It’s About Time

The problem is that I have developed skills in some pretty spectacular areas: I have a degree in Pure Mathematics, writing my dissertation in multi-dimensional algebra; that means that I can do some obscene calculus, and wrap my head around some thoroughly abstruse concepts. I can also cook a pretty good plate of beans, but that has less to do with my education, and more with my taste in TV.

I suppose the point of all this is that I like to write fast. There are two ways I do that: by meticulous planning (usually involving a spreadsheet and a pair of calipers); or by winging it and designing the story afterwards. I suppose, as long as you are following something true – whether an idea or a character – you can make either work. The times I have come unstuck are when I’ve forgotten this.

Let’s begin where we should have begun, before all of that silliness got involved and derailed the whole conversation: a story is meant to have a beginning, a middle and an end. I can’t tell if that is an aphorism or an actual representation of our understanding of story. That is, do we think it’s true because we’ve told ourselves it is true so many times? Is it a self-fulfilling prophecy, in other words.

The problem is that just making something up – improvising – never sounds good, no matter what the end result. It sounds like a cop-out of a thing to do; a disingenuous way to describe a creative process once it is all said and done. I have put in the years of practice at writing blogs, so why is it a surprise that I can now improvise, while planning a complex form of narrative? I’ll never understand.

Then again, creating a set of track to fit the maelstrom of verbiage, once it is written, can be fun too: gap analysis on what has been created in the moment to see which elements need to be added in to make it all make sense. It’s hardly the most classical method of composition, but it does combine a good bit of improvisation with a rock solid chunk of planning. The best of both worlds, if you will.

I always envisage story in terms of a five act structure; I have a feeling that I have mentioned this on another blog, but I wanted to restate it here. To me, the five act structure has a much more human scale, a much more human tempo. It starts with a statement of the present, moves in to conflict, and then rises in to crisis, before going off with a crescendo, and then coming down with a gentle bump.

I have a long list of things where I have picked up a book or an object, hoping to develop a degree of proficiency and completely failed. I have only myself to blame, and I know this: I have a stunningly beautiful guitar, and all of the means to learn, but I have failed to carve out the time devoted to such pursuits. The same applies to computer programming, in anything other than the most basic form.

What I don’t want is to be laying track while I am writing; I hate that. I don’t want to be building any complex character or narrative arcs while I am lost in a whirl of creative force: that is something which brings us back down to earth, and lodges the piece – whatever it is today – back in the mud. The freedom to create needs to have a lot of the constraints removed, otherwise it is just work.

The problem is that many writing courses will never ever tell you of the existence of this five act way of structuring a narrative. They will focus on a three act structure, beloved by Hollywood, and felt to be most saleable. In actual fact, it is a four act structure; it is only saleable because it is all anybody has any courage to invest in. As with remakes and adaptations, risk aversion is the only way to go.

Learning something well means that you finally become able to properly improvise; at least as far as I understand it. There are very few skills which I have mastered where I can just go off and create something new and fresh without any thought to following a pattern or a design or recipe. It is my life’s goal to be so accomplished in a range of things that I can just play, making it up as I go along.

And that is the important thing for me: I just want the freedom to write, to put down words on a piece of paper with as few constraints as is possible. I want to follow the words down the rabbit hole and see where they lead me; I want to feel the clatter of the keys under my fingers as I type as fast as the words form on my mental tongue. It is pure exhilaration when the feeling comes: I love it.

The problem I find myself having with the self-imposed five act structure is that it forces me to do certain things I am not always comfortable doing. Mostly the big downturn; I am more than happy to inject a little conflict, as that provides interest, but to go in to crisis mode makes me seem like I’m on a huge downer about everything. It doesn’t work in fiction either – it always scares the kids, that bit.

What I have always been able to do – and what I have always found rather enjoyable to do, because the two things are inextricably linked – is write. I love to put down words in an order which fosters a feeling of a thing. The thing is just the end, and it is the means I am most interested in. If I can write a piece which makes you cry, then I am a very happy man. Especially as I will have just made it up.

I start any of these things with only an outline of where I am going, and a plan in front of me I can no longer quite trust. As such I have to put my faith in what I have done, and trust that I am following it correctly. It is the same when I plot a story for a book or the like: I have to trust that I have done all of my calculations correctly, so that when I pick it up again – when I have the time – I can just write.

And then comes this, the end bit. It is here to resolve the world, and put us back in to equilibrium. (Such that anything can attain a position of equilibrium.) The other strands have done their thing, and now the straightforward one can tie things up to something resembling normality. I suppose that that is the heart of everything: one is going forward, one backwards, and the third: who knows?