and the angels will weep for you

Today, all I want to do is watch Garden State. Sadly, I do not have a copy of it handy, and so looks like I'll be thwarted in that want yet another day.

Also today, after an hour and a half spent fighting for words during which I spectacularly achieved zero, count them zero, I gave up on the writing for a bit and sat down with Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones. It's been on my shelf for a whiles now, but since I'm also reading another book on the craft of writing, I had been intending to steer clear of more tomes of advice. There's only so much reading fiction and reading about writing you can do and still keep a balance of getting your own writing done.

And now I'm wishing I'd picked this book up aeons ago. I sat and read for nearly two hours, and I would've made it further than halfway if I'd let myself stop and simply read — but I couldn't, I had to keep stopping to scribble down snippets. To reinforce them, and to keep them for later.

Very early in the book, in talking about writing practice, Goldberg states:

When you write, don't say "I'm going to write a poem." That attitude will freeze you right away. Sit down with the least expectation of yourself; say "I am free to write the worst junk in the world." You have to give yourself permission to write a lot without a destination.

(emphasis mine)

I've seen this advice before, in the form of Give yourself permission to write a shit first draft — but that last line, about writing without a destination, suddenly unpacked a whole new level of this advice for me. Writing a cruddy first draft is all very well, because it's not about deliberately sitting down to write crud: it's about writing through self-doubts and lack of trust and perspective.

But lately it hasn't been working so fully for me, and Goldberg's snippet above unpacked why. Because letting myself write crap isn't my current rut. It's writing to a (frustratingly, stubbornly unknown) destination that's got me stuck at the moment.

My first novel was easy (said with hindsight 😉 ) in that I knew the ending, and had only to cast backwards to find a beginning which would lead up to it. The current second novel (both of them 😉 ) have only given me the beginning, and refuse to cough up more. Every short story I have on the burner at the moment is playing the same cat and mouse game.

So it's time for one of those insidious and yet oh-so-helpful little writers lies. I'll take up Goldberg's practice writing, for a half-hour or so a day after work; and then when I sit down to the proper wordcount, I'll tell myself that I'm writing entirely without a destination and any direction will do. And if the sneaky, snarky backbrain starts whispering sly truths about that nebulous outline lurking on my hard-drive, I shall turn up the iPod so I can't hear it.

It is important to have a way worked out to begin your writing; otherwise, washing the dishes will become the most important thing on earth — anything that will divert you from writing. Finally one just has to shut up, sit down, and write. That is painful. Writing is so simple, basic, and austere. There are no fancy gadgets to make it more attractive. Our monkey minds would much rather discuss our resistances with a friend at a lovely restaurant or go to a therapist to work out our writing blocks. We like to complicate simple tasks. There is a Zen saying, "Talk when you talk, walk when you walk, and die when you die." Write when you write. Stop battling yourself with guilt, accusations, and strong-arm threats.

7 thoughts on “and the angels will weep for you

  1. Thanks Deb. Very insightful. I have the audio version of that book and enjoyed it very much.

    I like that destination thing. It's so spot on. So often we think we are the ones in charge of the story. We think it's up to us to come up with the next word, sentence, paragraph, page or chapter; with the next scene or twist.

    No bloody wonder we get writer's block! "I can't think what to write!" we exclaim, totally exasperated.

    That's destination focus. That's trying to be the writer instead of the scribe.

    The writer lives within and never shows her face. She is just a voice. She patiently waits for you to listen, and be her scribe, to write down her story. Sometimes she's not there – popped out to the loo, nipped off for a week at the beach. And she comes back to find you've tried writing without her. The results disastrous and depression inducing.

    Our job is scribing and editing. And don't ask her how it ends because most times she won't tell you until it's time.

  2. Yes, Goldberg talks about letting go, not trying to control the story. (Obviously this is only with the first or rough draft. And obviously it won't work for every writer, or even every time for the same writer; sometimes it's not knowing the destination that can be crippling.)

    It's a very tricky balance, this writing thing. It would be awfully easier if the same technique worked all the time, but I can't even rely on that! 😉

  3. One thing I've discovered recently, in writing and in other things — I have to be wary of artificial goals. I used to be big on the standard kind of writing goal — 1000 words a day, say, or whatever. And I kept faceplanting. Recently I've realized that it's better to have a much more basic goal — like, dunno, just *writing*. No expectations other than the act. The act itself, I find, varies a lot for me. And *has* to.

    When I'm doing that, I find that it comes much easier. Varies wildly in terms of amount, but even that is a good thing — yesterday I spent a lot of time on a small scene. Whole thing only about 200 words, and I wrote it and kept tweaking it and glancing at it sideways and adding a bit more and tightening a bit here and there. It was a great writing session, because in that situation that's what I needed to be doing. It's like subconsciously I knew that having that scene down close to exact was going to help me move on. Another day I might be able to plow through several scenes and get a 1000 words or more. And a few days ago almost no writing, though lots of writing stuff — had to figure out a character, and so kept poking at the bastard (and went for a bike ride to jostle it a bit) until he coughed up some important facts. Did some research. No actual wordage, but highly productive day.

    I think for me it's not so much trusting the story as trusting my process, which isn't straightforward and simple. One day it's x, the other y.

    It's helped my running, too — I just run. The rule is "get out there." Don't worry about how much of the "run" is run, don't worry about heartrates and this and that and the other thing. Just get the ass out the door…and gee, the runs have been going better, too!

  4. Wow. Thanks for sharing that snippit. I, too, am stuck in that I know The. Blasted. Ending. I just freeze up every time I *try* so hard to write myself there. Even though I'm writing to a plan (have to–this is revision time) I could just chill and let the words take me where they will and do clean up and redirecting afterwards.

  5. Greg: thanks for sharing that. I sorta chucked the target wordcount goal late last year, because it wasn't working for me anymore. Now I earn "stars" every day (a red/silver/gold star for wordcounts of >100/500/1000, a blue star for submitting a story, a purple star for revising a story, a green star for workshopping a story). It sounds a little complicated, but it took an awful lot of pressure off me, because a star a day is much less difficult to attain than a specific wordcount. Because the stars allow a little bit more variety in what counts as progress. And that's just it: I have to trust my process more. None of this mattered a whit when I was writing my first novel — because I wasn't thinking about any of the peripherals, I was just thinking about the story, and writing it. I miss that ignorance 😉

    Miquela: you're welcome. One of my second novels is stuck in revision hell: I wrote the (sloppiest) first draft before Clarion: it went everywhere and meandered and was written out of order and without an outline. After Clarion I knew the spine of the story so I tried to rewrite the thing to stick to that. I just haven't been able to do it. I think I'm going to have to scrap everything I've written so far and just start again. Maybe read through what I have, to get it fresh in my mind so it can act as a prompt or guide, and then… just write. As if it's new.

    Holly: I loff how empowering the book is. So simple, and yet every single sentence is entirely positive, never guilt-monkeying.

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