My copy of David Mamet’s ‘Three Uses of the Knife’ is underlined in places, and certain pages are folded over. Sometimes when I go to take it down from the shelf, I feel like a cross-country skier reaching for wax. But rather than functioning as a piece of kit, it’s a book that answers questions about writing: it doesn’t so much tell you how it’s done, as why.
I like how he explains our need for stories: ‘Children jump around at the end of the day to expend the last of that day’s energy. The adult equivalent, when the sun goes down, is to create or witness drama – which is to say to order the universe into a comprehensible form.’
The crucial thing here, on my reading, is the process itself, the ‘ordering into form.’ When it comes to the form which results, nowhere does Mamet say that prettiness or neatness is what’s required. ‘ … there are plays – and books and songs and poems and dances – that are perhaps upsetting or intricate or unusual, that leave you unsure, but which you think about perhaps the next day, and perhaps for a week, and perhaps for the rest of your life … Because they aren’t clean, they aren’t neat, but there’s something in them that comes from the heart, and, so, goes to the heart.’
Writing my second novel, Silver and Salt, I was particularly drawn to his chapter 2, ‘Second Act Problems.’ So far in my forays into writing long form fiction, there’s always a point when things fall apart. On this topic, Mamet is sympathetic to a writer’s plight, at the same time as pointing out that she has only herself to blame.
‘ … remembering you set out to drain the swamp is hard when you’re up to your ass in alligators.’