There is a kind of loneliness that lodges itself in the psyche and never fully leaves, a loneliness most anguishing not in solitude but in companionship and amid the crowd. If solitude fertilizes the imagination, loneliness vacuums it of vitality and sands the baseboards of the spirit with the scratchy restlessness of longing — for connection, for communion, for escape. And yet it is out of this restlessness that so many great works of art are born.
In the late summer of 1928, a month before the publication of Orlandosubverted stereotypes and revolutionized culture, 44-year-old Woolf found herself grappling once more with the yin-yang of loneliness and creation. In a diary entry penned at Monk’s House — the countryside cottage she and her husband had bought in Sussex a decade earlier, where she crafted some of her most beloved works — she writes:
Often down here I have entered into a sanctuary … of great agony once; and always some terror; so afraid one is of loneliness; of seeing to the bottom of the vessel. That is one of the experiences I have had here in some Augusts; and got then to a consciousness of what I call “reality”: a thing I see before me: something abstract; but residing in the downs or sky; beside which nothing matters; in which I shall rest and continue to exist. Reality I call it. And I fancy sometimes this is the most necessary thing to me: that which I seek. But who knows — once one takes a pen and writes? How difficult not to go making “reality” this and that, whereas it is one thing. Now perhaps this is my gift: this perhaps is what distinguishes me from other people: I think it may be rare to have so acute a sense of something like that — but again, who knows? I would like to express it too.
The following fall, thirteen days before the publication of A Room of One’s Own — that ultimate paean to the relationship between loneliness and creative vitality — Woolf revisits the subject in her diary, contemplating the strange ways in which we deny or confer validity upon our loneliness…
Maria Popova is a reader, writer, interestingness hunter-gatherer, and curious mind at large, who writes for WiredUK, The Atlantic,The New York Times, and Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, among others. She is also an am an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.
That’s what the wise and wonderful Neil Gaiman explores in a fantastic lecture two and a half years in the making, part of the Long Now Foundation’s nourishing and necessary seminars on long-term thinking.
Nearly half a century after French molecular biologist Jacques Monod proposed what he called the “abstract kingdom” — a conceptual parallel to the biosphere, populated by ideas that propagate like organisms do in the natural world — and after Richard Dawkins built upon this concept to coin the word “meme,” Gaiman suggests stories are a life-form obeying the same rules of genesis, reproduction, and propagation that organic matter does.
Please enjoy, with transcribed highlights below.
Considering the scientific definition of life as a process that “includes the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death,” Gaiman argues that stories are alive — that they can, and do, outlive even the world’s oldest living trees by millennia:
Do stories grow? Pretty obviously — anybody who has ever heard a joke being passed on from one person to another knows that they can grow, they can change. Can stories reproduce? Well, yes. Not spontaneously, obviously — they tend to need people as vectors. We are the media in which they reproduce; we are their petri dishes… Stories grow, sometimes they shrink. And they reproduce — they inspire other stories. And, of course, if they do not change, stories die.
On story being the original and deepest creative act:
Pictures, I think, may have been a way of transmitting stories. The drawings on cave walls that we assume are acts of worship or of sympathetic magic, intended to bring hunters luck and good kills. I keep wondering if, actually, they’re just ways of telling stories: “We came over that bridge and we saw a herd of wooly bisons.” And I wonder that because people tell stories — it’s an enormous part of what makes us human.
We will do an awful lot for stories — we will endure an awful lot for stories. And stories, in their turn — like some kind of symbiote — help us endure and make sense of our lives.
A lot of stories do appear to begin as intrinsic to religions and belief systems — a lot of the ones we have have gods or goddesses in them; they teach us how the world exists; they teach us the rules of living in the world. But they also have to come in an attractive enough package that we take pleasure from them and we want to help them propagate.
Gaiman illustrates this with the most breath-stopping testament to what we endure for stories as they in turn help us endure, by way of his 97-year-old cousin Helen, a Polish Holocaust survivor…
Maria Popova is a reader, writer, interestingness hunter-gatherer, and curious mind at large, who writes for WiredUK, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, among others. She is also an am an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.
When Albert Einstein claimed that imagination was more important than knowledge (in 1929), those who knew about such things might have said putting a man on the moon was impossible. But those who imagined more, including writers of science fiction, knew better. We know that imagination is a powerful force for progress in our lives and in society. And yet it seems that in the place imagination should be most celebrated – in stories, fiction and literature – it has long been sidelined.
Ursula K Le Guin, arguably the greatest living writer of imaginative literature, made a powerful defence of imagination in her speech to theNational Book Awards on Thursday, at which she was presented a lifetime achievement award. Le Guin dedicated her win to the “the realists of a larger reality” who for 50 years had been excluded from literature’s awards, her “fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction – writers of the imagination.”
It’s hard to dispute the exclusion of writers of imagination from mainstream literature, not simply from its prizes but from every part of literary culture. But why has this happened? The standard explanation draws on one part quality – genres like science fiction simply aren’t “well written” enough – and two parts the idea that imagination is in some way childish. Writers of imagination are fine when they address children and adolescents, but adults are meant to get their head out of the clouds and keep their feet firmly planted in reality.
This idea reaches further than literature of course. Over the same five decade period Le Guin references, our education system has systematically sidelined the imaginative disciplines of the arts and humanities, until we find ourselves at the position today where any non STEM subject has seen a de facto obliteration of its status and funding…
Damien G Walter is a writer of weird and speculative fiction. His stories have been published in Electric Velocipede, Serendipity and many other magazines as well as BBC Radio, and numerous anthologies. He reviews for The Fix and blogs for Guardian Unlimited. In summer 2008 he will be attending the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy workshop at UC San Diego.
So for Jared and anyone else who may be wondering, the answer (besides that I’m lucky enough to be able to design my life this way) is that I’m easily bored and possibly just a touch ADD. Therefore, having multiple projects going at once is a must for me. I don’t seem to be capable of working on one project until it’s done and then picking up another one.*
Maintaining a Writing Schedule: The Importance of Structure
I’ve learned through the years that I need some sort of schedule for myself. Writing is solitary and there’s no boss looking over my shoulder, making sure I’ve done pages for the day. I’ve experimented with many different tactics:
Writing in the morning
Writing at night
Writing in the afternoon
Writing every day
Wearing a special hat to write
Writing only when inspired late at night on caffeine
Writing for eight hours a day on weekdays
Writing on my lunch break at an office job
Asking friends to ask me about my writing regularly
Promising people completed scripts upon certain deadlines
Setting yearly writing goals
Setting monthly writing goals
Scheduling out each day down to the minute
Setting a timer and writing until it goes off
Whew. I’ve learned a few things in general about how to make myself write. For me, the earlier in the day that I write, the more likely I am to a) write that day and b) write more that day. Writing at the beginning of the day seems to set a tone of creative production for the whole day and to keep my muse happy and coming back for more.
Capturing Your Muse: The Inconvenience of Inspiration
The muse shows up unannounced and usually at the most inconvenient times. The best writing comes from the muse: what you can also think of as the holy spirit, or the creative subconscious. The ability to write when the muse shows up takes the same kind of discipline that waking up early – the moment your alarm goes off– takes. It’s hard and I rarely do it. But I’m glad when I do.
The best feeling when writing, and when the best writing comes, is when the creative subconscious gets though in kind of a sly way. I’m relaxed, well fed, and not worried about the well-being of any of my loved ones. There’s quiet around me – no music or conversation or fear of interruption. I’m not trying too hard; it’s flow. Time passes without my awareness of how much has gone by.
However, most times, I’m trying hard. Because in an almost cruel reality, the muse is somehow summoned and nourished by my trying hard — by thinking a lot about the writing and the topics. I can relate it to something I heard in an interview with actor James Franco. He prepares and prepares very hard, then when the cameras roll, he just relaxes and lets whatever comes out come out.
Balancing Structure and Inspiration: Rules for Dancing the Creative Dance
What has worked for me to get my writing done every day while still leaving time to experience where I am, is daily goals. Also, I have more time to write now than I did in LA. I have fewer friends here to hang out with, and I don’t have another job to take any of my creative energy (as much as I liked faerie princess-ing).
After trying to schedule my days, I found out that one of my big values is freedom. I won’t stick to a schedule because it can feel like a tyrant boss.
So I have simple two rules for myself:
1) Write everyday.
2) Write for at least an hour, five days a week. Usually I end up writing for more than one hour, but it’s kind of like telling yourself before a morning jog that you are just going to run for five minutes. Once you get out there, feel the wind in your nose and see the birds fluttering by, you’ll be enjoying it and you’ll probably run for the whole thirty minutes.
Set Goals to Guide Your Daily Writing
On top of my writing rules, at the beginning of the year I had a couple of big writing goals. One was to write six first drafts (feature-length scripts) this year. Another was to write and publish my first book. I have other smaller projects too, but those are in addition to my major goals.
So that I keep my projects straight and work on each project enough to complete my goals on time, I created one goal for each remaining work day of 2012. I did this a couple months ago, and this system is working for me so far. It allows me to focus on one project a day, to trust that they will all get done because I can see it on the schedule, and to not get bored because I can see ahead that I will get to work on a different project soon.
For example, here is what my first ten days looked like:
Day 1 Blogsville — book project ask for help and weekend trip
Day 2 Character work on script #3.
Day 3 Plot work on script #3.
Day 4 Character work on script #3
Day 5 Research details for the script.
Day 6 Blogsville
Day 7 Outline #3 in Final Draft
Day 8 New script idea generating
Day 9 Outline #3 in Final Draft
Day 10 Go to script: Write 10 pages today on script #3.
It goes on until the end of the year…
I don’t add a date to when I should be doing each goal because sometimes I move them around or work on a weekend or maybe I took a mental health day or a sick day. (I have a great boss who lets me take off whenever I want.) Life is bigger than writing. And that’s the way I like it.
Making Your Own Rules
I think each writer (or any person who wants to create something without an office and a boss) must experiment and figure out what works for him or her.
If you are trying to write (or paint, or whatever) and you are also working a full-time job or have some other major drain on your time, my only advice is to write first thing in the morning. I didn’t have the willpower to do it regularly when I had a full-time job, but if I had one now, I’d find a way to make it work. I’d reward myself with ice cream of something, anything, but I would make it work.
If you are trying to write while traveling, the advice is the same. Bring a small laptop computer or a notebook, and do it early. You never know what the day will bring, and you have most control over you time and willpower in the morning.
If you have felt for a long time that you want to write, that you have something to say, you are weakening the tender fabric of your soul with each day that you do not write.
Let me know if these tips help you and please leave any helpful tips that have worked for you in the area of self-motivated creative work.
* In the same vein, I’m currently reading (hang on, let me count them) seven books. Probably more, but I stopped counting at seven since I thought it was a suitably impressive number. That’s useful for me since whatever I’m reading tends to come out in pure form when I converse. If I was just reading one book, it could get tiring to hear about revolutionary Iran in the 80’s over and over. With my brain in seven books, however, I can talk about how Nabokov appears to have been read by students at Tehran university who were not exactly fifty shades of Zionism which came during and after Audrey Hepburn’s early film career.
I often internally mourn that my brain is fond of boxes. However, I think this reading of unrelated subject matter fights my waffle-headed tendencies and helps me make creative new connections.
Back to my writing, which is as connected to my reading as Levi’s are to blue thread…
Genevieve Parker Hill is a screenwriter and blogger who travels the world with her husband who works in conflict zones providing humanitarian aid to children. You can follow Genevieve around the world on her blog Packing Lust.
Sometimes in our quest to usher art in to the world, we artists can cross the line. Certain projects involving urine and crucifixes come immediately to mind as potential candidates.
But what about the importance of uncensored expression? What is a creative to do in this distracted world where sometimes shock value is the only thing that grabs an audience’s attention?
As a person of faith — and a writer — I am constantly struggling with these questions.
Edgy art isn’t enough
Christian author C.J. Darlington wrote an interesting post about this, entitled, “Writing edgy… for all the wrong reasons.” In it, she raises a good point — for Christians and non-Christians alike — calling us writers to check our motives before writing something that is edgy, controversial, or contentious.
I’ve been known to write a provocative article or two in my time (see: “A letter to the Affluent Church“). Once you see a maelstrom of comments flooding in over something you wrote that touched a nerve, it’s hard to stop. The attention is addictive, which can be extremely dangerous.
In her post, Darlington addresses this:
In the last couple of years I’ve noticed a trend in Christian fiction. More and more aspiring authors desire to write edgy fiction. And by edgy I mean pushing the envelope of what has generally been considered acceptable in novels regarding violence, sex, language, etc.
Now I’m all for writing real. I want my characters and situations to be true to life. I don’t want to write about saints. But somewhere there’s a line, and I admit, it’s a gray one. Personally, I think it comes down to motives. Why do we want to write edgy? Is it to shock? To do it because we can?
An alternative to controversy
There is, of course, an alternative to creating edgy art just because you can:honesty. Some creatives, in their search for understanding and meaning, are creating art that is honest. It just happens to be provocative.
I am completely in favor of work that challenges and pushes our thinking, that calls our core beliefs into question and causes us to dig deeper into what we think we know.
We need more of that kind of writing in this world (and in Christianity).
What good art does
Good art tests boundaries. It always has. We artists just need to check our motives (and egos) before we endeavor to create it.
Ultimately, we all want our work to matter. We want our creations to count. And the only way to do that is to approach our crafts with honesty and integrity. To write what is true even when it offends.
There’s nothing wrong with writing edgy, and there’s nothing wrong with writing not edgy. What is wrong — especially for a person of faith — is to write something that isn’t true to your deepest convictions and core beliefs. True to who you are and what you stand for. Denying that creative impulse would be a tragedy.
So whether dark or cheery, we all need to write words that are honest. Anything else would be writing for the wrong reasons, indeed.
Do you write edgy just because you can, or because you hope it will make a difference? Share in the comments.
Prolific writer-producer Brian Bird is co-founder of Believe Pictures(with Michael Landon, Jr.) with the mission of developing and producing “high quality, entertaining, and life-and-faith-affirming, films and television depicting positive images and compelling moral stories.” Bird and Landon wrote and produced two novel inspired films for Fox and they are currently writing and/or producing three films: When Calls the Heart, Deep in the Heart, and The Shunning (Premiering this Saturday, April 16, on the Hallmark Channel at 9pm/8pm Central).
Brian also writing a separate screenplay for the Fox Searchlight film, Captive, the true story of Ashley Smith and the Atlanta hostage crisis from 2005. He will also produce the film along with Ken Wales and Ralph Winter.
Previously, Bird served as Co-Executive Producer and senior writer for four seasons on the series Touched By An Angeland his TV writing/producing credits include more than 250 episodes of Touched By an Angel, Evening Shade, Step by Step, and The Family Man, as well as numerous TV and feature films. His script Call Me Claus was the highest rated cable film of 2002. Brian also wrote and co-produced Tri-Star’s 2009 film Not Easily Broken.
On a more personal note, I have met few Hollywood filmmakers with as great a commitment to personal mentoring as Brian. As an official mentor in the Act One program and the Visual Story Network, as well as an unofficial mentor throughout the industry, Brian has distinguished himself in his willingness to invest in the lives of young writers and producers.
In celebration of the premier of The Shunning this Saturday (Hallmark, 9pm/ 8pm CDT), I asked Brian a few questions about the film, about the greatest influencers in his life, and about origin of his incredible commitment to mentoring.
Interview with Writer-Producer Brian Bird
GDS: What excites you most about the film?
Brian Bird: One reason is because I think we have very faithfully recreated both the world of the Amish, and one of Beverly Lewis‘ most important novels.
GDS: Do you think people will relate to a film set in such an “other” world?
BB: Absolutely, even though the storytelling is set among the Amish, I think it’s a very universal tale that all families can relate to because it deals with how we try to pass along our values to our children, and how they have to choose the values they are going to live with.
GDS: Any personal stake in the film?
BB: Well, The Shunning makes a very important statement about the theme of adoption — which is very significant to me as an adoptive father of two daughters. That statement is this: love is thicker than blood when it comes to our family relationships.
GDS: Let’s talk about people who have influenced who you are and your career as a filmmaker. First, an easy one, what films have influenced you most?
BB: Let’s see, Horton Foote (To Kill a Mockingbird)—whose screenplays taught me that plot and character are intertwined and always default to character if you have a choice. William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)—whose body of work as a screenwriter taught me that you have to know the rules in order to break them.
Also, Robert Bolt (A Man for All Seasons)—whose screenplay taught me about striving to be epic in my writing. And then there’s Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Identity series)—whose screenplays taught me to strive to be taut in my writing.
GDS: Any other kinds of writers influence you?
BB: Well, C.S. Lewis was formidable in shaping my worldview, and Francis Schaeffer formidable in shaping my ideas about art and its influence on culture. Oh, and also Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, who helped me understand that great literature should take the reader’s breath away. Of course, there is also the Bible, which has been an uber-influencer for me.
GDS: Any others?
BB: I’ve had some very significant mentors.
GDS: Like who?
BB: Well, in no particular order, there is Ted Smythe, Mass Media Professor Cal State University, Fullerton, who told me not to be afraid of ideas outside my worldview because in the marketplace of ideas, truth always rises to the top.
Don Ingalls, legendary TV writer-producer, great-uncle, who gave me my first network TV writing assignment and told me nepotism can open a door, but skills have to keep it open.
Morgan Freeman, legendary actor who directed my first feature film (Bopha), told me that there is only one race of people — the human race — and two kinds of people: good ones and bad ones.
Rick Warren, my pastor, who told me not to preach in my writing, but just to ask great questions.
GDS: Did any of them influence how you approached The Shunning?
BB: (Laughs) All of them, but maybe especially Michael Warren, because of what I just mentioned. When he gave me one of my first opportunities in show business he made me promise to leave the door open for others behind me.
GDS: How did you do that in The Shunning?
BB: I chose to give a newer, younger writer an opportunity to write this film rather than writing it myself. We hired Chris Easterly—a graduate of Act One’s screenwriting program who had served faithfully as a writer’s assistant on Touched By An Angel—to write the teleplay for this film, and he knocked it out of the park.
GDS: Isn’t that taking quite a risk on behalf of a younger “unproven” writer?
BB: It wasn’t charity on our part. We needed somebody with some real writing chops to do this work, and Chris showed himself approved. I left the door open for a very gifted young man in the same way Michael Warren left the door open for me in 1990.
GDS: So you’re leaving a legacy?
BB: That is certainly my intention. And I know that Chris will do the same thing for somebody else when he comes into his Showbiz kingdom.
Don’t miss The Shunning: Saturday (April 16): The Hallmark Channel at 9pm (8pm Central).
Follow Brian: On his blog: BrianBird.net: The Art of Story, The Craft of Screenwriting and More, or on Twitter: @brbird.
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