Want a sneak peek into Alan Alda’s writing process?
Writer’s block is an issue we all encounter. Whether you write novels for a living or only send quick two-sentence emails, the process of composing clear and engaging content can be challenging for anyone. So how does a prolific writer Alan Alda keep his creativity flowing when writing becomes challenging?
You might know Alan Alda from his iconic role as Hawkeye Pierce in the TV show “M*A*S*H,” one of the most successful TV shows of all time. Or you might know him from his legendary role on “The West Wing.” He's the winner of seven Emmy awards, a three-time Tony-nominated actor, as well as a nominee for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Senator Owen Brewster in the movie “The Aviator.” Alda also hosted the PBS series “Scientific American Frontiers,” for 11 years and founded the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science over at Stony Brook University. His new book is called If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face? My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating.
I recently interviewed Alan for the LEADx Podcast, where we delved into he approaches his writing and what he learned watching from the wings. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)
Kevin Kruse: Do you have a special place you like to do your writing, or a special time? What is your writing process?
Alan Alda: I don't have a special time. I have a special process that's pretty much the same way I work all the time. This is interesting. It goes beyond writing. It might even go beyond some of the things that you're listeners engage in. Because when I get started on any project, even if it's changing my diet or writing something, it takes me about three weeks to focus my brain on that so that I'm impelled, I have impulses to do what I want to do.
In the back of my head, the work is going on. I prime the pump and I let the work go on in the back of my head, and when it's ready to come out I write it down. I've written lines for this book while at a red light waiting for the light to change. Take out my iPhone and write down the sentence.
Kruse: Hopefully not while behind the wheel?
Alda: I'm standing on the curb, and I don't cross if the light turns. A while back, I learned a process from Norman Lear that was really valuable. It's to get everything down before you start editing it. He had a failure story that was wonderful; he was trying to write a half-hour script and he was suffering from writer's block. He locked himself in a hotel room for 10 days, hoping he would do nothing but write this half-hour script. At the end of 10 days, they carried him out on a stretcher, and he had one page in the typewriter with one sentence on it.
Remember before I said it's not a good idea to think, “How am I doing?” That's what we was doing. He wrote that sentence and he thought, “Is that the best sentence I can write? Maybe I can do another one. Let's see. No, that's no good.”
We all suffer from this. You've got to not worry how you're doing. I divide it into two ways of working, two ways of thinking. One is totally subjective, and the other is totally objective. The subjective part is you just pour it out, pour it out on a page, on a screen, or, the way Norman did it, he was encouraged by a psychiatrist to dictate it and to not ever go back and listen to what he said. For years I wrote that way. I could write a half-hour script sometimes in a couple of days, because I got it all out. That's the first step.
The next step is to be objective, to look at a transcription of what you've written and cross out every rotten thing that's there. If you look at it as if somebody else wrote it, which you will because you won't remember writing it, because you just spurted it out, you say, “Well, that's no damn good.” Now you've got a bunch of good things, but they need transitions. Transitions are the most important part, because transitions are how you keep somebody going from one good thing to another and then you don't stop dead and have to start all over again. You keep stopping and starting, that's the way bullfighters tire out bulls. You don't want to tire out the reader.
Good transitions are important, and for good transitions I go back to the subjective thing again, and then I go back to the objective, and then I go back and forth between those two ways of thinking. It shortens the writing time for me. But more importantly, it's more creative, because the back of my head, the unconscious, knows more about this than the front of my head.
Kruse: When you were a little you went to vaudeville shows with your Dad, and you'd study what was going on from the wings. You studied Blackstone the magician.
Alda: It was very interesting to me. I think it was Blackstone. I can't really be sure. I remember that name. He was a great magician when I was about 10. I would be standing in the wings watching him, every show, in a vaudeville theater. They'd do four or five shows a day. He took apart a card table, a poker table, the top could come off and the sides, and showed the audience all these parts, front and back. He put the table back together, and pigeons flew out of the table. The audience thought, “Oh my God, where did those pigeons come from?” I'm standing in the wings watching him from the side. I can see where the pigeons came from. That's what I learned watching actors from the side.
I wonder if it works in other professions. I wonder if you're observing somebody, a good salesperson selling to somebody else, if you just watch them from the side with nothing at stake and you can watch both sides of that interaction, I wonder if you get the same benefit that I got as a kid, because I would stand there and watch the comedians, the straight men in burlesque, the actors on the stage on Broadway, and I would see how they created the illusion the same way Blackstone could hide the pigeons, only they weren't doing it mechanically, they were doing it in a more artful way.
This great actor, Sam Levene, who acted with my father in “Guys and Dolls,” every night he would do the performance in a different way. He'd say the same words, he'd stand in the same place, but it would come out of him in a different way, to such an extent that the audience would laugh at different times. Different lines would get the laugh. That's almost unheard of, and especially because if actors get a laugh once, they want to get a laugh in that same place every night. He didn't care. He just followed it where it went.
I learned more watching him from the side than I would've learned watching him from the front, because that's where you get the full illusion, but you see how they create the illusion from the side. I really learned a lot that way.
Kruse: Is there something in the spirit of better communication that we can try to do today?
Alda: Here's your little exercise. Because I realized that people reading this book can't find an improv workshop that easily, and even if you do have an improv workshop to go to, you don't go to it every day of your life. Wouldn't it be nice to find something to do that could keep you, I don't know, booster-shotted up? Here's what I do myself. I've been doing it for the past few minutes we've been talking. I really try to see the person I'm talking to. That sounds like a dumb thing to say, it sounds sort of obvious. But in fact, sometimes I'll be talking to somebody for 10 minutes and I'll look away for a minute and I'll think, “What's this person's face look like?” and there's actually a blob where the face should be.
When I remember this—which is most times now when I'm talking to somebody—I did it this morning in a meeting that I had, I've been doing it with you, I look to see what color your eyes are, what shape your teeth are, what color your hair is, what are you wearing. I just take that in, and it focuses me a little on you more, just a little bit more. When that leads to hearing what you say, to letting in what you say, something changes in my face and my tone of voice. My letting you in changes me, and I think you see that change and something changes in you. That's this dynamic thing that goes back and forth.
That's simple-minded and it comes perilously close to being a tip, so I don't want to put too much emphasis on it, but it's in a way a symbol of the title of the book. If you're not understanding me, maybe I should pay attention to the look on your face.
Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of LEADx.org, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.