Here’s the writer’s paradox (or, a writer’s paradox, for there are many). Writing is this highly individual art, yet we must be well-socialized to do it well.
It’s stupid, really. And it’s probably a major factor in the cascading neuroses that most writers seem to suffer from. Our brains are broken to begin with — we spend our waking moments imagining strange worlds we’d rather live in, playing god (and devil) to characters we spin from our wobbly brain Jello. So we’re living in a fantasy world from the go.
Then, when we’re actually creating the stories — breathing life into the characters, weaving the world out of loose threads — we have to withdraw entirely. Nobody can help us when we’re writing. We have to walk this road alone, armed with nothing against the dark unknown except our (limited) wits and our pens. Self-imposed solitary confinement. (It always strikes me as bizarre that solitary confinement, by the way, is one of the “worst” punishments they dole out in prisons. To go into a dark place with no human contact with only my thoughts? Meals provided? Sign me up. I might come out the other side insane, but I’d have the most interesting things to say.) We struggle alone, we succeed alone, we fail alone, we talk to ourselves alone.
But, see, that’s the thing. We’re telling stories about people. Fake people, sure, but people meant to be convincing representations of real people. Which means the author has to know how people act. How people speak. How they think. And while we’re working in solitary, spending more and more time clanging around inside our own heads, we’re getting farther and farther away from actual real people, from genuine interpersonal speech and behavior.
It’s a paradox.
Social media can help, sort of? You get to reach out from your cave of isolation and get some of that interaction without actually going to the trouble of leaving your cave. But it’s not a substitute for real interaction either, because social media is just a bunch of other shut-ins putting forward a persona, a version of themselves that bears some relationship to who they really are without actually showing you who they really are, what they really do, what they really say.
I don’t have an answer for this problem, except to say that the writer probably has to put more work than most into spending time in the real world interacting with real people. Which, for many of us, is difficult — because what we really want is to be shut away in our solitary confinement, writing away.
The post that I wrote the other day, about Morning Pages? That was not the post I set out to write.
The post I set out to write was this one, but to talk about what I want to talk about here, I first had to talk about my morning pages. What they are, how I use them, my process in writing them. All that is here, but that post turned into a 1500 word gallivant, and my unofficial limit for these things is 1200 words so … yeah. I’ll credit the fact that I was able to rattle off 1500 words on a thing I didn’t even intend to talk about to the fact that my creative wellspring has sprung anew (again, see the previous post).
Anyway. The thing I wanted to explore is this: in my writing, I swear at myself. Like, a lot.Tirelessly. And with great gusto.
The situation doesn’t much matter. It’s equally likely to happen when I’m talking about something I love as with something I hate. I use it to express positive and negative emotion. Basically, I just use it. I love swearing.
Part of it is because I’m of two minds about words that carry a taboo. On the one hand, my critical thinking brain reminds me that words mean only what we agree they mean, and therefore have only the power we give them. (For a lesson on this, I heartily recommend the short story “The Appropriation of Cultures”, by Percival Everett.) Being an atheist helps, here; there’s no higher power dictating that this word is bad and this word is good and this word if spoken earns you a one-way ticket to eternal torture. Words are just collections of letters and sounds that we as a culture agree mean certain things. On the other hand, our culture has certainly agreed that there are words you shouldn’t use in polite company. And since my job in large part entails cultivating future humans into actual productive humans, that’s a standard I’m more-or-less obliged to uphold.
That’s why I take pains not to swear (too much) in my online interactions; even though my online persona isn’t necessarily identical to my walking-around persona, they’re close enough that it behooves me to be cognizant of the things I say around here. I keep a lid on the things that would otherwise come out of my mouth.
But in my not-for-public-consumption writing? In my morning pages, my first drafts, my notes to myself in the margins of my writing projects? The lid comes off. If the use of certain words could condemn you to eternal torture, I would probably owe several infinities’ worth of torture to whatever loving deity were meting out the torture. I call myself rude names. I lambast the things I’ve written. I call myself out for the things I need to write in future drafts. It’s self-abuse of the most vile kind, except I don’t view it that way. It doesn’t make me feel bad when I read over it again — it makes me laugh. It’s just how I talk to myself. It’s the opposite of a Big Deal; my own private joke with myself on the public-facing me who can’t speak or write that way.
And it made me wonder how other people do the same thing. Not if — because I feel it’s a pretty safe assumption that anybody who does any sort of extended self-talk, via journal, notes to self, or otherwise, has their own style of idiosyncratic talking to themselves — but how.
I remember that I had to read The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin in a college course, which contained several excerpts from his journals, his lists of personal maxims, stories of his early writing jobs. And I remember thinking: personal journals? Bull Sharknado. Maybe some polished versions, sure. But it’s not like he went into whatever random entry he wrote to himself on Bleptember the blargteenth, schleppenteen schlippity bleven, said “yep, that’s the one” and dropped it into the book. You just know that the margins of his journal were full of comments like “Ben, you self-important, pompous, wig-wearing f***. How can you take yourself seriously writing this s***?”
Maybe it’s just me.
Anyway, I wrote this entire entry to tell you about that one weird little thought that crossed my mind: Ben Franklin scribbling insults at himself with a quill pen in between drafting the backbone of our nation.
I know, I know! I start these things and go off them, and start and go off, like a chronic yo-yo dieter with short-term amnesia, like a kid climbing on and off the high dive pretending he’s really gonna do it this time. I’ve tried bullet journaling (god, I hated it so much) and plain ol’ page-a-day, write-about-what-happened-today journaling (not bad but felt more like a chore without a payoff than anything beneficial). They only lasted for a few weeks each. But I actually think I might stick with it long term this time, and I think it’s because I found a journaling system that seems to be working for me.
Here’s that system.
What I’m doing for my daily journaling (well, 5-6 days per week journaling, a man deserves his weekends off, don’tcha think) are Morning Pages, popularized by Julia Cameron. Some time ago I actually wrote a post about how I was given one of her books about process and creativity: I got frustrated and annoyed with her endless romanticization and frippery about writing and gave it up. But the more I read into the habits of the successful (and especially of the successful creative), the more I heard Morning Pages mentioned. So I re-looked them up and gave them a try. I’ve been doing them for a solid six weeks, and I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that you need thirty days to form a habit, so obviously I’ve got this one sorted.
Anyway, a brief explanation. Morning Pages are not journaling per se.
Sorry for the detour. WordPress apparently doesn’t recognize “journaling” as a word so it’s underlining it in red all over my draft, which is really futzing up my zen for this particular session. I’m irked, but I hereby release the irkitude. Carry on.
You know how when you wake up in the morning and the first thing you have to do is head to the bathroom? Me, (not that you asked but I’m in that kind of mood) I like a nice feisty deuce in the morning. Partly because physiologically it has to be done, partly because I guess I’m conditioned. Anyway, I like getting it out of the way early. Cleans me out, lightens the load, I can go on with my day. Morning Pages are like that, but for your brain.
In short, you wake up, do your bathroom thing, and before you let too much time pass, you sit down and write. You can write about whatever you want, whatever’s to mind, but you have to write three pages. And you have to write longhand. No typing.
It’s a brain dump. And it’s working for me.
Now, I’m not hyper-adherent about it. I do mine when I arrive at work, when I have a little time to myself. I’ve gone for a run, gotten the kids off to school, kissed the wife goodbye. (Technically you’re not even supposed to do all that stuff — you’re just supposed to roll off the mattress and embrace the blank page. Fargo that, I say. You take a thing and you make it work for you. I’m already waking up before 5 AM on run days, I ain’t waking up thirty MORE minutes early.) I come in, set my stuff down, start a bit of music on the computer (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hHW1oY26kxQ is my playlist of choice the last few weeks), start the electric kettle for my cup of tea, then I crack open the notebook, ready my pen, and set about writing.
I write about my worries for the day (and boy do I have a lot of those! Speaking of which, I’m still scaling back on the meds. That’s going great. Maybe I can post about that later). About what I’m thinking about. What irks me. What excites me. Sometimes a story idea will bloom in the middle of writing and I’ll noodle that around, invent a character and let her splash around in the tidal pools of my brain farts for a few lines. I’ll roll in other journaling ideas, like jotting down things I’m thankful for, things to focus on for the day.
You notice that the things I write about are diverse. They sort of have to be. Because to just sit down and write three pages without having a central topic to write about is … well. It can be tough. Inevitably one starts to doubt one’s self: This is dumb. Why am I even thinking about this, much less writing about it? Who even cares about this? I’m literally just vomiting words onto the page. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. (I’m pretty sure I actually wrote two lines of just the word “blah” once — that’s how stuck I got.) But that’s kind of the point. One of the only rules about Morning Pages is that you’re not supposed to stop writing. Don’t stop to think about what you’ve just written. Don’t stop to think about what you’ll write next. Just press on. And in that regard, Morning Pages become a mighty tool.
When you take away the ability to stop, to pause, to critique and evaluate, then you must embrace the necessity of writing literally whatever comes to your mind. Mind’s a blank? Write about how your mind is blank. Distracted by an odd smell coming from the next room? Write about how it makes your nose wrinkle in disgust. The process is meditative, in its way. You express what’s front-of-mind and tune out the rest. And when you have to fill three handwritten pages, well — your mind tends to wander a bit. Morning Pages allow you — nay, force you — to wander with your thoughts, to explore what’s lurking in the subconscious brain, to get down on paper what’s clanging around in your skull so you can move on from it.
Further, there’s a concept in exercise called “greasing the groove”. In short, it entails working out at a capacity significantly below what you’re capable of to improve muscle memory, so that when you do go hard, the muscles are better tuned-up. Morning Pages are that, all over. The stakes couldn’t be lower, as I’m certainly not sharing them with anybody for proofreading. It doesn’t matter if I make grammatical mistakes or swear my entire face off on the page (something I actually try to be careful about here on the ol’ blarg). Writing a whole bunch where the stakes don’t matter gets my brain tuned up for the more important writing where my plot, characters, and general goodness or badness of the story do matter.
The first few times I did Morning Pages, it took me about half an hour. I kept stopping and starting, second-guessing myself and the process, allowing myself to get distracted and zone out. Lately, I crank ’em out in about fifteen minutes, which is basically as fast as I can reasonably write them. And yeah, I could certainly finish faster by typing, but there’s something that’s almost, but not entirely unlike, magic about actually creating words through the motion of your hand. It’s slower, but I like it. (Especially since I got my new pen.) It forces you to connect with the words more than typing does. It’s hard to explain.
Anyway, I write my three pages, then close the notebook and don’t think about it again for the rest of the day.
And it’s incredibly freeing! For one thing, the process triggers that same “I DID SOMETHING” dopamine rush that exercising first thing in the morning does. You get that zing of having written three pages, and hey, the rest of the day seems that much easier to face. Plus, it stimulates the brain like hooking up jumper cables to a dead battery. Writing about my worries, my to-do list, my whatever — it forces me to focus thought on those things, and often, answers and motivation are the result. More than once has it happened that I poured out a problem into my Morning Pages — a snag in the story, something that was bothering me about a colleague, a messed-up situation that was driving me nuts — and an answer takes shape just from writing about it.
I feel better immediately after writing my Morning Pages. And that helps me set a good trajectory for the day.
In that vein, I want to posit: it’s no mistake that I’m back to working full-steam on my current novel in the weeks since I started doing Morning Pages. Just reminding myself that, yes, I’m capable of the physical act of writing, seems to have, if you can believe it, reminded me that I’m capable of writing, of fixing this story, of pushing through a roadblock.
In short, writing my daily Morning Pages sets the stage for a good writing day, and anything that does that is welcome in my world. Julia Cameron may be a bit of a ridiculous hippie but I think she’s got something with this practice.
Have you tried Morning Pages? Do you journal in a similar way? I’m always curious to see how other people are making it happen.
I made the mistake of listening to a Tim Ferriss podcast this morning.
I say mistake because, as is often the case when I read or listen to something by Tim it tends to take over my brain, the way the moon drifting in front of the sun turns day into night for a few minutes. The difference is instead of lasting for minutes, the effect tends to last for days or weeks.
The problem with listening to Mr. Ferriss, or with any so-called “productivity porn”, is that it tends to create a feedback loop, a sort-of hyped up fugue state. You read this thing and you think “HELL YES, this thing is going to change my life” and your brain drowns in the dopamine flood caused by the visions of success, and while you’re high on that you notice that the thing you just read references this other thing and hey, you’ve got a few minutes before you have to get back to real life, so why not check that out while you’re at it, and wouldn’t you know it the new thing hits you with the “HELL YES” effect again and the cycle repeats. (Full disclosure: when I started writing this post I visited Tim’s site — for the first time in months, I might add, because I know what happens when I do it — and fell victim to the same cycle. I also signed up for his new newsletter. And may or may not have copy/pasted some material onto my desktop. Stop judging me.) Point is, you have to be judicious with this sort of thing, which is why I’m probably not going to dip my toes into Tim Ferriss land for several months again. Still, this morning, I think, was beneficial.
The material in question was a recent episode called Tea Time with Tim, which covers a lot of ground but left me with a couple of things clanking around in the ol’ noggin: something he calls “fear-setting” and a few quotes from ancient Greece.
First, fear-setting. You’ve heard of goal-setting, where you set down your goals, enumerate the steps to the achievement of said goals, and more or less plan your vision for success. Well and good, but for us anxious types, who dwell on fears perhaps more than we should, there’s a tendency to let those fears paralyze us to the point of inaction. (See for example my writing productivity over the past several months.) Fear-setting is designed to take the positive visualization of goal-setting and turn the full artillery of that framework on the anti-action fear center of the brain. In a (woefully inadequate) nutshell, fear-setting entails writing down all the things that could go wrong and enumerating the opportunity cost if all those things did go wrong, then weighing those costs against a (harshly conservative) estimation of the possible benefits if the things don’t go wrong. For the anxious sort like me, it seems like a good way to short-circuit the “thing is scary so maybe just pretend it doesn’t exist and it’ll go away” paralysis I tend to fall into over stuff.
Then, quotes from Greek guys. First, this one:
Which is one I’m going to share with my classes today, because my students tend to be sick with the germ of “well I want this thing really badly, and things tend to work out for me, so on performance day it’ll all just come together”. You and I, of course, know that kind of thinking is what makes starving artists waiting tables for their whole lives, or worse, a phalanx of creatives who never took up the dream at all because a single performance didn’t live up to the hype in their head. So I’m going to remind them, today, that their training, today, matters for the performance a month down the road, and, well, for most of ’em it’ll bounce right off but at least I’ll have done my part for the day.
It applies for me personally, too, of course. Suffice it to say I’m not particularly well trained-up at the moment in a number of domains, and, well, that needs some attention.
And, yeah, Seneca was Roman, not Greek, but the Romans were basically Greeks with better tech, so let’s not get too hung up on the details. I’ve actually seen the quote more often with the first clause as “we are often more frightened than hurt,” but I prefer this one with fears and dangers. The important part, at any rate, is the second part. The thing we’re afraid of is always worse in our minds and the reality is almost never as bad as we build it up to be. For evidence I offer the example from Louis C.K. (and yeah, quoting Louis C.K. is problematic these days but his personal faults don’t change the poignancy of his words) of the average description of a trip by airplane. The person is likely to complain about the length of delays or the slowness of service or the lack of wi-fi and less likely to dwell on the fact that they literally FLEW THROUGH THE AIR and crossed the country in a matter of hours. We make things out, in other words, a bit worse than they really are in the scheme of things.
So, yeah, my brain is basically on fire this morning.
I was listening to an interview with Chuck Palahniuk, and it made me realize – I have no idea what kind of writer I am.
I know I’m some sort of writer. Here I am, after all. These words aren’t creating themselves. But I don’t really know how I’m doing it. Or rather, I don’t know if I’m doing it in the best way.
Best, of course, is relative, but it must be said – I’m constantly eaten up with doubt over whether I’m doing it right, where right means in a productive, creative, efficient manner. Whence springs the doubt? Well, to begin, I have no idea how I want to write. My head is full of these conflicting romantic notions about process and product. On the one hand, I revere the idea of going away in a dark corner (literally – one day I’ll photograph my writing corner) to let my fingers tap dance the story to life. On the other, I hold this fondness for the written word – a fondness which has filled up my home and work space with notebooks and pencils of all sorts, and whose marble-statue grip on my soul compels me, always, to wander down the office supply aisle are the Target or the Kroger, “just to see” if they have any neat writerly tools I might need to stock up on.
But, see, then I realize – when’s the last time I really wrote longhand? The answer, it turns out, is about three months ago. (this I know because opposite the page on which I’m now madly scribbling is the last journal entry I wrote, back when I was forcing myself to the habit even when my heart wasn’t in it. It was about Canada, on June 8. So much green.)
So I romanticize writing longhand, but (it’s impossible not to notice) I don’t actually do it. When I’m writing, almost all the time, it’s at the computer, sat behind the keys, a hammering monkey. In the interview, Palahniuk quotes Kerouac or somebody to say, “that’s not writing, that’s typing.” There’s derision there, for sure. A hipsterish scoffing at a process which, at core, is just another way to do it. But Palahniuk prizes the written word in a sort of sacred way, and so, it turns out, do I.
After all, when I embarked on this adventure, I did it, not from behind a computer screen, but from the pages of a notebook basically identical to this one. And when I am struck by my best ideas – my sweet Jesus get that on the page before you forget it and, by its omission, make the universe a sadder place ideas – it’s basically never when I’m sat at the computer, typing. No, those ideas strike like lurking cobras, when I’m just on the precipice overlooking dreamland, when I’m caught at a stoplight, when I’m brushing my teeth, when I’m out for a run, when I’m watching my kids bounce basketballs off each other’s heads.
And what do I do then?
I don’t dash to the computer, wait for it to boot up, open a word processor, open a blank file (or worse, navigate to an existing one). I don’t reach for my phone, swipe to an app, open it, create a note, title it and punch away with my thumbs. No! When the idea strikes, I’m reaching for pencil and paper, because there is nothing simpler, there’s nothing in the way of that.
And yeah. I’ll go hippie-dippie and affirm that there’s still something magical about the scratching of my papermate 0.7 on a sheet of clean, lined paper.
It doesn’t escape my notice that my tone, of late, is full of resolve and enthusiasm: things I want to try, things I want to do, ways I want to be better. Maybe it’s the hint of fall in the air in these recent mornings – it feels like we’re about to shrug off the heavy sweat-cloak of summer. Maybe it’s just the right stimulus striking at the right time, like lightning forking through the primordial ooze and spawning a brand new genesis.
Or maybe it’s just Chuck Palahniuk’s word-seeds falling on fertile soil between my ears.
Whatever it is, I’ll take it. And when it’s time to write in the days and weeks to come, I’ll be considering my notebooks first.