One of my riding partners is hard of hearing, so sometimes I’ll say I was “writing” and he thinks I’ve said, “riding.” (Or vice versa.) I’m thinking of getting another version of this shirt made that says, “I would but I’m writing that day.” But the truth is, a lot of my writing comes from my riding these days… (Photo by my pal Marty from yesterday evening’s impromptu ride.)
Stewart Brand once said to Brian Eno: “Why don’t you assume you’ve written your book already — and all you have to do now is find it?”
I had long stared at blank word documents, unable to get my thoughts on the page. I’m actually not a great writer — but I am a pretty good speaker. So I went back through my social channels and transcribed every short form video I had ever done on this topic and that left me with all these disjointed paragraphs. I spent another two months trying to decide how to connect these little vignettes into a “real” book and finally realized that my choices were to publish an imperfect book or not publish the perfect book. So I decided to make each section its own chapter — some only a page long.
Here is a technique I suggest to fellow writers who are blocked for whatever reason: just talk about the piece with a friend, record it, then play it back and write down the good stuff. This method also works with Gchat & similar programs. Go straight to document after.
He set up a camcorder and recorded himself presenting in various parts of his house. “I would try to rehearse what it would be like to explain something complicated, like iambic pentameter, in a familiar way,” says Baker, who also found himself singing poetry in his own barn, in Maine. “How would you explain it if you’d been thinking about it for twenty years? So I came up with 40 hours of tape and transcribed the audio.”
I suppose one could skip the transcription step by talking directly into the computer’s speech-to-text?
I know a lot of songwriters do this with song ideas: they record a bunch of voice memos on their phone, but then they make time to listen to what they’ve recorded, often on shuffle.
Regardless of the tech you use, the method is: record yourself thinking out loud, and once you’ve transcribed that into a draft: edit yourself by reading out loud.
Filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan once said, “Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.”
That’s the thing about the job: you’re never “off.” If “everything is copy” (Nora Ephron) then you’re always “on,” even when it looks like you’re doing nothing. (Arm yourself with Gertrude Stein, if only as a joke: “It takes a lot of time to be a genius. You have to sit around so much, doing nothing, really doing nothing.”)
I cannot find any patience for those people who believe that you start writing when you sit down at your desk and pick up your pen and finish writing when you put down your pen again; a writer is always writing, seeing everything through a thin mist of words, fitting swift little descriptions to everything he sees, always noticing. Just as I believe that a painter cannot sit down to his morning coffee without noticing what color it is, so a writer cannot see an odd little gesture without putting a verbal description to it, and ought never to let a moment go by undescribed.
The “always on” thing can feel like a curse, but it’s also a blessing: it means that any boring old experience (grocery shopping, getting stamps at the post office, picking your kids up from school) can become potential fodder for the work, so you’re “always on,” always paying attention, alert, awake to life, alive, casing the joint, looking for stuff to steal.
Sometimes I collage my kids’ homework in my diary pic.twitter.com/4PdS14Smgb
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) December 19, 2021
In a 1961 interview, Samuel Beckett pointed out “the mess” of modern life, “this buzzing confusion.”
“The confusion is not my invention. We cannot listen to a conversation for five minutes without being acutely aware of the confusion. It is all around us and our only chance now is to let it in. The only chance of renovation is to open our eyes and see the mess. It is not a mess you can make sense of.”
The Poetry Foundation helps explain:
[Critic David] Hesla notes that the dilemma which confronts the contemporary writer, according to Beckett, “is constituted… by the fact that the writer must take seriously two opposed and apparently irreconcilable claims to his allegiance. On the one hand, he must recognize that the principal fact about modern man’s life is that it is a ‘mess,’ a ‘confusion,’ a ‘chaos.’ On the other hand, the writer, as artist, has an obligation to form. But to admit the ‘mess’ into art is to jeopardize the very nature of art; for the mess ‘appears to be the very opposite of form and therefore destructive of the very thing that art holds itself to be.’”
Beckett said we could no longer keep out the mess, because “it invades our experience at every moment. It is there and it must be allowed in.”
What I am saying does not mean that there will henceforth be no form in art. It only means that there will be a new form; and that this form will be of such a type that it admits the chaos and does not try to say that the chaos is really something else. The form and the chaos remain separate. The latter is not reduced to the former. That is why the form itself becomes a preoccupation, because it exists as a problem separate from the material it accommodates. To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.
Seems as good of a mission statement as any.
Ann Patchett’s short memoir of her writing life, “The Getaway Car,” collected in her book, This is The Story of a Happy Marriage, is one of the best things on writing I’ve read.
You will take bits from books you’ve read and movies you’ve seen and conversations you’ve had and stories friends have told you, and half the time you won’t even realize you’re doing it. I am a compost heap, and everything I interact with, every experience I’ve had, gets shoveled onto the heap where it eventually mulches down, is digested and excreted by worms, and rots. It’s from that rich, dark humus, the combination of what you encountered, what you know and what you’ve forgotten, that ideas start to grow.
Of research, for example, she writes, “I try to shovel everything I learn onto the compost heap instead of straight into the book.”
I’ve often thought that an artist has to be like the Mr. Fusion device Doc Brown uses in Back To The Future, but I like the compost heap even better.
The cool thing about a compost heap is that you can throw whatever organic matter you want on it. (“Hold on to your anger,” Thich Nhat Hanh told bell hooks, “use it as compost for your garden.”)
If you’re just throwing stuff on the compost heap, you don’t have to worry about being pure, or perfect. (“Writing…always, always only starts out as shit,” David Rakoff said. It’s like “reverse-engineer a meal out of rotten food.”)
And, as Brian Eno told us, “Beautiful things grow out of shit.”
There is a wonderful 2012 interview with Iain McGilchrist in which he talks about leaving his life as an Oxford literary scholar to become a psychiatrist:
I love literature very much and I found that a lot of the things that I could see were very valuable were very hard to convey once one started taking the thing apart… It seemed to me that people who make works of art, whatever they might be, have gone to great trouble to make something unique which is embodied in the form that it is and not in any other form and that it transmits things that remain implicit. If you explain a joke, you lose a power of it. If you have to explain a poem you’re going to lose a bit of the power of that too. It struck me that there was two or three rather important philosophical points about a work of art, that first of all what it conveyed needed to remain implicit and when you stuck something, yanked it out of context, and stuck it into the middle of the spotlight of attention you actually changed what it was because you hadn’t found out more about what was there in the first place. It needed to be incarnate. I mean, works of art are not just disembodied, entirely abstract, conceptual things. They are embodied in the words they’re in or in paint or in stone or in musical notes or whatever it might be and much of that power and the fact that those things also affect us neurophysicologically. When you read a poem it affects your heart rate, your breathing, you feel things in your bodily frame….
The longer I read, the more I believe that the value of a book, regardless of whether it’s fiction or nonfiction or comics or poetry, is actually in the experience of turning the pages, moving from one sentence to the next, or one panel to the other. How I feel, and what I think about, and where my attention goes. This experience continues throughout the days and nights in between my reading sessions, and, if the book is any good, continues after I have finished the book.
I have noticed a proliferation of book summaries online — blog posts or even whole apps dedicated to extracting the “key insights” from books, attempts to package up the whole by reducing it down to its essentials, its main points. On the one hand, this is nothing new (see: CliffsNotes), but on the other, I think it signals the popularity of a way of reading in which books are mined for nutrients, takeaways, big ideas, etc. In this mode, books — especially nonfiction — are simply containers of “content” that can be packaged in whatever form you like.
It is my opinion that if a book’s contents can be adequately “summed up,” so that you really don’t miss anything by reading the summary, it is not actually a book worth reading. (Of course, there’s no way to tell whether a summary is adequate or not unless you have also read the book.) Also, I suspect that the harder you find it to summarize a book you have read, the more valuable it might be.
The tricky thing here is that the more summarizable the book, the easier it is to market and sell. A book proposal, for example, is simply a summary of a book that doesn’t exist yet. It is the marketing copy before the product is born.
I blame a great deal of the boring books in the world on the very process by which they are published: a summary is presented, it is purchased, the book is written, and if the final book sticks to the summary, everybody is happy.
Now, I used to be a copywriter, so I’m trained to invent summaries. It is very tempting, when I am beginning to work on a book, to start thinking in this summary form: to try to see the “big picture” and the “key ideas” in abstract first.
This is the sensible, professional way of working, but for me it is a kind of creative death, antithetical to the reason I write in the first place: to discover what I know, or discover what I don’t want to know, to invent something on the page that couldn’t exist unless I went to the page to have an experience in the first place.
To put it another way: If a book can be summarized, is it worth writing?
Maybe there’s a third path here. Maybe it’s possible to write something that is easily summarized but impossible to sum up…
“At times while working on my book over the years, I would become resentful of it.” She wrote that she would hit a certain point and think, “Ugh, now I have to write this boring part.”
Then I would realize: this is my book! There are no rules! I can write it however I want! Also, I would think, if I’m bored by something that I believe I need to write, the reader undoubtedly will be too, if not because the subject is inherently boring, then because I myself find it so unbearably tedious to imagine discussing it for five pages. Often as not, I would remember some aspect of the subject that deeply interested me, something a little outside the way it’s usually perceived or written about. Then I would meditate on that, and soon I would be scribbling notes from an increasingly excited place until I found a way forward. A form of beginner’s mind.
As Elmore Leonard told us, “Try to leave out all the parts readers skip.”
I try to do this. If there’s a part bogging me down, I try to leap over it, somehow, and see if the piece will work without it. (It usually does.)
* * *
“If you’re stuck,” he says, “stop typing. Go hunt down some new useful facts. Then you’ll come back refreshed.”
You’re having trouble writing not because you can’t find the right words, but because you don’t know what you’re trying to say. You don’t have the right facts at hand.
So the solution is to gather more facts. You need to step away from the keyboard, stop trying to write, and do some more reporting: Make phone calls to some new sources, consult new experts, read a relevant book or article. Once you have the facts at hand, the words will come.
Or to put it another way, when you’re writing nonfiction, the words flow from the research. If the words aren’t flowing, usually the problem is the research isn’t there. To say something, you have to have something to say.
“Block” is a sign that you don’t have what you need and you should probably go somewhere else and do something else until you get what it is that you need.
Your “block” could just be boredom.
You’ve bored yourself.
You’ve become uninterested in writing.
The way to be interested in writing again is to find something interesting to write about.
Time to go out in the world and notice something.
“Is it possible to practice noticing?
I think so.
But I also think it requires a suspension of yearning
And a pause in the desire to be pouring something out of yourself.”
—Verlyn Klinkenborg, Several short sentences about writing
The “suspension of yearning” is key.
Stop wanting to write long enough to find something worth writing about.
* * *
I love what Carole King said about handling writer’s block in Paul Zollo’s excellent Songwriters on Songwriting:
So, most of all, don’t worry. Go do something else. Come back later.
“When action grows unprofitable, gather information; when information grows unprofitable, sleep.” ?
—Ursula K. Le Guin
Most of all, skip the boring parts.
“How long will things be the same? Surely I will be awake, I will sleep, I will be hungry, I will be cold, I will be hot. Is there no end? Do all things go in a circle?
I am fascinated by the Farmer’s Almanac, and the “Planting by the Moon” guide in particular, which has advice such as: “Root crops that can be planted now will yield well.” “Good days for killing weeds.” “Good days for transplanting.” “Barren days. Do no planting.”
I think it’d be funny to make up an almanac for writers* and artists, one that emphasized the never-ending, repetitive work of the craft.
“The secret of The Old Farmer’s Almanac: pay attention,” Tim Clark, a former editor at the Almanac, once told me. “Pay attention to the sky, and the winds, and the tides, and the number of acorns on the ground in the fall, and what the animals are doing, and which way the birds are flying. Pay attention. And that’s what a farmer in 1792 — or 1292 — had to do to survive.”
An almanac could help…
* * *
* I must admit, despite who owns it, I still read the Writer’s Almanac email every day.
“Prescriptive rules are among the least interesting things about language,” writes Christopher Johnson in Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little. “They remind me of a scene from the Disney/Pixar animated film Ratatouille, about Remy, a gifted rat who longs to be a gourmet chef.”
His father, who neither understands nor appreciates his aspirations, puts him to work as the rat colony’s official poison sniffer. Though Remy has an uncanny ability to identify subtle ingredients in complex dishes, his job is to detect the mere presence or absence of poison in scraps of scavenged food. His work helps the rat colony but provides none of the joy he gets from cooking.
Johnson says “prescriptivists” or “Cute Curmudgeons” — people who are interested in only policing usage and grammar rules — are “linguistic poison sniffers.” They turn language into “a source of potential embarrassment rather than pleasure.”
Johnson sees his job as getting people to love and appreciate language by being curious about and paying attention to “what makes language delicious.”
This reminded of Olivia Laing’s distinction between identifying poison and finding nourishment.
Everywhere you look these days, there are lots of poison sniffers, but very few cooking a delicious meal…