These past three days are, in some traditions, a portal into the darkness of the year. Shamans and mystics consider this to be the time when the “veil between worlds” is the thinnest. Cultures practice building altars to the dead where communication between worlds can take place.
As a writer I find myself using this opportunity to connect my physical world with my mental world. In other words, “as above, so below.” The “above” here to me means the mind and the “below” means my physical reality, the interstice where the true alchemy of magic can manifest.
My screenwriting class has been going south since the first day. The reason is that it involves learning a new skill. I’ve written essays, blogs, short stories, newspaper articles, poetry, and novel chapters, but I’ve never written a screenplay. And when I hit bottom on Halloween, wailing and crying and gnashing my teeth to the empty air about how I couldn’t do this (find an idea for a screenplay), a calmness followed which led to a breakthrough (after some pacing and talking out loud).
Writing a script is the creation of a blueprint. It requires the most minimal of elements, written efficiently and elegantly with zings of metaphoric language. Prose writers like myself, at least in the beginning, must struggle not to let our language get in the way of our story. We tend to overwrite in prose style rather than fling fragments around.
One of the tools I’ll take away from this class is creation of the skeletal structure over which I drape the skin of my story. The action idea is a three-or-four-sentence synopsis of the story. The story paradigm is the bare-bones cause and effect progress of the story, the beginning, middle, end where plot is everything that script writers (and other fiction writers) have used since Aristotle proposed them.
So, I got a B- on my midterm (a 12-page screenplay) because of its inefficient use of telephone dialogue. This means I’ll probably get a C in the class (if I’m lucky), so I changed my grading option from A-F to pass/fail. Then I sat down and revised the action idea and story paradigm for my Act 1 feature that will be my class project. I emailed it to my instructor and he replied that he was impressed with my new understanding and huge improvement. It won’t help my grade, but at least it gets me to square one to begin a more clearly constructed story.
My habit has always been to sit down and start writing without knowing where I was going. Which wasn’t working for me on my many attempts at a novel. Countless books on fiction writing have repeated the same advice: know where you’re going to end up, then write the story that fits that ending. Or more to the point, write an outline, then construct detailed biographies of all main characters. But the details on this advice is always sketchy at best and downright confusing most of the time.
I could be reaching here, but I think that published fiction writers who go on to write books with advice for young/new writers purposefully omit vital information so that young/new writers who are insecure enough to read writer’s books must struggle and flail about as much as the seasoned writers. The only difference is that young/new writers shelled out huge amounts of cash to arrive at the same conclusion that there are no magic bullets. Boy, am I a sucker.
But writing classes have an immediacy to say nothing of a deadline, and the workshop environment is truly conducive to creative epiphanies. No, you can’t teach anyone how to write, but you can teach craft and provide an environment to maximize the possibility of breakthroughs and other possibilities. Going it alone has its rewards, but there’s nothing like a company of writers hammering out the kinks together to juice up the muse.
One of my glaring shortcomings as a writer has been my inability to use my own life as material. I have a huge obstacle to overcome with a conviction that my life has been (and is) so dull that there’s no “there” there to write about. I’ve been wallowing in the reality that I’m dishonest on the page. Not because I mean to be deceitful, but because I never take the time to connect to my true feelings about anything. I write as I speak, from the neck up.
Any good writer will tell you that good writing comes from the gut. I live in the attic, not the basement, so to speak. So, I asked myself, How do I get down into the basement? Then I remembered the black binder that collects dust on my bookshelf entitled, “The Creative Art of Journaling.” I’ve had an off-on relationship with the idea of journaling. For one thing, I rarely if ever return to my journals to read them. They moulder in a plastic utility box next to my writing desk. I have scores of them, but to me they just take up space. I’m always on to the next thing. I have A.D.D. and my eyes glaze over whenever I open one of the journals and glance at the sea of ink on every page. I slap them shut as quickly as I can and close the lid to the box.
Last year I came across an exercise in Jack Heffron’s Writer’s Idea Book that amazed me. I took a new black and white marble composition book from my stash and wrote “A Day in the Life” on the front and proceeded to record every detail of my day, including the dream I was having when I woke up in the morning. I carried it around with me all day. And here’s what amazed me. That night as I re-read what I wrote I made a connection I would never have made had I not kept the journal. I actually saw that the dream I had before I woke up took place in real life in a cafe. Which makes me wonder what other magic I’m overlooking right under my nose.
That was six months ago. I’m too flighty to keep a day in the life as a habit. I’m keeping one today. I don’t anticipate any epiphanies, but I figured it was appropriate to do during this three-day thinning of the veil. I’m still working on getting down to the basement of my true feelings. My upbringing wasn’t that conducive to showing feelings. Suppression and politeness and appearance were everything (my adoptive mother was old enough to be my grandmother, and she valued social refinement, even if she never mastered it herself.) So, I’m spending the rest of my life getting back to my gut. Connecting to deep and well-drawn metaphors that might help make sense of a chaotic world. And sometimes I even savor the knowledge that not knowing is the best possible state in which to breathe.
But emotions–anger, jealousy, pride, fear, curiosity, surprise, suspense, relief, triumph, thrill, anticipation, etc.–written about honestly through character as well as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are alien to me as a writer. It’s as if someone disconnected the wires at birth. My goal is, then, to self-connect again to the surging electric currents that make me human. This re-connection to my feelings will, I’m convinced, fill my empty tank with the empathy that’s necessary to write good fiction.