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The Life and Times of Ryan J Finnigan: Thoughts on Writing

Posted on by sam

Thoughts on Writing:

A Failed Deconstruction of Writing with some Lazy Shortcuts.

   At the opening night of an exhibition by artist Mute, a screen displayed a slideshow of photographs showing the various stages of his paintings and the process of their completion. This, in the visual arts world is not an uncommon practice. Predominantly because it is a fascinating insight into the craft and a thrilling deconstruction of final pieces often so fully formed, it is as though they have been simply willed into being. Also, visual arts also have the advantageous nature of being almost instantaneously consumed (although not understood) and as such, this leads to such delights as speed drawing videos, featurettes and gag reels for short glimpses into the work behind the art.
As a fan of literature, I have found that comparatively, peeking behind the curtain of the novel or the author is either laborious or unenlightening. Writing is a largely solitary pursuit and profiles of writers tend to be largely biographical, commenting more upon tawdry lifestyles and at best, where and when the artist worked.  Authors also tend to put their own thoughts down such as Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ or Milan Kundera’s ‘The Art of the Novel’, in books of no less than novella size. What such books tend to show are detailed analyses of such things as narrative structure, autobiographical history and their philosophy on overall literature, which can be valuable tools for budding writers. However, the purity of viewing the original work in progress is instead distilled, either by author or biographer, into a subjective experience of the piece or oeuvre

There are of course exceptions, such as the recent publication of ‘On the Road: The Original Scroll’, which sees the classic novel by Jack Kerouac presented in its legendary, unedited form. The scroll itself has also been displayed across the World since being purchased in 2001. Yet, such pursuits of comparative analysis, as valuable as they may be, are scholarly and again time consuming. Spending hours comparing the small differences between versions of a written work may lend one some insight into the thought processes of editing but yet this would still leave areas of knowledge on the writing lacking, primarily, motivation and creation.

These thoughts have led to the writing of this piece, although I do not pretend that it will be of any more value than the things above. Hopefully, at worst, it should be a short work of easy digestion, which makes writing seem less mystical or romantic and can hopefully offer a shortcut to a few tips I took years to discover through mistakes. Furthermore, these are only the thoughts of someone indulging in writing as a hobby and are largely observations upon my own experiences.

Motivation and Creation, as it’s been put above. What makes a writer write and why have they written about that? To put it bluntly, that’s personal and you might never understand. It’s the side of the biography that can be worthwhile for observational or confessional writers and it can be essential for understanding the work to gain environmental or personal context.

Largely, I have tended to write about things I have witnessed that have been extraordinary in a mundane way or have used writing as a confessional, cathartic platform to exorcise negative feelings, disguising anything too near to the knuckle with abstract imagery. This process has led me to believe that just as I have made these leaps forwards, it would be possible to decipher this process by working backwards. Yet, such a process of deduction is dangerous, given that anyone decoding inevitably brings forth the limitations of their own experiences.  If your aim is to let the work speak for itself rather than explaining it, the consumer’s personal interpretation is obviously preferable.

Writing, like any art, does not exist solely within reality or reason. It might be possible to deduce the motivation of a writer but I don’t think the same could be said for Creation.  Observational and confessional works may be the easiest to deconstruct but it would be dangerous to assume that they are based upon truth rather than imagination or exaggeration. Imagination is impenetrable and largely manifests itself within our outputs of communication and creativity. The perfect lie would be one so well covered in truth that it cannot be exposed and thus, is it not truth?
You’ll never know the things a writer omits. I used to work in a shopping centre and people watch the large crowds. I would write ideas down on the till rolls and napkins, later to be worked into something more. You will never know the things that I did not write down or have but not yet worked into something palatable. For example, I am yet to find a good place for a character to note how overwhelming it can be in a large crowd when you consider the volume of hidden genitals you are surrounded by. I perhaps never will and had I not chosen to divulge it now (Itself a process of elimination), how would anyone have known?

The processes of writing are often discussed with such ‘worthy’ titles as The Craft etc. I haven’t got time for that, as largely it’s a puzzle of reduction followed by a lot of time consuming bother. A realistic portrait of ‘THE CRAFT’ as I know it is fairly mundane.

Firstly, there is what I call ‘The Brewing and The Doing’. This is my philosophy on how to write, after a long time of trying to force it to happen. There will be the seed of an idea, with regards to this blog that would be the “ooh, maybe I could try to deconstruct writing” thought at the exhibition months ago.  The brewing part allows the idea to manifest. A good idea will repeat on you like bad food. Brewing and taking time allows for a great deal of thought and rumination and though it may seem obvious to say, thought is essential to writing. It can often be too tempting to think “I need to write something now, I haven’t done anything for ages” and this is where you will come unstuck. Writing without an idea is nearly impossible and is better known as ‘Block’, writing without thought upon the subject is almost as fruitless. As an aside, I might add that I wrote a short story called ‘My Bonnie Lass’ with just the idea of a story about a cheque that becomes more valuable each time it is not cashed. I wrote it in three hours, spontaneously, and it contains the lines I am most happy with to date. There are exceptions to the rule.

THE DOING. How do you know when you’re ready to write? It’s quite simple. You will write. In my experience, not worrying about a time limit and allowing a natural gestation period for the idea will culminate in a day where you feel motivated to produce the piece. Right now, I woke up and within half an hour, I was writing this. I have been writing for 2 hours and 15 minutes and am due to leave for work in 45 minutes; I have not done a thing to get ready. This is The Doing. Bursts of unexpected mania, in which something flows. For this reason, I have always found that working to deadlines/methodical writing has led to the exclusion of many of the things I should have said upon reflection because it is rushed. Perhaps this approach is best changed if say, faced with terminal illness or old age but doing things at your own speed is essential.
All this is not to say that The Brewing is an easy time and one day it will just happen. Filling the time in which you simply could not force yourself to actually write with research, discovery of other art and reflection upon the idea are completely invaluable pursuits in nearing The Doing.  In this aspect, never assume you will remember anything and take notes as though you will read them later.

I would say that this forms the basis of the most important advice I could give to someone who has never written but fancies a go; ‘NEVER think you can recreate something you have lost’.
This rule is the key to what I would consider successful writing. If you can’t write in the moment that you feel or observe something extraordinary, take notes and do it as quickly as possible.  If you discover your computer has died and you’ve lost that story you wrote in a heated moment of passion, forget about trying to recapture it. It will never be the same.  You can try to do it later with what I call “method writing”. Writing about that time you got wasted? Get wasted and write. Listen to music that sets the mood, look at pictures of your dead cat, whatever it takes. It’s the closest you’ll get and still, it will never be the same. Thus, to me, writing is mostly about keeping organised and not forgetting.

In terms of trying to deconstruct and show the stages of a piece of writing, I would like to try to briefly outline and focus upon the brewing/doing of the screenplay for the short film ‘Same River Twice’. This also presents some examples of collaboration, writing to limitations and considering writing text for speech. I will intentionally not discuss motivation/creation as it would include spoilers and the film is not yet released.  Plus, it’s boring.

In May of this year, at a festival my friend Tom and I idly discussed ideas for short films and sketches, at which point a fleeting idea I had had the previous month popped back to me. The idea was to have a scene in which two characters spoke and when it ended, the same conversation would happen again but with a third character, the dialogue from the original scene would remain unchanged but the contributions from the third character would change the meaning. We thought about it, agreed it sounded like it could be good but hard to write and promptly continued revelling and forgot about it.

The following month, I was listening to the podcast ‘The History of Philosophy’ from King’s College London on my walk to work and it focused upon Heraclitus. The paraphrased, “You can never step into the same river twice” was brought up and for the whole day at work, I was lost upon thinking about these things. On the walk back from work, the idea immediately clicked to restart work upon the repeated scene idea with this quote in mind as a title and within a 45 minute walk, I had a loose scenario.

The idea involved two parents discussing in a fast food restaurant the possibility of sectioning their son. The second scene would then see that the son was actually present for the whole discussion and involve his dialogue. The third scene was to feature his imaginary friend, reveal that the things that the son had been saying were indeed addressed to him and the film would be left on an ambiguous note as to whether the boy was actually mentally ill.

On further reflection the following day, it seemed impractical to film a no-budget short film in a fast food restaurant and I also knew that the friends immediately available and willing to make a short film based on past conversations, were neither children nor of an age to be instantly screen recognisable as parents.  I spent the day reworking the idea into a dispute between two twenty-something flatmates, over the actions the previous night of their third flatmate, the imaginary friend now replaced with a Freudian representation of the Id.

In a burst of 4 hours, I wrote the first rough draft of the screenplay by writing with three word processor windows open, copy and pasting the dialogue across the three scenes until the conversations worked with all four characters but also in the first two scenes. I temporarily named the characters Me, Myself, Him and Her in lieu of thinking of names. This later stuck and coincided with dialogue such as the character Me saying “I’m not always Myself”, a good example of the happy accidents that happen when writing.
I showed the first draft to friends, including HFP’s own Sam, and applied their feedback and that of the eventual crew into the second draft. Over the weeks of rehearsals, lines were changed due to what the cast felt uncomfortable saying or if the transition from page to speech sounded clumsy or hackneyed. Eventually an ending was written into the last draft, leaving the story as less ambiguous but working to serve the medium of film better. Now, there would be some kind of visual resolution for an audience hopefully intrigued by the mysterious conversations, which I hadn’t felt necessary in the written form.

During post-production, which is largely the same intensive period of refining as proofreading a book, the narrative structure changed and lines were omitted, shortened or dubbed for different inflection.  Depending upon the speed at which you write, it would take far less than seven months to be nearing completion of something like Same River Twice as a written work due to the filming process. Still, these months of evolving a thought into a film through simple hard graft and collaboration, into the final process of anal refinement is something that would apply to writing something lengthier.

Anal refinement as I’ve called editing/proofreading/depression is unfortunately, probably where you’re going to spend most of your time. Going back to the visual arts, it is surely the aim of the artist to represent the things that they see in their mind (or in abstract art, their feelings) as accurately as possible to a viewer. This impulse then, is why you might spend long periods of time poring over which combination of words best describes your protagonist’s stride so that he is commanding enough within the room you’ve just created in great detail to demand the attention of your love interest whilst simultaneously winning the hearts of all female readers. You might just want to get rid of as many spelling and grammar mistakes as possible so you aren’t ridiculed, as I do.

Personally, I never used to view such things as important. I liked mistakes and thought that not revisiting the original writing left the purity of the intent intact. Once you feel confident to let your writing be read by others, you will suddenly feel insecure enough to make revisions. It is tragically, a vain pursuit. You’ll probably end up quoting your own lines because you’ve read them so, so many times. So many times. Thousands.  Urgh, literally thousands. Yet, it’s completely necessary to uphold the illusion and plant your thoughts fully into someone else’s noggin.

With this, I might add that the writing of something, which was initially so exhilarating and all “I can’t wait to show someone I want to impress” but then became such a slog that you forgot what your motivation was, can be quite unfulfilling. Though not always. Making something work that previously was not, can be thrilling. Mostly, I have found that the malaise comes as the time-consuming nature of completing a project infringes upon beginning work upon the idea that you have now inevitably had and are more excited about.

It’s a marathon and there isn’t much bang for your buck as when you do complete something, you’ll probably be so sick of what you’ve done that if someone does compliment you, you’ll shrug it off and overanalyse the aspect they’ve praised matter-of-factly. So why do it? Because you feel the need to perhaps, it’s a cheap way to spend time at least and probably because you can’t paint. Definitely though, it is because one day, you’ll forget all the work and around a year to two later, you’ll revisit it and think that, hey, you achieved something or that you wouldn’t do that again but that it’s not all that bad and shit, this bit’s great, I used to be a much better writer. Or at least, they’re some of the things that I’ve felt. All writing and writers are different, I’ve tried to work in different formats but the overall cycle of feelings has been quite universal and I hope it’s a description that is of some way useful. It probably isn’t and like me, you think that anyone that writes about writing is either out of ideas or up their own arse. I’m both.

Written By Ryan J Finnigan

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