Category Archives: Process

Chaos & Blindfolds

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All storytelling (and maybe even all art) is a negotiation between order and chaos.

I know I may be oversimplifying when I say that, but if that’s true, then all storytellers (except for rare and very fortunate ones) fall into one of two camps: chaos-forward storytellers and order-forward storytellers.

I don’t think it will surprise anyone who knows me to find out that I fall into the order-forward camp, meaning that shaping the clay into an ordered mass comes much more naturally to me than does producing that clay to begin with. Therefore, much of my process revolves around trying to inject chaos into my writing and turning off the ordering mechanisms in my brain while I try to produce the raw material I will shape later on.

Which brings me to the picture at the top of this post. Full disclosure: this picture is staged. David Mitchell Robinson took it when we were hanging out in our hotel before catching our flights out of Atlanta yesterday afternoon. But the photo does represent how I write when I’m trying to generate that elusive raw material, when I’m trying to capture that elusive “flow.”

Yes. I am blind-folded. And no, this is not a joke.

This is an idea I got while talking to my friend Nathan Green several months ago. I noticed he was working with a bluetooth keyboard, and I wondered if people who are very confident in their touch-typing could use a bluetooth keyboard to write without actually looking at what they are writing (meaning the screen is in a different room or turned away from them, etc.) in order to not censor themselves and remain in the moment while they’re putting words on the page. Nathan then talked about how contemporary word-processing software often makes the words you type look like a published book as you put them on the screen, and that this visual impression of creating the final product as they type can put tremendous pressure on writers, causing them to clam up.

So I bought a cheap bluetooth keyboard which I can use with my iPhone (the small screen minimizes my temptation to look at it while writing) and I started using a sleep mask to shut out all light so I can be in the moment while writing. My rule is that I can’t take off the mask until I’ve either finished the scene or I’ve been writing non-stop for one Pomodoro.

Oh, and I pair this with listening to binaural beats underneath music that has enough repetition and simplicity to put me in a trance-like state while also remaining chaotic enough that I can’t get distracted by its patterns. Right now, that means listening to the musician Omar Bashir‘s oud albums while I write. Other times, it’s jazz. Other times, it’s ambient music.

To be sure, blind-folding myself like this is not some magic key that suddenly unlocks everything for me. This part of the process is just the tip of an iceberg that’s buoyed by weeks (if not months) of research and thinking through my characters. And sometimes, when I’m really stuck, I’ll get up before sunrise so I’m still in that semi-dream state, throw the sleep mask on first thing, and write for an hour without doing anything else. The point is, this is just one tool I use, and is only effective when paired with a lot of other tools and strategies.

Thus far I’ve found this approach has worked wonders for my productivity. It means that, by the time I start writing on a project, I can sometimes write as much 10 polished pages in a span of two hours. Yesterday, I only ended up writing about forty minutes, but in that time I solved a scene that had eluded me for weeks because I forced myself to just sit down and write it.

I also attribute that startling (at least to me) flash of progress yesterday to another approach I’ve started recently; an approach I’m calling “rehearsing my scenes.” I had written a version of a scene that hit all the crucial story points but didn’t really move between them artfully and lacked depth and subtlety of character. Typically when I set about revising such a scene, I will try to do so on my computer. Sometimes I’ll print out the scene and attack it with a pencil. But both approaches involve my looking at the old version of the scene as I rewrite it. Lately, I’ve decided to “start again from the top” by briefly rereading the old scene, so I have a sense of its structure, before blindfolding myself and just trying to rewrite the scene again from scratch. The old scene structure provides an entry point, and even though the second pass may not be perfect, it’s likely to be far more artful, nuanced, and attentive to my characters. And I can likely take some parts of both scenes and combine them into a much improved version of the scene.

OK, so now that I’ve shared some of my strategies for capturing the elusive “flow” and stifling my inner critic, I’d love for you all to share some of yours. I have recently found out that there are more of you reading these posts than I previously thought, so don’t be shy. Share your tricks of the trade.

Fear

I’m in Atlanta this weekend celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Alliance Theatre‘s Kendeda Competition, which means hanging out with as many other finalists and winners as were able to be present this weekend, seeing theatre, eating, having round tables about various topics, etc. And this afternoon, among many other discussions, we had an hour-long talk about Artistic Process. The thing that struck me most about the conversation was how quickly it shifted into a discussion about fear and about the different ways in which we all overcome our fears of: failure, not living up to expectations, our current projects not measuring up to our past ones, writing about places or people or wolds we have no “authority” to write about. 

And in the midst of this conversation, I thought “What a great way to conceive of process. Process is a way of channeling your fears into productive output.” So here are some of the thoughts that stuck with me in the aftermath of this discussion. I’ve tried to attribute the thoughts that I can remember coming from a single person.

1) Jacob Juntunen argued that writers should embrace the adrenaline that comes with fear. Let that adrenaline fuel the writing. As I let Jacob’s thought bounce around my head, I remembered acting and playing sports and how both actors and athletes get to use their adrenaline to fuel their performances. So why can’t writers? I often think that one thing my life lacks as a writer is an abundance of adrenaline, and one thing it doesn’t lack is fear. But maybe that’s because I’ve been conceiving of my fear in the wrong way. Next time I’m afraid of the blank page I should think “How wonderful it is be to excited about my work” and use that excitement to dive right in.

2) Madhuri Shekar quoted Shane Sakhrani as saying “Fear is just excitement without the breathe.” So next time I’m afraid to write I’ll breathe in to make that fear excitement.

3) Andrew Hinderaker said that “Fear indicates the potential to do something worthwhile.” He urged everyone to find collaborators whom we feel safe being afraid around.

Self-Discipline

This is the first year I can remember that I’ve made any clearly-articulated New Years resolutions. At the urging of several articles I’ve tried to make my resolutions manageable rather than wildly ambitious in order to make sure I can meet these goals on a daily basis.

And by goals I should really say that I’m trying to build habits. Habit I complete on a daily (or weekly) basis to improve my health, productivity, and emotional well-being. Habit I hope will become automatic. Effortless. Habits I hope will leave a void on the days I don’t complete them. These habits I’m hoping to form revolve around activities like exercise, drinking more water, journaling every day, writing a certain number of days a week, etc. And in order to build these habits, I’ve tried to subscribe to the Jerry Seinfeld productivity method, which says that the best way to build a daily habit is to complete some activity on a daily basis and record having done so in a clear visual manner (such as a red “X” on a wall calendar). Once you’ve completed this activity several days in a row, you will see a chain of those X’s you’ve established and your desire to not “break the chain” will motivate you to continue on with this activity every day.

Of course, in order to gain any momentum with this new habit it must be a habit you can actually accomplish on a daily basis–something manageable. When I first started journaling this Summer, I found myself trying to so “perfectly” capture my experience of the day (my Enneagram Type of 1 coming out) that the prospect of journaling became a daunting distraction from my other work. When I decided to recommit to journaling, my rule was that I would spend no more than one Pomodoro (25 minutes) journaling, and if I hadn’t recorded a particular detail in that 25 minutes, I wasn’t going to record it. The flood of vivid memories that came rushing back to me upon reading some of my old entries has inspired me to recommit to journaling. I want to  be able to read the journal entry from the year before whenever I write a new entry. My hope is that this practice will vastly improve both my working and emotional memories. But the only way I’ll be able to read those older entries every day is if I journal every single day. And the only way I can successfully form that daily habit is to limit my journaling to no more than twenty-five minutes.

I’ve also found that using different apps provides tremendous motivation in building these habits. You may roll your eyes at the thought of relying on an app for motivation, but I recently read a study that concluded motivational apps can be about as effective as human “buddies” at holding people accountable to their goals. For example, an exercise app giving you daily reminders can prove as effective at getting you to exercise as a gym buddy would. You’ll have to forgive me for not linking to the study, but I can’t find the link at the moment. And regardless of what some study says, I have found these apps quite effective. I use the app Balanced to record whether I have kept a daily habit, as well as Day One to journal. Both apps provide a visual representation of how often I either journal or keep up a habit (Balanced uses a visual chain and Day One a calendar) and that nagging visual desire to not “break the chain” has been a shockingly effective motivator.

In this spirit, I want to be even more specific about my weekly creative writing goals. I’ve decided to make them public (I will post my progress at the end of the year) so as to hold myself even more accountable. Up until this point my goal has been to merely “write” five days a week without stipulating what amount of work (in either time or output) I would consider satisfactory for completing my weekly goal.

To be sure, January was still a remarkably productive month, in large part due to my new self-motivation tactics. I generated close to 100 pages of material. But I still wasted a lot of time. I’m not talking about time spent reading or thinking about my writing or day-dreaming. All of these are essential to lively writing (and to staying sane). I’m talking about time where I was just procrastinating online. And I think I can eliminate this unnecessary time-wasting with a few tweaks to how I define (and track) my writing goals.

So here are my writing goals. . .

1) To write not less than ten hours a week (two hours a day five days a week) and not more than twenty hours a week (four hours a day five days a week). You may wonder why, as a McKnight Fellow at The Playwrights’ Center, I’m not setting the loftier goal of writing forty hours a week. The truth is I need to fill the well of my imagination by committing to consuming more of other peoples’ material. When I feel under pressure, I tend to myopically zero in on my own work and not feel like I can afford to spend time consuming anything else. But you can’t expect prodigious output without a fair amount of input. So I need to learn to cap my writing time at twenty hours a week so I can spend other time reading, watching TV, and movies, etc.

2) To maintain these weekly numbers even if I don’t have particular project I’m working on in a given week. Say I’ve just finished a draft of a play and I won’t go into rehearsal on it for another week (I consider rehearsal time writing time if I’m still doing substantive rewriting on a play. If I’m not making substantive revisions, I plan to write for ten hours weekly outside of rehearsal). In the week between finishing the draft and starting rehearsals I will free-write for ten hours across the week in the hopes that I might generate ideas for future projects or gain greater insight into current ones.

3) To record the exact number of minutes spent writing on a given day and the amount of output (as best as I can since it can be hard to tell what your exact output is when you’re revising). I got this idea from Playwrights’ Center Jerome Fellow Deborah Yarchun. She told me she best motivates herself to write by tracking her daily progress in a spreadsheet. I’ve only just started doing this today, but I found it sharpening my focus, and providing that extra incentive to block out distraction since I know I’ll have to see my lack of discipline reflected in a spreadsheet at the end of the day. At the end of the year I will post my total number of writing time in hours and minutes (I’ll try to guesstimate my January results as best I can) as well as my total yearly output in pages. Hopefully that will provide even greater incentive to stay focused and on-task.

A New Way To Read

Yesterday, in order to get myself in the zone to start writing, I picked up a novel whose language I thought would appropriately capture the tone and world of the play on which I was working. As I read the novel, I started typing out the words I read on my bluetooth keyboard. I didn’t actually record what I typed anywhere. I just kept the keyboard switched off and typed as I read. I got the seed of this idea from the David Corbett’s book, The Art Of Character (previously mentioned here). He suggested this technique for students of fiction who were having a hard time finding their unique narrative “voice”. Corbett commented that, while many people might think this approach will only lead to derivative writing and cheap imitation, in his experience the natural linguistic tendencies of a writer never leave that writer. The end product of this approach, therefore, is a really fresh and exciting style.

For those who want more concrete evidence of the efficacy of such an imitative approach, Gabriel García Marquez has admitted to committing the entirety of Pedro Páramo to memory prior to writing his own masterworks.

Corbett’s recommended approach is not dissimilar to an approach recommended by Roger Love in his book Set Your Voice Free (a book I read years ago when I was taking voice lessons) for singers who are trying to find their unique style. He recommended these singers do their best to imitate a wide variety of different vocal styles over a lengthy period of time. In Love’s experience, when his students have done the due diligence of this varied imitation over the course of several months, they then sing effortlessly with a unique and arresting style.

Corbett doesn’t recommend as drastic an approach as either Love’s or Marquez’s. Corbett’s recommends transcribing for about a half-hour each day prior to beginning writing. Yesterday, I transcribed for one Pomodoro (25 minutes), and found myself absorbing the language and style in much greater depth than I would have had I just been reading the book. And the resulting writing I did was fresher and more complex than my previous passes at the scenes I worked on yesterday. I’m sure this is due to several factors, but I really do believe the transcription I did in order to warm myself up played a vital role. Not only because the transcription helped me absorb dynamic language, but also because the act of transcribing can have an almost meditative quality, and therefore helped me capture the elusive “flow” that occurs when good writing comes effortlessly.

When I first began writing plays in undergrad, I had the great fortune of acting on a regularly basis. This meant I was constantly absorbing dynamic language because I was always committing my lines in one play or another to memory. One of the great artistic challenges I have faced since I stopped acting was figuring out how to “feed the well” in the same way, especially now that I have to work on more writing projects concurrently than I did in those days.

One of the ways I’ve been able to feed the well post-acting is through research. While writing The Solid Sand Below, for example, the copious amounts of research I conducted helped me capture the linguistic cadences of my characters, and gave me a vivid sense of the tone of the world. But not all the plays I write demand (or frankly, will even benefit from) the same kind of research as I conducted while writing Solid Sand. So how do I fuel the well while writing these plays? I think the daily preparatory ritual of transcription can fill that void.

Rebecca Stevens and I also noticed the benefits of transcription when we were working on the first draft of In The Event Of Capture in April/May of 2012. Since we had cast the roles prior to setting about writing the first draft, we were able to record the actors’ voices and then transcribe them in order to get those voices in our heads as a common reference point for what each character sounded like. We both credit this approach with helping us create cohesive characters (and a cohesive style) while writing a play collaboratively. And we plan to use transcription of people’s voices as a way of getting character voices in our head for our next project.

This is all to say that the transcription work I did yesterday makes me think I will begin reading like this more frequently, even when I’m just reading for fun. It will obviously slow my pace, yet at the same time it will help me absorb the linguistic choices more deeply, and therefore bear greater fruit for my own use of language.

When You Are Stuck. . .

. . . it’s for one of two reasons:

1) You don’t know enough about one (or more) of your characters

2) You have made a faulty assumption

To get unstuck you must either. . .

1) Go back and learn more about your characters

2) List out all your assumptions and try reversing them one by one