Archive for October, 2009

Writing Rules

Yes, the title is ambiguous. Writing does rule. Getting into the flow of a good story, or poem, or article, and knowing the line on which it’s all going to come to a glorious intellectual climax, feels good. Very good. Despite having somewhat neglected my writing over the last year or so, I haven’t been able to forget that feeling, haven’t been able to forget the joy of creating my own version of the world, inhabiting it with characters, and narrating a past, present and future for it that has multiple possibilities. So, on this rare morning that I have all to myself I have been reading about the art of playwrighting in an attempt to work myself up to trying my pen at writing for the stage. One of the issues I have come across is the notion of writing rules – the other side of the title’s coin – and how important they are to creating a structure both to one’s writing discipline and also the quality and form of the writing itself. 

I will begin with this poster – one of my favourites – which was sent by a friend a couple of days back:

It’s a good place to begin, especially in its emphasis on writing ALL THE TIME and doing so in a routine that becomes habitual and dedicated. Rule 12 1/2 is by far the most important, and one that I am guilty of especially – I am totally procrastinating from writing a lot of the time by reading cool posters!

Arnold Wesker elaborates on some of the points mentioned above in an impassioned note on Writing for Performance, calling for the artist to continually renew his/herself in order to keep audiences on their toes, as well as to keep writing fresh:

You must develop

Never repeat yourself

Keep inventing

Keep your mind and imagination well-oiled by exposing yourself to all sorts of other artistic experiences. The best artists usually have the effect of reviving our batteries, revealing to ourselves what more we’ve got within ourselves – books, theatre, film, music; expose yourself to all sorts of people and experiences. You must know those you want to attack better than themselves.

Listen not only to what people say but the way they say it. Keep notes about those who interest you most, record dialogue whose vigour strikes you. Do not pursue what is absurd if what you’ve experienced does not call for the absurd. When it does call for it, use it. Nor engage irony when tenderness is called for, or lyricism if the mood requires harsh naturalism.

Life comes too multifaceted to make a fetish of only one aspect of it. Reality is too complex to re-create it in a singular style which then becomes a beloved “personal signature”. I worry about writers who straitjacket their material into personal mannerisms which are mistaken for their “voice”, or their “style”. Let your material dictate its own inherent style.

Nothing nothing nothing stands still.

Nor must you!

And, most importantly, he urges artists to be brutally honest, so that audiences trust them as someone who will speak their mind, rather than acting as a megaphone for the masses:

Artist’s must never be opportunists, but fiercely independent. Their talent is a unique gift given to them for safe-keeping, cherishing, nurturing, for handing on in a dependable condition to the next generation of artists. The individual vision is singular, the only hope for the future. The group may be needed for protection, co-operative physical endeavour, a sense of security to give the individual a sense of belonging. But – no group should ever be given the right to stifle the individual voice or the group itself will be doomed. Group decisions involve compromise. The group often finds it less trouble, less demanding to bless and support mediocrity. It has a tendency to become satisfied with the status quo and thus atrophy. For this reason it needs the voice of the independent artist. Such a voice is refreshing, often proving to be not the feared destroyer but the reviver of tradition, adding to it, even creating new ones.

To be an artist, then, requires patience to develop, enrich, hone your craft, and the courage to stand alone for what you’ve perceived and think about human beings and their condition.

If these words cover the rules of disciplining one’s self to write and to keep creating new work, then the next set of rules are in the structure of the writing itself. One of the most important ones, that remains with me still as one of the most powerful lessons of my creative writing degree, is:

1. SHOW don’t TELL – allow characters to show their feelings and dictate the plot through actions rather than dialogue which will end up explaining reality rather than allowing it to manifest naturally. An example provided by Jon Dorf is to show a character hiding under the bed rather than telling us she’s afraid. 

Other rules I have come across in my recent reading in writing for theatre are: 

2. Write for your reader, not for yourself – your reader must be in the room with you when you write; you must imagine them watching, participating and believing in the world that you’re creating on the page and also on stage. Especially with play scripts, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that they must  be engaging reads as well as have a solid vision for what will happen on stage, because it is the script reader at a theatre who will make the first call on judging your work. Jon Dorf writes in Playwrighting 101:

One of the terms you’ll hear a lot from me is “your reader.” But plays are meant to be performed, not read – right? True, but before your play makes it to a stage, it will have to survive a small army of readers. For example, when I was reading for Robert Brustein’s American Repertory Theatre, a play typically had to get through at least two script readers before it reached the head of new play development. If it got through him, it would go either to the literary manager or to the associate artistic director or perhaps to Brustein himself. That’s a lot of reads, so it’s crucial that you write not just to be performed, but to be read as well.

3. Distinguish between material that is the stuff of literature and material that is anecdote – again, Arnold Wesker:

The anecdote is slight, merely good for conversation. Trying to transform it into literature is like trying to make a wooden doll stand in the square instead of a statue. Yes, something can develop from a dinner-table anecdote, but it’s important to distinguish between what is heard and what it can become.

An important attribute of the writer is the ability to select. Life offers an enormous amount of material; add to it the riches of the imagination and what one confronts can be overwhelming. By what they chose shall you know them could be inscribed at the head of any writing course.

Distinguishing what will be powerful, what you can make powerful on the on the stage is essential. Distinctions: between meanings, between intentions, between material; sorting out what’s to be used, what’s to be dispensed with.

Example: I had a spinster aunt. She had to look after her mother, who died; then a sister, who died. She was hurt by the experience, but seemed content to live alone and busy herself with visits to the family. There is nothing remarkable in such an experience. Sitting round a dinner table, most guests could probably relate such a family story. My aunt’s history of lonely spinsterhood leaps ringing with resonance when it is revealed that she used to make crocheted bed coverings for members of the family, and one day, having made hundreds of squares for a grand-nephew and sewn up all of them except 30, she stopped. The last 20 remained unattached. She also stopped watering her plants, taking buses to visit us, washing herself. One day, her spirit wound down to a halt. Because in all of us there is a spirit waiting to give up, she enters, on that day, into the stuff of literature.

On that note, I depart to attempt to find that spirit waiting to give up… and in doing so begin to tell a story that will remember how and why forever.


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