Politics, Technology, and Language

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

Filmmaking, writing, and the imagination

Posted by metaphorical on 24 December 2006

Every writer has a different writing process, and there’s no wrong or right way to write. Still, writers are obsessed with the different ideas other writers have about how to go about it.

At my school’s reading series, mostly attended by graduate writing students, questions of process always come up. Some writers seem to write very sequentially. They can spend an hour on one sentence, then move on to the next one. Of course they revise their words, but they’re far less likely to make revisions than other writers are. And indeed, it seems that if they’re up to, say, page 185 in their manuscript, they might go back to page 170, but not back to page 25.

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.

At a reading a couple of years ago, Mary Karr, whose 1996 book, Liar’s Club, is sometimes credited with triggering the modern fashion for memoir, and who doesn’t attend the sequential school of writers, talked about the words you put onto the page, and the words that come off of the page.

Especially in writing fiction, but really in all writing, the sequential process seems to close off possibilities in a way that precludes words coming freely off the page.

In The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Film Editing, Michael Ondaatje and Walter Murch discuss two types of filmmakers, those for whom the film is already complete in their heads (Hitchcock is one), and those who continue to invent the story during the filmmaking (Cuppola is one). This seems to correspond to the two different types of writer.

Murch says,

Both systems have their risks. The risk of the Hitchcockian system is that you may stifle the creative force of the people who are collaborating with you. The film that results—even if it’s a perfect vision of what somebody had in his head —can be lifeless: it seems to exist on its own, without the necessary collaboration either of the people who made the film or even, ultimately, the audience.

Elsewhere in the book, Murch describes a game he says was invented by the quantum physicist John Wheeler: Negative 20 Questions. In a regular game of 20 Questions, one person asks questions after the other players look around the room and chose an object. Is it edible? Would it fit in your pocket? In N20Q, the others each pick their own object privately. The questioner, not knowing that the game being played isn’t regular 20Q, asks his questions. But the others each have to accept all the prior answers. If Alice says that the object is edible, that might be a problem for Bob, who picked something that wasn’t. When someone else’s answer contradicts the object they have in mind, they have to come up with a new object, one compatible with all the answers that have been given.

Murch says filmmaking can happen this way.

The cameraman develops an opinion, then is told that Clark Gable has been cast in that part. If it’s Gable, he has to replan. Then the art director does something to the set, and the actor says, This is my apartment? All right, if this is my apartment, then I’m a slightly different person from who I thought I was: I will change my performance.

And so on with the editor, the director, the costumer, and everyone else. The film can then become the outcome of this spontaneous creative collaboration.

An ordinary game of 20Q can have two outcomes—the questioner either gets the answer or not. N20Q has a third possible outcome: failure of the game itself, when a questioner can’t come up with an object that satisfies all the requirements.

On the other hand, the film can break down, too. Some inconsistency—emotional or logical —can pose a question that nothing in the “room”—that is to say, the film —can answer. Sometimes [the film is] aborted, abandoned during production; or stillborn, finished but never released; or released, fatally handicapped, to dismal reviews and no business.

That can happen in writing too —unfinished books, or unpublished ones, or ones that are published but lifeless.

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One Response to “Filmmaking, writing, and the imagination”

  1. [...] Added: some of the ideas in this post are developed further here. Published in: [...]

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