Tag Archives: rewriting

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….

Writing is all about rewriting – but one thing at a time….

 

strikethrough

I was recently teaching a writing workshop in India, when one of the participants asked me about revising a draft. ‘Writing is all about re-writing,’ I said with great emphasis, ‘but only concentrate on one thing at a time.’  It may seem obvious, gnomic even, but it is a piece of advice so often overlooked. When revising work, focus on one thing at a time. The conversation that followed prompted me to go back, fillet and revise an earlier piece on this very subject.

Revising and redrafting a script can be a chaotic and ramshackle activity. After finally stumbling through to the end of an early draft, hopefully realising what the play or story is actually about (which may not be what we thought it was about when we set out…) it’s time to revisit and refine.

So often in my early experience and more recently, with those I dramaturg or mentor, revising can end up resembling the carnage of a kitten caught up in a ball of wool. It is not cute, pleasant, or the stuff of chocolate box covers, despite its many cliches. The combination of tender inexpert claws and fragmenting strands of wool is choking and potentially deadly. Likewise for the enthusiastic or inexperienced playwright whose imagined elegant and ordered combing through of the various strands of a script can result instead in a cat’s cradle of knots, unintentional dread-heads and a confused and despairing writer.

It’s easily done. I  begin reading a first draft and see some improvements I could make in the flow of dialogue between the characters, so mid-read I begin the revision, only to get distracted by the layout, which surely should be indented and double-spaced? (yes please). So I start doing that, but wait, surely that’s a saggy bit there in the middle and the stakes aren’t nearly high enough? So if I just reintroduce the character I cut halfway through the first draft and have her explain – but no, wouldn’t that just make her a cipher? And that’d be telling, not showing – which seems to be what’s happening in that section there – so maybe, maybe if I changed his motivation in that beat and therefore introduced rising action there, I could…. and there I am, hopelessly lost and demented, script dismantled about me, trussed up in my narrative threads like a turkey on Christmas morning.

We have to be ordered in our approach.

Try and work through the full draft, focusing on only one thing at a time. One read-through you may be looking at the journey of each individual character – and don’t try to do several in one reading to save time, as you won’t. Focus and comb through that strand, separating it from other considerations, and really pay attention. Then another read-through may be taking the dramatic temperature of the whole – the presence of tension or pace or rising action. Another read may be looking at effective dialogue – and so on.

It seems simple and obvious advice, yet somehow most of us manage not to absorb it. We try to be economical with time, but end up instead squandering it, giving ourselves headaches and small crises of confidence.

In redrafting, be specific and focus on only one thing at a time.

Be patient and calm.

Above all else, enjoy.

Your inner kitten will thank you for it.

Grace, fluency, and facility… Poet Chris Kinsey on writing and re-writing.

Writers are notoriously curious about how everybody else does it. Apart from the endless fascination with other peoples’ process, we also know there are wonderful lessons to be learned, tips to gather, knowledge to be shared. A few weeks ago the poet Chris Kinsey shared a document with me which she had written for her students about writing and re-writing. I’m delighted she gave me permission to reproduce that here.

 

Chris Kinsey: A personal view of writing and re-writing.

 

I write mainly out of excitement with experiences and from a desire to re-enact and re-live them.

I want to record the physicality and sensations of certain experiences. (Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes and Gerard Manley Hopkins were the first to make me want to pay attention and write.)

I write in order to find out what it is I want to write. Many writers prefer to have a plan but I’ve never liked to fit into the Procrustian bed of a plan. I need to make discoveries to maintain my motivation. Good ideas mostly fail because they’re good and there’s nothing to work out. It can feel like drudgery to record them.

First drafts are like finding a load of fireworks – full of excitement at experimenting with voices and viewpoints and coining words and images with the most exact visual or aural effects. This stage can be intoxicating. I chase a stream of consciousness, memory and sensation as fast as I can and as close as I can to any event which excites me to write.

Re-writing is best done a day or two after the ‘first thoughts, best thoughts’ rush.

Sometimes it’s as painful and humiliating as a hangover – everything grates or clunks or seems hackneyed, clichéd, laborious, repetitive, monotonous, vague, waffling, tongue-twisterly, O.T.T……. Sometimes it only feels this way. Our feelings are not always the best guide to the quality of our work; especially if they’ve just been hurt by discovering that a first draft doesn’t represent total satisfaction or perfection. Usually there are plenty of nuggets to harvest and frequently this leads to the true or vivid aspects of the subject declaring themselves and a theme or shape emerges. Voice or tone stabilises and distillation begins.

Crop peripheral ideas and images, focus the main ones.

Strive for the most exact, apt images and nouns. Tone up verbs. Tweak and play with word orders (save every change – you may want to revert to an earlier form). Try your piece out on the ear. Cut clichés, repetitions, catch phrases, etc. Etc. Rest. Let it lie.

Return later  – this is the hard part – make sure you haven’t cut some crucial part. And this is the really hard part – make sure you haven’t stifled the life of your piece by over determining it.

Hope for grace, fluency, and facility. Try your work out on someone whose feedback you trust and respect. Someone who will tell you where the work made them stumble is valuable.

Good, spontaneous-sounding, ‘natural’, pleasure-to-read work, often takes between 15 and 30 drafts.

 

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With thanks to Chris.

Copyright of the above remains with Chris Kinsey 16/2/14.

 

Finish everything you begin….

There is always something deeply humbling about finishing the first draft…

It doesn’t matter how many plays I have written, the process never becomes hackneyed, or familiar, or any easier.

Some years ago I wrote a letter to myself which I kept on my desktop titled

READ THIS WHEN YOU’RE  IN DESPAIR AND HATING YOURSELF AND THE WORK AND EVERYTHING WHEN TRYING TO WRITE THAT FEKKING DRAFT

It was a reminder of certain phases I invariably seem to go through: the deliciousness of research, the battle to withdraw from this glorious process and actually get down to some work. Then there are the moments of brainlessness and cotton wool mind, when any sense of character, or context, or storyline, or purpose is terrifyingly absent, when I think finally I have been found out as the talentless floozy I fear lurks in the darkest corners of my being. This is the hateful period of doubt, when the heart bangs against the ribs and I regret taking the commission and agreeing to the deadline and whose stupid idea was it to follow this line of creativity, anyway?

And then there are the reminders of the utter joy. The sublime moments I have never experienced in any other context in my life, when everything is porous, where my breath and my flesh and the universe and the keyboard and the imagination and the fluency of thought miraculously meld and five hours have passed and I didn’t even notice and I want to spend my entire life in this kinked position hooked over a book or a laptop and to hell with food and water and fresh air and sunlight and standing up and goodness, what’s this? Other human beings in the house?!

Writing consumes me and sustains me in a way no other activity ever has. This obsession, this practice, has longevity. It has been my familiar through the vast majority of my life – even before I knew the alphabet when I scrawled over my elder brother’s schoolbook and claimed I was writing a story.

And no matter how long I do it, no matter what small success or satisfaction or failure I may have, it never ceases to surprise me, to remain in parts unknowable, for I find each new project brings unique challenges and processes which differ from what I have done, before. And so I am constantly learning, and developing, and honing skills and never resting on laurels or replicating whatever I have done, before.

So it is deeply humbling to finally stagger through to the end of a first draft, as I did with ‘Woman of Flowers’ for Forest Forge theatre company last night. No matter how strong my sense of trajectory and story may be, I never fully know where I am going and where I have been until I complete this first draft.

Finishing work is essential. I make it the golden rule when teaching or mentoring any writer, and the lynchpin of my own work. Completing the draft, following that throughline (which doesn’t have to be linear or chronological), wrestling with the unities, filling in the holes and stapling it all together into some kind of coherent logic is where we really learn as writers and makers. We can all write brilliant fragments. We all have brief moments when an image or allusion seems perfect and captures exactly a thought. The major learning and honing of skills comes with putting that final full stop on a full draft after nursemaiding and bullying and coaxing and bewailing – after fretfully, anxiously, triumphantly harnessing our skills and applying them to our imagination.

Printing ‘End of first draft’ at the bottom of the page (as I did last night) doesn’t mean to say our work is done – far from it – writing is all about rewriting. Completing a first draft may throw up more problems to be solved than seems fair or possible. There will be further crises and conundrums and bewailing and killing of darlings, and the final draft may differ as much from the first as a butterfly does a chrysalis. Or it may be a very close likeness, indeed. That is the joy and the discovery – how this toddling creation will turn out in its fluid, solid maturity.

And this joy and challenge lies ahead for me. But for one day at least, I shall savour the relish of putting down that final full stop, and breathe deeply and with pleasure on a difficult journey completed.

Directions: Write. Read. Rewrite. Repeat steps 2 and 3 as needed.

In December 2000 Susan Sontag wrote an essay for The New York Times on the relationship between writing and reading.

…to write she says is to practice, with particular intensity and attentiveness, the art of reading.

We are often our first and most critical judges, she maintains, referring to the stern inscription Ibsen put on the flyleaf of one of his books:

 To write is to sit in judgment on oneself.

Writing, reading, rewriting and then rereading our efforts sounds like an never-ending cycle of punishment – especially if as a writer you are as exacting and unforgiving as suggested by the Ibsen quotation – yet this, Sontag says, is the most pleasurable part of writing.

Setting out to write, if you have the idea of “literature” in your head, is formidable, intimidating. A plunge in an icy lake. Then comes the warm part: when you already have something to work with, upgrade, edit. 

Revising after reading is a second chance (or third or fourth or fifth or…) to get it ‘right’ – to be clearer, or deeper, more eccentric, or eloquent. As Sontag writes:

You want the book to be more spacious, more authoritative. You want to winch yourself up from yourself. You want to winch the book out of your balky mind. As the statue is entombed in the block of marble, the novel is inside your head. You try to liberate it. You try to get this wretched stuff on the page closer to what you think your book should be — what you know, in your spasms of elation, it can be. 

When it goes well, you can experience that most rare of pleasures – a reader’s pleasure – of what you yourself have written on the page. Invariably, it is the love of reading which prompted you to try and write in the first place. Getting absorbed and ‘lost’ in a book  is surely one of our greatest pleasures and, I think, achievements. As Virginia Woolf famously wrote in a letter: Sometimes I think heaven must be one continuous unexhausted reading.

Writing Sontag says, is finally a series of permissions you give yourself to be expressive in certain ways. To invent. To leap. To fly. To fall. To find your own characteristic way of narrating and insisting; that is, to find your own inner freedom. To be strict without being too self-excoriating…. Allowing yourself, when you dare to think it’s going well (or not too badly), simply to keep rowing along. No waiting for inspiration’s shove.
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As someone who consistently wrestles with the demands of writing, my ambitions and hopes for the work, and my so evident short-fallings, I find Sontag’s words warm, wise, familiar and encouraging. Writers beat themselves up. Writers are critical. Why? Because, Sontag reminds me, it matters.
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With thanks to Susan Sontag and The New York Times.
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The full article can be found at: http://www.nytimes.com/2000/12/18/arts/18SONT.html?pagewanted=1

One hundred and fifty ‘rules’ for writing fiction: 141 – 144

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A few more provocations on the writing life…

141).  A writer, like an athlete, must ‘train’ every day. What did I do today to keep in ‘form’?
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142).  If you’re actually allowing your creative part to control your writing rather than a more commercial instinct or motive, then you’ll find that all sorts of interesting things will bubble up to the surface.  (Emma Thompson)

143).  You will have to write and put away or burn a lot of material before you are comfortable in this medium. You might as well start now and get the necessary work done. For I believe that eventually quantity will make for quality. How so? Quantity gives experience. From experience alone can quality come. All arts, big and small, are the elimination of waste motion in favor of the concise declaration. The artist learns what to leave out. His greatest art will often be what he does not say, what he leaves out, his ability to state simply with clear emotion, the way he wants to go. The artist must work so hard, so long, that a brain develops and lives, all of itself, in his fingers.  (Ray Bradbury)

144).  Write for tomorrow, not for today.  (Andrew Motion)

One hundred and fifty ‘rules’ for writing fiction: 137 – 140

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A few more shots in the arm from published writers on process and making fiction, and a life.

137).  The only story that seems worth writing is a cry, a shot, a scream. A story should break the reader’s heart.   (Susan Sontag)

138).  Keep human.  See places, go places, drink if you feel like it. Don’t be a draught horse! Work with pleasure only.  (Henry Miller)

139).  Language is lazy, it wants to revert to what’s obvious, to what’s been said before, to short cuts to seeing (blue sky, torrential rain, a kindly old lady, and so on). The writer is pushing back against that inertia in expression all the time, refusing the package of familiar associations that offers itself, refusing the comfort of easy moralising, refusing the well-worn perspective.  (Tessa Hadley)

140).  You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.  (Joseph Campbell)