Sunday, November 11, 2012

Storyteller's Rulebook #164: Ideas are the Enemy of Observations

I used to pride myself on being a “man of ideas”.  And that’s one reason I became a screenwriter: so that I could spread those ideas to others.  But now I realize that ideas are actually poison for a screenwriter.

Breaking myself of my addiction to ideas has been a big struggle.  As with any other withdrawal, you gain the ability to see what you’re doing wrong long before you learn to stop yourself…

A while ago, it was announced that there had been another mass shooting that seemed vaguely political in nature, but none of the reporters could figure out what the shooter’s ideology was.  This was increasingly annoying to me throughout the day, because I needed to know where to slot this in my brain: if the killer was on “my side” then I had to prepare my explanations for why this was one bad apple, and if the killer was on “the other side”, then I couldn’t wait to launch into attack-mode, tarring the other side with this guy’s brush.  Finally, they announced that the guy had no ideology, but he was just home from fighting in Afghanistan.  I felt a great weight leave me, and I announced to Betsy, “I’m not surprised, the incidents of PTSD for those guys is a lot higher than anybody’s reporting.” 

As soon as I said it, I realized what an ass I was. I had desperately searched for some pre-established narrative in my head until I found one that could explain the horror away, so that I could stop thinking about it.  I had waited all day for the chance to say, “I’m not surprised…” because if I was surprised then I might have to learn something. 

An idea is a set of smug certainties that allow you to stop looking, listening and learning.  Observation is the antidote to those certainties.  Ideas are rigid, observations adapt. Ideas make you seem smart, observations make you smarter ...But for a writer, the most important distinction is this: Ideas are generic, and observations are specific.

Everyday, try to write down ten observations.  Then re-read them and make sure that none of them carry the tainted whiff of your ideas.  Write down what you see and hear on the street, not what you expected to see and hear, and not what you presume is actually going on.  This is really hard.  At first, all you will see are things that confirm your pre-conceived notions.

But wait, isn’t this an overly conservative worldview?  After all, to have ideas is to be active, but to merely observe is to be passive and complacent, right?  That’s what I used to believe, but now I feel the opposite.

When it comes to changing the world, nothing is more powerful than a truthful observation.  If you want to take on the meat industry, you don’t write a healthy-eating manifesto, you write “The Jungle”.  If you want to say something meaningful about race, don’t pile up a bunch of high-minded, heavy-handed parables, like in Crash, pile up a ton of true-to-life observations, like on “Homicide” or “The Wire”. 

Ideas, I now see, are the true recipe for passivity, and observations are the true spur to action. But you can’t observe anything if you’re using your ideas as an excuse not to pay attention.  The worst bias a writer can have is confirmation bias.  


Bill Peschel said...

"If you want to take on the meat industry, you don’t write a healthy-eating manifesto, you write “The Jungle”."

Not quite true. Upton Sinclair wanted to writing about working-man's conditions, to elicit sympathy for their lives.

Instead, "The Jungle" horrified readers about the condition of their food, leading to the founding of the FDA. They didn't care about the working man. They cared about themselves.

(The lesson here, something that all writers should understand, is that readers don't necessarily respond to your intentions. They respond to the words on the page. You'll find out they're two different things.)

j.s. said...

I'm quite fond of ideas and I'm not sure the sense of the word your using here is particularly helpful. You're writing about ideas as preconceptions/prejudices/heuristics or almost more like an "ideal" or archetype in the mode of Platonic forms that precede all of the actual material objects. You seem to be espousing a more Aristotelianism approach to the world, which is cool, but doesn't reject ideas so much as it finds them first in things.

I'd argue that you ought not to run away from your mind's own tendency to spin stories out of the raw data of life. (Have a look at the fascinating book THE STORYTELLING ANIMAL by Jonathan Gottschall.) This is not the enemy of authentic narrative truth but the very essence of why we need it and how we use it. All of us make sense of the world through stories. Some of our stories start out too simplistic, too rote, too incomplete to serve the messiness of reality, ourselves and our fellow humans. But that's up to each of us to fix through more careful observation and reintegration of detail.

Yet that is what you do after all of your observation anyway, though, isn't it? You still turn that stuff into story. And it's different from what you've done before only in terms of the depth and nuance of the information you input.

Matt Bird said...

Bill: Yeah, I sidestepped the fact that Sinclair's accomplishment was not his primary goal ("I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.") but the point remains that, if he HAD wanted to reform the meat industry, this sort of closely-observed novel was clearly the way to go.

J.S.: Did I overstate my case? Like any recovering addict, perhaps I've become a self-righteous zealot for the other side.

But I would say that the "spinning stories out of the raw data of life" is exactly what I'm recommending, and I'm merely saying that you need to avoid the opposite: using preconceived narratives to dismiss new data.

The good thing about jettisoning ideas in favor of observation is that, if the idea was correct, you'll re-discover it through your observations, and if your observations don't confirm it, you're better off without it.

j.s. said...

"No ideas but in things." -- William Carlos Williams

There's a new mantra for you.

"The good thing about jettisoning ideas in favor of observation is that, if the idea was correct, you'll re-discover it through your observations, and if your observations don't confirm it, you're better off without it."

I agree almost completely. I suppose we're at odds over exactly when and how to enter from observational wool-gathering into the mode of narrative interpretation. (In practice, I'm constantly switching back and forth for almost the entire time I'm working on any given story.) Or perhaps for you narratives don't interpret anymore so much as they simply describe what is in as much dramatic detail as possible? In any case, research is the key. But it can become its own special problem. Sometimes the truth of an authentic procedural detail needs to be sacrificed on the altar of drama. The trick is knowing when and how to do it.

Everybody who wants to be schooled in this art and to see how one might be simultaneously idea and observation driven ought to see Speilberg/Kushner's LINCOLN.

Unknown said...

Interested to read this, as I have always been very firmly in the "observation" camp over the "idea" camp. If you are looking for authors to read from the "observation" camp, my favorites include George Orwell and Steve Coll.

Orwell is famous for Animal Farm & 1984, but his non-fiction books & essays are more interesting. My favorite books of his are Homage to Catalonia and Road to Wigan Pier. Essays like Shooting an Elephant are great too. In his non-fiction, Orwell is careful to write only from his own perspective about events, and has an exceptionally efficient and clear writing style.

Steve Coll came to mind because I've been reading him lately. He writes about Asia from the Middle East to Afghanistan to India. My favorites so far are The Bin Ladens (a biography of the fascinating Bin Laden family, not so much about Osama) and On the Grand Trunk Road. For observation, On the Grand Trunk Road is probably the better read, as it basically a series of short essays about his travels in the subcontinent in the late 1980s while a reporter for the Washington Post. Coll is great at capturing both the big picture and the interesting small observations at the same time in a story.

Matt Bird said...

Hi Nick, I didn't know you read my blog! Yes, I'm a big fan of what I've read of both Orwell's non-fiction (Down and Out in Paris and London, Homage to Catalonia) and Coll's (Ghost Wars). This post was partly inspired by the book I'm currently reading: "The New New Journalism" by Robert S. Boynton, which is all interviews with big narrative non-fiction writers about how they do what they do.

Patrick said...

Hi Matt, I have followed your blog for some time and never left a comment.

First, you have a ton of great posts and the ultimate structure post is fantastic.

That said, ideas are the enemy? You are wrong. You need to rethink that.

I have an idea journal I started in Nov '13 that is 50,000 words strong and growing.

My writing has grown exponentially.

Of course, I get my ideas everywhere and that would include observations.

What is your argument here? I don't know what I am disagreeing with...

Wait I just reread your post...I realize why I disagree, your solution is an ideation activity. The result/the product of that will be "ideas."