On the Good Ship Workshop

We’ve been in so many workshops. The Roman philosopher, Seneca, reminds us that some people absorb things easily while others need to have things rammed down their throats (he really said that). You don’t want to be sitting there when the ramming starts in on someone. You want to run or zone out. But then, you can miss so much.

Most of the time you hear the same things over and over (ramming) or you hear odd things that make no sense (“If you have writer’s block, just stand on your head”). There are options you can and could employ as a writer, however, beyond doing the actual writing. These are strategies that often don’t get discussed in workshops or, if so, are only discussed in the more intimate or longer ones, for example. These are the sometimes metaphysical implements to support yourself as a writer and make yourself a better writer.

They come up in writer’s groups, as well (or in those little offshoots from some workshops). Yes, even the ones with all those “Pollyannas” in them, the gigglers who say “gee” and “that’s great” and “I love Danielle Steele.” People you think know nothing, who you think are below your talent level. The ones who wear all black and hardly say a word for weeks. Or the ones you think smell funny. And online? Even trolls can teach you things and give you inspiration. Of course, sometimes they aren’t trolls, either. Never ignore another writer and their potential value. It’s a very old cliché but, like most, it contains truth: for writers, every moment of teaching is a learning experience and every moment of learning is a teaching experience. The least knowledgeable among us can teach the most knowledgeable. Each of us reads and hears differently. Even when we sit in the same seminars and read the same books we can acquire a different set of knowledge by talking to different writers. When we talk to each other we share a different set of ideas and new information, inevitably. That’s why it is so important for writers to talk to each other, even though it can, unfortunately, become tedious at times. Writing is serious and hard work for us all. And sometimes tedious. So, do seek out those opportunities to interact. Although, ultimately you do work alone…unless you work in Hollywood, where you’ve made your bed, so now go to sleep in it with your 150 collaborators.

Let’s move to something people may consider too extreme (oh, boy). Many of these things were behaviors I totally rejected at one point in my life because I was moralistic to the point of being a Puritan. For example, I once took a class with a man who was William Faulkner’s personal and literary secretary during the last decade or so of his life. I was at almost constant loggerheads with him because, although I admired Faulkner’s work, I felt it was flawed because he was significantly flawed as a human being. I made my point known, both openly and in private, particularly when it came to the point about Faulkner’s alcoholism (although never that alone). My professor was something of a teetotaler himself and always had been. In most other respects, though, he was very much like Faulkner. He would stare at me and never quite respond, as though he were waiting for me to simply…change. Well, he’s long dead, and I have changed.

Pick your fruits and herbs of choice. Use them in whatever modified fashion you choose and to whatever extent they might abuse you or you them if they help you toward your writing goal. But always in an attempt to understand what the relationship is, what they are doing to you, to your life, and if possible getting some good writing out of that understanding. I have mine. They do what they do and I make of them what I need. Every writer should. If it leaves us flawed so be it. Who is perfect? Our mission isn’t to be without flaws, it is to accomplish our writing goals one by one. Whatever helps us to that end is something we should grab for ruthlessly. I do not use that word lightly. As long as it is a material object, not a living thing, you should use it ruthlessly to accomplish your writing goal, as much as you can handle or desire. But always remember, you are a living thing, not a mere material object. Am I suggesting you become a lush or addict? Clearly it has been the choice of many, many who have died in total obscurity and some who have died quite famously. But it isn’t what I would suggest, not here, now, or at any time. This is not about death by a thousand rattles. This is about the easiest way to calm and peace in front of the blank page. Whatever gets you there with the least damage, without self-destruction is what you should seek. It may be a razor’s edge, it might even require some experimentation. That’s part of the writer’s life. Seek it out, rationally, without destroying yourself.

Time itself should be used ruthlessly, again, as long as it doesn’t abuse another living thing. One thing we could be doing with our time that has nothing directly to do with our writing is making sure that our bodies are kept in relatively good shape. Because without them we cannot work. This may seem to be a contradiction to use of fruits and herbs but it isn’t. It is an attempt at balance. And hopefully for most of us it is an attempt at strength regardless. And if you cannot start today, consider starting tomorrow. No matter what you may have heard, dying young is not a good prospect for successful writers.

And it leads to my next point. Get out of your writing hole as often as possible to place yourself in nature, particularly with the point of observing the wilderness and the creatures therein. It is by observing wild animals in their natural state, as often and as closely as possible, that you gain a better understanding of how humans function and dysfunction as a species. Don’t go to a zoo, go to the woods, find a jungle, sit and watch. It will be worth every moment if you are writing about people. Find a great writer, pick one, pick your favorite, and I’ll show you one who has spent a significant time, probably alone in nature. If not, their writing will be interior, sterile, particularly their writing about people will be flat, distorted, and have nothing to add to the conversation about humanity. So, get out there, and get out there now while there is still something to see, while there is still air to breathe and water to drink as you watch.

Then there’s what can only be called “cross-training.” Most successful artists and writers do it, every successful writer I’ve encountered, in and out of “workshops,” does it. Study and regularly practice another art form. You’ll find that, if you dance in the evening, for example, somehow in the morning you’ll awake to find a new piece of writing in your head out of nowhere. Don’t ask me, ask your neurologist. Of course, it takes time to experience this phenomenon if you haven’t practiced enough, so get to it. Play the guitar, paint a picture, sing an aria. Get to know the form well. It also adds a great deal to your human experience. That’s not a bad idea, either. If you can do more than one, gunishelfin, as some oriental tribe says, I think.

The first lesson I remember being taught in a poetry class was, “Don’t worry about being published.” I kept hearing this, and I carried it with me for a long time, becoming more and more neurotic about it. One day, I heard it spoken again, in a fiction class, but suddenly understood it. Don’t worry about being published when you are writing. You are always going to worry about being published when the rent is due. When your boss is treating you like a moron and you were wishing for a six-figure advance on…anything. When your kids are hungry. When your spouse is yelling because the bills aren’t paid. When your dog is looking at you funny because he hasn’t eaten for a few days… Worry is the writer’s constant companion. Even the “successful” writer worries because total failure is immanent. And your biggest worry — when you aren’t writing — is getting published…for money. If your writing has merit, then the only problem you face is competition. Is there competition? Take a look out there… Expect to worry about getting published when you aren’t writing. It will be everywhere in your life. But it shouldn’t be there when you are writing. Make certain it isn’t. The classical Stoics developed a meditative technique called premeditatio malorum, the premeditation of evils. Current therapists call it “negative visualization.” Every day think of yourself confronting this failure and facing it gracefully, handling it in the best possible manner. Just keep doing it, every day. It’s like building a muscle. As your writing gets better, your ability to handle the inevitability of rejection will improve as well. Oh, you can bang your head against the wall all day long and tell yourself it’s better to be a good human being than a good writer. But just like me you know that it’s even better to be a good published human being, isn’t it?

So, finally, now, stand up and walk around the room — or wherever you happen to be at the moment — as if you were Shirley Temple. If you don’t know who Shirley Temple is, you unfortunate slob, you undoubtedly have a smartphone in your hands, so Google it. Now, head back, big smile, arms akimbo — yeah, if you don’t know what “akimbo” means…that’s right… Okay, I’m actually sitting here waiting for you to walk around the room (hm, hm, hum, la, la, la, la, la). It sounds silly, I know. But you really need to do this, a lot. All the time. Every day. And not only Shirley Temple. As many different people as you can think of, or create out of your imagination. And not only people. It’s about a thing called “compassion.” The more you can develop it, the deeper and wider it grows, the better a writer you become. You can do many serious things on this road. Many silly things, too. It’s all up to you. You can get some of it out of books. But it is better to wring it straight out of yourself. Find every possible means. Writing is a serious vocation. It isn’t just about writing. These are exercises. You can “think” of yourself as being “in someone else’s shoes,” or you can do whatever you can to put yourself in them. Putting yourself in is always better. Now, walk, Shirley.

And thanks to Kira Leigh for her inspiration.