getting started

Hand-crafted Writing

Got a book to write, or any sort of new writing project for that matter, but don’t know how to get started? As a preliminary step, I recommend reading Lewis H. Lapham’s short essay in AARP The Magazine (February/March 2019). Mr. Lapham is a former editor of Harper’s Magazine, the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly, an author of numerous books, and, in this essay, a distinguished elder offering sage advice about basic principles of writing.

Pay no attention to the cheesy promotional title attached at the top: “Lewis Lapham Tells You How to Write a Book.” He does no such thing. What he actually does is far better. He teaches you how to fish: bait the writing hook, get the hook in the water, learn the patience of the practice, and come to love that practice – necessary steps in the development of your writing project.

Twice in the course of his discussion, Lapham mentions the benefits of using pen and paper for initial writing and regular practice. For those of you raised on computers and cell phones, this might seem akin to extolling the virtues of washing your clothes by hand in a nearby creek. The idea here is not subtraction of modern convenience (impossible, in any case, if you want to publish), but rather re-addition of the best tools available. Good news: these tools can be purchased for next to nothing.

This is not to say that you can’t generate pages of consistently fresh imagery while staring at your laptop screen with your fingers tapping freely on the keys. Certainly such miracles do occur. It seems to me, however, that relying on that method for all writing puts the writer at a practical and tactile disadvantage, especially for first drafts.

As Lapham puts it: “The shaping of words on paper brings them to life in the sound of a voice.” There is something about hand-crafting characters on a page with a pen that allows the creative expression to stay more closely connected to the body, to its voice, perhaps even to the spirit generating the resonance of that voice.

Think of what your computer’s writing program is called: a word processor. So formal sounding, so industrial. The computer is an amazing tool for treating, arranging, adapting, adjusting, perfecting – for processing – your words. But for generating them, there’s nothing like the old-school approach.

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?


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