The Spacetime Conundrum

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When do you work best? What are your own creative rhythms? Do you write best at night? In the morning? High noon? If you don't know, try different times until you figure out what works best for you, then do everything in your power to work on your screenplays during that time.

"Yeah, right," I hear those of you who are students snicker. "C'mon, I'm in film school."

I know what you're talking about. I've seen my students stagger into my classroom after an all-nighter in the editing suite with that stunned look on their faces that cartoon characters get when other characters bash them on the head (I've learned not to take it personally when they nod off in class). Still, I tell them what I'm telling you: Clear time and space for your writing. Not just any time and space— the time and space that works best for them. More often than not, they snicker, too.

And I understand. For my first twenty years as a writer, I had to write around raising children, which meant grabbing a couple of hours before they woke up. Early mornings. "O'dark thirty," as we say in our family. Or when they were at school. I assumed I worked best in the morning, but recently, while writing this book, I've discovered if I start writing later, I go into a deep and productive creative trance in the late afternoon. So even if you know your creative process, it will probably change with your circumstances, evolving as you evolve as a writer.

Where do you do your best writing? I'm speaking geographically now, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi does in Creativity:

At the macro level, the question may be whether you feel you would be happiest if living at the seashore, surrounded by mountains or plains, or in the bustle of a big city. Do you like the change of seasons? Do you hate snow? Some people are physically affected by long sunless periods.1

If you're a student or otherwise tied to one place, this discussion might strike you as silly, but it's sillier not to think about it, according to Csikszentmihalyi:

There can be many reasons why you might feel trapped in the place that you live, without a choice to move. But it's a great waste of time to spend your entire life in uncongenial surroundings. One of the first steps in implementing creativity at the personal level is to review your options of life contexts and then start thinking about strategies for making the best choice come true.2

In the long run, this kind of thinking is absolutely essential. A writer's first concern, Tennessee Williams once said, must be "to discover that magic place of all places where the work goes better than it has gone before, the way that a gasoline motor picks up when you switch it from regular to high octane. For one of the mysterious things about writing is the extreme susceptibility it shows to the influence of places."

Some of our faculty at the Film School swear they work better in Tallahassee than they do in Los Angeles. The novelist Sheila Ortiz-Taylor works best at writers' retreats. I write best at our farm in rural north Florida, on the porch overlooking the meadow. And Sam Smiley sent me a postcard from Ireland, where he was writing a screenplay. "Somehow creativity really flows when you're away from home."

You may be too young or inexperienced as a writer to know this right now, but again, start paying attention. And, granted, even if you know the place you work best, you might not be able to pick up and go at the moment, but it will help your writing career a great deal if you figure out where that "magic place of all places" is for you and make plans to get there. At least now and then. The sooner you do so, the sooner you'll get where you need to be.

On the micro level, ask yourself what kind of space works best for you? As a young writer in Paris, Hemingway loved to work in cafés. Later, in Key West, he worked in a study detached from his house. David Mamet recommends writing in restaurants, and I solved some major structural problems in a book proposal because of the white noise of voices in the food court at our Student Union.

"Again," says Csikszentmihalyi, "it is not what the environment is like that matters, but the extent to which you are in harmony with it."

Once you've found your space, fill it—to the extent that you want it filled—with objects that have significance for you. Anne Lamott keeps a one-

inch picture frame on her desk. "It reminds me that all I have to do is write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being."

Along with a few of my favorite family pictures, I keep a wind-up butterfly in my study—a gift from my son—to remind me to take off now and then in my writing. Take chances. Lighten up. Soar. He also gave me a hilarious toy called a "Critter" that shakes itself silly when I wind it up and reminds me how silly I am (and probably look) when I get so wound up because the writing is not going well. My daughter gave me a cobalt-blue Venetian glass fountain pen that graces my desk and inspires me with its elegant luminous beauty. A good friend, Gene Newcomb, gave me a wooden case where I keep the Mont Blanc pen I bought for myself when I sold two books in one year (the pen leaves my study only for book signings). And my printer is covered with quotations that inspire or move or teach me ("That that is is," one of the most amazing sentences I've ever seen, not surprisingly penned by the greatest of all dramatists, William Shakespeare in Twelfth Night) or fortune-cookie fortunes that give me hope or just make me smile ("Depart not from the path which fate has you assigned.") They remind me that my writing doesn't have to be perfect.

Again, this may sound silly. It's not.

The kind of objects you fill your space with also either help or hinder the allocation of creative energies. Cherished objects remind us of our goals, make us feel more confident, and focus our attention. Trophies, diplomas, favorite books, and family pictures on the office desk are all reminders of who you are, what you have accomplished. . . . Pictures and maps of places you would like to visit and books about things you might like to learn more about are signposts of what you might do in the future.3

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Film Making

Film Making

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