Monday, May 15, 2017

The jury is still out, or what is writing anyway?

“Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig,”
—Stephen Greenblatt

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
—E.L. Doctorow

“All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald

“Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer

“Writing is very hard work and knowing what you’re doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote

“Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick

“Let’s face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron


As I said at the top, the jury is still out. Many people have tried to explain what writing is -- not writing as in producing fluid cursive-style letters instead of printed ones made mostly with straight lines, but "writing" as in getting stuff out of your head and down onto paper. You do see the difference, don't you?. Good. I knew you would. Those last few sentences sound better in the voice of Mr. Rogers.

In her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, writer Anne Lamott has made a remarkably valiant effort to tell us about writing. Here are some examples:

“For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.”

“Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It's like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can't stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.”

“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

“E.L. Doctorow said once said that 'Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.' You don't have to see where you're going, you don't have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.”

“You are lucky to be one of those people who wishes to build sand castles with words, who is willing to create a place where your imagination can wander. We build this place with the sand of memories; these castles are our memories and inventiveness made tangible. So part of us believes that when the tide starts coming in, we won't really have lost anything, because actually only a symbol of it was there in the sand. Another part of us thinks we'll figure out a way to divert the ocean. This is what separates artists from ordinary people: the belief, deep in our hearts, that if we build our castles well enough, somehow the ocean won't wash them away. I think this is a wonderful kind of person to be.”

“If something inside of you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act -- truth is always subversive.”

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he'd had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.”

“I heard a preacher say recently that hope is a revolutionary patience; let me add that so is being a writer. Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don't give up.”

“This business of becoming conscious, of being a writer, is ultimately about asking yourself, How alive am I willing to be?”

“Remember that you own what happened to you. If your childhood was less than ideal, you may have been raised thinking that if you told the truth about what really went on in your family, a long bony white finger would emerge from a cloud and point to you, while a chilling voice thundered, "We *told* you not to tell." But that was then. Just put down on paper everything you can remember now about your parents and siblings and relatives and neighbors, and we will deal with libel later on.”

“Try looking at your mind as a wayward puppy that you are trying to paper train. You don't drop-kick a puppy into the neighbor's yard every time it piddles on the floor. You just keep bringing it back to the newspaper.”

“But how?" my students ask. "How do you actually do it?" You sit down, I say. You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively. So you sit down at, say, nine every morning, or ten every night. You put a piece of paper in the typewriter, or you turn on the computer and bring up the right file, and then you stare at it for an hour or so. You begin rocking, just a little at first, and then like a huge autistic child. You look at the ceiling, and over at the clock, yawn, and stare at the paper again. Then, with your fingers poised on the keyboard, you squint at an image that is forming in your mind -- a scene, a locale, a character, whatever -- and you try to quiet your mind so you can hear what that landscape or character has to say above the other voices in your mind.”

“My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean.”

“You get your intuition back when you make space for it, when you stop the chattering of the rational mind. The rational mind doesn't nourish you. You assume that it gives you the truth, because the rational mind is the golden calf that this culture worships, but this is not true. Rationality squeezes out much that is rich and juicy and fascinating.”

“I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her. (Although when I mentioned this to my priest friend Tom, he said that you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.)”

“The society to which we belong seems to be dying or is already dead. I don't mean to sound dramatic, but clearly the dark side is rising. Things could not have been more odd and frightening in the Middle Ages. But the tradition of artists will continue no matter what form the society takes. And this is another reason to write: people need us, to mirror for them and for each other without distortion -- not to look around and say, 'Look at yourselves, you idiots!,' but to say, 'This is who we are.”

“If you are a writer, or want to be a writer, this is how you spend your days--listening, observing, storing things away, making your isolation pay off. You take home all you've taken in, all that you've overheard, and you turn it into gold. (Or at least you try.)”

“I don't know where to start," one [writing student] will wail. Start with your childhood, I tell them. Plug your nose and jump in, and write down all your memories as truthfully as you can. Flannery O'Connor said that anyone who has survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life. Maybe your childhood was grim and horrible, but grim and horrible is Okay if it is well done. Don't worry about doing it well yet, though. Just get it down.”


Only people who have made it this far in this post are writers, or at least they are people who want to be writers, who are trying to be writers. I hope something someone said in this post resonates with you. I hope this post has helped to move you (no, move us) a little farther down the road.

If not, I can only tell you what Walt Whitman said in his "Song of Myself":

Do I contradict myslef?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

If you don't believe you contain multitudes, did you know that Mr. Rogers was both a Navy seal and a Presbyterian minister? Yes. He was.



OOPS! STOP THE PRESSES! It has just come to the attention of your editor that Mr. Rogers was not, repeat, NOT a Navy seal. That turns out to be an urban legend with no basis in fact. But I'll bet he still contained multitudes and was someone's very good neighbor.

4 comments:

Emma Springfield said...

All the quotes I read explain the lofty ideals these authors assign to their reasons for writing. They are all good examples. I however write to record my thoughts and memories. I simply do not want the stories of my family to die. I wish for someone in my family to look at them sometime in the future and say, "So this is where that came from." I want all my descendants to know our family even though we are spread all over the globe. I won't always be here to tell the stories but my blog will.

rhymeswithplague said...

Emma, I see what you're saying, but good writing ought to be more than just the recording of facts. I try to write so that the meaning is clear at first reading and interesting enough that the reader will want to continue reading. For me, this process usually involves changing, inserting, and deleting words along the way.

Elephant's Child said...

This reader is endlessly grateful to all writers.

Yorkshire Pudding said...

Being a simple fellow, I am a little confused. I thought I was reading reflections on the business of writing by Anne Lamott and yet you finish with reference to someone called "Mr Rogers" who I have never heard of. This aside, I was fascinated by what Anne Lamott had to say about writing - its purpose and how to let it pour out. I read every word. Thanks for posting this.