Years ago, I was on the faculty of an innovative school with a fellow by the name of Sam Kean.
A mainstay of Esalen, a touchy-feely type who was in many ways the incarnation of the sixties, Sam had written a book called To a Dancing God.
His thesis was that Apollo, the god of order and reason, had become too powerful in our society—a repressive tyrant—and that the time had come to overthrow him and put Dionysus, the god of spontaneity and creative disorder in his place.
I’ve always wished I could do that, but to be honest, the only place I’ve ever succeeded is on the page.
I once wrote a screenplay for Disney called Blood Money. The premise was simple. A tough, by-the-book FBI agent—the first female Special Agent in Charge of the Seattle office—is forced to recruit the services of a drunken ex-cop who quit the force because he hated the goddam rules.
She’s a feminist with a broomstick up her ass, and he’s an outrageous sexist. In fact, she first meets him when he’s playing tittywinks, using an opulently endowed barmaid’s cleavage as the cup.
These two characters are Sam’s Apollo and Dionysus, left-brain order and right-brain chaos, the outer me and the inner me.
When I begin a project, Apollo has the upper hand.
My first step is exhaustive, obsessive research—initially in libraries and on the internet and eventually on the scene of the story.
Take the example of Juggernaut, the sci-fi epic I wrote for director John McTiernan. The story of an alien machine invading the earth, it required weeks of study in the bowels of the UCLA library, where I read everything I could about NASA’s plans to send probes to other worlds and about the organic machines they planned to use to accomplish the task.
This led me to late-night sessions at Jet Propulsion Labs, where some of the world’s most accomplished scientists helped me work out the physics and the chemistry of my story.
Then it was off to the Central Plains of Montana.
Both John and I loved the notion of this highly sophisticated machine from the future landing in a remote part of a state where most of the residents still had one foot in the nineteenth century. We wanted to place the responsibility for stopping this technological marvel squarely on the shoulders of a small-town sheriff more comfortable on his horse than behind the wheel of his patrol car.
So…two weeks on patrol with a back-country deputy sheriff, questioning him relentlessly about his job, the scattered communities he served, the world in which he lived and worked—observing him and his friends, the way they talked, the way they dressed, the way they moved.
Then back to my study in Studio City, where my left brain continued to work away, preparing outlines, character sketches, notes.
Only when I felt I had completely immersed myself in the two worlds of my story…
Only when I was convinced that I’d learned everything I could about my characters and the place that produced them…
Only then could I let go.
I turned my back on Apollo and fell down in worship of Dionysus, giving my left brain a well-deserved rest and placing the burden of creation on the right.
How did I achieve this?
I isolated myself on the small power cruiser we kept at Channel Islands Harbor.
Allowing myself conjugal visitation only on the weekends, I locked myself up, saw no one, and walked the empty beach, waiting for my characters to start talking to me.
I’d get up at 5:30 in the morning, jog, shower, and after a quick breakfast fortified by a few quarts of coffee, go to work.
Work consisted of reviewing the basics of the scene I hoped to write that day, grabbing my pocket recorder, and heading to the beach where the white noise of the breaking waves let me slip away to the world of my story and encouraged my characters to speak.
I always felt that I myself had little to do with it. I was simply observing these people as they lived out their lives, making a record of what they said and did.
Once I had a scene on tape, I’d return to the boat and transcribe my characters words and action onto yellow legal pads, revising as I went, amused to find that when I was voicing the female players, I sounded a bit like Norman Bates voicing his mother.
I’d ordinarily do two or three scenes this way, and then, at the end of the day, I’d transfer the material on the legal pads to my computer, once again revising as I went.
A simple dinner, a book or a movie in the same vein as my current project, and early to bed before beginning the process all over again the next morning.
And when I finally finished and returned to Studio City, I would collapse, physically and mentally spent, afflicted with what felt like terminal cold or flu, abandoned by both Dionysus and Apollo, neither right brain nor left capable of functioning.
Do all writers work this way?
No, certainly not.
I am, I suspect, more controlling than most.
I give Apollo more than his due.
Most, I’m sure, are more like Jameson Parker, possibly the finest writer I’m privileged to know. Oh, he does his homework, but he often begins a story with nothing more than a character and a situation, and has no idea where his tale will take him.
Very different from Yours Truly who often knows the end of his story before he figures out the beginning.
Every writer develops his or her own “daily ritual,” but most of these rituals have elements in common: a rigid routine, isolation from the everyday world, a stimulant to stave off exhaustion.
And the objectives of these rituals are always the same…
To overcome the fear of the blank page.
To dwell in a world elsewhere—a world where the writer can observe his characters acting out their lives.
To meet the overwhelming mental and physical demands of the job of creation, a job that requires the blessings of both the tyrant Apollo and the dancer Dionysus.