How a Sex Book Helped Me Overcome Writers’ Block

June 28, 2022 § 9 Comments

by Louise Julig

In June of 2019, I went from writing 2,200 or more words a week for a solid ten weeks to feeling like I was reaching through mud to get even a few scraggly sentences onto the page. I’d gone from feeling free and uninhibited in my writing to blocked, stifled, dried up. 

The close to 25,000 words I’d racked up came during Joelle Fraser’s Thirty-Minute Memoir course, a memoir boot camp designed to get us generating lots of new material. Our daily writing goal was 300 words posted to the class forum Monday-Thursday, with a 1,000-word goal each Friday. The short assignments felt so doable, I was excited to sit down with my project each week. You can write anything for 300 words, right? By Fridays I looked forward to stretching my writing muscles for a longer push. When the class wrapped, I was sure the momentum would carry me. 

It didn’t. 

I tried giving myself 300-word-a-day assignments but couldn’t stay committed. I thought the post-class online community set up for our cohort would help—but the magic was gone. I felt like a failure. Didn’t real writers just put Butt In Chair and git ‘er done? 

At the time, I was also reading Emily Nagoski’s Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life. CAYA, as it is affectionately known, literally changed my life starting on page 2 (an experience I later turned into a piece for a storytelling show about a trip to an adult store to buy my first vibrator.) 

Learning about the dual-control model of sexuality — that there are sexual “accelerators” that send signals from your brain to your genitals telling them, “Turn on!” and “brakes” that send signals saying, “Turn off!” depending on what’s going on in your environment — was a huge light-bulb moment. That, and Nagoski’s explanation of context. 

Context is the reason recreating the external setup that led to great sex previously…doesn’t always work the next time. Just because a hot bath and watching Colin Firth’s pond swim in Pride and Prejudice made you want to have sexytimes before doesn’t mean it will again, if internally you’re stressed about work, had a fight with your partner, and/or are waiting on the results of that PCR test. What sets the stage for great sex is when you can put your foot on the accelerator and take it off the brakes by knowing your external and internal personal context cues. A hot bath and clingy-shirted Colin Firth might still lead to great sex if you’ve cleared the air with your partner, who also reassured you that you are more valuable than your paycheck and if the COVID test comes back positive you’ll figure it out together. 

I wondered if I could apply the same principle of context to my writing life. 

The experience I’d had writing during the class shared a lot with the best sex I’d ever had. I felt safe being vulnerable with my classmates. I lost myself in the writing. I wasn’t worried about how everything fit together, but just showed up as my most authentic self. And when I completed each assignment, I felt spent yet invigorated, excited to try it again. 

I made copies of the book’s worksheet pages for deciphering your own personal context cues, adding “writing” to the titles: “Sexy Writing Contexts” and “Not-So-Sexy Writing Contexts.” Then I started making lists. 

What pumps my writing accelerator? High trust with writing partners who are being as vulnerable as I am, lots of communication and positive feedback between us, and the expectation from someone else to show up (even up to five times a week.) Apparently I also like constraints—I mean, weekly deadlines.

What hits my brakes? Other writers not showing up or not being vulnerable, strangers in the room (in this case admins in the online community) and feeling like I’m doing all the heavy lifting with no feedback. 

The CAYA worksheets end with an assignment to identify what you can do to create “frequent and easier access to the contexts that improve your sexual [or in my case — writing!] functioning.” With the clarity I’d gained, I signed up for a paid, facilitated, memoir-only read & critique group run by an acquaintance. 

It worked. The group had all the magic ingredients and kept me writing. 

Signing up for that read & critique was one of the best writing decisions I ever made. The Come As You Are worksheets helped me use my personal context cues to my advantage—to actually identify what was holding me back, and what would help me start writing again. Doing this exercise also helped me realize I’m not a failure for not fitting the lonely-writer-in-a-garret mold of someone who can crank out volumes of words in isolation. 

It’s just that I like being watched. 

*

Louise Julig (she/her) is a writer from Encinitas, California whose creative nonfiction has appeared in Lunch Ticket, FEED, Crack the Spine, and The San Diego Decameron Project anthology. She has also performed at the VAMP showcase of the San Diego literary and performing arts organization So Say We All, telling stories about staring at people with food in their teeth, an epiphany at a summer camp dance, men telling her to smile, and her first field trip to an adult store.

Find her on both Twitter and Instagram as @LouiseJulig or visit louisejulig.com.

Let’s Get Messy: On Mixing Writing and Life

June 21, 2022 § 6 Comments

By Bethany Jarmul

I dreamed of a certain kind of life—of nature walks punctuated by the liquid notes of blue jays and the scurrying of squirrels, of a luxurious Beauty-and-the-Beast-style home library brimming with Shakespeare, Aristotle, Emily Dickinson, of quills and inkwells, of typewriters, notebooks, journals, pens, and smeared ink. I desired the life of Thoreau near Walden Pond or Annie Dillard at Tinker Creek.

I bought into the idea that the best writing is done when sequestered from regular life. I envied those who participated in writing residencies or went on retreats. Again and again, I heard the advice to shut out distractions, to close the doors, to write at the same time every day, to protect the time and space in which I write, especially from the people that I love.

But keeping my writing and life separate is not practical for me. I’m a work-from-home mom with a toddler and an infant. I write in a loud, toy-filled living room—often while breastfeeding, while doling out graham crackers. I don’t have an office or even a writing desk. I have a crumb-filled couch and a laptop that’s missing the question-mark key (due to my curious toddler). I write for twenty minutes when both kids are napping, then for an hour more after they’re in bed. I write while my toddler watches the Cars Movie for the 137th time and my baby jingles the toys on her playmat.

While I see the value in setting aside a time and place in which to write, the idea of separating the writing life from real life can be a hindrance for those of us who are primary caregivers or simply live busy, messy lives. Having time periods and spaces that are not occupied by earning a living or caregiving is a luxury. One that many of us do not have. Let’s not let that keep us from writing.

I’ve given up my idea of the ideal writing life and embraced the life that I have. I’m done wishing for my writing and my life to be any other way. I truly believe that living while writing and writing while living enhances both my life and my work. I’m a nonfiction writer, after all.

I hope more writers embrace the messiness of writing in stolen moments and unusual places. I want to read the poem written on the back of a napkin by a cocktail waitress, the taxi driver’s late-night musings, the single-mother’s coffee-stained creations. I want to read the writing of the widest range of humanity.

Even if you don’t have a dedicated writing space, even if your life is too busy, even if you’re constantly surrounded by loud family members, even if you write to the soundtrack of motherhood—“Snack? Snack! Snack, please, Mommy!”—write anyway. Write in whatever environment you have. Write surrounded by the people that you love. Write in any way and anywhere you can.

Bethany Jarmul is a writer, essayist, and poet. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Citron Review, Literary Mama, Sky Island Journal, and Rougarou Journal among others. She earned first place in Women On Writing‘s Q2 2022 essay contest. She lives near Pittsburgh with her husband and two kids. She loves drinking chai lattes, reading memoirs, and taking nature walks. Connect with her at bethanyjarmul.com or on Twitter: @BethanyJarmul.

On Husbands, Fathers, and Seeking Approval

May 12, 2022 § 27 Comments

By Melissa Fraterrigo

When I published my nonfiction piece, “The Night of the Fire,” which details a kitchen fire we had growing up, I sent the link to my husband. A few days later, I wanted to ask him what he thought. But I already knew the answer: he hadn’t read it. And writing these words even now, my stomach turns.

The rational part of my brain speaks up, says: You have to believe in your work above all others. Exactly what are you hoping for him to say about your piece? Why is it so important that he reads your writing?

I don’t have a definitive answer, just a number of hypotheses.

Hypothesis #1: You are seeking his approval.

It’s true. I didn’t come from an artistic family. My dad took me to the library on a weekly basis, but once I was in high school and talking about college plans, he made it clear that writing was not a job. Nursing—like my mom—would be a much better choice. Dutiful daughter that I was, I went along with his advice until I shattered a beaker in the middle of a chemistry lab and 24 pairs of safety goggles bore down on me, their looks saying the one thing I’d been thinking since our first day of class: You don’t belong here.

Hypothesis #2: I’d like for him to understand what I do.

It’s true that even now at extended family gatherings few ask about my current projects—and I don’t offer. I wish I was the kind of writer who didn’t need the support of her family, but I crave it now as much as ever. I remember once many years ago, during my first fiction writing class, I handed my dad my first story and asked him to read it. It was about a woman who worked at a factory naming shades of lipstick. She hated her job and I recall spending a fair bit of time coming up with exotic names for her to assign to each new lipstick color. I remember asking him later what he thought. “It was good,” he said.

I took the typed copy back to my bedroom and flipped through the pages looking for any sign of what he’d really thought—a bent page, maybe a smudged word. I was looking for him to tell me if I was on the right path. If I could write and if he thought I should keep going.

Twenty-some years later it seems I’m still seeking the answer to this question.

I have a new writing group. Once a month we gather for two hours over cheese and crackers and write. We take turns hosting at our kitchen tables and offering a prompt. Last week L brought a box of old children’s books. The month before, K piled the table with art books and encouraged us to find an intriguing image. I found a picture of a Norman Rockwell print of a preadolescent girl sitting in front of a mirror in her slip, chin in hands. In her lap was a glossy tabloid with an actress on its cover. Will I ever be pretty? the girl’s expression seemed to ask. We had the identical print framed in the basement of my childhood home. After everyone had tired of The Brady Bunch or Eight is Enough, and went upstairs, I’d stand there in our wood-paneled basement looking at the girl, feeling her ache, and matching it with my own sense of inadequacy.

The power of this new writing group is that we write. There is no critique. Sometimes we’ll share generally what we worked on, but the reverberations of sitting at a table and writing in concert with fellow writers lasts for days.

I have always been a people-pleaser. A rule follower. A box checker. And yet writing pushes against this time and again. I am compelled to write through my own determination. There’s no grade involved. No one knocking on my door asking to see the pages I worked on that morning.

I’d like to be the kind of writer who just writes for herself and doesn’t need anyone else’s approval—only I don’t know if I’ll ever get there. Maybe it’s the drive to be seen that keeps me going.

In a culture that is not focused on literature or the creative arts, I’ve created an environment where I feel accepted and at ease. The process of making such a space has been life affirming: each time I meet with my writing group, I am saying I chose this. And this and even this. And that won’t change no matter who reads my work.

Melissa Fraterrigo is the author of the novel Glory Days (University of Nebraska Press), which was named one of  “The Best Fiction Books of 2017” by the Chicago Review of Books as well as the story collection The Longest Pregnancy (Livingston Press, 2006). She founded the Lafayette Writers’ Studio in Lafayette, Indiana, which offers live and virtual classes on the art and craft of writing. Coming June 23: You + The World: Expanding the Scope of Your Memoir with E.B. Bartels, a virtual workshop on writing and planning your hybrid memoir.

I Don’t Want to Play

March 18, 2021 § 23 Comments

By Sue Fagalde Lick

9 a.m. Tuesday morning

Remember how when we were kids, sometimes we’d just walk away from what the other kids were doing? “I don’t want to play,” we’d say. And we’d go home and pout.

Well, that’s how I feel today. I don’t want to play this writer game anymore. Not the writing itself, but all the other nonsense that goes with it.

I think I blew my Zoom talk last night. I blathered for 45 minutes straight. With “share screen” showing my handout and the audience on “mute,” I couldn’t see anyone’s faces or hear any reactions. Was anyone even listening? Afterward, I gorged on banana bread to comfort myself, so there goes my diet, too.

I had spent an hour trying various setups on my laptop, but I tested it during daylight. In the evening, everything, including my face, had a blue tint. I’d gotten all dressed up with jewels and my red blazer and red lipstick. Did I look like a fool?

I got another rejection yesterday. Eighteen “no’s” in two months. One yes.

Amazon returned a copy of my Childless by Marriage book. “Overstock,” the slip said. I guess nobody wanted to buy it, and they decided this copy had sat too long. Crap.

I have 11 books out. Woohoo. But check my sales. Most of the time, people are only buying three of them, the nonfiction ones, and mostly the Kindle versions, which are cheaper. Nobody wants to pay full price for a book anymore. I need to do more marketing. More networking, more PR, more social media. But I’m a writer, not a salesperson.

A local newspaper editor invited me to write for her. I could go back to doing interviews, taking pictures and writing short articles on deadline. Over the years, I have written thousands of those. There would be no marketing, I’d be published regularly, and I’d get paid. But it would take me away from the creative nonfiction and poetry to which I am supposed to be devoting myself these days. I said no. Should I have said yes?

I’m past retirement age. Why not just spend these years quilting, crocheting, and watching daytime TV?

 

4 p.m. Tuesday afternoon

On my walk with the dog, we ran into our neighbor Cheryl. She’s 72, partnered with Alex, who is dying of lung cancer. A couple weeks ago, she invited us to join her in her sunroom where she and her cat Charlie were going to get high, Charlie on catnip and Cheryl on weed. Can’t, I said. I have to get back to work.

Normally we only talk about dogs, gardening, health, and the neighbors. We don’t know each other’s last names or life history. “Work?” she said. “What kind of work?”

Well, then I had to confess that I’m a writer.

“No kidding! I had no idea. What’s your name?” She rolled her eyes at the three-name business with Fagalde in the middle. I told her she could learn everything at suelick.com. I didn’t expect her to remember or to look me up.

Today, on Cedar, there she was, walking slowly to strengthen her gimpy knee. She asked if she could join us. Right away, she started telling me how she was reading my books one after another and she just loved the way I write. Up Beaver Creek made her cry, but in a good way. Now she’s reading Unleashed in Oregon and loving it. Then she’s going on to Stories Grandma Never Told . . .

Wow. The website worked. I do want to play this writing game. It’s actually kind of fun.

If I can just remember that writing and being read are what count, I can manage the rest. I can keep submitting, marketing, speaking, networking, and all that other writer business as long as I know there are people like Cheryl reading what I write.

Every time I want to quit, the writer gods give me a kick in the pants to get me back in the game. An acceptance, an encouraging word, a reader who loved what I wrote. As we walked slowly toward home, the dog dashing between us and into the weeds to sniff for edible trash, my fingers itched to get back to the computer, back to the writing game.

________________________________

Sue Fagalde Lick, a former California journalist, is a writer/musician/dog mom living with her dog Annie in the woods on the Oregon coast. Her books include Stories Grandma Never Told, Childless by Marriage, and Love or Children: When You Can’t Have Both. Every day at 2:30, her dog insists she leave the computer and visit the real world for a while.

Writing Stage

February 26, 2019 § 12 Comments

By Jessica Ribera

I’m a performer to my very core, a person who aced every Show-and-Tell, a woman who never met a mic she didn’t adore. I started life as a ballet dancer reveling in stage time and show people. But context is everything. No one likes to be conspicuous, not even performers. They love standing out–but only in their proper places, the stage or the audition. My current, stay-at-home writer/mom gig hasn’t provided too many theater settings. Now I’m conspicuous: a flamingo in street clothes.

Sometimes I wax on about things no one else thought were weird. “You guys! That Uber ride! We were packed like sardines, but no one was talking! His breath was SO strong, and we kept hydroplaning, then “Don’t stop, get it, get it…” played, and I’m thinking WE’RE LISTENING QUIETLY TOGETHER TO A VULGAR SEX DESCRIPTION, and I. Almost. DIED!!!!”

But I hear, “That’s just Uber.”

I feel crazy. But I promise myself to work the scene into a piece of writing.

In conversations, I often worry I’m moving too much, monologuing about something no one else cares about. I wonder if they’re thinking, She’s interesting… or GEEZ, I thought she’d never shut up. But if someone clicks a link, they’re interested. So onto the paper it goes.

I regularly sit on my hands and wrap my legs to keep from dancing N’Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye,” lip-syncing “California Dreamin’” or performing the entire choreography of The Nutcracker in waiting rooms and grocery stores.

I hear a lot of, “You have to come to keep the conversation going.” Or, “show us a dance!” The invitations remind me of the career and colleagues I’ve lost. Rather than enjoying the opportunity to perform, I do it with a touch of sadness. I puzzle over it all by typing.

Once, in my child-filled minivan, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” demanded that I pull over. The thought of backup dancers all working together behind full-force Mariah so thoroughly clouded my eyes with longing, I couldn’t see through my windshield.

Lonely and conspicuous, I pour my performer self onto the page. Writing hasn’t yet solved the need to dance, but I’m finding an audience who love to read about it.

***

Recently in New York, I bought tickets to see a former colleague dance in Aladdin. Jace and I hadn’t seen each other in 20 years, but dance company friends are family, worth vacation cash.

I spent an insane amount on double scotches in adult sippy cups then settled in with friends. When Jace danced on stage, I misted like a mom at graduation.

You’re front and center, baby! On Broadway!

He’s tapping! On Broadway!

He was speaking lines! Popping through trap doors! Taking a curtain call! On Broadway! My pink palms stung with enthusiasm.

We girls smugly pushed past all the kids and parents waiting at the stage door, our names on the list. I admired the bulletin board, covered in call sheets perforated with a million pushpin holes, each one the memory of a callback, letter of dismissal, or renewed contract. There was a familiar lack of opulence, lots of poured concrete, and metal stairways. Pressed to the side, I shyly smiled at the exhausted performers exiting to cheap dinner, stiff drinks, and long subway rides. I wanted to shout, “I’m in your club!” and follow them out.

Jace came around the corner and I wrapped my arms around his sweaty muscles. “I am so proud of you.” He laughed in my ear and hugged me. “Want the tour?”

The New Amsterdam is the second-oldest theater in Manhattan. Huge photos of Ziegfeld Follies girls line the walls backstage. Jace was a great tour guide, like someone trained at Disneyland. But I honestly didn’t care for factoids. I wanted to gaze toward the house seats and beam into the balconies. My back straightened and clavicle spread. I pressed into my hyper-extended knees, and my feet turned out involuntarily. My little nostrils sucked backstage smell into my brain. It was as though someone held out white-dusted hands saying, “Remember cocaine?” And I could only answer quickly, inhaling deeply, “OH. MY. GOSH. YES.”

Costumes had Sharpie names in them same as ever. Lit mirrors showed no technological improvement. I could see the trap doors and tricks. Every mark on the stage directed me: “strike a pose!” While Jace answered questions in the wings, I stole back to center stage and sank into a perfect 180-degree split in my mom jeans and cheetah sweater.

Memories swished through me, but one thought rose to the surface:

This just can’t be over.

***

Barely into my career, a stagehand’s mistake sent me crashing to the floor and ruined my back. Devastated and no longer fit for classical ballet, I was dismissed from my places to be safely conspicuous. I retreated to practical pursuits: college, marriage, clean house, pregnancies.

I’m wildly thankful for my family.

I miss that old self terribly.

Dancing on the page helps me find and reincorporate her. Like Roald Dahl’s BFG, I package sensations to blow into people’s ears. Maybe the effort will reveal a path back to theater, my true home. For now I write to build my own stages and studios. I shout from the page, “Come in! See my thoughts. Add your feelings. Let’s be conspicuous!”

_________________________________________
Jessica Ribera moved to Seattle at 17 to dance with the Pacific Northwest Ballet. Now, she lives there with her husband and four wild children. Her work has appeared in The Mighty, Scary Mommy, the Brevity blog, Fathom Magazine, and Red Tricycle. The Almost Dancer, her memoir of dance and disaster will be published by White Blackbird Books in 2019. Find her as @jeskybera on Twitter and @thealmostdancer on Instagram.

What’s Stopping You?

August 21, 2018 § 32 Comments

Multi-tasking is the key

Yesterday I went viral on Twitter:

And aside from 17 replies of “But I’m 97,” a few scoldings on how I shouldn’t glorify Laura Ingalls Wilder, 12 “What if I’m just lazy,” and a couple of crabapples sniping about factual accuracy (yes, I should have said “novel” for Twain), the overall response was one of relief.

Thank you, I needed that.

There’s still hope.

I needed to hear that today.

A lot of people are worried they might be too old, or not published enough (the paradox of not publishing until you’re published), or that being a writer is somehow a special condition and only certain people are allowed to contract it.

It was fun to see so many retweets and likes, and I checked in periodically while putting together a PowerPoint for a workshop next weekend, “25 Hours in the Day: Planning and Living a Writing Life.” I made pretty slides about saying no to tasks that don’t help your writing, and how many “obligations” we take on aren’t really things we’re obliged to do, and apps and tools to manage our time. Then I edited two hours for a client, went to the library and printed some maps I needed for novel research, refilled a prescription long-distance and answered some email.

My day also included a panic attack, where I wept and vented on the phone to my best writing friend, because I’ve just finished a writing workshop and booked myself three days of personal writing time in the same location, and I’m spending that time working for other people.

Not writing my book.

I feel my age closing in, the sense that I’ve “wasted my life,” which is patently ridiculous given that 1) I’m only in my 40s; and 2) I’ve already done three successful careers which, surprise! gave me shit to write about.

But in a one-on-one consultation with my teacher last week, he looked at me very sternly and said “You need to stop editing and write your own book.” I repeated that to my husband, who said “That’s what I’ve been telling you for four years.”

I like editing. I like teaching and speaking and helping other people work for their dreams, and I don’t want to quit entirely. I like blogging for Brevity.

I don’t want to quit teaching circus entirely.

I don’t want to quit traveling.

And all these things help me write, yes, but they also take time from writing. They demand physical and mental energy. That’s what we forget when planning our writing lives: it’s not the obligations we chafe at that are hard to shuck off—It’s the stuff we love.

Many writers love being a good spouse. Parenting well. Looking after a family member who needs help. Those aren’t writing hours.

We enjoy living in a nice place and keeping it up. We like working to pay rent and food and the care of people who need us. We take pride in doing well at that work—some of us even adore the work itself. Those aren’t writing hours.

If I’m going to write, I have to make writing hours. A lot of them. I don’t have kids, but I like being a good wife. I like the self-respect that came from being self-supporting. Some of being a good writer is sacrificing some of those two things. I contribute to the house with money and work, but after twenty primary-breadwinning years, I’m not self-supporting any more. My best writing time is often away from my husband by thousands of miles. And it’s hard to say no to editing clients, because I’m arrogant enough to think I can help them best.

Small things help: I pop in my earbuds and put on the song that launches me into one book or another. I maximize my time by turning off wifi and my phone. I updated my website to say I’m not taking on new writers, because it’s easier to have potential clients say no to themselves before emailing me.

I’m privileged that these are options I have; your barriers may be different and much harder to surmount. But it’s easy to make time for writing by saying, “I’ll get the kids to do their own laundry and start doing groceries only once a week.” It’s much harder to look at things we love and value, and decide we might love writing more. Especially when we aren’t living on our writing money, the time we spend can feel like self-indulgence, like a frill.

But we’d tell our treasured friend, You deserve that time. We’d say, Modeling dedication and focus is also good parenting. We’d tell them their spouse should be supportive, and applaud the spouses who were.

Let’s tell it to ourselves, too. Let’s ask, What’s stopping me from writing? and be brave enough to let go.

____________________________________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Follow her adventures with the monthly I Do Words TinyLetter.

 

Throw It Away! A Writer’s Guide To Decluttering

May 8, 2018 § 25 Comments

My actual junk

We’ve all been there.

Friend of Friend: What do you do?

Writer: I’m a writer.

Friend of Friend: Hey, I have a great idea for a book! Why don’t you write it and when it gets published we split the money?

Writer: [weak smile]

Ideas are the easy part. Sure, “high-concept” pitching is a thing—It’s Speed, but on a boat! It’s the Wizard of Oz, but in space!—but it’s a thing for writers with a few airport-ready books under their belt and a relationship with a major publisher. Everyone else has to actually, y’know, WRITE THE BOOK.

That’s the hard part.

Ideas ignite passion and inspiration. But getting 60,000+ words on the page takes time and craft. That guy at the party doesn’t understand that most writers have plenty of unwritten ideas scribbled on scraps of paper and dictated into our phones at 3AM, sparked by articles we’ve read, lectures we’ve heard, people we’ve met. We are drowning in ideas.

Most of our ideas will never take flight enough to spend years of our lives writing them down. We stockpile them, stacking up paper and browser links against the day we’ll be out of ideas. The pile itself becomes an obligation, a list of ignored tasks weighing on us.

Sometimes the space for what you want is filled with what you’ve settled for. Full closets have no room for new clothes. Stuffed files shut out new ideas. (This also—sacrilege!—applies to bookshelves.)

I spent two days emptying basement boxes from a house I no longer live in. It was mostly stuff I hadn’t used in five years, stuff I’d never even unpacked after moving to that house in 2003. I thought files would be the hardest part. Banker boxes and milk crates full of past teaching syllabi and class assignments and yes, idea after idea. Folders marked Plays to Write, Articles to Read, Possible Blog Posts. But about six folders into the first box, I noticed, These ideas aren’t that good. Or they didn’t resonate with me enough to be worth my time. Or they’re something I think about a lot and don’t need twenty pieces of paper to remind me.

I started with 30 storage boxes, 7 of them documents and files. I started with fear. What if I couldn’t get rid of any of it? Was I a failure if I threw away an idea I’d never tackled? What if I got sad, or angry at my past self? What if something I really valued had been destroyed by that water leak three years ago? After two days and the (paid) help of a friend, I’m still not done with the basement, but the dread is gone. So is most of the stuff. Seven boxes and 6 garbage bags to charity; 3 boxes and 2 bags to the community theatre; 6 bags of documents to the shredder; 6 bags of trash to the curb; a stack of empty boxes.

I’m keeping one box. One. Plus half a box of “letters and photos I don’t want to go through right this minute.”

I feel amazing.

In my one box, I have two files of ideas to be written. They aren’t fat files. They, plus my notebook, plus my brain that still works, are plenty of ideas for the rest of my writing life.

Ideas aren’t precious and they aren’t hard. Execution is hard, and keeping a paper fort of ideas doesn’t do anything for our work ethic.

Contemplating your own files with terror? Here’s how to get started:

Don’t sort in the storage space. Take everything into a clean room where it must earn its place.

TOSS:

  • Multiple manuscripts with workshop notes. In the future, copy feedback into one document, which pinpoints problem locations even if everyone sees a different problem. Throw away notes from writers you dislike—they aren’t inspiring to use.
  • Articles that sparked ideas. They’re all online.
  • Old syllabi. You know how to write a syllabus.
  • Old student evaluations. You’re never going to quote them.
  • Anything on your computer and backed up. Double-check your backup process.
  • Multiple copies of magazines you’re in. That’s why God invented PDFs. If your Mom wanted a copy, you already gave it to her.
  • Other people’s work you never got around to commenting on. I hereby absolve you of writer’s karma. Cultivate one reader friend (or two) you regularly exchange with and don’t keep track, or a “muse” who reads everything you write and asks nothing in return.
  • Box up books you thought would make you a better person if you read them and books you didn’t like but feel like you should. Get rid of unread classmates’ books inscribed with meaningful notes. Photograph the inscription if you feel really bad. You can delete the photo next year.

KEEP:

  • Minimal notes/research for no more than six projects.
  • One copy of things you wrote that lived on floppy disk/zip drive/your previous computer. You probably won’t ever type it up/scan it. Review next year and toss half.
  • Your sense of humor

Keeping paper doesn’t lead to more/better writing. Trust that your brain is a pipeline. Flush out the reservoir and make space for new ideas.

_____________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching Memoir From Memory, including how to write a memoir proposal, at Cedar Ridge Writers Series in New Jersey, June 10th.

Gnawing the Story Bone

September 25, 2012 § 29 Comments

“Pursue, keep up with, circle round and round your life…
Know your own bone: gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw at it still”
—Thoreau, as quoted in Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life

A GUEST POST FROM ALEXIS PAIGE:

I am a writer first, but once I become a teacher, I will use smoke and mirrors to get my students unstuck, to get them gnawing on their own bones. We do rapid-fire writing drills. I play keen illusionist to their bored bravado, ratcheting the intensity with cliché—C’mon, guys! Time’s a-wasting! There’s money on the line! (Who says such things?) In fact, our whole selves are on the line, and we all know this, hence, the magic show. As writers, we sometimes have to trick ourselves into going there: we have to dodge our conscious minds with sporting maneuvers.

I do, anyway. Each time I write (or teach) I stand at this conscious edge, with my mind’s cartoonish miasma at my back—all of its limitations and lost points and monkeys and awful fucking chatter. Still, going there and beyond is the point, the singular, impossible point, and sometimes it is also the reward. The point is to hold my breath and throw my whole body into the deep that others may do the same—whether in writing or life. The point is to do it because others have done it before, and their doing it mattered.

So I find prompts in writing books or online, and I save them in my teacher’s Rolodex. My students sniff corny from a mile off; corny doesn’t get you there. The good prompts mimic the jumping off point, that feeling of running headlong at the abyss until your breath is ragged, your steps loose engines of wholeness, and your rhythm your own little rain dance.  I remember. I don’t remember. I think. I don’t think. I fear. I don’t fear. I love. I don’t love.  I am.  I am not. Good stuff comes from the litotes; some higher force comes to bear in the negations, and tamps the language into shiny coins.  My students fear the surprises that emerge here; they don’t want to share them. “That’s good,” I tell them, “go on…” And here again, I am convincing myself.

“What’s your larger theme?” my writing buddy Sarah asks about my current memoir project. I don’t want it, but I need her to ask this, to prompt me in this way. She says, “I think it’s: Why Alcoholism?” I have to stop for a few days and ask the question until it becomes a koan. What is the theme? What is the theme? Why? Where am I going? What do I want people to do or feel? The questions seem aimless, rising dust motes in my ears. And then I have it: it is not Why alcoholism? Not exactly. It is so simple, it seems silly to write it down, but I do anyway–on a sticky note with the closest available marker:

WHO AM I?

“What am I to myself/ that must be remembered,/ insisted upon/ so often?” Robert Creeley writes in his poem “The Rain.”  Ultimately, we keep writing and prompting and asking not because we want to know so much as we need the relief that comes after the knowing, the relief that comes after the awful black mounting and the storms marching upon us. We need the rain to come and wash us clean.

Alexis Paige’s writing has appeared inTransfer Magazine, 14 Hills: The SFSU Review, Seven Days: Vermont’s Independent Voice, Prison Legal News, Ragazine, and on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog. Alexis was twice named a top-ten finalist of Glamour Magazine’s annual personal essay contest. She received an M.A. in poetry from San Francisco State University and is pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Stonecoast low-residency program in Maine. She is at work on a memoir about how 749 days in the Texas criminal justice system taught her to grow up. She lives and teaches in Vermont.

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