Word by word, composing myself

I write about 3-4,000 words a week. At least. Some weeks, more than that. How do I do it? Word by word.

And I don’t watch much television.

Most of the time, I don’t worry too much about what I’m saying. I just find the most intriguing thing rolling around in my brain, a puzzle that’s killing me, an idea I can’t tease out by thinking alone, the thing I’m compelled to write about, the irresistible factor that I must understand that is pushing me forward, or what I’m fussing about and… just splat it out on the keyboard: bleh. There it is. Not lovely. Not organized. But it’s out.

Most of the time, this writing is highly unreadable and deeply unattractive. Still. It’s there, and sometimes I can pick from it for other work I need for my life: teaching, essays, smarty-pants-work scenarios (where I need to be the smarty-pants). It’s worth doing even if I never use any of it. The fact that it exists is proof that I’m alive, and furthermore, it’s proof that I’m willing to keep changing (unless I say the same boring thing over and over and over and over and over again). I have a focus of a kind: I love writing and this blog is about me writing and being a writer and making writing happen, but I try to let change infuse who I am and allow me to grow in new and unexpected ways–though growth is uncomfortable sometimes (just like ugly first-draft writing). Writing just flat out makes me grow, damnitall. And then I’m in the middle of changing before I know it. I have a friend who says, “When you’re through changing, you’re through.” Right on, sister. I’d like to be far from through, thank you very much.

Most of the time, I just let the writing happen. Most of the time. And even though I do write a lot, sometimes I have to throw things away: e.g., a blog post I started that was about visioneering. I just couldn’t make it work out; I guess it wasn’t meant to be. I love Disneyland, grew up not far from it, visited 1,000+ times, and it says it’s the happiest place on Earth on the sign out front, but the connections I was trying to make between Disney’s imagineers and the visioneers of open educational resources, like Writing Spaces, wasn’t working. The good fight was not staying good. In between the time I started writing that post, and when I had to kill it, I watched RiP!: A Remix Manifesto, learned about the Mouse Liberation Front, and I got tainted, or turned left, or fine-tuned. (Watch this film and learn why the Victorians are everywhere, by the way. And when you do watch this, as you should, be sure to check out the MLF founder, Dan O’Neill, because, ripped from the Wikipedia page for Air Pirates is this possibly life-altering quote from O’Neill for those of us who consistently do stupid things: “‘Doing something stupid once,’ he said, ‘is just plain stupid. Doing something stupid twice is a philosophy.'” Ah. I knew I liked him right away.) I couldn’t keep writing the imagineers/visioneers story–it had to go. I still think Writing Spaces is visioneering done right, but Walt Disney can’t be part of that conversation.

Writing a lot, then, does not mean I’m good at it. It just means I do it a lot. Or doing it more than once might mean I have a philosophy. (I write; therefore, I am. Is that it?) And heaven knows, not all of my writing appears here or is fit to appear here. In fact, most of it doesn’t and isn’t. It’s hard to commit to writing for the public. I worry about typos and heinous errors in syntax and mistakes in fact and graceless moments when I might reveal too much about myself. Sometimes, I write just for me (hard for you to imagine that, isn’t it?) and then come to this space to think in a more accountable way because it is a public location. Still it’s a good place to work out the next level of some idea or thing I’m thinking about–or to compose myself–this is a place that forces me to be true to a writing effort.

Some of my writing is slow and wobbly; I can certainly go to the place where my text is sprinkled with meandering thought bubbles of nuance, similar to the thinking of Harvey Korman’s character in Blazing Saddles (1974), Hedley Lamarr, who utters, in an epiphanic moment: “My mind is a-glow with whirling transient nodes of thought, careening through a cosmic vapor of invention.” “Ditto” says his evil henchperson, Taggart (played with glee by Slim Pickens). I am sometimes my own Taggart, too. Ditto, I have told myself after I’ve written something I really like. Why not be my own supporter when I need to? Writers can be so hard on themselves. We should stop that and let the words out and see what happens. Sometimes I write a really fine sentence or paragraph. I need to remember that. Once I had a boss give me a little hug about the waist and tell me, “Sugar, that’s the best damn memo I’ve ever read about sexual harassment and why it’s so wrong.” I live for the ironic. It was a damn good memo.

Despite my willingness to be my own cheerleader in writing, it’s still really hard work. It’s grunt work as much as it is: “Wow, I have something really important to say and this really marvelous way to say it… I’ll just sit down at the computer and the words will simply flow.” Inspiration can come to me but only occasionally. It’s not something I can rely on. Years ago, I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994) and still think it’s one of the best books ever written about getting over the fear of writing and about how it’s vital to just get the writing done, stick-a-fork-in-it-done. If you want to write, own this book. It’s worth having. The title comes from a report on a bunch of birds her brother had to do for school and put off until the last minute. (I’m only vaguely recalling here… be warned.) Their father tells him he must do the work; her brother asks how he will ever get the work done in time; the father replies, “bird by bird.” Bird by bird. That’s the only way.

And she’s funny. Writing advice from someone who’s funny: it’s priceless. Pay whatever it costs to own the book. (Or get see an excerpt on “shitty” first drafts from the WAC Clearinghouse.)

In as much as I can choose inspiration, I have been inspired by that as a writer and as a human: Lamott’s “shitty” first draft concept. I can indeed eat the whole elephant, but I can only eat it one bite at a time. So I write word by word. And sometimes it’s awful. I suppose one way I think is in phrases or clauses and string them together in sentences and sort of arrange those into paragraphs and occasionally link a few paragraphs together with transitions, and hope it all makes sense somehow, but mostly it all comes out in a big whoosh, word by word, stumbling and chaotic, occasionally airy and light. But usually I have to revise to the point that the writing becomes something new again, something fresh, something liquid that moves smoothly (I hope so) on the page or screen and peacefully into the eyes and hearts of readers.

My process is mainly about getting it out, down, away from myself, because any additional thinking I engage in might just muck up the works and keep the ideas in my head where they do no one any good, including me. In this way, writing also works as a way to “compose” or calm my wild, uncharted heart. (“Wild” because I am willing to let “free” rule my very being–it’s not always about being free, though, because free costs a lot sometimes. “Uncharted” because I do believe the world is made for those not cursed with self-awareness, and I am NOT one of them, but I can dream, and I can try to not focus too much on the inward. Ha. Like that’s going to happen to someone who writes a blog about writing and process and myth and the Victorians and Star Wars and open… and baseball. If you hadn’t noticed the Bull Durham (1988) reference, I bring your attention to it now: Annie Savoy about Ebby Calvin “Nuke” Laloosh and his gift of being not cursed with self-awareness.)

Focusing then, on the inward, I say, with no irony at all: “writing is definitely an emotional business for me.” Even when I write dry as dust administrative memos or reports–I’m very passionate about how they sound and what to include in just this way or that way to be firm or forgiving or to wheedle or to be just precisely grateful enough for the moment. Hard stuff, man, hard stuff, no matter how or when you write or for what audience. It’s just like Red Smith said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” At least he didn’t say artery, though I admit, my writing is arterial in so many ways: bleh. There it is: bloody chaos on the page.

It’s not hard getting words down for me, or getting words out; the hardest part is having the discipline to clean it up and make it pretty. I like pretty. Pretty feeds my soul. It nourishes the part of me that needs visual delight to go along with powerful words and language structure. And with practice I can write first drafts sometimes that work for a singular purpose–down and dirty emails, quick notes for teaching, a swift-kick-in-the-shins reminder of work that needs doing. These can be artful moments, too, even without revision. Art for art’s sake; I’m okay with that. Writing for writing’s sake, too. Learning for learning’s sake. I’m down with all the sakes. Even Pete’s. But it needs to mean something, too. A good crafting of prose can be as cleansing for the writer’s soul as sweeping out the cob webs by brain dumping. Revision gets at meaning in deeper ways, richer ways, fancy ball gown for the Academy Awards ways, and winning the Oscar for best original screen play ways.

Some idea must matter and be apparent when it’s over, for a clear message to be conveyed, short or long piece. But composing myself word by word is calming no matter the purpose, the audience, the genre, the length. I feel better for having done some clarity work. Yet, no matter what, I feel horror after it leaves me and goes into someone’s possession to be judged. Despite the stunning dress for the red carpet and the awards show business that I try to bring to a text in the revision process, I still feel naked sometimes. Ick. I want to be adored and told by the editor that despite the lone typo on page 14, “Your text is the best text ever–moved me and transported all our staff to the next realm of divinity toward nirvana, we had to share with accounting, now the CFO is mad in love with you, every one in the world will want to read this work, just as it is, because (we worship you five times a day) this is perfection.” You see how sick writers get in the head when the sweeping out of gunk doesn’t happen. It’s not really just like that; though, I must confess a weakness for CFOs at nonprofit companies, bean counters who care–hard to beat that.

This reaction might come from the damage of having a bad reader more than once. For instance, having a valued friend read what I thought was a masterpiece say: “I liked it, but you have a comma error on page 3.” Nothing else. Or the time I had a boyfriend read a short story that I dreamed was truly fantastic: “I liked it expect for the cussing. That’s not very ladylike.” Crap.

Even now, after years of writing for a variety of people and diverse audiences, friends and foes, employees and supervisors, family and lovers, I cringe a little bit over how, You, Gentle Reader (please be gentle), might find this text: 1) you see this post as almost self-indulgent crap (Bull Durham reference again); 2) you think I’ve been helpful because you suffer from writing fears and have just read Anne Lamott’s “shitty” first drafts and feel oh so much better about writing; 3) you love this post, love the blog, wish I’d write more often.

No matter what the reality is, I’m going with 3).

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Filed under Almost Self-Indulgent Crap, Writing and Identity

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