“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.
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.
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