Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Bird by Bird

I'm coming up with plans for a creative writing class I'm teaching this fall at Cogswell College. I'm going through all the things a good writer goes through as they enter into a new project: neurosis, insecurity, mental block, self-doubt. No fun. Screenwriting is so different from prose and poetry. I do write in all three forms, but hey -- who died and left me the expert? I'm not even much of a fan of writing classes. I took one once when I won free tuition in a competition. Writers with academic training tend to impress me like good Swedish furniture. Well made and little boring. Writing's always been an anarchic process for me. All the really good stuff comes from the weird characters and memories you forget you have. The structure of a screenplay more of less tells you where to put it. But if you let it guide too much of your creation, you're predictable.

I needed a textbook. I never used a textbook. I've certainly read a lot of writers discussing their creative lives, but I don't know if William S. Burroughs running far afield -- to drug use, geopolitics and god knows what is going to bring a lot of structure to class time. I'd love to read William Gass' On Being Blue because I think it's an essential view into a writer's mind. But it doesn't explain how to get there. Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet might be perfect, except if you've never written creatively before (because you're unlikely to start after reading it).

After a few days of what-the-hell-did-I-get-myself-into, I found exactly one book that might work to build a class around: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.

Lamott highlights two invaluable pieces of advice: short assignments and, as she calls them, "shitty first drafts". Just for today, let's talk about short assignments.

This is breaking off something you can actually chew. It's limiting your scope to what's manageable, but also what's at the right level of magnification, if you will. You can find the right details without them overwhelming you or your story. It's the sweet spot.

I had a dream last night. It was fairly apocalyptic but not well remembered. I know I was on a Soviet-era passenger jet, and it had to get somewhere like New York in time, but there wasn't enough fuel and we were flying from the past. Or something. I remember best the icy clouds out the window, and the cold seeping in around the windows, and little cushions and too much metal and the smell of strange cigarettes.

So where's the small assignment? I sat down with my notebook and recalled flying out of Tbilisi in Soviet Georgia in 1987. I remembered one single moment: getting off the bus on the tarmac in front of the plane that was supposed to carry me back to Moscow. It struck me as the strangest looking plane I'd ever seen: low to the ground, with gigantic engines on short, stubby wings, it looked like a plane morphed from a wrestler. It sat in the middle of an almost endless tarmac of weird looking Soviet planes ringed by the Caucasus mountains. And I was there.

I sat down and described that moment. It felt good to get it out, of course, but as I wrote, I remembered so much more. This all happened over twenty years ago. But one detail brings the whole story back into focus.

The runway in Tbilisi is (or, at least, was) rather short for large aircraft. I remember sitting over the wing as the pilot set the brakes and revved the engines up to maximum. I thought the engines would tear the wings off. As he released the brakes, I was thrown back against my seat and before I knew it there was a mountain perilously below, speeding by much too fast and somehow horizontal.

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