Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Writing in restaurants

My niece emailed me a link the other day to Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling. Then playwright Dave Sealy called it "an excellent set of guidelines" on Facebook, so I had a closer look. I like this kind of thing, for some reason. It gets me wondering about what my own set of rules would include. The first rule would be "always be suspicious of rules."

But I like their rule number eight: Finish your story, let go even if it's not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time. I sometimes get questions from people who are working on a book. They want to know how to get it published. My advice is "finish writing it." No one will publish an idea, even a fantastic one. If you're Margaret Atwood, you might get a nice advance for an idea, but you'll still have to write the book. That's why rule number 7 is also good advice: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front. I like to have a general idea of an ending when I begin writing. That way I can write towards it. While writing Shelter, my ending changed because the middle changed. But not much.I knew the core of it from the start.

Rule number eleven is Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you'll never share it with anyone. When I'm revising, I leave home, leave the computer, leave the familiar. I take a thick pad of yellow newsprint and a medium ballpoint pen and I head out. Sometimes I go for a drive, a productive place for me. Sometimes I go to the Bench, my favourite lunch spot in Penticton, or the Elite, a pretty good breakfast place downtown and a good place to stare out the window. David Mamet (king of dialogue) has a book called Writing in Restaurants. In the title essay he says, "In a restaurant one is both observed and unobserved. Joy and sorrow can be displayed and observed 'unwittingly,' the writer scowling naively and the diners wondering, What the hell is he doing?" Being in a public place does something different to my writing. I take the section I want to revise and I start over. I write anything, stuff I'll never use. Writing on the yellow pad frees me up, makes me feel less committed. One sentence leads to another. I have faith in that.

In The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry by Kim Addonizio & Dorianne Laux, there's a chapter called "Stop Making Sense." I'd add that to my list of rules. Too much control over your story takes the fun out of it. I once had the pleasure of meeting with Timothy Findley to talk about a story I'd written. He asked me a question about something in the story. When I couldn't explain it, he said, "Someone once told me there are always chairs tipping over in my writing. I can't explain that either, but it must mean something." My unconscious mind understands things I don't. At 2 a.m., at 7 a.m., my unconscious trips along, throwing up dreamlike associations that I try to trust. 

That's why I disagree with rule number two:  You gotta keep in mind what's interesting to you as an audience, not what's fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different. Maybe they're different, maybe they're not. If I pay attention to what's fun for me as a writer, it's usually the same as what I like as a reader. I just heard a CBC interview with the band, Rush, who have a new album out. They talk about trying to live up to big ideas, constantly reaching, trying to push yourself. It has to be fun.

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