When the Writing Grind Seems to Shave the Soul
Sometimes writing work is a shrill grind. A while back, I read my unpublished novel aloud, again, in order to hear the rhythm of the words, to see if the sentences made music. I’d already edited it on screen, but putting voice to the page let me hear the places where the saxophone squawked rather than soared. In the space of twenty-five pages, I made at least seventy-five corrections, sometimes just transposing two words, sometimes shifting a phrase from sentence middle to end. It reminded me of when I’ve been given something to edit by a writer who thinks it’s near done, and I return it to them dripping the blood of the red pen — the horror!
I’m going to give the novel another going over again soon — a bit tedious, but it’s cicada work: something buried will burst forth. I’ll be happy if the damn thing crawls, much less takes wing.
Speaking of the grind that writers sometimes feel, perhaps because I ate too many Snickers Bars as a child, since adolescence I’ve been set upon by bouts of existential dread. It harkens to Sartre’s dark work, Nausea, when even everyday objects — the lamp, your keyboard, your wife — appear sinister and threatening. Is it true? Oh, absolutely, everything has its dark side. But you must outwit them: don’t stare the mad dog straight in the eye, but give it a sidelong glance as you skirt its sharp teeth. After a while, the lamp goes back to looking like a lamp. Your wife might be more dicey.
When Your Inner Voice Tells You You’re a Horse’s Ass
I have an inner voice that often tells me I’m a horse’s ass. Though that yoke occasionally fits, much of the time, it’s just the little voice of habit and self-doubt. As most asses need slapping, I’ll step to a mirror, look at the ass looking back at me and say, “You’re just a horse’s ass in the mirror, not my real self. My real self is a combination of Gandalf, Mother Teresa and Jimmy Kimmel. Begone!”
There are a lot of open fields in my neighborhood, where coyotes sometimes roam. I like to think of the mind, with its fears, hesitations and plunges, as a creature — like a coyote. Sometimes I see the coyotes slinking around, cur-like, with a guilty look. Other times I see them racing across the fields, and hear the merry yip-yip-yipping in the evening. I like to think of my coyote mind in this way: when it’s slinking and guilty, it’s but a small turn in perspective to release that mind. Release it to become the version of the Trickster that is both cunning and kind. That coyote brain yips its joy, not its fear.
Shakespeare, Faulkner, Austen all had days in which what they wrote was dung. On those days, they went fishing. So, whether in a bassy lake or a lake only of your imagination, drop a long line. Think of nothing. Feel the sun on your hands, the breeze on your forehead. The work will be there waiting for you, so bob that merry line until due time.
Laugh often, laugh loud. The world is a preposterous place, of pratfalls and puzzlements, where you go to scratch your nose and put your finger in your eye, where governments bloviate, where your neighbor wears his wife’s bra (not that there’s anything wrong with that), where the day you wax your car for the first time in a year, it rains.
You can’t really account for the surreal, the stifling, the boring aspects of life. But this is the life you have — seize it, lick its neck, raise it skyward. The stories about the Other Place in the afterlife are just like filling an inside straight to me: possible, but not likely. So, it’s this world, this NOW, that has so many tears in it — sometimes all you can do is laugh.
A Writer’s Life: Crooked Gratifications and Queer Slights
A writer’s life is a peculiar one, of crooked gratifications and queer slights. So much is interior, subject to the fickle tastes and electrical storms of your own mind, which though you’ve sat in the room with it all your life, remains a mystery. Some days you might sling 1,000 good words over your shoulder, and shrug at its meaninglessness. Some days a single sentence will shine, and that’s enough.
The hell with it — once in a while, choose to eat as much ice cream as you want.
Let’s end this thought with a passage from another one of Annie Dillard’s books I highly recommend this time from another, The Writing Life:
“One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. … Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”
Open your safes, writers. Whether you let the silver lie one year or seventeen, you must let it go. Otherwise, it will tarnish. (Besides, you might be able to make the latest sale on quill pens at Walmart.)
This is adapted from my newest book, Think Like a Writer: How to Write the Stories You See, available on Amazon. Check it out.