Eleven Unthunk Thoughts on Approaching Writing

This morning a friend and I met for breakfast with the intention of talking about writing. She’d like to dump the day job and take up a vocation she’s always loved but never fully pursued: yes, writing. Her father was a Hollywood writer and a novelist, so writing is in her blood. She has no illusions about writing; she’s simply reached that place in her life when the day job is growing old and she has the time and money to make a much-needed change. So I shared some of my approaches with her that have evolved out of years of writing, teaching writing, and publishing and thought I’d shape them up into paragraphs (adding a few thoughts unthunk till after breakfast) and share them here:

Every second is an opportunity to write: If you’re obsessed with your writing, your project, you’ll carry a field notebook or a voice recorder (smart phone works well). Ideas, memories, lines, and dialogue don’t wait to occur till you sit down officially to write, during the sanctioned period you’ve set aside for doing so. The best ideas and words often come when you least expect them. Be ready. I’ve “made note” in almost every setting or situation imaginable: the woods, at a concert, in the midst of an interesting or important conversation, while brushing my teeth, and upon waking. I’ll add that very often there’s more space for ideas to occur when you’re not in the mode of expecting something to happen, when you’re not sitting at the one and only writing desk between, say, ten and noon, when you’re not all boxed in spatially and temporally. I keep my voice recorder near to hand as I drive. My thumb knows where the record button is. I’ve produced hundreds of useful notes while driving.

Write every possible minute: I write every minute I can. People tend to think writing isn’t really a job. I’m always available to meet, to visit family, to help with a project when it’s convenient for them to do so, not necessarily when it’s convenient for me. But, ironically, this works for me. I’m not a time-structured person. I’m really quite flexible about when I write—and where I write, for that matter. I meet for coffee in the early morning, mid-morning, and even early afternoon on occasion. So how do I produce so much material, books, manuscripts, essays, blog entries, emails, etc.? Well, I write every chance I get, any time of the day, any day of the week. I can sit down for ten minutes and complete or start a writing or writing-related task. The beauty of starting such a task is that I’m anxious to get back to it when I have more time.

Write everything: I write everything of interest, applicability, and/or authenticity, not just material for the book or project at hand. I find I have time to do this. But this implies two things: one that I’m energized and flexible; and two that I know what my genres, subjects, and themes are. There’s a kind of obsessiveness connected with the former, that I don’t want to miss anything; and the latter has required that I’ve written so much and grouped and regrouped my writing so many times that I’ve come to know who I am, what I have to say, and how and in what form I need to say it. I’ve come to know that my strongest genres are poetry, memoir, and creative nonfiction, my subject matter travel (the journey), nature, mind, music, birds, ideas, and writing itself, and my forms are haiku, long-form poetry, journal-based memoir, and in general highly structured books. More recently I’ve found I love the detective work involved in doing ancestry research writing. I could never have come to know this much about my own writing tendencies if I hadn’t made the space for those tendencies to express themselves.

Mix it up: I write till I reach a point of fatigue, scatter-mindedness, and/or accomplishment, then get up and do some dishes, neaten the house a little, take care of a chore or an errand, walk, or sit in the woods. Within 15 minutes or an hour, I find when I sit back down in front of the computer I’m completely refreshed, with new material or a new course of action at the ready. I do some mental work, then some physical work, and then return to the mental work. I can sustain this mixed activity longer than if I concentrate on only one kind of activity. I also go back and forth between producing material and organizing material, between researching material and producing material, and between researching and organizing material. I use my fiddle to clear my mind and to find the rhythm and music in my writing; after all, making music and writing poetry are attached at the hips, according to the Greeks. After writing long paragraphs, I work on a haiku. The short informs the long, the long the short. Keep the interest fresh, the body alive for the mind.

Use email to generate material: I often use email and, to a lesser degree, texting and messaging to produce material—and, by expressing them, I explore my ideas. The strength in this is that I have an audience for my writing. I’m engaging a correspondent or correspondents at the other end of my email, which makes the writing real, authentic (and of course I’m staying on topic—because I’m obsessed!). I have a manuscript consisting of about 90% material from emails—the great American email! Also, more people know about my project and may want to buy my book. And often my email recipients have ideas, affirmations, and helpful questions. I have to keep in touch and email folks anyway, so why not tell them all about what matters to me, my writing project.

The present informs the past: I also assume that what’s going on around me might somehow be related to what I’m writing. I’m presently writing a book in which I have the opportunity to explore the parallels between my life and my once-unknown-grandfather’s life, at both the personal and historical levels. I needn’t just stay focused on my grandfather’s experiences and historical context, but suddenly what’s going on with me now and what’s coming over the radio may have some relevance to the book.

Writing like breathing: Writing is like breathing for me, as it should be, ideally. I have to admit it wasn’t always like this for me. But since I got comfortable with it, writing resembles breathing in many ways. Inhalations are like questions while exhalations are like answers. I have to do it to stay alive, or at least to keep the writer alive—the linguist, the storyteller, the explorer. But how does one get comfortable with writing? Well, mostly by doing it, and by getting to know oneself as a writer, as I mentioned above. But not just by doing it, but by doing it with few enough expectations as to leave an opening for authenticity of expression to occur. Read a lot. Emulate. Try new modes and styles of writing. Throw your sentences up in the air and see what they look like when they hit the ground. Don’t be precious about your writing. If you do, you’re probably stuck and just don’t know it.

Trust your mind: Trust the mind to work on your writing even when you’re engaged in other activities or while you’re sleeping. Sure, struggle with an idea or a sentence for a while, but then forget it. You will have left a hole or a question for the mind to fill or answer if you just give it a chance. Pressure can often shut down processes.

In us hide many stories: It’s been said that everyone has a story, and as a sailor, a bartender, a teacher in Japan, and a college professor, I’ve found this to be true. In fact, I think that we have within us more stories than we can write, if we can only realize this, hear the stories within us, hear the stories inside the stories or the stories growing out of stories (as in fan fiction). Around us are an infinity of subjects. Haiku poets know this and can write a successful haiku on a leaf falling unlike any other haiku on a leaf falling ever written. The problem is that we become inured to the world around us. The world is so present that eventually we shut it out; we don’t notice what’s going on. Virginia Woolf wrote a short piece called “The Mark on the Wall.” It’s about just that, a mark on the wall, and it’s quite well known.

Do not compare: Trouble begins when we compare ourselves with other writers, dead or alive. How many give up writing, saying, “ I’ll never write as well as so-and-so”? In the University of Washington Master of Fine Arts program, Rick Kenney instructed a poetry writing class called Imitations in which we imitated other styles, poets, and cultural forms. In my introductory letter to him I stated that I’ll never lose myself in another poet because I’m too anxious to express myself, to become the poet I must become. It’s very important to imitate and emulate in order to learn, but then move on. One of the most destructive forces on creativity and self-expression is the ego. Best to just grope along in the search for one’s authentic self.

Structure, structure, structure: Many aspiring writings have come to me with what for them is their number one problem or question: How do I structure my book? Virtually every book has “structure.” Chapters are structural devices. Beginnings, middles, and ends are aspects of structure (they may also be aspects of plot). Structure has more to do with the physical arrangement, organization, or flow of material (which may nevertheless have everything to do with content and story), while plot pertains to conflict and resolution. Plot is generally an element of fiction, although it may be present in memoir. Therefore, it’s probably best, for the moment, to think about structure in memoir, (creative) nonfiction, and poetry. Memoirs are generally delineated by chronology; nonfiction by the various elements of the subject in some logical order; and poetry by stanzas, line breaks, patterns of rhythm and rhyme, various forms of repetition, etc. I find that thinking about structure early in the process of writing a book aids both the production and consumption of the book. If I have small sections or chapters, I can knock off two or three a day, tick them off on the abacus, and sleep deeply that night. It’s comforting, measurable piecework. It’s easy to reorganize as I go, to change the order of sections and chapters. I keep my mind clear this way, as it’s so easy to be overwhelmed by so many ideas and materials. This goes for the reader, as well. Structure is major means of producing clarity. You can use bolded subheadings early in the writing game and then remove the headings later. My breakfast friend mentioned she likes to use outlines in order to structure and organize her writing. I can’t tell you how many of my students from my college teaching days thanked me for insisting they produce and hand in outlines in advance of their drafts. Many professional writers admit they sketch out a little word-map and stick to it to the end. Yet a word-map isn’t set in stone, is it? There is no stone, only words.


Meditation and the Arts

Writing poetry and playing violin teach concentration, mindfulness, and non-attachment.

The violinist experiences a kind of samadhi “in action” when she achieves the full expression of her playing. She must be wholly mindful to the act. She concentrates her whole life energy on moving the bow hairs across the strings to make her instrument sing. Put another way, she inflects the body so as to project, with full power and nuance, the melody or musical figuration. In so doing, she eliminates all bothersome distractions beyond her focus on making beautiful music and detaches herself from all thoughts outside of playing violin, including irksome self-recrimination and unnecessary self-criticism. She transcends being too concerned with audience response, especially the feeling that she’s failing them in some way or is inadequate to the task of entertaining and moving others.

Every fiber present in this playing....

Every fiber present in this playing….

Writing descriptive poetry involves a similar approach and makes for another good example of how yogic or meditative approaches can be applied to other activities. Sitting by the lake, I watch a female bluebill duck hesitate at water’s edge, then clamber up on to the bank beyond my legs. I see that her beak has a metallic blue tint with a few subtle orange spots and that her fine white and brown markings are quite symmetrical from side to side. I see that her feet are of an unlikely, almost “man-made” orange color. She jabs with her beak at a blue-and-black-striped dragonfly perched on a blade of grass. Misses. She waddles by, disappearing behind the bench where I sit.

Female mallard

Female mallard

As I watch, however, observing the duck in detail, feeling perhaps what it might be like to be a duck, to desire to eat a plump, “wingy” dragonfly, to rip up and choke back green grass with a toothless beak, I do not produce these words in my mind; I do not distract myself with language and “being” descriptive. I save all that for later, for that moment when I shift into “writing mode.” I simply watch, absorbed, even mesmerized, by the image, by the presence of “duck,” in me as much as outside of me. I’m taken by the “natural world” in action (the premise here being that all life, the whole world, is real and valuable and worth attending to). I abandon myself to the world; I do not resist. I do not keep myself separate, distinct, or even “detached.” Rather, the world absorbs, encompasses, and “possesses” me.

Taste the wings

Taste the wings

So to the world, as both “object” and “subject,” I give myself, wandering along the path of meditation on the journey toward “wholly being.” Such reversals of view are a way of practicing non-attachment to self and to other than here and now.

Finally, if I’ve been struck deeply by an image, if I want to explore the image further with words, I pick up my pen and write. This shift of focus to language and writing can be its own form of meditation. Some poems, in fact, like some musical pieces, are actually called “meditations.”

Hand, writing

Hand, writing

Thus all actions one undertakes in life in which quality is the concern— achieving some sort of ideal experience or expression, including doing everyday chores, running errands, carrying on personal interactions, and performing tasks at work—ideally involve the same approach of mindfulness, concentration, and non-attachment. Meditation is a state of mind that we can carry throughout our day.

Sweeping makes for great meditation.

Sweeping makes for great meditation.

the duck snaps at
the dragonfly—we get it
when she misses