Sunday, May 22, 2011
Writing As If No One Is Watching
Writing is a solitary ritual. We think of rituals as something stemming from religion But the truth is that anything can be a ritual: dancing, playing music, working out, meditation, yoga, praying, taking holy communion, paying bills, cooking, getting ready for bed at night. Even funerals are rituals.
I love rituals. They are mostly performed alone or with like-minded people. As a young Catholic girl, I adore all the rituals of the church. From the nuns getting out of the cab every morning at St. Raphael's Church and school, to standing in line for confession every Friday, to the line up in the school yard for Sunday mass. Everything remained the same inside and outside the church. When we practice rituals we are comforted by their sameness. Most of us want to know what is expected of us and we are jolted out of our naturalness when there is variation or change. Change is challenging. Change is mostly not to our liking. But if one doesn't like the ritual, one can leave it without fanfare and without regret.
I love many things about my life and I cherish and have gratitude for my gifts. Of the things I am passionate about are my yoga practice (a ritual), dancing Argentine tango (very much a ritual), teaching, and writing, all of them are ritualized. I love the sameness in the context of what I do. But within the confines of my rituals, there are nuances and differences. Therein lies the creative process.
Sometimes it is fun and rewarding to work with others. Collaboration in any art form can be productive. Theater people do it all the time; so do writers and musicians, songwriters, and dancers. Painters go it alone. Sometimes teachers collaborate. Whether alone or together, the artistic process is always special.
When I began to write screenplays after attending American Film Institute, I wrote my first screenplay by myself. My mentor and significant other insisted I write the film by myself before I left film school, and I would learn more about writing screenplays than anything else I could have done. My mentor encouraged me to create the story - from one of my own ideas - and this would be a calling card for me after graduation. It came to pass that my writing partner turned out to be my life partner and we wrote together, sitting side by side in front of a typewriter for several years. And then I began to write the first drafts by myself and he came in after or during and made suggestions when I got stuck with story. He was fabulous with story and I was better at dialogue. It worked like a charm.
More and more I began to rely only on myself when it came to writing in any form or style. I loved the solitude of the process. I still do today. I get my inspiration from reading, research and from my really smart friends whom I listen to with great gusto. Writers pay attention to details, to the nuances of human behavior. And most important, writers listen.
I used to say that I was a better re-writer than a writer. First drafts have a lot of information in them, but they are not very well organized. I tend to over-write. But then I go back into the manuscript and dig out of the mess I made. I have to do this anywhere from 5 to 10 times for the piece to take shape. If I am lucky and have a writing coach, then I really pay attention to what the coach is telling me. The problem with most writers is that they don't really hear what someone is telling them. Re-writing is listening and that's difficult because writers fall in love with their words and ideas. That's dangerous territory to get wrapped up in your own words. A writer has to be open to suggestions and a good writer will know when the coach is giving a really good idea. A writer has to be able let go of what is not appropriate for the written work.
I've been challenged for the last 3 months by writing a keynote speech for the National Speakers Association. Speech writing is a different process and I am still learning about it's structure and the way in which the message is delivered. Two drafts later, my coach suggested I outline the speech, take a look at the message again and clean up the organization. I love to outline. One thing Catholic education taught me was the art of the outline. As early as the 4th grade we were learning how to outline and I couldn't get enough. It really paid off in college taking notes and organizing a paper. When I created my outline, I learned so much about what I was kind of baggage I was carrying in my speech and what was standing out. It was a great exercise and it will probably help me memorize the speech with less effort.
There is a saying in dance that is an internal reflection about movement: dance as if no one is watching. I look at writing in the same way: write as if no one is watching. There can be a self-consicous aspect to the arts, the kind of "look at me, see what I'm doing, I'm important." But this conceit is narcissist to say the least. This means that everything the writer writes is reflecting back on him/her instead of reaching out to an audience. The human perception that what we do has weight to it or is a reflection on self-esteem or provides us with some cache is just a bad idea. Writers have to maintain distance from their work just as any artist does. Whatever one does in the field of the arts, if it is done with truthfulness, is a private meditation whether it comes from one person or several people. In the end, artist endeavors come from the heart, out of love and true emotion.