Anna Deavere Smith’s plays are often discussed in light of their signature method of presentation: No matter how many characters are in the piece, and regardless of their gender or race, they are all played by the same actor. Usually Smith.
Smith builds that shapeshifting of perspective and personality on a foundation constructed from hundreds of hours of transcripts. She interviews people herself and then puts their words on stage.
What time of day do you get your best work done? No particular time. I just turn on the computer and do the work.
What’s the first thing you do when you sit down to write? I don’t have any rituals. I just put my fingers on the keys. It’s like second nature. I don’t think about brushing my teeth or shaving—it’s just something I do.
What’s the secret to being so prolific? I live in a fascinating city at a fascinating time in history. When people say they have writer’s block, I say, “Go take a walk around the block! Read the paper! Open your window!” How can you have a block when there’s so much going on? I love what I do, so I don’t think of it as a job that you finish. It’s like breathing.
When you can say that you write like you breathe — and be telling the truth — it is safe to say that you are the envy of the great majority of writers who have ever drawn breath.
There are people who have known all their lives that they wanted to be a writer. That’s a lot of us, to some degree. Then they tend to face that chasm between the want and the real. Is it a book deal? Getting an agent? Self-publishing and hoping a publishing house notices it? Being one of those strange tables at the publishing convention selling just one book that everyone stays away from?
It’s really hard, and particularly hard for screenwriters, because nobody wants to read your script. It just sucks. Until you’ve made something, until you’ve proven yourself, you’re basically a nuisance to everyone that you’re trying to get your script to, so you have to find a way to make yourself valuable. I know the first response is, “Well, I’m not a director, and I’m not an actor. I’m just a writer.” And my basic response is, “Then you’re going to be stuck.” I’m sorry, if that’s the way you think about it, you’re kind of going to go nowhere…
Don’t be afraid to be a nuisance. Get out there. Bring your book everywhere. Show it to anybody who will glance. Do what you have to do.
Unfortunately, being a writer takes more than writing.
“Marita, Please Find Me, I Am Almost 30” is a beautiful, heartsick piece that threads the love of creation through a desolate sadness. In other words, it expresses precisely the type of temperament that people normally ascribe to melodramatic artistic types.
According to a talk Colson Whitehead gave in Amsterdam in 2018, as a young boy he thought that writing would be a pretty cool gig because “you didn’t have to wear clothes or talk to people and could spend all day making stuff up.”
While that remains true, especially the not always having to talk to people thing, it turned out to be a little more complicated. So here are some of the hints for new writers that Whitehead provided:
Give yourself a chance to learn: “Write a crappy story and then the next one will be better.”
Write what scares you, but find a way to make it fun.
Learn how to deal with rejection: “It didn’t matter if no one liked what I was doing, I had no choice so I got back to work and it got better.”
All writers want to stand out. How do you make a name otherwise? But it’s also easy to tie yourself up in knots worrying about it.
Poet Derek Walcott, who was never anything but original, dismissed such worries in his essay “The Muse of History“:
We know that the great poets have no wish to be different, no time to be original, that their originality emerges only when they have absorbed all the poetry which they have read, entire, that their first work appears to be the accumulation of other people’s trash, but that they become bonfires, that it is only academics and frightened poets who talk of Beckett’s debt to Joyce… We are all influenced by what we have read…
Own it, but earn it.
Do as Walcott says, and make a bonfire from the trash of the greats.
Writing was never work for me. It had been the same for as long as I could remember: turn on the radio to a classical music station, light a cigarette or cigar, open the bottle. The typer did the rest…
Open the bottle, turn on the radio, have a smoke. Or find your own routine. Do what you need to do to let the words flow.
As they say, if you love your work, you never have to work a day in your life.
Even in fiction, when we’re writing, we are often reliving something something we already experienced. A thought, a view, a conversation, a stab of pain or shiver of beauty.
Part of the reason writers do that is simple: Fuel for the engine. But sometimes we write about an experience in order to go through it again, to remember what it felt like, get it down on paper, and let it some extent, live forever.
James Dickey won a National Book Award for his poetry collection Buckdancer’s Choice. That was years before he hit the big time with Deliverance. To some degree, poetry remained his first and last love.
Later, in the 1985 collection How to Use the Power of the Printed Word, he offered some advice for aspiring, or even veteran poets. It begins with simplicity:
As for me, I like the sun, the source of all living things, and on certain days very good-feeling, too. ‘Start with the sun,’ D. H. Lawrence said, ‘and everything will slowly, slowly happen.’ Good advice. And a lot will happen…
Start by writing what’s in front of you. If you can capture that, it’s an amazing start.
Sometimes it is self-consciousness that stems the flow. Often it is the result of misapprehensions about writing, or it arises from an embarrassment of scruples; the beginner may be waiting for the divine fire which he has heard to glow unmistakably, and may believe that it can only be lighted by a fortuitous spark from above. The particular point to be noted just here is that this difficulty is anterior to any problems about story structure or plot building, and that unless the writer can be helped past it there is very likely to be no need for technical instruction at all…
You have to keep your audience in mind at all times, of course. But if you don’t listen to your own voice first, there won’t be any audience for you to worry about.
My high school girlfriend gave me a copy of Jill Krementz’s The Writer’s Desk — this collection of her beautiful portraits of writers — and that’s how I wanted to live. Wake up, get your coffee, look outside, ruminate and sit down at your mahogany desk like Philip Roth. That’s fucking rad. That’s the life…
Many of us can relate. We know that dream.
But then we also come to discover that, well, it’s a dream:
In reality, there’s no mahogany desk. There’s only a conference room table, and you’re lying on the floor underneath it, scrawling something in mangled Italian on the back of an old lunch order for the Vinny Vedecci sketch. You can’t sit there and wait for inspiration. You think on the fly. You get the work done. You spend every day, every hour you have, trying to make the thing better…
Sometimes, as on-the-fly and unattractive as real writing is, it can be more satisfying in the end.
The writer would suggest subject after subject only to be told that the idea had already been reserved for another writer or that Shawn wasn’t interested in it. This is the moment, as the story goes, when John McPhee finally just said, “Oranges.”
That was it. That’s all it took:
According to the version he told in an interview with the Paris Review decades later, “That’s all I said—oranges. I didn’t mention juice, I didn’t mention trees, I didn’t mention the tropics. Just—oranges. Oh yes! Oh yes! [Shawn] says. That’s very good. The next thing I knew I was in Florida talking to orange growers.”
McPhee came back with 40,000 words on oranges for the magazine. He later turned it into a book. Title? Oranges.
One of the more eye-opening bits at the just-closed David Bowie Is exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum—besides that clip from Labyrinth, his tattered Union Jack coat, and all the cultural ephemera that inspired him—is the part focusing on his recurring fascination with automatic and cut-up writing.
The technique wasn’t new by the time Bowie started using it in the 1970s. The likes of William S. Burroughs had already been randomly cutting up strips of words and threading them together to create curious curlicues of randomized verbiage. Inspiration out of chaos.
Roberts described Bowie as taking multiple word sources, from the newspaper to hand-written words, cutting them up, throwing them into a hat and then arranging the fragments on pieces of paper. He’d then cross out material that didn’t fit to create lines of lyrics.
Roberts had an idea for a computer program that could help speed up the process. The result was a Mac program called The Verbasizer:
It allowed for different input methods including simply typing in words and then arranged them in columns which could be restricted to nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. Each column could be weighted and have multiple words if desired. With a push of a button lyrics would then be created.
So what you end up with is a real kaleidoscope of meanings and topic and nouns and verbs all sort of slamming into each other.
This approach isn’t exactly a killer app for writing. But if you’re stuck for inspiration and feel you need a little kickstart, try randomizing things. If you can’t immediately see a method to the madness, go looking for it.