Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Discipline to Just Think

Reading posts and comments from other writers so I can compare and contrast process is an invaluable experience for me. There seem to be as many methods out there as there are writers.

One subject we haven’t touched much on is how the actual story comes into being. I don’t recall at all how the germ of my work in progress came to me. I can recall roughly when it happened and that I sat down and started writing immediately, but not much more than that. Since that time, I’ve learned a great deal more about process and how I should be turning this idea into a novel. The story has also changed significantly.

Saturday I had plans to do some writing and some reading. I recently bought the entire thirteen volume collection of Chekov’s short stories and I’ve been working my way through volume one. I’m also reading Augusta Locke by William Haywood Henderson, one of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop instructors who will be at the retreat I’m attending next month. And I picked up The Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian, based on an intriguing review by Scott Esposito that I read at The Quarterly Conversation.

But first, I needed to unload the dishwasher. Then I needed to eat and I like to read the paper when I eat. After reading the paper I figured I’d take a look at another book that I have sitting in my stack for later. Woody Allen on Woody Allen, In Conversation with Stig Bjorkman is a series of interviews with the writer and director, organized by film. Several hours later, I was still reading the book and by the time I sat down to write, it was Saturday night.

The fascinating thing to me about Woody Allen is that he is a writer first, and an extremely disciplined one. Throughout this series of interviews, it became apparent that each script that he writes is developed almost entirely in his head before he begins the mechanical process of writing.

From the book:

“You told me earlier that on Tuesday you will start work on your new script. How do you proceed? Do you sit every day between certain hours, like office hours, and work?”

“Yeah, I get up early, because I naturally get up early. And I come down here and I have breakfast. Then usually I work by myself. Once in a while it’s a collaboration, but usually not. And I go into the backroom or this room (Woody’s living room) and I start to think. I walk up and down and I walk up and down the outside terrace. I take a walk around the block. I go upstairs and take a shower. I come back down and think. And I think and think. Then just by the sweat of the brow, eventually something comes.”

He goes on to describe the actual writing as the joyous part because by then, he’s got everything worked out. I thought that if I had spent a fair amount of time just thinking and working my story out in my head before beginning to write, how much simpler things would be and it occurred to me that surely other writers probably do proceed that way. Making time to do nothing but focus on the story is easier said than done. Perhaps the physical act of writing feels more productive, but in the end, it’s possible we spend as much, if not more time fixing things we didn’t think through as we would have spent had we thought things out more thoroughly up front.

Finding time to think about anything without multi-tasking or losing focus is tough. For example, while finding the URLs to create links to the references in this post, I also found out that Placido Domingo, general director of the Los Angeles Opera just announced that Woody Allen will make his operatic directorial debut with the opening event of the Los Angeles Opera's 2008-2009 season. This has nothing to do with how he writes, but for crying out loud, is there anything he won't try?

I tend to be quite a bit like Ellen Degeneres when it comes to being able to focus for an extended period on one thing. I’m thinking about why it would make more sense for the husband character to be an attorney and not a doctor or an investment banker and I’m wondering where the word attorney came from. Attorney starts with the letters “Att” and I wonder how AT&T being the sole service provider for the iPhone is going to impact their stock prices, and I wonder why they call it chicken stock or vegetable stock because after all…

You get the picture. I’m not always six degrees from a straight jacket and a good anti-psychotic, but nearly.

How much thinking and working through your story do you do before putting pen to paper or before beginning to type? Does the story develop as you’re writing it, or do you have much of it worked out in advance and refine and add detail as you go? As you write more and more stories, do you find you know more in advance what’s going to happen?


reality said...

For me a lot of the thinking does happen before I start writing. I also do very brief outlines.
However, my tendency is to flesh out the idea and characters as I write. The story does change as I write. The physical act does assist me in seeing if the imaginary world does have substance to it.
That doesn't mean I stop thinking during the writing. That goes on as well.
I was just thinking yesterday the difference between script writing and novel writing.
I am sure that would be an interesting debate. I wonder if Woody uses the same technique for everything he does. Books and screenplays.

Shauna Roberts said...

Before I start, I have an idea who the characters will be, what their growth arcs will be, how the book will open, a handful of ideas for the ending, and some ideas for what will happen in-between.

I usually plot two to three chapters ahead of where I'm writing. That lets me know where I'm heading (parallel to music performance, where one plays toward the coming highlights), but I'm not locked into anything, allowing me the freedom to take advantage of new ideas, new characters, or new plot twists that crop up.

Larramie said...

Thinking is creating, but it seems to take the blame of stalling the actual writing. Is this another puzzle of what comes first -- the chicken or the egg? Hmm, there's another thought, Lisa!

Lisa said...

Reality, Shauna and Larramie, thanks for sharing your ideas and processes. After pondering this for a while longer it hit me that the key lies in both the thinking and the walking. I realized that many of my best ideas come to me while I'm in the shower. I think the reason for that is it's one of the only places where I have no distractions. Walking (alone) is very similar. There are very few times we can think without multi-tasking and walking is one of those times. Even riding a bike or driving, as intuitive as we think they are, require that we focus some amount of attention on them (or at least in deference to the other people on the road I hope we do), but a solitary walk really gives us the chance to think. Not only that, but I think the change in scenery -- away from the usual spot where we write also does us some good. I don't think that focused thinking really stalls the writing since unfocused writing requires so much more time to revise. A good mix of the two (whatever that is) is probably the key. We do all have our own methods. For me, I'd have saved myself a lot of major cutting and going down blind alleys if I'd thought a few things through more thoroughly before I started to write. Now once the writing starts, it's kind of a free for all :)

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Lisa, good questions and I find it's a balancing act for me. I usually have an idea percolating for several months or even a year--edges of it will occur to me while I'm working on another book. Right now, I'm in the midst (45,000 words) of a novel but have little glimmers about what I think my next project will be.

Once I'm in the actual writing, I work out details when I'm showering ot walking (just like you). A long drive is good as well. I've also learned to savor those early waking up times--when I'm awake but still in bed and I can let the characters drift into being. I usually have an overall sense of the arc of a story, but the details get refined as I write and revise.

With my first book, I knew much more where it was going before I started writing--I had the opening and the final scenes firmly in mind and I wrote to fill in the blanks. With this second book, I trusted myself more to figure it out as I went along--I didn't get a good sense of what I thought the final scene would be until I was 20,000 words in.

Lisa said...

Judy, I'm so glad you came by to comment. Now I have to make my confession. I'm a little over 32,000 words into my first manuscript and I've probably cut a third that much as I've gone along. I have learned so much since I started and I'm so acutely aware that most novelists don't really hit their stride until the second, third or fourth manuscript. I have another story that has continued to blossom in my mind and it's really much better, but I feel an obligation to see manuscript number one all the way through and to make it the best that I can anyway. I haven't written anything but the most cursory of notes on #2 and I almost feel like I need to do the work on #1 to be ready to write #2. Does that sound nuts?

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Not nuts at all; rather I think it sounds wise. You're cutting your teeth on #1 so you can really hit your stride with #2. You'll know when it's time to leave the first behind. Don't ask me how--you just will. I actually started a first novel 4 years before I wrote ALL THE NUMBERS. I got about 100 pages in. I'd given the pages to friends. I had a title. And then it just drifted away. I realized it wasn't going anywhere. I thought, "oh well." When I sat down in the summer of 1999 to write, I discovered I was drawing on the same characters--with a completely different plot. So, I'd spent 100 pages fleshing out folks who would now inhabit my book. I even stole some scenes word for word.

No writing is wasted.

The Writers' Group said...

I'm with you, Lisa. I always need time to ponder before actually committing words to paper. There's less pressure, less of a commitment when the mind is allowed to freely wander. Once I find my starting line -- be it for an essay, chapter, or novel -- then I can sit and write for hours.


Lisa said...

Thank you Judy and Amy. I am learning so much and I'm getting really excited about my Writer's retreat in Grand Lake -- now less than a month away! BTW Amy, Scott was just asked to be the featured artist in the Churchill Gallery in Newburyport in December, so we'll be coming out around Christmas and I hope to catch up with the Writers Group when we spend a couple of days in Scituate :)

The Writers' Group said...



Yellow said...

I stopped working (painting) for a short period a while back, as you know. I realise in hindsight that I was getting these fantastic ideas in my head of what I wanted topaint, but i was afraid that my technique wasn't any where near good enough yet, and I didn't want to ruin the ideas by painting them badly. Madness!! As if I can't apint the same thing over and over, improving, and changing & rearranging each time. I have the luxury to do this as it's not my profession, just a passion. But it took a lot of courage, after encouragement by you guys, to start painting again.
I confess that strong mental images come to me whilst driving, usually on the routine way to work. I'm obviously on autopilot while I drive, which will help.
Another thing that helps is having music on while I paint. I had Sheryl Crowe's Tuesday Night Music Club on repeat the other night, and I sang it work for word without even knowing, while my brain, hands & eyes worked on the painting. Sometimkes I'll put a CD on, and take it off minutes later when I realise it's a distraction, but I find I can't work in silence, or the random background noises become distracting.

Lisa said...

Yellow -- I am so glad you've been drawing and painting and you are doing wonderful work, I might add. It's funny that just tonight I came to understand some things about a lot of the angst I'd previously had about my writing. You are so right about painting and the visual arts. You have to keep on working and the great thing about it is that each individual piece can be wholly accomplished within a reasonable length of time. You can learn from it and if you wanted to continue to paint the same subject 100 times over, you would learn more each time and continue to improve. The thing that makes novel writing so difficult (not more difficult than painting -- just different) is that the novel is one huge work so any work done on it that goes in the wrong direction is time wasted. Not all writing is -- veering off and working on a short story here and there allows me the freedom to work on other voices, points of view and types of stories. But I have come to a good place about my novel writing and I haven't figured it all out, but I have come to be at peace with how I'm working. Keep up the wonderful work -- I'm seeing you really blossom.

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf