Programming note: Many thanks to Cat Commander, Emilie Collyer and Wahibe Moussa for contributing their beautiful words and wisdom to them. Deepest thanks also to Katherine Coppock who has once again provided her beautiful illustrations for this post. Her work can be found here.
I have this conversation quite often:
Me: How is the writing coming along?
Them: Great! Slowly! I can only write when I’m inspired.
Me: Fuck that.
I think ‘inspiration’ is a really dangerous word for writers and waiting for it is why projects don’t get finished. Now I say this as a master procrastinator. How many plays have never come into existence because I was too busy crying over orchestral flashmobs on youtube? I couldn’t begin to guess. But waiting for inspiration is the perfect way to stretch timelines into a comfortable eternity. The fact is that writing takes practice. Rather than waiting for the perfect story to unfold, to drizzle from your fingers like honey and run smooth across your page, settle for putting something on the page. I am all for forced creativity. Of course I’ve had those Inspiration Days. They are the most beautiful and delicious of things but also I have written some of my best work on days when every moment was agony; when I have paced, ranted into my phone, dug my fingernails into my palm, completely doubted my own intelligence and somehow sweated my way through to something beautiful.
Sometimes I think that artists need to borrow from athletes and approach our practice as something we must exercise and keep in shape. The Big Game isn’t everyday but we must be flexing those muscles on a daily basis. So today I bring you some tips for the 39 out of 40 days when creativity isn’t on your side.
I tell myself that the first twenty minutes of writing will be utter bollocks. It helps. You don’t judge; you just get words out. Use language casually without striving for greatness. Just get them on the page. Give yourself permission to write page after page that you never want anyone to see and have no desire to read back to yourself. Push through until something sparks.
Often my warm-up isn’t about trying to write a scene because that will only frustrate me. Instead, I set myself challenges. Here are a couple of them.
- Writing from a song.
Pick a song. Listen and, without thinking too hard, begin to writing from the ideas it sparks. Set your alarm for three minutes from the end of the song. I fucking love writing with an alarm on because it absolutely outlaws over-thinking. I’d suggest doing this with three songs in a row. After the last song, give yourself a further fifteen minutes to write from whichever one got you most excited. You could also use photos or random lines from books or plays instead of music but I like the way songs give you some thinking time.
- ‘Like a something.’
I stole this from a Jenny Kemp workshop. I really enjoy it for when I’m stuck on a particular scene or character. It is a bit like brainstorming on a particular topic. All sentences begin with ‘like’ and it is simply about describing around an idea or character. If I am writing on a character I might begin with comparing them to an animal and then describing what that animal is like. At the bottom of this entry I’ve included one I did on loneliness last year.
2. Create deadlines.
I don’t mean just telling yourself to do something by a certain date: there has to be some repercussions for not finishing it and the best repercussion is public shame. Yes, I’m all for shaming myself into productivity. Call up some friends and invite them to come around next week and read something that doesn’t exist yet. Knowing that you will have expectant people sitting in your living room, staring at you over cups of tea is a wonderful incentive.
Now these are conversations that I am constantly having with fellow writers. When Cat Commander proof-read for me (and thank you, Cat!) she wrote back that so much of her working out takes place in her head rather than on the page but she is constantly turning over new ideas and approaches. “My trick to get things going is to think of someone that I might be having difficulties communicating with and to write down the thing I would least like to say to their face. Voila. There’s an interesting scene.” Charging headfirst into what makes you uncomfortable is an outstanding way to find something truly gritty; something that burns the tongue, leaves the eyes watering and the stomach turned.
I asked fellow playwrights, Wahibe Moussa and Emilie Collyer for their tips for combating the difficult days. Here are their beautiful responses.
1. Set a word, page or time deadline
On days it is like sludge, I do 500 words when working on prose or one scene or section if it’s theatre and a block of one hour if all I can manage is to scrape my way through a few half finished pieces.
2. Trick yourself
I’m not working, just going to look at what I wrote last week and have another document open at the same time to jot down any notes, fixes, new ideas, it’s not work, just active reminiscing.
3. Sneak in sideways
I always have at least 2-3 things I’m working on that are different stages. Just open each one and have a look and add one little bit – the act of opening a document and entering it often gets me moving again.
4. Don’t be afraid to make chucking bad stuff part of your work
Look at a story or piece of writing you’ve been unsure about and be bold enough to say ‘yep, that is shit. It didn’t work and it’s never going to work. I’m going to add it to my compost folder and start something new in celebration.’ The old one out, one in philosophy.
5. Don’t be afraid to look at the shiny bits
Even on bad days there is probably one piece of your own writing you don’t hate or even quite like. Read it. Say it aloud. Move around and remember what it feels like when you kind of nearly get it right. Remember you don’t have to do that TODAY but every little piece of bad writing or hard writing leads to the shiny moments which invariably come out of the fucking blue – and hey today might be the day.
A biggie for me is when I think I know a character or an aspect of the story too well, but on examination, I realise I only know one element really well. My mind seems to be stuck on it like a broken record. So I start a dialogue with this point of resistance.
Start a list headed with the character’s name (or scene title) eg Tom is … Then list everything you know. Allow that to digress into every personality trait you can think of. I don’t usually time myself, but you can if you need to. Then I draw up a second list, headed Tom Knows … This being the things Tom knows that I never in a million years suspected.
Once I’ve exhausted all possibilities I take a 10 minute break – no more or you may never get back into it – and read and re-read the list taking note of the descriptions that give that resonant ‘ping’. Choose whatever strikes you out of the lists and use it for the next writing riff: 10 minutes for each description, don’t think, just write. Then repeat the rest and read process. Choose a sentence that really ‘pings’ your Writer’s muscle and use it to enter into the next scene. When you finish with one, come back to the descriptions and repeat the process. You can make as many lists as you like – what Tom knows about Alice… What Tom likes… What Alice hates about Tom… Etc. I find myself coming back to these lists again and again whenever I get stuck about a character and something new always emerges.
Me again. Hi:
Just remember that writing isn’t easy. That’s not because you are bad at it, it is because you are doing something incredibly difficult and that is fantastic. Don’t make the mistake of equating struggle with failure. Pushing through pushes through. Work with sweat and swearing. Bite down and snarl your way from word to stinking word. You are dragging something into being that has never been before. That is remarkable and it is hard. Really, really hard. But don’t wait for inspiration to find you. Hunt that fucker down.
Now for my example of a warm-up exercise. I wrote this in 2013 when working on yours the face. This is an abridged version as these things can go for for pages.
Like the sensation of hollowness in the centre of your chest. Like there is a cavity inside your ribs and your lungs and your heart and your organs are not large enough to fill it.
Like not quite knowing how to move your arms. Like looking down at your hands and thinking them alien.
Like holding another person’s hand in a crowded city and feeling a chasm open up between you.
‘There’s a hole in my neighbourhood down which of late I can’t help but fall.’
Like sitting on a tiny desert island – one cartoonish palm tree – watching the ships sail past and having nothing to flag them down with. Soon you stop trying.
Like cooking for one. Like not bothering to eat it.
Like a dull mechanical hum.
Like muffled voices receding. Muffled laughs laughing.
Like not getting the joke.
Like the iron curtain.
Like ringing silence.
Like a tortoise. Like a sloth. Like being left behind.
Like not having learnt your lines. Not preparing the speech.
Like the colour grey.
Like the Australian landscape. Like naming a town Nhill. Or Wail. And placing it in the middle of flat nothing.
Like cutting down trees.
Like not coming whilst masturbating.
Like taking valium. Like the world going soft.
Like not screaming. Like deliberately not screaming.
Like not being met at the airport.
Like trying to merge on a freeway. Like no one letting you in.
Like having sex with a stranger you have known for ten years.
Like being the only one who doesn’t know the words to a song. To a big, big fucking famous song. Like everyone is standing up to sing it and – oh God! There are actions.
Like hiding. Trying to camouflage into the couch. Melt into the clothesline. Disappear behind the shopping trolley.
Like standing in the middle of London, not recognizing a single street name.
Like forgetting how to read. Forgetting a face.
Like reaching. Like striving. Like grasping. Like failing.
Thank you to all of your for your beautiful contributions to this post.
Emilie Collyer’s work can be found here.
Cat Commander tweets under the twitter handle @miss_commander
Wahibe Moussa tweets under the twitter handle @wtmoumou