A Writer Runs Through It: A Guide of Sorts

April 05th, 2012 | Category: Essays

I started writing poems and comics, and making fake newspapers at the age of six. Having grown up with an artist mom and always drawing, painting, or making something, I thought I’d end up an artist. I started making photocopied zines in my teens and taught myself how to turn events and interviews into pages with staples, but my driving interest (aside from the BMX, skateboarding, and music content that inspired those zines in the first place) was originally in the layouts. Balancing words and images on the page excited me. I thought I might end up being an artist of some sort after all. In fact, I was an Art major for my first three years of undergraduate study. As I’ve written elsewhere,

If I were forced to pick a single answer to the question “What do you do?” I would probably say I’m a writer, though I never did well on writing assignments in school. In spite of my placement in advanced classes, I scored poorly throughout high school on writing-related projects. Hell, I made C’s in both English Composition 101 and 102, but In my second-to-last semester of undergrad, one of my instructors complimented my writing. We had done several in-class essays in her Abnormal Psychology class, and one day she pulled me aside and told me what a good writer I was. This came as a surprise, given my previous track record and the fact that I’d been an Art major for my first three years of college. Regardless, it stuck with me. I took a class on writing for social science research the next semester, and though I barely made a B, I felt more at home researching and writing than I ever had trying to do traditional art.

Typical me. (photo by Lily Brewer)

Since then, I’ve moved on to just about every type of writing, and the process intrigues me to no end. I find that writing in different formats and styles (e.g., academic, journalistic, poetry, online, etc.) breaks up any creeping monotony and keeps me writing. As such, I try to be a writer at all times. As Johannes Milner (1814) put it, “Poetry is not something to be activated and deactivated. It is a part of a process, a byproduct of simply being poetic” (p. 43). So, at its best, writing is not an activity unto itself, but a byproduct of being a writer. Here are a few tips for becoming and being the writer you want to be (which we will explore in-depth below):

  • Find Make Time to Write: Unscheduled time is lost time. You have to give yourself breaks and let yourself enjoy them, but making time to write is essential. This is first and foremost.
  • Always Be Writing/Write Everything Down: This does not always seem possible for the busy among us, but allowing for the opportunity is imperative. Collecting your most fleeting thoughts — on the bus, in the car, while trying to fall asleep, during any downtime whatsoever — is an important practice. Don’t assume you’ll remember them. You won’t. Write them down.
  • Don’t Let the Blank Page Stop You: Being intimidated by the emptiness of a white page and a blinking cursor can be debilitating. Just type what you’re thinking. If you’ve jotted down notes, type them up. You can — and will — edit later. This will get you past the blankness. It has been said that writing is re-writing, so take advantage of the impermanence of your initial words.
  • Release Your Darlings: I’ve posted about this one before, but it bears repeating. Don’t sit on your ideas. Get them out there. You’ll get invaluable feedback from blog posts, Tweets, and exchanging emails that you won’t get from a Word file withering away in the foldered hierarchy of your hard drive.
  • Collaborate: The fruits we bare are inevitably due to the roots we share. Collaboration makes each one of us bigger. Read widely and exchange ideas with many. Even if it’s just having someone to bounce your ideas around with, the importance of sharing them cannot be overstated.
  • Stay Positive: This stuff isn’t easy, but inspiration is all around you. I find it in books, discussions, stand-up comedy, Hip-hop, my fiancée, animals, staying up late, reading magazines, listening to music, etc. Don’t look for reasons to be discouraged. The world is full of inspiring things if you look for them.

From the page I feel a lot of pressure
I treat it like it’s too precious
Like there’s an audience saying, ‘Impress us!’
But it’s just my impression
— Roy Christopher, June 19, 2007

In his book On Writing (Pocket, 2001), Stephen King urges aspiring writers to turn off their televisions, writing, “Once weaned from the ephemeral craving for TV, most people will find that they enjoy the time they spend reading. I’d like to suggest that turning off that endlessly quacking box is apt to improve the quality of your life and the quality of your writing” (p. 148). Director Michel Gondry adds, “I stopped my son from playing videogames, and he began to develop all kinds of creative skills. It’s human to seek out the quickest reward, but if you get the reward immediately, you don’t go anywhere else. You learn that the delayed reward is more rewarding” (quoted in Thill,2006, p. 56). These two quotations get at the issue of distraction. Having time away from writing is also important, as is having a head-clearing activity. I have colleagues who can’t write at home due to things like dishes, television, roommates, spouses, etc. I know others who have their own “writing space”: a nice, secluded spot with a comfortable chair, and good tea. Still others are binge writers: They need large chunks of time to write anything of substance. I am sympathetic to all of these conditions, but I have found it important to cultivate the ability to write at any time, in any circumstance — even if it’s just collecting thoughts about something. I keep a pen and paper in my pocket at all times, pen and pad by my bed, notebook(s) in my backpack and all over the house. I do find that I need large chunks of uninterrupted time to surmount larger writing tasks, but the ubiquity of computers, portable or otherwise, makes writing anywhere a much more viable option.

It’s not always about making a fist, sometimes it’s about opening your hand. — Tom Waits

In Post-Continental Voices: Selected Interviews (Zer0 Books, 2010), Paul J. Ennis interviews seven scholars all working in and around new Continental Philosophy (e.g., Graham Harman, Levi Bryant, Ian Bogost, et al.). There’s a lot of solid writing advice in each of these. In his interview, Stuart Elden states:

The key thing is that there is no correct way to write, but ways that work for individuals. The problem is that people seem to try to write in ways that are not right for them, that are just not working. Personally I try to write everyday, even if it’s just typing up notes or work on references. I try not to get hung up over particular words or formulations; because I go over things so many times that I never think anything I write is the final version. For me that’s helpful in not getting blocked. I write a lot of “stage directions” into the text — “this link doesn’t work”; “need better examples”; “develop” etc. — and I move on. (p. 43)

He goes on to talk about reading a lot and how it inspires him to write, as well as writing cumulatively as opposed to on deadline, adding, “I do know people who claim to work that way, and they can ‘turn on’ the writing at that late point. It just doesn’t work for me — writing is more of a slow accumulation. I’ve written some shorter pieces quite quickly, but most pieces are built up very slowly, accretion over a long period of time. The other thing to note is that I work on several things — not quite at once — but in parallel” (p. 43). Billy Wimsatt once said that the first rule of writing is reading a lot, and I concur with that. Also, reading widely is helpful. Venture outside of your area of interest. Treat your mind like an ecology and diversify its literary flora and fauna. I also agree with Elden’s working on several pieces in parallel. When work on one project stalls, switching to another can jostle new ideas loose. The process is less about balance and more about tension.

In his interview with Ennis, Levi Bryant adds, “Too many of us labor over projects in isolation, never revealing them to anyone else until finally, at long last, they are masterpieces ready for publication. I think this is a tremendous mistake both in terms of prospects for professional success and intellectually. Attending conferences, talking to other academics, participating on discussion lists, and blogging all create countless opportunities and assist in your intellectual development. Nor should this engagement be restricted to established academics” (p. 79).

Waiting until the “right” time to write and toiling away at it alone might be our two biggest mistakes. One of my main correspondents with regard to writing is my friend Alex Burns. In a recent email exchange, he introduced me to the idea of “hot space.” That is, a quick snapshot of an idea that often resonates with an audience more so than something fully formed. The concept’s namesake being Queen’s 1982 album Hot Space, which was apparently recorded in very quick bursts of studio time. Again, sharing cannot be overstated. Don’t deprive the world of your ideas. Get them out there and see if they float or sink. This practice will also help you build a platform.

When she wrote about things, her sense of them changed, and with it, her sense of herself. — William GibsonSpook Country.

A friend of mine recently lamented on Facebook, “I miss being able to write creatively. I feel like academia has ruined me. What can I do to jump start my imagination and start writing again? :( It makes me really sad.” This has been a fear of mine as well, and I find that constantly working on different kinds of projects helps keep my writing limber.

More to her question, there are many, many books on breaking out of these ruts and finding new grooves. In spite of its New-Agey style, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Unleashing the Writer Within (Shambhala, 2005) is one I return to regularly. Goldberg outlines a total plan for writing as a practice, which can be overwhelming if taken wholesale, but the book is rife with reminders of how to write through the fits and starts of any project. Daniel Pink‘s A Whole New Mind (Riverhead, 2006) has some great exercises for getting the creative process started as well. Ultimately, as Stuart Elden stated above, each of us has to find what works for our writing needs, but trying out the methods of successful writers is one tactic to finding your own way.

The best way of getting into something is to think of it as mischief.
Steve Aylett, The Crime Studio

Being a writer is not an easy path to take, but it’s navigable. Don’t be afraid to test an idea, ask for help, or bounce ideas off someone. The more difficult it is, the more likely you will find it rewarding when you finish a project. Some people write all the time, and others are able to plow through when something is due. Experiment and find what works for you. Ultimately, if you want it, you have to find a way to make it happen.

References:

Aylett, Steve. (2001). The Crime Studio. New York: Thunder’s Mouth.

Ennis, Paul J. (2010). Post-Continental Voices: Selected Interviews. London: Zer0 Books.

Gibson, William. (2007). Spook Country: A Novel. New York: Putnam, p. 171.

Goldberg, Natalie. (2005). Writing Down the Bones: Unleashing the Writer Within. Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada: Shambhala.

King, Steven. (2001). On Writing. New York: Pocket Books.

Milner, Johannes. (1814). This Quotation is From a Dream I Had: Pull Inspiration from Everything. My Head: Dream Time.

Pink, Daniel H. (2006). A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. New York: Riverhead.

Thill, Scott. (2006, March). Keeping it Reel: Michel Gondry’s Block Party. WIRED, 14.03, p. 56.

Further Posting:

6 Comments »

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