I encourage students in my writing workshops to “write through” with the purpose of getting the story out of their heads and onto the page. Sometimes I am met with nods of heads and glassy expressions. Easier said than done, right? Not for Alan Watt. As the author of The 90-Day Novel, Watt has taken that writerly advice and created a successful step-by-step approach to story. His creation has resulted in many light bulb moments for novice and experienced writers alike.
[Note: For more on the book, Reviews Editor Ally Bishop reviewed The 90-Day Novel in the Dec. 2011 issue of Hippocampus]
Lori: A novel in 90 days? Really?
Alan: Well, hold on; a first draft in 90 days. And yes, it really is possible. Many professional writers, from Stephen King to John Steinbeck have discovered that when you write your first draft quickly you tend to bypass all of the left-brain critical voices that prevent the story from finding its way onto the page. The irony is that what was impossible to achieve in ten years becomes possible in three months. By letting go of the idea that it has to be perfect, or even good, we make room for our subconscious to do its work. Ironically, that’s when the work springs to life. The fact is, we have a tendency to confuse perfectionism with excellence. The two have little to do with each other. One is a disease, while the other is a process.
What part does the subconscious play in unlocking the story inside of us? Can we always rely on it to get us through?
The subconscious is where the truth lies. It’s where all of the complexity and paradox of our experiences are disseminated and it’s where patterns are explored. Logic is immaterial to our subconscious, which is why it is so difficult for writers to begin, and so thrilling once they’ve begun. It’s not so much a matter of ‘can I rely on my subconscious?’ It’s really that we have no other choice. I don’t believe it’s possible to write anything more than a grocery list from our pre-frontal cortex. We don’t have the bandwidth. Now, though we must rely on our subconscious, I don’t believe that’s a guarantee that we’ll get to the end of our story. The 90-Day Novel process involves marrying the wildness of our subconscious to the rigor of story structure. There are key universal experiences in the hero’s journey. By exploring these experiences in the world of our story, images appear and it actually becomes possible to move beyond our limited idea of our story to a more vivid and dynamic version. The truth is that our idea of our story is never the whole story. Writers tend to get stuck when they either rely solely on their subconscious, or solely on “plotting.” I teach story structure as an experiential model rather than a conceptual model, which is a fancy way of saying that we can reduce any transformation in our life to a series of experiences. There is nothing formulaic about this approach. I tell writers that everything we can imagine belongs in our story if we’re willing to distill our ideas to their nature. And that’s what I teach. I teach writers how to ask better questions of their subconscious in order to understand their story in a new way.
I taught the first 90-Day Novel workshop in January 2008 (at the Black Dahlia Theater). I had been teaching for years and was getting frustrated that many of the writers were not completing their novels. I was pondering this and it came to me: The 90-Day Novel. Write the first draft quickly. I created a private group page so that the writers could stay in touch with each other each day. And from these daily correspondences I began developing the daily letters that eventually became The 90-Day Novel book. I taught the workshop about a dozen times and began to notice an interesting similarity in the writers’ creative experience. For example, immediately following the Day One class many of the writers are ecstatic. They have breakthroughs and are seeing their story in a brand new way, and then on Day Two they crash and are riddled with self-doubt because they thought that yesterday’s breakthrough would absolve them of all future self-doubt – so my Day Two letter is on self-doubt…and so on.
How nervous were you in teaching your first 90-Day Novel workshop?
Very nervous. I felt this huge responsibility. Ironically, my experience in teaching it modeled the writers’ experience in taking it. We all had to let go of our ideas of what the process was going to look like. I knew that the approach worked, but I feared it might be asking a lot of a novice writer who had struggled for years to write a book, to expect to complete a first draft in three months. In fact, the opposite was true. When we give our subconscious a deadline, we become ignited, and suddenly we begin to see the entire world through the lens of our story.
Were you surprised at the results?
I was relieved. Fourteen writers started, and only two did not complete their first draft in 90 days. One dropped out for personal reasons, and the other came back and worked privately with me. What I discovered is that when we let go of the expectation for it to be good, we become a channel for all sorts of unexpected stuff, and the story has a flow to it that we couldn’t chart with our conscious mind.
How does it make you feel when you hear about writers who have achieved success after utilizing your novel-writing ideas? What sort of responses do you receive?
It feels wonderful, but I can’t take credit for the process. I’m just the guy who points the way to the water. You still have to walk through the desert to get there. I didn’t ‘invent’ any of this. Aristotle probably coined the phrase “shitty first draft.” As channels, we’re off the hook in a great way. We’re not really the “authors” anyway, we’re co-creators at best. Yes, we show up, we sweat blood, but all of that work is really about inquiry. The physical act of writing is more like taking dictation. I had a guy who called me up once. He’d won a major literary prize and was stuck. He had gotten halfway through two novels and couldn’t complete them. He joined the workshop and commuted from Berkley to L.A., thirteen hours round trip each Saturday. He sat next to folks who had never written before, and we all joined in the same process. He completed his novel, a thousand page hand-written first draft in three months. What was thrilling for me was that I got to watch this brilliant man let go. And let’s face it, you teach what you need to learn. The cornerstone of art is the same as in life – it is all about surrender. When we drop our idea of how something should go, we open ourselves up to all sorts of possibilities. I’m as heartened by that as I am by the writer who comes in and says that she doesn’t know if she is a writer. It’s usually because she got a C in English and has carried that scar around for years. It troubles me the way the creative process, and even the reason for writing is misperceived in this country. We objectify everything including our creativity. For God’s sakes, we don’t even drink water anymore, we ‘hydrate’ ourselves. We objectify the creative act, as if it owes us something, and if we’re not going to profit from it, then it can go to hell. What unfair pressure to lay on our subconscious. And maybe it’s my co-dependent nature, but I have a fierce protective instinct for anyone who wants to create. As far as the responses I have received, yes, there have been a number of graduates who have been published, and even make good livings as writers, but ultimately the point is to develop a daily practice. My value as a teacher depends on remaining focused on the process and not the result.
You give great importance to the exploration of “what dies.” What is this and why is it imperative to our writing?
The purpose of story is to reveal a transformation. Transformation cannot happen without there first being a surrender. Something must be lost. Something must die. What dies is often a false belief, or a misunderstanding of one’s value. I always tell my writers that within every story is the betrayal of a lie. The lie is often about our limitations. I’m always surprised when writers tell me that they can’t write. If you can put ink on paper you can write. What they are really struggling with is permission. They are trapped in a paradigm that insists they see things a certain way. Their desire to write threatens that paradigm, and instinctively they know that if they put their truth on the page it will lead them to alter their perception of what they thought they were struggling with.
You feel that memoir writers should give a clear sense of why their story is being told. Otherwise it’s journaling. In your opinion, what might be some of those really good reasons?
Only our mothers want to hear every blessed event from our lives. The fundamental purpose of memoir is no different than fiction – to tell a story by exploring a theme. Theme is the reason the story wants to be told. If we don’t have at least a sense of why we are telling the story, we can stray, and the story can lapse into complaint, therapy, or manifesto. The key to memoir is context. The writer must constantly be asking himself “why am I telling you this?” And over time he’ll discover that the “why” is anchored to a primal desire.
What are your upcoming writing projects?
I’m currently writing a thriller for a film producer, and just completing a new novel called Days Are Gone, about a woman who leaves her upwardly mobile marriage and ends up in a small town where she begins a relationship with a guy who is on parole for committing a terrible crime. It’s about how we forgive ourselves for our pasts in order to move on and I’m publishing it through my new literary press, Writers Tribe Books. I recently sold my movie adaptation of my first novel, Diamond Dogs, to Quad Films, who just did a movie called The Intouchables. Diamond Dogs will be shot in the States and will be their first English speaking movie.
What is the first thing you ever remember writing?
I wrote a five-chapter novel in the sixth grade called Shipwrecked! Yes, there was an exclamation mark at the end. As I remember, I spent all of my time on the first chapter, and crammed to finish the rest of it. That’s probably why the 90-Day Novel workshop has a series of weekly goals.
What do you like to do on a typical day off?
I’m trying to learn how to relax. I was raised to pride myself on hard work, but as an artist I think it’s vital to have stretches where we do nothing. I go on hikes. My wife and I go to the beach and lie under an umbrella. I have a cat who thinks he’s a dog and follows me around the block when I need a break. My goal is to become as much like my cat as possible.