In attempting to practice what I preach with my own “practice and suck less” challenge, I bottomed out so bad last week that I had to do that most embarrassing of things that writers occasionally have to do: I reached out for help from a writing book. (Unfortunately, my own books don’t really work on me.)
The book I reached for was new to me: Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life. I felt comforted after only a few pages. (How much more pleasant it is to read about how to write than to write!)
As I kept reading, a thought popped in my head: Every writing book is good.
Every writing book is good if it gets you to write! It doesn’t even need to be that good. In fact, it could be bad! You could be reading it and think, “Shoot, I could do better than this” or “I’d rather write than read any more of this crap.” Either way, the writing book has done its job if you put it down and head off to write.
There’s a famous story about the actors Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier on the set of the movie Marathon Man, retold by Isaac Butler in The Method: How The Twentieth Century Learned to Act:
Hoffman explained—or perhaps bragged about—the lengths to which he would go to capture his character’s worn-out, paranoid emotionality. He had been staying up all night and running in order to look exhausted. In response, Olivier, exasperated by his younger male colleague, deadpanned, “My dear boy, why don’t you try acting?”
I tell my own version in today’s newsletter: “Why don’t you try typing?”
I have written often of the deep connection I feel between my laziness and my productivity.
I came to writing significantly later than most of my peers. I have no ‘formal education’ in writing, I didn’t study writing in college, I wasn’t very good at school. But I always had these obsessions and interests and excitements, particularly around music. And for me that meant that for a long time, because I wasn’t a writer, those things were just building, and I would store them. I kind of have an internal archive of excitements and I did not always have access to a place for them….
I constantly sit on a lot of ideas. So what that means for me is that I have to be disciplined and kind of thoughtful.
I’m very lazy!
I think there are multiple kinds of people in the world: There are people who are hard-working and disciplined. There are people who are hard-working but pretty un-disciplined — so there’s a scattershot way their work appears in the world. And me, I’m pretty lazy, but I’m very disciplined. Perhaps more disciplined, I would guarantee, than anyone you know.
Satterfield asks him how somebody can be both lazy and disciplined.
They act in opposition to each other, right?
So the laziness is kind of inherent. Which means that I know that left to my own devices, I would do nothing. I would prefer to do nothing. And I don’t mean nothing in the sense of like, replying-to-an-email nothing, I mean literally, not-getting-out-of-bed nothing.
I was an athlete. I played basketball, I played soccer in college. So I had to learn a type of discipline, because my love for what I was doing propelled me towards that discipline.
Suzan-Lori Parks, a playwright who I adore, says this thing about how discipline is simply a love for your big self. And that’s kind of the path that I follow, because I’m driven to get the things I’m excited about out of my head. Because I don’t know how good they do me — just me in the world — if they’re only in my head.
And that isn’t saying that everyone needs to see them, it just means that there has to be some kind of extraction process that fuels and excites me. Writing does that. Writing about music, specifically, does that.
I can be in opposition to my inherent laziness, and build a discipline around, not even the work of writing, but the work of joyful extraction. And to present it like that, and to put it like that, offers me a better runway to it.
And I cannot stay in bed, because I would much rather be in pursuit of some revelation that might arrive to me in the process of doing this work.
So that’s how I act in opposition to my own laziness.
There’s so much there, and so many phrases I want to clip and build whole pieces out of, like, “an internal archive of excitements” and “joyful extraction.” It’s also impossible for me not to try to read an Ohio thing into it. (Hanif and I were born the same year and grew up about 45 minutes away from each other.)
I also want to join Hanif’s Church Of Minding One’s Own Business. Elsewhere he has said, “My superpower is that I mind my own business. And I actually think that helps my productivity more than anything.”
Filed under: laziness
The fact is that anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t be able to make it out of a lot.
Some vegetarians say they won’t eat anything with a face — maybe I’ll say I won’t read anything that didn’t have a childhood.
I think it speaks for itself, but here’s a batch of quotes to back it up from a previous post of mine, “What to leave in and what to leave out”:
David Mamet, in Three Uses Of The Knife:
I used to say that a good writer throws out the stuff that everybody else keeps. But an even better test occurs to me: perhaps a good writer keeps the stuff everybody else throws out.
Peter Turchi told me when he’s teaching writing workshops, he’s careful not to try to “fix” a student’s story too quickly:
[W]e have to recognize that the thing that looks most flawed, might, in fact, be the most interesting thing in the work. So we’re not looking for the thing that functions best, because to do that is to only reward the most conventional and most familiar moves the work makes. But to try to recognize the thing that excites us the most, or intrigues us the most, which may be something the writer doesn’t even understand.
(We spoke about this more, and his vision for writing workshops in this interview.)
Finally, from another angle, here’s Jean Cocteau:
Listen carefully to first criticisms made of your work. Note just what it is about your work that critics don’t like — then cultivate it. That’s the only part of your work that’s individual and worth keeping.