More Interesting than Everyday Life: On the Writing Day (Part 2)

Last week I posted quotes from five authors on the details of their writing day. Today I bring you six more insights into the fascinating everyday life of the published author.

As of Friday I’m off work for the holidays, so it’s an ideal time to knuckle down for at least a couple of days of serious writing and editing. Unlike Alain de Botton, I don’t write at the office, so I’m looking forward to being at home for days on end. I’m not sure I’ll accumulate enough stop-start writing days to earn a flow day, to use Hilary Mantel’s nomenclature, but I’m going to try. I don’t plan to wait for the desire to write, as Patti Yumi Cottrell does, but I do count on floundering and blushing at least as much as Sebastian Barry might.

Galway

Hilary Mantel

On the start of her writing day:

“I get up in the dark like a medieval monk, commit unmediated scribble to a notebook, and go back to bed about six, hoping to sleep for another two hours and to wake slowly and in silence. Random noise, voices in other rooms, get me off to a savage, disorderly start, but if I am left in peace to reach for a pen, I feel through my fingertips what sort of day it is.”

On flow days:

“Days of easy flow generate thousands of words across half a dozen projects – and perhaps new projects. Flow is like a mad party – it goes on till all hours and somebody must clear up afterwards. Stop-start days are not always shorter, are self-conscious and anxiety-ridden, and later turn out to have been productive and useful. I judge in retrospect. On flow days, I have no idea what I’ve written till I read it back. It’s a life with shocks built in.”

Patti Yumi Cottrell

The author of Sorry to Disrupt the Peace in an interview at The Creative Independent, on not writing every day:

“I have to feel a desire to write. I don’t know if there’s ever an end goal in mind. But I just have to feel like I really want to do it. I have to feel borderline desperate. And then I want to write. That’s what motivates me. Going long periods without writing, where I’m just doing other things, helps create that feeling of wanting to write.”

On surprising yourself while you’re writing:

“It just feels like an ecstatic and magical thing. You didn’t realize something could happen and then you make that happen. It feels clarifying in a way, because it’s like something was there all along but you didn’t know it. And then you’re surprised by it. I think I’ve learned a lot about myself through writing.”

Deborah Levy

The author of the excellent novel Hot Milk writes in a shed she rents from a friend. She plans her routes, follow directions, but still gets lost:

“When I begin writing a novel, I usually know where I want to get to, I just don’t know how to get there. I plan a route and follow my directions. Sometimes this works well. Yet, it’s when I detour from the map and get lost that the writing starts to open its eyes. In case you think I like getting lost, I should tell you that I resist it with all my will. This is always a futile battle. Eventually I surrender to the unknown route, write for a few hours and take a look at the new view.”

On getting to the end:

“As far as I’m concerned, the writing life is mostly about stamina and the desire to give my complete attention to language. … To get to the finishing line requires the writing to become more interesting than everyday life. This is not as easy as it sounds, because I have never found everyday life boring.”

Sebastian Barry

On ideal writing days: “Those ideal days begin when I have managed to survive that awful waiting period with a novel when you are writing, but also crossing out crossly, beginning again, floundering, panicking, blushing in the privacy of your workroom.”

On getting down that first good line:

“But the gods maybe have pity at last on the poor author sequestered there, struggling with his book, and eventually a serviceable first line is rendered from the heavens. The whistle-tune, the birdsong of the book. The relief is immense, and that strange and uncharacteristic courage to proceed descends.”

Alain de Botton

On writing in an office environment:

“I act almost normally, from the outside, clicking away at the keyboard. Even though I may inside be tempted by all kinds of emotions, I handle myself with calm and reserve – which is not the limitation it may sound. It can be the greatest freedom, sometimes, to have to repress some of what you are. I sit quietly for hours. I’ll have a sandwich at the desk. I can’t sink into despair, scream or act all poetic: other people are watching. At the office, there’s a chance to edit yourself, thankfully. That’s why I go there.”

On the gap between who you are and the work you do:

“My writing ends up sounding quite different to the way I feel inside. That’s the point. It tries to understand, to be serene, to be competent. Perhaps this ability to have a gap between who you are and what your work is like doesn’t just hold true for art: it’s something all work offers. … Work gives us a chance to give our better natures a go.

“It’s great to make things tidy via work. The wider world will always be a mess. But around work, you can sometimes have a radically different kind of experience: you can get on top of a problem and finally resolve it. You can bring order to chaos for a bit.”

Elizabeth Strout

The author of Olive Kitteridge can write anywhere, but her favourite place to write is at home.

“These days I write first thing in the morning after having breakfast with my husband; my writing day starts as soon as he leaves the apartment, which is usually right after breakfast. Then I clear the table and sit down to work. I write mostly by hand, transcribing it on a computer when I can no longer read my writing, when I have made too many marks on the paper to be able to see the scene I am trying to write.”

On writing scenes separately and then piecing them together:

“I am a very messy worker – I push these scenes around our table. It is a big table, and over time I realise which scenes are connected. I have never written anything from beginning to end, not a story or a novel. I just collect different scenes, and the ones that aren’t any good to me, get slipped on to the floor and eventually into the wastebasket. (There are many of those.)”

And more

For much more minutiae on the lives of writers, I suggest Daily Rituals by Mason Currey, The Paris Review Interviews Volumes I and II, Writing Routines, and The Guardian’s “My writing day” series (which supplied quotes for some of this post). And in case you missed it, check out part one!

Spending It All, Every Single Day: Still Writing by Dani Shapiro

Still Writing by Dani ShapiroAs a lover of books on the craft of writing, I’d had Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing on my to-read list for several years. It was her recent extraordinary memoir Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage that prompted me to read it finally this fall. Shapiro writes memoir and fiction, which makes Still Writing  an excellent contrast and complement to John McPhee’s Draft No. 4.

It’s almost a memoir itself more than a book on craft and belongs in my mind with other writing classics like The Writing Life (adored it!), Bird by Bird (loved it!)A Writer’s Diary (loved it and heard about years ago via Dani Shapiro’s lovely blog)and Writing Down the Bones (have yet to read it). With McPhee’s book I needed to do some digging to find the advice most useful to me, but with Still Writing nearly every page was relevant to my writing life.

The book is composed of short chapters with titles like Muses, Beginning Again, Second Acts, and Reading Yourself, divided into three sections: Beginnings, Middles, Ends. The chapters are highly digestible and kind of addictive. But it’s worthwhile to take your time and not overindulge. 

The insights into writing are infused with a sense of grace and salvation. A pervasive notion that writing can help you become the best person you can be. There is an urgency to be grateful for and make the most of the combination of gift and curse that writing can be. There is virtue in writing well and shame in not doing the best you can. This feels right for memoir especially, but is relevant to all forms of writing. Many writers (including myself) would benefit from an extra moment or two of self-reflection. In writing and in life.

As I mentioned, nearly every page of Still Writing speaks to me, so it is tough to choose which passages to share. I hope they’ll convince you to give the whole book a chance.

You don’t need to know where you’re going

On starting without quite knowing what to write: “I always think I should know more. That I need more information. That I should outline, perhaps. Or do some research. But really, I need to remind myself that this not-knowing is at the heart of the creative endeavour.” 

And you can let the writing surprise you: “Paradoxically, the not-knowing is often what creates the energy, portent, and momentum in the piece of work itself. One of the truest pleasures for the writer alone in a room is when our characters surprise us by doing something unexpected.”

On being uncomfortable: “I’ve learned to be wary of those times when I think I know what I’m doing. I’ve discovered that my best work comes from the uncomfortable but fruitful feeling of not having a clue.

Create something from nothing

On the blank page: “We writers spend our days making something out of nothing. There is the blank page (or screen) and then there is the fraught and magical process of putting words down on that page. There is no shape, no blueprint until one emerges from the page, as if through a mist. Is it a mirage? Is it real? We can’t know. And so we need a sense of structure around us.”

On discovering what you want to write about: “But when we stumble upon it, we know. We know because it shimmers. And if you are a writer, you will find that you won’t give up that shimmer for anything. You live for it. Like falling in love, moments that announce themselves as your subject are rare, and there’s a magic to them. Ignore them at your own peril.”

On the first draft: “The imagination has its own coherence. Our first draft will lead us. There’s always time for thinking and shaping and restructuring later, after we’ve allowed something previously hidden to emerge on the page.”

On being a beginner every day: “Wherever we are in our work, we have never been exactly here, today. Today, we need to relearn what it is that we do. We have to remind ourselves to be patient, gentle with our foibles, ruthless with our time, withstanding of our frustrations. We remember what it is that we need …. Whatever it takes to begin again.”

Don’t wait for inspiration

Getting started even when you’re feeling unprepared can be the difference between doing something (however bad) and nothing.

“If I waited to be in the mood to write, I’d barely have a chapbook of material to my name. Who would ever be in the mood to write? Do marathon runners get in the mood to run? Do teachers wake up with the urge to lecture? I don’t know, but I doubt it. My guess is that it’s the very act that is generative. The doing of the thing that makes possible the desire for it. … A writer sits in her writing space, setting aside the time to be alone with her work. Is she inspired doing it? Very possibly not. Is she distracted, bored, lonely, in need of stimulation? Oh, absolutely.”

But where does the motivation to sit down every day come from, especially on the days where it seems useless and pointless? From gratitude. “I try to remember that to sit down and write is a gift. That if I do not seize this day, it will be lost. I think of writers I admire who are no longer living. I’m aware that the simple fact of being here creates a kind of responsibility, even a moral one, to get to work.”

On blessings and catastrophes

The work of the writer is to pay attention and empathize:  

“It’s the job of the writer to say, look at that. To point. To shine a light. But it isn’t that which is already bright and beckoning that needs our attention. We develop our sensitivity — to use John Berger’s phrase, our ‘ways of seeing’ — in order to bear witness to what is. Our tender hopes and dreams, our joy, frailty, grief, fear, longing, desire — every human being is a landscape. The empathic imagination glimpses the woman working the cash register at a convenience store, the man coming out of the bathroom at the truck stop, the mother chasing her toddler up and down the aisle of the airplane, and knows what it sees. Look at that. This human catastrophe, this accumulation of ordinary blessings, of unbearable losses.”

But how do you know if you’re doing it right? “Are we feeling with our minds? Thinking with our hearts? Making every empathic leap we can? Are we witnesses to the world around us? Are we climbing on the shoulders of those who paved the way for us? Are we using every last bit of ourselves, living these lives of ours, spending it, spending it all, every single day?

Pain leads to the story

As a memoirist, Shapiro writes about the suffering and tragedies of her life. She quotes Anne Sexton: “pain engraves a deeper memory” and adds: “Pain carves details into us, yes. I would wager, though, that great joy does as well. Strong emotion, Virginia Woolf said, must leave its trace. Start writing, grow still and quiet, press toward that strong emotion and you will discover it anew. … These traces that live within us often lead us to our stories.”

Writing demands that we move toward that pain, again and again: “To write is to have an ongoing dialogue with your own pain. To scream to it, with it, from it. To know it — to know it cold. … To be alone in a room with yourself and the contents of your mind is, in effect, to go to that place, whether you intend to or not.”

The writer goes voluntarily to that place to seek the truth. Why? “Not because I’m a masochist. Not because I live in the past. But because my words are my pickax, and with them I chip away at the rough surface of whatever it is I still need to know.

Creating a world and staying inside it

On the seclusion of writing: “One of the strangest aspects of a writing life is what I think of as going in and out of the cave. When we are in the middle of a piece of work, the cave is the only place we belong.”

The difficulty is sustaining the world you create and maintaining the seclusion needed to do so:

“A writer in the midst of a story needs to find a way to keep her head there. She can’t just pop out of the cave, have some fun, go dancing, and then pop back in. The work demands our full attention, our deepest concentration, our best selves. If we’re in the middle — in the boat we’re building — we cannot let ourselves be distracted by the bright and shiny. The bright and shiny is a mirage, an illusion. It is of no use to us.”

On the optimal state of flow as a writer: “To forget oneself — to lose oneself in the music, in the moment — that kind of absorption seems to be at the heart of every creative endeavor. It can be the deepest pleasure, though it doesn’t always feel like pleasure. Not exactly.”

She goes on to describe Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi’s definition of flow or “optimal experience”. Then: “We don’t always get to feel unadulterated joy when we are in the midst of an optimal experience. Think of it as joy deferred. The work itself can be challenging to the point of physical and psychic pain.” She quotes Dorothy Parker: “I hate writing. I love having written.” Feeling pleasure isn’t the point of writing. It’s tough but satisfying, better than pleasure.

The seed of something new

One of my favourite parts of Still Writing is where Shapiro describes staying with friends after a winter storm takes out the electricity in her home. She finds a spot in the home to write, away from everyone else, a room of her own. Although the point of the anecdote was the importance of a good writing space, it was a hint that opened up a larger story in my mind as I read. It was a seed that grew in my imagination. Or perhaps it was the water that sprouted the seed. 

That is my favourite kind of writing, the kind that somehow contains something that combines with my mind in a sort of chemical reaction and sends me spinning off into my own world. It’s one of the reasons I read so much, what I’m always hoping for. The world of the book itself can be immersive, but what really makes a book extraordinary is when it allows me to create a new world of my very own. And in a book about writing, that feels like magic.

Two Novels, One Year

Although the sum total of words I’ve written over the last 20 years would fill several books, before this year I hadn’t completed a novel since NaNoWriMo in 2002. But lightning struck in 2017, and suddenly, like a blazing forest fire, I burned through two novels. One between February and May and another between May and July. Nothing significant had changed in my life. I still had a husband, a full-time job, other hobbies, a mortgage to pay. So how on earth did this happen?

Credit for my surge in writing productivity is due to three excellent teachers. I’ve never taken a course with them or visited them during office hours, but I still consider them teachers. I’ve learned so much from them, although I still have a long way to go.

Books, podcasts, personal essays about the craft and life of a writer have always sustained me. They’ve given me clarity, inspiration, and hope, but rarely a clear sense of direction. But something clicked with these three writers and set me down a new path.

Jessica Abel

The toughest part of writing stories for me has always been narrative and plot. The idea of a character going on a journey or two characters falling in love or whatever seemed like an impossible place to start writing. I prefer atmosphere, experimentation, creative turns of phrase, bizarre settings, and inscrutable characters as the means of finding my way into a story.

But even when I’d found my way into a story, sustaining it over thousands of words and dozens of chapters was a challenge. There were too many ways to make things happen, too many choices to make, too many paths to take. I didn’t know how to decide what would happen next.

Out on the Wire by Jessica AbelOne of my breakthroughs came as a result of Jessica Abel’s podcast Out on the Wire about the principles of storytelling. The main episodes walk you through the process of telling a good narrative, focusing on radio but applicable to any medium, and half-episodes use listener submissions to apply the principles. In the second episode, the challenge was to create two things for your story: a focus sentence and an XY story formula.

A focus sentence is: “[Someone] does [something] because [reasons] but [something else that gets in their way].” The key things are: character, action, motivation, conflict. You could make it more granular to show the escalation of somethings that happen, but the idea is to home in on the central conflict.

The XY story formula is more of an elevator pitch: “I’m doing a story about X… and it’s interesting because Y….” It forces you to distill the story down into a simple phrase and discover why it’s so interesting, to you and to your readers.

The idea is not that you write these and voila, suddenly you have a plot. Instead, they’re intended to prompt deeper thinking. You might need several iterations to get to what you really want to write about. Keep drilling down into what makes the story interesting and what’s truly important.

These tools seem pretty easy to use, right? Well, it was tough for me. It was nearly opposite to the way I normally approached my writing. But it was enough of a boost that I was able to take some ideas I was tooling around with and apply them to a structure. I began to see my own work much more clearly.

Robert McKee

Story by Robert McKeeI first heard about Robert McKee via Adaptation., an insightful and hilarious film about a writer struggling to adapt a book to film. I was surprised to learn from my husband that the profane and bombastic McKee was a real person and had written a book, Story. Its primary audience is screenwriters, but I think it’s an essential text for storytellers. 

I read it last year over the course of a beautiful summer and early fall. When it wasn’t too hot and sunny, I would take a break from work and stand on the patio in the sun, catching a break from the air conditioning in the office. I read it on my phone and tried not to highlight every other sentence I read. Story is full of insights into what readers expect and deserve and what it takes to be a storyteller. Some examples:

“The storyteller’s selection and arrangement of events is his master metaphor for the interconnectedness of all the levels of reality — personal, political, environmental, spiritual. Stripped of its surface of characterization and location, story structure reveals his personal cosmology, his insight into the deepest patterns and motivations for how and why things happen in this world — his map of life’s hidden order.”

“You may think you’re a warm, loving human being until you find yourself writing tales of dark, cynical consequence. Or you may think you’re a street-wise guy who’s been around the block a few times until you find yourself writing warm, compassionate endings. You think you know who you are, but often you’re amazed by what’s skulking inside in need of expression. In other words, if a plot works out exactly as you first planned, you’re not working loosely enough to give room to your imagination and instincts. Your story should surprise you again and again. Beautiful story design is a combination of the subject found, the imagination at work, and the mind loosely but wisely executing the craft.”

“Self-knowledge is the key — life plus deep reflection on our reactions to life.”

The most important thing I learned from McKee is the idea that in order to move your story forward, your scene need two elements. First, the values at stake in your story need to shift between positive and negative. Second, this shift needs to happen through conflict.

“Look closely at each scene you’ve written and ask: What value is at stake in my character’s life at this moment? Love? Truth? What? How is that value charged at the top of the scene? Positive? Negative? Some of both? Make a note. Next turn to the close of the scene and ask, Where is this value now? Positive? Negative? Both? Make a note and compare. If the answer you write down at the end of the scene is the same note you made at the opening, you now have another important question to ask: Why is this scene in my script?”

Is this a basic thing that every writer is supposed to know? Some writers are probably born with this idea already built in, right? Well, I wasn’t. I’m still working on actually putting this into practice, scene by painful scene. In the meantime, I’m keeping this book close to hand as I start revisions.

“Values, the positive/negative charges of life, are at the soul of our art. The writer shapes story around a perception of what’s worth living for, what’s worth dying for, what’s foolish to pursue, the meaning of justice, truth — the essential values.”

I also have McKee’s more recent book Dialogue which I have yet to crack. It sounds even more specific to filmmaking, and a bit hyper-specific, but I’m looking forward to the day I get to it.

Annie Dillard

I don’t know what it is about Annie Dillard, but she is amazing. The Writing Life might be the most important book on this list. Relatedly, I’ve also revisited Alexander Chee’s excellent essay “Annie Dillard and the Writing Life” several times. For the snippets of advice she gives the class as well as for Chee’s own beginnings as a writer.

I’d read The Writing Life years ago but picked it up for a re-read on New Year’s Day. One dark, formative morning in February before getting down to work, I read the following passage:

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard“Why do you never find anything written about that idiosyncratic thought you advert to, about your fascination with something no one else understands? Because it is up to you. There is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain. It is hard to explain because you have never read it on any page; there you begin. You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.”

It prompted me to focus on the part of the story that drew me into it, that fascinated me, that made it unique to me. What astonishment was I trying to give voice to? And that gave me a path inward to a place where the words seemed to come easily.

Your turn

Who are your writing teachers? What books or podcasts or essays or people have influenced your writing life?

A Struggling Writer

Awaiting the next draft

I’m a struggling writer. I finished the first draft of two novels this year. Those two sentences don’t sound right next to each other, do they? But they’re both true. I wrote well over a hundred thousand words between February and July, but today both drafts remain in rough form, sitting in Google Drive, awaiting my attention.

I have extensive notes on the changes I want to make, and I’ve started rewrites on the second story, but it’s a daunting task. Where to start? I’m not sure where I’m going with either novel. I have no idea if they are any good. At the moment, I can’t see the path that will bring me to the next draft.

Besides these two books, I have beginnings and scenes and character sketches for a dozen other novels, scores of short stories, essays and blog posts and flash fiction. I have piles of ideas, document upon document of notes.

But I still don’t feel like a writer

I don’t know if I have what it takes to write a book that I, much less anyone else, would want to read.

I used to write all the time when I was younger. Stories for friends about boys, fan fiction for the shows and books I obsessed over. A personal blog I updated nearly every day, secret diaries, journals written under pseudonyms. I developed alter egos and fictional characters and alternate universes. I wrote the truth with a veneer of fiction, trying to turn appearances on the surface into something that reflected what was happening inside. But it became too revealing, too intimate, too much.

I never stopped writing, but for a long time I stopped wanting to write for an audience. What I write about evolved. My style and tone shifted. The doubt remains, but I’m slowly learning to push past it. I keep asking myself hard questions, and I don’t know any of the answers. What does this story mean? What is it really about? What am I trying to say? But that’s okay. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be so rewarding. So I keep writing.

But it’s not enough just to keep going. I need to constantly get back to basics, relearn everything I think I know, think like a beginner. Like one of William Stafford’s aphorisms about writing from Sound of the Ax“I write not because I understand and want to expose, but because I understand nothing. I experience newness every day and write of it as the first tasting of interest.” I don’t write because I know anything special; I write because I want to figure things out.

Figuring things out

Michel de Montaigne is my favourite example of the person who writes to figure things out. As Sarah Bakewell writes in How to Live: Or, A Life of Montaigne, his essays “have no great meaning, no point to make, no argument to advance.” He argues one side and then the other. He changes his mind all the time. He is always seeking to enlarge his mind; always trying to find another perspective he hadn’t considered before.

I’m afraid of being misunderstood, or being understood too well. Maybe I’ll offend someone or make a misstep. But if I write to figure things out, nothing is set in stone. I’m likely to change my mind tomorrow if, as The Dude might say, new shit comes to light. I might change my mind, and isn’t that a good thing?

So, after a long break from writing online, I’m back. Ampersunder is different from what I’ve ever done before. It’s something new for me, and I’m excited to see what it becomes.

My writing life has been turned inward for many years, and it’s time to change. I’ve spent enough time writing only for myself, appreciating the inspiration and examples of others but not sharing or reaching outward. I’ve been hiding for long enough.


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