Enjoy this interview with WGI writing mentor and Board Member, Carla Briscoe!
What is your earliest memory of writing? When did you start writing?
My earliest memory of writing was about the age of 8 or 9. I was given a small, glossy, hard-bound diary. It had a picture of a unicorn and a scattering of stars on the cover, as well as a very flimsy lock. I knew my secrets were to be kept there – but instead of writing real events, I wrote imagined ones.
What is your writing process like?
It varies, depending on the medium. For dialogue driven pieces like plays, pilots, and the like….I tend to write in compulsive spurts. When I get into the “flow” I have a very hard time disengaging, fearful the path I return to will be different than the one I’m presently on. So I often write to the point of exhaustion, pouring out a first draft as quickly as I can…going into a kind of lock down, turning off all technology and disappearing for a while, giving the people I care about a heads up in advance. The first draft tends to come quickly. Rewriting takes months.
Has that changed at all since we’re in quarantine?
Definitely. I have two projects I’ve been researching and outlining for over a year. One a screenplay, the other a pilot. But I haven’t yet wanted to “begin” writing either of them… they’re both such big undertakings. I haven’t felt I’ve had the mental bandwidth, or the time so many people seem to have on their hands. So, I started writing poetry in the interim. First thing in the morning, whatever enters my head (an image, a word, a memory) I’ll use as the starting point – just like a prompt. It’s never premeditated and incredibly cathartic…the abstraction of my waking thoughts or feelings made concrete, and I enjoy the intensely focused nature of the medium.
What do you think makes a good story, and what kinds of stories are you drawn to?
Such a difficult question, but at bottom: truthful storytelling with a distinct perspective. Being inside someone’s head or heart…understanding the way they see the world or feel at odds with it… the people and circumstances that define their sense of it. Conflict is, of course, a vital part of storytelling a…and I think I’m drawn to the battles people do with themselves and/or the limiting world around them. Those are the stories I tend to be drawn to, whether their perspective is dark and brooding, or magical and wondrous.
What are some of your favorite books or movies?
It’s so hard to list just few of either, but with respect to books, there are a few I always revisit…”Don Quixote,” “Crime and Punishment,” “Invisible Man” are all favorites. Authors who were hugely influential when I was younger include: Steinbeck, Hurston, Capote and McCullers. There are too many wonderful contemporary writers to name, but I recently read and loved Ocean Vuong’s “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.” As far as films go, just about anything by Chaplin, “City Lights,” “The Kid,” and “Modern Times” being favorites. His films always seem to find this incredibly delicate balance of humor and heartache and manage to be both deeply intimate and socially relevant.
What inspires you?
The mundane mostly. The easy beauty of some things, the quiet horror of others, the absurdity of so much we’ve willfully adopted as part of our daily lives, much of it the byproduct of technology, consumerism, this idea of “having” of “ownership”…displacing a sense of certainty, of security, that should rest within us rather than without us. Living in New York, you’re an everyday witness to so much that may not seem extraordinary on the surface…but a stranger’s look of joy or sadness, the way someone comports themselves, the brief exchanges you hear between people, can easily launch you into the world of their imagined history. Even now, in our new masked reality, this remains true. Now it’s the sounds and images from my caged neighbors I latch onto: the relentless cries of children, the always arguing couple, the woman with cats who hangs her head out the window chains smoking… anything can be provocative.
Do you have an interesting writing quirk? What is it?
I don’t know if it’s a “quirk,” but I really hate abandoning the world of a project I’m engrossed in in order to sleep. The need to sleep, to rest, can feel like such a betrayal of the body…your eyes grow tired, but your mind keeps racing. So I guess my quirk, if I have any, is I sometimes will go 30 or more hours without sleeping if I’m in a particularly fruitful zone – because if I can’t lay down without the story buzzing in my head, if I haven’t yet arrived a place where I can comfortably walk away, sleep won’t come anyway. I’ll just lie there, my mind itching. When this happens, I elect not to fight it. I ride the adrenaline, aided by caffeine, until total exhaustion sets in. Eventually it happens. And the older I get…the sooner “eventually” comes.
How do you handle writers’ block?
Sometimes a song makes you want to dance, and nothing can stop you from tapping your toe or bobbing your head. It’s in you, and your body can’t refuse it. Other times, you friends pull you on the dance floor, and you just stand there like an asshole half-heartedly twitching a shoulder because you don’t want to be there and the song sucks. The former is akin to being in a creative “flow,” the latter feels a lot like writers’ block. So when it’s happens, rather than. forcing myself to sit at my desk…I take a break, and consume or produce something else. Everyone’s reasons for writers’ block are different but, generally, when I hit a wall it’s because I’m overthinking, distracted, or my hearts just not in it that day. Giving myself permission to focus on something else allows me to come back to it refreshed, unburdened…sometimes, even inspired.
What is the most surprising thing you have learned from writing?
I started writing daily when I was 18, and I have all my old journals. When I reread them I can easily see the influence of other authors peppering my prose…or else, my younger self adopting outright anachronistic mimicry. I’ll stumble on some ridiculous entry with an obvious shift in my style, and think “Oh, I was obsessed with D.H. Lawrence at that age… that explains it.” Upon review of these early writings, I realized I did this time and time again, for many years, well into my 20s...trying to be like the writers I loved, rather than be the writer I loved. It took me many years to find my own voice.
What is the best piece of advice you have for anyone struggling with writing?
Zora Neale Hurston said, “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” Keep doing it. If you’re just beginning, let go of any idea of “what is good” or “what is right”… give yourself permission to find your own voice and style, which has nothing to do with what is “good” or “right.” Writing is a process. What works for one writer (with respect to approach, style or execution) may not work for you. This is not a failing, it’s merely a difference. Enjoy the discovery of finding what works along the way, knowing that it will be particular to you.