In my younger days, the process of writing seemed premeditated to me. When I sat down to write, I knew where I wanted to end up. It was a matter of building myself a bridge of words and paragraphs to get there. But I struggled quite a lot in those days. My paragraphs pooled on the page like a pauper’s soup. They lacked detail, imagery, flavor, and anything else smacking of imagination. I wrote each paragraph like it was the next girder in a bridge that would get me across a literary chasm.
I sucked. A lot.
For a good many years now I’ve dabbled with improvisational acting. I can say with soul-riveting certainty that improv is not premeditated. When improvising, thinking ahead is like slamming a tire iron into the left knee of your scene. When you start thinking ahead to what you’ll say 15 seconds from now, then you’re not paying a damn bit of attention to what you’re saying now. That almost guarantees that what you’re saying now is crummy. Also, your fellow improvisers are almost certainly as creative and unpredictable as you. So when they don’t say what you expected, then you’ve just sealed them and yourself in an oily barrel of suck and tossed it into the Sea of Creativity Gone Awry.
Therefore, I learned, “Don’t think ahead, you moron.”
I return now to my writing endeavors, and I realize that my earlier writing resembled crummy improv. I was always thinking about what was coming next and how to get there. I paid little attention to what was happening in the paragraph currently being massaged by my greasy fingers.
For example, say I’m writing a paragraph about getting into an automobile. I know that within a few paragraphs someone will jump up from the back seat and stab my hero. If I focus too much on the stabbing, I may write something like:
“Walt walked up to his odd green sedan and opened the driver’s door. He slid into the seat and grabbed the steering wheel, then he put the key into the ignition and started the car.”
While I’m writing that paragraph, the whole time I’m thinking, “Walt’s getting stabbed soon, Walt’s getting stabbed soon, Walt’s getting stabbed soon…”
I need to convince myself of the fact that Walt has no idea he’ll be stabbed 3 paragraphs from now. So if I can force my lazy brain to stick with Walt in the current paragraph, then it will come out different:
“Walt stalked across the sidewalk to his two-tone green sedan, and he snarled at the bird shit on the windshield. He yanked open the driver’s door and threw himself into the front seat like it was a foxhole. He strangled the wheel with his left hand while he jabbed his key into the ignition after three tries, five curse words, and one nasty reference to his ex-wife’s mother. The engine clattered to life, and Walt reached out to slam shut the driver’s door, never shifting his glare from the street in front of him.”
Walt’s still getting stabbed in less than a page, but I’m giving Walt the attention he deserves until then. And oddly, when I pay attention to the words I’m playing with now, I often find that down the line I end up in slightly different places than I’d originally intended. Sometimes I end up in radically different places. But they’re places I feel better about.
Improv and writing–they’re like peanut butter and chocolate for me.