The Foolscap Method
Here’s a trick I use on every project. I learned it from my friend and mentor, the novelist and documentarian Norm Stahl. Norm and I were having lunch one day at Joe Allen’s in Manhattan and I was complaining about how hard it was to get a novel started. Norm happened to have a pad of yellow legal-sized foolscap paper in his briefcase. He took it out and set it on the table in front of me.
“Steve,” he said, “God made a single sheet of foolscap exactly the right length to hold the outline of an entire novel.”
That was a lightning-bolt moment for me. In one stroke Norm convinced me to:
1) Stop wasting time writing “bibles” or “character profiles” or any other kind of Resistance-spawned preparatory material. Shut up and begin.
2) Forget doing research, at least at the beginning. Shut up and begin.
3) Shut up and begin.
Here are two drills I’ve given myself over the years. One, write The Great Gatsby on a cocktail napkin. Two, design the Spirit of St. Louis on the back of an envelope.
Have you ever heard of Parkinson’s Law? (I highly recommend the book
by the way.) Parkinson’s Law states that
Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.
In other words, Resistance will make us fiddle around forever—unless we draw the line and stop it. That’s what the foolscap trick does. It cuts out the crap. It concentrates the mind.
By limiting the physical space we permit ourselves to define our project, the foolscap/cocktail napkin/back of envelope method forces us to boil down our idea to its absolute basics.
Nail down those basics and we’re ready to rock and roll.
The Great Gatsby
A poor boy (Jay Gatsby) becomes fixated on a beautiful high-society girl (Daisy Buchanan) who represents to him glamor, success, happiness—all those qualities that will render his “outsider” life blessed and beautiful.
The vehicle by which Gatsby hopes to win Daisy’s love is a height-of-social-glitz mansion in nouveau-riche West Egg, Long Island—across the bay from East Egg, the old-money, fashion-and-wealth capital of the post-war, go-go 1920’s.
Gatsby becomes rich by hook or by crook, builds the mansion and creates a social scene to which he knows Daisy will inevitably be drawn.
But Gatsby’s dream is doomed by its essential superficiality. Complications—the fact that Daisy is married, and that her husband Tom is carrying on an affair—lead inevitably to tragedy.
The story is told not by Gatsby or in the third person, but by Nick Carraway (i.e. Everyman)—a wise and caring participant/observer who lends the proper tone of empathy and perspective to his narration of the inevitable tragedy.
The foolscap method works not just for novels, but for every kind of project.
The Spirit of St. Louis
A monoplane, not a biplane—sacrifice lift and maneuverability for range.
All interior space (including extra-length wings) will be used to store fuel. The plane will be a “flying gas tank.”
Competitive designs include tri-motor planes with two- or three-men crews. We’ll do it with one engine and one man, to save weight and increase range.
Pilot must endure stress, fatigue, overcome all obstacles on his own.
Can you boil down your idea/movie/startup/philanthropic venture into elements so basic that they’ll fit onto the back of an envelope or a pad of yellow legal paper? That’s the final strength of the foolscap method. It enlists shame to overcome Resistance.
“One page?” Norm’s sheet of foolscap seems to say to us. “Are you saying you can’t summon enough time and focus to fill one page?”
(I’m calling the next four weeks Do The Work Wednesdays because their content comes largely from my new book, Do the Work. Do The Work is a follow-up to The War of Art. It’s available right now, for free in ebook format, on Amazon.com. The book and audio version will be released, on Amazon only, April 20.)
More next week on the Foolscap Method: further tricks and techniques for organizing that one crucial page.