I used to reach out to these writers magazines--Poets and Writers, Writer's Digest, that kind of thing--with ideas for pieces about how one might approach writing. I think this journal encompasses all the ways in which one can talk about writing, all kinds of writing, in language and ideas one will not find elsewhere. I realize that when I describe what my process entails at times--I have no one process--that that process isn't something another person could apply to what they are doing. For instance, there was that entry a week or two back about how "August Autumn" and "Taffy and Grilled Cheese" came to be written. I don't think someone else is going to write stories that way, or could even try. But even then, someone is going to look differently at how a work might be put together. A form of perception might be changed. Conclusions from the past are likely to be jettisoned. And though they are not going to do what I do and what I just described, that can still be freeing for what they might do or try.
We tend to think correlations are direct in what we create--we think about a given memory, we write about this. But, what about when we think of the memory, and it causes us to think of something else that has nothing directly, or at all, to do with it--and we write about that? And that other something was something we never thought about before? Nay, we invented it right there? There are these invisible proxies that might have been the nominal, original subject. And that's how a lot of great work can be made. When you are able to have this kind of proxy-bridge that frees you up. In the past, someone might have said to me--i can think of examples with Norberg--that I should do such and such with a story they had read. And I didn't. I did something else entirely. Which I probably would not have done if they hadn't said what they did. I find now, at this point in my development, that I am the sayer of these things, to myself. A Norberg isn't really going to say anything anymore, because really what are you going to input at this point? But that's after a lot of development, to understate matters.
Those magazines would either ignore me--and I had great ideas, like how one might write while walking--or, after I had followed up nine times over seventeen months, give me some boilerplate email that meant, "go away." As I was more successful than the people they had writing "craft" pieces, and clearly the person you'd want to turn to if you wanted some different insight on how to actually write better. And write often.
You are almost always dealing with incompetence. You are dealing with people who won't think. They are instead going to assign a craft piece written by a trust funder about how they write at this antique cherry wood desk handed down to them by their great aunt, who was a baroness. Complete irrelevant crap. Or advice for formula. They'll tell you how they do their dialogue the exact same way in whatever they write. Which you should be ashamed of, and try to come up with something fresh, but they'll tell you the pattern, so you can also follow the pattern, which wasn't even your own pattern (and which this person probably filched from someone else).
Is it that hard for people to get words down on a page that they are so desperate they will follow someone else's instructions on how to be hackneyed?
One will learn more about writing from reading this journal for three days than they will anywhere else, over however long. In those magazines, in college, in a writing program. I mention days because they are important, and they don't sound important, on what I'll call the surface of the word. A word has a meaning surface (and meaning sub-levels; the better you are, the more sub-levels), just as it has an architectonic surface. When you have figured out writing, you'll actually go back and shape sentences for many different purposes at once. I call this "cutting" a sentence.
By cutting, I don't mean removing words, though you might be removing words. Think of it as though you had a knife, and you're cutting, shaping, carving, the sentence. Notching grooves, sharpening the edges of grooves, making hillocks, drives, passage ways, a rakish tree, smoothing a lane. You're cutting meaning, by maybe removing one word, shifting another in front of another, knocking out a comma, enjambing. You're cutting soncially, too, putting one portion of a word chord closer to another portion of a word chord. You might take a chord, and turn it into individual tones--arpeggiate it. Then you might take out the middle tone, and take the syllable that gives the oomph of the sharpest tone, and sharpen up the letters, their actual shape--so, you don't want an "o," you want a "v," or maybe the "v" is too low-lying in the geometric planar field, and you want a "t" with that high crossbar that might align with an "l" you used as the penultimate tone of the last clause, as they knit up in some way. You're giving the sentence a visual shape. I'm talking about even the topography of the letters. I'll maybe want an "i," for instance, next to a "t," because it's going to balance the height topography of the concluding portion of a sentence in a manner with the opening portion of the sentence, where those letters may have been inverted, so even visually, in the reader's subconscious, the end of the sentence is going to connect with the first portion, but as though it came from around the back, lapped it.
The shape of the words and the letters in a sentence are every bit as important as the features of a Gothic cathedral, a gabled Colonial, a Frank Lloyd Wright house. When you are really making inroads in what you're doing as a writer, you're working on many levels. One of them is the subconscious of the reader. They are never going to consciously think things that you are consciously putting in their subconscious. Well, maybe not never. They might pull them from a dream they have about what you wrote, or they could come out in therapy, or when drunk, I don't know--but they are in there is my point, and they are doing their job. I am always aware of what I consciously put in that someone is not going to consciously think that is going to be crucial to enhancing what they do consciously think, what is going to play a role in the story never leaving their being, as they go about their life.
But back to days. I will hear some writers talk about writing every day, not as something anyone could actually do, but as this lofty goal that you get close to--say, you write a couple days a week, or maybe even four, but you intended to do a couple others, and that's proximate enough. It's an ideal--not a reality. And if you were to make it a reality, a lot of that reality would be based on motion, not result.
Someone once asked me where I get my inspiration. I have no inspiration. I am story. I decide to create. I am always creating. I never have a second of my life where I am not writing. In my head, at the desk, in how I talk to people, listen to them, in what I read, watch, listen to; with the frog I observe, as I did yesterday, the way I cross the street, look at a puddle. When I listen to Mozart, when I watch hockey, when I leave Norberg a seventeen-minute voicemail recording on a walk between Government Center and up Beacon Street. I never leave off. Yes, I decide to formally write out the words, and yes, I have an advantage in that everything comes to me. Full stories. Ideas for stories. Sentences, dialogues, every nuance, and it will always be that way, because I have learned that that's who I am--I am someone things just come to. I could live for a billion years, and I'm still going to be given, from somewhere, or something, new stories. That's who I am. It may be my most fundamental aspect. And what I can do at the same time, is decide to provide myself one of those stories, that is, just elect to come up with one. And it won't be from my life, it won't be from some event that happened to me, it won't feature characters based on people I know--though there can be elements of things like this in there, but that's misleading, and it gets buried into something totally different anyhow. But what I think could be useful for someone else, with what they do, is this idea of actually writing every day.
When people talk about the lofty goal, they mean "get anything down." Draft words you'll throw away, disposable stuff. As if it is the exercise that matters, more than what you have that is usable. This is a loser's mentality. Don't be a writing loser. Your goal, every time you write, which should be every day, is to produce something that is done. Or, if something longer, that is usable--as in, integral--in something that is on the way to being done. And what that thing is should be integral--to someone else. To a reader. You are in service to them. The reader may not be more important to the writer when the writer is some artist for the ages, but that artist for the ages must treat their work as if the reader is always more important than they are. The reader is everything. That person you are reaching is everything.
This sounds harsh, the idea of the loser's mentality. I don't mean that you wouldn't have years of writing ten things you throw out for every half page you keep. Because you would. But you have to be doing that with the aim and expectation--the demand upon yourself--that you'll reach a point where everything done every day is done, there is no wasted movement. This "I wrote today" thing that people brag about on social media is defeatist. Because if you wrote work that you'll throw away, that was just yet another draft, or a portion of a draft, and you just did it to do it, to make the social media post, to tell yourself you are this thing that means so much to you--and being able to tell yourself that matters more than what you actually made--then all you did was type.
What I do most days of my life is produce a complete work of art, or several, or many. But what I did, before I was doing that, was I wrote every day for years. Decades. I called it chopping wood. And you know what happened? It became such that when I did not formally write--that is, sit at the desk--I wrote anyway and everywhere else. In how I perceived the world, the way I'd talk to people, the questions I asked them, and I also was writing in my head. Yes, I was taking a walk that lasted for ten hours--literally ten hours--but I was also writing the entire time. I never patted myself on the back just because I typed out 3500 words that day.
I always looked at what the result was, the quality, was it complete or not complete, how would it impact someone, how could it impact the world, could I put it against anything written by Shakespeare, Chekhov, would I be confident of victory, did I hope that I had gone beyond them, or did I know? Was it getting faster, was it getting easier? Now that I had done one in a day, could I do two, three, four? Now that I had, could I do this nonfiction thing, and this fiction thing? Could I do them the same day? Could I write this work of fiction and this other work of fiction, and could I literally write one paragraph of one of them, then write a paragraph of the other, back and forth, until each were done, completely unrelated? Because when I pushed my mind, which sometimes meant testing its capabilities, I pushed on to other things I hadn't done before, and these became the next things I did, and I'd push with them, and then push on again, to the new next thing, and so forth and so forth. Always new.
A lot of that, for me personally, is the result of a lot of things, but one of those things is the idea of writing every day, and what it can mean, the various permutations of its meanings. Never congratulate yourself for moving your fingers over a keyboard. That is the attitude of a loser. You haven't written in a while, you opened the Word document, and you have three lines to show for your day, and you go on Facebook and brag about this. Don't do that. That's what losers do. You didn't do anything. You failed. If you are serious about being a writer and writing well--and almost everyone who says they are a writer and is serious about being a writer is not a writer and not remotely serious about being one--this is not the way to go.
Does this sound hard and unpleasant and not super duper awesome for your feelings? Yeah, that's how it is. It's called reality. It's called trying to get good at something, it's called truly seeing if you have any chance of actually being good at something. It's called risking learning that you just might not be any good. If you are good, and committed, you'll find your way through. You'll find your way to the good writing, writing with a purpose for others, for your readers, that you can actually do.
And of course it's fine if writing is a hobby, or someone enjoys trying to make stories, or the process of drafting, the act of sitting down to do whatever. That's great. I hope to enjoy gardening some day. But I'm talking about the people who define themselves by this claim that they are a writer, who want books and grants and all of that jazz. Writing every day is going to be the simplest, easiest part of writing well, but if you are not doing it every day, and have not for a long time, you have little chance of writing very well at all.
Now, this isn't the kind of thing I would have pitched those magazines. They're not really venues where you say something this uncompromising, albeit true. Because what would happen, or could be perceived as potentially happening, is that you'd drive away would-be writers, and what magazines like that do is help people lie to themselves. Same as MFA programs. And literary magazines that want you to pay money to have your story ready (because they have no other way to make money other than robbing people like this) when your story is never going to be accepted because the editor--like, a Meghan O'Rourke at Yale Review--is just putting in their friends, cronies, people with whom they trade favors, and the system people, anyway. They're ponzi schemes that prey upon people with a lack of self-confidence.
You can hide in writing. What I mean by that is, all off the crap that comes out right now is so bad, that there is no standard of quality, no concept of quality. Plus, no one out in the world reads, because the net result of this system, over time, has been to drive people away from the very act of reading. So, you can write crap, and you can pretend that it's good, and others will say it's good, because hardly of this is good and people just lie here so that they will also be lied to and pumped up, which they need to feel good and to have this thing that they maintain is their identity.
You can't do this with basketball or playing the violin, because there are standards and concepts of quality, which people recognize in the systems of those worlds. In publishing, you can be the basketball version of the player who heaves brick after brick, dribbles the ball off his foot every time he tries to advance down the court, slings every pass to a teammate ten feet over their head and into the crowd, gets four fouls in the first three minutes of the game, is never within twenty feet of the player they are guarding, has their ankles broken each contest with the merest of head fakes from an opposition, and in publishing, that person will be forked over a Pulitzer for fiction writing. Whereas, that person in basketball, they can't play with the first graders. What then happens is the ponzi scheme of the MFA program, and these kinds of writers magazines, which need you to lie to yourself, because the truth is, next to nobody who reads these magazines will ever write something that is going to truly mean anything. You can't be selling your magazine to the five people who might.
So they have to make everyone feel like they are a superstar, just follow this advice. Hence, asinine puff pieces about teas that are nice to drink while you write. Then you get the "writer community" and being a "literary citizen" and it's all a kind of psychological drug-dealing that means not dealing in reality. And helps people who are alone lie to themselves that they are not alone. Which is worse for their mental health. And finds no solutions. And makes the locating of solutions that much harder. And then they are just people buried away in nullity. Some of whom get to run the system. And most of whom will feel threatened and terrified and hateful of someone who writes who is not recognizably as they are. Because of the mirror that that person, unwittingly, holds up. But you don't really need to make people feel like a superstar. You can reveal things about writing and writing well, do it politely, crisply, with humor, conversationally, but learnedly and expertly, and that will help some people write better, some people read better, some people have more fun writing, more fun reading, more fun looking at how bullfrogs jump and land on their nose, as Thoreau wrote, and I confirmed yesterday.
And you could also connect with people in how they experience the world, were they never to write again. I do this. When I talk about how I write, I'm also talking about how you might be if you never write. In a way. But I also bet you'll find yourself writing better later that day. So what I would say is, if you want to write well, write every day, but not just to do it. Do it with purpose, goals, and goals of quality, and keep challenging yourself. It's like weightlifting. I don't lift myself, but you always add weight when you do, as you get stronger. Writing is similar. But exponentially harder, because the variables, what there is to be controlled, and what you can potentially work with, are limitless. You're not going to get anywhere that will truly matter for a reader--that is, someone who is not yourself--working at something like that a few hours a week. Even if you entered this world with a lot of talent.
What people who spend so much time and effort and energy--and so much of a portion of their self--in trying to avoid the truth almost always seem to fail to realize is that facing the truth is actually so much easier in the long run, because truth can be dealt with, whereas a life spent avoiding the truth cannot be lived. And it's hard not to live a life for years, for decades, for half a century, three-quarters of a century. The truth is not a big, bad meanie--it's actually your buddy. And it's also where anything worthwhile has to start, and where it also ends up.