Last week I wrote for a live comedy show called Sketch Cram. It’s one of those “show-in-a-day” deals, where the writers come in in the morning to pitch ideas, write them up in the afternoon, hand them off to the actors and directors in the evening, and put the whole thing up at midnight.
It’s always a good experience, and I’ve participated many times and played every role. This round I wrote two video scripts, six stage sketches, and three “blackout” micro-sketches (the video got made and one sketch got performed). I’m built for that sort of thing. Once I wrote 37 sketches in 24 hours, as my own twist on “National Sketch Writing Month,” in which you were supposed to write 30 sketches in 30 days. Another time, for a different speed-writing event, I wrote a one-act play in under three hours, having whittled away half the six-hour writing period writing a different play (that I abandoned) and playing Snood. For eight weeks last year, I wrote a different first draft of an original TV pilot every week for my writing group.
This sounds like bragging, and it is; I talk about these things to validate my confidence as a writer. Putting up those numbers with any semblance of quality shows at least some kind of skill. But the reason I’m so drawn to these time-pressure activities is that I have a deep well of self-doubt I can drown in when I’m given too much time to think about my work, especially if I have to present it to people with any implied claim attached to it. “I’m ready, this is good” is a tough thing to say. “Time’s up, here it is” is easier.
I don’t hate my doubts, and they’re often accurate. I love the critical part of my mind just as much as the creative part. In the right context, it’s an asset, which is why I’m able to work as a teacher, editor, coach, and (web series) head writer. Without reflexively seeing flaws in a work, in the world, or in myself, I’d create terrible art, let a lot of evil shit slide, and be a worse person than I am. Even just the experience of seeing and finding truth, harsh or otherwise, is something worth holding onto. I wouldn’t call it joy exactly, but it’s a feeling I value that gives life meaning.
But when it comes to certain things, most of them related to my social role, my relationships to other people, and my creative identity, I’ve often given the critical voice too much power and either withdrawn from the scene or created bullshit because I could only shut off the self-criticism, not process enough of it to be useful. Still to this day I often stop in my tracks when I’m walking, thinking of something wrong or embarrassing I said or wrote, years ago or minutes ago, and the energy drains out of me and I want to retire from the whole business of trying to express anything. The moments pass and I move on, these days usually with the knowledge to make better decisions, but the waves can still shake me.
That’s part of why I like to stay on the attack and in the moment. This shit pools around you when you stand still. Time pressure helps; it compresses the work so that all the dark spaces around the writing are squeezed out, and only the actual creative process, which I love, remains. Many great things in life are essentially about this same thing: eliminating all by the moment. I’m learning to do that more consistently, without the need for time pressure to force things out of me. More often I’m leaving time for rest and recovery, letting my critical perception flow over and through me without getting shook. You can’t just live moment-to-moment: you need to do the work in between to make life in the moment ever possible.
Time pressure is a great tool, but it’s not the whole game. From a long term perspective, I’m very slow, and I have numbers to prove that too. I’ve known I wanted to write fiction since at least 2008, but over the last 10 years I’ve been published zero times, submitted to one contest once, and written only a few first drafts (and, unless I’m missing something, zero second drafts). In my decade of being a “freelance writer,” I’ve submitted one unsolicited humor piece to one publication, and been published zero times in something that wasn’t through a job application or a project a friend was putting together. It’s been over a year since I wrote those eight comedy pilots, during which time I’ve only rewritten one into submittable form, and it’s only okay.
I can do better with time. Yes, life is expensive, needs bubble up, rest is necessary, and there are always 1,000 hours worth of things available for me to do in a week where I have about 60 good waking hours before I hit burnout, but I know things improve when you work on them, I’m able to put in the work, and we’re under time pressure in this life after all.
NEW CONTENT THIS WEEK
This video, “Tinder Date,” from Sketch Cram. I wrote it quickly, Madalyn Baldanzi directed and edited it at amazing speed (video usually takes fucking forever), and Becky Abrams and LaGina Hill gave great performances on probably their first reads, I don’t know for sure I wasn’t there. The writing here has a lot of flaws I normally wouldn’t forgive. The dialogue is repetitive and contrived, the sketch structure is inartfully in the “state the premise” style, and the examples I wrote to articulate the premise don’t feel natural or real. But I’m glad I was able to just get it done! I think the premise worked enough and dug at a real thing, Becky and LaGina brought real humanity to the characters that covered some of the weakness in the dialogue, and Madalyn framed it up well. People laughed at 12:30 am in a theatre.
Karen Russell will always be a relevant influence in any of my writing; taking her writing workshop (I allude to it above in “since 2008”) near the end of college is what made me appreciate fiction both in terms of the range of what it could accomplish and the process by which it could be done. Her most recent story, “Orange World,” is what I kept thinking of when I was writing about how doubts get into all sorts of spaces into the world, and all you really want is to connect directly to something you love absent the worries.
Atlanta is my favorite show on the television, and the “Woods” episode was echoing in my mind as I wrote about the need to keep moving. Here’s a write-up by Kadia Blagrove about why she found it so haunting.
Lux Alptraum used to do a show called Monko Sexo with my friend Joe Garden, which is how I first heard of her, though I never made it to the show when it was still going on. She is an excellent writer who’s always sharp and humane on sex and gender dynamics, and her newsletter is very good and inspired some of the basic format I’m using here.
I started a newsletter. You’re reading it.