Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Keep Writing!

I once dated a guy who claimed he was on the verge of the next Great American Novel (dispelling the myth of the 'Great American Novel' will be a later entry). He told me he had planned the whole thing out in detail. Plotted it meticulously. Developed characters that the critics were going to love him for. With such great insight into the human condition that it would be on reading lists long after his death. Except this was all in his head. He hadn’t written down a single word.

I pushed for him to write it. To write anything. I even threw my weight behind it both as girlfriend and as fellow writer, but he wouldn’t listen. He wouldn’t even discuss it with me other than to tell me it would be great and talking about it would ruin his vision.

To this day, I’ve never seen him publish anything. Anything.

I don’t tell this story to upset or to discourage. I tell it to reinforce that if you want to write there is a necessity of actually writing. No one runs the Boston Marathon just because they’ve been thinking about it without getting up and running every morning for months before hand. You have to get over whatever is keeping you from running -- your ego, your inexperience, your bad knee or your schedule -- and hit the pavement.

The best advice anyone can give to those who want to write is to write constantly. The second best: don't be afraid to talk about it. Constructive criticism and feedback are very important to learning any new skill. And no one, no matter how great a writing, ever publishes without accepting both criticism and feedback.

But first you need to keep writing. Think of being on that morning run again: it's easier when you're already in motion than when you are starting from a complete stop. The second mile is much easier to start than getting off the couch ever is. Once you decide to write, and write for writing's sake there are ways to trick yourself into writing more. Just like there are ways to trick yourself into running further when you're out on the pavement.

1. Keep paper on you always, I have a thin little pocket notebook perfect for my back pocket. (People keep asking me if I’m a reporter and if I’m feeling spunky I tell them yes.) Write down anything interesting you think or hear or see. I’ve got a great description of the bum who lives on my corner and a transcribed conversation between three hicks about the end of the world all because I kept my eyes and ears open and paper in my back pocket.

2. Keep a journal. Keep five. Anything that makes you write. I have one journal that is notes on my own life, not very useful for stories but cathartic. Another is ideas for fiction. A third is made up entirely of single lines that rattled around in my brain and would not stop bothering me until I gave them space on paper. It might not be a good space, or the right space but I will find that someday and in the meantime I don’t let myself worry about their rhyme or reason. A fourth journal I use for notes on humorous subjects that I might want to blog eventually. My father keeps a journal entirely based around recipes he finds and his experiences making them. You get the picture.

I've read that there's a school of thought that you need to keep at least one handwritten journal so that you can stay in touch with actual "writing." I think this is a bunch of bull. Do what feels right for you. If labor intensive longhand slows down your process then forget it. If you can't type to save your life then use a pad of paper and pay the neighbor kid to type it up later. NO ONE has the upper hand on method; it is, after all, an art not a science.

3. If you struggle with getting to the point where you write for the sake of writing constantly, then take a class. You'll also get that much needed chance to talk about your work. Writing workshops aren’t just for college students. They’re popping up around the country, in city recreation programs, community colleges and bookstores nationwide. And if you still can’t find one there’s always the internet and low-residency MFA programs. Also available are week or weekend long workshop retreats. I went to the Kenyon Review's workshop and loved it. All these options present deadlines. Deadlines are an amazing thing. Some times you really do just need a boot to your behind to get you going. See Poets&Writers for listings of writing programs and conferences and residencies.

4. If you possess more discipline and can do it on your own then set aside time to write each day. Or maybe you want to begin with setting aside a few hours Saturday morning to work yourself into it. Mornings or evenings doesn’t matter, but whichever you choose make sure it is something that you are not going to trade for time to sleep or do laundry when push comes to shove.

In the end, these ideas are all just suggestions to trick yourself into writing. Everyone’s different and maybe something else will work for you. But there is one sure fire way to fail at writing: by not writing. Remember that old boyfriend of mine? He’s only ever written one short story, and, last I heard, still not one word of that supposedly great novel.

Highly Recommended