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…