I've blogged before about how useful it can be for prose and fiction writers to think in terms of theatre and drama, and again at The History Girls about why my own Drama degree has been so useful to me. So when I came across this post, on actor James Devereaux's Great Acting Blog, I couldn't help hearing it as a way of thinking about writing. James has collected some of playwright and director's David Mamet's most thought-provoking and important ideas, and I hope he won't mind if I borrow them.
Learn to ask: what does the character in the script want? What does he do to get it? What is that like in my experience?
The first two are two basic scene-building questions, of course (another is "What gets in the way?"). The third sounds a bit like the dreaded "Write what you know", but regular Itch-readers will know how idiotic I think that injunction is. It's really, I think, about finding the way into a fictional situation which by definition you haven't (quite) experienced. So how can you find the potency for you, the writerly fuel, in that situation? What analogies can you find in your own experience which will help you to evoke what it is for your characters?
Every scene should be able to answer three questions: “Who wants what from whom? What happens if they don’t get it? Why now?
This is a lovely, succinct way of thinking about that crucial question: "What's at stake?" What is each character hoping and trying for, how might each not get it, and what will the consequences be? And - not always the same thing - what is the reader hoping will happen, and what are we dreading might happen? Particularly interesting is "Why now?" What is it that makes this business of trying-to-get not just important, but urgent? Has the lead-up to the scene made it convincing that the characters now do as they do? Or is the only reason they say X, or do Y, that the writer needs to convey something to the reader?
What is this action? The commitment to achieving a single goal. You don’t have to become more interesting, more sensitive, more talented, more observant to act better, you do have to become more active. Choose a good objective which is fun, and it will be easy. Choose something you want to do. Choose a fun action.
An "action" is the modern term for what in my Stanislavski-reading days we called an "intention". As I was exploring in that History Girls post, it's about finding a single verb for what the character is trying to make happen with a line or movement. Shepherd's talking about an actor picking the right verb for this line: right for the line is assumed, but right for the actor is important too. It's not just because the storytelling will go better, it's because many a writer has got stuck (or spiralled into procrastination) because they haven't found a way to engage their writerly energies with what the scene needs.
Art is about the spontaneous connection of the artist to his own unconscious – about insight beyond reason. If his insight were reasonable, anyone could do it, but anyone cannot. Only few can, and they are called.
I don't know about you, but I spend so much of my time in among people whose chief work is creative that it's easy to forget that what we do - if we're serious about it - is really rather special. Not necessarily in its outcome (none of us is Shakespeare, and there's only one Hilary Mantel), but in the fact that we routinely do one of the most miraculous things a human can do: create something out of nothing. It's particularly easy for writers to forget, since most of the population has some sense of story-telling, and some capacity to write things down, but we shouldn't: not everyone can do this, and it is worth doing. That means it's worth taking ourselves seriously, tending to the state of our unconscious (for example restricting th junk food of social media) respecting our need for good food and the resources of time, space and money to do our job properly.
The task of any artist is not to learn many, many techniques but to learn the most simple technique perfectly.
Despite the ever-enlarging Itch of Writing Tool-Kit, it's always worth remembering that any toolkit is only as big as the tools that you can use well: not just creating the right effects in the right place, but doing so increasingly intuitively, so that your imagination and word-mind intuitively respond in an integrated way to the road and the journey. Yes, I often say that I'd rather see a learner-writer trying out tools and skills they haven't quite mastered than never trying anything they can't do well. But that's only because if a thing's worth learning, it's worth doing badly at first. In the end, you only need the tools which will best serve the story you're trying to tell - and regular readers will know that to my mind psychic distance is the Swiss army knife of writing.
Do not internalize the industrial model. You are not one of the myriad of interchangeable pieces, but a unique human being, and if you’ve got something to say, say it, and think well of yourself while you’re learning to say it better.
I've been known to say that, to the publishing industry, writers are like the animals in the zoo. Yes, our individual keepers get fond of us; yes, they will keep a favourite animal on, for a while, even if we're not the big crowd-puller. But we are, in the end, interchangeable: a zoo may need to have tigers, but any tiger will do. But that's all the more reason to hold our own sense of what we do, to value ourselves. That "spontaneous connection" to your own unconscious depends on a certain kind of confidence: that what you find there and work with will be vastly worth it; and then, if it all goes wrong, that such a catastrophe won't destroy you, only delay you. In other words, if your heart is stapled to the pages that are sitting on an industry desk, then you need to look after that self, that heart and that capacity for resilience, so you can live to fight another day. (Brené Brown is good on resilience).
Cultivate the habit of mutuality. Create with your peers, and you are building a true theatre. When you desire and strive to rise from the ranks rather than with the ranks, you are creating divisiveness and loneliness in yourself, in the theatre, and in the world. All things come in their time.
Writing fiction (generally speaking) isn't, of course, a collective activity as acting and to some extent playwriting are. But that doesn't mean there isn't a lot to be gained by teaming up with others. That's true of the nearest thing we have to a trade union - the Society of Authors - but also of the private little Facebook group where you know and trust every member to weep with you, rejoice with you and never give away your secrets. It might mean working with writer friends to setting up a project like Stories for Homes:a richly-stuffed anthology of stories that raises money for Shelter. Or it might be that you went away for a weekend with a group of friends, and found that everyone went home and started a story, which became Tales from Elsewhere. But it also means keeping your Inner Critic under control: forgiving yourself over and over again, for failing, for being imperfect, before it corrodes how you relate to others; and it means not getting rid of that toxic perfectionism by projecting it outwards onto how you respond to and talk about others. Hell, it might even mean thinking about how a bad book might actually be a good one.