Don’t Trust Your Instincts — The Idea That Became Clockfire

My second book, Clockfire, began with a single image: a clock on fire in the middle of a theatre. The audience was watching the clock burn. This was the play. Once that flashed into my head, I knew I had something, but I didn’t know what. So I wrote it down.

I wish that I could show you what I wrote down, but all of my files and early drafts of Clockfire were destroyed due to computer problems and faulty backups. In fact, if I hadn’t mailed a copy of the first draft to the Alberta Foundation for the Arts (who graciously funded the writing of the book), I would have lost the manuscript altogether. I had to write to them to receive my copy back. I lost all of my revisions, but salvaged the draft through the AFA and thus salvaged the book.

However, I do remember a number of significant early changes I made, which I’d like to trace for you here. I’m often asked how I came up with the idea for Clockfire, and unlike most non-superhero origin stories, the story holds some interest since it illustrates how significant particular, structural changes can be if they are made in the early stages of an idea — and why, contrary to popular belief, you can’t trust your instincts as a writer, at least not in the early stages of an idea.

From Image to Idea

Although it’s kind of cool, a bunch of people in a theatre looking at a burning clock is hardly enough for a book. However, it’s a good example of how even something this small and simple can be enough for an entire book if you can just interrogate the image.

I kept turning the image over in my head. Why did I find it compelling? Well, there was a certain strong surrealism to it. Clocks and fire were practically surrealist cliches, but the addition of the theatre context elevated it somewhat while allowing it to retain a primal quality.

At this point, I thought that maybe I might get one good poem out of the idea. However, I was afraid of how that poem might unfold. The obvious way would be to develop the image into a metaphor for life. However, having read Antonin Artaud’s book The Theatre and Its Double not long before, I was struck by how one might read the title. The “double” of the theatre, arguably, was life. Artaud’s title could be read to suggest that life paled before the grand myth-machine of the theatre. At the same time, I had been disappointed by Artaud’s plays. They were hopelessly dated because his “Theatre of Cruelty” relied on shocking and appalling the audience’s senses, and our sense of what is shocking or appalling changes radically and quickly over time, so that they seemed tame today.

I felt that where Artaud had gone wrong was in focusing on visceral shock over conceptual violence. After all, his book about the conceptual violence that the Theatre of Cruelty might deliver remained compelling, whereas the actual plays he wrote in this vein seemed tame. Today, I felt, Artaud would have to murder his audience to get the shock value he’d wanted, since “breaking the fourth wall” had become commonplace and lame, while “controversial content” had become a marketing tool.

I started to wonder why I felt the theatre was so lame, in general. The clock on fire suddenly seemed symbolic not of life, but of the theatre. I wanted a clock in my theatre — an acknowledgement of the theatrical situation, of the real-time the audience was passing (rather than a suspending of disbelief, a paying of attention to the immediate situation of being in the theatre). I also wanted fire — a shocking, violent, visceral thing that would forge a connection with the audience, however horrible.

At this point, I returned to the image of the audience watching the clock on fire. I started wondering if I’d made a mistake. Maybe the clock shouldn’t be on fire.

Maybe the clock should work fine, and the audience should be on fire.

Everything flowed out of this change. Who would set the audience on fire? The actors, of course. The clock wasn’t the play — the audience burning in the theatre was the play. The clock was a diversion.

I quickly re-hammered out my draft. Not only did I have a image and an idea, I had a concept — an imaginary theatre where the actors and the audience were at odds, enemies, each striving to vanquish the other. A theatre about the failure of the theatre to become life, to cast life into its shadow, as its double. This is really where the book began.

The Title

I knew at once that I had a book concept on my hands — plays that would be impossible or illegal/immoral to ever produce. The theatre must therefore take place in the reader’s head.

I realized that I had a book concept on my hands, and I needed a title. I couldn’t think of any good ones, which is unusual for me. Usually, I have the title right away, sometimes even before any idea (I often come up with titles first and then cast around for the idea second). However, I’d decided to apply for the aforementioned AFA grant, so I needed at least a working title. I chose Clock-Fire, thinking that although it was stupid it was functional enough.

I asked Natalee Caple for a letter of support. Time passed and in a mad rush to gather all of the materials to meet the deadline, I noticed too late that she had misspelled the title as one word: Clockfire. I was worried the AFA would discount Caple’s letter if the title was misspelled, for some reason, and it was easier, due to time constraints, for me to rewrite the entire grant with the one-word title. Later, of course, I realized that Caple had accidentally produced the perfect title, and started calling my “impossible plays” clockfires.

The Clock

I didn’t just shift the fire — in another, smaller way, I shifted the clock. In the original draft, I had just written “clock.” In my later draft, I decided that I needed to be more specific. I changed it to a modern, digital clock. It was important to the play that the clock would display the correct time to the audience, and I decided that hands on the clock would be hard for the audience to see, so the clock should have a large digital display.

For the final draft, I changed it to “a large, ornate grandfather clock,” which would of course have hands and a face. There were three main reasons for this final change, that might appear insignificant but helped set the tone for how I approached the book as a whole:

  • First, I thought a digital clock would look less cool on fire. It would burn up too fast and it would smoke too much, since it would be mostly plastic. It was more likely to melt and shrivel, whereas a larger, older, wooden clock would burn more gracefully and slowly and impressively. This may seem like an odd consideration given that the poem/play does not describe the clock burning. But I wanted to be setting forth “instructions” for the audience to imagine the plays. So, even though I wasn’t writing about the clock burning, I was setting things up for the audience to imagine the clock burn.

  • Second, I decided that it didn’t matter if the audience in the play would be able to read the time. It was only important, conceptually, that the time be correct. The audience in the theatre could be confused or unclear about it — only the reader needed to know.

  • Third, I wanted the clock to have hands and a face, to give it a human-like dimension. A grandfather clock would also be tall like a human. I wanted to suggest a bit of anthropomorphism in a subtle way like this, because I wanted the reader to feel like the clock was also a victim. Even though it is part of the performance, like the actors setting the theatre on fire, it is going to be sacrificed to the theatre, like the audience. I saw it, as the only thing on stage, as a hybrid object in a liminal space, and so wanted to push it further towards the kind of human-like associations that a nostalgic object like a grandfather clock might have.

Ignore Your Instincts

The lesson of Clockfire, for me, is to ignore your instincts. Often, writers talk nonsense like “first thought, best thought” and otherwise warn about the dangers of over-analysis. I’ve found that under-analysis is the greater danger for writers.

You can analyze without overanalyzing, and as long as you keep your analysis away from your writing desk, you can usefully reconsider your instincts and reshape your writing.

When this is most important is in the early stages. I was careful to keep writing while I played with the ideas for Clockfire, and not get trapped in the paralysis of analysis, which I’ve done before. However, if I had just run with the idea and my instincts, I would have ended up with (at best) a decent poem.

When your ideas are still ideas, and not written out, it’s easier to play with them, and experiment with alternate approaches. If you always trust your instincts, you’ll always repeat what’s safe.

You can read the entire script of the play “Clockfire” (it’s very short) on my store page for that book.

You can also read about the “original” version of “Clockfire” that was performed by Vlad III Dracula.

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