David Gerrold and the Cabin by the Lake: A Guest Post by Art Holcomb

 “The novel is an event in consciousness. Our aim isn’t to copy actuality, but to modify and recreate our sense of it. The novelist is inviting the reader to watch a performance in his own brain.”
                                                                                             – George Buchanan

It was the late 1980’s and my writing had stalled. 

I’d finished college and I hadn’t published a poem or short story in over a year.  On that hot Riverside, California night in July, I sat at my makeshift desk and – at about 2 am – thought I might be well and truly finished.  I knew I wanted a wider audience and I knew that I was drawn much more to movies, TV and plays – scriptwriting – than I was to the long form of novels. But, in the stillness of that morning, I just wasn’t sure how to start. I worried that this was the end of my fledgling career.  And, on top of that, I felt myself getting blocked for the first time in my life.

Something that had been a part of me had dried up in the relentless summer heat.

In the following week, I was inconsolable. Then someone, I cannot remember who, gave me a copy of the catalog for the Learning Annex, an adult community learning center in Los Angeles. In it they offered a number of writing classes, including one taught by David Gerrold, the renowned science fiction writer of books like When HARLEY Was One (1970) and The Man Who Folded Himself (1973), and – most importantly – my favorite STAR TREK episode, “The Trouble with Tribbles”

I read the course description. The class was six weeks long.

It was going to cost me money I wasn’t sure I had.

It meant a drive about a hundred miles each way on every Thursday night.

But  none of that mattered.  I was desperate.  And so I went . . .

 . . . and it changed everything.

In that classroom twenty-five years ago, David Gerrold did a number of unique things:

(1)    He had us set a page goal for the week

Not a daily goal and not one expressed in the form of “I will write some set number of short stories or chapters over the course of the class.”  He just asked us to a set number of pages per week. And he made no suggestion as to how many, either.  Several people said they’d do ten pages a day (70 per week) and another said they would try to get one done in that weeks’ time.  David didn’t object to either goal, but he was firm on the commitment we were making to ourselves to get it done.  If we succeeded, the pride would be ours – if we failed, we would own that too.  This put the emphasis and obligation where it belonged: on ourselves.

(2)    He workshopped the writer rather than the writing.

Critiquing an individual piece could give you a well-written piece, but improving the writer made everything better.  This was different than any college classes I’d ever taken.

(3)    He answered our questions

Standing in front of me for the first time in my life was a produced and published screenwriter and novelist.  He never balked at any question no matter how elementary.  And he shared with us something more important: we learned about a writer’s life.  Dealings with producers, editors, directors, deadlines, writer’s block.  The joys when things led to creative success –which meant  from idea to finished product – and the sorrows when they did not. And always, it was about the work.

(4)    He had us read our work aloud at a coffee shop where we met after class. 

I learned about rhythm from hearing my voice. I learned what worked and did not from the reaction of the audience more than from their critiques afterward.  And I could see how my work compared amongst my peers and was pleased to find that I didn’t really suck.

However, there was one night near the end of the class that meant the most to me. David was taking questions when somebody mentioned that she kept losing track of what their characters were doing halfway through her short story.

DAVID: What do you mean “lose track”?

WRITER: The characters are so clear in the beginning and then again at the end, but I lose them in the middle.

DAVID: Maybe you’re not sitting where you can see them.

He then had us all close our eyes (unfortunately, I was more likely rolling my eyes at this point, thinking this was a bit “touchy-feely” for me).  He said to bring up image of a place where we were peaceful and comfortable, and make sure that we imagined this place as somewhere far away so that might take a journey to get to.  There, we were to build a perfect and unique structure to live in, dress out in any way we liked, but to make sure that it had one door inside that led to a secret room, which he described this way:

“The place is bare except for a small desk and a chair facing a makeshift stage or projection screen.  Sit at the desk and when you’re ready, the house lights will come down and the performance of your story will place out in from of you.  Watch.  Take note.  Object.  Applaud.  Make changes to the performance as you see fit because anything can happen here.  Everything is available to you. Then just describe what you see and hear and feel.  Take dictation from your story.”

That day, I created my vacation house, a small cabin on a lake in British Columbia. Each time I write now – especially when I’m struggling – I set out on that long journey.  More than 25 years later, that stage still is there, worn but still inviting, and that image centers me no matter where I’m at or what I’m doing.  I fear no story, no new idea, because it already exists for me.  The stage and players are always ready.  And I merely watch, take it all down and rewrite until it’s done.

The Dream and the Draft

It was there that I forged the connection between The Dream and The Draft – that dark translation where writers often lose their way.  That cabin on the lake became my bridge between the two.

I was nearly too cool to try the one thing that saved my writing.  The things learned in David’s class became my best practices and, in a real way, made possible my career.

 Because I learned that I can’t sell anything until I write it . . .

. . . and I can’t write it until I see it.

Thanks, David.

The Second Act of my career began with you.

Art Holcomb is a screenwriter and frequent contributor to Storyfix.com, whose work has appeared on the SHOWTIME Channel and a comic book author of such comics as Marvel’s X-MEN and Acclaim’s ETERNAL WARRIORS.  A number of his recent posts appear in the Larry Brooks’ collection: Warm Hugs for Writers: Comfort and Commiseration of The Writing Life.  He appears and teaches at San Diego Comic-Con and other writing and media conventions.  His most recent screenplay is 4EVER (a techno-thriller set in the Afterlife) and is completing a work book for writers entitled,  The Pass:  A Proven System for Getting from Notion to Finished Manuscript.  He lives in Southern California.

The March issue of “Writers On The Brink – A Storyfix Newsletter, was sent out this week.  You can read it HERE, and if you like what you see, subscribe from that page (top left) or from this website (top right).

 

20 Comments

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20 Responses to David Gerrold and the Cabin by the Lake: A Guest Post by Art Holcomb

  1. Thank you. Thank you Hal, and thank you Larry.

    It remains to be seen what, if anything, will come of me pursuing my passion, but you’ve played no small role in showing me where the path lies, and in reducing the gargantuan terrors that wait along it to the banal, mundane insecurities they really are.

    So again, thank you.

  2. Hmm, only moderately embarrassing.. somewhere between brain and fingers Art was translated to Hal. My apologies, Mr. Holcomb.

    Why is there no edit function, Larry? Why?

  3. spinx

    What can I say – a great post, as usual.

    A lot of writers forget that there were times when tiny little bits like the proper workplace made their life hell. And once they figure it out, they quickly lose track of what it even was in the first place that had them sweating.

    Thank god you have not forgotten!

  4. Kathy B

    Anyone have any thoughts on what it means to workshop the writer and not the piece?

  5. Art, you’ve given us so much meat here.

    First:
    “…when you’re ready, the house lights will come down and the performance of your story will play out in front of you… Make changes to the performance as you see fit because anything can happen here. Everything is available to you. Then just describe what you see and hear and feel. Take dictation from your story.”

    And then:
    “I fear no story, no new idea, because it already exists for me. The stage and players are always ready. And I merely watch, take it all down and rewrite until it’s done.”

    And also:
    “I can’t sell anything until I write it . . . and I can’t write it until I see it.”

    You take my breath away. I need to read deeply into these thoughts, these motivations, and infuse myself with them…to find my mind’s writing haven. Thank you for pointing us to the means to do that.

  6. @Kathy: I think the other three “unique things” speak to that, as well as the bit about finding a “secret room.” That’s my take on it, anyway. 🙂

  7. spinx

    I love to work in dark rooms.

    There is something so very liberating when my senses don´t have any colour to flee to but my darkened screen. The telly is always running, with the volume set on ZERO. I just need that feeling of not being totally isolated.

  8. I love this. I loved “workshop the writer and not the piece.” Excellent advice.

    I had an experience like this with a published author/mentor at a weeklong intensive workshop and it was a life changing experience–or at least writing life changing.

    I love the close your eyes and watch the movie suggestion. I guess I’m a very visual person because that is quite literally how I write. I close my eyes and watch the scene play out, then I write it down. Every time. Thanks for this great post!

  9. Jade

    Oh wow.

    “However, there was one night near the end of the class that meant the most to me. David was taking questions when somebody mentioned that she kept losing track of what their characters were doing halfway through her short story.”

    This hit me, because I have had that very same problem, only I have been too embarrassed to seek help on it. I thought I was, perhaps, too inexperienced and that I would find the answer as time went on.

    “Maybe you’re not sitting where you can see them.”

    Maybe I’m not, but not I know what to do when I lose track. I’ll simply shift my viewpoint and sit in a better seat.

    Art, thank you so much for this post.

    L.B, as always, you find just what I need, when I need it.

  10. Judy Migliori

    I can’t let this wonderful advice lose steam until I find the time to conger up the world of my story in a secret place. Oh how I loved this post. Thank you.

  11. From Dream to Draft. An aha moment for sure. With the “bridge” it is now possible —separation without loss.

    Enthralled by our fictive dream we find pleasure in the experience of the story and self gratification in the dream. At that moment our story is real to us. Maybe more real than life.

    At the first key stroke, that function, that production, produces separation from the dream and the inevitable sense of loss. Parts of, if not most of the story vanishes. It is consumed not by reality but by separation. i.e. looking away. Loss.

    What I hear. The fictive dream must stay alive for the writer if the story is to be written. Our version of your bridge, the cabin on the lake,can see us through from dream to draft.

    P.S. Couple the “bridge” with Larry’s “whats your storyies” and all that’s left to do is write. http://storyfix.com/so-whats-your-storyies.

  12. I love the idea of using the visualization you’ve presented us. My mind often feels cluttered when I go to write, and this helps. Setting a writing goal is very important, too. I just blogged on that myself. Thanks for your post, Art!

  13. Art, you are leaving amazing guest posts everywhere I turn around. I appreciate how thoughtful and genuinely helpful your pieces are. Bravo!

  14. Pingback: The Light Saber in my Writing Toolbox « Write a Book with Me

  15. I’ve faced some block this week, so this is a particularly timely post. “…Just describe what you see and hear and feel. Take dictation from your story,” is placing a writer at the crossroads of creativity – the kind we had when played make believe as children – and craft. We must remember, I suppose, that our primary purpose is to create a fictitious world and we have to see, hear and smell it. I wonder how amazing it would be to step out from behind the desk, sneak onto the stage and touch that world…

    @Kathy B If I may share some thoughts: Sometimes a piece has beautiful moments. It may be a moment of dialogue or the way the writer twisted a certain phrase to give it depth and meaning. But if the overall piece isn’t a compelling story there’s not much value in dissecting the details. So when a group “workshops the writer” rather than the piece, it’s an exploration of the work behind the piece; the muse, how its harnessed, what the writer’s motivations are and how they are executed in scenes, the characters flesh and bone attributes or lack of them, the writer’s control of pacing and, of course, the major elements of storytelling. Just my thoughts, please take them for what they’re worth.

  16. This is so great. Back in 1984 I attended a two day writing workshop, two sessions with David Gerrold. I came away with life-changing ideas like “Talent is enthusiasm, it’s loving the process enough to put up with your awful beginner efforts till you learn how to do it well enough you enjoy it.”

    He had that guided meditation about the place inside and the movies or videos of every book we’d ever written or read and everything we’d ever write – being able to pull out the movie of the book and watch it. Ever since that’s been my drafting mode. I’m seeing the movie in my head and typing very fast to get it down – as long as that process is uninterrupted it will come out pretty solid. That became how I’d “find the story” and now I’m working on refining the story, it may help to think of that as the editing room for that same movie – this bit winds up on the cutting room floor, that part needs to get recast with a better actress, the beginning could have more punch, the ending be more tight, there’s something missing in the middle – but I have the bulk of it there so these refinements aren’t as hard.

    Wonderful essay. I’m smiling because it’s half familiar and half a refinement of what inspired me the first time around. Thank you!

  17. spinx

    Art,

    If you are still reading this, or anybody else for that matter, help me out. I have a problem, quite a pain in the ass actually….

    See, Vienna really is not a place I would consider highly interesting or fitting for most of my stories. And yet, it is the place I live in, the one I know the most. The problem is, that I grew up with english literature, american movies, english music.
    Everything I have grown up with sounded english, in one way or another. The names, the places, the buildings, the schools……..I cannot, for the life of me, bring myself to use GERMAN names, or austrian settings.

    It simply sounds so wrong in my own ears.

    Should I create my own world? Or mix the real world with the imaginary?

    I know, I know – it may sound like such a little problem, but as of now, this little issue is ONE THING that prevents me from writing the way I should.

    (I will surely find a solution on my own – but if anybody has any tips, throw em at me.)

  18. @spinx: How about a parallel world where English is the only language? Maybe Britain succeeded eons ago in their plans for world domination and changed all the foreign names. Or, and this sounds almost too simplistic, write your story however you want it, and when you’re finished, go back and change all the names to what they should be. Just my two cents’ worth. 🙂

  19. Art Holcomb

    @spinx: Nann’s idea is a good one.

    A couple of other possibilities:

    – ALTERNATIVE HISTORY: Science fiction approach here where behalf the English and/or American influences take over after WWII. Same Vienna, but anglic culture; see people like Harry Turtledove’s work for inspiration.

    – ALTERNATE REALITY / PARALLEL UNIVERSES: Similar to above but different origins. Like Randall Garrett’s work in the 1960’s, the Plantagenets of England could have easily fought and possiby conquers the Austrians back in the 1100’s. Move the timeline up to current and extrapolate some differences that would make this new universe interesting and it might work.

    Good luck!

  20. Art, I needed this today. I spent the whole day at the coffee shop, frustrated, giving up 50 times, pecking but not writing…. David Gerrold is a writing God, and you’ve brought a bit of that to me 🙂 Thanks. I’m going to go build my writing house now.