This was supposed to be a literary blog.
A couple years ago my sister roped me into a gchat while I was viscously hungover. She told me that she wanted to start writing again and needed advice on how to Begin. In high school she was a prose writer and poet, but then life got in the way and when you drop a habit like that it’s difficult to pick it back up. Writing is wily.
Anyway, I gave her an answer that seemed to satisfy her. My intention was to get out of the conversation as quickly as possible and I succeeded. What do I really Know about Writing?
Well, I thought about the question a lot and realized that I do have many Opinions on Writing. The purpose of this blog was to discuss those opinions, but I got side tracked and, ultimately, lazy.
And so, like Counting Crows, I’m getting back to Basics: Getting Started.
It seems appropriate for this last day of the Year 2011, before the Beginning of the Year of the Apocalypse, 2012. Everyone I know despises New Year’s and loathes Resolutions, but every year I get suckered in to the ritual by bizarre faith in opposition to empirical evidence. I will write more often in Scribbler’s Doorless Room about Writing. I will write more often, to combat laziness and boredom. I feel compelled to make great promises and keep them since, you know, the End is nigh.
Notice that this is “Getting Started: Part 1.” I will revisit this topic at a later date.
Without further ado, an Opinion:
Shortly before I moved to New Orleans, I read Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird. If you’ve ever taken a writing class, you have probably read excerpts or the whole book. If you haven’t, you should. You’ll be happier. Even if you’re not a writer, this book will exponentially improve your Quality of Life. Reading Bird by Bird feels like a meaningful hug.
In her chapter about Getting Stared, Ann Lamott advises one do Small Things or Small Exercises – I forgot her exact words, but that’s the gist of it. In other words, do not set out to write a Book, or, God forbid, a Novel or a Tome. Instead, write something manageable, like a very short blog post about getting started writing.
Since my sister asked, several friends have asked me: How do you start? How do you actually begin writing? I really wish that I had a snappy response, one that would enlighten and advise you for years to come, but I’m not Ann Lamott. And my personal strategy is not universally applicable.
I write compulsively. The other day, I went to Iowa City for two days, forgetting my notebooks in Des Moines and was in a state of restless frustration every time I realized that I didn’t have something to write on. I carry pocket-sized notebooks with me Everywhere and make regular use of them. Whenever I don’t take notes, I write in my journal. I have a separate notebook at home for writing plays and stories. With few exceptions, I’ve written every day for the past five years.
Occasionally, my writing gets me in trouble. A few people, knowing my Bad Habit, have ordered me to never write about them or to omit certain details from my Record. I have always adhered to these wishes. But, invariably, most things end up in my Scribblings. Most of it isn’t stories, or plays, or essays, or even blog entries, but all of it is Useful and fair game for future projects.
If I did not write, I would not know what to do with myself. Probably I would have a lot more free time. Probably I would have a better social life and I would play more video games and I would be less anxious and maybe I would be a happier person. But at least there’s a paper trail.
My secret – and the reason why my method is not universally applicable - is that I’ve driven myself crazy. I have managed to make myself obsessed with and compelled to write. Sure, sometimes sanity wins out and I take breaks, but mostly I can’t help but scribble things down and make stories out of things that happen to me.
So, manhandle that into something resembling instruction and it looks like this: carry a medium around with you everywhere and make use of it.
Luckily, most of us – particularly those of my generation – are pretty good about this already. We all have Twitter and Facebook accounts and most of us have some sort of online journal. We are all obsessed. Well done. You write every day. Now do it consciously.
But, even if you have the ability and the tools, how do you Start? My advice is just Write.
Whenever the opportunity presents itself, take advantage. If you don’t, you will hunt for incantations and rituals and create superstitions ad nauseum trying to find that Special Rite that makes the magic Work. Write and, sooner or later, you will discover what works for you.
Many of my friends cannot write unless they listen to music. Some need to write long hand, others on a computer. Some people can write in the morning and others couldn’t write a word to save their lives unless it’s after midnight. Some require coffee, others liquor. For a long time, I was convinced that I couldn’t write unless I had ingested some legal drug - Java House’s St. Louis Blues or Gilby’s Gin - and was writing on a Moleskine notebook – plane, 9x14cm, item number 9788883701030 – with a Zebra F-301, fine-tipped pen in the dead of night. Now I know that these are all crutches. I can write well whenever I need to under whatever circumstance. The other things just make life easier.
But, how do you Start?
Okay, let’s do that right now. It’s the last day of 2011, but it’s still a day in your life and something interesting has happened to you already, I guarantee it. Think back on the last conversation you had. Someone told a story. Maybe you did. We all tell stories. Or maybe when you woke up you thought about all of those Resolutions you haven’t made yet or all those that you didn’t keep. It can be banal or fantastic. What did you eat? When did you start eating that breakfast every day? Did your parents make it for you and you never stopped? Was that loud sound you just heard now a car crash?
Here’s something a friend told me that I just realized was a story:
No one knew who invited him. Wearing a leather, bomber jacket over neat, business casual and a dark, unreadable look, almost blank. She could smell him from across the room. Axe, like he never grew out of Middle School, which seemed at odds with his deliberate calm, spacy courtesy. Lilly hated strangers at her apartment, especially big strangers. At four eleven, the world was filled with giants to her, but this guy was at the far end of six feet tall and so was something of a monstrosity to her.
“Who is that guy?” Lilly asked Pat when she cornered him in the kitchen.
Pat shrugged, pouring water into glasses from a filter in the fridge. It was a weekday and, though Lilly had stocked up on beer just in case, no one was in the mood. After pizza, water. After film, go home. After that, work again. Where had that routine come from?
“Andrea’s cousin. He’s in town for the week. Think he’s in marketing, but he just got into that. Andrea says he sort of changes and moves on a whim. Think his name is Jason,” Pat said. She managed to carry the six glasses out to the living room by herself. A former bartender. Lilly had seen her carry five steins in each hand on multiple occasions - the requisite strength and coordination appalled her.
Andrea was talking to his cousin on the couch. Andrea was talking. The cousin looked like he was listening. Lilly wasn’t even sure if Andrea was listening to herself since she appeared to be playing a game on her smart phone. Lilly and Pat sat down and the conversation quickly turned toward what movie they should watch.
“Serenity?” Lilly asked.
“She don’t like Firefly,” Andrea joked, gesturing at Andrea.
“The Sound of Music,” said Jason in a surprisingly soft voice, almost a whisper. Everyone looked at him. “It’s my favorite film.”
“Jason’s fucking around.” Andrea rolled his eyes. “How about The Dark Knight?”
“We always watch Dark Knight,” Lilly moaned.
“It’s been months at least,” Andrea countered.
“We’ve watched everything on your shelf once,” Pat said.
“Right. Why don’t we go out. Why don’t we try doing something different?” Lilly said. “Let’s go bowling. Or skiing.”
“There’s no snow,” said Andrea. “And we all have to work tomorrow.”
“I’ve never seen The Dark Knight,” Jason said. Lilly followed his gaze. He was looking out the window at the apartment building across the street. A man and woman were silhouetted against the shade. She only caught a glimpse of one figure raising the arm to reach for the others face, or maybe throat, before the light extinguished.
“Settled,” Andrea said, triumphantly.
They watched the movie in silence, sipping water. The smell of pizza went stale and mixed with that peculiar brick and dust smell that had probably hung around the apartment for the past century. Lilly stopped paying attention after the opening credits. She thought about sitting at her desk tomorrow, writing more letters and more letters to customers and partners and when had that become her job? Tomorrow was probably going to be like yesterday and this seemed to be the trajectory of life. A disjointed, disingenuous dialogue interrupted by sleep and eating and movies that she’s watched too many times.
The movie finished and Andrea and Pat helped Lilly clean up. It was not until they began shuffling, one conversation at a time about the next holiday or where they hell they could go skiing if there were snow, that Andrea asked, “Where’s Jason?”
It took ten seconds to double check the living room, kitchen, two bedrooms, and bathroom to ascertain that Jason was not in the apartment. The front door’s deadbolt was fastened. No keys were missing. A glance at the open window and a mental leap took Lilly to the conclusion that he was on the fire escape.
“Is your cousin…” Lilly searched for an inoffensive word. “Well?”
“Well…” Andrea said, looking out the window.
“I’ll be back,” Lilly said. It was her guest and her fire escape. She’d find the wayward cousin and bring him back from the exit or the brink or whatever or wherever he may be.
He was on the roof, five stories up. She almost never went to the roof except on the 4th of July and whenever she really needed to get away from that brick and dust smell, which was more often, lately. He was standing on the ledge, something that Lilly had never been brave enough to do. She wondered what he was looking at. The wind was cold and smelled of trash and grease from all the fast food restaurants so nearby. People were shouting below.
“Jason…?” Lilly began. She stood a few feet behind him. He was silhouetted against the sodium orange light on the building next so that, she supposed, it might not have been Jason. It could be some other behemoth standing on her ledge and Jason was somewhere below, having made a clandestine escape while she and the girls were talking. Yet he responded.
“There’s a lot crime in this town…” Jason whispered. Lilly stepped closer, despite his observation.
“Yes… there is. Why don’t you come inside? And then leave?”
“No. There’s a lot of crime in this town,” Jason insisted.
“Yes…” Lilly agreed.
“Someone’s gotta do something about it,” Jason said. He turned around and walked briskly past her to the fire escape and took them three at a time on his way down. Lilly ran over to watch his descent. She watched as he threw on his helmet, jumped on his motorcycle, and drove off into the urban night that now seemed to be filled with more crying and screaming than usual.
As she made her way back down to her second floor apartment, Lilly entertained the idea that tomorrow she would wake up and Jason would be waiting for her at her breakfast table. You can never share my identity, he would tell her. You could be in danger, he would tell her, but I’ll protect you. But then what? She would just go to work again with more confusing elements to her life that she could never tell anyone. Protected. Safe.
Andrea and Pat waited by her front door. Pat was saying, “… weirdest things. You know. You should try it. But only if you’re in a good place. Floating on salt water, your brain gets so bored that it starts making whole worlds.”
“I’m not really into – Lilly? Where’s Jason?” Andrea asked. They both turned to her, something between malaise and interest. It was a look that she saw every day, the look that greeted her in the mirror every morning.
She considered telling them. It would have taken too long, she decided. Lilly walked past them, grabbing her keys and jacket.
“I’ve got to go,” she said, closing the door, leaving Andrea and Pat at the threshold to return to their conversation and decide what to do in her absence.