keep rolling

Maybe it was all that time spent as an editor, but even after seven years as a full-time writer, I still need reminding that writing—the actual writing of new words, one new word after the other—is its own thing. Starkly, fundamentally different in every way from everything else under the "writing" umbrella: cutting and pasting with abandon, polishing, re-reading for flow, thinking about what isn't working about a chapter while on the subway, tearing up a finished chapter into chunks and re-outlining it, etc.

Maybe it was Hemingway who said, "the only kind of writing is rewriting." Wrong. Writing is only mostly rewriting. You still actually have to write fresh stuff in the first place at some point. A small part of the time, you're in your chair generating fresh material. Though it represents possibly the smallest part of the entire process, it's the blank-page work that's the heaviest lift. Writing's a beast, and it calls for an entirely different creative mindset if you expect results.

(To be clear, plenty of words get added as a natural part of the revision process, but this definitely doesn't feel the same as putting fresh new words down one after the other, inching slowly into that scary white part of the page at the bottom.)

Once I've got a pile of raw material, I'm in my comfort zone. Well, it's not comfortable, but text, I can wrangle. Since I spend 75% of my time rewriting—maybe a lot more—facing that void of white space with nothing but a keyboard always feels like being asked to take a cold plunge.

Of course, you have to not only take the plunge but stay in that water for as long as you can. The Most Dangerous Writing App, which I've mentioned before, helps: keep typing for the duration or lose your work. Likewise, accountability tools like Focusmate help. The stranger on the screen seems to be typing away happily—why aren't I?

However: no tool works perfectly. There is always a part of the brain saying, "Uh oh, wrong turn, that was dumb, enough for now." Call it the camera operator.

From the director's commentary on Midnight Cowboy, I learned that the ending might have been subtly—but powerfuly—different had it not been for a rogue camera operator. (Spoiler alert.)

In the final scene, protagonist Joe Buck (Jon Voight) is on a bus to Florida after failing as a male prostitute in New York City. Next to him, his new friend Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) is in very poor health thanks to years of hard times in the city. They hope the warm weather and easy living in Miami will help Ratso recover. However, the film ends with a bleak shot through the bus window as Joe realizes his friend has passed away en route to salvation.

On the first take, director John Schlesinger recalled, it started to rain just as Voight started crying. The little droplets falling on the bus window mirrored the tears on Voight's face—it was one of those serendipitous creative miracles you could never plan. Or repeat.

That's when the camera operator decided to stop rolling.

Normally, the operator rolls film until the director says "cut." However, this was a small-budget film at the end of its shoot. In the camera guy's mind, he was saving a few feet of film—expensive stuff—so they'd have enough left for when the weather cleared up.

Decades later, there was still rage and frustration in Schlesinger's voice as he recalled the loss of that moment on the director's commentary track. He must have been incandescent at the time—in fact, he said in the commentary that he'd gotten the camera guy blacklisted from the industry.

When you're writing, you're director and camera operator. When the urge to cut, to stop generating new text, rises up like the urge to sneeze, don't listen to it, but don't ignore it either. It's a clear sign that something interesting is on its way. Your subconscious is getting antsy about what it's about to reveal. Don't let up. Keep rolling.

It takes extraordinary commitment to stay in the groove. Take the hospital explosion in The Dark Knight. (Again, spoiler alert.)

As you might imagine, blowing up a derelict hospital is something you can only do once. Luckily, when the pyrotechnics fizzled halfway through the explosion sequence, Heath Ledger didn't break character for an instant. He reacted exactly as his character, the Joker, would, whacking the prop detonator several times to see if that helped. Luckily, the detonations resumed. Today, most people assume this wonderfully authentic moment was scripted.

Can you imagine if Ledger had looked off-camera and asked Nolan what to do when the explosions stopped? Or if he'd just cursed in frustration in his normal voice? The shot would have been ruined. Then what? Rebuild the whole hospital for take two?

Interrupting the flow of new words can have similarly irreversible effects. Once derailed, you can't rebuild a train of thought either. Whatever strange alchemy occurs in the mind when we're articulating something new, there is no question that we risk losing an insight forever if we step away from the desk for a cup of coffee midway through.

If you're writing, keep writing. Never interrupt yourself if you're on a roll. The sudden, almost irresistable urge to interrupt your flow is a positive indicator that something special is just around the bend. Keep rolling.

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