June 8, 2017 § 30 Comments
First, dedication to writing is not an amount. It’s not an amount of words. It’s not a number of days. Dedication is not measured by output.
You get to call yourself a ‘real writer’ even on the days no words appear on the page. Even on the days full of rejections, the days you think no-one will ever care. Even on the days you feel like an outsider.
Thinking time counts.
Supportively going to someone else’s reading counts, even if it’s someone whose work you don’t really like but you’re trying to rack up karma points for your own hoped-for readings later and you spend the whole time imagining your own book deal while noting one point on which to ask a relevant question.
But there’s still value in completion.
Process is great. We all need process. But every now and then, we embrace process to the point of avoiding finishing. We dive into six projects at once, knowing in our under-soul there’s no way we’ll get through even two of them. We embrace multiple genres or venues as a way to write what we’re “in the mood” to write, whichever essay or proposal or article or chapter calls to our heart at the moment we’ve finally cleared our mental decks and sat down.
Some days it’s important to be our beautiful wayward writer self. Explore! Play! Freewrite!
Other days, it’s time to sit our butt down (“the only secret to writing is ass in chair” as the saying goes) and bang out some words. Some good words, maybe. More likely some crappy words. But remember how much easier it is to turn shit into something passable than it is to turn nothing into shit? No? If that’s not a memory you hold, maybe next writing session is a good time to pull out something you gave up in despair and take another look at it with a cold editorial eye. Perhaps there’s one sentence in there worth saving. Perhaps there’s a whole new piece based on the third paragraph. Maybe you’ll get lucky and the whole thing’s nowhere near as bad as you thought when you walked away. If there’s truly nothing you can find in there worth working on, you have two options: send it to a friend and ask if there’s anything they think is worth working on; or toss it.
Hit delete. Crumple it up and put it in recycling. Burn the notebook. Make room for something else you want to write. Get the unfinishable crap off your desk and call it practice. Be grateful you learned what that piece taught you and move on. The practice of writing is also practice. It is the height of arrogance to scold ourselves for not putting something perfect on the page in a first go–what other job, what other sport, what other art gets things right the first time, every time they start something new? Wow, Mozart, that was awesome and you wrote it once, in pen! Gee, Usain Bolt, now that you’ve run as fast as you ever will around the track this morning, you’ll never need to train for the Olympics again!
Practice/rehearsal/training involves mistakes, screw-ups, wrong paths, poor choices and loss of interest. We don’t save a videotape of every time we go to the gym, we count ourselves happy if we hit that second pull-up, or stay on the seated bike checking Twitter until it’s suddenly been twenty minutes and hey I’m done! Now I can do all the fun things I’m bothering to get in shape to do!
Practice also involves sitting our ass down and deciding we’re going to finish something. Now. Today. This week. In fifteen-minute increments while waiting for carpool, or in one wild coffee-fueled weekend.
I will ride the bike for thirty minutes.
I will clean this closet.
I will purchase these six items.
I will put dinner on the table.
I will get to the end of this sentence, this paragraph, this page. This essay. This book.
Be a beautiful free-spirited artist. Be a tortured soul contemplating the horror of the page not living up to what’s in your head. And then sit your ass back down and write to the end of the page. Set a day, or a week or whatever interval works for you, aside to finish your shit. Pick up a piece and decide if you want it or not. If you want it, finish it. See what it feels like to do whatever it takes, to revise or seek help or break it apart and rebuild, or let it go and move onto something else you want to finish. Let go of the hundred weights of half-pages that once seemed like a good idea. Trust that in your head, in your heart, in your skill, there are more ideas, hundreds, thousands of them. Some of them are half-finished on the page; some of them are hiding under the weight of that thing you feel obligated to finish. Let it go.
Sometimes the space for what you want is filled with what you’ve settled for. Don’t settle for half-finished.
March 19, 2015 § 6 Comments
In a recent residency at Atlantic Center for the Arts (great place, check it out!), our workshop leader had us do a daily exercise from cartoonist Lynda Barry: Divide the paper into four sections, label them Did, Saw, Heard and leave one open for a picture. In each quadrant, note down things we did, saw, and heard – and draw a picture.
It’s an exercise in observation, it’s fun, it’s a good free-write to get started on the page, and after about day three I stopped worrying about the quality of my drawing.
The exercise comes from Lynda Barry’s actual syllabus for her class at the University of Wisconsin, a nonfiction-driven cartooning class. And Barry’s whole syllabus, in more or less the form in which she issued it to her students, is also available as a book. Check out some selections from Syllabus over at Open Culture – maybe there’s an exercise you’d like to do, with or without a class.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.