Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Not What, But How

In the writing program at Second City, we spend a lot of time telling you what to write and we do a lot to encourage you keep writing. One area we tend to neglect is telling you how to write. Many people don't even realize they don't know how to write. We assume we got that training in school and either it took or it didn't.

I have always had lots of ideas and have done a lot of writing ever since I was a kid. Still, I don't feel like I learned how to write until I was 33 and took a class from Michael McCarthy. Long before the writing program existed in its current form, Mike taught some free-form classes out of the dressing room of the ETC Theater. Mike spent a good portion of one class time actually talking to us about how we approach writing. It was valuable advice that has stuck with me ever since.

The way I used to write was one of two things:

1) Wait to be inspired and then write until the idea comes to fruition or until I feel un-inspired by the same idea.

2) Sit in front of the television with a legal pad and a bag of, write, watch, scribble, eat, write, watch, etc. And this is the way I wrote when I had a deadline!

Basically, I really hated the act of writing and only wrote when I had to. It was a chore to me.

Mike suggested a structure to writing, like working out. First, find the time of day that works best for you as a writer. Our brains all work differently and peak at different times. I'm usually best in the mornings. But you should experiment and try different times and see what works best for you and your noggin'.

Like a workout, Mike suggests warming up. The actual time you devote to each step is up to you and your available schedule.

Here's a basic outline:

30 minutes of putzing around
- This is to get the blood flowing all over. I usually use the time to tidy up or do the dishes.

30 minutes of reading
- It should be something completely unrelated to what you are working on so your brain can devote itself to being fed. Books are nutritious!

45 minutes of writing
- This is very important. Stick to the allotted time. At 45 minutes, even if it is mid-sentence, stop! In fact, you'll probably remember better where you were at if you stop mid-sentence.

15 minutes break
- This part should be filled with something completely mindless. Crank up the AC/DC and dance with your cat. Do whatever, but do something very physical. Play!

45 minutes of more writing, repeat as necessary.

Again, if you are pressed for time, adjust it. It could easily be 15 minutes of putzing around, 15 minutes of reading and 30 minutes of writing. You'll be amazed at how productive you can be just devoting 10 minutes to each.

By doing it every day, at least five days a week, your body and brain will start to gear up for it.

This is how prolific writers are so prolific. They write. And a structure like this, with putzing around, reading and breaks built in, helps keep you from getting burned out. Writing regularly will also allow you to shake your attachments to ideas and free you up to try different things. You'll be more willing to fail, which can greatly improve the quality of your material.

Writing just 45 minutes a day, I'm able to write and polish at least one 3-5 page sketch a week.

Consistency is the key. With my blog, I write the first draft at night before I go to bed and then finish it in the morning when I get up. My brain tends to work on it while my body sleeps. If there's something I don't like about the first draft, I usually have it solved when I wake up.

Your environment is also important. Make sure you enjoy where you are at when you write. Set up your space so it works for you. Experiment with it. Hemingway wrote standing up. Of course, he shot himself, so take his suggestions with caution. He may not have been getting proper arch support. I sit at a kitchen table and have all sources of music and television turned off. There's usually a cat or two nearby, but they know not to get between me and my keyboard. I prefer quiet so I can better listen to the words I'm writing. Some people prefer to blast music. If I am working on a period piece, I will sometimes play the music from that era in the background or on my breaks. Again, experiment and find what works for you.

Usually when I have a student who consistently brings in material they don't like, they also don't like the situation in which they wrote it. If you're like that, try something different. Or if you are churning out scripts like an assembly line and are feeling a little crispy for it, slow down. Take breaks. Take care of your body. Writing takes energy and the coffee can only get you so far.


Photo by Fuzzy Gerdes.


Yesterday, I asked...

"Discussing his post-presidential years in an interview with Robert Draper, President Bush says he expects to be doing what?"

36% thought George would be "Writing books on politics."
- Um, sure. Why not? Compassionate Conservatism told through pop-ups. No.

18% picked "Visiting impoverished nations."
- No. He only visits countries that have oil. And it's not visiting, it's invading.

9% answered "Helping the poor."
- Well, he has been helping the poor all through his administration. He's been helping them become poorer. And he's been making more of them. But, no.

The correct answer which 36% got, "Getting in the car. Getting bored. Going to the ranch."

According to The Guardian, Bush said, "I can just envision getting in the car, getting bored, going down to the ranch." He also has big plans for making money. "I'll give some speeches, to replenish the ol' coffers," says Mr Bush. As ridiculous as him giving speeches sounds, you have to give him props. He's finally willing to work for a living.