In Praise of Naps

@wdavisliterary posted this on Twitter a few weeks ago: “The Four Horsemen of Procrastination”

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From @tcviani on Instagram

It’s a solid observation, and it was meant in good fun. I did, however, have one quibble. Naps are part of the writing process. I cheekily said as much in my reply. She responded as well, saying that napping is “totally” procrastination. And To be fair, the act of napping is not the act of writing. But napping IS part of the writing process (the creative process more generally) as are showers, bike rides, long walks, and getting lost on public transit.

I’m not much of a fighter, but this is one battle I’m not going to take lying down.

Things are going to get Biblical

There are a lot of themes in the Bible, but the importance of dreams seems to permeate all 60+ books. There’s Old Testament Joseph and his famous technicolor dreamcoat; Jonah who was fast asleep before being thrown overboard to a whale; Job, whom God scolds for not listening to his dreams; and New Testament Joseph who decides to divorce his miraculously pregnant fiancé before settling down for some zzz’s.  After a good nap (and some meddling angels) he changes his mind.

It’s this last point I want to emphasize. Joseph had a problem he wasn’t sure how to handle. After he thought about it for a while, he took a nap. The Psalms also speak about this magical, problem-solving nap. “…Meditate in your heart upon your bed, and be still” (Psalm 4:4). “Hear my cry for help… In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice” (Psalm 5:2-3).

The general theme here is that your problem is too big for you to comprehend. Don’t even bother trying to solve it. In fact, you’re better off getting a good night’s sleep. Somehow, miraculously, the problem will solve itself.

Seriously, though…

Research into creativity has revealed that there is real wisdom in ancient, well, wisdom. Your brain needs time to ruminate on ideas. In his book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson refers to this as the “slow hunch.” Over time (minutes, days, years?) you slowly, subconsciously consider the same problem as you age, mature, learn, and change. You open yourself up to “serendipity” (another of Johnson’s terms), as your brain forms new, unexpected connections. (It had never occurred to me that when I did a bible study with my wife five years ago, I could use that information for ammunition in a Twitter argument about screenwriting.)

In his work The Art of Thought, Graham Wallas shares this reflection from the prolific German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz.

…happy ideas come unexpectedly without effort, like an inspiration. So far as I am concerned, they have never come to me when my mind was fatigued, or when I was at my working table… They came particularly readily during the slow ascent of wooded hills on a sunny day.*

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Image via: Wikipedia Clearly von Helmholtz had something going for him other than looks…

Wallas goes on to describe Helmholtz’s three stage process: preparation, where you consider the problem at hand; incubation, where you do not think about the problem at all; and finally, illumination, where the solution simply pops into your head. Sound familiar?

Physical activity is great way to keep your neurons on their toes, but don’t worry if there aren’t any “wooded hills” near your writing desk. Johnson thinks dreams may be just as beneficial as fresh air. In fact, he wonders if that most analytical of dreamers wasn’t on to something.

Sigmund Freud, he says, had it backwards. Dreams aren’t repressed memories trying to come to the surface, but our brains searching for meaning through all of the clutter (sights, smells, conversations, thoughts, obstacles, emotions, etc.). Although the evidence is anecdotal, the sewing machine, the periodic table, and the theory of relativity were all conceived by people sleeping on the job. It’s not just science and technology. Artists dream up crazy stuff all of the time. Famously, The Beatles’ “Yesterday,” The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” Frankenstein, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde all started in dreams.

Sometimes a Nap Isn’t Just a Nap

When it comes to creative processes, the best approach is not always head on. Ideas are ephemeral things and you may spook them. Instead, the research seems to suggest that one great approach is, well, napping. Now to be clear, you can’t use this as avoidance (which is what spawned the initial tweet). But what has actually proven to be very effective is gathering all of the pieces in your mind: the inputs and outputs, the technical hurdles, your fears, and in regard to writing, your subject and audience, characters, stories, motivation, and criticisms.

Hold them there. Look at them objectively. Write them down if it helps. Then, forget about them.

Go for a walk. Do some painting. Cook dinner. Take a nap. As long as you’re going to hit your deadline, take a day or two to just let everything simmer. And if you do, you’ll be surprised to see how things miraculously work themselves out.

I hear your protests, but don’t say anything now. Just think it over. Sleep on it. Get back to me in the morning.

 

*Miller, Susan. The Norton Book of Composition Studies. W.W. Norton & Co., Inc. 2009. 236

Screenwriters, do yourselves a favor.

HBO recently released Craig Mazin’s miniseries ChernobylWhile nothing in this life is perfect, Chernobyl comes pretty darn close. From acting to directing to art direction to sound design, Chernobyl is a masterclass in filmmaking.

But the biggest story is probably the story itself. In the television world, screenwriters hold the creative power and, as writer and executive producer, Mazin made a variety of bold and effective decisions. For example, the explosion takes place in the first few minutes of the mini-series. He doesn’t make the audience sit through a lengthy first act or ordinary world, and it’s spectacularly powerful. But his reasoning behind the decision is what will really make things click for filmmakers.

In addition to the show, Mazin recorded a companion podcast with NPR host Peter Sagal to accompany each episode. In it, he explains his creative decisions. He shares insight about story structure, adapting true stories, portraying gore on screen, sound design, and even accents. It’s entertaining, engaging, and informative. It’s unfiltered information coming from a filmmaker at the top of his game.

Taken together, Chernobyl and the companion podcast are worth far more to aspiring filmmakers than anything you can find in a university catalogue. The podcast is free and HBO Now has a 7 day free trial. You have no excuses. If you want to learn about the craft of filmmaking, Chernobyl is a must.

All Men (and Shows) Must Die

The last episode of Game of Thrones will go live in just a two days and the internet is still roiling about last week’s episode. “What have the writer’s done?!” I can’t be certain how D&D plan to resolve this mess, but I can guarantee no matter what happens some people will hate it. Is all of the Sturm und Drang really merited?

I’ll start with a bit of a humble brag. I was a fan of the books. I was ecstatic to hear that HBO would be adapting them into a show. And for the most part, the series stayed true to the books, which is to say, it stayed true to human nature.

The thing that struck me about Game of Thrones was its realism. Sure, you had to get past the dragons and the army of the undead, but in many ways, George R.R. Martin’s world felt more authentic and his characters felt more real than most things you read. Writers – screenwriters in particular – rely heavily on preconceived notions (also called cliches) to keep stories moving forward. When you’re telling the story of Odysseus, you can’t get hung up what oarsman #3 is doing.

Martin didn’t let that bother him. Oarsman #3, the red-headed prostitute, and the kennel master’s daughter were just as likely to have staring roles as the king and the elite assassin. No one was purely good and no one was purely evil. Everyone was just trying to get by in this nasty and brutish world Martin had created. It was enthralling.

It also came at a cost. Descriptions could be burdensome. Do we really care what all eleventeen courses were at the feast? Or whose bannermen wore what sigils? All of the descriptions, details, side quests, and characters made each book in the series a massive tome somewhere in the 1000 page range. And then there was the killing of characters.

I started out rooting for Ned. Here was a man who was going to get things done. It’s not a spoiler at this point to say things didn’t pan out for him. Then I rooted for his son, Robb… and then Jon. But the last time Martin mentions Jon, he’s, well, dead. Then Martin went off and wrote a book on a an entirely different continent with other characters. (As a reader, I was none too happy about it and couldn’t decide if I would finish the series. But I’d like to point out that, despite some angry fan mail, if  anyone is winning the game of thrones, it’s Martin.)

HBO took the same route, shocking audiences each season. There was Ned, the Red Wedding, the Purple Wedding, the Great Sept. How do you top that? Looking back on it, however, the question isn’t about “topping” the previous season, but treating Westeros with the same reality the books did.

Life is messy. The people who you want to win don’t. The people in charge are often war criminals. The people who should be in charge don’t want the job. Siblings fight and betray trust. Some people redeem themselves. Others don’t. Game of Thrones created a world that was big enough to be treated realistically rather than having to rely on the tropes that govern most stories. Last week’s episode was a case in point.

Was Danaery’s a long con? Did D&D spend nine years building empathy for a character they knew would turn out to be an unhinged megalomaniac? Or maybe like the gods whenever a Targaryen is born, they just flipped a coin in the writer’s room. The point is, even though it frustrated a huge portion of the audience, it felt strangely inspired. It felt real. We don’t get upset when our deadbeat friend does something stupid. We get upset when our heroes and mentors do something stupid. That’s why this episode bothered us so much.

There are many theories about what will happen in the final episode, some of them more disappointing than others. But I can honestly say, I have no idea what will happen. That’s been the shocking fun of Game of Thrones since day one. Let’s be honest, for a show that killed most of its characters off, it would be completely “in character” for them to do something shocking, absurd, and brutal. I’m fully expecting that. The disappointment won’t be how it ends, but that it’s ending.

I’m hopeful though. Game of Thrones took chances with traditional storytelling, creating something new and complex and engaging. HBO adapted it – warts and all – into something we love, and love to hate. I hope that complexity affects television for years to come. In the meantime, I know what I’ll be reading.

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7/14/19

While I stand by my comments regarding Game of Thrones, and my appreciation of George R. R. Martin’s storytelling, I won’t necessarily recommend Fire & Blood. It is a history book. It’s an interesting, well-written history book, but it’s a. history book. I guess I’ll just have to wait for The Winds of Winter.