Day 15: Pewter or Brass?

By guest blogger Bob Sabatini

decisions, decisions...

decisions, decisions…

There are some important considerations that go into the design of a house. Especially if it’s going to be someplace you’re planning to spend a major chunk of your life, a place where you’ll be entertaining friends and family, a place where, just possibly, you’ll be raising a family of your own. Should you paint the kitchen eggshell or mother-of-pearl? Should the cabinets be maple or cherry? Should the handles be pewter or brass? These are all decisions that will make an impact, not only on how a visitor may perceive your home, but also on your own state of mind. However, there is a time and a place for everything, and the time to make firm decisions on these questions and countless others… is quite a bit later than the day you start on the foundation.

It’s the same thing with writing. Details are important. They can make or break your story (or poem, or essay, or script…) but you can’t let them get in the way of the writing. I’ve had numerous discussions with writing friends who have shared works in progress with me. What I’ve found in more than one instance is that the friend in question will ask my advice on details as minute as the question of whether the cabinet hardware should be pewter or brass. They are trying to make chapter 1 absolutely perfect… before they’ll even think about chapter 2. In other words, they’re tidying up the kitchen before they’ve even begun wiring the living room. What I also generally find is that the writer in question is—more often than not—having difficulty writing.

Writing is about polishing fixtures and spot-painting. But it’s also about mixing concrete and cutting drywall. It’s about making messes. You’ll have plenty of time to clean up later, but you’ve got to get that frame built first.

So, an exercise:

(Except this isn’t really new. It’s based on suggestions made yesterday by Jennifer Simpson, myself last year and Sam two years back—re-framed to fit the house metaphor.)

Get hold of a wrecking ball!

If you are at a stage in the construction of your work where you’re not ready to polish up those lovely cabinet handles, and if you’re having trouble writing it, give yourself permission to break down some walls and try something else. Try writing a piece you’re having trouble with in a different genre. If your dialogue seems forced, try imagining it on a stage and write it as a script. If a prose character seems flat, put yourself in his/her head and write a persona poem. If your novel is refusing to move from one room to the next the way it should according to your very carefully plotted-out floor plan, then by all means tear down a wall and see what’s on the other side. Maybe your “house” never wanted to be a house at all, maybe it’s a skyscraper. Local zoning ordinances don’t apply to your writing.

Trust Your Instincts

by guest blogger Bob Sabatini

I was in a playwriting class a while ago, having the first five pages of a ten-minute play workshopped. Without going into too much detail, the play begins with two people with a complicated romantic history who wind up seated next to each other in a crowded theatre. In the workshop, I was being congratulated on a bit of “stage business” that I had written in: The woman, to avoid addressing their uncomfortable past, uses the earbuds of her iPod to try to shut the man out, and both characters have actions in the stage directions to play with those earbuds.

Somebody in the class mentioned the earbuds, which lead the instructor to point out the difference between giving the characters an activity (which, in playwriting, is bad) and an action (good). “This wasn’t just thrown in at the last minute,” she said. “It isn’t ‘oh, I’ll have them play with the earbuds just to give the actors something to do.’ Do you see that they are an essential part of the conflict between the characters?” To which a roomful of students all nodded or made little affirmative grunts.

Now for the dirty little secret. Less than 12 hours earlier, I had only two pages of the five that were due. Worse than that, those pages were nothing more than two characters sitting next to each other, talking. I don’t want to see that play, do you? I decided I needed to give the actors something to do. “What if she has an iPod?” I thought, “I’ll have them play with the earbuds.” In other words, I threw them in at the last minute.

Here’s the point. If you have a story to tell, tell it. Trust your instincts. I was never thinking about “how do I go about making these earbuds essential to their conflict?” I wrote what felt appropriate, and people who had never read my play before recognized that the way the characters were using the earbuds was a good illustration of that conflict. These are characters I am very familiar with, a story that’s been bristling to get out for months now, and a conflict that I know all too well in “real” life. So, were I to introduce a mutant armadillo on page 3 (Señor Trujillo, I’m talking to you), you’d better believe he’d add something vital to the story.

Tell your story and trust yourself to say what’s really important to you. Finding problems with believability and characters’ motivations–not to mention cleaning up the craft–that’s what workshops, proofreading and revising are for. But getting that story onto the page–that’s all you, and if you believe it, you can do it.

Bob Sabatini is an undergraduate who is about to (finally!) complete his BA in Creative Writing. He wants to be best known for the three years he spent at his dream job: Hawking peanuts and Cracker Jack at Isotopes Park. He has worked tirelessly in some capacity for the last three editions of Blue Mesa Review, and although his work has yet to be picked up by any magazine with national distribution, his mom loves it.