Another in the series of lecturettes from old and/or defunct courses. This from a course called “Writers on Writing” I taught a few times at DU many years back. This is a Week 6 lecture from 2006, and their readings would have been Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing and Philip Pullman’s speech about writing here.
Drunk, and in Charge of a Bicycle (1)
My favorite (book) is always the one I’m working on, or the one that’s just come out. Not the one I just finished working on, because as soon as the manuscript leaves home, I become convinced that it’s the most appalling piece of earwax that ever slew trees. Not until the typeset galleys arrive for proofing do I begin to think that I’ve been a teensy bit hard on the poor thing. And when the author’s copies of the finished book land on the doorstep, voila! A miracle of transformation. It’s suddenly a dear little book, with such a cute little spine, and the most adorable running heads…(2)
The main idea I’d like to briefly ruminate about this week is that of the Muse (in Bradbury’s terms); and this concept that if you force your writing, it won’t come. How many writing instructors have you had that make you do Timed Writing or I Remember or Morning Pages until you’re plaid in the face? What these exercises do is they tease the Muse into following you–the more you write down “this is stupid, I remember nothing, I can’t see straight, how much longer, my knees are falling asleep, I have carpal tunnel syndrome…” sudddenly in the middle of the dross will emerge a sparkle. Something weird, unusual for you, something you would never plan on writing, something truly worth cutting and polishing and setting in white gold and selling on the black market. But the little gem wouldn’t have come without sifting through all that dirt first.
My own version of Bradbury’s cute little Muse concept is a bit grittier, and came first from a theatrical experience, not a writing
one at all. Beware, it’s a Rated R phrase: I call it the Fuck It Moment.
We’ve all had them–struggling with that long par 4 hole, trying so hard to swing a carefully chosen club just right, and what happens? Plunk! in the pond. (3) Only when you’re so frustrated you’re almost going to scream (except you can’t because it’s a golf course and you’re supposed to keep quiet), THEN you think to yourself, “Fuck it!” and just swing the damn thing, and…what? Whoa! 280 yards, straight down the fairway!
My own personal ground- and career-breaking Fuck It Moment came when I was in the final semester of one of the final studios in acting school, the hard-core training nearly done. I was doing a scene with a good friend, also a fabulous actor, and we specifically chose this scene because we knew we were superior actors and it was a notoriously difficult scene to pull off well. (4) I’m sure you can see what’s coming, right? We labored on that scene until we were both exhausted, every time we rehearsed it, and it remained nothing but mediocre at best. Over and over our instructor said, “I don’t understand why this isn’t working for you.” The scene was shallow, melodramatic and boring, and and we were at our wits’ end. No amount of homework-rehearsal made it better–in fact, it just made our scene worse as we began to hate it as we burned out on it.
Time came for the final showing of this scene in class, pretty much one of the last bits of graded acting we were to do for our BFA degree. Not only did we know perfectly well our scene still sucked, but the instructor knew, too. She’d given us private rehearsals (extra ones) to no avail. Here we were, the two talents, about to bite it in front of everyone that had, up till then, respected us. What to do?
That’s right: I said “Fuck it! Let’s just do this,” to my partner, and we did. Neither of us cared anymore–all the work we had done wasn’t helping, so fuck it. I went off, laughing thorugh most of my lines, moving around the studio in ways I’d never rehearsed, letting my voice go everywhere in my range, and succumbing to exhausted tears. Then laughing through them. My partner reacted wholly honestly to my weirdness, not sure what to do about any of it but just go on.
When we finished, breathing heavily, mussed and sweaty, there was a deep silence in the studio. Then, astonished applause.
Of course, if you know anything about the scene, you’ll notice that what I just described is exactly what is needed in this case: the madwoman and her shocked lover. My forced, depressing-dramatic ideas of how to “act mad” and my partner’s overly-morose ideas of what his “reactions” should be were too calculated and therefore not the correct choices, acting-wise. I had, as Bradbury says, scared the Muse away by whipping the scene to death with what I thought were “good acting techniques.” When I said Fuck It, I let go all those set ideas, all those expectations, all my inhibitions and went with literally whatever, NOT THINKING about whether it was any good or not because clearly it wasn’t going to be.The result of which is some of the best acting I’ve done to date, and certainly one of the best scenes in the class.
I’m sure you’ve understood by now that my point in relating this personal anecdote is that it relates completely and absolutely to the process of writing (and most arts, I would aver). The catch with this kind of thinking (as some of you observed last week in the DBs) is that the letting go cannot and does not work unless first you have a solid base of technique. This is something that Bradbury, in my opinion, doesn’t stress enough. If you have been writing pages and pages a day, if you read constantly, if you take classes, then you will have a good intake and output that will mean when you reach your own Fuck It Moment, you will know how to write to keep up with it. If I hadn’t had nearly four years acting training before the above anecdotal example, you better believe the scene would have fallen apart in a big mess. So remember that too: it’s the same thing Pullman says in our next week’s reading: he started with the yellow Post-it notes, then ended up throwing them away and just writing. But the Post-It note phase is still essential to the process. Without that solid base, your wild ride wth the Muse will leave you with nothing more than wounds and a big mess. But with the solid base of technique, experience, and/or training, you’ll get off the roller coaster bruised and shaking, but with a good first draft clutched in your fist.
(1) This chapter, in Zen in the Art of Writing, is optional reading, as it is very similar to past-read chapters. I just love the title so much…
(2) Emma Bull, from an online interview at greenmanreview.com.
(3) From Yertle the Turtle, Dr. Seuss.
(4) The final scene from Chekhov’s The Seagull. Nina comes back and is out of her mind. You know, “I am an actress, I am a seagull,” that? Those of you from Creative Expressions class can understand my approach to Chekhov now in a new light.