Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Wrting As An Artform - A Performing Art

I've written extensively about writing as an artform in my review column


but right after returning from Denvention III, the World Science Fiction Convention of 2008, I had another blazing, blinding insight into the mysteries of ART and storytelling.

For most people, this will seem boring, complex, abstract and maybe trivial or absurd. But this is an example of how I learn.

I suspect this insight was sparked by several factors I will identify below. It is a "perfect storm" of input and experiences that brought me what I want to share with you.

I think that reading -- and then writing about what you've read -- as well as writing original stories of your own, is a process, an adventure in consciousness. As you can't learn anything by reading books ABOUT that thing -- you can't learn to write by reading about writing. You have to do some writing -- but there's more to the homework. You have to assemble and express what you've learned. The apprenticeship method -- "See one. Do one. Teach one."

I want to point you to my review column of June 2008


Where I discuss Spiderman 2 (which is a Romance, you know). I wrote that column nearly 6 months before this huge insight which came to me while I was watching (again) Spiderman 2.

Long ago, when I was in grammar school, Alma Hill, a professional writer who ran the first (free) writing workshop I ever joined which was under the auspices of the N3F (National Fantasy Fan Federation), a companion organization to SFWA ( Science Fiction Writers of America), taught me something that forms the foundation of this massive new insight. I use it for the motto of the WorldCrafters Guild (the free writing school we run on simegen.com).

Writing is a Performing Art.

As you can't learn acting or dancing or playing a musical instrument by reading about them, you can't learn writing by reading about writing. But likewise, just practicing in a room by yourself won't give you the skills of an actor, dancer or musician -- you must get out on stage before people and PERFORM because the art is a performing art. And WRITING IS A PERFORMING ART. It sounds so simple. I told you, therefore you know it. Ah, but it doesn't work that way. This is a very abstract notion that brings together a thousand theories of the universe into one package. It is profound!


When you finally come to internalize that bit of wisdom, you begin to be able to flip your point of view from "outside looking into a story" to "inside looking out from the story into the world" -- onstage/offstage -- and then to flip back and forth so rapidly you can hardly tell which way you are looking at a piece of fiction.

So this insight I'm going to try to describe will sound obvious and useless from one point of view, and "the key to the universe" from another point of view.

It's complex because it is a synthesis of a huge range of experiences I've had at Denvention 3, then afterward, but goes back to grammar school, and includes much of the writing and working that I've been doing this last two years.

On the other hand, it is soooo obvious, that in retrospect I wonder how I could be so dull witted as not to have seen it and understood the implications before this. I suppose the whole world already has understood this and I'm the last to learn it. But I believe I can see it now because of a series of experiences. Here's a short list of those experiences.

At Denvention 3, right at the beginning of the convention, Kristin Nelson (Linnea Sinclair's agent) gave a talk on how to construct a query letter description of a novel you have written and are trying to sell. I listened raptly because she was painting what I knew already for years, but knew it as if it were an analog video. But she was painting me the same picture in DIGITIZED form. She made it soooo clear. So vivid. So sharp-edged.

I quoted Jean Lorrah's notes on Kristin Nelson's the method of formulating a novel description in

At the end of Kristin's talk, I commented from the audience and Kristin paraphrased my comment about writing the cover copy before you write the novel brilliantly:


In my con report blog entry, I forgot to mention an encounter with Lois McMaster Bujold outside the Dealer's Room when we were headed in opposite directions at con speeds. She rattled off the startling news that she would be quoting me in her Guest of Honor speech at the Convention and sped away (remember, the mean free path of a pro at a con is about 15 feet, maybe 30 if you move fast enough).

So I sped off in the opposite direction and about 30 feet later, it hit me what she'd said. Wow. Amazing. She's quoting me in the Guest of Honor speech at WorldCon.

Here is her blog entry with a transcript of her speech which is about genres and particularly the blending of Romance and SF which is a hobbyhorse of mine.


Here's a quote out of the middle of Lois's magnificent speech:

So the two genres -- Romance and SF -- would seem to be arm-wrestling about the relative importance of the personal and the political. My solution for The Sharing Knife was to align the two levels by making the central characters be each a representative of their respective and conflicting cultures. Even so, to balance the elements I still had to divide the tetralogy into two halves, the first pair of volumes concentrating on cementing the relationship, and the second pair looking outward from this now-firm foundation once again to the larger stage. Most of all The Sharing Knife as a whole does not have a villain-driven plot, fun and cathartic as those can be. (I know: I've written a boatload of them.) For the political side, I set Dag and Fawn to wrestle with a much more difficult and diffuse problem, a demographic problem, not of merely destroying the villain du jour, but of building connections and friendships and fresh ways of doing things that will allow both their peoples to meet the challenge of many new dangers in their future. Building is harder than destroying. "Winning" in the usual sense is not what's going on, here, but the prize is certainly their world. Seeing where the books' argument is finally going to end up must wait for February 2009, and the last volume, Horizon.

The reader-response from the skiffy crowd so far has been exactly as my hypothesis predicted -- once the focus shifted back to the political in Book 3, they perked up and decided it was really a story after all. Except for the usual holdouts, who only process action as significant when it takes the form of "guys hitting each other", who are likely not the audience for these books in the first place. Although I am reminded of Jacqueline Lichtenberg's tart description of action scenes, roughly paraphrased: "The story is going along, but then stops while guys hit each other. Guys hit each other for three pages, then stop. The story starts again." (I've been watching a bit of shonen (that is, boys') anime lately, and I must say that describes those episodes to a T.)

Lois's comment on a casual comment I had made about action plotting (probably made the same comment on a number of panels over the years -- but didn't quite HEAR myself) finally penetrated all the way when I saw it paraphrased in print on her blog. I learn from reading not hearing.

At another point at Denvention 3 I was on a panel with Marc Zicree and once again thinking through what he has done with Star Trek and other SF in the visual media.

I'm also on the social network LinkedIn where from time to time writers ask very insightful questions that I feel impelled to answer. Sometimes I'm surprised at what I say! I answered a few questions on writing --


is my profile, and LinkedIn members should be able to find my answers (and link to me) on that profile.

So, these experiences are sinking in as I finally get some time to plop down and watch what's collected on my TV recorder. The oldest thing on there is taking up 3 hours of space and it's SPIDERMAN 2. Well, I can't erase it without watching it again. That's one I don't have the DVD for. So I watched it again.

Here's a quote from my June review:

Look more closely at Spiderman 2. Ostensibly about a guilt ridden Superhero fighting a monster created by pride, this movie discusses in depth the issue of what makes a human being a hero just as Elf discusses what property of the world creates the kindly generosity of Santa’s annual ride.

Where does the power come from? Where does magic come from? How does being the focus of the magic generated by public attention (Santa has his moment, but Spiderman is always expected to perform miracles) change a person? Where inside the ordinary human psyche does this magical power come from? And what can break it?

Are we all just broken superheroes or supernatural beings who could change the world if only we were fixed?

We all have our favorite answers. For Elf, the power comes from belief, which once restored let Buddy find his place in his world. For Spiderman, the power comes from a clear conscience purified by confession.

Power, which the world views as magical, or Star Wars dubs "The Force," is viewed as connected to the foundations of what many cultures call morality. But as Theodore Sturgeon advised, we must ask the next question, not just stop thinking at "Right Makes Might".

Well, I stand by all that. But now, out of the stew of experiences noted above and more, I see something in Spiderman 2 with that kind of DIGITIZED clarity Kristin Nelson achieved in her talk on query letters.

Amidst this stew of experiences, I had occasion to remember an insight I had into the genre of Comedy while watching the Mary Tyler Moore show.

I saw how the script writers took everyday human embarrassments, saying or failing to say something at just the right point, foibles, failings and pure NIGHTMARE ( like showing up at school in only your underwear ) -- experiences that we all think about in passing but then shun, flinch away from thinking about -- and then the screenwriter portrays those experiences on the screen in SHOW DON'T TELL.

At full concert pitch, the writer PERFORMS the experience for the viewer. The fictional situation and characters are "caricature" sketches of reality, not photographic recordings of reality. These are all analog experiences, analogous to but not the same as our everyday reality.

"The same as" wouldn't be funny.

The actors are tools the writer uses to evoke that exquisite pain, keeping it just short of the viewer's conscious recognition as pain.

I saw the mechanism by which comedy writers turned ordinary people's ordinary experiences of the ordinary world inside out and exposed the human's interior life for all the world to see.

That "exposure" of what is personal and private is what makes it funny.

I saw the mechanism that makes comedy "work" -- that gets a laugh.

And the great spiritual benefit of laughter lies not just in the physical release of tension and the physical exercise of the diaphragm -- it also lies in sharing our innermost subconscious reality with OTHER PEOPLE. Sitting in an audience (or watching TV alone, knowing others watch alone too), you can experience the subconscious and painful reality others live in and recognize yourself in those people.

Comedy, when done right, is a binding force of society as strong as love. And thus the Romantic Comedy rules the roost in films!

This Mary Tyler Moore insight came to me years and years before Blake Snyder wrote his definitive books on screenwriting, SAVE THE CAT! and SAVE THE CAT GOES TO THE MOVIES!

Snyder's main point is that the essence of story is the PRIMAL experience. He goes to considerable length explaining what "Primal" means in this context. The plot, the life-issues the main character faces must be (in order for the story to be movie material, not a novel) so basic, so purely human, that a caveman could understand it (no insult). It has to be something viewers grasp clearly from the images, something every human being understands because they are human.

What I saw in MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW is exactly what it is that makes COMEDY so very PRIMAL.

It was one of those "flip" moments when instead of being a viewer, watching from the outside, I became a writer, evaluating from the inside. I saw where inside the writer the primal comedy came from -- I saw the mechanism of comedy apart from the art of it. And I saw the art of it as the teasing balance on the edge of unbearable PAIN - emotional pain, primal emotional pain.

You're probably thinking: "Well, everybody knew that already! Where have you been?"

I'm sure you've read this exact same thing in many books about writing.

*sigh* but knowing and understanding are not the same thing. In that moment, watching THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, what I knew became something I understood. I grokked comedy as a writing craft -- consistent and reproducible, methodical and mechanical -- as well as an artform, unique and magical -- and as a performing art.

That insight has stayed with me, and now all these years later, I have another to add to it. This one is on SUPERHERO FANTASY.

One of the questions on LINKEDIN.com that I was intrigued by but didn't get to answer fully was about why it is that Americans are so responsive to the superhero movies today. I still don't know the answer to that question in full, but I have a whole new perception of what a superhero movie is.

What is the appeal of comic books? Graphic novels? Superman. Green Arrow. Lone Ranger. Spiderman. Buffy.

Just as I said in my Spiderman 2 review -- this is the story of every human being living inside him or herself.

Every one of us is a Superhero inside. We all know beyond a doubt who we really are -- and it is NOT that clumsy wimp or clutzy dunce the rest of the world sees.

We fight our everyday battles ( car breakdowns; buses that get us to work late; cell phones out of juice; stains on the white shirt we have to wear to a meeting; stubborn or suborned computers; high gas prices) until we reach total collapse of strength and will.

Our story is the story of confronting and facing down our internal demons, our own personal emotional issues (Spiderman's bout with Guilt is not everyone's emotional struggle; some people don't get disabled by Guild). Spiderman 2 is not OUR story, but it is ANALOGOUS TO the story of all our disparate emotional lives.

We gravitate toward the primal Superhero stories because they are about our own lives -- with ourselves cast as Superhero. We help others at risk to ourselves; we fumble and stumble and fall, cast off that "identity" and stand tall, lower our voices and answer the phone with our corporate voice. We all have many identities.

And we get confused. Are we really the Superhero -- or the wimp?

The primal Superhero story is about Identity. But it's our own search for identity -- the perplexing question of whether we are what the world sees us to be or what we know ourselves to be?

Where does our strength come FROM?


Like Comedy, the comic book story is about our universal internal life exposed for all to see and all to share.

When a comic book character (think Tom&Jerry) falls off a cliff and smashes flat against the ground, it is ANALOGOUS to what we feel when something unexpected and emotionally painful stuns us. Comic book action makes our invisible emotional responses visible.

The appeal of the comic book is simply that it replicates in art, writ larger than life, our very own internal struggle with that which opposes our will, ethics, morals, or sense of identity.

Just as Comedy exposes our inner, most secret fears of embarrassment and other emotional pain of that social sort -- the Comic Book (especially the violent Superhero ones) exposes our inner struggle with conflicting demands, thwarted will, the pain of being defeated, and the eternal search for the strength to overcome.

The ostensible primal story of the Superhero is the story of Strength coming to the rescue of the Weak and Defenseless.

But the secret to understanding why these stories are so popular among the weak and defenseless is the opposite to what you normally assume.

It isn't the fascination with being rescued that is so riveting. It is the affirmation of the inner conviction that you, yourself are inherently the Rescuer -- but you just have to figure out where to get the strength. The Super Strength.

Thus the most popular (and Primal) Superhero stories are about the Superhero's struggle to find out where to get the strength. Or when having the strength, the power, finding out when NOT to use it.

That isn't someone else's story. That is the story of our own everyday life exposed for all to see. We drive cars that are lethal weapons. Every driver has super-power. Every driver has the kind of super-power and super-problems that Spiderman does.

So contrast and compare THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW with SPIDERMAN 2. What do they have in common?

Writers who know how to use art to expose the mechanism of our internal psychological reality have mastered the hardest lesson in any course on writing -- SHOW DON'T TELL.

Reading about it won't give you any skill at using it.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg


  1. Anonymous1:32 PM EDT

    One other thing about comedy (and granted, it applies to just one type) is the underlying sense of relief that "it happened to someone else, not me" that drives the strength of the laugh response. The closer it hits home, the greater the relief, and the "funnier" it becomes.

    Sure, all of what we see is similar to what happens to us as individuals which allows us to relate to it, but just as it's funny to see someone in a classroom dressed only in their underwear, we are also relieved that it wasnt US.

    Conversely, as with comic books and such (and it's largely dependent on which comics you are reading) it's a matter of wishing it WAS us, so that we could resolve our current personal problems in a similarly grand, magnificent, or even violent manner. Who hasn't secretly wished they could get rid of problems by thinking about them, or by blasting the cause with a bolt of lightning, etc.

    Its almost like comedy is defined as "Glad it isn't me" versus drama defined as "Wish it was me."


  2. That quote about "action" expresses exactly how I feel about it. I find most action scenes (as the term is commonly understood) in both books and movies confusing and boring. I dutifully sit through them waiting for the writer or actors to get on with the STORY.