Essence June 26th, 2008

The last time we moved – 16 years ago – we had a lot less stuff.  Even so, I remember vowing never ever to do this again.   If a new move were to become necessary, I promised, we were going to forego boxes and vans and go straight to the one match technique.  How much stuff do you really need, anyway?  

Starting with the idea of getting rid of everything, a simple logic began creeping into the conversation: when we get to our new stuff-free home we’re going to need something to sleep on.  We could sleep on the floor until we find a new bed to purchase, or you know what, we already have a perfectly good bed – why not just bring it with us?  

And so it begins.  A bed, a frying pan, a chest for clothes, a favored painting, a bookshelf, duct tape…  The decision to bring nothing with us was easy.  But once we realized that we were better off bringing SOME of the stuff with us, everything became fair game.  Each item needed a review – do we need this?  Do we want this?  Is this us, now?  Who are we?  How do we live?  What is our irreducible essence?

Coincidentally, I am in a similar place with my current screenplay.  I have spent months and months accumulating ideas, scenes, characters, and dialogue, and dumping them into the infinite space that is a document file.   There is a story – in fact, a complete beginning middle end screenplay – but it’s not ready to submit because it’s still carrying closets and basements full of unnecessary stuff. 

I have snippets of terrific dialogue that only barely fit the characters now inhabiting the screenplay.   I have some really kick-ass scenes that disrupt the flow of the story and set our expectations in the wrong direction.  I even have two or three perfectly good titles, but of course I can only use one of them.   

So about half of my time is spent poring over files, books, office equipment, collectibles, furniture, music – deciding with each item Is this still part of my life?  Will I ever need this again?  Who am I?  The other half of my time is spent on the screenplay, picking at scenes and sequences, threads and payoffs, deciding with each item Is this still part of my story?  Will I ever need this again?  What is this movie really about?  What is its essence?

Complicating this sanity-challenging discussion with myself are two competing knowledges: 

1 – With all of the junk lying around our drawers and closets, I haven’t had to go to the hardware store for years.  No matter what the home project is, I have been able to solve it using available materials.   Save enough stuff for a rainy day and when the rainy day comes you’ve got the stuff to deal with it.  Similarly, I have plenty of well written scenes not currently in use, but ready to either plug in as they are or to cannibalize their parts should the script once again require them.

2 – I could use the one match technique on both my stuff and my screenplay, and in either case I will do just fine.  I have the resources I need, with me, all the time, to rebuild my home or my screenplay, this time without any old baggage, using only what I need based on what I know NOW, who I am NOW, what I need NOW.   If that solution seems inefficient in terms of time or money, so does sorting through an overstuffed life and an overstuffed story.  Furniture storage costs money.   Winnowing through a script that’s full of old ideas takes time.

In both the moving and the screenplay, good decisions are based on awareness and honesty and a great deal of toil.  But the goals are the same – to arrive at (or at least close in on) the basic essential life at the chewy center.  Moving is hell, but perhaps helpfully cathartic.  Screenwriting is the same.


Comment by A Long
2008-06-27 04:50:48

Writers (and, perhaps, artists) may have trouble with the stuff in their lives for another reason: some of those things are useful for research or inspiration. Do objects play such a role in your creative processes?

The one match technique has appeal if the clutter gets in the way of keyboard clatter, yet aren’t the things around you in some basic way comforting? Some days it’s hard enough to stare at a blank sheet of paper or a white computer screen. Wouldn’t four bare walls and and empty room make creating that much harder?

Comment by Danny
2008-06-30 07:45:59

Or easier.
Sometimes I think that if my life were reduced to a small prison cell – four bare walls and no stuff – I’d finally be able to get things done. Reduced to existential clarity, the writing must get done (along with the pushups, learning French, and playing guitar).

But, until they catch me, I’ll keep working in the cell of my own making.

When I seriously need to meet some writing goal, and none of my usual tricks is working, I take myself on a retreat. I choose a place without any personal distractions. It is a cell of my own making, and it usually works.

One of the best “offices” I ever had was during the period that I was writing “S.F.W.” The producers gave me an office, which the day before was a windowless closet. They put in a desk, a chair, a lamp, and a bulletin board. If I wasn’t in my head working on the script I was in a depressing claustrophobic closet – so I learned to get into my head and work quickly.

Back here at my adobe garage studio I do indeed have lots of collected comfort stuff.

There are favored photos and collectibles, souvenirs, home-made gifties from my kids and friends, movie posters, real art. Everywhere I look is something that makes me happy. I do in fact have to decide, probably today, which of it is “essential” to me. What will be rejoining my desk in Boston and what will go into a box – or a landfill?

But I don’t really need any of it to write, and of course, at some point “comfort” can grow into something else: Distraction, procrastination, stagnation, clutter.

A dog-eared marked up inspirational book may make you happy just to know it’s there – but if you pick it up to reread a chapter every day instead of writing, you’re not writing.

I generally want my life to consist of these favored distractions, so I have purposely surrounded myself with, for example, musical instruments, and good books and movie scripts.

If I collect anything around me when I work, it’s often related to the project at hand. I have all kinds of alien nicknacks from Roswell that I gathered when I was working on “Martian Time.” I might keep one around for fun, but I could just as easily give it all to some kid.

I’m a big believer that anything that helps you write is a good idea. If you get productive “research and inspiration” from your stuff, keep it around. For me – sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. I do trust that no matter what I get rid of, new stuff will accumulate. It just does.

Comment by A Long
2008-07-31 09:56:11

Sorry to nudge you out of the hammock with another thought, but I’ve been reading Annie Dillard’s book “The Writing Life.” She wrote eloquently and even hilariously about writing.

For example, she recalled worrying daily about her slow writing pace and concluded: “Even when passages seemed to come easily, as though I were copying from a folio held open by smiling angels, the manuscript revealed the usual signs of struggle–bloodstains, teethmarks, gashes, and burns.”

It’s a wonderful book. (And at a mere 111 pages it doesn’t take up much space.)

Comment by A Long
2008-06-30 10:57:34

Thank you for another (in a seemingly inexhaustible series) hilarious and wise entry about writing. You’ve pointed out several unhealthy tendencies I’m too familiar with already.

Jill Krementz wrote a wonderful book called “The Writer’s Desk.” In it noted writers were photographed at work. My favorite was E. B. White alone with his typewriter in what looked to be an empty barn loft. No wonder he wrote so cleanly.

Comment by Robin Ogden
2008-07-09 00:10:20

Great post – all I can say from pure experience is ‘clear the clutter’ and what you can achieve once the space is available is amazing.

The mantra has to be ‘clear the clutter’…because the more time you spend in it and thinking about it, the less time and space you have to ‘create’.

Robin Ogden

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