I believe I’ve written on here before about the importance of the brain to all writers. The brain is, of course, our most important muscle. The brain is where we come up with crazy ideas, develop them into even crazier ideas, and then find some way of putting them down into a readable format. One could probably say, in fact, that the brain is important to writers in the way that leg muscles are important to Olympic runners. Or arm muscle and discus throwers. Or swimmers and their lungs. Any athlete analogy will do, really, because today’s post is about keeping yourself in shape when it comes to writing.
I recently came across a great quote from Susan Sontag’s musings on writing thanks to a post from Brainpickings. One of her journal entries notes, “A writer, like an athlete, must ‘train’ every day. What did I do today to keep in ‘form’? (7/5/72)” I had never thought about writing in this way before, but I really like the way she’s described it here. The main thing to remember when working on your writing is, simply, to do it. Practice makes perfect when it comes to writing, so keeping “in form” means — mostly — writing every day.
However, when athletes are training to stay in good form, they don’t practice their specific sport exclusively. They also lift weights and exercise their body to enhance their performance. So, too, writers must do other ancillary activities in addition to their daily writing. This means planning out future stories, doing any research that you might need to do, read other authors’ work, and brainstorm ideas for future stories or essays or poems. All of this is important to the writer’s regimen. The most important think to remember is to practice writing in some way every day to keep “in form.”
Now, I know what you’re thinking. How can a post about writing advice be talking about reading, rather than writing? It’s a fair question, and one that has a very good answer. Reading — in great quantities and across many genres — is the most important thing that a writer can do in his or her life besides simply writing. Joss Whedon recently gave an interview where he talked about “filling the tank.” The idea behind this is that in between writing projects, you need to fill your creative tank. And that is where reading comes in.
In a Brainpickings post that lists H.P. Lovecraft’s Advice to Aspiring Writers, the very first item listed reads, “No aspiring author should content himself with a mere acquisition of technical rules. … All attempts at gaining literary polish must begin with judicious reading, and the learner must never cease to hold this phase uppermost.” I couldn’t agree more. If you know where to place your commas and your semi-colons, that’s all well and good. But if you know nothing about character development and good pacing for your story, then your writing will lack something fundamental to story success. I believe that you can learn the more emotional and ethereal aspects of writing through reading and studying other authors’ work.
Just as a painter goes to see other artists’ work and a carpenter will admire the make of furniture that is not his own, writers must read what’s out there on the market already. Not only for comparison with your own work, but to glean new techniques to use in your writing. Through reading you can learn what makes good dialogue, how much description is needed for your setting, and how characters should interact so that their relationships seem believable.
Of course, you must be careful not to become so invested in reading that you don’t get around to writing. just fill your tank, as Joss Whedon says, and then return to your writing desk with a clear head and full “tank” of creative resources.
As writers, our imaginations are generally large by necessity and by nature. We imagine big ideas and try to transfer them into story form in one way or another. In my experience, story ideas start out large and expansive. Those big imaginations churn out big ideas and the challenge that we, as writers, face is to transform those into writing in a way that is pleasing and grammatically correct.
Today’s bit of advice comes from Susan Sontag, whose various pieces of advice were featured on the Brainpickings website. One of her quotes reads, “Writing is a little door. Some fantasies, like big pieces of furniture, won’t come through.” I found this quote fascinating because it’s something that I have experience before when trying to write. Sometimes I find that ideas look differently in my head then they do on the page and I believe it’s because of this “little door” that Sontag talks about. For all of our imagination, writers are constrained by language, grammar, genres, and reader preference.
With all of these things in our minds as we write, it can be difficult to get those big, imaginative ideas through. I like this quote and I think that Sontag has a good point. But, I also think that the little door can be widened at times, especially in the preliminary, first draft stages of writing. At that point, you can let some of the grammatical and genre-specific constraints go and just let your imagination run wild. At that stage, I think it’s possible to get those big ideas through the little door.
However, the door needs to be tightened up again when you get to the editing stage. Eventually those big, imaginative ideas will need to be pared down to fit through the little door and come out the other end looking like a strong, solid draft of a story.
For the first time, I’m writing about some advice that I wouldn’t necessarily take myself. But I think this is an important piece of advice that has some merit. In our of technology, it’s only natural that writing will combine with that technology. We use the internet to do research for stories, we use story plotting/planning software, and we even use the internet to publish and disseminate our work. But at the most basic level, we use technology to create our writing. Think about it — how often do you type your work? In comparison, how often do you handwrite your work? I’m guessing that you choose the keyboard more often than you choose the pen or pencil.
Personally, I much prefer the keyboard. For me, it’s quicker and easier to get my writing done when I’m typing. If I started handwriting everything, my writing would take forever. The only time I handwrite is when I’m journaling. With any other piece of writing, you’ll find me typing away at my laptop. But I understand why you would want to choose handwriting over typing. In a post on the wonderful Brainpickings website, Anaïs Nin is quoted as saying:
Writing by hand is laborious, and that is why typewriters were invented. But I believe that the labor has virtue, because of its very physicality. For one thing it involves flesh, blood and the thingness of pen and paper, those anchors that remind us that, however thoroughly we lose ourselves in the vortex of our invention, we inhabit a corporeal world.
I believe Nin makes some good points here. The act of handwriting a piece takes far more work than simply typing it. Writing is already mentally laborious, but to add that physicality to it would make finishing a piece even more rewarding, I’m sure. And I like what Nin says about the “thingness” of using pen and paper. Writing is done so much within our own heads that it can be nice to put actual ink to paper.
In the end, I think I’ll end up choosing the convenient path of typing out my writing projects. But there’s a lot to be said for writing with pen and paper and I would encourage you to try it out!
At times, writing can be an all-consuming practice. Hours can disappear quite easily if you’re working hard on a passage and don’t stop to eat or say hello to family members. Those are the good times, at least they are in my opinion. Those times when you don’t realize how much time is passing, how many words you’re putting down, how many pages are flying by — yes, those are the good times. But they can’t last forever. And eventually you’ll find yourself blocked, unable to continue, and unsure that you’ll ever see the end of your project. How do you get back to those days when time meant nothing to you and progress was smooth?
Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
Personally, I think this is great advice to take into consideration. Think about it this way — if you never expect to finish, you won’t be constantly frustrated if you’re not progressing as quickly as you’d like. And when you do reach the end of your story, you’ll be so pleasantly surprised that it will be like the time flew right by you.
I also really like the idea of writing just one page per day. If you do that for a month, you’ll have thirty pages finished. Eventually those numbers will add up and you’ll get more and more done. In addition, setting a goal like one-page-per-day for yourself helps your momentum get started. You’ll probably find that on a typical day, you write more than one page simply because you keep on going with your story. But beginning with the guideline of just one page is a good way to get started. Hope this helps!
We all know that some scenes are easy to write, and others are like pulling teeth. At times it feels like the words are flowing and they can’t be stopped. But sooner or later, you are going to hit a roadblock where the words won’t come, or they won’t come in the right way. When you’re faced with this roadblock scene, you have two choices. You can get hung up on this one moment of your story, fixate on it, and spend far too much time pondering over how to make it work. Or, instead, you can push past the problematic scene and mark it as something you have to come back to later.
If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
I think this is a great piece of advice. If you let a scene stall you for too long, you might lose your inspiration entirely. Then, even if you end up getting the scene correct in the way that you wanted, it may ruin the rest of your story. Don’t let one scene — or even one selection of a poem you’re working on — ruin the whole piece for you. Especially since, as Steinbeck says here, those sections that caused you trouble might not even belong once you’ve finished the entire piece.
As Steinbeck says, sections can be gone back over and edited when you’ve finished your progress, so don’t let them impede your writing as you work towards the completion of your story or poem.
For those of us pursuing an artistic lifestyle, it can be tempting to romanticize our endeavors. There must be something about the frustration that sometimes comes with creating that leads us to also create a mystique around our art. Perhaps if we make things more magical, we’ll have something else to focus on rather than focussing on how we aren’t creating. We would be better served, I think, by just pressing on and getting some work done. The idea for today’s post comes from Zadie Smith’s 10 Rules of Writing, brought to you by Brainpickings. Smith says,
Don’t romanticise your ‘vocation’. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle’. All that matters is what you leave on the page.
Personally, I don’t think that romanticizing is all bad. Sometimes romanticizing can give you a push of inspiration to get working. At least, I know that if I set up my writing area in an appealing way and tell myself that I’m going to write the next Great American Novel — even if it’s not remotely true — it pushes me to persevere. Sometimes you need to sugar coat things and trick your mind a little bit just to get yourself motivated.
What I think Zadie Smith is addressing, in particular, with her piece of advice is that you should avoid the stereotypical Hemingway type of writer’s lifestyle. Romanticizing writing and pursuing the “writer’s lifestyle” more than you actually pursue writing itself can lead to never getting any work done. Your status as a writer is not defined by how you live the “writer’s lifestyle,” but how you treat your writing and how you actually write.
Yet again — and I know I say this a lot — this all comes down to one thing. Just write!