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On writing and self-help: tentative techniques for staying sane

Photo by Jessica Lewis from Pexels

As a writer with deep misgivings (is there any other kind?), I am ever battling the internal critic and my own messy, tooth and bitten-nail process. Almost never have I experienced ease and flow in this activity and yet I yearn for it — deep down even expect it: a place of unselfconsciousness and immersion where words fall like ripe fruit from mature trees.

But mostly I’ve come to accept the terms and conditions: creation is pain. Eve tasted the bitter fruit of knowledge, we were banished from the garden and now to work is to toil — bitch.

I’ve learned to deal with the difficulty by imposing a discipline that still feels wooden. It involves early mornings and a schedule, coffee (not too much!), handwritten lists that allow me to cross off menial tasks (email — done!) and ambitious goals that inevitably get whittled down to more realistic ones. I make vows and I break them. I fall short, often. The process as I envision it never matches the process that it is.

I can bear it for a while, until I can’t. At the point when things are especially lonesome and tough, slow and heady and my tolerance for frustrated has reached a threshold, reluctantly, I step away. I lay down my pen or laptop screen, push back my chair and turn to the shelves for my go-to means of self-medication: books on writing.

I know — it’s an odd form of escape through immersion, but it works.

Admittedly, I’m the first to balk at the ‘find your bliss’, ‘live your best life’ literature from the latest batch of gurus, and yet I feel zero shame giving over to a wise teacher of the craft. You’ve published books on writing books? Here’s twenty dollars and my undying devotion.

I’ve never committed myself to a twelve-step program, but I have spent a weepy twelve weeks working through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I wrote letters to bad teachers who pre-judged my creative efforts when they were but baby seedlings trying to sprout leaves. I identified a few ‘crazymakers’ in my life who served as fun diversions from my own projects. I might be the only literate person on the planet not to have at least skimmed Eckhart Tolle or The Secret; I’m sure I could find something of use in their pages.

Every time I feel like calling it quits, the voice I hear is Natalie Goldberg’s:

One poem or story doesn’t matter one way or the other. It’s the process of writing and life that matters. Too many writers have written great books and gone insane or alcoholic or killed themselves. This process teaches about sanity. We are trying to become sane along with our poems and stories.

In her book Writing down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, Goldberg offers practical wisdom gleaned from her years as a writing teacher and student of Zen Buddhism. She treats writing as a spiritual discipline, though neither as a zealot or a religious flagellant. Resistance to discipline is part of it, she acknowledges — it’s normal — and to resist the resistance is as effective as “fighting tofu”, which is to say, not at all.

She encourages writers to write from “first thoughts” — a non-judgemental, free-associative unconscious where words more closely reflect the messy, odd, illogical interiors we get all too good at glamming up.

First thoughts are the mind reflecting experiences — as close as a human being can get in words to the sunset, the birth, the bobby pin, the crocus. We can’t always stay with first thoughts, but it is good to know about them. They can easily teach us how to step out of the way and use words like a mirror to reflect the pictures.

Writing is not psychology and writers should not waste energy psychoanalysing their feelings; we must simply have them, and attempt to render them so readers might conjure them, too.

Once, I passed an especially creatively desolate winter reading Stephen King’s On Writing, awe-filled and miserable. I could never be as prolific as King and his completed novel every six months or so. And yet, hearing him describe his treadmill process — a thousand words a day, seven days a week — actually dethroned him from his unreachable perch. It made his prowess human; not just a function of a wildly gifted imagination but a sober faithfulness to the task at hand.

Some years back, when I was at loose ends after being accepted into a Master’s in Creative Writing program — feeling like a fraud because I had duped someone into believing I could complete a significant creative work by the end of the year although I had no precedent for this and wasn’t even sure what genre to write in (poetry, fiction and nonfiction all seemed plausible and equally terrifying options) — I decided to check myself into a Benedictine monastery for a weekend of silent meditation. While the monks wordlessly went about their days, I was to pass mine prayerfully discerning the voice of God. Instead, I was hearing the voice of Murakami in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which I had plucked off the monks’ communal bookshelf.

It isn’t a book about running marathons, but a memoir about Murakami’s relationship with his primary practices, distance running and novel writing, and how they shape and anchor one another. Both are rigorous and transformative and, as it turns out, not entirely unpleasant.

At times it is impossible to untangle them. “For me, running is both exercise and a metaphor,” he writes. This makes sense. The accumulation of miles in the legs conditions the body, toning and expanding its capabilities the same way that hours putting words on the page accrue in the marathon process of writing. No one writes a novel in a spurt of energetic inspiration (well, Kerouac famously did, but he’d been ruminating and amphetamines were involved). It’s step by step, word by word.

Nor is a sense of competition or a desire to win helpful in either process — for Murakami, distance running and novel writing are driven by the desire to be just a little bit better than he used to be.

But the metaphor is imperfect. When he can no longer complete a marathon in the three and a half hours it once took while at his peak, no amount of training can compensate for his ageing body. This realization is humbling to already modest ideals — perhaps success is only about being your best, under the conditions of the moment.

Though my condition at the time still seemed wholly inadequate, it didn’t disqualify me from writing something. I had secretly hoped for a sign (an affirming white dove or prophetic word from an otherwise mute monk, would have sufficed); what I got was helluva more ordinary: a simple but serious voice that told me it wasn’t too late:

At any rate, that’s how I started running. Thirty-three — that’s how old I was then. Still young enough, though no longer a young man. The age that Jesus Christ died. The age that Scott Fitzgerald started to go downhill. That age may be a kind of crossroads in life. That was the age when I began my life as a runner, and it was my belated, but real, starting point as a novelist.

Like most revelations, this one didn’t transport well. It faded in the rearview mirror as I got on with the business of navigating the road ahead. The pure bliss I had with Murakami and the monks gave way to the angsty plod of putting words on the page.

It’s okay, I have the memory and every now and then I catch a whiff of it. And, anyway, writing is about fresh revelations and new roads.

Or maybe I just need a lot of help. Murakami’s words were fine for my late twenties but now I’m past the age he was when he wrote his first novel, and his second.

Not long ago I was reading a weekly newsletter I subscribe to from a journalist whose ideas and writing I admire. Buried there, somewhere at the bottom was a comment about going on a social media diet and, instead of succumbing to the endless scroll, spending an intentional weekend reading John McPhee’s Draft №4: On the Writing Process. The book needed no further endorsement. I opened a new tab, Google searched and plonked it in my online shopping cart; it arrived a few days later.

McPhee has been publishing pieces in Time and The New Yorker for something over fifty years, not unusually to the tune of 40,000 words. He writes what some might call creative nonfiction, others narrative journalism. Basically, he spins a good yarn, with facts. He also takes an immersive approach to his research on topics as wide-ranging as geology, seafaring and oranges (less Hunter S. Thompson, more enthusiastic and stable Bill Nye).

I knew none of his credentials when I ordered the book. Truth is, I’d just returned home from two years of traveling and was trying to make home in a new city in a country I’d adopted by way of marriage. Besides one job creating content for a travel website, I wasn’t working much, though still trying to write for myself most days, making my own deadlines and submitting into the void.

McPhee’s approach was as pragmatic as anyone I’d read; he was a disciplined, dogged researcher, but more human than hero. His lessons were borne of a lot of frustration. In a chapter on structure, he renders interesting pictographs that show different ways of sequencing information and pacing a narrative that allow him to break from the tired formula of chronology (some of which would not seem out of place in a book on Freemasonry). It looked odd but was a kind of logic — one man’s map through the wilderness.

But even keeping such a meticulously ordered toolbox close at hand is no guarantee against crippling self-doubt. McPhee describes “the picnic table episode”, where he lay on his back for two weeks gazing at the sky through the trees in lieu of starting the article he’d been researching for months. That by this point he’d published several pieces in the New Yorker was still no consolation. “It doesn’t matter that something you’ve done before worked out well. Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you.”

Essentially: insecurity is an entirely rational response to starting again.

This is definitely no pat aphorism, but hardly is it a positive take. And yet, it came as a dim light in the dark: just hint enough toward a next step.

It’s no wonder that these lines, in the book’s final chapter, struck like pure music:

If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer. If you say you see things differently and describe your efforts positively, if you tell people that you “just love to write,” you may be delusional. How could anyone ever know that something is good before it exists?

He was meeting me right where I was, gesturing towards sanity.