How A Series About A Lesbian Poet Can Renew Your Love For Language
I was a few years into my television writing career when I embarked upon the third season of a local police action-drama series Triple Nine. I had been head writer for the first two seasons and had by then figured out a template in the writing of each episode. Each episode begins with a murder to be solved. Then a mini-chase scene occurs at the end of the first act. Followed by a red herring at the end of the second act. A twist in the third, and then a final climactic chase scene where the lead actor will jump, leap and punch his way to catch the bad guy. It was a well-oiled writing machine that I had set up for the series. I was deep into the plotting of the third season when one day, a fellow head writer sent me an email. I printed it out because the contents really shook the pillars of my confidence. He said he was concerned at how he had always looked forward to my writing, and that my work on Growing Up, was what inspired him to take on the head writer role. But lately, my writing had become formulaic. I was relying on action tropes, rather than character building and character drama to propel my stories. He knew I could write and he wished I would do better. I have written dozens of scripts since then and some days, a fear grips me. Have I lost my passion? Am I jaded? Doomed to repeat templates?
Then a show came along that renewed my love for the written word. And my cup of joy has overflowed once again.
CATCHING UP WITH DICKINSON
Dickinson was created by Alena Smith and produced for Apple tv+ in 2019. It tells the life story of Emily Dickinson, a spinster poetess who never ventured beyond her home at Amherst, Massachusetts, of USA. Yet the breadth and scope of her poetry spoke of a fiery imagination that boldly travelled far and beyond the walls of her room. She had a sharp eye for metaphor. And used language as a scalpel to peel back the layers of the human soul, which she expressed in metaphor, and simile.
She dealt her pretty words like Blades. How glittering they shone.
THE POWER OF WORDS
I didn’t warm to the series when it first came out. I thought who would want to watch a series about a reclusive spinster poet who lived centuries ago. Then I watched the first season, out of curiosity. And was won over immediately by the writer’s original treatment of a historical figure. It may have been a period drama but it was not in the vein of Downton Abbey. The spoken language is contemporary, the sound track was rap, and hip hop, which jarred with the period costumes that everyone was wearing, but it was weirdly appropriate. I thought it was in line with the contradictory nature of Emily Dickinson. A female poet who penned over a hundred poems. Poems with remarkable imagery birthed from an imagination that was fierce and burning. Poems that dealt with the war, the universe, and nature. It was all the more remarkable as she had never stepped out of her home in all her living years.
Because I couldn’t handle the things your poems made me feel. Your poems are too powerful. They’re like snakes. They slither into me, and they coil around my heart, and they squeeze me until I can’t breathe. They are flittering and venomous, and they bite.
Is that not what every writer aspires his words to do? That one’s writing is of such power that it is able to slither into the souls of his readers, coil around their hearts and grip till they can’t breathe? Watching Dickinson has made me return to my writing with renewed purpose. To once again, slave over the right word to use in the right order. I remember reading Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridien, how I would stand and simply mutter the prose to myself as I read, because of the beautiful cadence of his prose. Once again, I would seek to find, as Flaubert would say, le mot juste.
When we write in English, we must remember that we hail from a rich tradition that goes all the way back to Shakespeare. Shakespeare did not have the crutch of visual effects, or HDR, or cinematography to bring his stories to life. All he had was story, structure, rhythm, and words. And those words have lost none of their power all through the decades. In the past, I’ve always encouraged my students to constantly seek the best phrasing or words for their short screenplays. I still do. I believe when you put the effort to hone your words until they sparkle on paper, it infects producers and directors who read your scripts with respect, and a desire to do your words justice. I myself constantly labor to put the right words in the right order. By doing so, I hope to build visuals, and evoke emotions in the theatre and canvas of my reader’s mind.
There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –
If Emily Dickinson was alive today, I’d thought she would make a great screenwriter. She understood economy of language and the sinuous grace of a short sentence perfectly written. The next time you embark upon the rewrite of your script, be like Dickinson.
Hone your words till they are like blades that glitter.