Boundaries spark creativity

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It’s easy enough to revel in the first-draft mania of a writing project. This is important time, the period to clear your pipes and empty that tank of ideas and dreams. The genuine creation time, however, is when there’s a deadline and a word count or a page count to meet.

That’s what drives Saturday Night Live, according to its producer Lorne Michaels. He’s been interviewed on Alec Baldwin’s top-flight Here’s the Thing podcast. Michaels said that “I believe creativity doesn’t exist without boundaries.” For him there’s both a page count and a deadline. The show is ready by 11:30 Eastern Time — or as he puts it, “it’s not ready, but it’s got to go on the air at 11:30.” At some point, a piece of writing needs to meet a deadline to show to a writing group, an agent, a contest, or a lit mag’s submission date.

And SNL needs to unspool in 90 minutes total time — so plenty of it has to be dropped or shortened to meet time. Sometimes whole skits are dumped if they don’t work out during the frantic six days before airtime.

Boundaries exist to create choices, and some people believe that choices are all there is to define art. There’s a great scene in the movie Wonder Boys. Novelist Grady Tripp is slogging through his second book after a debut success. You see him creep into his study and take a page and feed it into a typewriter. He lines up the paper for a page number and types 261 — then looks around and adds a 4, for a 2,600-plus page manuscript. Later his grad student Hannah reads the wooly piece of writing and confronts him about it.

Hannah glances at the huge stack of paper sitting on her dresser, then, hesitantly, looks back to Grady.

		It's just that, you know, I was thinking about 
		how, in class, you're always telling us '-that 
		writers make choices--at least the good ones. 
		And, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying the 
		book isn't really great-I mean, really great-
		but at times it's, well, very detailed, you 
		know, with the genealogies of everyone's horses 
		and ail the dental records and so on-and I 
		don't know, maybe I'm wrong, but it sort of 
		reads, in places, like, well, actually, like... 
			(with trepidation) didn't make any choices at all.

Let choices of page counts, deadlines and characters establish the boundaries that can spark great writing. And remember, sooner or later it’s 11:30, and time to finish the creation.

The Free Dictionary: page definition: a youth being trained for the medieval rank of knight and in the personal service of a knight.

Settings gain extra desire through experience

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David Milch is one of the great storytellers of our time. His medium is TV. NYPD Blue. Deadwood. And now he tells the story of horse racing, one that he’s lived through as a compulsive creator. It’s his own experience at the track that makes him so careful while creating the new HBO series Luck, airing in January.

In the LA Times, Geoff Boucher interviewed Milch about the excitement of filming a story (with director Michael Mann) about Santa Anita Park. How he’s been there a lot. Milch jokes that “no, it was my cousin. My cousin spent a lot of time there.” But listen to what he says about the settings you write from your own experience.

The setting is exciting, yes, but there’s some nervousness in making it too. You want to get it right. You always feel a particular duty of care to whatever world you’re trying to portray, but then you especially feel it when there is a lived experience against which you’re measuring the activities of the imagination. I think that sense of responsibility is compounded. That’s one of the reasons I was so grateful to Michael, to bring that separate eye. That really enriched the end product.

Just don’t be holding out hope yet for a completion of the superior Deadwood, where HBO got cold feet about the costs of that stellar story and ended its run prematurely. Like leaving out the last four chapters of a novel. At the NY Times, an interview included this grim humor.

“Every man’s entitled to hope,” Mr. Milch said with a laugh. “It looked like we were getting close, about six months ago. It’s a complicated transaction, so we’re moving forward in other areas.”

Like a new deal to film the works of William Faulkner. No kidding. Milch has Iowa Writer’s Workshop chops, after all. They know a little about story there.