There is truth to this simple statement. On multiple levels.
There is the mundane act of writing itself. Sitting. Staring. Typing. Deleting. Typing some more. Staring some more. Swearing. Muttering. Silence. Lots of silence. Typing…
This goes on for hours. Days. Weeks. Months. Line after line, page after page. A daily routine which from the perspective of an outsider observer would appear utterly banal. And yet from such mundane effort can come something marvelous like this:
HOWARD (ON MONITOR)
I don't have to tell you things
are bad. Everybody knows things
are bad. It's a depression.
Everybody's out of work or scared
of losing their job, the dollar
buys a nickel's worth, banks are
going bust, shopkeepers keep a
gun under the counter, punks
are running wild in the streets,
and there's nobody anywhere who
seems to know what to do, and
there's no end to it. We know
the air's unfit to breathe and
our food is unfit to eat, and
we sit and watch our tee-vees
while some local newscaster
tells us today we had fifteen
homicides and sixty-three
violent crimes, as if that's
the way it's supposed to be.
We all know things are bad.
Worse than bad. They're crazy.
It's like everything's going
crazy. So we don't go out any-
more. We sit in the house, and
slowly the world we live in
gets smaller, and all we ask is
please, at least leave us alone
in our own living rooms. Let me
have my toaster and my tee-vee
and my hair dryer and my steel-
belted radials, and I won't say
anything, just leave us alone.
Well, I'm not going to leave you
alone. I want you to get mad --
I don't want you to riot. I
don't want you to protest. I
don't want you to write your
congressmen. Because I wouldn't
know what to tell you to write.
I don't know what to do about
the depression and the inflation
and the defense budget and the
Russians and crime in the street.
All I know is first you got to
get mad. You've got to say: "I'm
mad as hell and I'm not going to
take this anymore. I'm a human
being, goddammit. My life has
The brilliance of a true wordsmith: Three time Academy Award winner Paddy Chayefsky and his remarkable script for the 1976 movie Network.
Then there is the process of trying to dredge up a story idea worth writing. Like the act of writing itself, this can involve lots of sitting, staring, thinking.
Many writers I know have lists of story concepts. I have one myself that’s over 20 years old, filled with hundreds of potential story bits… most of them unworthy of pursuit.
Oftentimes story concepts pop into our minds during the most mundane experiences. Standing in a grocery line. Taking a walk. In the shower. Suddenly — boom! An idea leaps up at us.
Sometimes, however, we try to be proactive, dedicating time and energy to wrangling magic, using two ordinary words: “What if?” It’s the simplest ideas that are often the best like this one: What if Shakespeare had writer’s block? From that seemingly obvious idea sprang scenes like this in the 1998 movie Shakespeare in Love, written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard:
DR. MOTH sits by the couch, listening to WILL and
occasionally making a note on a pad he holds on his knee.
What we have here is nothing less than the false dawn of
analysis. The session is being timed by an hourglass.
Words, words, words…once, I had the
gift…I could make love out of words as
a potter makes cups out of clay love
that overthrows empires, love that
binds two hearts together come
hellfire and brimstones…for sixpence a
line, I could cause a riot in a
And yet you tell me you lie with
WILL seems unwilling to respond. DR. MOTH refers to his
DR. MOTH (CONT’D)
Black Sue, Fat Phoebe, Rosaline,
Burbage’s seamstress; Aphrodite, who
does it behind the Dog and
Aye, now and again, but what of it? I
have lost my gift.
I am here to help you. Tell me in your
I have lost my gift.
(not finding this easy)
It’s as if my quill is broken. As if
the organ of the imagination has dried
up. As if the proud tower of my genius
It is like trying to a pick a lock
with a wet herring.
Insight into the frustration of the creative process along with some marvelous humor, all deriving from the most mundane of ideas: A famous writer with writer’s block.
Then there is this: A writer looks at any given scene, particularly those that are common to the human experience, and attempts to find a world full of meaning in the moment. Every scene has what’s going on in the External World, what we can see and hear, but also other dynamics at play in the Internal World, what we can interpret and intuit. So for example, these two scenes from the 1979 movie Kramer vs. Kramer, screenplay by Robert Benton, novel by Avery Corman:
Here we see just how far Ted (Dustin Hoffman) has to go to become the father he needs to be. Much later, the payoff [go to the 1:55 mark in the scene]:
The most mundane of moments: Making french toast. The subtext in the first scene is a father desperate to avoid letting on to his son how frazzled and angry he is by his wife’s departure. The subtext in the second scene… a quiet, deep sadness between a father and a son who have over time bonded in an authentic way, and now about to be separated.
Inspired by great stories like these examples, we write.
We sit, type, ponder, delete, and do it all over and over again…
We look for story ideas day after day, a never-ending search for something special…
We ponder every scene we craft, seeking to surface compelling subtext and revelatory intentions…
So it is, writers recognize the truth in what Bill Moyers says: “Creativity is piercing the mundane to find the marvelous.”
Writing and the Creative Life is a weekly series in which we explore creativity from the practical to the psychological, the latest in brain science to a spiritual take on the subject. Hopefully the more we understand about our creative self, the better we will become as writers. If you have any good reading material in this vein, please post in comments. If you have a particular observation you think readers will benefit from and you would like to explore in a guest post, email me.