In a The Paris Review interview, playwright and screen writer Tony Kushner talks about his writing process, which I, somehow, can identify with.... "The lesson I learn over and over again—and then forget over and over again—is that writing won’t be so bad once you get into it..."
Do you tend to write very quickly and then revise, and revise, and revise?
I tend to delay as long as I possibly can and get into a lot of trouble and get everyone upset. And then it comes out. I always write under panic. I seem to need that.
Does the panic enliven your plays, or is it just a horrible necessity you have to endure?
It’s definitely horrible and I don’t want to believe it’s a necessity, but it seems to be. I don’t want to valorize it in myself, because it has made it hard for me and very hard for the people who work with me. It’s been particularly tough on Jeanine. It’s caused problems for many theaters I’ve worked with, for Mike Nichols and for Steven Spielberg. It’s never been a good thing. It’s something I have struggled with and suffered from all of my life.
I find writing very difficult. It’s hard and it hurts sometimes, and it’s scary because of the fear of failure and the very unpleasant feeling that you may have reached the limit of your abilities. You’re smart enough to see that there’s something that lies beyond what you’ve been able to do, but you don’t know how to get there, how to make it happen in the medium in which you’ve decided to work. I can be very masochistic, but that kind of anxiety is something I tend to want to avoid.
I’ve been in therapy and psychoanalysis since I was seventeen, so I certainly know a lot about why I procrastinate. But the need to do it is still very powerful. The smartest shrinks I’ve had don’t think there’s a clean separation between the salutary and the unsalutary parts of it. And they tell me I’m probably not going to be able to change it. Like sexual taste, your work ethic is formed deep within, and it’s comprised by all sorts of impulses. Why do any of us bother to put on clothes in the first place and accept toilet training and learn how to read and write and count? It’s enormously peculiar, the process of becoming civilized and developing things like a work ethic and a sexual ethic.
Have you developed techniques for dealing with procrastination?
The lesson I learn over and over again—and then forget over and over again—is that writing won’t be so bad once you get into it. One’s reluctance is immensely powerful. It’s like what Proust says about habit—it seems tiny in the grand arc of a person’s life narrative, but it’s the most insidious, powerful thing. Reluctance is like that.
When you feel most terrified—I think this is true of most writers—it’s because the thing isn’t there in your head. I’ve found it to be the case that you’ve got to start writing, and writing almost anything. Because writing is not simply an intellectual act. It doesn’t happen exclusively in your head. It’s a combination of idea and action, what Marx and Freud called praxis, a combining of the material and the immaterial. The action, the physical act of putting things down on paper, changes and produces a writer’s ideas.