writing habits

Mandatory Honesty…

…for twenty-five minutes at a time

My colleagues have made compelling arguments that writers need to simply write. This is, admittedly, hardly a revolutionary position – the problem of “butt in chair” is well-known in writing and in all creative endeavors. The fact that we’re still able to express new perspectives on this problem speaks not only to Monique and Jeff’s curiosity and bravery but also to the stubborn intractability of the creative struggle.

As a writer, I’m no less filled with fear, indolence, and self-doubt, but I am perhaps more eager to believe in systemic fixes for these problems of the human heart. One such fix that’s worked for me is an approach to work known as the Pomodoro Technique®, which is at its core simply a series of commitments to focus on a single task for 25 minutes. There are more details, of course, and you’ll find a complete explanation at the website of its creator, Francisco Cirillo, but for me the brilliance and power of the approach lies in this commitment. No multitasking, no checking email or the news, no cop-outs – just do one and only one thing for a short while.

Twenty-five minutes is a magical duration: about the length of a 70’s sitcom, it’s not long enough to be scary, it’s not even a half-hour—but it is long enough to make real progress. (Just think about how much trouble Laverne & Shirley got into in one episode!) Pomodoro® further mandates a 5-minute break at the end of the work session, which is about enough time to reflect on how much fun that was, do some stretches, get some coffee, and let your fingers and brain relax from the swirl of creation. (Speaking of which, hang on, time for my break.)

The mandatory breaks are just as important as the work periods, as they give you the endurance to complete a series of four work sessions, at which point you take a thirty-minute break. During this longer break, there’s time to look back on what you’ve just accomplished and be amazed – it’s a positive feedback loop that not only feels great but also charges you up for the next round of four sessions.

There is one final requirement, though, an ingredient without which I’d have nothing but unchecked boxes on a post-it note: honesty. You must honestly commit to the singular focus, and hold that focus through discomfort, doubt, and distraction. You must have the self-awareness to see when you’re straying from it (like I just did, wanting to stop composing and search for the image I’d like to have two paragraphs up), and the discipline to get back on track. And then, when you’re done, you must honestly give yourself the credit you deserve for successfully engaging with the perennial and intractable problem of human communication, one bite-size chunk at a time.

Check out his website, give it a try, and let us know in the comments how it’s working for you.

tell-tailors.com is not affiliated with, associated with, or endorsed by the Pomodoro Technique® or Francesco Cirillo

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.

Old Scraps, New Stories

I’m a recycler. If I can re-use, repurpose, or rework, I will.

This is especially true with paper. Perhaps it’s due to the influence of my WWII-generation family members, who repurposed materials as a matter of course, or of my witnessing too many old black walnut trees die or be cut down, or simply of my appreciating the value of ink and paper from student days when I had to choose between groceries and school supplies.

The paper in my collection ranges from 3×5 note cards with storyboarded scenes from screenplays that have never seen the light of day, to notebooks filled with research for a turn-of-the-century sports biopic, to proof pages of work-for-hire projects about pirates or fairies or the moon. If I can reprint on the back side, great. If I can reuse the blank sides of notecards for another round of storyboarding, super. And if I can redraw new characters or new stories inspired by old research – golden.

These esoteric scraps have stories of their own. And many have stories yet to come. For my birthday this year, I received new evidence of this fact, in the form of a year-long collage class. In just the first few weeks, I’ve come to an even deeper way of looking at paper, of reusing it, and of celebrating these random bits that I can translate into completely new forms. My creations are strange mash-ups of mixed media. These scraps might be water-damaged photocopies of western landscapes or cut-out shapes from an old paperback of Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls or ripped pages from last year’s calendar.

Dream Catcher. Mixed media collage of fish-print wrapping paper, magazine scraps, water-damaged photocopied image, paperback book page, coin wrapper, envelope, and colored pencil. Monique Peterson, 2019.

The process has already informed my writing. In all the work there is a similar thread: story. As I place random scraps together to see what evolves, I still seek an entry and an exit for the eye – and so it is with writing. A single image, though two-dimensional, can still convey a past, a present, and a future; a sense of tension or drama; an atmosphere; an attitude. Even as I craft compositions from my scraps of paper, the images offer up characters, places, and stories that I’d like to develop further.

Suddenly, a fun scrap class has turned itself on its head for me and become an incubator for new stories. Definitely golden.

In the spirit of small bits leading to big ideas, we’ve been crafting Writing Snacks for the month of March. We’ve designed this series of quick random writing explorations as a way to break down barriers toward developing new ideas as well as to build up a practice for regular creative engagement. We invite you to see for yourself what a few scraps can do for the imagination. Click here to indulge in Writing Snacks and see what evolves.

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.

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)
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