It’s [the act of writing] like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony.
-from Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.
I feel like lately I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about writing, but very little active creative work. This post is an effort to clarify all the things I’ve been thinking about recently, give my brain a clear direction to go in, and also free up some space for just writing!
This week was a bit of a landmark moment for me – I received my first ever cheque for a short story, published in Visible Ink’s latest anthology. I’ve been awarded mentorships before, and subscriptions to literary journals in which my work has been published, and been given grant money to put towards a particular project. But this is the first time I’ve ever been really, directly paid for my writing. As in – this money is yours to spend in whatever way you want. Buy a really expensive block of chocolate, a bottle of wine, donate it. (What I’ll probably do is use it to pay entry fees to more writing competitions!)
Being published (and paid) for work is so encouraging, and for a short time it’s a huge high. But it really makes no difference at all when you sit down to write something new. The page is still blank, the ideas still feel like they will never come. You decide that your last story must have been a complete fluke, and you’ll never be able to do it again.
This is the real mystery of writing. How does it actually happen? There are some basic rules of language you can follow, some parameters that can be set. But I think, when it really comes down to it, what makes a good story is something not quite within the realm of conscious understanding. Which is why writers (or at least, myself) have so much anxiety – it’s a leap of faith every time I sit down to write something. Is it going to work this time? Is the magic going to happen? Or is this going to be another block of wasted space on my hard drive? Am I going to go home sad and defeated, wondering why I keep doing this at all?
It is somewhat comforting to know other (very successful) writers also feel this way. Something that kept me going for a long time – taped above my desk – was this quote from Junot Diaz:
They [stories and novels] all seem impossible to me. They both have me through the intestines on their horns, so it’s that kind of weird thing like getting gut-shot by a pistol or a rifle.
Stephen King – whose book about writing (also titled On Writing) I recently re-read – describes a similar feeling:
[S]ometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.
And finally – and possibly my favourite – from Kurt Vonnegut:
When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.
On Why I Write
So why – when it is so goddamn difficult – do I write? That might be a good place to start. I think the answer is fairly simple. I write because if I don’t I start to feel like shit; it’s like not getting enough sleep, or not eating enough green veggies. I write because it helps my head feel less cluttered, because it helps me think through (though not necessarily answer – actually, never really answer, since I keep coming back to them again and again) themes and ideas that bother me. I write because I like the way certain words sound next to each other. I think I also write because I like to read – I like good stories (though I think plot is my weakest point when it comes to writing). Sometimes writing really stresses me out. Sometimes it is SO hard. But I keep doing it because if I don’t, life is actually harder, in the long run. And when I get in a writing zone, it is the best place to be. It feels like really living. I like this quote from Anais Nin:
I have days of illuminations … [But then] I have days when the music in my head stops. Then I mend socks, prune trees, can fruits, polish furniture. But while I am doing this I feel I am not living.
However, I don’t think you have to sit around and wait for ‘illuminations.’ Or at least, while you’re waiting, you don’t need to mend socks. You can just write, and sooner or later, the illuminations will kick in, and you will be away.
On Where I Write
Why am I doing it here, in Cambodia? Quite simply, because I can. In Australia I’d never be able to afford so much time to write. Here I can work part time (in a job I love – teaching) and write part time.
On What I Write
When I was in late high school and university I wrote scripts for theatre, because it felt right. Because there was something crisp and simple about dialogue, because I liked how sparse it was and how it looked on the page, how so much could be said with so little, and also how it could be turned into a performance and brought to life.
But then I moved overseas, where there was less of an (English speaking, at least) theatre scene. I started writing short stories. I like the idea of a short story capturing a moment in time. This quote from Anne Enright talking about Raymond Carver describes what I mean:
A story is something told, something that really needs to be said. The most we can say perhaps is that a short story is about a moment in life; and that, after this moment, we realise something has changed.
Poetry does this, too, but I’ve never been as drawn to poetry, though I do write it sometimes, for fun. I like the simplicity of short stories, the logical side of them, the structure (inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action) but also the potential they offer within that structure to be crazy, to be anything they want. And I like that they are short – that I can finish one in a week or a few days, and feel like I’ve explored an important idea, recorded something worthwhile, learned something about myself (usually – lately – something to do with my childhood, my family, my teenage years).
Why do I write (or try to write) novels? I’ve only really finished one novel. And it happened by accident – what I thought was just free-writing, possibly a short story, turned into something longer. And then longer. The voice fit, I loved the character, I wanted to keep writing her. And suddenly it was a novel. This is perhaps why writing the next one scares me so much – because what if I don’t fall into that groove again? What if I don’t find a voice I like, that lets me just keep going? (I guess the answer to that is to just write every day anyway and wait for something to get longer again).
And why do I write this blog? A number of reasons, I think. To force myself to get at least one thing polished enough each week for a wider audience to read (however many of you that may actually be). To force myself to think more deeply about films and books, to understand what I like and don’t like about them, to be more articulate. And to record some of my life – whether it’s living overseas, travelling, diabetes – from different angles, in more interesting ways.
On How I Write
What is this mysterious process? It’s taken me years to get comfortable with a writing process, and I still don’t feel like I’ve perfected it. I used to start with plot, a careful planning out of events, using the ‘story mountain’, drawing it out. But all the stories I wrote that way ended up feeling forced. As Stephen King writes: “plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible … the story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.” Similarly if I started with a theme or issue I wanted to say something about, the resulting story ended up feeling too contrived. King also has something similar to say about this:
Good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story.
I agree. Now I write starting with language. With one image, or a line, or a couple of unrelated images that I try to connect together (the brain is always trying to – unconsciously – make connections between things, and if you give it two random ideas it will connect them for you) and then I just start. And I keep writing – quickly! As King says, writing rapidly helps you “outrun the self-doubt that’s always waiting to settle in.” It takes a while to get into the zone, but I’m a believer now in letting the subconscious take over and ignoring the conscious mind. The critic. Just get it all down, and come back to it later. The real you, the real things you are interested in, that you want to talk about, will come out by themselves (as King writes, “I have many interests, but only a few that are deep enough to power novels” – I find that I come back to similar themes over and over again). And they won’t feel forced. I love this quote from E.L. Doctorow (I think a lot of people doing NaNoWriMo at the moment can probably relate to it, too – it’s certainly how I felt writing my novel):
Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
Then I come back and clean up. Like Raymond Chandler said: “Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.” You can’t know whether what you’re writing is good or not while you’re writing it. So why bother trying to judge? Just do it, put it away, and then come back and decide later. That’s when you discover that there are some good bits in there, after all. I look for the themes, I pull them out, I use the story mountain and shape the mess of words around it. But at least I’ve got the mess of words to start with. Out of the primordial ooze of subconscious association comes story.
I also believe in writing every day. Even if it’s just a page, or a few hundred words, or for half an hour. The more you exercise the muscle (and the more regularly) the stronger it gets. Like Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird: “Do it [write] every day for a while … Do it as you would do scales on the piano … And make a commitment to finishing things.”
On Submitting Writing
I used to be much more haphazard about this, and I still think I need to improve. But I’ve learned a lot from other writers (especially at workshop groups) about how and where to submit. Subscribing to literary journals and competitions on Facebook and Twitter is useful for reminders of when places and competitions are open. I keep a record of where I’ve submitted and which piece, and whether it was accepted or not. I also keep notes on whether or not rejections were encouraging! I have four or five stories at the moment that are in my sort of submission cycle. As soon as one gets rejected, I put it back into the file for re-submitting somewhere else. I think doing this has helped me toughen up against rejection. I send things off so often that I forget about them, and when rejections come back it doesn’t affect me so much because I hadn’t been thinking about it. And if something is accepted – hey! Hurray! (And then I have a glass of wine.)
On Having an External Writing Life
It’s often said, and it is generally true, that writing is a solitary pursuit. However, it can be really helpful to find a way to make writing (at least some of the time) social. A few years ago I was in Korea and was feeling really depressed about writing. Mostly because I wasn’t doing it – wasn’t feeling inspired or motivated. My very smart writing mentor back in Australia encouraged me to find a writers group, and I did. Joining Seoul Writers Workshop was one of the best things I’ve ever done for my writing. It was scary, at first, submitting work for feedback, but it improved my writing so much. I also learned a lot by looking at other people’s work – trying to understand why I liked certain things and not others, why some things worked and others didn’t. For short stories now the writing group in Phnom Penh is part of my process – I free-write/vomit, I do an initial edit and clean up, then I submit to the group for feedback, then another edit. I find this a great way to work. It’s also nice to be able to talk to other writers about writing – about the challenges and the joys. Festivals (such as KWRF last weekend) are also great for building connections, inspiring writers with new ideas, and just reminding us (I think actually the Kampot festival has in part prompted this now very long and rambling post) of why writing is important – to us, and to the world.
Having said all of this – and all of these things are great and necessary to my writing process – I have been feeling a bit out of balance lately. A bit too focused on editing, networking, writing synopses, researching blog posts. And not focused enough on the vomit. On letting it spill out onto the page, of hours of just getting into the zone and not caring what comes out.
I’m hoping this weekend to get down to Kampot again – this time for some quiet. I want to get back to writing for the sake of writing, rather than the outcome. This quote from Bird by Bird stays with me:
Do it [writing] as a Japanese person would perform a tea ceremony, with a level of concentration and care in which you can lose yourself, and so in which you can find yourself.
Part of me (as always) is afraid that nothing good will come out. But another part of me (a part that is growing slowly stronger the older I get and the more I write) is excited to see what will be revealed.
On Writing by Stephen King and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott are both really good resources for all aspects of the writing life. King’s book includes some particularly useful information on writing query letters and getting published, as well as ideas for further reading