Maybe it's aging, but I don't usually like the idea of writing under a whole bunch of pressure. (Unless of course it’s the magic pressure of 5 minutes.)
When I was younger, however, pressure was the only thing that could persuade me to write. At university, I did an honours degree in political science and had to produce a thesis. It was a nightmare! I ultimately finished the 50-page monster for only two reasons: (1) my professor refused to give me any more extensions, and (2) I finished it by writing and editing for three days straight, no sleep. Once graduated into the newspaper business I was little better. It always took the threat of an imminent deadline to extract the words from my brain and fingertips.
But there’s good pressure and there’s bad pressure. I recently heard of an interesting case study of the former, from my screenplay-writing friend Philip Eckman. It’s a perfect example of how the right kind of pressure can release your creativity and allow your writing to flow. And it's one you probably can apply to your own work, too.
We were talking a few weeks ago and he told me about an "Arts Salon" he attended recently. Hosted by a writer/composer and a paleontologist, the event involved 14 mostly middle-aged people who got together to participate in a very different kind of writing exercise. As Philip described it, “It was like a wine and cheese party, with a purpose.”
When the evening began, the group was divided up into teams of three or four people and each team was given a Scrabble board. Everyone was instructed to play but to keep it non-competitive — simply coming up with as many words as they could. At the end of the game everyone moved to a different Scrabble board and was allowed 15 minutes to write down the words on a board created by others.
Then they were all sent to various solitary corners of the house and given 30 minutes to produce a piece of art — any kind they liked — based on those words. Oh, and at the end of the evening they’d have to present the work to the entire group.
Says Philip: “I looked at the list and thought, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do?’ I had to think really quickly. I didn't go in there imagining I’d write a screenplay scene.” But he did. “It felt like I was thinking outside the box because of the time constraints. Because my time was limited, I couldn't think or rethink or hem and haw. Some of the words I chose — view, aroma, whim, dark — were words that I felt in my gut.”
His screenplay scene focused on two men, who haven’t seen each other for years, and who meet in a grubby diner. While Philip found the writing a bit stressful because of the time limit, he found the presenting part terrifying. “There were 11 people presenting before me and I heard some really great stuff. Everyone seemed to write something that was very funny and they got lots of laughs but I knew my piece was serious so that had me worried.”
When he finished his presentation everyone in the room gasped and then groaned — he’d left them on a cliffhanger! One of the hosts said, “Go back in the room and finish it,” and then everyone laughed. “They were excited and I was gratified,” Philip says.
Of the quality of his work, he says: “The scene ended up having cohesiveness to it even though I didn't worry about it. I'd just started writing.”
Of what he learned from the whole experience he adds: “I normally tend to get caught up in the editing. I discovered how much fun it can be to let go and write quickly. I had to make really quick choices.”
Now that's what I call good pressure. Is there any way you could apply some of that to your own writing life?
(thanks to Writer Beware for the image)
A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8 1⁄2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. It's brief. It's smart. And it's free.
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