Writing Right with Dmitri: Taking Your Work Seriously
Two incidents have reminded me this week about the importance of taking things seriously when it comes to the performative. Even when it seems frivolous to do so. I'll explain what I mean in a minute, but first the two incidents.
One was my co-conspirator in a Clever Bit for the community talent show. This lady, a talented musician, decided to perform a comic number from an old Victor Herbert operetta. The song is about a princess who longs to be an opera diva. The fun part is that my collaborator sang it every bit as badly as Florence Foster Jenkins, the legendary chanteuse from Pennsylvania. I agreed to be her Cosme McMoon, and secured a suitable costume. This was fun for everybody, and the audience loved her.
But we had to rehearse. Singing bad Victor Herbert requires some attention to detail, and I needed to know where to place the piano trill and other ridiculous flourishes. It took us a couple of rehearsals to get it 'right on the night'.
The other incident was that I've discovered a delightful blog called Dark Shadows Every Day. The fella who writes this – beautifully, I may add – has undertaken to watch all, or at least most, of the 1225 episodes of that great old soap opera Dark Shadows. In addition to being witty and insightful, the blog includes interesting background detail about how this groundbreaking series came to be, who wrote it, and how decisions were made. It also chronicles mishaps such as the time when the stage actually caught fire, and the actors – troopers that they were – kept on working. (You can hear the fire extinguishers above the dialogue.)
One thing you learn from this blog is why some writers for the show stand out: their dialogue is on the money, probing, revelatory of character…deep, even. For a television soap opera about vampires, werewolves, and malevolent disconnected body parts, that's a pretty cool trick. I hope you'll give the blog a read when you have the time – it's good stuff, all by itself, and has some great analysis of how writing works.
And that's what the two incidents made me think of: writing and the need for careful attention. It's all very well for producers, directors, instructional designers, and other 'big picture' folk to wave an airy hand and say, 'That sort of thing, you know what I mean.' But the 'take it as read' crowd don't do the actual writing. Somebody has to connect the dots. And that somebody is you, if you're the writer.
Recently, I read a review of some television series or other – I forget what, but probably based on a comic book – where a professional said, 'It looks like overproduced, bad fanfiction.' And that's not a good thing. Why is fanfiction bad? Besides the heavy wish-fulfillment factor, fanfiction is usually bad because it isn't professionally written. And the amateurs are too lazy to take the time to get the details right.
Look: a funny bit is funnier if you pay attention to the little things. Watch anyone whose humour you enjoy, and you'll see what I mean. A trick of expression, a piece of business: it's not sloppy. It's planned. And probably endlessly rehearsed. Do the same with a piece of writing. Watch for the details. Take this:
When I was a Sunday-school scholar something more than sixty years ago, I became interested in Satan, and wanted to find out all I could about him. I began to ask questions, but my class-teacher, Mr. Barclay the stone-mason, was reluctant about answering them, it seemed to me. I was anxious to be praised for turning my thoughts to serious subjects when there wasn't another boy in the village who could be hired to do such a thing. I was greatly interested in the incident of Eve and the serpent, and thought Eve's calmness was perfectly noble. I asked Mr. Barclay if he had ever heard of another woman who, being approached by a serpent, would not excuse herself and break for the nearest timber. He did not answer my question, but rebuked me for inquiring into matters above my age and comprehension. I will say for Mr. Barclay that he was willing to tell me the facts of Satan's history, but he stopped there: he wouldn't allow any discussion of them.
Mark Twain, Is Shakespeare Dead?
Now, this is funny. (Trust me.) But why? Because Twain's making fun of a pompous adult's attempt to teach a kid how to be just as hypocritical and unthinking as he is. But it wouldn't be nearly as funny if it weren't worded exactly right. Notice the tone Twain sets. 'my class-teacher…was reluctant about answering them…' See, the understatement is what works. Notice Mr. Barclay is a 'stone-mason'? Why is that funny? Well, because he's talking heavy theology, and not too many bricklayers have theology degrees. 'The incident of Eve and the serpent', indeed. Then Twain picks out the kind of detail a kid would notice: Eve didn't run away from the snake. Twain and Mr. Barclay had both seen plenty of snakes, because they lived in Missouri when it was practically a frontier. And they knew how most women feel about snakes. Okay, Twain never met my grandmother. She wouldn't have run from the serpent in the Garden. She would have whacked him with the hoe she always carried, copperheads, for the dispatching of. But in 1909, when Is Shakespeare Dead? was published, my grandmother was a preschooler in Tennessee, and Mark Twain never had the pleasure of meeting her. But I'm getting off-topic, aren't I?
What was I saying? Oh, yes, how you need to pay attention.
Anyway, that was my point. That if you do the spadework, get your ducks in a row, and trot out all the other clichés indicative of painstaking attention to detail, you'll end up with a better product. It will be funnier, or deeper, or scarier, or just more entertaining, if you take what you're doing seriously at the time you're doing it, and pay attention to the little trills and flourishes. Like our Florence Foster Jenkins impersonator. Like the soap opera writers. Like Twain.
Or you can just ramble on aimlessly like me and produce a mishmash of a column. Take your pick.