Tag Archives: advice on writing

Inspiration comes with the breath

I love the fact that the word ‘inspiration’ has its roots in breath – ‘being breathed upon’ in one online etymological source – as though artists were blessed or touched by some form of supernatural or divine grace. A thirteenth century source is even clearer: ‘immediate influence of God or a god.’ www.etymonline.com.

However, this lovely but romantic notion promotes the myth that we create through an external inspiration – a fickle force, sometimes favouring us, sometimes not – as though it is something other than the potential within each of us. Such persistent but old fashioned ideas suggests some people are creative and others not, and we must wait until the muse or inspiration strikes. It promotes being passive rather than active and making our own luck, our own inspiration, our own work.

I’ve written elsewhere that I believe the difference between writers and would-be writers (or artists and makers), is one gets on with it, whilst the would-be sits around talking about doing ‘it’ when the time is right and inspiration strikes, bringing the idea. I can be very scathing of this, calling it a form of laziness, an avoidance of doing the actual work. In kinder moods I know it can be the result of fear – of failing, of succeeding, of committing to oneself as a creative being, of finally taking on ‘the dream’ only for it to reveal itself as a nightmare… How much easier to put the responsibility outside ourselves. It’s something we can all be complicit in, Nietzche believed, rather than the reality of hard work and the lengthy creative process:

‘Artists have a vested interest in our believing in the flash of revelation, the so-called inspiration… shining down from heavens as a ray of grace. In reality, the imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre or bad things, but his judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects… All great artists and thinkers are great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering.’ Nietzsche.

It’s the most common question I get asked by taxi drivers and hairdressers: ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ My answer is long-winded and Evangelical:

From the ether, from life, from over-heards on the bus, from anecdotes we’re told, from newspaper headlines glimpsed on the train, from memories, from idle thought, from documentaries or articles, from received stories and pre-existing sources, from visual art, from going for a walk, from dreams, from anything and everywhere. The trick is in recognising the tug of interest and gathering up the stimulus or noting the idea before it goes, for it will. We will never remember those fleeting thoughts – they need to be notated before they evaporate.

We have to be like magpies – open eyed and curious, ready to dive down and snap up any bright, shiny thing that catches our attention. We often let the seed of an idea or inspiration pass, as it is simply a stirring, not a fully-formed plot, or an immediate understanding of what to write. In my experience that is inevitably a later phase, requiring considerable thought and effort, like heating and beating metal into pliancy and shape. The important task is to recognise the initial call and to understand it will take effort to make the oak from the acorn.

I don’t give too much thought to my selection of cuttings, images, essays, art gallery postcards and other miscellany which could be labelled roughly under ‘research’. It’s often completely instinctive – a tug in the gut and I’m buying that postcard, photographing that abandoned house or strange gully, surreptitiously tearing that article out of the decade old magazine in the dentist’s waiting room. I usually will not understand why I’m attracted to an image or a cutting or a phrase – I just know that it has spoken to my imagination in some way and so must be gathered, acknowledged. What this initial stirring turns into, if anything, is a different story….

Letting go…

Mandel ja merihobu_kodukassuur

It’s strange when your work goes out into the world and starts finding an existence of its own. I always expected to have a close relationship with productions of my plays were I fortunate enough to have additional productions after the premiere. I anticipated being as involved as I am with the first production – speaking at length with the directors and cast, sitting in on rehearsals, or working closely with the translators if the productions were using languages other than my native English.

At first I thought I’d be deranged and dangerous – ‘The Controlling Author’ – sort of late career Bette Davis, fag in mouth, martini in hand, screeching out from the darkened auditorium during rehearsals: ‘ It’s not said like that! Didn’t you see it was a four dot pause, not three?’ as actors and directors wept copiously and swallowed handfuls of diazes…

Thankfully it didn’t work out like that. I found it more instructive, creative and beneficial for all to have a loose hold on the script and see what the skills, experiences and imaginations of the director, cast and company brought to the material. If there were certain points where I felt my intentions weren’t being presented, I would step in and make my case, but luckily for me, by easing off from being ‘the expert’ on my script (and the only voice), I have learned, grown, made good relationships with my collaborators and had much better productions.

So far so good…. But things are different again when the productions are not in the country where you reside…

I’m currently working in Berlin, and have a show opening tonight in Estonia, and needless to say, I shan’t be at the premiere. It feels distinctly odd, this sense of something so intimately connected to me – which came from me – having its own place and existence in the world without my connection. I don’t know the cast, have no notion of how the director hopes to stage it, and didn’t liaise with the translator. In fact, I didn’t even know this production was happening until earlier this week and I suspect this then is a kind of rites of passage. There reaches a point when our work is published, or out in the world, and totally independent.

Early in the process, I control it. I write it, I decide who gets to see it, who even knows it is in development. When it is completed in early draft stage, I am the conduit through which it goes, selectively, into the world. As the work gets polished and ready to be seen by a wider audience than my selected ‘first readers’, the narrow stream widens, and it is my agent who is placing the script under noses and so the tap root expands from there. What I’m experiencing today is what happens when work is published and readily available to whomever wants to read it, across the world. Gifted translators transform my words into another language and so its pathway into the world grows even more.

I’ve had productions before in other countries where I couldn’t travel and so see the work. I’ve had readings and productions in thirteen countries across the globe and I hope the productions were creative and successful and that the experience was a happy one for all involved. I hope each made the work fresh, and truly theirs – without any sense of a controlling authorial eye, or a ‘thou shalt not’ limiting imaginations.

So this evening, I’m letting go, and raising a glass to ‘The Almond and the Seahorse’ at Theater Endla in Estonia – wishing joy and broken legs, toi toi toi, and all those other superstitions. I will dream of what an Estonian Sarah, Dr Falmer, Gwennan, Tom, and Joe may be like – and hope that sometime over its long run in repertoire, I get there to see it.

Trailer at:  http://www.endla.ee

Finding the plot

“I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading.”
- Kurt Vonnegut

Narrative, character, motivation and action have been my lodestars of late. I’ve been developing a treatment for an independent television production company, and returning to the basics has been both a struggle and a joy. It feels like a very long time since I considered story arcs and chronological throughlines and even consequential action… The past few projects I’ve worked on in live performance have been using either non-western structures (Told by the Wind and Japanese Aesthetics of Quietude) or post-dramatic dramaturgies (Playing the Maids). It always takes time to shift between media and adjust to their different demands when you work, as I do, across genre, style, and form. I feel like I need to acclimatise, or pass through a decompression chamber, so varied are the atmospheres and their related demands.

So after spending months considering Yugen, the untranslatable Japanese aesthetic principle which means something akin to ‘the hint’, or ‘what lies beneath the surface’, I now have to make the components which create the drama visible, tangible, concrete. It goes against every fibre in my body. I’ve spent months invisibly structuring, and denying narrative closure to create what Ota Shogo described as ‘Passivity in art’ (no ‘meaning’ or narrative is foisted upon the audience – rather, they are invited to participate in the creation of it). As a warm-up I attend a Pitch Your Film workshop led by the very excellent Angela Graham. If anyone can shake me from my current aversion to formulaic structure and GOAL MOTIVATION CONFLICT, Angela can.

And she does, with great aplomb. I love her directness, her clear instructions and thorough understanding of shaping material for the particular medium of film. She cuts through my froth and resistance, giving me clear directions in what I need to do to mould this material for the specific medium and for the activity at hand: a Pitch.

I’ve always loathed ‘loglines’ (‘Jaws in space’ – Alien), and I resist the highly codified and formulaic structures required to give the essence of the drama, even whilst understanding the need of these for such an expensive and commercial enterprise. After much struggling the penny drops – a pitch is told in a three act structure – and with some satisfaction I find my own way to supply what’s required without ‘compromising’ on my writing style and storyline too much.

If that sounds snobbish, I certainly don’t mean it to be. It’s simply a description of this particular writer’s struggle across and between media and form and what each demands. After working as a dramaturg with collaborators on a co-created piece of live performance, it takes a while to activate and then strengthen certain creative muscles which haven’t been used for a while. My character-driven naturalistic action/reaction and then and then and then narrative skills had become flabby. It hurt to flex them, and it was immensely difficult to motivate myself into using my imagination in this way after such an absence – especially when I knew it was well-honed and strong from working in other ways. After Angela’s work-out and then some very serious activity alone, the muscle sprang back surprisingly quickly, and I again started to enjoy working this way. It’s all stuff I know and have encountered as a reader, as a student, as a writer, as a maker, it simply takes a while to re-remember it, to re-enter this particular atmosphere, and with all the equipment needed to breathe and prosper there.

 

 

 

Henry Miller’s Writing “Commandments.” Be reckless and joyful. Keep human.

I know I’m not the only one endlessly fascinated with writers’ processes, rituals, ‘rules’ and superstitions. There’s been a whole spate of books lately analysing the daily traits and routines of successful artists and writers and although I haven’t yet succumbed to buying them, it may just be a matter of time…

It’s not that I think these books will give me a formula for success (whether magical or scientific),  it’s because when I’m not writing myself, or reading other people’s writing, I love reading about other people’s process when writing… Every time I do so, I learn something new, or am reminded of something I’ve forgotten.

I’m reminded today of JOY. PLEASURE. BEING RECKLESS IN OUR CREATIVITY. BEING HUMAN!

In 1932, the famous writer and painter, Henry Miller, created a work schedule that listed his “Commandments” to follow as part of his daily routine. This list was published in the book, Henry Miller on Writing and I reproduce a few of my favourites, below:

  1.    Work on one thing at a time until finished.
  2.    Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
  3.   Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
  4.    When you can’t create you can work.
  5.    Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
  6.   Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
  7.   Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
  8.   Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
  9.    Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
  10.    Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

The “commandments” seem very human, generous, and knowledgeable of process. They are precise and clear, yet not draconian. We all have days when the words refuse to flow, or the ideas feel stilted, and no matter how hard we try, we just can’t kick-start our creativity. What I liked about Miller’s rules were the emphasis on pleasure along with the hard work – and the flexibility allowed in giving up on a day when it’s just not happening… Where this really works for me is the understanding this is a temporary state and for this day only. It’s very easy to feel cursed, or that the mojo has left us – writers are notoriously superstitious and fearful about long periods of non-productivity. Miller’s “commandments” ensure confidence in tomorrow being if not a better day, then another fresh start and the failures of today will not linger into the next.

That’s really worth being reminded of.

Why do you write? Understanding purpose.

Why do you write?

As a form of self-expression, an aide-memoire, to forge a possible career, to expose a wrong, to make money, because it’s fun, to try and leave a mark: ‘I was here’? Or perhaps to engage with the imaginations of others, to explore a central question about what it is to be human, to make others laugh, to meditate or self-analyze, to tell a really good story in order to entertain yourself in the making and hopefully others in the telling, you do it for fame? Or do you write to change the world, to save a life or community, to right a wrong, to ignite a campaign? Or is it simply a compulsion you can’t control, a question you need to answer, a private practice you share with no-one, an art form you wish to master, or a pleasurable means of passing time? Is it an ambition to achieve, an impulse to create, a desire to be ‘heard’, a business to forge? Is the reason you write a mixture of some of the above, or more likely, one I haven’t listed?

Knowing why we write (or create) is central to the practice, and often overlooked. Whether writing is a means to give thanks, or to remember, or to be economically independent, understanding the reason why we write – our purpose – is important and can lead to a more satisfying and successful output – (that’s ‘success’ defined in your own terms).

It’s a question I often ask participants at the start of a course, and one that saves time and energy in the long term. When we know the purpose for doing something, there is a clarity and understanding that can impact on the process. If someone in truth wants to be a bestselling romantic novelist, perhaps attending an experimental post-dramatic playwriting module isn’t immediately the best use of their time. If someone writes in the desire to reach an audience and to achieve a long-held ambition of being published, perhaps it’s time to send some of the poems out to publishers and accept writing is more than a private means of self-expression (this also works the other way). If writing is a means of personal growth, we can enjoy it more without the pressures of feeling we ‘ought’ to try and get published, or give a reading, or have a production. Being clear about the reason why you are writing is a way of being clear and truthful with yourself. It may sound obvious, but so many of us write and create in a fog. In my teaching and writing experience I’ve found we seldom ask ourselves what it is we like to read, what is it we want to write, what kind of writer we want to be, what our relationship is to our creativity….? Understanding this can effect the direction we take in future projects, saving energy and increasing our productive outcome. So go on and ask yourself these questions…

  • What kind of work do you enjoy reading/consuming?
  • Why do you write (or create, make, etc)?
  • What do you in truth hope to achieve?
  • What is standing in the way of you achieving the above?
  • What could you do to get closer to achieving this?
  • What kind of writing/making do you enjoy doing most?
  • Define ‘success’ in your own terms…..

There isn’t a template we all need to follow. There isn’t one career trajectory, just as there isn’t one reason why any of us write, or make, or create. I find the reason(s) for writing changes project to project and the knowledge of this shift encourages me to keep asking these questions, for the process and my connection to what I’m doing will therefore also change.

But understanding why we write or create allows some self-knowledge and this can lead to an adjustment in the direction we are taking, or inspire a new commitment to the practice, a freshness to our work and our relationship with it.  There are always benefits from increased wisdom.

Anne Lamott on writing…..

Books

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In general…there’s no point in writing hopeless novels. We all know we’re going to die; what’s important is the kind of men and women we are in the face of this.


-Anne Lamott

A wonderful quotation to focus the mind….

Hemingway’s best intellectual training for a would-be writer

INTERVIEWER

What would you consider the best intellectual training for the would-be writer?

HEMINGWAY

Let’s say that he should go out and hang himself because he finds that writing well is impossibly difficult. Then he should be cut down without mercy and forced by his own self to write as well as he can for the rest of his life. At least he will have the story of the hanging to commence with.

—-

I’m grateful to the nef errant for this writing tip…

Aristotle’s aim of art…

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“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance; for this, and not the external mannerism and detail, is true art.”  Aristotle.

I hope I’m not alone in being struck by the relevance of the great old man’s adage…

It’s been particularly of resonance this week, as I’ve been revisiting an unfinished play, thinking about characterisation, how to reveal the personalities, dynamics, independent and intertwined histories of the figures I’m making up; the importance of subtext – that wonderful tension from ‘what lies beneath’ – and the impact these energies have when in collision. And then I came across this quotation and it encouraged me to dig deeper, to think about consequential action and what is suggested, not said outright: what is glimpsed rather than outwardly revealed, and to explore how to externalise the hidden, inner life.

The difference between prose and poetry…. Marge Piercy

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In 1999 Marge Piercy wrote a long feature for The New York Times identifying and expanding upon her processes and sources of inspiration when writing novels and poetry. Moving between poetry and prose is the secret to avoiding writer’s block, she maintains, and her reflections on both forms and where they come from is illuminating and generous.

I believe that writers never stop learning. I’m always keen to hear and share what others have said about process and creativity – what this blog, in different approaches, is all about. When not documenting or reflecting on my own collaborations or processes, I’m constantly trawling through old journals, periodicals and the internet, seeking advice, camaraderie, solace, understanding and wisdom. If I’m despondent, or frustrated, or unclear about what to do with my own work, reading the thoughts of other writers invariably works as a remedy, or at least shifts something in me. So as another strand to this blog, ‘Writers on Writing’.  What follows is an edit from Marge Piercy’s original essay, but it is a masterclass. Enjoy.

Life of Prose and Poetry — an Inspiring Combination

By MARGE PIERCY   New York Times. December 20, 1999

….Sometimes I say that if a writer works in more than one genre, the chances of getting writer’s block are greatly diminished. If I am stuck in a difficult passage of a novel, I may jump ahead to smoother ground, or I may pause and work on poems exclusively for a time. If I lack ideas for one genre, usually I have them simmering for the other.

I am always going back and forth. It’s a rare period that is devoted only to one. That happens when I am revising a novel to a deadline, working every day until my eyes or my back gives out, and when I am putting a collection of poetry together, making a coherent artifact out of the poems of the last few years and reworking them as I go….

 Poems start from a phrase, an image, an idea, a rhythm insistent in the back of the brain. I once wrote a poem when I realized I had been hearing a line from a David Bryne song entirely wrong, and I liked it my way. Some poems are a journey of discovery and exploration for the writer as well as the reader. I find out where I am going when I finally arrive, which may take years.

Poems hatch from memory, fantasy, the need to communicate with the living, the dead, the unborn. Poems come directly out of daily life, from the garden, the cats, the newspaper, the lives of friends, quarrels, a good or bad time in bed, from cooking, from writing itself, from disasters and nuisances, gifts and celebrations. They go back into daily life: people read them at weddings and funerals, give them to lovers or soon-to-be ex-lovers or those they lust for, put them up on their refrigerators or over their computers, use them to teach or to exhort, to vent joy or grief.

The mind wraps itself around a poem. It is almost sensual, particularly if you work on a computer. You can turn the poem round and about and upside down, dancing with it a kind of bolero of two snakes twisting and coiling, until the poem has found its right and proper shape.

There is something so personal and so impersonal at once in the activity that it is addictive. I may be dealing with my own anger, my humiliation, my passion, my pleasure; but once I am working with it in a poem, it becomes molten ore. It becomes “not me.” And the being who works with it is not the normal, daily me. It has no sex, no shame, no ambition, no net. It eats silence like bread. I can’t stay in that white-hot place long, but when I am in it, there is nothing else. All the dearness and detritus of ordinary living falls away, even when that is the stuff of the poem. It is as remote as if I were an archaeologist working with the kitchen midden of a 4,000-year-old city.

Prose is prosier. No high-flying language here. My urge to write fiction comes from the same part of my psyche that cannot resist eavesdropping on strangers’ conversations in airports, in restaurants, in the supermarket. I am a nosy person. My mother was an amazing listener, and she radiated something that caused strangers on buses to sit down and begin to tell her their life stories or their troubles. I have learned to control that part of myself, but I am still a good interviewer and a good listener because I am madly curious about what people’s lives are like and what they think about them and say about them and the silences between the words….

 I always want to hear how the stories come out, what happens next, a basic urge all writers bring to fiction and one pull that keeps readers turning page after page. Another drive is the desire to make sense of the random, chaotic, painful, terrifying, astonishing events of our lives. We want there to be grand patterns. We want there to be some sense in events, even if the sense is that no one is in charge and entropy conquers; that all is illusion or a baroque and tasteless joke. Each good novel has a vision of its world that informs what is put in and what is left out.

For me the gifts of the novelist are empathy and imagination. I enter my characters and try to put on their worldviews, their ways of moving, their habits, their beliefs and the lies they tell themselves, their passions and antipathies, even the language in which they speak and think: the colors of their lives. Imagination has to do with moving those characters through events, has to do with entering another time, whether of the recent past or 300 or 500 years ago, in Prague or Paris or London or New York or the islands of the Pacific. It has to do with changing some variables and moving into imagined futures, while retaining a sense of character so strong the reader will believe in a landscape and in cities and worlds vastly different from our own.

Ideas for poems come to me any old time, but not generally ideas for revising poems. The notion that revising poems is a different process from revising fiction occurred to me on the treadmill, but I cannot imagine that I would ever think about actually revising a poem there. When I rewrite a poem, I go back into the space of the poem and contemplate it. I read it aloud. The only other time when I work on revising a poem is the first or second time I read it to an audience, when all the weak and incoherent parts suddenly manifest themselves big as the writing on billboards.

With fiction, since I live inside a novel for two or three years, the problem is letting go when I am done for the day. Ideas for what I am working on come in the night, in the tub, on planes, in the middle of supper. I keep a notebook on the night table, so that when an idea bombs in at 2 a.m., I will not get up and turn on the computer. One reason I learned to meditate was to control my fictional imagination and not let the characters take me over. Learning to let go except for those occasional flashes is central to keeping my sanity and my other, real relationships.

Biography from http://margepiercy.com/

Marge Piercy is the author of seventeen novels including The New York Times bestseller  Gone To Soldiers; the National Bestsellers Braided Lives and The Longings of Women, and the classic Woman on the Edge of Time; eighteen volumes of poetry including The Hunger Moon and The Moon is Always Female, and a critically acclaimed memoir Sleeping with Cats. Born in center city Detroit, educated at the University of Michigan, the recipient of four honorary doctorates, she has been a key player in some of the major progressive battles of our time, including the anti-Vietnam war and the women’s movement, and more recently an active participant in the resistance to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Essentials for the character-driven play: Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

At risk of leaping on the current Bowie bandwagon, the character-driven play is all about ch-ch-ch-ch-changes. For want of a better phrase, ‘the world of the play’ at the end must be considerably different from the beginning – otherwise why should we expect an audience to commit themselves to seeing the experience through? (And we can’t all be like Brecht, deliberately frustrating the audience so they may take action in real life, driven by his characters’ inability to forge change in their lives in his plays…)

We know in the classical Western theatrical tradition we all go on a journey – the characters as well as the audience. This can be literal, but more often it is symbolic or metaphorical. There is an event, a visitor, a letter – something new, a trigger or inciting incidence which knocks the character off her usual routine and into unknown territory. In Shakespeare these are grand, life-endangering quests – a glimpse of the love object resulting in the pursuit of romance amongst warring clans; a walking phantom prompting investigation into a mysterious death and the seeking of revenge, to outline two. Contemporary plays are often smaller in scope and more contained, but the emotional territory is still as large. Something happens – a death, a change in the pecking order at work, a child entering their teens, a diagnosis, an infidelity, a crushing doubt or suspicion, etc. There is a change in our protagonist’s life and she is pushed off onto a journey of discovery.

This journey may be a physical, but usually it is emotional and psychological, rooted still in the familiar physical world. The newness of the situation she finds herself in is important, for this enables the audience to see the character dealing with challenges and obstacles, acquiring new skills. We can observe her trying and failing and potentially succeeding in the new situation, and this makes her a valid protagonist, worthy of our attention.

She is active, taking decisions, and this live decision making, usually under pressure, reveals her character as well as defining the direction the story will take. Her actions dealing with the new situation further the plot and we can see that character is plot. A different protagonist with their individual foibles and weaknesses, strengths and experiences might react differently, and so create a different outcome. This particular character, with all her wants, objectives, tactics and decision-making drives the story. A character without motivation and concrete wants in each moment is inactive and dull. A changing dynamic and a character responding, growing, learning and therefore changing is central to keep the audience engaged and alert and the plot rolling forward. The play is alive and moving and so is the character, even if this movement is internal: changing opinion, politics, allegiance, belief system; falling in or out of love.

The character at the end of the play has changed owing to the experiences she has had, the decisions she has had to make and act on (and making no decision is still a decision, with consequences). The journey she has gone through has changed not just her, but her interactions and relationships, and ultimately had a transformative effect on her world. An audience emerges at the end of this character-driven play satisfied, and perhaps changed too in their thoughts and opinions about subjects central to what they have just seen.