Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Writing long

Posted by metaphorical on 21 December 2006

Surprise is an editor’s drug of choice. — Susan Bell

In the first class on adaptive screenwriting, Marilyn Goldin said, “You always write long at first. You have have to let yourself be free, to write long.” It was probably the fiftieth time I’d heard this piece of advice, but I wrote it down, gratefully.

If there’s one writing lesson universally taught, eventually understood, it’s that you have to write, you have to let your self write, you have to write and keep writing, even if it makes no sense, if it’s awful, if it’s wrong.

I first heard this said flat-out at a reading last spring. It might have been said a thirty times before that, in classes and readings, but it first made its way past the hair growing out of my ears when said by Kate Braverman, who came to read from her then-new book, Frantic Transmissions to and from Los Angeles. It’s a remarkable book, and not just because the first chapter is written, beginning to end, in the first person plural.

Now we meet at random occasions, forty years later, always at the Pier. The water in winter is blue as delphiniums and larkspur. In spring, it’s the cerulean ink you might employ for a love letter, sanctified, electric, graceful. The waters form their own morphologies and hierarchies. The fall bay is like a visa stamp or fading tattoo. Then the pause before sunset when everything is veiled in azure. You hear what could be bells from a ship or a cathedral, but you can’t be certain. Waves suggest rain, dream and hallucination. And you realize there is no actual line between drowning and communion.

You have to write long. Everyone has said this. It warms my hands now to hear it. I write it down each time. Novelists and memoirists have said it, essayists and poets. Don’t stop. The director of the program and the associate director each say it, over and over, and they agree on almost nothing, including the value of the workshop classes that beggar us of our time and money. When Marilyn Goldin says it it’s not remarkable at all, except that a screenwriter is saying it. Throw another genre onto the fire and draw near.

Where did “ship or cathedral” come from? Maybe from “visa stamp and fading tattoo.” What is the fall bay like, anyway? A visa stamp, sure, and a tattoo as well, sure. Which are pretty similar to each other, so when you get to the bell, you get the ship, immediately, traveling stamps and navy sailors, no questions asked. But what it really sounds like is a church bell. So “ship or cathedral.” Of course. And are they really so very different? No, until you get the waves. Then they cleave into drowning and communion. Wow. And if she had stopped at visa stamp, it would have been a nice image. “The fall bay is like a visa stamp.” That’s a nice image. That’s nicely done. But you would have never gotten, “there is no actual line between drowning and communion.” Just keep going, Kate told us. You never know what’s going to come out. You can always erase it. But you can’t have something to keep if you don’t write it.

You have to write long. Marilyn Goldin meant you have to write the screenplay long, and Kate Braverman meant you have to write sentences long but you have to write everything long—sentences, paragraphs, sections, books, screenplays.

I’ll have more lessons from writing school to tease out, but I don’t want this one to seem like one among many. This is the one. If I had paid $36K for this one lesson, it would have been worth it. How much is the engine worth to the car? Everything.

Added: some of the ideas in this post are developed further here.

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5 Responses to “Writing long”

  1. Throw another genre onto the fire and draw near.

    Have you heard it from a historian yet?

    I once had lunch with Taylor Branch, the author of the great, sweeping three-volume Martin Luther King biography. All together, the trilogy amounts to 2800 pages. And at lunch that day Branch told me that his first drafts are always at least one-and-a-half times as long as the finished version. (Maybe he said twice as long.)

  2. At every one of these readings, the audience, mostly graduate creative writing students, ask about process. One guy last year said he re-prints every page after revising it, and puts the old ones on a pile. He said for a 200 page book, the pile is usually about 1800 pages tall. That’s not the same as writing 1800 pages and editing it down to 200, but it’s an interesting statistic.

    And of course there’s the quote that’s variously attributed to Twain, Hemingway, and everyone in between: “I would have written a shorter letter if I had had time.”

  3. […] In an earlier post, I described the process of trying to write directly out of the imagination, and letting sentences and paragraph flow in a way that lets strange and unexpected images and ideas come out. […]

  4. jc.alicesun said

    Writing long is for those who need to “tap dance” as they have yet to determine what to say. Getting to the point is the means by which poets stir the heart and imagination in moments. Writing with unbridled emotion and clarity comes from trusting oneself and leaves your soul sated as it speaks to truth.

    Aloha & Mele Kalikimaka

  5. That’s very nicely put, “Writing long is for those who have yet to determine what to say.” For a 1000-word magazine news-style piece, I usually know what I’m going to say, and don’t have to write the whole essay long (but still individual sentences and paragraphs, yeah). And maybe a Philip Lopate or a George Will can do that for a personal essay, I can’t. And certainly not for a 3000- or 5000-word magazine feature.

    Maybe it’s just a problem of how much you can hold in your head—I’ve read that polyphonic music wasn’t possible until musical notation was invented. And maybe a mathematical theorem is only interesting because we can’t hold it clearly in one giant entirety of thought.

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