On writing — 4 stages to that crappy first draft, and a note on rejection

Dear diary… this is me, writing naked

I’ve read that memory builds upon memory. If for example you memorise a whole lot of numbers, it becomes easier for you to memorise even more numbers. I’m starting to think the same is true for writing, that is, if you write a few pieces in a specific style, continuing to write in that style becomes easy, if somewhat dry, but other styles begin to die. I’ve been editing a legal blog for over two years and that type of content requires plain language and to the point explanations of legal concepts. I fear that all of that legal writing and editing may have dimmed my creative writing side as I now constantly look to cut down and make plain any sentence that I see. Toying with words for the sake of a beautiful sentence has all but been lost in the midst of technical editing.

I want to be able to write naked. At least figuratively. I could really write naked at home if I wanted to, since no one would be around to be offended. But the reality is that as a writer, I am scared. Scared of baring too much of myself, of being judged, of not writing well. It is such an intimate act, sharing your words with others. Much like speaking, I censor my writing and try not to draw too much attention to myself. This need to dissolve into the background is a part of my personality but it brushes up uncomfortably with my desire to be a writer. I could write for myself, journal entries in the dark, never to be unearthed for anyone else to see. But I want writing to be more than my secret diversion, I want to be a writer on the world stage. How do I reconcile the tug and pull between my introverted nature and my desire to write for public consumption? This is my struggle.

I began writing this piece self-consciously and the words would not come. Then I decided to write the outline of my ideas as a journal entry. If I’m the only one who is going to see it, it can be crap. I just needed to get some words down on the paper, to get the ideas flowing. Do it crappy, but do it now, I reminded myself. One of the countless pieces of self-help advice that I have stored in my memory and try to conjure up at an appropriate moment.

John McPhee, a regular writer for the New Yorker, has a similar technique to the dear diary method. In his article on writer’s block, he advises that you first start your story as a letter to your mother, and just tell the darn story. Once you’re done with that letter, take out the “dear mother” and all of the whining, and you have a first draft.

Editor of Modern Love, Daniel Jones, says that “writer’s block isn’t a lack of something to say. It’s a lack of patience with figuring out how to say it. So stay in the room. Write badly. It is productive. You just might not know it yet.”

Reading, research and dallying

I worked in a corporate law firm for four years, always partially satisfying my need to be a writer by the fact that I was surrounded by words all day. Reading case law, writing legal opinions, drafting pleadings and reviewing colleagues’ work. But I didn’t want to be restricted to writing about the latest legal developments and spending a lot of my day on other legal or administrative tasks (like paginating thousands of pages over a particularly grim weekend). I wanted to write about more.

So I packed up my law degree and headed for the unknown world of freelancing and consulting. I still consult as a blog editor. But I am now free to write beyond legal memos and file notes.

With that freedom came stillness. Nothing. I didn’t write more. I found other things to occupy my time, I procrastinated writing anything, while thinking about it every day. I wrote down story ideas but failed to turn them into something real. To be a writer, I needed to sit down and write. I didn’t. It’s been over a year, and now I begin.

I have come across Stephen King’s writing advice more than a dozen times in the past few months in my search for inspiration on being a writer. That, and the advice of many other writers. Some websites tidily bring all of these pearls of wisdom from various writers together. But this is just another form of procrastination, reading about writing and the process, researching, trying to find inspiration. Not actually writing. Not doing the difficult work of sitting down to put one word after the next. It seems a lot of writers find writing agony. It seems to be part of the job.

The more I researched article ideas, the more I began to wonder whether everything worth saying has been said already, and in countless different ways. What would be the point of adding to the mass of words clogging up the internet? How could I find something different and interesting to write about? I guess it’s all about angles.

Madeleine L’Engle’s three tips for writers are to keep a journal of your unpublishable thoughts, to read, and to write. That’s all. Sounds pretty simple when it’s boiled down to three uncomplicated steps. Except that the writing part really isn’t all that simple. Stephen King also advises that people who do not have time to read will not be able to write. The idea of keeping a journal is one proposed by many writers, and one useful way of getting all of the muck out of your head is Morning Pages, Julia Cameron’s method to spark creativity. I’ve tried doing the Morning Pages brain dump and while it has been useful in getting me to finally spew some words, I found it difficult to stick to the habit. After one missed day, I felt like giving up the endeavour altogether, which probably is not the point — but if you give me a string of X’s to cross off and if I miss one, it starts to feel too much like failure, so I ended up avoiding the daily pages entirely.

Getting out there and living, getting in here and thinking

Two pieces of advice that seem contradictory but really go together in sequence is to get out there and live, but also to sit in solitude and think. In order to have anything to write about, I first needed to participate more in life, in order to witness some of its strange magic.

In the movie Stuck In Love Greg Kinnear’s character (a writer) advises his son (an aspiring writer) that in order to be a real writer he needs to have some life experiences, fall in love, do something courageous. Phil Rosenthal, writer for the show Everybody Loves Raymond also said (in a podcast hosted by Lewis Howes) that you have to have a real life to write. Even Bilbo Baggins first needed to go on a long, life changing adventure, slaying dragons and finding magical rings, before he began writing his memoir, There and Back Again.

Living inside my own head was an empty place for ideas, and words would not come. So I joined a gym, and an Arabic class, and I volunteered to teach high school students about human rights. I tried a new dish, I cut my hair, I went swimming more often and I started listening to podcasts. I went to the library instead of buying everything on Kindle, and I took more walks in the park. Alright, good, more life experience, done.

But then, of course, to draw any meaning out of what is happening in life, I needed to have time to sit still and reflect, to decide whether anything I do or know or think is worth writing about, and then, if it is, I had to actually sit down and write. The hardest part.

In an interview with the Guardian, Rachel Cusk, professor of creative writing at Kingston University, said that the “desire to write comes easily; writing itself is technical and hard”. You can’t just string some words together and call yourself a writer.

Just doing something, anything, for a few minutes

That’s when the procrastination kicked into high gear and the need to find a solution became desperate. I haven’t totally figured out how to beat this delaying demon yet, but it has been helpful to write in short 20 minute bursts.

This is not really the self-inflicted pomodoro method where you set a timer for 25 minutes and race to get as much done as possible before taking a 5 minute break. Nope, my 20 minute bits and pieces were far more unstructured, arising out of the need to get a little done during the holidays while also interacting with family members, preparing for a new baby and running errands.

I found that the less free time I had, the more I got done. When I knew that I had a few minutes to squeeze in a few words, I really did squeeze. When I had a chunk of beautiful time, I squandered it. So I accepted my limitations (at least for now) and used whatever pockets of time I could find.

I wish to set up a habit where I can write for longer periods, but for now I’m happy if I can at least get work done with this ad hoc squeeze time. Maybe I need to build the writing muscle and overcome the attention deficit that I have developed due to being constantly glued to my iPhone.

The big NO and keep on keeping on

With a bit of writing (painstakingly) done, next came — rejection. Surprisingly not as difficult as actually writing, the rejection part does still sting. I could keep all of these little bits and articles that I’ve written to myself, or self-publish them on my blog, but that’s not the point for me. I love writing but I also want to be able to make writing a profession, and in order to do that, my writing needs to be published by someone other than myself.

A lot of writers say that you need to be able to write purely for the love of it, but this doesn’t make sense unless you have extra time outside of your full time job to pursue writing as a hobby. When you decide to become a writer, you still need to pay the bills, and when your passion becomes your job, the romance around writing may fade. This is when you need to look at something other than pure love, for those moments when passion alone cannot sustain the butt-on-chair hours necessary to get a piece done.

An insightful article on the Priceonomics website explains that in “organizational theory, there is something called the Effort-Performance-Outcome theory: you will only put forth the effort necessary to succeed if you reasonably expect that effort will pay off. This explains why workers slack off once they believe that their output won’t be used for anything important.” Maybe if you write only for yourself, the results will be something only you will ever want to read.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s strategy is that even though she may not be the best in the show, she will be “most in show”. She says that “I wouldn’t quit submitting my work until publishers yielded…People have to acknowledge me anyhow, because I won’t go away…Refuse to be unseen. Believe me, it will take you far.”

Now, I’ve got to keep improving, keep reading and keep writing.