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.

					HANNAH GREEN
		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)
	...you 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.

Harder to return than arrive

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The journey is the destination, but making a living as a writer requires you to arrive at a moment when someone else invests in your talent. You might be a fiction writer selling a novel, or a non-fiction writer getting a proposal picked up, or a screenwriter seeing a treatment accepted with the follow-on screenplay assignment.

Of if you’re looking at self-publishing, the PayPal purchase notices and checks from readings go into your bank account. But you have arrived. Enjoy the moment. This might not be the hardest route to complete on your journey as a writer, says the screenwriter of W.

The movie that opened this weekend was written by Stanley Weiser. He wrote the screenplay for Wall Street, another Oliver Stone film. Weiser has this to say, in an interview with the Web site StoryLink, about what a writer faces after first success:

It was hard miles in the beginning. The problem is that once you start out and you have a movie, you think you’ve arrived. But once you have the break, it’s harder to come back than it is to arrive. It’s a long road. You have to keep reinventing yourself.

I’ve heard this second-book effect described another way, from the perspective of being in your first book, completing it and getting though publication. This first arrival is the only time in your career that you’re writing with no expectations from the public, a publisher, editors and reviewers. You get to invent yourself as a writer and your story as you know it. The next time out, you will be measured not only by that internal conscience of a creator, but the readers, viewers and your business partners, all of whom will look to your prior work.