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.

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Writing a Personal Narrative (essay)

Many of us are anxious to tell our own story in writing. Many of us are required to write a personal essay as part of a college application process. Some of us are simply interested in how to write a compelling story in a coherent and engaging way. Writing a personal essay is an act of deep self-expression.

There are three distinct steps to writing a great personal essay: Write the first draft from the heart. Write the second draft with the brain. Write the third draft for your readers. Each step may involve a little of the other steps, since it’s the whole of you who is writing the essay.

Hand, writing

Hand, writing

The first step involves remembering—re-imagining and reconstructing—the past. Most aspiring writers have a story they’ve always wanted to tell. Or there are memories that won’t leave them alone. Or there’s a character in their lives, or in the past, who beckons to be heard—or heard about. Listen to the busy mind and you’ll always find your story—many stories, in fact. The story that you have to write is your real story.

But where should you start the story? Most fiction readers and film viewers these days have little time for lengthy exposition or background, so it’s best to start as close to the climax as possible. You can flashback from there. Keep your reader hanging. Stretch the intense moments out (but don’t become tedious).

This goes for writing too....

This goes for writing too….

During this first draft, remember two items: One, be sure to convey the meaning or feeling you hope to get across to your readers, and, two, write descriptively in order to place your reader in the story. Sit down at your desk and free-write the story without stopping, without fixing words or sentences, till you’ve written all you can remember. Get it down with all the passion you can muster.

Belief in Self

Belief in Self

Once you’ve written all you can, step away from your draft, sleep on it, or go for a walk or a drive, so you can return to your story with fresh eyes and heart. Then read it through once, without making any marks or changes. Now make a list of general items you’d like to improve. Then, reading again from the top, make marks or changes reflecting your goals for your story or ways you’d like to improve it. Producing a second draft involves making drastic changes. Drastic changes that writers make include deleting opening sentences and even whole paragraphs or moving chunks of material around. But this is also a good time to enhance the pictures and sharpen and add words.

Another way writers improve first drafts is by adding more concrete and descriptive language. They also add transitions that move the story from place to place, time to time, and point of view to point of view; they break long sentences, join short ones, and strive to create sentence variety. Let your brain have sway over the ego here. Don’t be too precious about what you’ve already written.

The third draft is about sharpening vocabulary, deleting unnecessary words or adding missing ones, and attending to mechanics—spelling, punctuation and grammar. Since, in this step, you’re drafting for your audience, read your personal story aloud, in front of a mirror, or ideally to a friend or partner. How does it sound to the ear? Natural? Fluid? Engaging? Clear? Does it make a point? Is it vivid? Make notes during or as soon as possible after reading aloud. Always be open to the possibility of improving a personal essay. Many writers continue to revise their work all their lives.

Standard Punctuation

Standard Punctuation

Writing a personal essay is an important act of self-revelation and meaning-making. It involves a great heave of effort and finesse that should end with the flourish of a song. Writing from the heart, with the mind, then for an audience, makes sure the act is true, whole, and sound.

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

Overcoming Writer’s Anxiety

Many aspiring writers feel insecure about what they view as their ability to write. In other words, they often let their concern with matters of style and mechanics dominate the issues that hold them back. But what wannabe writers often have, instead, is motivation issues that they interpret as an inability to write fabulous sentences, paragraphs, images, and dialogue. The fact that these aspirants to the craft want to write, say they want to write, and say they have fabulous projects to pursue makes it clear that at bottom they’re motivated to write, but they get caught in a vicious circle that cripples their taking the necessary action to overcome their anxieties.

There is no better antidote to fear of the bear than to face the bear.

There is no better antidote to fear of the bear than to face the bear.

It’s important that novice writers come to honestly understand what their motivations for writing are. Many claim they write for themselves, as if the act were strictly private and not public. These writers often say they don’t read other writers because they don’t want to be influenced by them. They tend to think they exist in an isolated vacuum, as if they make up the language, the forms known as sentences and paragraphs—even the literary forms: story, poem, essay, reflection, etc. As if they’d never heard a story till they wrote one themselves!

Writing, sleeping.

Writing, sleeping.

Other writers seek fame. Some want to strike it rich. Others feel they have a story they just have to tell. Others, still, want to change the world. Yet others simply love the language, the possibilities of words. Some want to write to understand themselves, to use writing to explore the psyche. For them, writing is therapeutic. In other words, there are a number of reasons writers write or want to write. Beginning writers, writers setting our on their first journey undertaking a big project, a full length book, should have a clear sense of why they want to write and how important it is in the context of their lives. It can be as simple as this: “I just love to write.”

Loves taking on the bear!

Loves taking on the bear!

Some writing aspirants are actually good writers of sentences and paragraphs, descriptions and dialogue, because they already write routinely in their work or in diaries or journals. They’ve written decent sentences and paragraphs all their lives and described places and replicated dialogue without a second thought, either aloud or in emails to friends and family. More than likely, they’ve gotten good grades on papers they’ve written in school. In other words, they’re probably readier to take on their big dream project than they know.

Professional experience taking on the bear.

Professional experience taking on the bear.

Probably the greatest stumbling block to pumping out material for a full-length collection of short stories, novel, or memoir is time management. Translate as “life” management. Working parents who have children, non-parents who work overtime or give their all to their careers, students who have tests to study for and papers to write—all put these important areas of their life first, of course. But they often use their life commitments as excuses not to take on a pursuit they view as not only valuable and attractive but also as difficult and time-consuming. They pit the day job against the dream work rather than find a way to do both. Kids become an excuse not to write.

Too young!

Too young!

What these writer dreamers have to do, then, is make a slot of time available every day during which they write assiduously and relentlessly—without exception. If they produce 50 words in one hour a day, they can finish a full-length book every two or three years, a good output for any writer.

Another stumbling block for neophyte novelists and memoirists is the concern with perfection. No writer spills out perfect prose on the first stab with a pencil. Shaping and smoothing sentences is an ongoing process, both within the context of a growing book but also in the context of one’s whole writing life. Prose writers, some would say even poets, should write stream of consciousness first then return to fixing and improving sentences (and lines) later. Best to get a body of material down on paper or in a document file to trifle with when the mood for tinkering strikes. Best to return to raw material when the eyes are fresh. There’s a time to create, a time to revise, and a time to proof.

And a time to pull the scalpel!

And a time to pull the scalpel!

Another major hang-up for writers is a most persistent anxiety: whether what the writer has to write is really worth reading. Is there a story here? Is this life really worth writing about? Is it interesting? Is the verbiage compelling enough to draw a reader in and keep the reader reading? What these writers don’t realize is that the average successful writer doesn’t lead any more interesting a life than anyone else. They can’t: They’re too busy writing. They simply have an eye (or ear), the drive, the follow-through, and the ultimate concern with detail to write fascinating or at least engaging books. They believe in the possibility, they discipline themselves to the act, and then they make the necessary contacts to see a project through.

Such writers, when they fear the bear, face the bear.

Such writers, when they fear the bear, face the bear.

On top of setting aside an hour a day to write, to do nothing else but write, to write no matter what, inspired new writers need to establish short-range, attainable goals they can reach in a single writing session or in no longer than a week. Such daily or weekly goals might include writing an opening, a descriptive paragraph or section, or an important piece of dialogue, working up transitions, catching up on any necessary research, reworking the outline, researching and contacting agents, designers, and publishers, or doing general organization of files and folders.

But the real key to writing full-length pieces, in this fragmented rush that is our world today, is producing a carefully thought-out, frequently reworked chapter, section, scene, or paragraph outline. Once a writer has a relatively tight plan or program for working from day to day, the book begins to write itself. No more staring blankly at a white (or yellow) piece of paper or new document staring back—for not knowing what to write. Hang the to-do list from a shelf or lay it to one side on the desk. By making each task small enough, a writer can finish one task in a single day’s session—in a couple days at most. It’s also a good idea to make separate documents and files for each paragraph, section, or chapter for the sake of organization and efficiency.

Thus, it makes sense to structure a first book using short chapters or using longer chapters that break down into short, clearly delineated sections or scenes. Some non-fiction books can be broken down into categories with bold subheadings or by chronological occurrence and date. Once a writer gets going and finds a fluid voice, the book begins to spill out like milk from a carton, weighted at the pouring end by the pouring itself.

Jesting the bear.

Jesting the bear.

The best way to think about the drafting, revising, and proofing stages is to think big first and small last. Pump out too much material, if necessary, then whittle back to the best content and sentences. Revising means adding, subtracting, and rewriting whole chunks of language, making drastic changes, and making them with fearless sagacity. Proofing involves tinkering and playing with details that can enhance the reading experience. But proofing—spelling, for example—isn’t what makes a writer. Producing abundances of material first is what first makes a writer.

Once a writer faces the bear, he or she can usually wrestle it to the ground and pin it. If it takes pinning a bear to the ground to survive as a writer, then the writer must pin the bear to the ground.

Remember, the mind, the brain, isn’t all that writes. The whole being of the self writes. Write with the body. The body holds the whole story, the whole song—not just a few brain cells. The hands become the givers of the language, the verbal pictures, and the voices to the paper or screen. The hands know everything. Even the pen contains thoughts and moments of the world within. Trust to the body and the pen. Make the hand, the pen—the very ink—assiduous, relentless, effusive. Leave it to the mind to keep the hand moving, the ink flowing, the words appearing as if by magic.

The bear has much to teach.

The bear has much to teach.