For years I labored with the useless idea that there is one, perfect path between the idea for a piece and the finished piece of writing. Logically, this idea leads one to ask, every few minutes, "Am I on the right path, or not?" The fear of doing it wrong inhibits risk, experiment, fun, discovery.
I find it more helpful to imagine a vast network of roads branching out from the starting point. It doesn't matter that much where you start. Nor does it matter terribly which road you take at any juncture. The main thing is to notice when your energy is liberated, when things seem to be opening, flowing, and when the discoveries are coming. Follow that energy, and don't worry about the specific path.
This view suggests that there is not one perfect result, but a vast number of possible outcomes that are valid, and even wonderful, expressions of the initial creative impulse. Any one will do!
Note: There will be moments along the way when you will need to step back and think critically about the piece, asking (with a director or someone you trust) the tough questions about whether it builds, holds an audience, fulfills its promises, and holds water conceptually. But these questions should wait until the piece has enough life and momentum to withstand that kind of inspection. (And I always need a day or two to recover from such a critique, and let go of precious ideas I held about the piece that have turned out to be illusions. Within a week the pain subsides, and new openings present themselves.)
In order to begin writing or creating anything, most of us need to have a sense of where we're going. "I'm heading for that mountain!" And we begin the journey, full of enthusiasm and energy, eager to progress toward our destination and indeed to get there.
Then, a ways down the road, we look around. We know more than we did before we began; we're beginning to get a feel for the terrain. We see things we couldn't have seen, and we modify our destination. We head for a different part of the mountain, or an adjacent mountain, or a different mountain range entirely.
This process of reassessing and redirecting repeats itself. We need to have a destination we're moving toward, but not stick to it rigidly when a new, more compelling destination presents itself. All destinations are provisional.
And, while our conscious mind requires a destination, we can cultivate a trust that the process will take us where we need to go.
Learn from documentary filmmakers
As I'm working on a new piece, I have a desire to know how the words I'm writing today are going to fit into the finished play or monologue. But I can't really know, because it's too soon to know - and that's a bit disconcerting. And what about the prospect that today's words might end up being cut! Well, then why I am bothering to write them?
My partner, Myra, used to help produce documentary films, and I got to observe the process. Documentarians film everything. Then they put it all together into what they call a first assembly. After that they take a stab at shaping the material into a story - the rough cut. At this point, more filming may be needed. Then they put together a second cut. And on it goes, version after version, with material being added, deleted, moved around.
I purposely imitate the documentary process. When that voice demands to know how today's words will fit into the end product, I answer: "I don't know. I'm 'filming' everything. I'll edit later."
Filmmakers talk about the ratio of film shot to the running time of the finished film. Four to one, five to one, even eight to one. So I've borrowed that way of thinking, and now assume that I will have to write three to five times as much material as I need. A related idea is...
Baseball players are doing well if they get three hits per ten at-bats.
I try to remember this when I have a "bad day" writing. Not every day will yield a home run, or even a single. So it's important to have as many writing sessions as possible. Not all of them are supposed to be "successful." There's a lot of sitting with the problem, waiting, trying things that end up not working. But these "failures" are an essential part of the process. It's part of the writer's job to…
Become comfortable with discomfort
A lot of the work is just hanging out with what's unresolved, holding multiple possibilities and exploring them openly, letting things get unwieldy and a little out of control, and not jumping too quickly to easy salvation.
Rough carpentry before the finish work
How tempting it is in the early stage of a writing project to fuss with what you've already written rather than take the risk of writing the next paragraph.
How tempting, when hearing work in progress, to criticize small flaws, to quibble with a punch line, to suggest a better word or phrase.
But before putting on the trim, you need to build the house.
The writer's job in the early going is to keep writing, to write lots and lots and in so doing to discover the world of the play.
Those helping the writer can help by refraining from nitpicking, and by offering comments that speak to the new work as a whole.
Intellect and intuition
To write, we need both. The trick is to know when to deploy which.
This is an area where it's best to listen only to yourself, and to learn over time what works for you. But I offer these thoughts for your consideration:
1. The intuition leads you to more interesting and risky places than the intellect.
2. Perhaps this is because the job of the intellect is to get people to like you.
3. When you notice that this desire to be liked is taking over your writing, stop. Check in with the intuition, ask it what's central or true, what is trying to be expressed.
4. Let your intellect ask the question, but let your intuition answer it. The answer will often surprise you.
5. The intellect wants to end the scene, reach closure; the intuition is more curious and willing to explore without knowing the outcome.
6. Keep to your writing schedule, and show up at the appointed times. But remember that the intuition does not obey schedules. It speaks when it is ready, sometimes when you least expect it.
What people care about
Mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, spouses and lovers.
Conflicts pertaining to the above.
The self, and the conflicts within the self.
The above relationships occupy the center of a bull's eye. They are what human beings seem wired to care about most.
The next ring out on the bull's eye contains more distant kin (cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents, in-laws, etc.), close friends, and other relationships of long-standing from which it's hard to escape. Also relationships where one person has power over another: bosses and workers, landlords and tenants, etc.
In the outermost ring of the bull's eye are strangers.
Audiences are hungry for relationships toward the center of the bull's eye, for the history of those relationships, and for what has changed or is changing in them.
A second bull's eye (which we can visualize as an overlay of the first) has at its center our old friends conflict, violence, sex, illness, death, deception, status and money.
So, a play about two strangers who meet and converse (even if the dialogue is very witty or arresting) tends to be less compelling than a play about a man who owes his mother money and is having an affair with his boss.
A word is a shadow of a thought
…and on the stage what is unspoken is as important as what is said.
It's part of the writer's job to "listen" for, and write, the silence. And to imagine what is being thought and felt in it.
In addition to silence, there are grunts, sighs and other kinds of exhalation, mouth noises of all sorts. There are shrugs, hand gestures, body movements and postures. There are looks.
The palette of the playwright includes more than words.
Ten commandments of comedy
Jim Rosenau and I wrote these a few years ago.
1. Surprise yourself.
2. At every stage of the process, if it's not getting funnier, it's getting less funny.
3. Comedy loves specifics.
4. Comedy needs conflict. This is what makes people care enough to laugh.
5. Comedy thrives on discontinuity.
6. Separate the creative phase from the editing phase.
7. Push it too far. You can always pull it back later.
8. When you think you're done, cut, cut, cut. Throw away even your best jokes if they don't serve the piece.
9. Stuck? Add one random idea and see what you can make.
10. Comedy happens in relationships. Find the people you enjoy being funny with.
© 2003 Charlie Varon