Steve Martin had a catch phrase from his time on SNL and standup that he was a wild and crazy guy. He had an entirely different persona in the skit but you could feel it and tell he’d been inspired by something in real life and turned it into comedy through exaggeration.
Now, decades after that Wild and Crazy Guy skit, Martin has this masterclass and in it he says, “Everything you see, hear, experience is usable.”
He’s mostly talking about comedy, screenplays and skits, but it works for the other arts and writing other genres, too.
How people go about scratching their nose, trying not to pick at their wedgie, argue with their kids; how they greet someone at a school board meeting, or even your own observations like the feel of bad indoor-outdoor carpet under your butt, the way this particular headache throbs like an almost perceptible bass beat coming from a car down the street, right at your left temple and the base of your neck—all of it can be used in your story.
Martin suggests being “an active observer in life” which to him means always being “on the lookout.” And he says you should grab a notebook that fits in your back pocket to write down what you observe. He forgets apparently that women’s pants often don’t have pockets? And also about the notes app on your phone. But it’s still good advice. Write what you see and taste and fear and feel.
This advice isn’t new. Richard Powers, who wrote The Overstory, which won a Pulitzer has said this. Powers says, “Be present, practice attention, and the story you are working on will feed on everything in front of you.”
Writers need to be mindful not in the power of positive psychology sort of way, but just in a way of being fully present so that we can notice what’s going on around us and within us.
Maya Angelou says:
“I try to pull the language in to such a sharpness that it jumps off the page. It must look easy, but it takes me forever to get it to look so easy. Of course, there are those critics – New York critics as a rule – who say, Well, Maya Angelou has a new book out and of course it’s good but then she’s a natural writer. Those are the ones I want to grab by the throat and wrestle to the floor because it takes me forever to get it to sing. I work at the language.”Angelou
To understand language that sings, you have to understand the sounds of language, observe and pay attention to the details of conversations around you, how people choose different words for arguments than they do when talking about their day or asking for some water. Paying attention to the language on the page means paying attention to the sound of language in the air and using it.
Martin. Powers. Angelou. They all have and had it together. They know that writing is observing and translating, being present and recreating sharpness on the page and on the tongue.
Thanks for listening to Write Better Now.
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