After 15 years as a professional writer (ie making a paid living - or part thereof - from stringing semi-coherent words together) I’ve finally learned something crucial…
Over those 15 years people have been silly enough to regularly give me money to write stageplays, screenplays, essays, short stories, reviews, journal articles, magazine columns, websites, poetry, bloated opinion pieces and blogs. Not to mention that since I work as an academic I’m effectively employed to write academic papers and research thesises.
And the crucial thing I have only just learned (or perhaps has only just occurred to me) is that WRITING IS THINKING. That the process of writing itself, being an intellectual imaginative exercise tied to a specific physical externalising activity (ie typing), is a mode of cognitive exploration unto itself.
To be succinct about this discovery - You don’t THINK and then WRITE… Writing itself IS the Thinking. Discoveries are made, insights uncovered, conceptual mountains moved by the act of inscribing words. Writing is not the result of thinking - Thinking is what happens when you write, writing is what happens when you think.
For a moment there I felt like a fucking genius. Like an undergrad honours student who has come up with their first thesis topic and is self-deluded enough to believe it totally bloody original and never been thought of before.
I thought I’d better lay down for a while until the feeling went away… But it didn’t and thats because Im am immersed right now in the shock of the new…
After so many years of the writing I have penned being lynch-pinned to the Screen as either works for screen or works about the screen, I am now in new territory.
I’m writing a novel and Im re-learning everything.
I’m sitting at the feet of a mentor wide-eyed with wonder and child-like enthusiasm for the simplest morsels of advice. I’m revisiting things I thought I knew, forgetting and then discovering like a goldfish.
And I’ve never written faster. 20,000 words in past 3.5 days. I’ve always been prolific and fast but Im now taking my own cake.
And fuck me, it feels good.
It’s in this haze of writing+thinking, channeling the flow as it fizzles out of my finger tips (no one, but no one, two-finger types faster than me!) that I am making discoveries in both new contexts and old.
My Writing+Thinking drove me find ways to crash and burn my characters - to push them over the edge of cliffs - and I was struck by the now famous memo from David Mamet.
There’s a host of great morsels in there - most of which are just succinctly expressed story-telling 101 (which none of us are above revisiting with regularity). But one stood out for its punchy arrogance…
Every scene is a Failure.
Failure tells us something more than just the much trotted out idea of a character having a Want and an Obstacle. A Failure is a more useful tool because of what it embodies in a single word. A character can only Fail if they want something and don’t get it. They will therefore only Fail if they are opposed or blocked. So far nothing new. But then Failure goes a step further - because of the concept of Failure not only is the character blocked or opposed but, because failure equates to Losing, they are forced to do something else. The Consequences of losing are what drives the next scene. When the character stops failing the story is over.
To think of character drama in just the simplistic terms of Action and Obstacle omits Consequences - the fallout that arises from failure. It makes me think this may be one of the issues of why a great proportion of drama (on screen or otherwise) is banal. I’ve seen plenty of film and TV where characters have clear Wants and Obstacles but which left me cold and unmoved. Some may say that the issue is that the Stakes weren’t high enough - there wasn’t enough for the characters to risk - and this may be part of it. But stakes is a subjective idea. High stakes for one character might be the fate of the world, for another it might be losing their self respect. Stakes are subjective to a story’s genre, characters and impetus. But a simple notion of Failure and Consequences are more even in their application, not reliant of the subjectivity of genre, just the simple construct of a Failure that forces the character to try again in a different way, or sue what they have learned to try something else.
Its a simple yet powerful idea that, as a dramatic writing tool, really works.
Thinking is Writing and Drama is Failure… There you go, they are my profound discoveries for today.