Be Awkward, Quick, Insolent: If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland

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If You Want to Write - Brenda Ueland

Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write, written in 1938, is a precursor generally to the various books on the writing craft which I love so much and more specifically to The Artist’s Way (which I wrote about here). The three central messages of the two books are the same. Anyone can be an artist. Everyone has heaps of creativity inside them and probably need help to get access to it. And the only way to make real art is to find your true self, be kind to it, and tell the truth.

Unless you’re prepared for a fully loaded dose of affirmation, inspiration, optimistic encouragement, earnestness, and repetition, proceed with caution! If that doesn’t scare you, watch out for the old-fashioned conversational tone and slightly odd punctuation and grammar. Writers of the present century, aspiring or otherwise, are more likely to enjoy contemporary books on the writing craft.

Even aside from all of that, it might have been a bit much for me to read If You Want to Write so soon after finishing The Artist’s Way. Like Julia Cameron’s book, If You Want to Write is more about discovering that you can write, even if you think you can’t or aren’t good. The focus is on working toward becoming what you might call good, whatever that may be for you. It’s not about crafting beautiful sentences or a compelling plot or engaging characters. It’s about finding the thing inside of you that you want to write and getting it out on the page in an honest and truthful way. Reading two similar books about this so close together has pushed me to a saturation point.

But that’s not to say there aren’t some nuggets of insight to be found. Here are some of my favourite parts.

Being careless

Before Julia Cameron came along, Brenda Ueland had her own version of the morning pages:

“Write every day, or as often as you possibly can, as fast and carelessly as you possibly can, without reading it again, anything you happened to have though, seen or felt the day before. In six months look at it. A drawer full of paper will have accumulated. You will see that what you have written with the most slovenly freedom — in those parts there will be vitality, brilliance, beauty. By being careless, by taking it off on paper as fast as you can, you will not write what is dutiful and boring to you. You will not lumberingly over-explain, as they all do in political speeches and articles on economics. You will go straight to the point— be awkward, quick, insolent. Oh, this over-explaining! It is the secret of all boredom.”

I also like this advice about writing as though you will throw away what you create: “I don’t think we trust our imaginations enough, use them rightly. Self-trust is so important. When you launch on a story, make your neck loose, feel free, good-natured. And be lazy. Feel that you are going to throw it away. Try writing utterly unplanned stories and see what comes out.”

All should work

“Everybody in the world has the same conviction of inner importance, fire, or the god within,” she writes.

“The tragedy is that either they stifle their fire by not believing in it and using it; or they try to prove to the world and themselves that they have it, not inwardly and greatly, but externally and egotistically, by some second-rate thing like money or power or more publicity. Therefore all should work. First because it is impossible that you have no creative gift. Second: the only way to make it live and increase is to use it. Third: you cannot be sure that it is not a great gift.” 

Personality and the true self

A lot of what Ueland has to say about writing is about finding your true self and writing from there, not putting on a character or trying to be someone you’re not. But how, she asks, “to single out your true self, when we are all so many selves?” Her answer:

“The only way to find yourself is by recklessness and freedom. If you feel like a murderer for the time being, write like one. In fact, when you are in a fury it is a wonderful time to write. It will be brilliant — provided you write about what you are furious at, and not some dutiful literary bilge.

Gradually by writing you will learn more and more to be free, to say all you think; and at the same time you will learn never to lie to yourself, never to pretend and attitudinize. But only by writing and by long, patient, serious work will you find your true self.” 

Learning about yourself is what gives your writing that coveted personality:

“The personality behind the writing is so important. This is what I call the Third Dimension. On the paper there are all the neatly written words and sentences. It may be completely objects, with ‘I’ not written there once. But behind the words and sentences, there is this deep, important, moving thing — the personality of the writer. And whatever that personality is, it will shine through the writing and make it noble or great, or touching or cold … or supercilious or whatever the writer is.”

Planning before writing

A friend asks Ueland if she has planned the book and made an outline. She vehemently answers in the negative. “For when you begin to plan such a huge edifice of words,” she writes, “your heart fails you. It is too hard, it will never get done, it is too complex and frightful. No, write what comes to you now. More will come later. The river will begin to flow through you.”

I’m not sure this is useful advice for all writers. Sometimes it helps to know the big picture before you begin to write each chapter. Many writers are very capable of dealing with an ambitious work. There’s no need to tell them that it should seem difficult if they don’t actually feel that way.

It’s obvious from this book that Ueland followed this advice while writing it. Each chapter is a thing by itself, without much sense of a cohesive whole, and there is a lot of repetition and even some contradiction. It’s still readable, but a little haphazard. If You Want to Write itself isn’t a strong argument for not planning before you start writing.

“No, I wouldn’t think of planning the book before I write it. You write, and plan it afterwards. You write it first because every word must come out with freedom, and with meaning because you think it is so and want to tell it. If this is done the book will be alive.” 

This advice is useful for starting with an exploratory first draft. But it’s not going to help people who already have an idea of what their book is about but need to do the work to figure out how to put it together. Planning is helpful for avoiding that scramble in the dark every time you sit down to write.

But it’s equally true that if you don’t know what you’re writing and how you’re going to start, outlining and planning isn’t really going to get you anywhere. Sometimes you just have to stop making excuses, stop living inside the hazy world of your grand ideas, stop pretending that one day the story is going to write itself. Sometimes you just need to get down to the work.

The way to make it better

Although so much of the book is about finding your inner artist and facing the fear that you can’t write, If You Want to Write also has some excellent concrete advice about writing.

How to get better: “Don’t be afraid of writing bad, mawkish stories for that will show you many things about yourself, and your eye and taste and what you really feel and care about will become clearer to you. If you write a bad story, the way to make it better is to write three more. Then look at the first one. You will have grown in understanding, in honesty. You will know what to do to it. And to yourself.”

How to revise a story: “When you have written a story and it has come back a few times and you sit there trying to write it over again and make it more impressive, do not try to think of better words, more gripping words. Try to see the people better. It is not yet deeply enough imagined. See them — just what they did and how they looked and felt. Then write it. If you can at last see it clearly the writing is easy.”

How to be interesting: “The secret of being interesting is to move along as fast as the mind of the reader (or listener) can take it in. Both must march along in the same tempo. That is why it is good to read your writing aloud to yourself. As soon as your voice drags, cross that part out.”

Related

There is another book about writing with a lot of similarities to If You Want to Write that came out just a few years before, in 1934: Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande (available as a PDF), which I first heard about via Writing about Writing. Here’s a preview:

“There is a sort of writer’s magic. There is a procedure which many an author has come upon by happy accident or has worked out for himself which can, in part, be taught. To be ready to learn it you will have to go by a rather roundabout way, first considering the main difficulties which you will meet, then embarking on simple, but stringently self-enforced exercises to overcome those difficulties. Last of all you must have faith, or the curiosity, to take one odd piece of advice which will be unlike any of the exhortations that have come your way in classrooms or in textbooks.”

If You Want to Write, Here’s the Book for You at Literary Hub.
Brenda Ueland at Wikipedia.
Buy the book directly from Graywolf Press.

How Writing Has Been Going Lately

I wrote the first drafts of two novels last year. I wrote them quickly — the first in three and a half months at around 800 words a day, and the second in less than two months at about 950 words a day. I started the draft of a third novel in early December. I expected it to come out as quickly as the other two, but so far it hasn’t. 

Writing lately

Writing lately has been slow. I try to work on it every day, and sometimes I fail. My average pace is somewhere around 200 words a day, and I’m nowhere close to the end of the story. There are many days where I’ve written nothing at all and other days where 300 words feels like a feat of incredible strength. It’s been months since I’ve written several hundred or a thousand words in one session.

That sounds like a lot, but on a day like that, the majority of the words are terrible. The volume is important, though. The point is getting inside the writing, moving forward, thinking of new ideas while in the thick of it, not from the outside. In the middle of a thought about something else finding insight into what is really going on in a scene. There need to be a lot of words because it’s often only at the end of a long stretch of sentences that something good or useful emerges.

Most mornings I type up a few sentences and call it progress. I feel lucky if I manage more than one paragraph. Sometimes that tiny beginning turns into something bigger and I get a few hundred words down in a morning, but most of the time it’s just words that reiterate something I’ve already written, that add a silly thought on top of another silly thought, that carry on a conversation with nothing in it. I don’t feel like it counts as progress.

Shifting form

Part of my problem with writing lately is that the story doesn’t even feel like a novel anymore. Somewhere along the way, the part I’m working on turned into a short story. Part of me wants to continue the novel, while another part wants to cut out this piece and work it into a thing that stands on its own. 

I’m meandering on the outskirts of the story, looking backward at what I’ve already written, wishing I could make something of that, rather than continuing to move ahead. But having begun a novel that shows signs of going somewhere, I am compelled to continue it. Yet having a vision in my head of a short story, I am compelled to consider what it would mean to have a short story finished, done, without having to commit to an entire novel yet again.

A novel is fundamentally different from a short story. I can’t hold them both in my head at once. I’m finding it impossible to have it both ways. So I creep cautiously along, barely making any headway. And I keep thinking: what if it were a short story, something I could submit somewhere for publication on its own?

Writing lately

One step at a time

It feels so important, the piece of fiction you choose to be the first thing you send out into the world with your name attached to it. So I’m trying not to think about it. There are no limits to the kind of writer I can imagine myself being. I have not chosen a voice, a genre, a geography, a set of themes, a primary concern. Those choices shouldn’t be important. I feel nearly as likely to publish a contemporary romance novel as a book of prose poetry or an obscure literary novel or a self-help book. And with thinking about what I want to try to get published first, I feel like I have to choose. It’s a decision I don’t want to make. Is that why I’ve been slowing down?

After all the first drafts I’ve been writing lately, I really just want to finish something that I can put in front of other people. I don’t know what will happen after that, but that’s the first step. I have a sentence-generating itch in my fingers that won’t go away, not even on those zero-sentence mornings. The inevitable feelings of inadequacy and frustration and fear should make me want to quit. Instead they’re the motivators for continuing to work at it until I make something that I can maybe, if I squint and tilt my head and not think too hard, be proud of.

The Artist’s Way in Daily Doses

I’m reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I started and abandoned it years ago after reading just the first section on Morning Pages, which is a daily practice of writing three longhand pages first thing in the morning. The point is basically to dump the contents of your brain on paper. They are a fundamental part of the creative journey that is The Artist’s Way. At the time, however, that first chapter was enough for me.

It took me a while to start, but now I’ve been doing Morning Pages for nearly two years, although I only do one page, not three. It’s a shame I didn’t stick with the book long enough back then to read about the other key practice: the weekly Artist Date (time alone to do something you enjoy, just for you, like visiting an art gallery, exploring an antique shop, or going to a concert). So many hours of quality time with my inner creative, forever lost!

The book is written as a 12-week course, with exercises and tasks every week, but I’m not using the book that way. (Not unlike how I love reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up but I’ve never actually tidied up in the way Marie Kondo prescribes.) The Artist’s Way is full of valuable ideas, insights, resources, quotations, and a not unhefty dose of spirituality. It’s a solid read in the genre of creativity and writing manuals even if you’re not interested in a course of “creative recovery” modelled on recovery from addiction.

The Artist's Way Every Day by Julia CameronWhat convinced me to pick up the book again was The Artist’s Way Every Day, which I borrowed at random from the library. I was looking for something else, noticed it, and thought I would give it a try. After enjoying A Year with Thomas Merton earlier in the year, I was up for another day-at-a-time kind of book.

But I’m not good at reading books a day at a time. You start this kind of book thinking you’ll read the day’s entry in bed at the end of the day as a tonic before falling immediately and blissfully to sleep, but it rarely turns out like that. Instead I binge several days’ worth at once and feel a little ill afterward.

When I manage to avoid such self-destructive behaviour, I use my lunch break to consume a handful of page-a-day snippets at a time. I can only read so many pages while waiting for food and/or eating it within my half hour break, so I often reach my capacity for page-a-day wisdom at just the moment I finish eating, which works out well for all involved.

Here are some of the passages that convinced me to give The Artist’s Way another chance. Just a taste, mind you, not enough to make you feel ill (I hope).

Obsessions with time and perfection

On accepting that you will spend a lot of time writing badly:

“We all have time to write. We have time to write the minute we are willing to write badly, to chase a dead end, to scribble a few words, to write for the hell of it instead of for the perfect and polished result. The obsession with time is really an obsession with perfection. We want enough time to write perfectly. We want to write with a net under ourselves, a net that says we are not foolish spending our time doing something that might not pay off.”

On making use of whatever time you have to write:

“One of the biggest myths around writing is that in order to do it we must have great swathes of uninterrupted time. Speaking for myself, I have never had such silken bolts of time. The myth that we must have ‘time’ — more time — in order to create is a myth that keeps us from using the time we do have. If we are forever yearning for ‘more,’ we are forever discounting what is offered.”

On avoiding perfectionism:

“Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead. It is a loop — an obsessive, debilitating closed system that causes you to get stuck in the details of what you are writing or painting or making and to lose sight of the whole. Instead of creating freely and allowing errors to reveal themselves later as insights, we often get mired in getting the details right. We correct our originality into a uniformity that lacks passion and spontaneity. ‘Do not fear mistakes,’ Miles Davis told us. ‘There are none.’”

Working always

On not waiting for inspiration (this is something that comes up again and again and again):

“We often make the mistake of thinking that we ‘have’ to be the ‘right’ mood to write. The truth is, any mood can be used for writing. Any mood is a good writing mood. The trick is to simply enter whatever mood like a room and sit down and write from there.”

On the importance of consistency as the one thing we can control:

“As artists, we wish we could always work well, but we must settle for working always. The ‘always’ we can control. The ‘well’ we cannot control. For this reason, we do well to simply serve, to focus more on the process of doing our work than on the ‘product’ of work produced.”

On having compassion for our imperfections:

“Who says (besides our Inner Perfectionist, who is always doing sit-ups) that we have to feel calm and centered to write out a piece of music? Maybe we can feel and be a wreck and do it anyway. Maybe we can do it and do it wrong and fix it later. Maybe we do not have to be or perform perfectly. Maybe we are allowed to have a learning curve. Maybe part of what we need to learn is a little compassion.”

The bit about sit-ups was a rare moment when Julia Cameron made me laugh. Personally, my Inner Perfectionist does squats and lunges!

Honesty and attention

On the importance of telling the truth:

“Writing is about honesty. It is almost impossible to be honest and boring at the same time. Being honest may be many other things — risky, scary, difficult, frightening, embarrassing, and hard to do — but it is not boring. Whenever I am stuck in a piece of writing, I ask myself, ‘Am I failing to tell the truth? Is there something I am afraid to say?’ Telling the truth on the page, like telling the truth in a relationship, always takes you deeper.”

But telling the truth is hard:

“As artists, we are perpetually seeking to penetrate the veil of cultural prescriptions and arrive at personal truth. In order to do this, we need to be brave enough with — and open enough to — our own internal territory that our art can express it. In other words, we must be able to face down shame and choose self-disclosure. This takes courage.”

It takes hard work and attention:

“It takes an effort to be clear about things. It is easier and much sadder to be muddy, to never take the time to clarify our thoughts and connect our own perceptions. The act of paying attention is what brings us peace.”

The artist and her trainer

I love this idea of a writer having to be both artist and trainer:

“In order to succeed as an artist we must have two well-developed functions: our artist and its trainer. The trainer is steady and adult. It keeps its eye on the course and the long run. It coaxes, wheedles, begs, cajoles, and occasionally disciplines our artist which, childlike, proceeds in spurts and sometimes not at all. The trick is setting the jumps low enough that our artist can be lured into action. If I am writing nonfiction, I set my goal at a modest three pages. Almost anyone can write three pages of something and my artists knows that. If we set our jumps low enough, our artist can be lured into cooperation.”

This applies to many things in life, not just creating (like, oh, eating well, exercising, saving money, getting out of bed). You need to allow for two very different sides of yourself to exist simultaneously. You need more than one way to talk to yourself and think about the work you have done or need to do.

Forward motion

The important thing is to keep moving forward, keep working at it:

“Writing is the act of motion. Writing is the commitment to move forward, not to stew in our own juices, to become whatever it is that we are becoming. Writing is both the boat and the wind in the sails. Even on the days when the winds of inspiration seem slight, there is some forward motion, some progress made.”

Further reading

Similar themes about writing in Still Writing by Dani Shapiro. “The Artist’s Way in an Age of Self-Promotion” in The New Yorker. Changing your life and overcoming writer’s block with The Artist’s Way. Letters from an artist working through the program. Brain Pickings has a post about it and the Books of Titans podcast has an episode about it. Julia Cameron herself has a website with about a million related works in book and video format.

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.