Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

A spoonful of sugar

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Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins

Whenever I’m mired in the current stage of a writing project, I like to console myself with the illusion that it gets better from here. Coming up with an initial idea may be hard, I think, but research is always a real pleasure. Then when the research stage actually arrives, and I’m buried in books and agonizingly aware that there’s never going to be enough time to get through all the material at hand, I remind myself that I love outlining. Of course, when the time comes to create an outline and I’m racking my brain to make the action unfold in a logical way, I find myself longing to start the actual writing, which in reality is the hardest part of all. Revision, at least, is always fun—until it isn’t, at which point it becomes a nightmare. In short, it’s all hard. I wouldn’t be here in the first place if I didn’t derive satisfaction from the tough problems that every stage presents, but there are times when I curse the writing life and everything in it. When that happens, I try to fall back on a handful of tricks to keep myself going. Here are some of the things I’ve learned:

1. Break up the pain into manageable steps. Possibly the best piece of creative advice I’ve ever heard comes from David Mamet, who writes:

As a writer, I’ve tried to train myself to go one achievable step at a time: to say, for example, “Today I don’t have to be particularly inventive, all I have to be is careful, and make up an outline of the actual physical things the character does in Act One.” And then, the following day to say, “Today I don’t have to be careful. I already have this careful, literal outline, and I all have to do is be a little bit inventive,” et cetera, et cetera.

This is exactly right, and in particular, it’s a compelling argument—one that I haven’t seen elsewhere—for making an outline. Outlines, I’ve found, aren’t a means of planning so much as a way of hacking the writing process so that it unfolds in stages. An outline is really a dispatch from the past to your future self, bequeathing you a page or two of plot points so you don’t need to worry about the story on top of everything else you have on your mind that morning. Sufficient unto the writing day is the evil thereof.

Walter Murch

2. Remember that you don’t need to solve every problem right now. This is the single greatest obstacle that trips up most aspiring writers. In its worst form, it turns into the desire to perfect every sentence and paragraph before moving on to the next, which has ruined more writing careers than alcohol. More subtly, it’s the nagging feeling, from which even established writers suffer, that you should fix all the issues in the outline before moving on to the next step. Whenever I start to tear out my hair over an intractable problem, I remember the sage advice of the great Walter Murch:

Each stage leaves a residue of unsolved problems for the next stage—partly because the particular dilemma you’re facing cannot be solved in terms of the medium you’re working in right then…You do not want to be asking for the gods’ help at every stage.

Or, in the words that William Goldman attributes to the theatrical producer George Abbott: “Well, have them do something! That way we’ll have something to change.”

3. A spoonful of sugar does help the medicine go down. The best way I’ve found of getting through the hell of the writing process is to surround it with things that I like. Drugs and alcohol are probably the wrong answer—I don’t think you should write drunk, even if you edit sober—but there’s nothing wrong with a little caffeine. In theory, an artist should be able to work anywhere, but I’ve always done my best writing in pleasant surroundings, usually at home, with a comfortable chair and good natural light. My office is my favorite room in the house, and I’ll often go in there to hang out with my books and reading lamp only to find that I’ve gotten some work done in the meantime. This is also a big reason why I often start the day by reading a page or two of an author I admire: it’s aspirational and a little superstitious, but it’s also a tiny jolt of pleasure that gets me through the hours of work to come. It may not sound like much. But when you’re talking about something as taxing as the writing life, the little things go a long way.

Written by nevalalee

August 5, 2013 at 8:45 am

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