Writing Is a Verb

A writer is not so much some­one who has some­thing to say as he is some­one who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not start­ed to say them.”

William Stafford

So begins the short essay “Writ­ing” (a.k.a. “A Way of Writ­ing”) by William Stafford, which for years was my first read­ing assign­ment to my cre­ative writ­ing stu­dents. It’s a gem. In fact, I felt that if any of my stu­dents took the four min­utes nec­es­sary to read those few pages, actu­al­ly began to apply the method Stafford speaks of there, and nev­er again set foot in my class­room, for them the course still would have been a huge suc­cess.

To the dis­may of some read­ers, Stafford rejects the roman­tic myth of the cre­ative writer as a spe­cial crea­ture, as nec­es­sar­i­ly a sort of genius who is mag­i­cal­ly touched by a sin­gu­lar Muse, bestow­ing inspi­ra­tion for great lit­er­a­ture which is unavail­able to the rest of us. That’s one way to look at a bril­liant fin­ished project, but it ignores the long, dusty, rut-filled road that the “genius” had to take to get there. It’s a cart-before-the-horse per­spec­tive.

Stafford’s insight is that writ­ing is a process through which a writer dis­cov­ers the atten­dant inspi­ra­tion. In oth­er words, you must be knock­ing at the Muse’s door before she’ll let you in – some­times knock­ing and knock­ing and knock­ing. Sure, ideas come to us seem­ing­ly unbid­den in the show­er, while dri­ving, or when­ev­er – Aha! Inspi­ra­tion! – but turn­ing that insight or vision into a piece of writ­ing that cap­tures its essence in a pub­licly com­mu­ni­ca­ble way is inevitably the result of writ­ing and writ­ing and writ­ing until you get it right, or at least as right as you can get it (see my pre­vi­ous post, Right Imper­fec­tion).

And what turns out to be right for the fin­ished prod­uct may not be at all what seemed right at the start. You see, the Muse is not out there some­where – she’s in your hands as you push the pen across the page or tap your fin­gers upon the lap­top keys.

Years ago I heard Arlo Guthrie tell a sto­ry about song­writ­ing in which he described that craft as sim­i­lar to fish­ing. “If you want to catch a fish,” he said, “you got­ta have your hook in the water. Now, some of us are lazy or dis­tract­ed, watch­ing TV or what­ev­er, or we’ve got kids or jobs that keep us from fish­ing too much, but my friend Bob [Dylan], y’know, he fish­es upstream, and he’s always got his hook in the water. And that’s why he gets all the best fish!”

Speak­ing of Dylan, his most famous song, “Like a Rolling Stone,” was first writ­ten, by his own descrip­tion, as “this long piece of vom­it, twen­ty pages long,” out of which he fash­ioned four vers­es and a repeat­ing cho­rus. “I’d nev­er writ­ten any­thing like that before.” Thus, this already well-sea­soned and quite suc­cess­ful song­writer – this genius, if you will – with his hook per­pet­u­al­ly in the water, sur­prised even him­self and caught a real­ly Big Fish that trans­formed pop­u­lar songcraft.

Organizing Chaos

Mess. Mad­ness. Dis­or­der.
Where do I begin? How do I start? What do I pri­or­i­tize? Help!

Some­times the ques­tion is not How do I start? it’s How do I fin­ish what I’ve start­ed?

Writ­ing is that mag­i­cal moment of love­mak­ing with the muse. Sure! But I can’t just lie around wait­ing to be seduced. I have to show up for the muse in order for the muse to show up for me. The moment a won­der­ful burst of cre­ativ­i­ty trans­forms from an idea into a project, I’m com­mit­ting to more than just some good times with the muse. I’m com­mit­ting to a rela­tion­ship beyond the hon­ey­moon.

So, when it’s time to get seri­ous, get orga­nized. The more you can get to know your own writ­ing process, the more you get to know your­self as a writer and what you are capa­ble of, not just in terms of out­put, but in terms of pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and of set­ting real­is­tic goals.

Show up.
As with all actions in life, it begins with inten­tion. Start by com­mit­ting to paper what you want to do. Octavia Butler’s per­son­al list is one of my all time favorites.

handwritten note from Octavia Butler papers
hand­writ­ten note from Octavia But­ler papers, Hunt­ing­ton Library, Art Col­lec­tions, and Botan­i­cal Gar­dens. Copy­right, Estate of Octavia E. But­ler.

Break it down.
The jour­ney begins with the first step. Start with a map! Specif­i­cal­ly, cre­ate a writ­ing sched­ule.

I took an inten­sive screen­writ­ing course in which we com­mit­ted to writ­ing five screen­plays in three years. With a 10-hour week writ­ing com­mit­ment, I found it pos­si­ble to write the first draft of a 90–125 page script in six weeks’ time.

No, you don’t have to quit your day job to write your nov­el or mem­oir or essay col­lec­tion. You just need a sched­ule. Look at the cal­en­dar. Be hon­est. Ask, How much time can I com­mit to every day? 30 min­utes? 2 hours? Every week 10 hours?

Com­mit to a week­ly sched­ule on paper. “I will write 8 hours a week, Mon-Thurs 7–8:30am, Sun­day 10–12pm.”

Define it.
Rather than say, “I’m going to write a nov­el,” get gran­u­lar and be spe­cif­ic. Iden­ti­fy which ele­ments of your idea you can start to shape over the next sev­er­al weeks. Per­haps it’s about iden­ti­fy­ing the big pic­ture ideas, like sto­ry out­line, themes, or cast of char­ac­ters. Or per­haps it’s look­ing at an indi­vid­ual chap­ter in which you’re estab­lish­ing the nar­ra­tive voice.

Com­mit your writ­ing goal on paper. “I will devel­op my idea into a new sto­ry; includ­ing an out­line, char­ac­ters, theme, plot, main problem/resolution.”

Log it.
Put the com­mit­ment to prac­tice and mon­i­tor your progress. “Week 1: I wrote 8 hours, sketched gen­er­al out­line, sketched three scenes with main char­ac­ter.”

Repeat for 6 weeks.
At the end of six weeks, re-eval­u­ate. Ask, How well am I stick­ing to my time com­mit­ment? More? Less? Am I being real­is­tic?

List your achieve­ments.
Review what you accom­plished in this time, on paper: “I wrote X num­ber of pages/scenes/chapters. I devel­oped X ele­ments of my sto­ry.”

Reset, start again.
Re-com­mit to a new 6-week writ­ing plan on paper. Cre­ate goals to make them reach­able. Small suc­cess­es add up psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly as well as mate­ri­al­ly.

Write away.
So, how do we keep allow­ing our­selves to get messy in the midst of all this orga­ni­za­tion? I like to encour­age the Path of Least Resis­tance: That which gets the ink flow­ing. What­ev­er comes to mind in a giv­en day that I already know about my sto­ry and my char­ac­ters. It’s not only OK to write out of order, it’s nec­es­sary. Does a scene toward the end pop out clear­ly in the mind? Write it! It’s OK if you change it lat­er. If there’s any­thing I’ve learned, it’s that I can count on just about every­thing chang­ing after the first draft.

Let the mess begin! So be it! See to it!

My Left Hand of Darkness

16th-century Prosthetics (1564) designed by Ambroise Paré
16th-cen­tu­ry Pros­thet­ics (1564) designed by Ambroise Paré

I didn’t expect a hand injury to be such a big deal.

Okay, so I crushed my hand in a fall when a tree root rose up out of the ground and tack­led me. Besides the fact that it hap­pened almost exact­ly the way it hap­pened to one of my fic­tion­al char­ac­ters in a fan­ta­sy nov­el, the pain I expe­ri­enced was no fan­ta­sy at all. It was very sharp, very real, and as it turns out, very last­ing.

Once I got past the relief of dis­cov­er­ing I (mirac­u­lous­ly) didn’t break any­thing, the real­i­ty of the real degree of my injury—severe soft tis­sue damage—began to sink in. It would take weeks, maybe months, to regain full use of my hand with­out pain.

The kick­er: it’s my right hand. Insult to injury: I work as a writer for a liv­ing.

The good news: I’m ambidex­trous! This is some­thing I’ve been telling myself since I was a child, when I didn’t under­stand why peo­ple favored one hand over the oth­er when it came to cut­ting bread, draw­ing pic­tures, or pound­ing nails. I used my left hand to wield knives, pen­cils, and ham­mers just as flu­id­ly as I used my right.

Yeah, well. That was then. In truth, I’m a soft left­ie. I’m no full-blown south­paw, and I’m cer­tain­ly not going to win any cal­lig­ra­phy con­tests.

What I hadn’t real­ized until now, was not so much how my injured hand was slow­ing down my abil­i­ty to write—but how much it was affect­ing my brain.

16th-century Prosthetics (1564) designed by Ambroise Paré
16th-cen­tu­ry Pros­thet­ics (1564) designed by Ambroise Paré

Writ­ing begins with the burst of an idea in my brain that my body instant­ly wants to acti­vate. Since my injury, for the first time, I noticed that I could feel those fresh ideas shoot­ing down my right arm—only to get backed up, as if in a clogged pipe.

Now, back­logged ideas are des­per­ate­ly seek­ing egress from my brain before they fade into obliv­ion. Old habits are hard to break, and try­ing to rewire my think­ing to ignite my left arm to action (and with some degree of speed) has ulti­mate­ly changed not just the way I write, but what ends up on the paper.

Maybe it gives me more time to edit my thoughts before they get translit­er­at­ed to the page? Maybe it changes my sto­ry, as described from a left-hand per­spec­tive? Maybe it only proves that even when I can’t write, I can’t help but fig­ure out a way to keep try­ing.

What is the phys­i­cal act of writ­ing, real­ly? Maybe at the very least, it’s our brain’s great escape.

Illus­tra­tion from Edwin D. Babbitt’s The Prin­ci­ples of Light and Col­or (1878)

Cakewalk into Town?

What was I think­ing? Had I gone over the edge? Sure, I was young – lo, those forty-plus years ago – but even then I knew that writ­ing is dif­fi­cult, time-con­sum­ing, social­ly ques­tion­able, and unlike­ly to lead to finan­cial well-being, espe­cial­ly the sort of writ­ing I was inter­est­ed in pro­duc­ing at the time (lit­er­ary fic­tion and Dylanesque blues songs).

Nev­er­the­less, when I heard the call – “Jeff, this is the Muse speak­ing; you’re going to need to do some writ­ing” – I was pow­er­less to resist (not that I didn’t try) and soon set about the task of chis­el­ing away, mil­lime­ter by crusty mil­lime­ter, my cal­ci­fied sense of a chick­en-heart­ed, tongue-tied, tal­ent­less self to find the bold writer with­in. I’m cer­tain that at the time I did not under­stand this to be a life­long assign­ment. I thought I was nego­ti­at­ing for some­thing short­er term. Per­haps I wasn’t crazy but sim­ply neglect­ful in read­ing the small print: “Should you ever aban­don the prac­tice of writ­ing, even for years, you will return, again and again…and again….”

Cake-Walk, Leo Rauth, 1913

And so I have. But why? Writ­ing is not a cake­walk for me. It’s often a slow crawl on hands and knees, pick­ing through the weeds for the right word, the only word in the entire Eng­lish lan­guage that will do at the giv­en moment. The weeds can be thick, and the exact­ly right word may be myth­i­cal, but I sup­pose there­in lies one source of the attrac­tion to the craft. As a mar­gin­al­ly autis­tic child, I became fas­ci­nat­ed with words – their sounds, innards, and rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al com­plex­i­ty. Word­play was a sig­nif­i­cant fea­ture of my inter­nal mono­logue.

Sub­se­quent­ly, by the time it occurred to me to become some sort of writer, lan­guage was much more than a means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion: it was a vast palette of fine­ly tuned lex­i­cal col­ors for paint­ing pic­tures of mean­ing, for mak­ing nar­ra­tive art. In print and in song, it’s dif­fi­cult for me to quick­ly sum­ma­rize a sim­ple sto­ry – I have to paint it.

A par­tic­i­pant in our recent Tell Tai­lors intro­duc­to­ry work­shop remind­ed me of the old days when peo­ple wrote actu­al let­ters, some­times long let­ters, on paper that they fold­ed and put in envelopes to be mailed. This fel­low said he was prompt­ed to explore oth­er writ­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties after years of being told that he writes great let­ters. A wave of nos­tal­gia swept over me. That’s how I start­ed writ­ing, too. I real­ized that I miss the activ­i­ty of devot­ing as much time as nec­es­sary to turn­ing “Went to the beach, had a good time” into a vivid com­ic adven­ture intend­ed for a very spe­cif­ic audi­ence: a per­son­al friend.

I think I have just dis­cov­ered my next writ­ing exer­cise assign­ment. How about you? Have you dab­bled in the ven­er­a­ble art of craft­ed let­ter writ­ing?