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.

Advertisements

The Taste for Writing

The following words by Ira Glass were recently quoted on Good Reads. One of my writing-coaching clients shared it with me, saying how much it spoke to her. I couldn’t agree more with Ira’s message. But I got to thinking about why so many aspiring writers give up, so I wrote an email response that splits hairs between two kinds of taste. My response follows Ira’s quote. Here’s his quote:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

Certainly Ira’s words are true. But there’s another kind of taste. Some of us have this kind of taste, and some don’t, and that is a taste for, a love of, the process. The act of creation itself. Much of the joy I’ve experienced in writing is in the journey through the unknown, the discoveries in nature, the discoveries about human nature, myself, language, story, and poetry. I have an insatiable taste for all of this.

The taste that Ira is talking about I call “high taste,” and I have this taste too, of course. That is, the recognition of beauty, meaning, truth, interest, drama, suspense, and identification in others’ writing that we want to produce ourselves. When we read something tantalizing, we want to be able to create writing that tantalizes others the way we’ve been tantalized. This is the taste for something rather than the taste of something. The former is a desire to have something, to “get,” while the other is the actual consuming of it in the process, to be had by something, the “being gotten,” being consumed by verbal creativity. Writing as adventure.

Delicious meal, by Fran

Delicious meal, by Fran

Thus, I’m addicted to the act of producing a beautiful, authentic poem more than I’m driven to produce something I think others will find beautiful and authentic, although this becomes important too, but usually after the fact. Even as I write these words, even as I travel the unknown journey of what I might write next, I’m mesmerized by how I might be surprised by what I never knew I might write. I feel like the magician and the completely baffled and awed onlooker, both, at the same time.

The taste I speak of is a romance with possibility that makes me feel in love, jittery, as if I were about to meet my true soul mate, while she remains just slightly out of reach, perhaps around the next corner, behind that tree.

And being too addicted to the love of, and joy in, the process can get in the way of following through, of becoming a writer in the professional sense of the word. Yet a lot of little things add up to a big thing, and my addiction, my obsession, has resulted in a number of plumped up manuscripts and others plumping up. I can’t not write. Writing tastes too good.

Icelandic Ethiopian meal

Icelandic Ethiopian meal

I wasn’t exactly born this way; I groomed this madness. It’s as if I got a wheel, a few wheels, spinning inside me, and now they’re shooting off sparks that I only need see, hear, and write down. But these fireworks, too, take time. I’m not saying that writing beautifully or professionally doesn’t take time. It does. But if you eat what you cook as you cook it, you’ll sustain yourself until others pay you to consume the delicious dish of the writing you’ve cooked up.

In other words, it’s not only having a taste for a delicious dish of good literature or exciting writing; it’s also the tasting of it while cooking it. It’s delectability. It’s the sight, the smell, the sound, the taste, the physical sensation of words tumbling from the tips of the fingers.

Always trust, always have faith, that if you mean well and work hard (cook with love), you will produce your dream.

Eagles and Angels (Americana poem)

The Eagles come goose-stepping
around the corner of Second and Main,
drilling the wet-eyed perspectives
of moms and dads with near military
machine work, hardly rippling a shirt
or smudging a collar as a band of Angels,
leaning in on tattooed shoulders,
rumble through in hairy procession
around the corner opposite, at First

and Main, their scars and eye patches
stating there’s nothing left to lose. The Eagles
come to a simultaneous heel-digging halt
in front of Marvin’s Drug and Fountain
as the Angels clutch and brake,
squeaking rubber and leather, to stop
face to face with the scouts and kill
their engines in leering disarray.

Grandmas and grandpas
hold their cherry soda breath.
The mouths of boys and girls
hang open. One last baby gurgles
before all fall hushed. Eagles
waver in their stations, the sky
weighs a ton on every shoulder.
A gas cap glints in the heat.

Legless veteran town drunk Jake
arm-hops through stock-still legs,
passing a dog with one eye raised,
stops before the cracked black jacket
and python beard of the hog boss, calls out,
“Are you the one they call The Snake?”
The hog boss chaws and spits,
fires a look down his dreadlocked beard.
“Mary over at Morgansville says Hi.”

Snake motions with his one good eye.
The Angels kick-start their Harleys,
drop them into gear, then roll
unwavering through the Eagle ranks,
never once brushing sleeve with handlebar
as the scouts resume their march down Main.
The thunder rises in pitch as the Angels
stretch their arms and hair out of town.

All heads turn in search of Jake
who’s returned to hold up the bar.

Copyright 2015 by Rick Clark

The Nearly Sunken Pram: An Orca Story (for Geoff)

Killer Whales (Orcas) Up Close

Killer Whales (Orcas) Up Close

My brother and I
set out in our pram
to catch a salmon,
a pram no more
than eight feet long
and three across.

But as we trolled along
through the deep green water,
an enormous killer whale pod
snorted up beside us,
jerking our heads around
and startling our hearts to pound.

Transfixed, we watched them
roll up out of the water,
great great granddaddies
with dorsal fins eight feet tall
glistening wet in the sun
and wobbling stiffly.

Big snorts or air.
Sucking in of water.
Gurgling and spraying.
An eye staring out at us….
We knew they knew
we were there,

so without a word
we steered our pram in
closer to shore, rowing briskly,
but smoothly and evenly
so as not to draw
attention to ourselves,

and once we got in
to four feet of water,
we reeled in our lines,
dropped an anchor,
boated our oars,
and watched in awe

this magnificent family,
these mothers and infants,
these gallant fathers and sons,
the aunts and uncles and cousins,
grandmothers and grandfathers too,
cruising around these inland waters
that their ancestors cruised around
countless generations before—

herding the little ones
around the Sound,
around these hundred islands,
eating clean fish freely
and making friends
with whale people along the way.

Copyright 2015 by Rick Clark

The Greatest Gift

While so many people were roaring about trying to fulfill the various obligations of the giving season, I was wondering: What is the greatest gift we can give our selves and one another? Ask this question of most people and they’ll admit, after a lot of thought—or after almost no thought at all—that love is the ultimate gift. But talking about love is easier than loving. Or rather, if we felt secure in our exchanges of love, we wouldn’t go roaring about trying to fulfill all these seasonal giving obligations all at once and not as much at other times. And I suppose that amongst all the many forms of love that we can usually identify and present in a list—motherly love, romantic love, familial live, brotherly love, spiritual love (compassion), adoration, affection, care, and tenderness—the kind of love I’m thinking of fits nicely: belief in the self and in one another—on a par with trust.

Shadow of Self

Shadow of Self

We can place our belief in money, guns, power, or violence, but none of these is so non-materialistic, so non-destructive of life, so humanizing, or so self-evident as the belief we can place in ourselves and in each other. I’ve seen a father break down and give a daughter what she has longed for all her life, that belief in herself that she has felt or managed not to feel as lacking for as long as she can remember or not remember. The same goes for fathers and sons. This is why so many of us set out in search of affirmation, because we grow up without receiving it. Some parents simply aren’t equipped to provide that affirmation, because they never received or found it for themselves. Thus we set out into the world in search of affirmation, that is, for evidence that we are worthy or capable or at least adequate to the task of our responsibilities and dreams in life, and we find ourselves circling back to our parents or teachers, seeking fulfillment of that great lacking, that vacancy in our hearts: the need to be believed in.

Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai, Nobel Prize winner

I for one have received a great deal of affirmation as a teacher, in turn, through providing affirmation to my students. I have had it said to me on numerous occasions that it was due to my belief in my students that they felt they could write better, write well or beautifully, or simply pass the course with satisfaction. I’ve seen it in their faces, when I’ve expressed my confidence in their abilities, ideas, or intentions. They are exhilarated at having someone, anyone, believe in them! As a result, I’ve had a minimum of plagiarism or cheating in my classes, because few are willing to pass up a chance to be believed in. Thus many of my students have far surpassed their expectations for themselves coming into my classes.

Great Belief

Great Belief

I remember a moment when an internationally respected composer, when I was wrapping up an undergraduate degree in music performance, asked me to undertake a masters in music composition with him, one on one. What an opportunity! But even as I swooned at the offer, I heard my mouth say, “I’m honored, but I have to get a job.” But my real reason was that I felt like a phony as an instrumentalist and didn’t have the confidence to move ahead with music in my life, even though this composer whom I highly esteemed had expressed his belief in me. But I felt the affirmation of the man, the composer, in that moment and felt that, had I been prepared instrumentally, I would have soared as his student of composition. And I would have carried on that affirmation with me over the decades like a plump bag of gold in a vest pocket. As it is, I carry about with me a single gold coin as a reminder.

Belief in Self

Belief in Self

A writer can have received only so much belief from parents or even friends if those parents or friends have no power of affirmation to give. Thus the writer wanders almost blindly and without belief, possibly for a whole lifetime, if some small affirmation doesn’t come his or her way. Where to submit? From whom risk rejection? Then, one day, the writer receives notice that a piece has been accepted by so-and-so a publication and soon the writer is busy grooming poems, stories, or articles for further submission and sends a number of pieces out. The affirmations begin to add up to out-and-out self-belief.

Belief is a psychosocial phenomenon. Belief doesn’t exist without other people. One doesn’t worry about being accepted as a writer if there are no readers. Editors, and especially readers, become the writer’s believers. And even if a writer hasn’t broken into the greater world of writing, he or she imagines—must imagine—a reader who believes enough in the writer, in the writer’s story, to keep reading and for the writer to keep writing.

Being believed in by another reminds me of a famous story in which the Buddha set out to confront a murderer in the forest, a man who’d become a murderer in order to bring 100 first fingers to his spiritual master as payment for his services. When the Buddha came upon the murderer, whose name was Angulimala, Angulimala set out to murder the Buddha as he had so many others but found he couldn’t catch the Buddha, although the Buddha never moved. Immediately, the murderer broke down due to all the crimes he’d committed and became Buddha’s disciple. Eventually, Angulimala achieved enlightenment.

budda-angulimala-01

Angulimala

What interests me about this story is what happened in that moment when the Buddha saw deeply into Angulimala and saw the man for who he was, a man first and a murderer second, and Angulimala felt those loving eyes on his heart. I believe this is the kind of love I speak of here: the profound belief in another that the other can feel to the core and is then pacified and changed forever, powerful encouragement.

Belief in oneself and others and trust are foundational forms of love—closely related. The belief I’m talking about here enables us to become fully ourselves and to make our dreams come true, while trust is the belief or faith that others have our best interest at heart…

In other words, if we can’t trust others not to hurt us, then how can we possibly believe in ourselves to become everything we can be?

Universal Symbols

Universal Symbols