (even C. kaufman screenplays). Instead of Ego-mind holding onto the grandiose notion of Uniqueness (and thus, instant greatness), Story would be permitted to watch these films closely. Story would be permitted to carefully note when in the story certain events took place. How the information was prevented. What information was ommitted.
If we were luxurious, we would presume long periods spent rewriting - not rewriting dialogue, rewriting the beams, the seams of the story. Rebuilding the whole house. Change creates space, and the space is gratefully filled by Story who rushes to the rescue with some marvelous, strange new invention we never could have predicted or invented before we made the decision to abandon the old idea.
In our twisted logic, we think we are being EFFICIENT by rushing all these processes. We think we are being DECISIVE by rushing to lock down key story points and print them in stone forever. We think we are SAVING TIME when we neglect our research and instead rush in our ignorance to the computer to record the empty chattering of an unfilled head.
I have memories of Battles I have had with certain stories. And the ones that were successful usually had some kind of make or break juncture where I had to act courageously or the story would recede into entropy.
It would have to do to opening my heart to some change that I really, really didn't want to make, but that my Writing Conscience wouldn't allow me NOT to make. It would usually involve doing something unplanned (without warning my Ego-mind producers), and thus risking a bigger failure.
Let the Story have lots of time off from being good. Give it plenty of time off to be incoherent. Feed it with research and writing books and DVD's and novels and magazines. Follow the very strange tangents or impulses. Treat the world as if it is controlled by a great puzzle-master constantly giving you clues about your story. In the lilt of a palm tree, in the inflection in your wife's voice, in the problem you had at the ATM machine. The universe is registering its opinion and giving you openings all the time to serve your story.
Rearrange the furniture in your office. On one story, I made everything diagonal. I put all the furniture on a diagonal to the room. I made a corkboard with all the images on diagonals. I made the room symmetrical because I wanted the story to be symmetrical. And disorienting, like a funhouse ride. So I made my office that way.
These intuitive acts of faith reap rewards. Just the patient cleaning of your computer, or the reverent stacking of your books, or the determination to walk a new route. Or a new decision to get up early to "write" before work. The ideas tumble out, in rushes. Don't miss them! you'll forget them. Especially on the threshold of sleep and waking.
Imagine someone has commissioned you to write your current story for a million dollars. And you are embarking on this venture, to create something complete and thorough and professional and flawless. Something that makes it's eventual owner say: yes, this was worth what I paid for it.
If you were in advertising, you wouldn't hesitate to spend thousands of dollars on mock-ups or presentations - yet you're stingy with your sick days at work?
If you were in real estate, you would take it as a given that you would have to pound the pavement, do a lot of shoe leather work - yet you're stingy with time for research?
Does every character in your screenplay sound like a real person?
Does every scene have a narrative function?
Does every scene end on a note of curiosity and change, demanding the next piece of information?
Does every scene advance plot, character, relationship and theme?
have you written back stories, 15 or 20 pages long for each major character (forget "I was born", just start with what is intuitively relevant. what is the person's story, what's their problem, what's their thing)
Do your paramedics sound like paramedics?
Do your policemen sound like policemen?
Are your business people actually people you would find discussing business in the city you live in?
Have you visited the city you're story is set in? Have you taken pictures of buildings and roads so you can name real places in your story?
Have you allowed yourself the kind of day off from reality that Charlie Kaufman must have had when he came up with Being John Malkovich. (think about how much fun he must have had picking the real actor whose brain would be violated...not someone too famous, that would be too over the top...someone respected, but not English...) Imagine how much fun he must have had thinking "at least I don't have to worry about it selling. It has the name of a specific actor in the title whose paritcipation is vital to the film being produced." Can you imagine what a n act of courage it must have been for him to realize that he had to write himself into his own screenplay, Adaptation, because his story felt constipated and that was the way his unconscious was ordering him to shake things up? Imagine turning that script in to people who were expecting a standard elegant love story! What chutzpah!
The luxury is difficult to provide because we're afraid to invest in the process with our whole lives and being. Yet that is what the process asks of us. It promises nothing more than freedom and pleasure. Not money. Not fame. Not security. Not relief from obligations or responsibilites (in fact, it becomes a new one).
But if you don't treat your story like a million dollars....
|01-15-2005, 11:30 AM||#2|
Let's fold in the next paradox. The paradox of finishing.
LET THE DREAM DIE
Now let's remember, that all our mental states are quite variable. That we can take different stances toward our writing at different times. And sometimes it IS time to finish. It IS time to stop researching. It IS the time to send it out, to share it with the world.
But how do we know when that is?
If I or Annie Dillard or Anne Lamott or Brenda Ueland encourage luxury and time in our STANCE towards the writing, that doesn't necessarily mean that we must be determined to research for Four Months like it was some textbook rule. Again, it's different for everybody. Finding your own set of writing habits comes only from trying, over and over again, to write.
So how do we know when we're ready to start writing?
We know what to write.
We are impatient to write.
An invisible change suddenly happens where our luxurious investigations (watching movies, researching, noodling) suddenly feels dead. Finished. The season has passed, and now we find ourselves nearer to the computer, knowing intuitively it's time to dive in. The thoughts we've built, the house in our head suddenly has to become manifest.
And how do we know when we're finished?
This is much easier for pros who have deadlines and formal drafts on assignments. It's a much trickier question for a person writing a script on their own, without being commissioned. How do we know when we have finished?
A lot of that decision making is best made in collaboration with trusted friends. Ego-mind will ALWAYS say it's finished. It just wants to get on with the process of getting validation and fame and riches. It does not care about Story.
Bob Rafelson had a simple but wonderfully infuriating thing he would say to David Mamet when they worked together on "The Postman Always Rings Twice".
"Can it be better?"
Grrrrrr. That's a motherfvcker of a statement. Translated differently, maybe the question is: is this the best version of itself? Has this premise and my talent reached a point where I have made it as good as I can?
Then your Ego-Mind and your Writer's Conscience have to sit down and have a heart to heart.
The heart to heart has to do with the Fatal Flaw. Annie Dillard talks avbout each story having something you discover, something absolutely essential to the story's existence that is WRONG. That makes the story unfixable. and then the writer's task is to finish the gesture. Keep going. With the knowledge that your story is imperfect.
You are not finished when your story is perfect.
You are finished when your conscience is clear.
Meaning, you have gotten feedback from people. Hopefully on two, three, even five or six drafts. You have patiently seen the story crumble and be rebuilt. It feels new and strange to you. You find yourself putting back in scenes from previous drafts because you've come full circle in some strange way. The notes others have given you have changed from broad, general notes into small, tiny notes.
And the day will come where you'll say, "okay that's it. that's honestly the best I can do. I have taken as good care of this story as I can. I have looked at it from every angle. i have taken every note. I have filled it with my best."
AND YOU'RE DONE
If you actually DO this shlt (this is all an ideal by the way, something to strive for, none of us can match it perfectly), your conscience will know that you have tried your best. You have completed an expression. You have finished a gesture. Praise was never guaranteed. And you will rest easy in the knowledge that you left your game on the floor. You gave it your best fvcking shot.
And that when you print your pages and put your script together and feel it's weight and hand it to somebody, it MEANS something. It represents time and work and living with uncertainty and private revelations and discoveries. You will treat the "hand-off" with the gravity of handing off a child to a new sitter. Take good care of this. It means something to me. The person reading it will treat it with more respect because they will sense your dedication and commitment even in your act of giving it to them to read.
When I finished the first one that I really killed myself on and really nailed, my attitude was not "gosh I hope you like it". It was: "lucky you, motherfvcker. Lucky you that this isn't bought yet. Better turn the fvcker around quick or you are going to miss your shot." to anyone I gave it to. I really didn't care what they thought of it. It was done. It was good. If they are my buyer, so be it. but they're wrong if they think the script doesn't work. They're just flat out wrong.
Mamet finished "American Buffalo". He walked into Greg Mosher's office (its eventual director on Broadway), put five thousand dollars on his desk and said "if this play doesn't win the Pulitzer Prize, keep the five grand."
that got mosher's attention. That was a writer who had done the work. He knew where he stood. Readers then just become parts of a checklist - and you check them off waiting for your perfect match, your supporter, your partner in crime.
next: bringing the jewel to the surface of the earth