On giving now

My first writing teacher Annie Dillard always told her students to leave it all on the floor, every time. Or as she put it: “One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.” I believed in this then and I believe in it now, with something akin to religious fervor.

Maggie Nelson talking about giving your all in an interview with Vincent Scarpa

On Crossing Bridges, homeless youth, and Anne Bogart

It's been a while since I've posted about my goings on, but I've finally had time to sit down and do a little blogging.

Recently I participated as a guest artist in Crossing Bridges, Covenant House's theatre program for homeless youth. Over four weeks, twenty residents of Covenant House took part in masterclasses in directing, acting, writing, voice and movement. In the writing masterclass week I taught some of the participants about story structure, using Lecoq and Comic Strip Mime (previous artists have included playwright David Henry Hwang and director Andy Gale).

Reenacting 'Fat Amy' from Pitch Perfect 2 in my class on story structure. Photo thanks to Grace Khoo.

Reenacting 'Fat Amy' from Pitch Perfect 2 in my class on story structure. Photo thanks to Grace Khoo.

Last weekend the program culminated in the presentation of a 24 hour play festival at the Helen Mills Theatre on 28th St. After choosing a fairytale, groups of two Covenant House residents and two guest artists worked together to create 10 minute plays that updated the fairytale to modern day New York.

Myself and co-writer Brian Hampton with our Covenant House team. Photo thanks to Brian T. Carson.

Myself and co-writer Brian Hampton with our Covenant House team. Photo thanks to Brian T. Carson.

It was great fun of course, with our group updating Aladdin to the fashion world of New York. Other groups presented 'Summer Black' (Snow White) and a musical version of 'Briella and the Beast.'

The whole project was a great experience, with the focus being mainly on traditional theatre forms. However I would be rather interested to see how the concept of jo-ha-kyu and other physical theatre forms would be taken on by these youth groups. Some thoughts for another project.

As you may or may not be aware, I've recently become interested in exploring composition and how my theatrical training can influence my writing process, particularly in fiction. On how processes like Viewpoints, as instigated by Anne Bogart and Tina Landau, can transfer to the page (or simply, 'viewpointing on the page', if you will). 

A recent essay I wrote about fragments for The Offing addresses some of this, but I'm interested in taking it further in the rehearsal room. So look out for some observations and thoughts about composition and adapting it to the writing process fairly soon.

Otherwise, love and peace out!

On tea

Feeling the love for my favourite drink of late.

(The Japanese poet Myoe the Dreamkeeper and I) have both written out of tea-consciousness, rather than a wine-consciousness, he his dream diaries, and I my memoirs, although I don't always call them that. Tea-consciousness is a refreshed reflection, rather than excitement or inebriation. It's not important whether you drink the finest pu erh say, or Lipton’s teabag tea, it’s a matter of the colouring of your consciousness.  Tea-consciousness draws its strength from the browns and greens deep inside you, wine-consciousness more from the outside from celebration, friendship and neighbourly feelings.  Drifting into tea-consciousness you cohere into something.  Drifting into wine-consciousness, you revel in incoherence and the thrill of flux.  Perhaps you need both - one-sidedness as Jung remarked, being the sign of the barbarian - but, being a Puritan at heart although not necessarily a Puritan, I mostly have only tea-consciousness. An archer drinks tea. 

From the delightful As I Was Saying by Robert Dessaix

On the moment of expression

I have, of late, been trying to articulate a concept in being/zen/creativity that I'm keen to interrogate further in my creative practice. It's to do with allowing something to build until the perfect moment of expression - a notion repeatedly espoused to me during drama school and other artistic pursuits - but if there's a succinct word or phrase to express it, I cannot for the life of me remember it.

The closest I've been able to get to it is this phrase in the introduction to Anne Bogart's A Director Prepares:

A scuba diver lies first in the water and waits until the entire ocean floor below starts to teem with life. Then the swimmer begins to move. This is how I study. I listen until there is movement and then I begin to swim.

I'd love to hear if anyone has any inklings about the origins of this concept, or at least point the finger at the moon.


On terror

We are born in terror and trembling. In the face of our terror before the uncontrollable chaos of the universe, we label as much as we can with language in the hope that once we have named something we need no longer fear it. This labelling enables us to feel safer but also kills the mystery in what has been labelled, removing the life and danger from what has been defined. The artist’s responsibility is to bring the potential, the mystery and terror, the trembling back. James Baldwin wrote, ‘The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers.’ The artist attempts to undefine, to present the moment, the word, the gesture as new and full of uncontrolled potential.

from the inimitable A Director Prepares by Anne Bogart

On starting a new project

What you have to do is not leave the house. You have to not get up and get some exercise and do yoga and clear your head. It’s the opposite of that. You start writing, and it falls apart very quickly. And then you have to start again. In the beginning, you have a plan for a book that everyone will love in various ways. And then you start writing and you realize you have a different kind of book on your hands. And so the easy, conventional novel, the idea of that novel, falls apart, and you must start writing the thing itself. If you resist and you continue to pursue the easy idea, you get a fake novel, written according to a preordained pattern. The world is full of them. You have to be less controlling. It’s like getting a herd of sheep across a field. If you try to control them too much, they resist. It’s the same with a book. If you try to control it too much, the book is dead. You have to let it fall apart quite early on and let it start doing its own thing. And that takes nerve, not to panic that the book you were going to write is not the book you will have at the end of the day.

Another great quote from Anne Enright in her interview with The Believer

On plot

I do story, as opposed to plot. I’ve recently become slightly gendered in my theories about plot. I think that men really like to build a book like a machine, you know? The lever you pull that makes the cogs go round and then the balls drop. Right? I don’t do it that way. I grew The Gathering like mushrooms in a shed, like something in the dark. A story is something that’s looking for insight, I think, whereas you plot a book to have an effect. Story is about pulling the reader in and a plot is a more externalized mechanism of revelation. A plot is more antic, more performative, and less intimate. When you’re telling a story you’re telling it into someone’s ear.

The inimitable Anne Enright on plot as paranoia in this brilliant interview with The Believer.



On taking risks

It’s very difficult to achieve this dream state [of writing], and it requires a lot of courage. And I don’t think it’s going to happen unless you can cultivate two qualities in yourself, which William Stafford, the poet, taught me when he said “The poet must put himself in a state of receptivity before writing.” Stafford said you know you’re being receptive when a) you’re willing to accept anything that comes, no matter what it is, and b) you’re willing to fail. But Americans are very impatient with failure. I think one of the many reasons people don’t end up living their authentic lives is because they’re afraid of failing—they don’t take chances. And I understand it. This is very risky, terrifying territory writing this way. But it’s the only way I can do it. Frankly, I just feel so alive when I write that way…I know, putting up this kind of uncertainty is very difficult. We bring ourselves into these rooms. We bring all of our hopes, all of our longings, all of our shadows. What writing asks of us is the opposite of what being in the American culture asks of us. You’re supposed to have a five-year plan. Young people now are so cautious. Oh, we can’t get married until we have a house. Oh, we can’t have a baby until we have 20 grand in the bank. These crazy, careful people! You know, look: Life is short if you live a hundred years. Better to die naked and reckless and with passion—and not be afraid to fuck up and fail.

Andre Dubus III, in the excellent Atlantic series on writing, By Heart


On ritual

Recently I was talking to a writer who described something she did whenever she moved to her writing table. I don’t remember exactly what the gesture was—there is something on her desk that she touches before she hits the computer keyboard—but we began to talk about little rituals that one goes through before beginning to write. I, at first, thought I didn’t have a ritual, but then I remembered that I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark—it must be dark—and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come. And she said, Well, that’s a ritual. And I realized that for me this ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space that I can only call nonsecular . . . Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transition. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense.

Interview with Toni Morrison, in The Paris Review, The Art of Fiction No. 134

On happiness

Pico Iyer's life in Kyoto sounds amazing: 

'After my year in Kyoto, I essentially moved to a two-room apartment, which is where I still live with my wife and, formally, our two kids. And we don't have a car or a bicycle or a T.V. I can understand it's very simple, but it feels very luxurious.
'And one reason is that when I wake up, it seems as if the whole day stretches in front of me like an enormous meadow, which is never a sensation I had when I was in go-go New York City. And I can spend five hours at my desk. And then I can take a walk. And then I can spend one hour reading a book that where, as I read, I can feel myself, I’d say, getting deeper and more attentive and more nuance. It’s like a wonderful conversation. Then I have a chance to take another walk around the neighborhood, and take care of my emails and keep my bosses at bay, and then go and play ping pong, and then spend the evening with my wife. And it seems as if the day has a thousand hours, and that's exactly what I tend not to experience or feel when I'm, for example, today in Los Angeles and moving from place to place. And I suppose it's a trade off. So I gave up financial security, and I gave up the excitements of the big city. But I thought it was worth it in order to have two things, freedom and time. And the biggest luxury I enjoy when I'm in Japan is, as soon as I arrive there, I take off my watch, and I feel I never need to put it on again. And I can soon begin to tell the time by how the light is slanting off our walls at sunrise and when the darkness falls, and I suppose back to a more essential human life.

In addition to the above description, I was also interested in what he had to say about our generation having to curate our own cultural and spiritual heritages (as opposed to our grandparents being handed theirs), writing as meditation, and how with our devices and technology we've been trained to live at the speed of light, when we should be living at the speed of life. I listened to his talk attentively and quietly for the full forty-five minutes. Happiness really is absorption.

Check out the rest of the podcast with Krista Tippett at On Being here.

On levity

I am accustomed to consider literature a search for knowledge. In order to move onto existential ground, I have to think of literature as extended to anthropology and ethnology and mythology. Faced with the precarious existence of tribal life - drought, sickness, evil influences - the shaman responded by ridding his body of weight and flying to another world, another level of perception, where he could find the strength to change the face of reality In centuries and civilisations closer to us, in villages where the women bore most of the weight of a constricted life, witches flew by night on broomsticks or even on lighter vehicles such as ears of wheat or pieces of straw...I find it a steady feature in anthropology, this link between the levitation desired and the privation actually suffered. It is this anthropological device that literature perpetuates.

from Six Memos for the Next Millenium, Italo Calvino

On silence

“My writing has always come from a place where I feel – and need to feel - completely alone and anonymous. I’m very grateful for the attention because it allows me to keep working, which is what I love. But I have to seal myself off from it, absolutely negate it, because the writing won’t come otherwise. It’s such an intimate thing; I can’t do it in front of other people. It’s a rich dimension in one’s head – to access it, the noise has to be shut off. And there is a lot of noise in the world.”

Jhumpa Lahiri in an interview with Elle India

On scene

When I was at drama school, the joke about our college's film department was that nobody could write a film with dialogue. A scene, they were taught, should be about image. Actors, while pleasant to look at, should be arranged so that they were compatible with the visual effect the filmmaker was trying to achieve. If there was dialogue, it only should be only to convey what could not be shown visually. An actor was more often than not valued for the 'realness' or 'grittiness' they could portray, not how well they could act.

While as an actor, the result was often a lot of grumbling (we're actors, we wanted to shout, give us something to act with!), as a writer I think about this edict often. On the page, what is unsaid is just as important as what is. An image can often do away with hundreds of words. Often the challenge is merely working out what image, and how to portray it. It is not that far, sometimes, from the still image of an actor working her way through an action, working out best exactly what can be held back from the camera, and what needs to be said.


On staying in the unknown

Yesterday, during a coffee with a long lost friend from drama school, I was talking about how I was very willing to let my writing live in the ether; to not make crucial decisions too early; to let myself sit in stillness for an extended period of time so that the clearest arc can cleave through; to allow 'strategy' and 'scene' arise from a place of trust; a process I learned, for better or for worse, from drama school.

'Well, the best actors I've noticed,' she said, 'are often the ones who are able to stay in the unknown for the longest time.'