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 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.
Things I didn’t write about in the past several weeks:
Our vacation. Which was lovely, really, just what the doctor ordered, and not a moment too soon. Lots of ocean, lots of beaches, lots of pools, and hardly any sunburn. What more could you ask?
My daughter’s horrible Mondays. She can be a delight, she really can, but of late, every Monday is a nightmare. It’s like the weekend causes her to forget entirely the concept of school and that it’s a thing she has to do, so when we’re getting her ready to go on a Monday morning it’s like explaining death to her again and again and again. (We haven’t yet had to explain death to either of our children, but I’m sure it will not be fun.) Inconsolable.
Book Reviews. I’ve read some doozies. The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins — practically an atheist bible. Never Split the Difference, by Chris Voss — a treatise on negotiation from the boardroom to your child’s bedroom. Fascinating stuff that I’ve already used in my work life. How I Killed Pluto (and why it had it coming) by Mike Brown — a surprisingly whimsical look at planetary astronomy and the practical realities of language. Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk — one of my top five movies, but a book I had not, until recently, read. I had heard that the movie was vastly different from the book, but that wasn’t my experience; in fact, I’ll go as far as to say this is one of those rare cases where the movie may in fact be better than the book. And the last chapter was just bizarre. And most recently, Reasons to Stay Alive, by Matt Haig — more on this later, as I actually do plan to write about that one.
My car, and how it’s slowly turning back into a pumpkin.
My novel, which — was I even working on a novel? I’d forgotten.
The weather, which is finally turning. My favorite season is upon me, and it seems I can hardly enjoy it.
Running, which is as good (and as good to me) as ever, but I can’t seem to make myself want to do it.
Podcasts, and how I can’t stop listening to them. (The new season of Serial is in progress, and it’s gold. The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe is always required listening and remains a source of inspiration and curiosity. Revisionist History always surprises me by forcing me to take a fierce interest in the strangest topics for the duration of the episode. And, ’bout freakin’ time, a new season of Limetown is coming down the pike.)
Our cat, and how he stalks me through the house every morning like he thinks I’m about to drop a bucket of treats on his head, even though I hate him the most at these times and would never present him with a single treat, let alone a bucket.
Work, and how it’s simultaneously very fulfilling and more stressful than ever.
And, I dunno, dozens of other topics, at least.
These are all things which it occurred to me to write about, which I thought I ought to write about, which I even wanted to write about. But which I did not write about.
At all. Not here, not on paper, not in my head. I didn’t write the first word about any of these things. What I did instead was stew, and hide, and think about other things, and, in some less dignified moments, panic. Because for all the bootstrapping and “just do it”ing I tend to advocate, I just haven’t been able to make myself do it. Like there’s a missed connection in my head, faulty wiring that — when the switch is thrown — fails to respond. And it’s not a catastrophic, movie-style failure with smoke and explosions and collapsing infrastructure; no, it’s just a quiet, dead click. Static on the airwaves. Snow on the screen.
Most frustrating is that I don’t know what to make of it, because — while this sensation has struck me before — usually I get this for a day or so at a time. But I’m going on several weeks, now, of this wrongness, this ennui, this feeling of inadequacy and dread. My wife keeps asking me what’s wrong, which troubles me as much as the feeling itself. I’m the tough one, the resilient one, the one who never needs help. But here I am, dragging myself through my days, plagued with a silent refrain of “not good enough” in my head.
I always end these posts with a chipper “normality will resume.” And I’m hoping that’s the case.
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.