Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Black dogs and blank pages

Confidence is the big issue this week. Of course, self-doubt has always been one of the barrier gods. Graham Greene said that a writer is one who knows the long despair of doing nothing well. As I move from writing Mirabilis to a completely different set of characters, genre and indeed century for rom-com Sweet, I wake up each day to find that long despair all ready for me. I have to find the speech rhythms, the new pace and style this story demands. It has to be funny, for God's sake! Consequently I'm like an actor stumbling ill-prepared into a role. The clothes don't fit. The walk is wrong. I have no business being out at the front of the stage when I'm barely fit to be a spear carrier.

The trouble is, when you’re writing, what you’re doing is always new. A blank page awaits at the start of every day. The difficulty is not in evoking each scene, not the words themselves. A spaceship approaches Europa, for instance: “The faint light of Jupiter fell across the ice, giving the landscape the look of long-weathered mountains seen in an Arctic dusk.” See, the painting bit is easy. But coming up with the scene in the first place, that’s the killer. That’s why, though I am physically capable of writing, say, twenty thousand words a day, I’m content if I get even a tenth of that down in the form of good prose fiction.

Take the first scene in Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Nick walks around his room leaving a funny phone message for his ex. That’s our introduction to both the character and his backstory. As a writing choice, it’s brilliant because it’s so simple and understated. It does the job perfectly. Okay, now just imagine how many scenes the writer (Lorene Scafaria) might have tried. Her pacing up and down probably wore a hole in the carpet. Doing all the work to make it look easy – that’s what a writer has to do every day. It’s not just a matter of sticking words on a page.

So… boo hoo, right? Well, I’m not looking for sympathy. Writing is preferable to digging ditches for a living. (Maybe – though who in the world chooses between those two options?) I’m explaining it because I think it’s interesting. No other job I’ve done is like it. Designing computer games, for example. There you’re faced with a blank slate and, yes, you need to be creative. But it’s a kind of directed creativity, more similar to solving problems in engineering or physics than to writing fiction. Once you’ve come up with the concept for a game like Spore or The Sims (take a bow, Will Wright) you don’t have that agonizing what-the-hell-now feeling. You pretty much immediately know what problems you have to solve and you already have a bunch of possible solutions in mind. Writing fiction, by comparison, is more like being dropped off in the Empty Quarter without a map. There are no routines, no algorithms, to get you out of trouble. Everything is from first principles.

Maybe I’m just making it difficult for myself. Deciding to write a rom-com like Sweet when my stock-in-trade is fantasy adventure would certainly fit the bill. But I’m heartened by the fact that most writers have chronicled their struggles with the demon of self-doubt. My wife Roz talked a bit about Steinbeck’s dark nights while writing Of Mice and Men. And I am always heartened by the fellow-feeling expressed by clever, creative, multiple Oscar-winner William Goldman when he says that half the time it takes him to write a screenplay is spent just building the confidence to do it:
You go into your office, and you know it's gonna suck, and you have hope. You hope you'll have a good day. Sometimes you have a great half-hour or an hour, and then you think, "What did I do that was wrong?" It's not a logical profession, and I think if you knew what you were doing, your career would be going much better. But we don't. It's a crapshoot. And we all have these terrible insecurities. I don't think anybody any good says, "It's gonna be terrific."
Goldman is right, of course, and that’s why I’m not grumbling. The stuff that comes easily is nothing to be proud of. Creative arts are like lifting weights. If it doesn’t hurt a bit, you’re not doing it properly. And when you come out the other side, when you’re not writing but having written… Then the self-doubt is all gone and you are filled with pride, if not outright arrogance. You made something totally new. A story that people will care about. Something that can move them to laughter and (if you’re really talented) to tears.

Above, some character studies by Leo for Sweet. Which I’ll now get back to with renewed enthusiasm, my self-doubt having been exorcised by this post. In fact, I've got a killer idea for the opening scene. I might just be a genius after all...

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the window into your creative process, I appreciate the perspective.

    I never feel confident about anything I really care about.