Broken-down Poetry: The strenuous marriage of writing


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Sunday, January 23, 2011

The strenuous marriage of writing

"Being a writer is a strenuous marriage between careful observation and just as carefully imagining the truths you haven't had the opportunity to see. The rest is the necessary, strict toiling with the language; for me this means writing and rewriting the sentences until they sound as spontaneous as good conversation." - John Irving, emphasis mine

I read this in my creative nonfiction class Friday as a preface to a memoir by John Irving. Immediately it reminded me of scriptwriting and the importance of writing conversationally.

The first half of Irving's quotation is referring to fiction or creative nonfiction: you tell the truth, but let your imagination play a role. (In creative nonfiction, unlike fiction, you can't use your imagination without first prefacing it. You don't lie.)

In scriptwriting, I see this "strenuous marriage" -- even only a few weeks into my scriptwriting course.

The radio spot writer wants to tell facts: WHAT is the product? WHERE can I buy it? HOW is this product special? WHY is it worth buying? etc.

But at the same time, it's done in a creative way:

PERSON 1: Man, oh, man. It's gone -- it's all gone!
PERSON 2: What is--
PERSON 1: Quick! Someone call 9-1-1!
OPERATOR: 9-1-1, what's your emergency?
PERSON 2: Jimmy, Jimmy. What's happening? What should I tell them?
PERSON 1: Someone ate all my Doritos!

For me, I favor one partner or the other in this marriage of sorts. I'm noticing that for this class, I'm favoring the Facts and ignoring Creativity. The danger of this is endless: I could write a boring spot; I could write something that's supposed to be funny; but falls flat, I could overwhelm people with facts.

The opposite is just as true: If I focus too closely on creativity, I may forget to add important facts, like WHAT the product even is.

As for the second part of the quote, about writing something as "spontaneous as good conversation," I can't help but think of scriptwriting. That means stripping writing from very "Englishy" language. That means I don't write sentences like:

Though my love for Doritos is vast, I only have fifty cents -- not enough to buy a bag.

You write the way people talk. How do people talk? Well, go back to the beginning of the quote again. You figure it out through observation. When I'm writing dialogue for short stories, there's always one character who has an overuse of the word well, because that's what I do.

An excerpt:
Then he likes you?
Not exactly.
You just said the rest was history, like it’s the end of the story. So it’s not?
Well, that was a month ago. So much has happened.
Like what?
The date.
You went on a date with him?
Sort of.
Tell me!
It was nothing. We just watched a movie at his apartment.
Well, yeah alone. It was a date … I think.

I write wells in only because when I was writing this piece, I was saying the dialogue outloud. (I even cut out some of them, because it was a little too over the top. Good writing doesn't mean you add in speech flaws for effect. Apparently I say well too much.)

Thanks, John, for the insights.
I don't know about the rest of you, my dear Scriptwriting class, but it's a lot easier to talk about something (writing) when you have something to base it on, i.e. a quotation.

Just a thought.

(Now I'm hungry for Doritos.)


Scriptwriting archive:
Broken-down Poetry, and what it means

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