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.

The Mourning Portrait Teaser

A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, a few friends and I got together and shot a teaser for a feature film we were hoping to make. Here it is.

My friends Patrick Greene, Stephen Corbin, Kenneth Wilson and I went out into the woods of North Carolina and played around with a 35mm camera. Savanna James and Terry Nienhuis acted for us. We had fun. We shot in the same location in which Robert Redford shot his film The Clearing; the cabin was the same that Aidan Quinn stayed in for his role in Songcatcher.

We knew it was a good idea. The project got picked up by Belladonna Productions and is presently in development. We’ll see where it goes.

Diabolique Magazine

So it looks like The Mourning Portrait is featured in the July/August issue of Diabolique Magazine, along with a brief interview by yours truly.

Diabolique is a mag from England specializing in the brainy side of horror — international horror films, gothic fiction, interviews with past greats. Their visual vibe hearkens back to Creepy Magazine and the Hammer Films — that retro, elegant, old school approach to horror which was so much more satisfying than the bloody, gory, ‘spill until it hurts’ vibe we have today.

The article, written by the talented Keri O’Shea, is very well-done and treads lightly upon the subject of post-mortem memorial photography, something that is easily sensationalized. But she did an awesome job.

The magazine is primarily a print rag, but there is a PDF download version. You should do yourself a favor and check it out …

Juggling Projects

It happens: Sometimes our various projects pile up on one another, and we have to adapt and find new ways of working to handle the new load or risk creatively stalling. For me, I’ve had to learn to pick up my pace a bit if I want to get all of my writing and filming (among other things) done. I was apprehensive about this at first, but I’ve found it’s not so hard to juggle various creative projects at one time — if you’re organized, motivated and ‘in the flow,’ as the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi puts it.

Flow, of course, is the state of of creative focus that happens mid-point between boredom and anxiety — as Wikipedia defines it, flow is ‘completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning.

Now, I’ve written previously about some rewrites happening on The Mourning Portrait, while Your Ass Is Grass is still pulling at my coattails, asking to be given its proper due. But all of this is to ensure that if I don’t get as focused as possible with my scheduling and conceptualizing, things will be getting done at a slower rate than I had hoped. Nothing will flow.

This is not a new problem, of course. I spoke recently to the science fiction author Jeff Vandermeer, and he mentioned that he writes fiction in the morning and non-fiction in the afternoon, which seems like a good way to go: it keeps you from mixing two styles of narrative, say, or from allowing one project to bleed into another.

In my case, the projects are both narrative screenplays, so the challenge is to wipe my hard-drive brain clean of one before settling into another that same day. Can it be done? I think it can. The tough part is to compartmentalize the projects and let them be themselves, without any cross-pollination.

But on the other hand, some cross-pollination may not be a bad thing. On The Mourning Portrait, the team and I had worked out a certain way of going forward that allowed for maximum clarity of purpose and intent. I liked it so much I’m using that same method on Your Ass Is Grass. So maybe it is okay to mix the projects a bit — but only a bit. It really is like juggling — one project is in one stage of development, while others are in a more nascent place.

At any rate, there comes a time when a leisurely writing pace is just not what’s needed — sometimes you have to step it up a bit and get ‘r done. Having a flexibility of creative methods helps in these bottleneck moments; in other words, it helps to have ‘speed’ as well as ‘quality’ in your toolbox.

Acting!

So, I recently got asked to teach several acting classes up in NYC, by the good folks at One on One NYC.  I said yes. Seems they like to bring in various well-known and-or veteran filmmakers and casting types to talk about the craft of acting.  Darren Aronofsky did it.  So did Brad Anderson, Frank Whaley, and lots of other cool people.

Both of my classes are on Thursday, March 3, in Chelsea. It’ll be fun. See you there.

Your Ass is Grass, Update 1

So, periodically, I’m gonna post a creative diary of sorts on my upcoming project Your Ass Is Grass. This is number one.

Work on the script has been going well, but there’ve been a few hitches here and there, as always. First and foremost, I decided to put the script away for a bit to let it jell in my head a little more. My writing process is pretty clumsy: The first draft is to figure out what my story is going to be; the second and third are simply trying to make those elements even better — to find out what really works, what doesn’t, and to make the elements that do work richer, more ‘themselves,’ so I can truly create an excellent and original piece of work.

That’s a slow process, but for me a necessary one. I’ve never been able to outline and proceed simply with that, due to the fact that most of my creative decisions that stick seem to be the ones made in the heat of composing. Thus, coolly sitting down to outline a story seems to be too easy. There needs to be blood on the page, a heady mixture of plot and character that comes only from the thick of battle.

Second, my script The Mourning Portrait has gone through a few small revisions, so I jumped onto that project for a time and let YAIG sit and jell for just a bit. Which is okay. That’s life. If you’ve read my previous post about the writing process, you know that as long as progress is being made on some front, I’m happy. The key when you switch from project to project is to keep that momentum and don’t falter. Easier said than done, of course.

But the script for YAIG is coming along nicely — in my head. Sometimes it helps not to work too fast, or to try to hurry things. I really do think the extra time is often well spent. One of the bad habits I’m trying to get rid of is to rush things along, and honestly, to write scripts that could have been better if I had taken an extra four months or so to finish. That’s why I’m taking my time and letting themes and ideas simmer before committing them to a final draft.* This is a good one, I’m telling myself; one of the ones I’ll be remembered for. So I’m in no hurry to get it out there.

Thanks for your interest! Keep your butt in the chair!

*This is not to contradict my earlier assertion that work is best done only staring at the page.  There are two kinds of writing, of course:  the actual compositional kind, and the dreamy, staring at the ceiling kind.  Both are essential.