April 17, 2013

“How one writes,” or, “Why you should not marry a writer”

There’s a fun piece over here at the Opinionator on the variety of tricks one tries to wring good writing out of one’s brain.

It’s an interesting idea, to me. Writing is a highly individualistic process – it’s one of the few jobs you can do entirely alone, inside your head. (Getting it published and read, however, is a huge team effort.)  And it’s an extraordinarily complicated process as well, brimming with conscious and subconscious associations, connections, ambiances, tones, many abstracts that one can hardly articulate – an odd quality for a process that is, in essence, articulation.

I will say this: the actual articulation portion, for me, and I think for many writers, occurs when I’m faced with a blank page. When I say “articulation,” I mean the actual putting words behind one another, finding a way to make the events and people in my head manifest on the page. This is the actual work of writing, and – for me – it’s not unlike a salesperson who’s gone out and made a lot of deals having to come back to the office and log all those deals in the company database.

This is probably a hugely reductive metaphor, one that does a disservice to the actual manufacture of prose. A lot of incredibly important gears engage when you sit down and start to parse out sentences – and that’s the only time they engage. But in some ways the metaphor is correct, because the punching of keys and arrangement of prose is not the whole of writing.

For me, writing occurs almost as much off the page as it does on. Writing is a thing I never stop doing: some portion of my brain, in some respect, is always writing. Sometimes it’s a very negligible percentage – 1%, maybe 2% – and sometimes it’s very, very large, 80% or 90%. But there’s a lot of middle ground, when I’m mowing or folding laundry or driving or waiting to fall asleep when my brain is writing at about a 30% to 40% capacity, when I am pushing big blocks of ideas around and seeing what fits where. (My wife notes that there are times when she’s telling me something important, and I’m not meeting her eyes but my lips are moving like I’m whispering – and that’s when I’m probably figuring out a piece of dialogue in my brain. Before you ask, yes, she absolutely hates this. Don’t ever ask me to get something from the store – I am wildly unreliable.)

I get a lot of work done this way. I come up with an idea, take out my phone, and shoot myself an email that’s sometimes just a snippet of dialogue or an order myself to cut this or add that. My gmail is currently at 60% capacity, using 6.1 GB of my 10.1 GB, and I’d guess that a good 10% to 15% of that are emails from myself to myself – they don’t have huge memory requirements, because they’re just 5 to 10 words, but there’s so many that I’m sure they make a dent.

But I’m not always writing the book I’m currently concerned with: there are a lot of pet projects I mentally compose, usually something akin to fan fiction or movie scripts. Many times when I fold laundry I’m mentally preparing myself for the time when everyone forgets about the M. Night Shamylan movies and I can have a go at writing the Avatar: the Last Airbender movie scripts myself. Or, I’m dreaming of the day when I get a deal from FX and can make a serialized Batman cartoon myself, a slightly more grown up version of The Animated Adventures, a show that’s zippy and fun but has all the complicated institutional interplay of something like The Wire.

This isn’t probably productive work, but it’s hugely necessary nonetheless: writing is a mental state you have to be able to slip into and slip out of easily. It’s something you need to learn how to activate and catalyze as much as you can. It’s both a muscle and a meditative state, a part of yourself you need to go to whenever you’re able. So even if what you’re writing isn’t something you plan to sit down and, well, write, it’s still important to mentally flesh things out, develop a feel for what’s working and what isn’t, and…

Well. You never know. Those good scenes in the silly little projects you dream up might wind up working exceptionally well in a big, important project much later.