When I recently revised my web site, I revisited the Seminar on Writing Prose to put it into WordPress format. This gave me a chance to read stuff I hadn’t looked at in several years. One part that particularly stood out for me was the section on comedy: specifically, the idea of commitment to comedy. This got me thinking about commitment…so let me talk about that.
Comedians have a reputation for being hard to live with. It may not be true for all comedians all the time, but most of the funny people I know are more interested in being funny than being nice. They’ve made a commitment to comedy; if they think of a joke, they’ll tell it, without worrying about hurt feelings or propriety.
I’m not a stand-up comedian, but I do write a lot of comedy and I’ve made my commitment. When I’m writing a joke, there are only two questions I ask: “Is this funny?” and “How can I make it funnier?” Later, when I’m editing, I may ask, “Does this work here?”…and occasionally I decide that a joke is out of place in a particular part of a story. But one thing I never ask: “What will people think of me because of this joke?”
Making a commitment means ignoring, “What will people think of me?” I only care about, “Is this artistically successful?”
The same principle applies to other aspects of writing. Writers often put their characters through hell—good sympathetic people can suffer terribly. But writers can’t allow themselves to flinch. Writers have to commit to the story, no matter how awful or tragic it might become. I’m sure there are readers who want every story to have a happy ending, but some stories simply can’t be like that. A happy ending would betray what the story needs to be.
You have to commit to fulfilling the story, wherever it ought to go. You should never soft-pedal a story’s pain simply because you’re asking, “Am I going too far?”
Commitment applies to a writer’s discipline as well as to story content. A writer must be able to say no to friends and family: “I can’t, I have to write.”
I don’t mean telling your blood-soaked child, “Sorry, I can’t drive you to the hospital until I’ve finished my 1000 words.” But writing takes time—more time than you can find in the gaps of a normal day. You truly can’t have it all; you can’t watch all the good TV, and read all the good books, and have an active social life, while also putting in enough time to produce high quality writing.
Commitment means sometimes saying no. You don’t have to turn down everything—if you do nothing but write, you won’t acquire enough experience of the world to have anything to write about—but you have to carve out enough time to do the work.