February 12, 2016 § 19 Comments
A guest post from Ronald Anahaw:
Like a chef with one recipe, I always ended up using the same ingredients to write memoir: pow, a splash of humor, bang, male friends more like brothers, zap, love interest. Order up, one awkward but boyishly charming essay coming your way. And yes, I do make those sounds when I write.
But like ordering the same dish each time, writing about the same stuff gets boring. It gets old. (Unless it’s Bon Chon’s Korean fried chicken, in which case, bring it on.)
Trauma, joy, papercuts, dinners for one—we write what we know. I’m eighteen. So I still don’t know a lot. I’ve noticed I write about the same friends and events every time I write nonfiction, and my well of inspiration seems about 2 inches deep and filled with a lot of early nights.
In Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury talks about lists as a writer’s tool.
If you are a writer, or hope to be one, similar lists, dredged out of the lopside of your brain, might well help you discover you, even as I flopped around and finally found me.
He later told The Paris Review:
But in the old days I knew I had to dredge my subconscious, and the nouns did this. I learned this early on. Three things are in your head: First, everything you have experienced from the day of your birth until right now. Every single second, every single hour, every single day. Then, how you reacted to those events in the minute of their happening, whether they were disastrous or joyful. Those are two things you have in your mind to give you material. Then, separate from the living experiences are all the art experiences you’ve had, the things you’ve learned from other writers, artists, poets, film directors, and composers. So all of this is in your mind as a fabulous mulch and you have to bring it out. How do you do that? I did it by making lists of nouns and then asking, What does each noun mean? You can go and make up your own list right now and it would be different than mine. The night. The crickets. The train whistle. The basement. The attic. The tennis shoes. The fireworks.
Ray’s always been a smart guy. So I sat down and made a list. Okay, this list is going to be of all the cool shit I’ve done! Twenty minutes later I had three items and a cramp from poising the pen above the paper. I was struggling to discover “me” from the lopside of my brain. Okay, no worries Ron. Try the underside of your brain. Write a list of all the things you’re going to do
- Get a book professionally published
- Live as a hermit in the Philippines
- Run a fan blog for Dave Franco’s smile (I mean, c’mon, just look at it).
I had twenty-two things. I was happy for a moment. Then I realized, Shit, I can’t write about things that haven’t happened yet. Disheartened, I turned to Wikipedia. Hemingway drank; I devoured crowd-sourced media bites. A page on Aziz Ansari led to the dangers of inorganically grown lettuce which took me to Siberian Tatars. Often, hours will go by when I’m like this.
And then, I remembered–at ten years old, I speedread Ken Follett’s massive, 816-page Pillars of the Earth in three days. Why was a young boy reading a sprawling historical novel about architecture, love, and betrayal? Well, Oprah had vouched for it, so naturally I tore through it. A week later, my teacher asked what my favorite part was, and suddenly I couldn’t bring to mind even one thing from those 816 pages. The meat of the work was gone. My eyes had picked up the basic plot and the main characters, absorbed them and moved on.
I’d lost all the finer points and tiny moments that, accumulated, make the book. And I’d done the same speedreading whenever I reflected on my life to write nonfiction. I’d missed how when I was younger, drinking was my father’s vice as much as affection was my mother’s. How my respect for myself was always tied to the number on a weight scale. How I’ve always repped my American self before my Filipino self. How, when I was eight-years-old, my best friend joked that I was his brown shadow, and ever since then I’ve had trouble seeing myself as more than that.
I thought I had nothing else to write about. I thought being eighteen meant I just didn’t have very much to say, that I was going to have to wait to get the “real” things worth writing about. I was wrong. There’s plenty for me—or anyone else—to write about. We just have to read our lives more slowly.
Ronald Anahaw is a student at Bennington College and Brevity’s podcast production assistant.