I wish I could sing.
I can write and take photos and speak a few foreign languages and do plenty of other fun and useful things. But I cannot sing. Not well, anyway; not well at all, though I’m shameless when it comes to karaoke, because who cares?
And it makes me feel creatively hungry and wistful in a way that’s hard to pin down.
See, it’s like there’s this Other Me who strums on a guitar and makes noises lovely enough to stun a room into perfect silence. I can see her up there, singing her heart out.
She’s not real, but there it she is anyway, mocking me with her achievement.
In the sweltering summer of my sixteenth year, I scored my first-ever full-time job.
It was a taffy-making gig, paying $5.25 an hour and entailing 40-or-so hours per week of light manual labor at a modest factory in Portland’s Inner Industrial Eastside.
The person who hired me was a petite and perky woman in her early 30s who reeked perpetually of flower-scented mothballs and preferred to wear her hair in a tight, high ponytail. She looked just a bit like Phoebe from “Friends,” and she lived in my dad’s condo complex with her six-year-old daughter. (I’m fairly certain he was attempting to date her, which never really worked out, though she did consent to a couple of rides on our jet-boat the week before she hired me, by phone, through my father.)
I’m thinking a lot today about process.
We talk endlessly about our creative processes: how to audit them, how to improve them, how to determine whether they are useful and efficient, when to overhaul them and when to tweak them.
But undergirding all of these conversations is one assumption: that process matters. That most of us genuinely require express processes to do our work well.
And undergirding that assumption is a fundamental aversion to the premise of tossing a cherished process aside in response to spontaneous or unanticipated opportunities and constraints.
The other day, I found myself making out a list of the rudest stuff men I’ve been involved with have ever said to me. And it was shaping up to be pretty darkly hilarious.
Pleasantly self-effacing, occasionally blistering—it definitely had some serious personal essay potential. (I’m tempted to include a few choice lines here, but I think we’d veer quickly off track, so, sorry. If you know me personally, ask me next time we see each other and I’ll gladly oblige.)
But then, as I banged furiously away on my keyboard, snickering and grimacing in turn, a question bubbled up in me. One that stopped me dead in my tracks.
What was the point of writing something like this?
Back in the day, the Ivory Soap Company made a fortune off a simple manufacturing and marketing concept: keep things pure. The company’s scientists eventually managed to create a cleansing product that was 99.44-percent free from impurities. And it sold like hotcakes.
It’s true: humans are suckers for purity. We equate it with simplicity, decency, straightforwardness. It’s uncomplicated, and it’s easy to understand. Writers, too, tend to worship at the altars of The Unadulterated. Many of us select a genre or a style – fiction or non-fiction, narrative or minimalist – based on early inclinations, and then we camp out there for the rest of our long and overly verbose days. As time goes by, we whittle down and whittle down until we’ve painted ourselves into a teeny-tiny-eensy-weensy corner: “I only write how-to-manifestoes/op-ed pieces/poetry/counterfactual history/paranormal romance.”
A few days ago, I inherited a sweet little chestnut-colored upright piano. She’s nothing fancy, and badly in need of a tuning, but she’s mine, and she fills my house with the most wonderful sounds.
So, over the course of the past few days, I’ve gotten into the habit of wandering downstairs from my office at interval to spend a few minutes sitting at the piano bench and tickling her (slightly worn) keys to the best of my (rusty) abilities.
These little interludes have gotten me thinking about the value of creative palate cleansers.
When you’re busy, or on deadline, or lacking ample motivation for the day’s tasks, or just generally contending with a lot of work, it can be super useful to take frequent breaks. Little five-minute stretches of zoning out, about once an hour or so, just to keep you limber and energized.
How are them New Year’s Resolutions going so far?
If you’re scrunching your face into a grimace right now, I’ve got a message to relay: it’s OK if you haven’t yet made a heck of a lot of headway on your 2019 goals just yet.
The year is new, and there’s still plenty of time to flex those creative muscles — or to focus on other things entirely.
Maybe some of your 2019 resolutions are about writing. Maybe none of ‘em are. Maybe all of ‘em are, but you feel like a chump because your enthusiasm is already flaggy and flaccid, and life is distracting, and time is short, and death is sure, etc., etc.
I hope you do write. Copiously. But if you don’t, well, I hope you don’t castigate yourself too much for it. Perhaps it’s only because the hour of creation — your hour — simply hasn't yet arrived. Because you're busy. Or you’re young. Or you’re old, but you’re still just not ready.
Ever been to the Louvre in Paris? One of the most ubiquitous sights you’ll encounter in that rambling mausoleum of artistic endeavor is small packs of art students seated on benches and against walls, notepads open, sketching furiously away.
Studying and imitating the masters is a time-honored means of gaining insight into all kinds of visual art forms. Likewise, when you read, you should have your mental sketchpad at the ready. This means reading not only as a reader; but also as a writer. And taking lots and lots of notes.
I never read anything (not even a magazine) without a pen in my hand (you say, “obsessive”; I say, “committed to expanding my vocabulary.”). Some see the habit of scribbling all over the margins of books and magazines as practically sacrilegious, but think of it this way: as a writer, you are sitting down to study every single time you read something. And any student worth her salt had better be taking great notes.
When you find yourself stuck in a rut, even before you attempt to free yourself, your first course of action should be to check the soundness of your wheels.
Four key cylinders keep the writing machine turning: depth of focus, depth of determination, available time, and soundness of habits.
It’s important to spend some time identifying your own habits. We all have at least a few good ones. We’ve all got at least a few bad ones, too. They are our default starting points. Some people thrive on deadlines. Others (like me) turn into catatonic, rocking messes at the thought of pulling even a single all-nighter and instead insist on dragging projects out into blind infinity.
Well, hello, there, gorgeous writer!
I’m kicking off the official unofficial launch of The Writer in Full with a little five-blog series I’m calling Damned Useful Writing Habits.
I’m going to share, in brief and casual format, at interval, five habits that have proven particularly durable and useful for me during my decade-plus as a professional writer. And I’ll offer up easy suggestions for how you might put the habit into practice in your daily writing life.