WRITING AND NOT WRITING
A New Directions weekend gives us great ideas, supportive listeners, a stimulating environment, encouragement and realistic evaluations of our writing. We are inspired to re-dedicate ourselves to our own work and we remember why we write in the first place.
Unfortunately, we have to do the hard work of writing somewhere else, in the weeks between our Washington weekends. We have to keep appointments, feed the dog, go to the drycleaners and still try to write with no one around to cheer us on. Then self-doubt begins to creep in, and finally inertia takes over completely. So how do you get back to writing and keep at it?
I own countless books on writing. I have four of them open on my desk right now, and each one has something to say about this problem. David Bayles and Ted Orland in their book Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) ofArtmaking suggest that what keeps us from making art is fear that we’re not good enough and uncertainty about what we’re trying to do. Their advice is to accept our insecurities as part of the creative process and keep writing: “What’s really needed is nothing more than a broad sense of what you are looking for, some strategy for how to find it, and an overriding willingness to embrace mistakes and surprises along the way.”
William Zinsser in On Writing Well talks about “The Tyranny of the Final Product.” We see our magnificent, perfect, finished manuscript out there somewhere and become paralyzed when we try to imagine actually writing it. He quotes E.L. Doctorow, who reassures us: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
Richard Rhodes author of How to Write: Advice and Reflections is the survivor of childhood abuse and a Pulitzer Prize winning author. He talks about his own trauma and acknowledges how hard it is to start writing and keep going. He also remembers the advice he got early in his career when he asked his boss how to become a writer: “Rhodes, you apply ass to chair.” Or as the Nike people used to say: Just Do It.
On the other hand, not writing does not necessarily mean you’re doing nothing. I admit that I am undisciplined, I procrastinate, I would rather be working in the garden, but when I finally sit down to write, I am usually ready to write. While I have been not writing I have been thinking about what I might write. I have been testing out ideas, working through problems, asking myself questions, trying out titles, abandoning interesting thoughts that don’t go anywhere—all in my head. Then I sit down at the computer, start typing, and discover that what comes out isn’t exactly what I had in mind. Much of it isn’t very good, either. But that’s fine. At least I have something on paper, which is more than I had a few hours ago.
I realize that this is not a brilliant new insight into the writing process, but it is an awareness of how I write. I used to berate myself for my laziness, my stubborn refusal to actually write until I met another writing teacher who said to me, “Maybe it’s just the process that works for you.” Now that is insight.
But the word process suggests movement toward some end, and for us that means finally putting words on paper. “But you cannot will this to happen,” says Anne Lamott.” It is a matter of persistence and faith and hard work. So you might as well just go ahead and get started.”