The writers tools: leather vest, scotch, typewriter, stunning view 

This weekend’s workshop on writing and improv was as educational for me as it was for the participants, I hope.

Of course I use a lot of improv when I’m writing because I’ve been improvising for so long. And I know that writing and editing are two distinct muscles, one creative and one evaluative. But for me to be able to put the writing and improv explicitly together in a group setting was enlightening. Working with people while writing is something that I’ve been missing, I just didn’t know it.

I loved using the improv exercises Peter More and I selected to fire creativity for writing together, and the freedom of bringing in ideas, half formed or so, and letting other people get at them and build on or alter them, it was really a powerful exercise. And some good work came out of it.

Good old Ernest
All-American writer Hemingway has an oft-quoted line: “Write drunk, edit sober”. It’s a powerful, funny and dangerous quip. Justified many a mediocre scribe’s descent into alcoholism, I’d wager.

But I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment. So long as it’s not taken literally. I don’t think being drunk while writing is a good idea. Maybe a beer towards the end of a day is an acceptable reward for your toil, but despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that being trashed seems to have worked for some unhappy and prolific literary giants, it hardly seems advisable to get half or more in the bag while writing.

Yet the core of Hemingway’s message resonates: write uninhibited. Writing at its best is an uncensored, inherently creative, process. And like improv, for it to work you need to be candid and unrestrained – drunk, if you will – on your words and ideas. Pure creation, consequences be damned.

There is nothing to be gained from sitting at your desk and thinking, “Oh, but that character wouldn’t say that” or “instead of a trip to the city dump, maybe they should go to the beach.”

If you wrote it, go with it. And keep going until you’re done. In improv when a line is spoken, it becomes part of that reality. When writing the same holds true for words you’ve written; follow the original impulse and just keep going.

Sober second thought
However, writing – unlike improv – awards you both the freedom and the obligation to go back and improve. So do it. After a while go back and have another look at your drunken ramblings. Do it sober. Take a cold hard evaluation. Now ask yourself: “Would this character say that?” If the answer is no, then try out some other options, see where things fit better, cut and paste and build and shape.

Editing requires very different muscles from the writing part of the process. But together they feed each other, and the work should get stronger, and the process easier. So far, so straightforward.

Then this weekend I discovered the all-important final piece of the drinking and writing relationship.

Eggs and mimosas
Hemingway was speaking as a lone writer and his adage fits nicely for work we do by ourselves. But the collaborative writing process also fits into Hemingway’s paradigm. Especially when you add the third, unspoken part of his adage: write drunk, edit sober, brunch hungover.

Weekend at Bernie’s started as a funny brunch joke, and it became a blockbuster film. I’m just saying

The collaborative writing process, when most effective, is much like that hungover union of breakfast and lunch, eaten on a patio with friends in sunglasses. Some folks are still drunk and in creative mode, others are soberly regretful and critical. But everyone is sharing their version of the events of the night before, and the group collectively looks at them, reframes the narrative and pulls out themes. And its usually the funniest version that wins.

The stories refined over Sunday brunch inevitably become the shared stories of Saturday night’s party. And that’s how it should be. The groupmind in a social state makes light work of refining tales and building narratives. And short work of that pitcher of juice.

Collaborative creation as brunch makes a consistent, if slightly overextended, metaphor for the collective writing process. In my defence: I love drinking, writing, collaborating and brunch. So I think I can be forgiven for purposefully mixing them up in my mind.

This weekend reinforced for me the importance of writing drunk and editing sober. But I enjoyed it most for its introduction of the ‘writing brunch.’ That bringing together of ideas and input and spins and takes and riffs, in the spirit of light-hearted good times, when we entertain each other and sharpen our stories.