Now that I’ve explained what an “imperialist writing policy” is, and why it might be useful, here’s how to actually do it.
Compiling Your Curriculum
So you’ve got some reason for enacting an imperialist writing policy—what do you fill it with? What are your imperial holdings? As I said, with Suggest the Empire I initially began with plays I was already aware of—Shakespearean histories. However, Stuff Happens I only learned about by doing some research, looking up contemporary history plays. After finding these materials, I just continued with my life, and kept on the look-out for any books or shows or movies or podcasts that seemed like they could be useful, adding them to my curriculum as I found them.
I’d recommend the same—start with works that you are already aware of, or that you have already been wanting to read. If you have enough, great! If you don’t, it’s time to do some research. This is essentially how I determined what plays to read for Play Time (which was a literal curriculum, since it was an Honors project.) I started by looking at some plays dealing with time which I already wanted to read—We Are Proud to Present …, Strange Interlude, Top Girls, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead—then did some research. I pretty quickly found out about J.B. Priestly’s time plays, and stumbled upon a review of a few short Beckett plays staged together because of their similar treatments of time. The internet is an incredible thing.
If this seems overwhelming, start with Wikipedia. Look at the external links on the article, look at the references. Look up what resources your local library has, or, if you’re a college student, check out your university library. Find people who are experts in whatever you need to immerse yourself in, and see what they’ve written. See what they recommend. If you personally know anyone who has some experience with the topic, ask them to give you some recommendations—or, if they’re willing to give you their time, ask them questions about the topic and make note of the answers. Sift through your personal library, see if there are any old books you forgot you even had that might be useful (this is exactly how Top Girls made it onto the list for Play Time.) And if you’re really hitting a wall, just start reading whatever you have found. More likely than not (and especially if its non-fiction) that work will lead you to other works. You’ll start to get a sense of what the foundational texts in the field are, which authors keep coming up again and again, which authors have written stuff very similar to (and therefore very useful for) what you’re planning to write.
Human civilization is big, and we’ve been around for awhile. You’ll probably come up with more material than you could possibly consume, which is good. And that takes us to our next topic:
The danger in preparing for any piece of writing, no matter how you go about it, is that you can perpetuate the preparation indefinitely. There will always be more books to read, more documentaries to watch, more websites to bookmark, and the more you explore them, the more you realize how much there is to explore. But this is actually the benefit of an imperialist writing policy, if you do it right—you’re forcing yourself to set a clear, concrete idea of what it will take to get you prepared. It’s a lot harder to say “I couldn’t possibly write that” after you’ve spent two intensive months reading Shakespearean histories and learning about empires.
But you can still fall into the trap of never-prepared-enough-syndrome if you aren’t sufficiently clear about your curriculum. I decided that I would have to read Richard III, Richard II, the Henriad, Julius Caesar, and Stuff Happens before writing Suggest the Empire. Those were the only things I required myself to read. The rest was just optional—a large spread of options to choose from, but not hurdles that would make me delay writing the play. Remember, the point here is to write something, not just to get smart (a worthwhile pursuit in itself, but not the topic of these posts.) This worked out pretty well for me, so I recommend doing as I did. Decide on a core curriculum—items you have to finish before you begin writing—and compile a growing list of suggested reading, which you may or may not complete. I’m sure there are other more complicated ways to set up your curriculum, so if something else works better, go for it. The only two keys here are that you have some kind of finish point—once I have done x I will start writing—and that you stick to it once you’ve decided on it. If you get to the end and feel that you still ought to read more, fine. Read while you’re writing the rough draft, as I did with Hamlet. You could even make another smaller curriculum to finish before you start editing. But don’t play kick the can with your project.
Another guiding principle is, don’t force something. If you’re not getting anything from a podcast, or the writing style of a scholarly article is too impenetrable, drop it. Better to seek out things you’re already interested in, even if they’re only tangentially related to your topic, than spend time on something that’s only going to make you less interested in writing about it. When a piece of work starts feeling more like a burden than something you’re eager to dig into, more like a roadblock than a way forward, it has ceased to be useful, and it’s better to abandon it than throw good money after bad. Or good time after bad, I suppose. Even if something is on your core curriculum, if it’s getting to be too much, cut it out—or replace it with something. That’s the one way I think it could be useful to change your core materials partway through—to reduce them, or sub out one item for another comparable one. Because in that case, you’re not postponing writing, you’re making it easier to reach, or (what’s the same) more enjoyable.
Going hand in hand with this, you don’t have to totally eschew things that aren’t related to your topic. While preparing for STE I still read sci-fi short stories that had nothing to do with empire, I watched TV shows and played games which in no way dealt with nationalism. Figure out for yourself where your comfort level is with immersion. I love it—at least, when contained to just a few months—but it’ll be different for each writer. Again, you don’t want this self-imposed monomania to become a burden, and it’s fine to take breaks—or engage with media that is only very superficially related to your project (like me playing Mount and Blade.) Even those superficially related materials will at least keep these topics at the front of your mind. Like Christmas decorations. No, seeing that wreath is not at all the same as me spending time with family and friends and eating cookies, but it’s a nice reminder of what’s coming up, what I have to look forward to. (Can you tell I’ve actually written this ahead of time, before Christmas? It’s December 11th and boyohboy am I ready for school to be over but anyway.)
Finally, be observant. Be observant in your life, looking out for sources of information, books to add to your suggested reading, but especially be observant as you read those books. You’re not just reading them for enjoyment—you’re not even necessarily reading them to enrich your understanding of humanity. Each book, movie, and comic you have selected for some reason, or reasons. Make sure you know that reason going in, and be aware of it. Keep notes if you want, or just mark important passages. Example: I was not reading Richard II for a history lesson which could provide inspiration for the plot of Suggest the Empire. I was reading it for voice, and for narrative structure—to see how plays can handle history. For Stuff Happens I wasn’t looking for voice, I was just looking at that structure, and also gauging my own enjoyment of the play, in contrast with Shakespeare’s plays, since the “history” in Stuff Happens is one that I’m much more familiar with.
Okay, so I guess you could be reading for enjoyment, in a roundabout way. And I suppose it’s wrong to say that you’re not reading for enjoyment, because ideally you’ll enjoy the hell out of all of this. Ideally this process will get you more and more excited to write whatever you’re preparing for. Ideally you’ll come out the other end of this like someone who’s just been on a big out-of-country trip, unable to shut-up about all the cool stuff you’ve seen and learned. What is writing, if not being unable to shut-up about something you find cool? (This blog post certainly fits the bill.)
As a final guiding principle, the imperialist writing policy need not extend to whatever you’re writing in the meantime, if you are writing something. I figured it would be easier for me to write something dealing with themes similar to those in Suggest the Empire, since I would have so much inspiration, but that wasn’t actually the case. I started out with an idea for a novella that was very empire-y, but as it evolved in my head it strayed further away from that, and I realized the ideas within it which interested me didn’t have anything to do with kingdoms and armies and banners. So I just went ahead and wrote it, and it was no problem. It didn’t slow down my reading of Shakespeare or distract me, nor was the novella damaged by the fact that it lay in the shadow of these themes. That’s because the novella required very little prep—just some character notes and world-building, but no research. So my take-away is, next time I pursue an imperialist writing policy, I won’t try to scrounge up any ideas related to my area of study—I’ll instead focus on ideas that aren’t very demanding, which deal with themes and settings I’m already comfortable with, or which are just very short. If an idea comes along which synergizes with your current focus, great! But again, if you want to write, don’t let this doctrine be a barrier to telling stories. Exploit it if possible, ignore it if not.
As I said in the first post, this worked out great for me. I found it easy to slip into the Shakespearean style when I needed to, and I both consciously and unconsciously made use of plotting techniques I’d internalized by reading all those plays. Doing world-building, I was able to grab bits and pieces from different empires and compile them into something that is not just Rome or England or Song of Ice and Fire. My one regret, as I just said, is the way I handled writing at the time. I think, in general, I could’ve allowed myself more leeway in all directions. Nothing disastrous happened, but I probably could’ve gotten more writing done if, from the beginning, I wasn’t concerned with how it related to Suggest the Empire.
I’ve also come to think that this principle can be applied in miniature. I have, of course, an expansive list of books I want to read, and I often find that deciding what to read next is as simple as considering what I’m writing, or about to write, at the time. Though really, that’s starting to get into a different topic altogether, one which I may write about sometime in the future. For now, that’s all I have to say about the imperialist writing policy.
Now buy my play! If reading these posts has piqued your interest in Suggest the Empire, you can get it on Smashwords or Amazon as an ebook. It’s a history play about an invented history, exploring the theatrical nature of nationalism and empire. The publication also contains an afterword that describes where the idea first came from, and the editing process, among other things. Or you can read the somewhat self-contained first act, for free, in the following formats: