Finding the article, “How to Write: A Year in Advice from David Mitchell, Yiyun Li, and More,” posted by a friend last week felt like discovering one more present after you thought you’d already opened them all.
The story, written by Joe Fassler, represents a year-end wrap-up of the weekly series he writes for The Atlantic, called “By Heart.” The column is about “writing, artistic influence, and the creative process,” in which “artistic creators choose a favorite line from literature and explain how it shaped them.” During his conversations throughout 2014, Fassler also picked up some practical advice about a few of the things that, at one time or another, bedevil us as writers. In the waning days of the holiday season, I’d like to share three of these pearls with Hippocampus readers. (If you’d like the entire string, I suggest reading the whole article here.)
Fassler asks the question most writers grapple with: when are you done revising? He wonders, as many of us do, at what point do you become satisfied that the revision process is over? One answer comes from Sean Wilsey, memoirist and author of Oh the Glory of It All, who proposes a simple test, which Fassler describes this way: “When the writing starts to be funny, he knows his work is finished.” Wilsey explained to Fassler:
Writing is a way of learning to laugh at yourself, and humor is a sign you’re done. . . .The things we can’t laugh about are the things we haven’t grown out of yet. Not laughing is, in some ways, a failure to grow beyond things that are still too close, too present, too hurtful. Laughter is a release from all that. It shows we’ve moved on. I don’t think I’m ever ready to write about an experience or period of my life until I have distance from it—the kind of distance laughter signifies.
This insight by Wilsey addresses a frequent problem I’ve seen as a reader of creative nonfiction: the writer hasn’t allowed enough time or created enough distance from the experience to write about it. As he says in the quote above, anything that remains too close or too hurtful may not be the best choice to write about right now. And how, you may wonder, can Wilsey find anything to laugh about when he, like many memoir writers, chooses to “engage with the most painful, fraught, or embarrassing portions of your experience”?
…you may surprise yourself by realizing that maturity affords you the ability to laugh at your younger self.
Again, the passage of time and the ability to find perspective and insight is essential here. If you, like Wilsey, write about the person you once were from a distance of many years, you may surprise yourself by realizing that maturity affords you the ability to laugh at your younger self.
Many writers fight this battle every day. The words float around in your mind as you find a million things around you that require your attention, but not one of those things involves picking up a pen or opening a new document and putting those words on a page. If you consider yourself to be a writer, you will be quite familiar with the everyday temptations that pull you away from your writing. Fassler shares some tips to ward off procrastination from David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks. Mitchell begins by stating, “The world is very good at distracting us. Much of the ingenuity of our remarkable species goes towards finding new ways to distract ourselves from things that really matter. The Internet—it’s lethal, isn’t it?” (This gets an “Amen!” from me.) And then he goes on to say, “You’ve only got time to be a halfway decent parent, plus one other thing.” For him, that one other thing is writing. Here is his three-part strategy for making time to write:
Part one: Neglect everything else.
Part two: Get disciplined. Learn to rush to your laptop and open it up. Open the file without asking yourself if you’re in the mood, without thinking about anything else. Just open the file: and then you’re safe. Once the words are on the screen, that becomes your distraction.
As for Part three, Mitchell recommends keeping a boring start page on your Internet browser. He says, “If your homepage is the website of your favorite newspaper, you’ve had it.”
Writing in this age of information overload and fingertip access to every cat video ever recorded presents its own unique challenges. If you could simply, as Mitchell suggests, neglect everything else and only focus on the words . . . why, procrastination would be just another thing that plagues other writers and not you. We can dream, can’t we?
On Writer’s Block
Several years ago, I took a writing class from a local author who had conquered a bad case of writer’s block. What got her past being stalled out with her writing? She took her dog for a walk every day and as soon as she got home, she wrote down everything she’d thought about on the walk. Writing is writing, after all, and before long she got back on track with her manuscript.
In the class, she urged us all to find something we did every day and to use that part of our day as the time to track our thoughts and write about them. My writing practice centered on my commute to work. At the end of each day, I wrote a short piece based on what went through my mind during that 25-minute period. My mind may have wandered, but usually a theme emerged and became the inspiration for a brief memory piece or a longer essay.
One morning, stopped at a red light, I noticed the guy in the car behind me, who was looking in his rear view mirror as he took the opportunity to grab a quick shave behind the wheel. This reminded me of when I was a little girl, watching my father shave—and that memory translated into a piece (later published) about how important it was to him to have a good shave, right up to the end of his life. Following this disciplined writing routine resulted in a remarkably productive period for my writing.
I was reminded of the class, and how we were encouraged to establish a writing practice, when I got to the advice of Alezai Galaviz-Budziszewski, author of Painted Cities, a collection of stories. Fassler quotes him here: “You can never let yourself not write. You have to keep going. You have to keep typing . . . . Writer’s block is a refusal to let yourself get lost in the woods.”
Lost in the woods, or lost in your thoughts—it amounts to the same thing, I think. As he says, “Just start walking . . . and you’ll find something.”
It’s a New Year: We can start off inspired—with high hopes, new dreams, and a vow to spend less time looking at cat videos when we should be writing. Keep going, keep typing, and don’t let the distractions get to you.
And when you’re ready, try to look back and laugh.[boxer set=”nye”]