Joan Didion, “On Keeping a Notebook,” from “Slouching Toward Bethlehem.”
Why write? Here’s some inspiration from one of my favorite essayists. So much wisdom to unpack, lines that you get, yet have to get to again and again. Particularly inspiring if you’re working to finish your NaNoWriMo novel this month and have, oh, 15,000 words to go. *Smiley face of joyful anxiety here*
That’s me in the white shirt, the fanny pack, the giant iPod thingy on my arm, the body in mid-air. I ran the 2010 LA Marathon and finished around the time I’d planned. I’m actually pretty proud of that, especially the last 1/5 of a mile in which my fingers felt tingly and no amount of Van Halen’s “Right Now” (I love you, 1992) could keep me in the moment.
Since then, I haven’t done a marathon. I got sciatica in 2011 and have been hesitant about running such distances (but I will). Plus, I’m lazy like a mofo.
And on that marathon note, it’s National Novel Writing Month in November, as I’m sure plenty of you have heard. And plenty of you probably don’t want to read another post about it. And that’s fair. You’re too busy and I’m reasonably self-reflective about my narcissism. And there are better pieces about this wonderful movement, like this one.
So I’ll spare you and end this post with praise:
Here’s to 50,000 words in a month. Here’s to giving my inner editor a month’s vacation. Here’s to not looking back until December. Here’s to respecting the moment’s conception and not thinking about reception. Here’s to the community of NaNoWriMo people that has inspired me. Here’s to my friend who woke me up at 9:30 a.m. this past Sunday to join the writers group in Pasadena. Here’s to awesome nonprofit community work and human spirit. Here’s to tonight’s quota. Here’s to being single so I don’t feel guilty about hitting my quota. Here’s to all of you trying to bridge our big and little worlds with words. Here’s to goals, which open doors of meaning to a very strange life. Thanks.
Weeks ago I was holy-shit!-wowed by a marketing lecture in which one of my new writing heroes, Beth Dunn, repeated the mantra, Write shit every day, but write every day. As she’d return to this refreshing refrain (it kicks out the devilish inner editor – that asshole who says your writing is shit – by conceding his point), a cute three-layer icon of digital doo-doo appeared on the slide to represent that pile of rough drafting we do daily. I felt the air clear hearing this. My little writerly lungs took in more life-force. And briefly I thought, “Is ‘doo-doo’ hyphenated? If not, when did it become a hyphenless compound?”
The session sent a steady stream of chills through me. And my own overcoming-writer’s-block metaphors arose to mind: like the construction of a cathedral. You can’t get your writing to be a cathedral overnight because you’re afraid of breaking down walls or putting up scaffolding. Christ’s sake, you’re gonna have to have some shitty starts and views to get to the gorgeous finale.
I also thought, I’ve heard this before! … Anne Lamott!, whose first chapter of her seminal writing book Bird by Bird is “Shitty First Drafts.” Dunn was tapping that same energy but riffing in her own humorous-and-vulnerable-at-once way. She was absolutely right: I was holding myself back from producing a larger – and BETTER – quantity of work because I was, like many of us, paralyzed by the desire to produce the highest grade stuff.
The Practice of Writing Is Like Meditation
Sometimes I think that self-imposed writers paralysis is like a meditator deciding not to meditate “cuz the last time I sat, I was a mess,” or “I didn’t reach” a deep state of peace, or couldn’t stop thinking about the grocery needs or the ex-boyfriend, etc. I don’t know how many meditation sittings I’ve attended where someone is lamenting about his “quality of meditation” and “getting to” a certain where subject and object slough aside. I also don’t know the last time I meditated, to be honest.
It’s kind of silly, really. I mean, we are buzzing around all day in the city and we come to this little meditation hall at a Unitarian church on a weekday evening and we expect peace beyond peace? Why do we impose these “get enlightened quick” schemes on our poor brains? Why do we place so much pressure on the quality of our sitting session or writing session? Enlightenment is okayness with imperfection. Being at ease with a shitty first draft.
It’s a nasty state of cognitive dissonance to keep thinking you’re sitting down to reach a state of bliss only to realize you’ve pretty much rehearsed a spousal argument in your head for 30 minutes of zazen. Pat yourself on the back for just sitting in the first place. That itself is the greatest work.
It’s equally sucky to think you’re gonna write a damn-fine sonorous sonnet and end up with a handful of forced rhymes that remind you of your teenage days. You just wrote maybe a couple lines you think are worth keeping. Fucking hell, love yourself for that.
Why not lower your standards? Why not abandon hope? Chin up and let it all go.
What the Teachers Said
One of my favorite teachers in this lifetime, my brother, a jazz guitarist, once gave me this important life lesson when I told him I worried I wasn’t writing unique guitar riffs.
“No one’s been unique since Bach,” he said. His tone said that this was truth cast in stone.
“Not even Metallica?”
“Not even Metallica.”
My favorite college philosophy professor said the gist of the same thing to me when I told him my anxieties about getting at unique, never-before-read-genius-shit in my philosophy thesis: “Those ‘unique moments’ hit you late at night in the middle of your writing, maybe at 4 a.m. But you don’t see it coming.”
Fair enough. But why were these enlightened teachers of mine the ones who were also the most “practical sounding”? Why did they sound nearly cynical?
Because they knew that the key to my creative opening was not to impose a standard but to open me up to producing the work. The desire to create a unique work is a great roadblock to creativity.
Here’s my beginner’s wisdom as my final thoughts. First: Write today, edit tomorrow. Fine, go back and fix a sentence here and there – but only after you’ve completed some subsection at least – but in general ignore your delete button.
Second, here’s what I think of my meditation: “I sit just to observe my [crazy-ass] mind.” When I sit down to write, I sit down to write my shitty first drafts. “But they’re mine.” Take ownership of your however-unoriginal vision. The point is to get going. You’re not supposed to have the answers; if you had the answers, that’d be a shitty book no one really wants to read. Or, as Rainer Maria Rilke more poetically put it, “Live the question.” Down the road the answer will perhaps arise.
“Attainment thinking” stops us from moving at all. It’s creative paralysis. Nonattainment thinking opens us up, gets us moving, at least pauses the internal editor or philosopher and gets us digging. Less prefrontal cortex, more cerebellum. Less thinking about writing, more brain-at-your-fingertips. (This is how I think: I jump between metaphors. I hope some of these help. Maybe they don’t. Fuck it, it’s my first draft.)
Meditation advice from the Dalai Lama down has always been just this: JUST SIT. Show up and sit. Daily. 5 minutes, 50 minutes, doesn’t matter. Just sit. Nothing else. Your cushion under your ass. Try to get your knees to touch the ground. Be comfortable, spine straight, shoulders relaxed. Eyes open or shut or just half-open. But just sit. Doesn’t matter if the mind is boiling off the lid of your head. Sit please.
Just sit: The enlightened masters will coach you along. Just write: The enlightened writers will tell you the same.
Behind all this advice is a warning against the self: self-loathing, self-defeat. Behind everything your great teachers have said to you, they said, “Love yourself. Now go do it.”
You figure out what it is.
I had to share this video of Brene Brown delivering one of the most powerful talks I’ve ever had the privilege of experiencing. After watching this, I passed it to two other friends, with whom I had some profound discussions about vulnerability, its power, and the ways that we run from that source/power.
For myself, I’ve run away from this source in every possible way, and in my private life, what I run from most is writing and meditation – two practices that require one to look at things just as they are, get curious with the suffering, let it percolate to the surface of consciousness, and watch it take place, or take flight, safely on the page or in the mind. Funny that I run from a blank Word doc or the murky mind where life is simulated and rehearsed. Pause just a little bit and watch “it” for what it is, and I can experience freedom. Type it out, breathe with it, and in this way let it go.
How many of our issues could be lessened, eliminated, or given a fresh new angle if we just allowed them to arise “just as they are” without the narrative and thus judgment?
Another reason to write: to explore vulnerability, to ask questions of endless narratives (the poorest writing has all the answers), and in that exploration link with another’s loneliness, and maybe solve that for a bit, or laugh at it. I’d say it’s all worthwhile, exploring the places that scare us (to borrow from Pema Chodron).
Now, to that TED Talk!
“I don’t think you have time to waste not writing because you are afraid you won’t be good at it.” That’s Anne Lamott in her bestselling Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, a book I savor to this day. Its first chapter is “Shitty First Drafts”—a heart-opening first act for a work that inspires you to dig into the muck of life and start planting. Lamott’s statement cuts through the negative ego and implores, Keep going, don’t look back.
I don’t see the same kind of self-doubt in music as I do in writing. I’ve rarely seen anyone pick up an acoustic guitar, start playing, and then stop mid-song to realize that they’re “really not that talented anyhow” and stop. But I don’t play music enough to make an accurate assessment. Usually I’ve witnessed people keep going, keep in tune with whatever they’re playing no matter how “out of tune” they might be. I wish I could say the same of my writing process.
I have stopped mid-writing—in a story or poem—letting that insidious inner voice kick in with doubt, calling itself the editor when in fact it was just the negative ego halting creative flow. Why do that to myself, especially when I may end up with a line, paragraph, or chapter that I wouldn’t otherwise reach unless I let that current of creativity sweep me downstream, the way you might find yourself soloing over a few chords and get lost in a timelessness of a few minutes?
Why stop? You have no idea what idea you might be missing.
I am speaking of course of early drafts. Surely there are times when you have already put in your time/timelessness into a draft—you’ve got the skeleton of a word temple set up, and you realize it’s on sandy ground and probably deserves razing or major fixing up, despite how pretty the ceiling beams look. That’s fine. That takes discernment and awareness to realize that you’ll maybe keep the couplet, but scrap the sonnet.
But you wouldn’t have gotten those two “good lines” until you had put that work into that first draft. And that first draft is likely going to be shitty, or at least somewhat off. Even as you touch up something, it’s going to have scaffolding around the outside; it’s gonna look ugly to you and maybe others.
Even if it is a Notre-Dame of a novel. That’s part of the progress.
Your ego is not the beginning or end of your writing. (By “ego” I mean: either the inflated OR the deflated ego, especially the inner voice of “not good enough, so stop now.”) At least, I don’t believe it should be. You are writing to give birth to something you can’t otherwise express, no matter how small or great a creation. You are getting usefully lost in perspectives and narratives the way you get lost jamming over a few chords. You are harnessing a creative energy that is so necessary to you that without that channeling instrument—be it pen, piano, or paintbrush—you would feel trapped, maybe self-destructive. That energy takes on its own life and you listen to it and nurture it, incubate it, disclose its early development only to the closest confidants.
My friend who ghostwrote a cookbook once told me that she was able to complete it simply because “I was pregnant with it.” Years after the publication, when friends who asked her why she hadn’t yet produced another book, she simply declared, “I’m not pregnant.” She knew that she couldn’t stop when she was pregnant with the thoughts, awareness, imagination, and writing mission. She knew herself well enough as a channel for creativity. Engulfing thoughts of inflated/deflated ego were not present when she spoke of writing.
I’m not so enlightened and objective with my creativity. My basic advice to myself actually comes from a grant writing teacher years ago: “Today you write. No editing. Editing is for tomorrow.” That was enough to silence any voice of doubt and keep me flowing.
How do you capture your flow? Feel free to leave a comment below.