My Grand Experiment?

my cubicle

My little writing space

In a prior post, I noted that silence makes me restless; that I need a bit of noise, the strange–or at least the different–to stimulate my imagination when I write.  Lately, though, I’ve just been restless, plain and simple.  So I’ve decided, for at least the first three months of 2013, to embark on an “environmental” experiment.  I’ve started writing at The Writers Room D.C.

Created in the fall of 2012, and apparently modeled on the writers’ rooms they have in New York (quite a few in Brooklyn, I must say!),  the Writers Room D.C. is one large room, a wall of windows on one side, with 18 two-sided cubicles containing desks and lamps, in which serious writers (published or emerging) can have their own little writer’s space away from home and home’s distractions.  There’s a small open space where one can take a break to relax and read, and an anteroom with a little kitchenette (with a supply of coffee, tea, a small refrigerator, and a sink–restrooms are down the hall); lockers (where you can store your computer and/or work rather than carry them back and forth each day); a printer (for small jobs); and a small side room in which to make phone calls.  Oh–and you can bring coffee or tea into your writing space, but food must be consumed in the kitchenette.

For me, who usually needs the sense of freedom that wandering gives and the ambient noise of coffee shops–not to mention nibbling as I write–this is a new way of working.  The    immediate difficulty for me so far, of course, is the utter quiet in the work-area.  Though it may be a self-imposed reaction on my part, it feels like an enforced silence–like if I laugh at something I’m reading, I have violated it.  And sometimes, going feels like obligation, like I’d rather be out having an adventure.  But then again, who’s making me go? –Me.

On the plus side, going there does seem to be getting me to follow more of a regular work-schedule, and working side by side with others doing the same does alleviate that sense of isolation I feel when trying to work at home.  In addition, people will chat for a bit when they break to get coffee, and the founders are creating some small social events to help us to get to know each other.  Also, I don’t have to pack up my computer every time I need to go to the ladies room–a more important plus than one might think.

So how is the experiment working out for me?  It’s early days yet.  I’ve only been at it for about three weeks.  The proof will be in the pudding, as they used to say.  We’ll see how much I get written (of quality) in these three months.  So far, I have found that, although the silence is generally disturbing when I come in, once I get into the work, I can, to a degree, get engrossed in what I’m writing and forget that it is so quiet.  I do think that, for me, a writers’ room’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. That is, working side by side with other writers removes that sense of isolation, but when one is surrounded by other like-minded people, one is deprived of access to the unexpected encounter that provides new ideas.  Eventually, I will have to find some way to balance my time there with my need for the creative stimulation wandering gives.  I’m not used to bifurcating my time in that way.  But that doesn’t mean that I can’t learn to.

“Lirty Dies” –“Spoonerisms” of The Capitol Steps

I went, not long ago, to see a performance of the Capitol Steps.  They’re very talented and very funny, of course.  But what struck me most was one particular routine, a solo speech entitled:  Lirty Dies: The Load to the Erection 2012–What a Lunch of Boozers, in which the performer swapped the letters in certain words to humorously irreverent effect.  In the title, for example, the first letter of the first two words are switched so that “dirty lies” becomes “lirty dies,” and the first letter of road is switched with the second letter of election  to become Load to the Erection, etc.

I found this speech fascinating on two accounts:  first, the way in which the switches created clever and pointed satire (the Capitol Steps’ stock and trade, but still…); and second, the fact that the entire audience, me included, could comprehend the new meaning and the original meaning simultaneously.  (Indeed, the humor–the laugh–came in part from the juxtaposition of the two meanings.)  It felt like listening to two very different kinds of music at the same time and being able to hear both equally.  I would not have thought it possible and was amazed at my being able to do it.   How did they and we accomplish it?

To figure out how our minds accommodate two meanings at once, let’s look at a couple of examples from the speech.  There’s the reference to Arnold Schwarzenegger:  “He had a waby out of bedlock” in place of “he had a baby out of wedlock.”  Perhaps it is the connection the mind automatically makes between wedlock and bedlock that permits one to grasp both meanings at once?  (I should note that the Capitol Steps play fair; that is, the speech also addresses the foibles of John Edwards and Anthony Weiner.)

Then there’s the reference to Rick Perry, referred to as Pick Rerry:  “The Stapitol Ceps have always said you were stumber than a dump.”  Which is more insulting?  To call someone dumber than a stump?  Or stumber than a dump, with the colloquial associations  “dump” brings to mind?  Either way, the mind registers the insult.

But how does one approach writing this sort of thing?  Do you write a straight speech stating what you want to communicate and then mechanically start inverting letters to see what combinations turn up?  Do you start with sentences like “We got the boring Mormon, Mitt Romney.  And we got our old pal Newt Gingrich,” and just start switching letters around, playing with them to see what comes up until one arrives (as the Capitol Steps do) at:  “We got the moring Borman, Ritt Momney.  And we got our old nal Poot Gingrich”?  Surely the swap resulting in a reference to Borman is not accidental; nor the reference to Poot, which one is bound to associate with poo.  Or does one somehow figure out what swaps will work when composing the underlying speech?

Finally, is this a technique best applied in satire and farce?  Could it also be put to powerful use in a darker form of literature?  Admittedly, I don’t think the technique could be sustained throughout the length of a novel.  But, I do think it would be an interesting exercise to experiment with it, to test the limits of its possible applications.  What’s the worst that could come of it?  Even if playing with the technique did not result in a new, innovative story, it would gain one the pleasure of playing with language and what the mind may do with it.  And that could lead one into  other new and interesting work.


Welcome to My World–A First Manifesto

For the adventurous writer, no subject is forbidden, no device or technique off-limits.  The only constraints are those of one’s imagination and, of course, whatever devices ultimately work to tell a particular story well.  There are some who will try to narrow a writer’s world to one set of subjects, one genre, one style, one story structure or form, and/or one small group of devices.  But while there are standard ideas about traditional story structure that generally work, there is no recipe for the telling of a good story.

The devices and techniques that many writers call the tools with which they work, I call the toys with which we play.  Admittedly, for a story to be successful, it must hang together; must keep the reader’s interest; and, ultimately, express something that satisfies the reader’s expectations.  But there is no one way to do that, and the adventurous writer will play with all the toys in the toy chest with a sense of freedom and abandon, stretching their limits to see what they can do.

I propose, in this blog, to write about different ways one can play with those toys, along with bits and pieces of my own philosophy about writing, thoughts about what I happen to be reading (reading always helps to provide one with new toys), a bit about the adventure of marketing one’s work, and a bit about writer’s rights, too.

All those writers who like to play–and all those readers who have been curious about how a writer does what he or she does, the writer’s life, inner and outer–Welcome.  Come on in.  Let’s Play!

posted by Jessie Seigel at 8:30 p.m.