The Space to Write (Reprise)

Original Date of this Post was July 4, 2016

Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

I’ve been asked the question Where do you write? many times. Lately, I find space to write wherever I am. When I first noticed I had an ability to write, I gave it too much celebration. What I mean is I tended to make the whole process into ritual more than practice. I needed just the right chair, with exactly the right degree of lighting. I considered feng shui to be vital. Obviously, I had to stop writing and research the meaning of feng shui before I could get any work done! I was all about the atmosphere, man! I used the word conducive a lot. As in, The temperature of the room and the muffled noise of neighbors having sex were hardly conducive to an atmosphere of concentration.

Writing is process more than atmosphere. In her wonderful book Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg brings together Zen meditation and writing, claiming the practice of writing is no different from other forms of Zen practice. Writing is a form of meditation. When we write, we create. We become one with The Great Creator. We’re made in His image. The best honor we can give to Him is to create as we were created.

Writers don’t simply read about writing and hope to wake up tomorrow able to write. Writers write. Certainly, eliminating distractions will foster longer periods of writing. It’s advisable to avoid Internet “research” while writing an initial draft. Background music might be helpful if you aren’t listening to songs you are likely to sing along to, or that take you back to that magical night when you went ice skating at the municipal rink with the homecoming queen, spinning round and round to “Kung Fu Fighting.” Television is a huge distraction. Oh, and consider making your writing space a phone free zone.

I spent some time in New York City in the mid 1990s. I was having lunch on the mezzanine level of the Paramount Hotel. My order was apparently making itself. So while waiting and waiting and waiting, I started people watching. I saw a rather wide swatch of society, from busboy to television executive. (I was working in the legal department at MTV Networks at the time.) I grabbed my journal and started writing. In this instance, the physical location I was in greatly contributed to what I wrote, complete with a comment about trickle-down economics running past my feet in a river of dirty dishwater from the kitchen. It seemed I blinked twice and my food was being served.

Typically, I can write wherever I am. I have been so overwhelmed with a story idea or a thought about how to handle a particularly troublesome spot in a rewrite while driving that I had to pull off to the side and grab my notebook. (I refuse to text and drive, and so should you!) I try to keep a pad and pen with me everywhere I go. I recently spent an hour sitting on a swing along the Susquehanna River in my home town working on a personal reflection piece about hatred in America. The space was very conducive, as I was able to recall having only one African American in my high school graduating class of 347 students in 1977. All I could think of was how out of place he must have felt in my small, 99.99% white town. Fast-forward to 2016, and I don’t see much progress vis-a-vis this evil thing called racism.

I have also written in a prison cell. In the dark. Lying on the floor, facing the bars, so I could grab some of the lighting from the tier. In fact, I did a lot of writing during that horrible experience. It is because of writing that I turned three years of incarceration into an oasis of discovery, spirituality and creativity. I was able to enroll in a two-year college program and start earning credits toward an undergraduate degree. Writing introduced me to inmates who were also writers. I had the privilege of reading a publication put together by inmates called “Notes From The Greystone Hotel,” which contained flash fiction, personal reflection, poetry and prose. It was then that I learned, at least for me, to write is to grow. (The State Correctional Institution at Rockview was nicknamed The Greystone Hotel.)

I write because I have to write. Space to write? If I’m serious about my craft and driven to get what I’m thinking and what I’m feeling out of my head, down my arms, and onto the journal page or laptop keyboard, then I will consider everywhere to be “The Space to Write.” Stephen King wrote Carrie on a card table in the laundry room of his house. I truly never know when an idea will grab me and refuse to let me go. I recently wrote a poem called “I wrote a Poem Once While Sleeping.” You can read it by clicking on the link: https://theaccidentalpoet.net/2015/09/18/i-wrote-a-poem-once-while-sleeping. I would love to hear what you think about it. Anyway, I look forward to reading other posts on The Space to Write.

Writing is an Act of Courage

I strongly believe that writing is an act of courage. It’s almost a matter of physical courage. The second you have a brilliant idea, you make a point to remember it. Those of us who write know that never works. Ideas are fleeting. So we rush around looking for a pen and pad. Maybe we’re in the car, so we try to pull over and grab our notebook from the glove box. If you’re lucky enough to get in front of a note pad or laptop almost always what was brilliant before is somehow not so brilliant as you go to write. It’s as if you had a certain piece of music playing in your head that simply will not translate onto paper. And so you fail. You never really get that perfect work of art out of your brain.

What we cannot do as artists is consider the entire process a complete failure. First, do not call this phenomenon writer’s block, which means “the condition of being unable to think of what to write or how to proceed with writing.” Although writer’s block happens to every writer, it is not the end of your creative life. It can be simply a matter of timing. Some ideas need to percolate longer than others. It’s just not time to write yet. It can be a matter of fear. Truly, writers are often fearful of rejection, and for a myriad of reasons. It’s not just a matter of  fearing you’ll never get published. Writing is a very personal undertaking. Even when we don’t realize it, we’re bearing our soul. We all have “back story,” and we’re all prone to leaking information about our lives, our loved ones, our deep, dark secrets. Being genuine is risky. I’ve heard it said most writers don’t have a writing problem; they have a telling problem.

So what is writer’s block?

Jerry Jenkins lists the four main causes of writer’s block in this order:

  1. FEAR. What if I fail? Solution? Keep publishing. Don’t stop. Embrace the fear, because it is legitmate. Humble yourself. Writing is hard work. It’s a lonely profession. Fear can be a great motivator.
  2. PROCRASTINATION. This is a big problem for me, as it is for most writers. Procrastination is inevitable, so find ways to fight through it. Jenkins embraces procrastination as an asset. As long as you develop a writing habit, those times you’re away from your writing desk your subconscious is working through the story.
  3. PERFECTIONISM. Many writers struggle with perfectionism. Stephen King suggests you never show your first draft to anyone. A writer friend of mine refuses to discuss a project during the first draft, saying it spoils the process. Your first draft is for an audience of one: you. Many writers, including Jenkins, insist you need to write your first draft and edit later.
  4. DISTRACTIONS. Without fail, every time you sit down to write, even if it’s your “scheduled” time to write, something intrudes on your concentration. It can be a person, a pet, a phone call, social media. So ask yourself how important your writing dream is to you and take a stand. Select a specific writing time. Turn off all other media. This is not the time to use social media or do research. This is your freestyle writing time. Period.

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration; the rest of us get up and go to work”—Stephen King.

Keeping Your “Eye” on the Story

Tess Callahan, author of the novel April & Oliver, says you can’t learn to paint by looking at a Picasso any more than you can learn the cello by listening to Yo-Yo Ma, yet writers are expected to know their craft by virtue of having read books. Reading is of course crucial—just as looking is for the painter and listening for the cellist—but what artists, musicians and even athletes know about training for their field is often lost on writers.

EMULATION

Matisse Dog Paintint

Painters often learn their craft by copying master works. Try recreating a Cézanne or a Matisse and you’ll see how humbling it is. This method teaches the apprentice artist things about composition and brushstroke that he or she could never have internalized otherwise. Once the painter does this with 20 or 30 artists, she starts to get some serious tools in her toolbox. So it can be with writing. For example, take a signature line from Ernest Hemingway or Amy Tan and, while keeping the sentence structure intact, take out all of the nouns and verbs and replace them with your own. Do this with the writers you most admire, as well as those to which you have the greatest aversion. You might learn more from styles you hate.

Do not place these emulated lines directly into your own writing project. That would be like taking a Frida Kahlo self-portrait, changing the color of her hair, and calling it your own. Rather, the plan is to practice emulating lines so that the many different styles can work their way into your brain. After all, no art form exists in a vacuum. The masters often hung out together, sipping coffee in the same cafés, sharing ideas and pushing each other forward. Dancers learn from dancers. Jazz musicians learn from jazz musicians. In fact, new music genres develop from musicians comparing notes. Oh my, a pun!

In her book Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose helps readers pull aside the curtain to observe what the writer-magician is doing, to isolate how each one manages gesture, dialog and character development, and to learn from others’ strengths and weaknesses. As readers, the most important thing to notice is typically what we fail to notice—that is, how the writer keeps us immersed in what John Gardner in The Art of Fiction called “the uninterrupted fictional dream.” When we fall into that blissful dream as readers—when we actually forget we’re reading a story—it appears seamless on the part of the writer.

FREQUENT SMALL SKETCHES

Stick Figure

Figure-drawing classes often start with timed gesture drawings of initial poses lasting as short as five seconds before the model moves. Gradually, the time increases to 10, 15 and 30 seconds. By the time you get to a minute, it feels as if you have all day to capture the pose on your sketch pad. The idea is to keep you free, dexterous and more focused on process than end product. Process is paramount at this stage of an artist’s life. The more process he or she engages in, the more they’re able to hone their craft. Such short bursts also keep you from taking yourself too seriously—otherwise, you’d quickly become frustrated. I suffer this malady! I must remind myself to focus on the art of writing rather than the art itself.

Thankfully, you don’t have to take a creative writing class to use this technique. Simply take a moment here and there throughout the day, waiting for the train or at your favorite restaurant, jot down gestures, expressions or snippets of dialog. Given that these experiences are transitory in nature, the exercises will create their own time constraints. Whether or not these little vignettes make it into your story or novel, they will aid in deepening your awareness of the myriad expressions and experiences we go through each day.

One of my favorite “how to” books on writing is Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Goldberg refers to writers’ journals as “compost piles” where ideas can sink down into the subconscious, heat up, and combust at any time. Most artists don’t start on a big canvas without doing countless thumbnail sketches that help sharpen their skills and drive their vision. My father was extremely creative. He did numerous paintings in various media, including oils, watercolor, pastels, and acrylic. He also build furniture, shelving, and wooden toys. I remember him making several sketches and reworking the idea before committing it to canvas or cutting his first piece of wood in the shop. Writers can benefit from this practice as well.

Julia Cameron Pic

In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron teaches use of daily free-form writing in a journal. She suggests this exercise be done the moment you wake up, and refers to this as morning pages. Cameron says, “In order to retrieve your creativity, you need to find it” (p. 9). The morning pages are three hand-written pages of stream-of-consciousness writing. Writing without any concern for punctuation, spelling, grammar, or concern for mistakes. She believes it is better to use a pen and paper for this undertaking than using your laptop. Something about the tactile experience of words-to-paper.

UNDER-PAINTINGS

Traditional landscape and portrait artists often begin with a monotone under-painting using sepia or cool tones. Essentially a base layer, this has two benefits: First, it allows the artist to play with the composition rapidly in broad strokes before committing to a particular layout. Second, it forces him or her to put aside the issue of color and see the image in terms of dark and light planes. The artist “frames out the house” before putting up the walls. Once the artist begins applying color, he or she does so with a solid understanding of the image’s layers and dimensions.

Callahan says, “What I’m suggesting here is not outlining, which comes from the rational brain and works for some writers, but rather quick, loose first drafts that spring from the subconscious like dreams and proceed image by image.” Consider what it means to write a novel that has morphed from a 20-page short story. In order to flush out the complete tale in this fashion, you must be able to work the entire canvas at once, relating people and places and plots and subplots across great distances. For me, this is quite a daunting task. I’m sure that’s why I’ve so far limited my writing to short stories, flash fiction and prose. After all, to get stuck in one corner of the canvas risks losing the proverbial thread that connects it to the entirety of the story. And this needs to be done page after page, for hundreds of pages.

Brushes and Pallet

Just as painters must keep the brush moving, relating one color to another, writers must work threads back and forth so that their patterns of imagery relate and work together across the scope of many pages. Writers, keep looking at your recurring images and notice how they change each time they surface. They should never be redundant; instead, they must always move the story forward. A writer cannot achieve resonance on a minor note without constantly working the whole piece at once. Again, from my perspective, arg! I’m thinking, “Yeah, that’s gonna take some practice!”

To write this way, quick and without restraint, means giving ourselves permission to create crap. We cannot, nor should we, predict what will come out of our first draft. Then again, the first draft is always written for the audience of one—you, the writer. Stephen King says, “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.” In fact, in On Writing, King describes how he pens his first drafts with the door closed, no one watching over his shoulder, his internal editor shut away. Not until the second draft does he open the door to allow in criticism. Fluid first drafts, like under-paintings, hold open a space for the real story to emerge.

When we write, our minds have a million thoughts running through them. How do I want to organize this chapter? What are my main points? Am I being consistent with my characters? Not surprisingly, the best way to focus is to allow plenty of time—ideally two or three hours with absolutely no interruptions or distractions. Find the time, whenever that might occur in your day, and cherish it. Defend it with all your might. When we write, we delve into another world. Interference tends to quell immersion in this nether world. This practice must become routine—it needs to be established in a pattern. It is through this routine that you will be able to write more consistently.

So…

References

Cameron, J. (1992). The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Los Angeles, CA: Tarcher/Perigee.

Gardner, J. (1983). The Art of Fiction. New York, NY: Random House.

King, S. (2000). On Writing. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Prose, Francine. (2006). Reading Like a Writer. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

Stephen King on Writing

Stephen King has published 57 novels, all of them bestsellers. He has sold more than 350 million copies world wide. According to Forbes, he earns approximately $40 million per year, making him one of the richest writers in the world. He is number 6 on the Forbes list of top 50 writers, and has a net worth of $400 million.

In 2002, King temporarily abandoned writing horror novels. Instead, he wrote On Writing, a book that chronicles his rise to fame and discusses exactly what he believes it takes to become a good writer. Since then, it’s become the most popular book about writing ever written, pulling in over 1000 reviews on Amazon, selling God only knows how many copies. Check the book out here.

I’ve read On Writing from cover to cover at least three times, and each time, I saw a noticeable improvement in my writing. I am particularly fond of King’s “tool box” metaphor. The book teaches the fundamentals of the craft, which is something no writer should ignore. It also sort of rubs off on you. The first half of the book is dedicated to King’s experiences as a writer. Basically a short biography. He candidly discusses his troubles with alcohol and cocaine, as well as the incident when he was run over by a van while walking his dog. The second part is very succinct, covering every aspect of the craft of writing.

King has recently published a list of some of the habits that will help you become a great writer. He advises to write because it fulfills you. Do it for the pure joy of writing. Writing isn’t about making money. Rather, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work. Remember, you can’t please all of the writers all of the time. Do you want to crack the code for writing popular blog posts? It helps to keep a notebook and pen with you at all times. Jot down ideas you could write about. Make a special note of the ones that you believe 80% of your readers would find irresistible. Now, write about those topics and nothing else.

It’s okay to approach the act of writing with nervousness. It is also okay to experience despair. King says, “You must not come lightly to the blank page.” If you want the world to take you seriously, first you have to take yourself seriously. You have to look at your blog as not just a blog, but an opportunity to change the world. Then write as if the whole world is reading. If you are just starting off as a writer, consider cutting the plug off the end of your TV. King decided to do a test. He cut his TV time to one show per day, and invested the time reading. His creativity exploded. He went from writing 1,000 words per day to pumping out over 2,000 words per day in the same amount of time. He said, “Television may be popular, but it’s poisonous to creativity, and all truly dedicated writers need to limit their exposure to it.” If you want to be a writer, there are two things you must do: read, read, read; and, you guessed it, write, write, write.

King believes writing is a distilled art form. It is also refined thinking. A lot of books on writing tell you to write like you talk. While that’s fine for a beginner, it’s death if you ever want to be a respected writer. Yes, your writing should be conversational, but it should be the conversation you would have if you had time to think everything through and say exactly the right things. The truth is, any great piece of writing is preceded by hours and hours of thinking.

It is important for a writer to experience the mediocre and the outright rotten. Such experiences will help the writer recognize when these things creep in to his or her writing, and steer clear of them. When confronted with pathetic  writing, most people click the back button and go for something else, which is understandable. I’ve been there many times. That’s fine if you’re just a reader. If you’re a writer, on the other hand, you’re far better served by sticking around and analyzing exactly what makes the blog so pathetic. They become captivated by your words. You won’t have to beg your readers for their attention. They will follow you to the ends of the earth.

Happy writing!