I’ve been trying (for several years now, actually; I mean, I was even still married when I first started trying) to read this mostly terrible book called Morning Pages: The Almost True Story of My Life by Joseph Sutton. The author reminds me of an untalented version of Dave Eggers–the prose is in that same self-important, egotistical style but without Egger’s imagery or turn of phrase. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about.
I was brushing my teeth. I was struck by the whiteness. I noticed the brown coffee stains and it reminded me of life. Dark and smudged. I rinsed. I used a blue cup.
I waste precious minutes of my life reading that kind of shit and I want to hunt the author down, hurl the book at his head and yell “Just brush your fucking teeth and fucking be done with it already! I don’t need to hear about your fucking coffee stains or your endless brushing or your life or your fucking blue cup. So, just shut the fuck up and don’t write again. Ever.”
Anyway, I’m not positive that this book is that way because although I’ve had it for several years, I haven’t made it past page 18 (or, using his clever chapter naming, “Day 7”; Day 7 is subtitled “Melosha spills the nail polish”). I have tried to read it, but every time I do, I get about three sentences in and have the throw the book far across the room.
The author does have one interesting thing to say though. Well, actually, I’m not even sure that it’s him saying it, as he’s quoting someone from a different book he’s read. And the book is only “almost true”, so I’m not sure if that’s one of the true parts or something he made up. At least with Dave Eggers, you’re clear on the fiction parts. Running down a hill and then flying into the sky? Probably metaphor. Reading a book? Who the hell knows.
Anyway, the author of this other book who may or may not be real says that writers should do something they wouldn’t ordinarily do at least once a week. Sutton goes on to say that the writer should do this thing alone to nourish creativity, but I don’t know how that helps anything.
(Ha. It is real. Reading the reviews, I am quite sure I never want to even go near this book. Especially based on the review of the woman who quotes Oprah, says the book changed her life to the point that she dumped all of her friends, and then quotes from the “real bible” (she says this Artist Way book was the Bible to her artistic true self). I now am fairly convinced that everyone who reads her book is part of a cult and since I have criticized one of her disciples, the mob will hunt me down in my bed and drag me off into wilderness writing survival school until I too understand the beauty of tooth brushing.)
But getting back to the part that I liked. (Hear that, cultists?! This is something I liked! You don’t have to hunt me down! Really! That other thing was just a joke. Ha! Ha!) The thing about writing is that it’s not just about words, it’s about ideas, perspectives, experiences. Unless a piece is both well-written and conveys something of value, it’s boring to just about anyone. (Judging from my experiences, even to the writer.) And writing about something is easier if you’re out there experiencing something.
The other part that I liked was the concept for the book (the terrible one), which apparently was based on the other book (the cultist one). That is, to write every day. The idea of doing it in the morning and to write exactly five pages or whatever the hell kind of defeats the purpose really, because the point is just to write every day. To practice. Musicians practice. They do scales even if they’ve done them for twenty years, even if they will absolutely go crazy insane if they hear a scale one more time. Football players often have to practice twice a day. But writers sometimes feel they should wait for inspiration to strike and then a wonderous gift will appear on paper. And OK, maybe sometimes that even happens. But mostly, I find that when I’m not writing, I get rusty. And inspiration is far less likely to strike.
All those complicated rules remind me of this diet I just read about called the Bite Diet. You can eat 18 bites per meal. It’s supposed to get you into the habit of eating less. But instead of just saying that: “eat less”, you have to count each bite and hold your fork a certain way and get this, not work out because that will make you hungry and you’ll want to eat more than 18 bites at a sitting and I’m not even going to get into that now because this rant is about this crappy book. So anyway.
A book I’m finding a little easier to read that talks about this same thing is A Writer’s Book of Days by Judy Reeves. Reeves says writers should write every day: write great stuff, write crap, whatever. Just write. She doesn’t say you have to write at a particular time. Just that you should do it. And she gives a writing prompt for every day. They’re like scales. I don’t even think the prompts are really necessary. If you have ideas to write about, write. If you’re stumped, don’t use lack of ideas as an excuse for not practicing. Grab a prompt and go.
One thing I don’t agree with in that book (See cultists! There’s something I don’t like about nearly every book! Not just the sacred tome of your Master! I’m just overall kind of a bitch!) is the author’s contention that you have to write by hand when you practice (to connect your hand and heart or slow down your thoughts or something zen like that). I used to always write by hand. I would scribble and circle and draw arrows and label order with numbers and have my writings strewn across notebooks and torn out pages and napkins and only when I was completely done would I transfer everything to the typewritten page (you know, using a typewriter, back in the ancient days before computers were all mainstream). I still have notebooks everywhere, including a pocket one I carry in my purse, but I like writing on a computer. If an idea won’t come, I can skip down to something else, and then go back when I’ve worked it out through the other writing. I can move things around. I can keep up with my thoughts. And if I’m at work or someone else’s house or an Internet cafe, I can write in some protected Web space and get to it when I get home.
One time, I was trying to figure out how to be A Writer. An acquaintance who is a best-selling author told me that before he writes a single word, he has the entire outline of the book sketched out. He knows exactly how it’s going to end, what happens during that scene in the middle, and he understands the personality of every character. So, I thought, best-selling author and all, that must be the way to do it. I’m trying that.
My writing came to an abrupt halt.
I never know how anything I write is going to end. Whether it’s a journal entry or a novel, I get a brief glimpse or an idea and that’s all I have to go on. I write the one little part I know and then I just keep writing. I leave dotted lines for gaps and write what came before. Or what comes next. In On Writing, Stephen King compares writing to archaeology. He said writers use pens (or, er, keyboards) rather than brushes and chisels to slowly uncover artifacts. That’s the only way I know how to write. Who knows what part I might uncover first?
I gave up the idea of writing from an outline.
Neil Gaiman‘s journal has been comforting. He’ll write something like “I was writing all day and the ending completely surprised me. I had no idea that was going to happen!” And I think, well, if that’s how Neil Gaiman writes, then it must be OK. In a recent entry, he said,
“I don’t even care whether it’s any good or not. I do know that I’m at the exciting bit, and I have to keep writing to find out what’s going to happen next, and then finding out what happens next, than which there can be no more delightful a feeling. And anyway, the people in the book are depending on me.”
That’s not someone who writes from an outline. And I say it’s comforting to read him because only a few days earlier, he said, of the same book,
“told my agent today, when she made the mistake of asking how the novel was going, that all was misery and gloom and that in addition I couldn’t write for toffee.”
Ah. So, sometimes it’s crap. But then it gets better. Not that I’m comparing myself in any way to Neil Gaiman, obviously. But reading about his writing process as he writes makes me feel like maybe my own chaotic mad-dash forays into the unknown are OK.
Which isn’t to say my best-selling author acquaintance is wrong, just that there’s no one right way to do things. And writing, like any other endeavor that involves emotion, has to feel right.
I don’t know how this ends. I just am going to keep writing.