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Friday, March 27, 2009

Quitting When You're Ahead

Sorry Wavers, but you are weird. So am I. Creatives are just strange. The way we think, our emotionality, the way we are always observing other people. The way we are always thinking about our writing and our stories. You gotta have some empathy for our family and friends who don't get it. I mean, seriously, we must be tough to be around sometimes.

One of the weirdest things about us is how our brains work when we are in the zone. I've been working almost every single afternoon lately with my raconteur, Mr. Perri, on figuring out the loglines for several script ideas and the beats for a particular script. Particularly when you are brainstorming with another person, you notice the way the creative energy ebbs and flows. I've noticed, for Perri and me, that we can brainstorm for about three hours before suddenly, the creative plug gets pulled. The room feels too hot. Our conversation slows. We get stuck on one particular point. We start circling and circling the same point. We can't bust out. We suddenly feel overwhelmed and...tired of thinking. Which is when we pull the plug for that day. Enough. We look at what we DID accomplish and we call it a day. I am of the opinion and the experience that you just can't push it.

So what do we do? We have to make regular writing/brainstorming/outlining time in our day to day, we know that, right? But we also have to know when it's enough for that day. Because pushing it beyond the limits of having fun kills creativity. You'll start to generate bad ideas, you'll start to mess up what you had done with your story.

So make sure you quit when you're ahead, Wavers. For whatever reason, Creativity Fatigue kicks in at some point and you have to recognize it and be okay with walking away from it for that day. I'm always talking about balance in our lives, right? You don't have to crack your story or an aspect of it on a particular day. Don't forget that as much as we need Behind in the Chair time, we also need Subconscious Mulling Time.

Most of us creatives - and I include musicians, poets, writers and artists in that - get ideas and breakthroughs and inspirations when we aren't even trying. We have to be still to let it in sometimes.

Flannery O'Connor, who wrote my absolute, hands-down favorite short story of all time "Revelation" (seriously, please check it out) once said, and I am paraphrasing, that every day she'd put a blank piece of paper in her typewriter and just sit for four hours. That way if a good idea did come, she wouldn't miss it. Flannery did pretty well with that methodology.

So that's the Behind-in-Chair discipline, which is SO important. But we also need to honor the Wait-and-it-Will-Come method. Our brains are so endlessly complex and fascinating. Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink is a great read if you are interested in the topic. In fact, the rest of the title of that book is "The Power of Thinking Without Thinking."

So if you're writing and you suddenly feel the walls closing in, if your ideas are drying up, if you're not having fun anymore - walk away. Go do something else. Just put your behind in that chair again tomorrow and trust that in between, your brain really is still working out the problem. It will save you the awful feeling of Creative Fatigue, it could save your script from some really bad decisions and hey - how many other people in life get to walk away from the work and know the brain will still figure it out? It's pretty cool.

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Seth said...

But Julie, if I don't push to that point of desperation, how will I ever realize that what my gritty cop thriller really needs is a 6-minute burlesque sequence?

Nicholas said...

Burn out is the most painful part of writing. It's no longer a point of mental fatigue now, it's physical.

In order to finish the first draft of the script I'm working on now I pull a 14 hour writing day. Non-stop. By the time I neared 3:00 AM and the last of my scenes, I was barely able to write. I had purposefully written the ending long before, so I was somewhere in the middle. All I needed to write was a four scene long montage with small bits of dialogue. It was nearly impossible, but I new I couldn't stop.

I did the same thing with the first script I ever wrote, but instead it was a 20 hour (yes, you read that number right) nonstop marathon to the end so that I could hand it in as a final project. I only needed the first 30 pages, but I had promised my screenwriting professor that I would finish. I did it with minutes to spare.

But as a result I burned out so badly that I didn't write anything for a full five months. Yes, you read that correctly too. It was a really low point for me, and I wondered if I'd ever be able to seriously write again. Obviously I did, but my point is that burnout can do some serious damage.

Precautions must be taken to prevent it. If you feel yourself slacking, you know it's near.

The good thing about this script is that even though I burned out at the end, when I woke up the next day I immediately wanted to return to writing. I forced myself not to for three days to let my mind unwind. When I returned I was able to get some decent rewriting done.

Taking a break can be very therapeutic. Its downside, though, is that you can suddenly lose your mojo if you don't at least write something creatively every day.

It's a very very fine line to walk. It's amazing how writers stay sane. Honestly, I think we are all completely nuts, but we can just feign sanity around "normal" people. There's just, about how our brains work. We see the world differently. We see the truth. When something is bad, we don't delude ourselves from seeing the evil. It's like we are in tune with ourselves more than most. We are in tune with ourselves, and others, and the world. And it is that fact that allows us to observe...and then write what we see.

But really, we're all completely insane. There's no other adequate explanation.

Steve Axelrod said...

Two things ... one, Thomas Mann always talked about getting up and walking away from the desk to keep his perspective on the work, and to maintain his 'critical knowledge of the ideal'.
Lovely phrase.

And Hemingway once remarked that he would trade his whole career just to serve as William Faulkner's coach. His main advice for big Bill? Write less. He thought Faulkner worked at least three hours a day more than he should. It's an interesting point.

Hemingway himself always quit when he knew where he was going, so he'd be primed for the next day.
That's excellent advice.

Christian M. Howell said...

True, so true. Especially those of us who have demanding full time jobs.
It's bad enough that readers want more and more twists and conflict and drama. It takes awhile to do AND keep the story believable and not tongue-in-cheek.

I can say I love the challenge though. I actually find that new ideas help more as you look at stories from so many different angles at once.

There have been plenty of times that I thought of something for one script while working on a totally different one.

Luzid said...

This is also why stepping away from the script once it's complete, before starting on a rewrite, is so important.

I write for a couple hours or so a night. When I feel like I'm tapering off, I try to set up for the next day by stopping in a good spot -- makes it easier to get into the flow the next day.

As long as I work the process, the process works. Overworking it would accomplish nothing, so I trust that it'll all work out in the end. And it generally has so far.

Stan said...

The end result of forcing things can be so ugly.