The Creative Process: Embracing Shiva’s Method

Illustration for James Killough's essay about the Shiva Method for Quibblers & Scribblers.

LORD OF THE DANCE

I was on a catch-up Zoom with Sara Arnell, author of the hit memoir There Will Be Lobster, a few weeks ago when she flashed a glimpse of her state of mind while writing her novel-in-progress.

“Sometimes I come up from my office downstairs and I’m in That Place, and my daughter sees me looking like —” Unable to articulate exactly what it was — unusual for one of the leading copywriters of our generation — Sara made a face like a cavewoman doing an impression of Cookie Monster, bug-eyed and scowling.

Without hesitation I said, “If you’re not doing that, you’re not doing it properly.”

I knew exactly what she meant: method-acting-as-writing or, more accurately, full immersion in the world you’re building within you and trying to express in specific black lines on a white background that are formed in the shape of familiar symbols we call ‘letters’ and ‘punctuation’ that are then arranged in agreed-upon sequences we call ‘words,’ which writers use in combinations of their own choosing — but with agree-upon limitations — in sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and chapters in the hope of casting a spell of sorts on the reader that will connect them to a never-perfect representation of exactly what the writer is seeing with her inner eye.

Method acting requires you to live like the character you’re portraying. My idea of immersive writing means you respond emotionally to the words on the page.

You laugh out loud at a funny line or scene, oblivious that you’re laughing at your own joke. An injustice that befalls your heroine enrages you. A courtroom scene rivets you in anticipation of what comes next. You shock yourself with the plot twist. The chase scene gets your heart pounding.

“If my cheeks aren’t caked with tear salt over a sad moment,” I said. “It’s not going to work for the reader, either.”

Also: fictional stories are different than relating true events that you’re already familiar with; more often than not, you don’t know where this is going. Just as you know that a sequence works because it provokes the emotional response you’re aiming for in you, you also know when something is crap; if you don’t, you have a lot more crap to write out of yourself until you can tell the difference.

I began noticing the effect of full-immersion writing in my mid-twenties while scripting the first film I wrote that went into production.

It was my third screenplay; the first two turned out to be exercises in learning the format the only way I knew how as an autodidact: by experiencing the process, flushing the crap writing out of myself through trial and error, not sitting in a classroom reading about it and listening to or watching the juvenile work of film-school students, 90% of whom are there for the ego of it, because it looks easy, makes you cool and elite, and they love watching movies. 99% of them don’t have the talent much less the Quixotic tenacity to stay the tortuous, terrifying course and go the distance. Why would I pay for that when I can do it my way?

My first script was a sort of Edgar Allen Poe-type thriller of sorts forced into a message of environmental justice with hamfisted plotting; my friends and family struggled to find kind words for it.

The second, a fantasy genre piece using characters from The Silmarillion, gave me sparks of emotional connection between the vivid world in my imagination and what was forming on the page. I wrote amateurishly elaborate action scenes describing special effects that weren’t conceivable at the time; now they’re so commonplace they’re ho-hum. I provoked myself into awe at the beauty and majesty of the vision I was describing. My friends responded to those sequences the same way.

A mid-level Hollywood lit agent read both scripts and declared the first nearly unreadable, the second as perhaps worthy but impossible to sell “Because fantasy genre movies don’t do well at the box office.” Now you can’t get a drama set up if your last name is Spielberg and your childhood friends still call you Steve.

Those screenplays weren’t just learning exercises, they served as successful writing samples that landed the aforementioned first produced script, Muzaffar Ali’s Zooni, a royal epic set in the Himalayan Kingdom of Kashmir in the 16th century, based on the true story of a young peasant woman whose poetry and singing enchanted the crown prince. Despite the fact she was a divorcée in a predominantly Muslim country, he married her. She became the most beloved queen in the Valley’s history; all babies are rocked to sleep with one of her lullabies, a sort of Kashmiri ‘Skye Boat Song.’ I can still sing it.

Zooni got the fires of immersive writing going in the emotional and linguistic forges of my mind. This was a story that had great sadness; spousal abuse from a thuggish, cruel husband; reckless my-kingdom-for-a-kiss romance; best of all, a courtroom drama. That last one was a nut that Muzzafar was having a hard time cracking: while women in Islam could, in theory, ask for a divorce as easily as men, and Zooni really did sue for it using spousal abuse are grounds — she wrote poems about her beastly husband and mother-in-law — it wasn’t at all frequent. Most critically for any movie in any country: How do we sell a woman divorcing her husband to a deeply religious audience in modern-day India when they didn’t even kiss on film?

I asked for a copy of the Qur’an and Sharia interpretive texts in English, fed the parameters and rules set by the letter of Islamic law into my imagination, sat down and immersed myself in a world I could barely conjure; I still hadn’t been to Kashmir — while I pretended I knew all about it and where it was, it was only until four months prior to starting work that I found out it was a place, not just a type of wool. Fake it till you make it isn’t a rule I advocate, and never at George Santos levels, but sometimes it helps.

Somehow, I wrote a court scene that had me riveted, bug-eyed, even banging it out with the percussive clatter and “ding!” of the carriage hitting the end of its rail on a manual typewriter I’d lugged with me from New York in case of power outages. I even managed to drop a bomb of a twist right when you think she was going to lose and be stoned to death — her first husband was counter-suing for adultery and Afghanistan is in the same neighborhood as Kashmir, let me put it that way.

All the different emotions I felt while writing the script were felt by readers, too. It caused a splash in Bollywood. Muzaffar stopped auditioning up-and-coming actresses after the country’s “Number Two Heroine,” Dimple Kapadia (the gravelly-voiced Mumbai aristocrat in Tenet), got a hold of the script, drove over in her Contessa and basically said, “Okay, girls. Everyone out. Chalo! This motherfucking role is mine.”

At the time, Bombay street slang used ‘mader chod,’ literally “motherfucker,” at least as frequently as New Yorkers did.

There was, however, a side effect during the writing process that came out during the first draft: that caveman Cookie Monster, for the entirety of the process. On a 6’3”, super-entitled native New York Highlander with a booming voice, it can be a scary thing for sweet-tempered Indians.

I did my best to shut away the new beast within, to keep it in the realm of my imagination. It was too forceful; I was still too young — it followed me into the real world. I tried dosing it with benzos I picked up over the counter at the local chemist. When Dimple said to Muzaffar after I nodded out during our second meeting, “I want whatever he’s on,” I decided it was better to create a situation where I was insulated from the outside world for the duration of the draft. And for every script thereafter for as long as both the caveman Cookie Monster and I shall live.

From then on, I’ve created that writer’s safe space with every project that requires a certain intensity of focus and creative thought. I alert people who are likely to come into contact with me that I’m going to be spending a lot of time truly believing that I’m in 19th-century Rajasthan, soaked in blood and terror while writing an intense adaptation of Hamlet set at a maharaja’s court; or rattling around in a painted school bus for a 60s road-trip adventure with a hippy chick and her five lovers; or as a grieving, poor-little-rich New York kid sent to Paris after his mom dies to live with the narcissistic biological father he’s never met.

Most writers I know have some isolated space where they go through gestation and the birthing process. A celebrated author I knew for a while before his death, Harold Brodkey, a.k.a., “the American Proust,” famously had his writing space soundproofed. Frankly, if he hadn’t immersed himself quite that far he might not have overwritten his self-obsessed prose to the point of being unreadable and not taken 27 years to publish his first novel.

Virginia Woolf immortalized the writing enclosure in an extended essay, A Room of One’s Own. As a proto-feminist, she griped that “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

It’s no different for men. We’ve just been reminded of Cormac McCarthy’s financial struggles. I’m reminded every time I open an email reminder for a bill I’m scrambling to pay. There have been extended periods when a room of my own was two hours max in a “private” room at the public library, provided I got there just after they opened to book it.

Wolff lived in a four-bedroom Georgian townhouse in Richmond that was on the market for $4.5 million a year ago. Her writing space was staged as an upstairs sitting room; I’ve never had a space quite that large and “handsomely appointed,” as they said back then.

More pertinent to my point: How Woolf qualifies the sort of writing it must be. She doesn’t end with “to write”; it’s specifically “to write fiction.”

LATINA VIXENS TO THE RESCUE

I do believe there is another level to immersive writing or any creative output that might be placed on a par with fine art, whether or not that was the original aspiration or the outcome. I call it ‘Shiva’s Method.’

If we go back to my original comparison to method acting, immersive writing is the equivalent of Jeremy Strong’s legendary near-total assumption of the character of Kendall Roy in Succession, or Christian Bale going full Auschwitz-thin for The Machinist and going full postal on crew members who stepped into that space of his own on other productions.

Then there is Daniel Day-Lewis. He’s the only recipient of three Best Actor Oscars because he didn’t merely immerse himself in the few roles he chose, he sacrificed a piece of his selfhood so that those characters might live in a real sense: for the duration of preparation, rehearsal and filming, the possessed him in an Exorcist way.

I might be misinterpreting the subtext I’ve gleaned from interviews I’ve read with Day-Lewis, lensing it entirely through my own experience. Still, the lingering “sadness” that he felt after Phantom Thread speaks to my own experience. That sadness compelled him to take shelter in early retirement. That speaks to me as a type of exhausted fear of burying your selfhood in the catacombs once more; the destruction of Self feels like a small death, every time. I could imagine feeling like it was no longer acting, no longer working to pay the mortgage, but punishing yourself as the Man in the Iron Mask for eighteen months or more, over and over.

Perhaps Strong went full Shiva’s Method in Succession, too. But what I’m talking about would be impossible to sustain for that long over that many seasons, while having three kids and staying married.

As I’ve said before in reference to gender ideology, there is nothing about human nature and our experience with the physical world that isn’t referenced in Indian culture. But I haven’t yet touched on Hindu cosmology; it’s another trove of symbolism and stories that aren’t just parables, but entertainment and esoteric insight into the human condition.

When I take you for your first trip to India, I’ll spend the first few days lying by the pool napping away the previous night’s drinks or scrolling through Grindr while you visit the temples. You probably know a few tidbits about Hinduism that you’ve picked up here and there, perhaps from a yoga teacher, or that book you really liked that you read all those years ago, what was the title?

You’re reminded by the guide that there are three principal deities: Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer. Over the following weeks, you’ll learn to spot the iconography easily, as well as the markings on the foreheads, easily remembered mnemonics: the long V-shape painted in vermillion like a tuning fork stretching from the forehead to the bridge of the nose marks a Vaishnavite, a follower of Vishnu; that means that the other one, the three horizontal stripes across the forehead, marks Shavites, followers of Shiva.

There’s something odd, however. “Where are the followers of Brahma?” you ask the guide at the Ellora Caves, after I’ve begged off to lie by the pool again with an inevitable case of the “loosies” as they’re called in Indian English.

“Ah,” says the guide. “You see, ehm, Brahma-ji, he is not so worshipped.”

What’s this? The Creator not worshipped? That’s inconceivable to the Judeo-Christian mind: God the Creator, maker of heaven and earth, and all that.

The guide sways his head in remorse. “Sorry to say he is worshipped in two temples in all of India, only.”

“But why?”

“Well, you see, Brahma-ji… he is a bit of a trickster. Not to be trusted.”

I’ll let that go for now; it’s a whole other subject for contemplation. The point is, who plays the role of creator?

“That is Shiv-ji, only. He is both destroyer and creator.”

Hinduism is open to many different forms of interpretation. Their protocols don’t follow the same blasphemy-and-heresy-prone politics of respect that Westerners have for religious beliefs — one’s relationship with the millions of gods of India is personal.

My interpretation of Brahma’s role is as doorman to the only creation story of any spiritual religion in the world that I know of that has scientific merit: the Big Bang and the Big Crunch Theories.

Four-headed Brahma sits on a lotus that grows from the navel of Brahman, the one true deity, who sleeps at the bottom of the eternal ocean; yes, Hinduism has monotheism covered, too. When Brahma opens his eyes — Brahman sleeps through both everything and nothing — the universe big-bangs into existence, and the great yugs, the eras that mark spacetime, begin. When he shuts his eyes, the Big Crunch collapses Existence, the gods included, into a state of spacetime-less perpetuity. How long does that last? Timelessness is measureless.

With Brahma shunned, sitting under the sea on a lotus-tipped umbilical cord, Hindus are left with a binary system split between Vishnu and Shiva. While the former has ten avatars, two of them being the much-chanted Rama and Krishna, Shiva has two main aspects: Shankar the meditating yogi, represented by the studly, blue, two-armed, longhaired stoner dude — those heavy lids are from weed and opium, both legal in many of Shiva’s sacred places in India. He is lord of yoga, both hot and normal.

Shiva Nataraj is the opposite of sedentary. He’s the exuberant lord of the dance, whose twin cosmic moves, according to Wikipedia,

are the Lasya (the gentle form of dance), associated with the creation of the world, and the Ananda Tandava (dance of bliss, the vigorous form of dance), associated with the destruction of weary worldviews—weary perspectives and lifestyles. In essence, the Lasya and the Tandava are just two aspects of Shiva’s nature; for he destroys in order to create, tearing down to build again.

Consider this entire newsletter to have been brought into existence as my blissful dance of destruction of Wokeism’s tired “perspectives and lifestyles.” Kidding. Not really. Okay, kinda.

I’ve experienced Shiva’s Method of creation while destroying a part of my selfhood for only a handful of projects over my forty-year career as a professional creative, which I count from when Brahma opened his eyes and I was paid by a major commercial entity for my creative work: photographs for Tatler Magazine, Condé Nast UK’s version of Town & Country, when I was eighteen.

The first time I entered unknowingly into Shiva’s Method was at the turn of the century, when I was under pressure to write the screenplay for a project that I’d developed obsessively over a year. I’d created a comprehensive treatment that included a detailed synopsis, mood boards, casting ideas, the works, printed and bound in London at great expense. Anything but write the actual screenplay — I was terrified of it, and rightly so.

Hatter was a four-hander riff on the Mad Tea Party in Alice in Wonderland set in a converted theater that was home to Matt Hatter, the world’s most influential fashion designer. Alice was now a journalist at a major publication who reveals in an interview that has the goods on him and can’t be allowed to live.

After the treatment was released and read, and meetings and dinners were taken, shenanigans began to happen between the producers; there’s something about this particular project that drives people associated with it to behave strangely, to put it diplomatically. When I got back to LA from London, I had a little over nine days to knock a script I was afraid to write out and over the dome of the stadium.

Hatter opens with three men representing the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and the comatose Dormouse at the tail end of a multi-day drug-and-sex bender. They’re still quite high, and get higher as the action progresses. Inspired by how Samuel Talor Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan, Or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment while high on opium, I threw a hail Mary and went into the state of mind of my characters: I took shedloads of drugs, mostly stimulants of one type or other, and method wrote it.

Aside from allowing me to inhabit my characters’ minds, to follow their motivations and understand their behavior, my altered and enhanced state of mind made me overcome my fear of writing. I’d never not been able to dash off a screenplay whenever it suited me.

My process began slowly, tentatively, which is reflected in the dreamy opening of the script. By about the twelfth hour, Shiva’s blissful dance of destruction began within me. Alice walked into the scene. As my body began to break down over the next two days, I kept writing. My Self splintered into four pieces, one for each of the characters — I became Brahma the Four-Headed Trickster.

On the dawn of the fourth day, I found myself in boxer shorts standing in front of the wall of mirrors in the sleeping area of my large studio/mini loft. Trippy electronic music from the CDs I’d compiled as audio mood boards were the soundtrack accompanying the wash of peaceful blue light heralding the rising sun.

I was midway through the script — page 69, appropriately — and could go no further. In the mirror’s reflection, I watched my skin tightening, abs delineated for the first and last time in my life. I understood that I was dying.

Struggling for breath, my thudding heart overwhelming the music and whatever was left of consciousness, I sat down at the computer and wrote:

ALICE (throwing her head back): Yes!

I threw my head back and the same moment and rasped, “Yes!”

I wasn’t afraid. We all have to die at one moment or another, and there was none better than this for a natural-born creative creator. I summoned whatever lifeforce I had left: first, I wrote a quick email to my friend Charlie Graeber, author of The Good Nurse: “Listen, man, I think I’m dying. But there’s something in my computer that I think it might be genius. If you don’t hear from me again, please retrieve it somehow and finish it. Only you can do it”; second, to stagger next door to my neighbor, Sandra, the Latina vixen on The Bold and the Beautiful. Only a German-Argentinian could answer the door in full makeup at 7 AM in the morning.

She took one look at me, gasped, fussed over me, and rushed me to Cedars Sinai.

I was alert enough to tell her to dial back the dramatics as she rushed me through ER in a wheelchair, yelling in a thick Spanish accent, “My hosband! My hosband is dying! Help us!”

“Baja el volumen, coño!” I croaked, twisting down the volume in midair.

I’ll leave the story there. Suffice it to say, I finished Hatter in time; it’s considered my masterpiece, for whatever it’s worth. It went on to cause many more problems throughout the two serious attempts to make it. It would be an impossible dream come true if it make it to the screen and stage one day; it’s as fresh and edgy as it was when I finished it just over twenty years ago.

Daniel Day-Lewis would be great in it.

I owe the power, the layers of meaning, the intensity, the humor, the all of everything that Hatter is to Shiva’s Method. I’ve never gone full Coleridge Kubla Khan again on a project, even in the few times since Hatter that I’ve crossed over from immersive writing to join Shiva Nataraj in his cosmic dance of creation through destruction. I write and edit sober, always.

VERGING ON INSANITY

Not all writing needs to be immersive or even intense. When I was blogging back in the early ‘10s, I would churn out three or four posts a week. That hasn’t been the case with this newsletter, despite my best efforts to use the work patterns and skills that I developed churning out that much regular content.

Quibblers & Scribblers has turned out to be far more intense than the Pure Film Creative (PFC) blog mainly because of the weightier mission of deconstructing Wokeism/critical social justice’s supersized ball of tangled deceits. I spent five weeks researching, planning and mapping out my thoughts before I published the first piece. I haven’t been hospitalized, but I have burned out a few times over the six months since then.

It’s been worth it, perhaps not financially, but in terms of having the effect on readers that I’ve been aiming for. A friend who was a luminary in the much-storied 80s New York downtown scene sent me an email in response to last week’s post about nature versus nurture,

Keep on writing, my friend.  Sometimes you verge a little on insanity, but other times you say things that make me wonder why nobody else thought to say it yet.  But either way, keep me thinking.  I like that.

The verging on insanity is those sparks of Shiva’s sacred fire that occasionally escape my fingertips and shove my writing from a prosaic essay style to creative free association and a dollop of prose poetry. I also allow myself to tumble my reasoning and narrative structure so that it seems like it’s plummeting out of control, but it’s a controlled, deliberate chaos.

I imagine that Daniel Day-Lewis and many other creative professionals who’ve danced with Shiva understand where the “verge of insanity” is, too. He strikes me as reserved and introverted in a classically English way; that might be why he has mostly played Americans throughout his career; our range of permissible behaviors is broader, freer, more intense in many respects, less so in others.

When Day-Lewis refers to the lingering “sadness” he couldn’t shake after Phantom Thread, which led him to retire from acting, my sense of that is it was in large part grief. By creating entirely new personas from chunks of his selfhood, they became golems that were real and alive for him, as much as he was. After the final “cut” on the last take of a film, they were executed.

If I’m even in the ballpark of what his experience meant to him, how many executions of his transformed selfhood has he had to endure?

It might be the reason he couldn’t watch Phantom Thread. It would be like Lenin visiting his own embalmed corpse in his mausoleum in Red Square. The film becomes a type of home movie starring a person for whom he had so much affection and affinity that they were of one soul, who is now departed. But the emotions and attachments remain, as fresh as ever.

Unlike Day-Lewis, I never deliberately invited Shiva to dance with me on that handful of projects I’ve created under his influence. The most recent piece written under Shiva’s Method was the exposé about how Call Me By Your Name was probably inspired by the most tragic event of my life. It required me to go back forty years to deconstruct what happened and rebuild it in another way. It took a year to complete and broke me apart, transforming my sense of self and my writing; that’s mainly the reason I was unable to cut it to a third for publication behind a paywall at a legacy publication.

Similarly, as perversely flattering as the attempts have been to wrest Hatter from me, I will never give it to anyone else to interpret — I’d rather it never be produced. I imagine Day-Lewis understands where that involuntary stubbornness originates; it’s in every thread of the fabric that makes him the finest living couturier of characters, and why Matt Hatter could’ve been the defining role of his career.

Who am I kidding? Almost all of his roles were that.

Thanks for reading.

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This essay was originally published on Quibblers & Scribblers.

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