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Writing in the Now

By Patrick Kirkland · May 12, 2011

McKee:

Nothing happens in the real world? Are you out of your fucking mind? People are murdered every day! There's genocide and war and corruption! Every fucking day somewhere in the world somebody sacrifices his life to save someone else! Every fucking day someone somewhere makes a conscious decision to destroy someone else! People find love! People lose it, for Christ's sake! A child watches her mother beaten to death on the steps of a church! Someone goes hungry! Somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman! If you can't find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don't know much about life! And why the fuck are you taking up my precious two hours with your movie? I don't have any use for it! I don't have any bloody use for it!

From Adaptation, p 90

It’s not a secret I’ve been in jury duty for the last several weeks. And while I don’t talk about the trial, almost every person who knows me has asked, “Are you going to write about it when it’s over?”

I find this an unanswerable question. Not because I can’t talk about the trial, but because there are so many pieces that I could possibly write about. Within this process are hundreds of people, each with a different story. From the bystanders to the witnesses to the lawyers to the officers to the people standing in the hallway. My questions range from “why are you here” to “what did you have for breakfast, and how did it taste?” There’s the process, the questions asked, the game played. Which answers are lies and which are truths, and which ones are simply a person’s version of the truth, completely not perceivable to anyone but them?

Scott at Go Into the Story posted about the writer of the upcoming Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and how he came up with the idea, simply by wondering what would happen if he merged one stack of books with another. He was simply inside a bookstore, and he was paying attention. He was living in the now.

As writers, our profession counts on us having material to write about, for every story, every article, every idea. A number of stories can definitely come from the inside of our warped heads, sitting at our desks, day in and day out. True. But you can’t live your life without stepping into the outside world. Every day there are interactions, too many to count, and all of these, every single one of them, is material. All you have to do is pay attention.

Right now, I am sitting on a bench in a hallway, writing on my laptop. To my left sit two men in suits, one of which is very expensive. I have no idea who they are. One man is typing on a blackberry, the other is telling him to “listen to me.” He’s yelling at him. Legal drama? Love story between two successful men? Lovers?

Right now, two people are behind me, discussing a wedding. Whether or not one of the parties will make it in time. A tragedy? A romantic comedy? A trip with destination?

Right now, a writer writes to finish an article. How much trouble has he had on it? Or did it flow easily, without pretension, without any care in the world? Or was it ghostwritten? What is he writing? An article about screenwriting? An article about the Wall Street collapse? Or maybe he’s putting the finishing touches on a month long investigation to find out the truth of a scandal. A really juicy one!

Sounds so easy, doesn’t it? And unfortunately, for such a little thing as paying attention, it’s not. For anyone, but especially for writers. We live in our own heads. We have entire conversations with ourselves. We worry. Right now, nothing is wrong, although you may be struck catatonic about what’s in the future. Right now, it’s a sunny beautiful day and you’re happy and healthy, but you may be stuck trying to repeat the past.

These things may help when you’re at your desk. They may help you develop your characters into full and complex people, complete with their own frustrations and angers and emotions, and that’s great. But when the real world shows itself and you have to interact, would you get more from being inside your head or inside the moment? Inside your right now?

How often do you pay attention to your right now? Your right now should be a wide world of what’s around you, at this moment. Who do you see? What do you hear? What are you touching, right now, and how did it get there? What was your immediate moment before, and what choice are you going to make right now?

Maybe you’ve got a kid to feed. What are you doing right now about it? Write about it. Write the circumstances, the people involved, the choices made. Write some of the dialogue, and how you think the conversations should go. You start from the material, and you build from there. Maybe you just got into a fight, and you have to make up for it. What was said? What wasn’t said? What did you really want to say? Who was it with? What was it really about? Who saw it, and what will they do the moment after? Where are you? Where are you going? Write about it. Maybe you walked into a book store and saw a few books that don’t go together. A few books about Lincoln, and a few books about Vampires. What happens when you put those two things together? Write about it.  (Well, don’t, because somebody else already has.) Maybe you just had an interesting conversation. Write about it. Maybe you just won the lottery. Great. Congratulations. Write about it. Maybe you just killed a guy. Not so great. Get a lawyer. Then write about it.

Things are happening in the real world, right now. All the time, everywhere. A million places, a million people, a bazillion moments. Write about it.