You feed in kernels, salt, and oil, and in a few minutes it begins overflowing with savory buttery goodness. Golden fluffs of transcendent flavor.
When I worked at the movie theater, we’d make bonus batches — a batch with double the salt and oil. Absolute heaven. Probably shaved a few weeks off our lives with every bucket, but we were seventeen, what did we care?
Anyway, I figure a writer’s brain is like that. The hopper spins round and round churning out the ideas at a ridiculous rate, the fluffy poofed tidbits spilling out in a cascade. Except instead of the lovely glass enclosure, the writer’s brain is a popcorn popper spinning over a great black void that swallows up all the sun-kissed salty bits. (1. I’m really hungry and would eat a whole bucket of popcorn with great vengeance right now. 2. Sun-kissed salty bits sounds dirty, upon further review.)
Most of those ideas go right down the memory hole.
Doing a little bit of daily writing, I figure, is a way to put the hopper in its glass case, at least for a few minutes; this is the benefit, I think, to doing a bit of unscripted, unpurposed writing every day. You get a time capsule, almost, of whatever you were thinking on a given day. More than once I’ve had the thought that “oh yeah, I wrote something about that in my Drivel this morning, let me go back and read it.”
My problem is, my handwriting is atrocious, so my lovely glass case is smeared and scratched and probably not worth looking into.
I dunno, I thought there was a metaphor in there somewhere, but all this post did was make me even hungrier.
For the longest time, I sort of made my bread-and-butter on this site these longish, pondering deep dives on whatever.
But lately, I just don’t have the stamina or the focus for all that.
Maybe it’s being 40.
Maybe it’s COVID and everything else going on in the world.
Maybe I’ve just gotten lazy.
Whatever the reason, I didn’t have it in me to sit down and write 1000-plus words about whatever, so I haven’t.
But then, my thoughts about myself turn dark. Writing has sort of become a big part of my identity for the last several years, so to not write … well, that’s an issue, right? After all, I still want to write these little blargs. Even if they don’t mean much to anybody outside of my own skull.
So, maybe my long wandering posts aren’t in the cards right now. But could I do two hundred words? Could I dip my toes in a topic instead of cannonballing into the deep end of overthinking? Hammer out a few words instead of over a thousand on whatever’s in my head?
Yeah, maybe I could do that.
So, this is me doing that. This is me putting words one after the other, moving the needle, keeping the momentum going … even if it’s only a teeny tiny bit at a time.
It’s something. And something, most of the time, is better than nothing.
The prompt for this week’s SOCS post is open book, point, write. Now that sounds great and funny and creative for most people, but the problem is that our house is run by this little monster and his little monster sister, and as a result our house is full of their books.
And because the house is full of their books, that literally means that their books are everywhere, so when the prompt says to reach for the nearest book, and you do it in good faith, you come up with this:
And you don’t get an awesome word like “psychotherapy” or “Mondrian” or “motivation” or “clown car” (sure that’s two words but it’s a great concept in the book I should have reached for: Everything is F*cked by Mark Manson, more on that later). No, you reach for a Pete the Cat book and you get a word like “bat”, and it’s not even a usage of bat that’s fun for a writer to explore like, I dunno, vampire bats or something, no, it’s a literal bat because Pete is literally playing baseball. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I hate baseball (almost as much as I hate golf). Still, I’m a good soldier, and the prompt says to use that word, so here I go.
But but but, the prompt is also a Stream-of-Consciousness prompt, which means write whatever comes to mind, and my mind is decidedly not on bats or baseball. So I’m going to remain a good soldier by sticking to the intent of the prompt and going where my mind takes me, which is pens.
Literal pens, specifically, in fact one particular pen in particular, but also pens in the larger sense, the metaphorical sense. (See, if there were a Pete the Cat story about pens, we could have jumped straight to this point instead of all that dithering about with bats.)
Pens are on my mind because I’m having a sort of existential crisis about pens lately, and if you think that’s a silly thing to have an existential crisis about, then obviously you’ve never held a proper pen in your life. (Ok, that’s a little hyperbolic. A little.) Actually, I need to back up.
I’ve been writing by hand a lot over the last couple months, and when you do a thing a lot, you want to make sure you’re doing it right, which is to say, efficiently and, if possible, pleasurably. And while my Pilot G2 pens have been my go-to for years, with all this writing by hand, I wondered if there was a better option. (Writers, let me do you a favor. Stop now, if you value your sanity.) Well, you do a quick google on the issue, and you fall into a hole. Long story short, I invested a ridiculous amount of money in a single writing instrument (though not nearly as much as you could spend if you were of a mind to — the hole on pens goes DEEP) and quickly fell in love with it. It writes so smoothly! It feels so satisfying in the hand! All the good things! Seriously, if you fancy yourself a writer and you haven’t tried writing with a fountain pen, you are depriving yourself.
Thing about fountain pens, though, is they run out of ink and have to be refilled. I planned for this by buying some ink refills when I bought the pen, but I’m too clever for my own good; I took them to work with me (since that’s where I was doing my writing by hand at the time) and left them there. So my super nice pen ran out of ink, and I had no ink with which to refill it.
(Here I must detour to say, I know the amount of thought I’m putting into this is ridiculous. I KNOW. Okay? But again, if you think this is a silly thing to have an existential crisis over, then you obviously haven’t spent any time in a head anything like mine.)
It came time to write this morning’s pages and my fountain pen was down for the count. So I reached for any old pen sitting on the shelf, and I was immediately reminded why I have so quickly taken to fountain pens. The writing felt scritchy, the ink didn’t glide onto the page as smoothly … and as a result, writing my pages was not as much fun as it’s been lately.
Here’s where the existential crisis comes in. I’ve pretty much made it my mantra not to care about brand names, celebrity endorsements, advertisements … anything like that. If it does the job, it’ll work for me has basically become my phrase to live by. I only shop store brands at the grocery store, I order off-brand sneakers … I don’t even know the brand name of the clothes I’m wearing now. I drive my wife nuts because she has wanted to upgrade our almost-20-year-old Camry for years but I wouldn’t dream of it. Why would I? It runs fine. So why am I getting twisted up like hair in a blender about my pens?
Here, I think, is why: the fountain pen, for one thing, feels really nice to write with. It’s hard to describe, but it literally glides on the page. And when you’re writing multiple pages at a whack, it makes a difference if the tactile experience itself is enjoyable or irksome. Also — the fountain pen just looks like a Real Writer’s Tool. Seriously. Look at that thing!
The weight of it! That nib! (Horrible word, that — “nib” — but who cares, the point of this thing looks like something Shakespeare himself would have used) The user of a writing utensil like this, my brain whispers in my ear, is a user who Knows What He Is Doing When He Puts Pen To Paper. I just feel like a real writer when I use it, and being suddenly deprived of it makes me feel the ever-dreaded less than.
Which is STUPID. A pen no more makes the writer than the clothes make the man (an idiotic expression if ever I’ve heard one). But the heart wants what it wants, and my heart wants my Real Writer’s Pen back. Which is why, even though I dutifully wrote my Morning Pages with an Any Old Pen I found in the drawer, I plan on picking up more ink when I head out later today.
I know, I know. It’s stupid. First world problems in the extreme. What can I say? My brain is broken; this is just the latest example.
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.
Writing only works if you devote yourself to it, day after day, week in and week out, month after agonizing month. You park yourself in front of the screen again and again and again, wondering every day if what you’re doing is going anywhere, or if it’s coming to anything, or if the pieces you’re punching out of the drywall will ever fit together in a shape that fits known geometries or not again. The words pour out and pour out; some days it’s all hey this is pretty fun and cool and exciting whee I’m weaving stories and making magic like a rainbow-skating elf and other days it’s like it’d be easier to self-castrate than type a single word, why do I do this to myself, I have invented a new masochism.
By necessity, I find myself not thinking about the finish too much. In the beginning it’s too far; I might as well be thinking about the end of the Trump presidency for all the good it does me to think about the end of my project today. In the middle it’s a torture — I know it’s getting closer, but like a mirage floating over the horizon, it just never seems to get any closer. And at the end, the nearness of it is distorting, like a haze of summer gnats flittering in your face — close enough to touch, yet dancing just out of reach.
Instead, I watch the ground under my feet. Follow the path where it leads, occasionally stop to check the map, and mostly just focus on not getting stuck in the mud or wandering off into the undergrowth. Think about today’s 500 words today, worry about tomorrow’s 500 words tomorrow, and as for yesterday’s 500 words? Forget them, lest ye be sucked down in the quicksand of self-satisfaction or devoured by the litera-demons that hound your every step. Eyes always ahead — but not too far ahead. Sure, there’s a prize out there in the shape of a finished story (well, “finished” is more like it — you still have to edit the thing, after all). But the real prize is another day walking the path, another day weaving stories out of nothingness, the next 500 words that you haven’t written yet.
In this way, a novel gets written. In this way, a story gets told. In this way, another 8 (or nine? or maybe ten? Who even knows, this journey warps spacetime worse than a singularity) months pass. In this way, another cast of characters struts and frets its hour upon the page.
And then, holy carp, one day you’re working away — faithfully, dutifully, painfully hammering out your daily words, when the fog lifts. The trees thin out. The mirage resolves itself.
The loose ends of the story are tying themselves into neat little knots, your word count is knocking on the door of that 85,000 mark, and you realize: it’s almost over.
On the one hand, it’s gratifying as hell — you’ve worked away these months, not knowing what, if anything, it was all going to come to, and now you can look back at the trail you’ve blazed. It was all leading somewhere, after all: to this moment, right here, this patch of virgin earth under your battered boots. The sun seems to shine a little brighter here; the rain passes a little quicker; the breeze is a little sweeter. It’s nearly over. Mission accomplished. C’est finis. (Are those even words? They feel like they might be words.)
But there’s a dissatisfaction, too; equal and opposite to the fullness of accomplishment. The story’s not done yet, not really. You’ve blazed the trail, but you have to go back and mark it out so that your readers can follow you down it. And that’s a lot of work ahead.
But more so than re-treading this trail you’ve just carved — which will be its own adventure, no doubt — is this: Here you stand, in the midst of the wilderness. The ending point for one journey. And the starting point for the next one.
Make no mistake, finishing a novel is a sweet, sweet feeling. But it’s not a fullness that lets you sit back and unbuckle your belt like you’ve just polished off five pounds of Thanksgiving turkey before you slip into a tryptophan coma. It’s a fullness that scatters like ice from the spoon (I stole that simile from somewhere, but I’ve no idea where), that leaves you hungry again the moment it clears your palate.
There are more trails to blaze, more strange and wonderful characters to meet, more dangers to face, more MacGuffins to MacGuffin.
And though this particular page may be full, you can already hear the next blank page calling.