Writer’s Desk: Take Your Time

In 1991, comedic legend and sometime albatross vendor John Cleese gave a lecture on creativity, a topic he’s been somewhat obsessed with over the years (and in fact just published a short book about it). In that lecture, he gave examples of how to create what he called the “open mood” that allows ideas to come.

One example came from Alfred Hitchcock:

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s regular co-writers has described working with him on screenplays. He says, “When we came up against a block and our discussions became very heated and intense, Hitchcock would suddenly stop and tell a story that had nothing to do with the work at hand. At first, I was almost outraged, and then I discovered that he did this intentionally. He mistrusted working under pressure. He would say ‘We’re pressing, we’re pressing, we’re working too hard. Relax, it will come.’ And, says the writer, of course it finally always did.”

It’s a difficult balance. On the one hand, you have to keep to your writing schedule. Otherwise nothing gets done. On the other hand, pressing against a closed door rarely works.

When nothing is coming to you, sit back, take a breath, go for a walk, and think about something else. The muse is still there, you may just have to wait for her to circle back around to you.

Writer’s Desk: Carrie Fisher Said Stay Scared

Carrie Fisher at the 2013 Venice Film Festival (Riccardo Ghilardi)
Carrie Fisher at the 2013 Venice Film Festival (Riccardo Ghilardi)

Carrie Fisher was one of the vanishingly few actors to ever come out of the gate as a massive star at an early age and then later transition to a writing career that would have been respected all on its own. As someone who struggled with mental and addiction issues throughout her life in a business that is basically engineered to maximize a writer’s insecurity, she knew what it was like to doubt every one of your own creative instincts.

This is what Fisher had to say about people with mental illness who were afraid to pursue their dreams. But it applies equally to just about anybody who has ever been nervous about putting their work out there into the world.

Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.

Writer’s Desk: Stay Excited

Roughly ten years ago, novelist Michael Cunningham (The Hours) received one of those calls very few of us civilians ever receive: “This is David Bowie. I hope I’m not calling at an inconvenient time.”

davisbowiealaddinsaneThe collaboration that followed was for a never-realized musical about an alien marooned on Earth. Cunningham was to write the book and Bowie the songs. Given that Cunningham was a somewhat obsessed fan and Bowie a little sketchy on the details of what he wanted to do, things started off a little slowly, but their relationship grew.

For Cunningham, as he describes in this piece for GQ, to work with Bowie, he needed to humanize him. That became very simple for him after something great happened:

How starstruck, after all, can anybody feel after the object of one’s veneration says, early on, without a trace of irony, that he was excited to start a new project because: “Now I get to do one of my favorite things. Go to a stationery store and get Sharpies and Post-its!” Yes, the Space Oddity, the Thin White Duke, was excited about picking up a few things at Staples.

If you’re a writer these days, there isn’t much in the way of office supplies one needs to start a new article, story, essay, or book.

But, there is still that tingle one gets one first embarking on something new, the thrill of exploring new territory and knowing you could find great success or utter failure but wouldn’t know which until it was far too late to turn back.

If you don’t feel that sense of excitement the next time you’re sitting at the keyboard, maybe try Staples. Get a new notebook and some nice pens (the good ones that have some heft, nothing that says Bic). Open it up. Look at that expanse of empty pages. Get started.

Writer’s Desk: Look Around, Write That

Nina Simone, c. 1982 (photo by Roland Godefroy)

Nina Simone famously said this:

An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times … We will shape and mold this country, or it will not be molded and shaped at all anymore … How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?

There are writers whose hackles will bristle at the mere suggestion that they have a “duty” of any kind. That idea has been abused, of course. Some would make writers produce only government-glorifying propaganda. Others would snark that any writing which falls outside strict revenue-producing genre parameters is navel-gazing artsy nonsense.

But listen to Miss Simone. When she talks about an artist’s duty, that could be taken as reflecting an activist’s sensibility. Which is obviously not everybody’s cup of tea—though it would be difficult to argue that our society needs more escapist entertainment.

What she’s saying here is keep your damn eyes open. It matters. Look around. Listen. Feel. Use that when you write, not just what’s in your head.

Because if your writing doesn’t reflect the world around us in some small way, then truly what is the point? As Capote sniped at Kerouac, that’s not writing, that’s typing.

(h/t: Jenna Wortham)