Wednesday, March 14, 2012

How Not To Go Crazy

Writing, I mean.

How NOT to go crazy while writing.

I mean: writing something longer. Like: longer than a few sentences.

As soon as you need to get past about a page, that's when the real woes begin. And that's when it feels like you might lose your mind. 

My father used to say--with good reason, I now believe--that anything important can be expressed in a clear one-page letter. 

That's certainly good advice for job-seekers. Now I wonder if my father's wisdom wasn't precisely: avoiding writing anything much longer than a single page.

But if you must write something longer than a single page--a screenplay, an article, a dissertation--it actually helps to have some kind of method. 

I don't mean "method" in any heavy-duty, methodical sense. I don't mean "method" like: recipe or formula.  

A better word might be "process," as when writers and artists talk about their "process." It sounds nebulous, but it's a real thing. Watch a good artist work. There's something definite happening there, even if you can't reduce it to a simple series of steps.

Another phrase might simply be: ways of working. Or: approaches.

How do you approach a large and complex task? 
What ways of going forward are there?

It's kind of unbelievable, but very little is written about how to write something longer than a page--I mean how to go about it, where to start, what steps to take.

I started writing screenplays last year" I started with a 15-page short and graduated quickly to a 140-page (overlong) feature. And that was a turning point for me. I have been more concerned with process and craft than I was when I focused mostly on writing prose arguments. (I wish I had written essays, which need no argument or thesis; but arguments are the meat-and-potatoes of scholars, so write arguments I did.)

If you are an academic who writes, your writing is probably largely leftover habits from writing term papers. I bet they didn't serve you terribly well. You probably got papers written and earned decent grades. But the same approach may not serve you well on a dissertation or article.

As I groped my way towards screenwriting, I sensed quickly that: when a creative writer needs to do something, she needs to teach herself how to do that thing. If you come to a part where you need to describe a character, you figure out how to do it best, given what your goals and talents are.

More likely, you need to invent a character. But it's the same issue: when you run into problems, you must invent techniques to solve them. Creative writing is a kind of sui generis problem-solving: whenever inspiration fails, you must develop a method to solve the problem at hand. 

This is more or less what Stanislavski said about his famous "Method": he called it 'notes for moments of difficulty.' In short: how to get yourself out of a bind when you find that inspiration does not 'naturally' supply you. 

But how do you move forward? That is the crucial question. And it seems impossible to answer. But once you have a few gestalts or general images for different ways of working, it's really not so mysterious.

But that's what I'll blog about next time.

--Edward R. O'Neill

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