How I Write

In honor of John August’s recent post ‘My Daily Writing Routine,’ I thought I would supply my own writing regimen.

A long time ago, I realized that getting into a specific routine with writing was probably a bad idea. First of all, I didn’t know if I could support myself solely from my writing, and thus create an everyday pattern (I was correct in that assumption). Second, I knew that any habit would eventually have to be broken. Habits are like addictions — crutches that you use to get stuff done. I didn’t want a crutch, I wanted empowerment. So I trained myself to be able to write any way, anywhere, at any time of day, providing I wasn’t tired or sick or something. That ability has served me well in the years.

So I don’t have a certain time of day that I write. I don’t have a certain place. I don’t even write in my home office. That’s for reading the news, emails, day job film work (like editing video) or even playing music (I record directly into my Mac Pro).

Lately, I like to write seated in a comfy chair in my living room, with my Macbook Pro in my lap. It’s a big room with a high ceiling. I like high ceilings. Somehow they make my imagination soar. Years ago, I read a book by the philosopher Gaston Bachelard called The Poetics of Space, which was an exploration of the phenomenology and perception of certain types of architecture. Bachelard made a point of discussing high ceilings and attics and rafters as a means of exploring flights of fancy, and I understand why. Looking up at exposed rafters while I daydream does seem to help engage the imagination.

On the other hand, when I started writing in earnest after college, I would go to a makeshift office in a basement storage area of my rented house — a small cubicle that had no headroom (or even room) at all. And it was fine. I was very productive there. The lesson for me is that you don’t need a certain space to write — you need your writing tools and your imagination … and that’s it. Sometimes a nice room with a window can actually be detrimental — you may spend too much time looking out, rather than looking in.

I write in Final Draft, V8, on a laptop. I use a Mac Pro with Final Cut Pro to edit movies and videos. I use Express Logic to record music (on which I play my 1998 Gibson J45, my 1989 Fender Telecaster, my 2000 Fender P-Bass, my M-Audio midi controller and my Kellii Ukulele).

I don’t usually go for a page count every day. In the early parts of a draft, there’s usually as much thinking as writing. Too much writing too early can in fact be detrimental. It’s akin to driving without knowing where you’re going, and then having to backtrack for hours — or in fact, days and even months. I do outline, or at least know where I’m headed. While I admire those writers who can literally make it up as they go along, I am not one of them; I can’t conceive of a proper beginning without knowing my ending.

Sometimes my various drafts can take years before I pronounce a script done. While I write all the time, I am a slow writer; I like to let the ingredients ferment, so to speak, and grow into themselves, like good wine, or food left overnight in the fridge. If it’s too fresh, it usually doesn’t feel finished to me. Sometimes this rule is broken: Alison, for instance, was literally made up as we went along. There was no time for fermenting; it was an exercise in which I challenged myself to collaborate and feel my way along. It seemed to work, but that’s not my usual process. I like to let the ideas become themselves so thoroughly that they won’t work any other way.

Sometimes I collaborate. For The Mourning Portrait, I worked with Patrick Greene. For an upcoming project called Old Exit One (a contemporary dark fantasy) I worked with a Chapel Hill, NC writer named Brent Winter, perhaps my oldest friend. In both cases I enjoyed it, and the other scribe brought something excellent to the table which I was completely unable to provide. I learned a lot from each of them, and will undoubtedly collaborate again in the future. But I do admit that I find writing by myself a little easier. For starters, you don’t need permission to change a word. Also, the communication factor — the back and forth — can be it’s own time-drain, as well. Like anything else, sometimes it’s just easier for you to do it yourself. And I find you can sometimes go deeper into your own unique vision — highlight obscure elements that you may not be able to when you’re justifying ideas to another person. You can bring out the work’s inner madness, which I think is necessary to making a good script. A good collaboration can also do that, but the visions you conjure are rarely (for better or for worse) your own.

All in all, I try not to have too much of a regimen, other than writing as much as I can. I might go a week without writing, or write every day for a month. But as long as I’m chugging out roughly one script a year, I’m happy.