In public response to a writer-friend who asked me this a couple weeks ago, here are my thoughts, theories and practices on the grueling process of repeated vulnerability and bullshitting. To clarify—I hate writing. I love having written. And no I can’t take credit for that quip, that’s the brilliant Dorothy Parker.
I write a lot. I read a lot. But usually the last thing I want to do is write about what I’m supposed to be writing about. Take for example the English paper I’m supposed to be writing right now.
1. Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott.
This book changed my life. And I stumbled across it in the most romantic way possible: on a bookshelf at the volunteer house in Ghana, peeking from behind a badly designed romantic paperback novel, at a time when writing was my only source of digestion.
Anne Lamott taught me the two most important things I’ve ever learned in writing:
Dialogue is the key to establishing character. Lamott suggests in her book a simple exercise of using friends as characters. So I sat down in Africa on my bed every night and wrote about my closest friends. I wrote every conversation I could possibly remember having with them. I wrote about every love I ever had, my childhood best friend, every family member. I wrote them down in a little locked notebook of characters in my life. And for the record, it’s amazing how many conversations you can re-live word for word. I wrote them all down in dialogue. The goal when writing characters, Lamott said, is to create a character that becomes its own, that suddenly begins to speak for itself. You have achieved a successful character, Lamott writes, if you can begin to accurately imagine what that character would say before they say it. Like those times when you hear a phrase and think “That sounds like something so and so would say.” Characters aren’t reflections of you, they’re simply a voice, and voices can speak for themselves. Joyce Carol Oates, champion of developing complex characters, spoke at our town center the other night and said “The great privilege of writing is to escape oneself and give voice to others.”
Cut the first and last paragraph
Even when discussing existential/vulnerable crises with friends, it takes us a while to get to the point. Writing is the same. I almost always cut the first and last paragraphs of my writing, or at least heavily condense them. I am my most brutal editor. This practice has typically given me a stronger thesis and ending to my work.
2. Get it out.
Though I dance around the commitment of actually sitting down and writing, I am always more at ease once I just do it. I have a friend who told me once that she would sit down at her computer, turn the monitor off, or the brightness down to a black, and just type and type and type. Just get it out. Spit it out. Vomit it out. As long as it’s out it’s not building up inside you. It’s always easier to edit anyhow. Lamott is a huge believer in “shitty first drafts.” And I love her for it. What would be the point of work if we did everything perfectly the first time?
Sometimes I just sit down and write everything.
More often than not I’ve thought about what I’m trying to communicate before I write it down. This is usually happening subconsciously or consciously as I’m digesting research or reading or interviewing.
Recently, I have found it wonderfully effective if I can talk to someone about my paper/article research and findings, like I’m talking to a friend about any other article I’ve found. Normal people will be reading your work, so talking to normal people (friends, family, co-workers, peers) oftentimes helps me find the main points of my story/article/paper.
Subheadings are my personal best friends. Maybe that’s just me. I love organization. It also helps because if I write down my subheadings for my paper, then I just write individually about those different points within the story. If I can’t think/write anything more about one point, I work on another and just come back to it later. Notice how I even did that in this post.
I print out the entire paper almost every time after I write. I have about two copies of everything I write. Well, they’re in the recycling bin. I don’t keep all of them. And no, I don’t print out any blog posts. That’d be excessive. Printing helps me get it in another form and it’s a good break from the screen. I believe it helps my editing too, because printing it out somehow separates me from my work and gives me a better third-party eye.
I write mostly in coffee shops and on my front porch. The picture above is of my little twinkling lights hung on my porch. I write late at night after a cup of coffee and sometimes a cigarette if I’m really really stressed and on a crazy deadline. Sorry, mom. It’s true. That only happens maybe once a month, when I’ve got like three or more papers due in one week.
Coffee shops surround me with a good buzz of conversation. Sometimes they can be distracting, which is why I love my front porch. I love breathing in the sharp air of a cool night breeze. It clears my mind.
Sometimes I write in the afternoon during tea time, when I’ve got a good couple hours to devote to spitting it out, taking a reading break, and then editing. (Establishing a tea time has become one of the most relaxing parts of my day.)
I do my best to write about 3 days before something is due. I can definitely write in one sitting on deadline and turn something in at the last minute, but that’s stressful and the best work is that which has been mulled over. So, obviously I save those late night cranking-out-of-papers for papers I care less about, or ones that only require one source, like a close reading.
– I never say “I believe” or “I think” in writing, unless, of course, I’m writing about a personal practice of mine that cannot be generalized and comes of my own experience. This is a redundant statement. If you’re writing a statement then you already think and believe it. No need to say it. “In conclusion” and “I am going to write about” are the worst words you could ever pen for the same reasons.
– Sometimes I let one friend read my work before I turn it in. I definitely have editors or journalism friends read my articles to check for AP style errors.
– If I’m having writer’s block, I go for a run or cook. If it’s really bad I stress bake or stress craft or —even better—stress sew.
– I mostly work in hour long segments. I walk away and come back to work a lot.
– Sleep in the best way to mull over something. I’ll usually stay up late writing something and then come back the following morning and look over it.
– Sometimes I map out on paper how I want to structure my argument or writing. This leads to a lot of incoherent scribblings in margins.
– Close reading is your friend. The more specific you are in a paper, the more your professor will love you. For English papers I focus on a specific paragraph-or-so long passage and WAY over-analyze it. Does her red hair band symbolize the over sexualized interpretation of women’s roles in the 18th century? You bet it does. For history papers I use excessive adjectives and give Stephanie Meyer a run for her money. It’s the only time I can get away with it. And I usually need to extra word count.
– I make a game of word count. If it’s 1500 words minimum, I get as close to 1500 as I can. One should be able to effectively communicate in the least amount of words needed.
– Any chance I get to pull a Mindy Kaling and use a pop-culture reference, I do. One time I compared the death of Olaudah Equiano to a Quentin Tarantino scene. I got away with it because it worked with my “style.” One of my top five favorite scholastic moments.
– Always be reading. Fiction, non-fiction, current, past, children’s, adult’s, articles, poetry, lyrics. Everything is literature.
– I don’t publish everything I write. But I still write it.
– I carry a small paper journal with me everywhere. In it are to-do lists, haikus, quips and drawings. It is my best friend.
(personal plug: I sell the journals I use on etsy.)
– Speaking of, I share publicly what I do publish on my blog or in print or online. I share the articles I’ve written through social media or telling friends. Self-promotion is a good thing, being full of yourself is not. There is a difference. What good is your writing if it’s not shared? Some people write and keep it to themselves, which is fine. I love a good secret. But if you wish to make a living off of your writing, you must share it. You must sell it—in literal or metaphorical form. As a writer you are your own producer, distributor, marketer. Sharing and publishing your work will establish your credibility. Thank God we live in a time when you can self-publish.
Two outlets exist which are perfect for this: your local publication and blogging. I’m a firm believer in blogging, obviously. And I am starting to suspect that journalism will soon become a collection of syndicated bloggers (look at Nate Silver). Blogging shows you have taken the time to express your own thoughts. Publishing in your school or town paper shows that you have gone through an official editing process.
“Writing takes a combination of sophistication and innocence; it takes conscience, our belief that something is beautiful because it’s right. To be great, art has to point somewhere. So if you are no longer familiar with that place of naive conscience, it’s hard to see any point in your being a writer. Almost all of my close friends are walking personality disorders, but I know innocence is in them because I can see it in their faces and in their decisions. I can almost promise that this quality is still in you, that you are capable of quiet heroism.
This sophisticated innocence is a gift. It is yours to give away. We are wired as humans to be open to the world instead of enclosed in a fortified, defensive mentality. What your giving can do is to help your readers be braver, be better than they are, be open to the world again.” — Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird