Keeping GoingHabits. Routines. The building blocks of our lives, set, taken for granted, that form the framework for original experience.
Habits. Routines. The nemesis of the free mind and the chain of the creative spirit.
Opinions vary. And they're all right, sometimes.
In this discussion, we're going to examine some habits that can aid, or hinder your writing. Then we'll leave you to play with the ideas on your own.
This exercise is not for critique.
Mental Junk FoodOne of my correspondents, a prolific writer, is a passionate defender of the literary values of public television. She is convinced that just as much can be learned about technique in fiction writing from studying the plot lines of adventure serials as from studying literature in print. It works for her.
Most TV watchers, though, aren't studying the plot lines, the methods of characterization, and the pacing. We are laying back on the couch and zoning out. We read books like candy, in big greedy gulps. We spend hours on the phone catching up with the gossip of our social group, and not a bit of it is research for characterization. It is all mind candy.
It is all a distraction from writing. Writing takes time. To make more time in your day, you're going to have to cut some other activity. You might look first at mental Miller Time.
Question EverythingI consider this a Good Habit. I may be biased. I practice it.
I developed this habit deliberately, precisely because I am an empathic and sociable personality, my opinions easily swayed by the latest person to talk to me. So whenever I heard something I agreed with, I asked myself, "What if it weren't so? What are the weaknesses in this argument?" Whenever I heard something I disagreed with, I asked myself, "What if it were so? What would it take to prove this?"
After being burned a couple of times when I accepted something in print without verification, I now ask, "What is the source of this information? What corraboration does it have? Can it be corraborated?" Most stories in such as The National Enquirer, for instance, run something like, "Last week, on a South American beach, witnesses saw a forty-two year old man burst into flames. A policeman interviewed said, 'There was absolutely no apparent cause.'" Sounds like a lot of detail, doesn't it? But how much detail that you can check out? No exact location, no exact date, no names.
Asking questions leads you into stories, and poems. Whenever I ask questions of the people I know, about their lives, I seem to end up with a poem.
Mental ChatterThis can result from too much of the above. It's usually not questions, though. When somene else is talking, we are composing our own speech. While we are reading, we are thinking of how we would have written it. We go for a walk in the woods, and for everything we see we are busily working up an original metaphor, or an elegant haiku. By the time we get back home, we can remember one or two good lines - but no clear image of a single tree.
I have done every single one of those. Over the last year, I have been deliberately practicing just paying attention to what's going on, while I'm experiencing it. This does take practice, if you aren't used to it. But I have found that when I do sit down to write, I can write clear and realistic settings; believable dialogue; characters in action; poems rich in sensory detail.
It's quite fun, really.
NotebooksA lot of that internal dialogue is valuable, though. If we write it down, our minds can move on, without losing that material.
I wrote a humorous piece for an exercise in "describing character through habits," in which I had an innocent customer at a restaurant observe a flock of poets parading in for an open mike. The poets all varied in appearance and mannerism - though there were a lot of Types represented - but the unifying characteristic, noted over and over again, was, "and carrying a notebook."
One of our local poets, who writes primarily autobiographical poetry, writes of encounters in grocery stores, bars, at fairs - and always mentions carrying his notebook at the time.
I've found if I write something down as it occurs to me, I can think of something new, or turn my attention to other things. But if I don't have my notebook with me, I can end up repeating four great lines over and over for an hour and a half, until I can finally write them down.
An hour and a half in which I am not thinking of anything else new.
JournalingGood thing? Bad thing? You decide.
Many, many writers have found value in keeping a daily record of memorable experiences, current thoughts, feelings. The Artist's Way, a program of creative development by Julie Cameron, is built around this tool -- a commitment to writing at least three pages a day, preferably in the morning, often in self-exploration.
Even non-writers have treasured their journals. Journals have become family heirlooms and treasured resources for historians.
It can do everything from perk you up to make you humble to run across an old journal and read what you were writing and thinking about ten years ago.
Sometimes writers can become overly introspective, corkscrewing inward on the track of our own feelings and motivations until our perspective disappears down a mental black hole. But writing all that "processing" down on paper can externalize it to at least some extent, and free our minds by getting it Out There. I have spent three hours agonizing over something, finally sat down and written it out, looked at it - and giggled myself silly.
I've also written some of my best and most heart-felt poetry, that ended up being published, first in my journal.
SchedulesThis one I am going to have to describe from the perspective of others. I do not eat on schedule -- I am a "grazer". I do not sleep on schedule -- I sleep when I drop. I do not work on schedule -- I work on contract. I wash my clothes when they begin walking about the house by themselves. The only regular thing about my writing is that I do it every day, for at least an hour. Which hour is totally open. What I'm going to write is totally open; I usually have two or three projects going at once, and I might get a brainstorm.
I don't recommend any of that. I'm stuck with it, but you don't have to be. There are things about myself that I consider more worth the energy it will take to change them -- like difficuty in communicating with my son, and a tendency to be too loud sometimes in social situations, and over-wordiness. My writing non-schedule gets a lot of writing done, so it's not worth tweaking.
If you aren't getting as much writing done as you would like, consider tweaking your writing schedule. An almost universal habit, almost the only absolute in the world of writers, is the habit of writing something every single day. The more you write every day, the more easily it will flow. And it will come more easily the more regularly you do it - "every day" meaning actually seven days a week, and not "seven days except for when you just can't which works out to about three."
Keep LearningPersonal bias coming up: Poets owe a loyalty to our craft. Professionalism is called for in poets as much as in architects or computer programmers or CPA's. The only difference is that our profession is harder, and more fun.
I don't need to be telling you this, after all. The fact that you are in this workshop means you care about learning more tools of poetry and polishing your skills.
Keep learning. Keep growing. Try something new every day and you may not live to be a hundred but you'll live a lot more than some who do.
PersistenceNever let the blank page win. Mark it up somehow, even if you fill it with, "Why the bloody blazes do I have to keep sitting here and keep writing this when I don't have a single sensible useful interesting thing to write my mind is blank and I have to keep writing this bloody useless gobbledygook because THAT WOMAN SAID SO." Keep writing.
This quote is attributed to a number of famous writers. "There are three ways of learning to write: Write. And write. And write."
Or as Natalie Goldberg says, "In the end, you have to just sit down, shut up, and write."