I’m Steve Adams, a writer, writing coach, and a freelance editor who’s studied a wide range of artistic forms before landing, quite late, on prose. As I’ve always been fascinated by the artistic process, I decided to start working my ideas out on the page, using a quote from a writer or other kind of artist as a prompt. I hope my column, “About Your Writing,” is useful to you.
This work can change you. The only thing is that you don’t get to choose is how you’re going to be changed. You just have to be ready for change.*
—Christopher Bayes, head of physical acting at the Yale School of Drama and founder of The Funny School of Good Acting
This is kind of a scary line by kind of a scary guy, a very well-known clown, clown teacher, and physical acting theorist. There’s a long tradition of clown work that has nothing to do with balloon animals and frightening children but that is instead an inquiry related to the deepest kind of physical acting. It’s about committing, process, doing the work, seeking honesty in yourself, and truth. Which is easier than it sounds. You just need a bicycle. In fact, if you’re writing you already have one, but I’ll get to that.
First I’m going to try to take that scary line and make it less scary, angle it toward something that might actually put energy and hope into your writing. Because what he says is true for all art forms. The work changes you in ways you can’t quite predict. And that’s a good thing, maybe the best thing about it. As much as many of us are afraid of changing, the most important events of our lives are always around a great change—getting married, having a baby, the death of a loved one. A new friend, a new lover, a new town, a new pet.
And then there’s traveling, because when you land in an unfamiliar place you change from being who you were in your old life to being who you are in this sudden and new one, with its different culture and sets of rules and demands. Which is as much the point of traveling as anything else. I’ve read that you’ll notice more in the first three days wherever you go than you would notice in the next three years. And I don’t know about you, but when I travel, while I’m “new” wherever I am, at the same time I feel a clearer sense of being “me” than I do in my ordinary day-to-day life. It’s like I step into my truest self and ground myself in it again. Of course, when you return you’ll slide into the old habits, and the self you inhabited in that strange land only a few months earlier can seem like another life, but trust me, you’re different. A part of that world and the way you moved through it has come back with you. You’ve changed.
As far as writing, every longform project I’ve finished, when I look back on it, feels like one of the most incredible, involved, difficult, and complicated journeys I’ve ever undertaken. I am as present in it as I am in my life. And I think it’s because wherever your characters go, you go too. What they see, you see. What they experience and learn, you do as well. It is literally (and check your own experiences to see if yours match mine) like you’ve lived in a foreign country for years. Or survived prison. Or been swept off your feet by a handsome prince only to learn that prince is a monster in his own castle and you must not only solve the curse that enslaves him, you must solve the curse that enslaves you. How could this not change you?
This is the bicycle I speak of. I don’t mean to be either flip or hyperbolic, but you don’t know how lucky you are that you’ve got one. Oh it’s a long ride I know, up hills, down mountains. You truly won’t know what country you’re building until it’s under your feet, and it may be hard to know how it even appeared there. How much of that is your doing, and how much is the story that’s trying to tell itself through you, is hard to say. Impossible to say. So don’t try to say, just be present and do the work. Like a relationship, or an entire life, what it is won’t be clear until it’s over. And the characters? You do this half-right you’ll know them intimately. They may feel like a hidden, surprising part of yourself, which they are. They may feel like they dropped into your world from the great unknown, which they do. You’ll be at the deepest part of yourself and receiving strange messages from the most outer reaches of yourself and, some would even say, beyond yourself. All from merely showing up, forgetting about all that high talk I just did, and focusing on your steps, one by one. And on the other side, like after a trip, like after a relationship, like after a birth, you’ll be changed. You’ll be bigger, wider, deeper, more complicated, more dimensional, even to yourself.
I know of nothing that asks more of you than this work. I know of nothing harder and more wonderful and more mysterious. And all you have to do, Traveler, is get on your bicycle, say yes to it, and begin.
* From “Clown School” by Nuar Alsadir; https://granta.com/clown-school/?fbclid=IwAR3_GuzdXydUuBiJUlHMBjXZtbzWIulj1j-wxlgs8C7dJfdxFiXBp7RssBI
Steve Adams’s writing has won a Pushcart Prize and Glimmer Train’s New Writer’s award, been listed as a “Notable Essay” in Best American Essays, and anthologized. His prose is widely published, and his plays have been produced in New York City. He’s a writing coach and freelance editor at www.steveadamswriting.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @iamsteveadams.