Thirteen Thoughts On Writing
March 12, 2019 § 97 Comments
- Writing is an invitation to humility—you realize you’re on the wrong track, you’ve lost connection with a scene, an emotion, a voice. The return on that humility is when your imagination lets you slip into someone else’s skin. The tales you come up with tell the story you are trying to tell when you sit down to write and also the story of the years you spend working on the book. Rendering a/your life into art changes you.
- Trust your intuitions but trust (admit) that you don’t understand what your intuitions are telling you. They have their own truth and direction; your job is to follow where they lead. This doesn’t mean you don’t exert control, but you don’t exert as much control as you think you do. And you are often at your best when you don’t.
- Defend your story; don’t give up on it. At the same time, accept that you actually don’t know what the story is that you can tell. It’s likely that what you thought is your story is not your story but a way to discover your story. The poet Richard Hugo talks about what he calls the ‘triggering town’—the place where everything starts, that lets you fly off on the next leap of the heart.
- Trust your dissatisfactions with what you’re doing. The more you trust them, the more chance you have to make changes.
- Don’t be afraid of mistakes; they tell you what you are trying that you don’t have control over. They suggest that you are venturing into new territory where you’re not yet sure what you are doing. They’re a sign that you are stretching yourself.
- Learn about and trust your own rhythms as a writer. That means not only when you write best in the day or week but where, how often, and in what ways. Do you work from outlines? Write the end and then figure out how to get there? Or do you write with no idea where you are going or why? (And if you’re stuck, then your system isn’t working for you anymore; give it up.)
- Write the first draft so you can get to the second and third and fourth because you can’t get to them except through the awkward and ugly and insufferable and embarrassing and seemingly useless first, second and third.
- It’s nice to think that art develops organically, from seed to sprout to leaf to narrative. Yes and no. Keep asking yourself, “What work is this moment/scene/word doing?” Answering requires calculation. You manipulate characters, alter lines of dialogue, make up narrative moves. You strategize, reorder, play God. You keep returning to the truth.
- Tangents can turn out to be the heart of your book. It might take you months or years to figure out what to do with those seeming throwaways—how to put them where they belong, at the center of the story you didn’t know you were after.
- Make someone else read your work. Forgive them for not loving it or you and for the things they tell you. You asked, remember?
- Send your manuscript out when you think it is ready and be pretty sure you’re wrong—it most likely is not yet ready. But send it anyway. Then send it again. In between, ask yourself why others don’t think it is ready. Pretend you believe they know better than you. Pretend they are wrong. Pretend there is something to learn or do next.
- Don’t waste too much time with the Imposter Syndrome and Fraud Police: that inner voice of doubt that says you have no talent, that everyone knows this but is too polite to tell you. The voice that screams that you are and always have been a fake; that your comeuppance is coming. It might be true. But it might not. And no one knows, even you.
- Maybe my favorite quote about being an artist or human being, and the one I’ve found the most difficult to live by, comes from a Chinese art manual:
Never lose your awkwardness. Awkwardness once lost can never be regained.
If you’ve got anything to add to this world of ours it won’t come from pretending to be someone else. Trip, stumble, admit that you’re an awkward oaf like all the rest of us awkward oafs. Write as you fall, why you fall, how you live with the bruised ego, why it’s worth getting up.
Paul Skenazy won the 2018 Miami University Press Novella Prize for Temper, CA. The book is available from your local bookstore, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Miami University Press.