The writers of the Writer’s Retreat Blog have agreed to contribute essays to our series called, “Wiley Wednesday,” in which we will share our thoughts and opinions about the craft of writing. This is my essay for this week. I hope you enjoy!
In Search of Prolific
by A. Catherine Noon
Writing is a lonely pursuit. We can work with each other to an extent, but it ultimately comes down to applying oneself to the page or the keyboard. In order to do this, we have to suspend disbelief in our right to communicate, and trust that we have something worthwhile to say. Even if we are our own audience through a journal, we need to be able to let ourselves put thoughts down long enough to capture them, even if later we might decide they’re silly or unworthy. But in order to have written something, it’s axiomatic that we must, well, write it.
There are many reasons why we have trouble with writing. There are just as many theories as to how to overcome it. I have found many of them to be silly or, worse, damaging. Applying a left-brain, ‘you must do this,’ approach does not work long-term. Writing, like the practice of any art, is an art, not a science. In science, we have the Scientific Method to tell us how to proceed. (Top scientists in their field will tell you that those who advance a field are just as much artists and I believe that. I speak here of the work of science, the general day-to-day experiments and theses that must be done in the course of a scientist’s day.) First, we have a theory. We test that theory. We record the results. We see if the successful results can be duplicated. These are standardized rules that have been agreed upon for decades.
Writing, sadly, has no such mantra. There is no bank of writerly ideas that one can plumb and then write an automatically good story, not to mention a commercially viable one (which is not necessarily the same thing, though many times it is). In order to sustain any long-term creative endeavor, we need to have something to say. And therein lies the rub.
How does one come up with something to say? First, one needs to believe that whatever one wants to say is worth saying. Worth writing down. This is a surprisingly tough hurdle for us to surmount. When we’re young, first and second grade, we are, by and large, blabbermouths. We have opinions on everything (those of you with that age of child will know what I mean). Even comparatively “quiet” kids can go on at length (dare I say, “ad nauseum?”) about a topic that interests them. Then what happens? My personal theory is institutional schooling happens, where we’re critiqued and only good, nice, well-lined up little soldier thoughts are appropriate. Messy, creative and goofy thoughts are discouraged. Whether or not I’m right, something happens and we muzzle ourselves. We need to learn how to prize that muzzle off ourselves and begin, slowly at first but with gaining momentum, to start communicating again.
One tool I have found enormously useful here is Morning Pages, an idea talked about by Julia Cameron in her book, The Artist’s Way. The idea is that you roll out of bed and onto the page, thereby evading the Censor. You write three pages. Why three? I saw Ms. Cameron speak recently, and she answered this question from the audience. She said that three seems like a good number, not too much, and not too little. People in her classes seem to be able to do them regularly. As a student of her work, I agree. Three pages doesn’t seem like too much, and it’s enough for me to get the “gunk” out of my head and onto the page. Sometimes I get diamonds in the process, sometimes just mud. But it’s on the page and, suddenly, I have something I’ve – gasp – written.
Another tool I like is from Natalie Goldberg in her book, Writing Down the Bones. She suggests setting a goal for oneself, like fill up one notebook a month. She then goes on to point out, if it’s Day 27 and you’ve got nothing, then you have a lot to do between the 27th and the 31st. Gulp. What a way to trick the procrastinator! It’s okay to put it off all month (and believe me, I’ve done that on occasion!), but by the end of the month, look out! Caffeine and Denny’s, here I come. I once wrote, fueled by two mochas and dreadful coffee, until about 2:30 in the morning at my local Denny’s. The service staff is surprisingly accommodating to the lonely writer. And man! You see the weirdest people at that hour of the morning. Why, I could tell you stories!
That’s yet another tool. Josip Novakovich, in his book The Fiction Writer’s Workshop, suggests going out to a café or restaurant and just observing the people there. Then write down what you see. You don’t even have to have a story to tell. Just, “there’s a blonde at the table next to me, eating cherry pie.” You might wonder why she’s eating pie. Maybe she just left her husband. She’s an alcoholic out late. She’s a spy. She’s an alien. Or, she’s a blonde eating cherry pie, and it’s the business man in the table near her who’s the spy. Poof. You have a page or two or more of observations, peppered with speculation and silliness. But that’s what makes the story.
A word about “mood.” A lot of writers have told me they don’t “feel like” writing. But my argument is, writing is a verb. An action verb. “To write.” Means, put pencil or pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, and put down words. It is not, “to emote.” “To wait until inspiration strikes.” “To sit, staring, drooling even, until the words come.” It’s “to write.” That’s all. It’s that simple. All the drama and foo-foo about the rest of it, is drama and foo-foo. Not pertinent. In fact, it’s a good idea to put all that stuff down on the page. Perfect fodder for the morning pages, as a matter of fact. “I feel poopy today. I don’t want to write.” Then write three pages about why you don’t want to write.
Someone once asked me, a little desperately, is that all? Three pages is what makes you so prolific? I told them that there’s more to it than that, that it’s all about the exercises in the Artist’s Way and other things, but after having an opportunity to think about it I think the answer is a little bit that the three pages are a secret. Not “the” secret, because I don’t think any one thing we do is it, it’s the combined influence of all we do that alchemizes within us. But I do think that three pages is a magical elixir that, over the course of days and months, can alter your experience of your creativity. I can tell you that I have done them since 1995 and they have completely overhauled my life, not just my writing. Other things have helped too, but when I am stuck and haven’t written my pages, I can feel it. If I sit down and write them, something subtle happens and I feel better. I may not get THE ANSWER, boom!, but something does begin to shift and move around and flow.
There’s a great prayer that Julia Cameron shares with us in The Artist’s Way: You take care of the quality, I’ll take care of the quantity. Regardless of your concept of deity, this is a potent affirmation. If you disconnect yourself from needing to do it well, or perfect, or right, or grammatically correct, you are able to just do it. “It” doesn’t need to “be” anything other than what it is. Is every word I’ve written since 1995 gold? Of course not. But I’ve written a huge amount, and some of it is gold. I average 100 pages a month in journal work. In March, 2008, I wrote over 30 short stories and two novellas, as well as did a structural overhaul on my novel. I am positive that this work could not have been done without the Morning Pages and other groundwork that I’ve done. There’s no secret to it, but there is work. No drama, but story.
Trust yourself, and write. Or, don’t trust yourself. But write.
That’s the secret.