How to Writer

So here you are, stuck inside – if you’re a person of conscience anyhow – for the foreseeable future. And while it’s a perfect time to tackle your to-read pile, or catch up on your binge-watching, maybe you’ve been thinking about starting that novel or memoir or other big writing project you’ve wanted to do for so long. To which I say hell yeah, go on with your bad self, let’s do this thing!

But maybe you’re not sure exactly how. You’ve got the passion. You’ve got the idea. But you haven’t ever had the chance to sit down and do the thing. You know it’s probably not like in the movies – it isn’t – but knowing what it’s not is only so helpful when you need to know what it is. ‘It’ being the kind of writing practice that can get a big project done. Because if you’re relying on flashes of inspiration and feverishly scribbling in a notebook til all hours of the morning to get you there, well, best of luck to you, cuz that never worked for me.

You may be asking yourself right now: ‘I’ve never heard of this guy. Who the hell’s he think he is?’ The answer is: no one of consequence. But I have written like three million words in the last fifteen or twenty years, and continue to write almost every day without much in the way of outside validation.

Now, one thing I can’t teach you is how to write. That’s something that can be learned, but not taught. What I can teach you is how – for lack of a better term – to writer. And yeah, I know, ‘writer’ is a noun. But it’s also, as we’ll see, a verb. And it’s the verb that makes the noun, not the other way around.

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The key thing is to establish a writing practice, by which I mean an ongoing routine, integrated into your daily life, like going to the gym or to work. It means finding time – and space – to do your work, and keeping at it consistently.

Let’s break that down:

First, if you can, find or make a dedicated workspace for your writing. It doesn’t have to only be for writing – I am at my kitchen table, right now, because our house is small and that’s the space I have – but it’s good, in my experience to have a particular place you go to to work. Much of what I have to teach here amounts to self-programming, building chains of association and habit in your mind that will prompt your writing brain to kick in when you sit down at keyboard or note-pad.

For that same reason, it’s also good, if you can, to set aside a specific, regular time that you write. Lots of people will tell you first thing in the morning is best. Others will say late at night, when the day’s work and worries are done. Myself I tend to be most productive in the mornings, but the takeaway here is not that you need to write in the morning so much as it’s good to write around the same time every day, or every day you’re able to write. It helps prime your mind, teaches it that this is what you do this time of day, and it will, sooner than later, learn to grab its shovel and headlamp and descend once more into the word-mines to dig up today’s nuggets of gold and/or shit.

For now, especially while establishing your practice, there is no functional difference between shit and gold, by the way. You will also, for various reasons, sometimes think shit is gold and gold is shit.

Now for me, I like to strengthen those chains of association with the music I listen to while I write. By which I mean I have a writing playlist, which evolves over time, but which I listen to consistently and in the same order every time. It’s just as useful to have some ritual (Stephen Pressfield, author of the War of Art, which you probably ought to read, likes to read the invocation at the beginning of the Odyssey) or other that you do, no matter how simple or even what it is. It’s the ritual that’s key, the thing that signals passage from one kind of time to another, in this case not-writing time to writing time.

It’s important to remember: none of this is magic. It’s training and discipline, programming your brain to devote unconscious resources to the problem of turning the nebulous inchoate desire/idea/intuition into something that will move someone reading it, cause things to happen in their brain such that they, too, can begin to grasp this thing you’re reaching after. Okay, so maybe it is magic. But it takes a fuck-ton of practice to say abracadabra right.

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Okay, so we’ve made time and space. We’ve got some ritual or trigger to activate our writer brain, and we’re ready to actually, you know, write. So what about that?

I said before I can’t teach you how to write, and that’s true. But that doesn’t mean I can’t help you teach yourself. So here are a few things I’ve picked up along the way, that have proved useful in my own writing practice.

Hemingway famously said ‘Write drunk, edit sober’, which is pretty on-brand for such a famously alcoholic person. But his formulation is actually pretty useful, because writing and editing are two totally different things. It’s like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, in which you can know either a particle’s position or velocity but never both at once and, in practice, the more you know about one, the less you know about the other. It’s the same with writing and editing. Put it this way, you can create or you can judge. Trying to do both at once is a recipe for failure.

I’m going to set aside editing, because that’s a whole other thing that comes way later in the process, and has no place here, where we’re establishing a practice and finding our way to the end of a shitty first draft.

Yes, your first draft will be shitty. Accept it. Embrace it. It’s what first drafts are for.

Put it this way: it’s easier to fix something that’s broken but already exists than it is to conjure it up in the first place. And that’s what you’re doing, right? You’re conjuring something into existence that wasn’t there before. Even if there are other things like it, that you made it makes it different from what anyone else can make. So give yourself, and your draft, a break. You can get all judge-y later, when it might do you some good.

Should you outline? Probably. I almost never do, and when I do, it never makes it onto the page how I meant it to. But it’s a good exercise, and it can save you some time if you’re the sort of person who sticks to plans that they make. Me, I’m more of a headlights writer, in which metaphor the draft is a journey by car, driven at night: you never see farther than the headlights, even if you know which roads you plan to take and where you’re ultimately trying to get to. It may or may not be the best, most efficient way, but you’ll get where you’re going, and you might find some things along the way you’d have missed if you’re too stuck on keeping to your itinerary. Still, outlines can be useful, even if you outline as you go. Planning the next night’s leg, in this metaphor.

What if you get stuck? Unlike a road trip, you can totally skip these parts, and come back to them later, either during the first draft or later, when editing or revising. I’m not much for it, myself, but I know lots of writers better and more successful than I am who won’t think twice about writing “[insert awesome swordfight/space battle/conversation about feelings here]” and move on to whatever’s next. In fact, you don’t have to do the whole thing in order at all if you don’t want to. I mean, I do, but the purpose here isn’t to turn you into me, but to take what I’ve learned to help you find your own journey to the end of the draft.

Another thing you can try if you’re stuck is to switch your method. Writing longhand? Switch to keyboard. Tapping away at the laptop? Bust out pen and paper. The two use different parts of your brain and sometimes you can get yourself unstuck by switching which part you’re using to try and solve the problem.

If all else fails, take a walk. Even if the solution to your problem doesn’t come to you, it’s good to get outside and get some exercise.

One thing, though, and I can’t stress this enough. Even if you hate what you’re writing, and intend never to show it to another living soul, try and get all the way to the end before you go back and try and fix things. Yes, there are writers who do edit as they go, but we can’t all be William Gibson, however much we might wish we wrote Neuromancer. He’s also been practicing since then, so…

Believe me, I know it can be hard. But it really is best to write one draft at a time if you can, in my experience.

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So what about inspiration? Where do the words and ideas and stories come from? The answer is mostly ineffable. But let’s see if we can’t eff it just a bit.

The usefullest way to think about this I’ve found comes from Kate Wilhelm’s book Storyteller, about the founding and early years of the Clarion Writers Workshop (which I attended in 2010 and highly recommend, but that’s a whole different post, and not all of it’s about writing). In it, she talks about what she called her Silent Partner (her real-life partner, Damon Knight, called his Fred). Your Silent Partner lives in your unconscious brain, which I’m convinced is about ninety percent of you, and is where that canard that people only use 10% of their brains comes from. You can’t speak to one another directly, but you can send messages across the transom, and receive insight and inspiration in return. Training your Silent Partner what to work on and when, and yourself to ask the right questions and listen close for the answers, is what I was on about earlier, when I urged you to set up a consistent writing practice.

I call mine the Tinkerer. He has a giant workshop full of half-finished projects (not all of them having to do with writing, either) and is easily distracted. If I don’t keep the work orders coming, he’s really good at wandering off and thinking about things like how to build and run a socialist restaurant, or how life might have turned out if I was smart enough to date that one woman in college, or whether I ought to start an online magazine in my roughly zero hours of spare time. And of course I let him, when it’s not time to work on my novel, because he deserves to have some joy, too, and there are only so many hours I can write before I turn cross-eyed and things get weird.

I do my best to keep him fed and happy. I read, I exercise, I stare into space for minutes on end, letting him put on his conductor hat and play with his train-of-thought set. Most of all I take him seriously – I take my work seriously – and in return he keeps whispering more crazy and awesome shit in my inner ear than I could ever get on paper.

***

I know, things got a little woo-woo there at the end. What can I say? As pragmatic a person as I am, and as much of the practice I’m trying to teach you is programmatic, even mechanical, at the end of the day, creation and creativity remain ineffable, part of the spark – be it magic, divine, or just random chance – that makes us want to take that nebulous inchoate something inside ourselves and wrestle it into a form others can understand.

If you want to do that, you can, but it takes practice, and discipline, and faith.

That’s how I writer, anyway.

Baldwin on King and X

James Baldwin may have been America’s clearest-eyed thinker, and was certainly one of its best writers. His work, The Shot That Echoes Still, from (and reprinted/reposted by) Esquire in 1972 deserves to be revisited more than ever, be it almost fifty years later, for its commentary on the times it was written in, and for its prescience. It is, above most everything else, the moral failure Baldwin diagnosed, here and elsewhere, at the heart of the American psyche that has given us the age of Trump and Trumpism, and the rot at the heart of American whiteness that made them not only possible but inevitable:

“Incontestably, alas, most people are not, in action, worth very much; and yet every human being is an unprecedented miracle. One tries to treat them as the miracles they are, while trying to protect oneself against the disasters they’ve become. This is not very different from the act of faith demanded by all those marches and petitions while Martin was still alive. One could scarcely be deluded by Americans anymore, one scarcely dared expect anything from the great, vast, blank generality; and yet one was compelled to demand of Americans—and for their sakes, after all—a generosity, a clarity, and a nobility which they did not dream of demanding of themselves. Part of the error was irreducible, in that the marchers and petitioners were forced to suppose the existence of an entity which, when the chips were down, could not be located—i.e., there are no American people yet. Perhaps, however, the moral of the story (and the hope of the world) lies in what one demands, not of others, but of oneself. However that may be, the failure and the betrayal are in the record book forever, and sum up and condemn, forever, those descendants of a barbarous Europe who arbitrarily and arrogantly reserve the right to call themselves Americans.

[…]

I don’t think that any black person can speak of Malcolm and Martin without wishing that they were here. It is not possible for me to speak of them without a sense of loss and grief and rage; and with the sense, furthermore, of having been forced to undergo an unforgivable indignity, both personal and vast. Our children need them, which is, indeed, the reason that they are not here: and now we, the blacks, must make certain that our children never forget them. For the American republic has always done everything in its power to destroy our children’s heroes, with the clear (and sometimes clearly stated) intention of destroying our children’s hope. This endeavor has doomed the American nation: mark my words.

Malcolm and Martin, beginning at what seemed to be very different points—for brevity’s sake, we can say North and South, though, for Malcolm, South was south of the Canadian border—and espousing, or representing, very different philosophies, found that their common situation (south of the border!) so thoroughly devastated what had seemed to be mutually exclusive points of view that, by the time each met his death there was practically no difference between them. Before either had had time to think their new positions through, or, indeed, to do more than articulate them, they were murdered. Of the two, Malcolm moved swiftest (and was dead soonest), but the fates of both men were radically altered (I would say, frankly, sealed) the moment they attempted to release the black American struggle from the domestic context and relate it to the struggles of the poor and the nonwhite all over the world.

To hold this view, it is not necessary to see C. I. A. infiltrators in, or under, every black or dissenting bed: one need merely consider what the successful promulgation of this point of view would mean for American authority in the world. Slaveholders do not allow their slaves to compare notes: American slavery, until this hour, prevents any meaningful dialogue between the poor white and the black, in order to prevent the poor white from recognizing that he, too, is a slave. The contempt with which American leaders treat American blacks is very obvious; what is not so obvious is that they treat the bulk of the American people with the very same contempt. But it will be sub-zero weather in a very distant August when the American people find the guts to recognize this fact. They will recognize it only when they have exhausted every conceivable means of avoiding it.

[…]

What both Martin and Malcolm began to see was that the nature of the American hoax had to be revealed—not only to save black people but in order to change the world in which everyone, after all, has a right to live. One may say that the articulation of this necessity was the Word’s first necessary step on its journey toward being made flesh.”

Black History Month Book Report #4: The Sellout, by Paul Beatty

I hadn’t heard of this book before my lovely partner, Dr. Bae, bought a copy for me for Valentine’s Day (along with several other candidates for my BHM reading project and/or readerly delectation). “I’ll be really interested to see what you think about this,” she said, with both eagerness and trepidation in her voice.

I knew I was in for it when I read the back cover, which describes the (mostly) unnamed black narrator’s attempt to put his southern Californian town back on the map, by way of reinstating both slavery and segregation, landing him, as you might expect, in front of the Supreme Court of the United States, who don’t have any more of an idea of what to do with him than anyone else does.

Then I read the prologue, which was so fucking funny that I stopped and read it again, just to make sure I had properly enjoyed and appreciated it. Wow. Just… wow.

The Sellout is satire, yes, of the highest order. Satire which takes as its target not only these disUnited States of the twenty-first century, but skewers in particular what I can only describe as American Blackness, at least as presently constituted. It’s a particularly cogent way in to skewering America more generally, because we are defined – significantly if not solely – by our nation’s Original Sin of chattel slavery and, more deeply, by our persistent unwillingness to face the nature and consequences of that sin down through the ages to the present day. The cognitive dissonance that lies therein fucks with all of us, which is not great for our psychological health on a societal or individual level but constitutes a gold mine for the perspicacious satirist, and boy howdy is Paul Beatty that guy.

As the narrator tells us, everything that happens happens naturally. All he sets out to do is put his tiny hometown in the south end of the Los Angeles sprawl back on the map. Dickens is a bit of an anomaly, in that it’s a farming community in the middle of one of the world’s sprawling-est cities. What’s not anomalous is the racial character of its population, historically. Thanks to redlining and segregation, Dickens is black, or was til the powers that be saw fit to disincorporate the town, much to the dismay of the narrator and his friend Hominy Jenkins, the last surviving Little Rascal. As both faded child star and relic of a (mostly, supposedly) bygone era, Hominy plays an outsized role in what follows once our narrator, a farmer/surfer/soCal stoner raised and homeschooled by a controversial black sociologist, rescues him from an attempted self-lynching. Hominy is, for lack of a better term (and with apologies in advance for my inelegant language) a shuck-and-jive pickaninny who derives a weird but totally believable contentment, even serenity, from his bone-deep belief in whites’ racial superiority. He’s a caricature, yes, but no more so than the other, opposing pole in The Sellout’s satire/critique of contemporary blackness, Foy Cheshire, a self-important do-gooderish Black Scholar and racial activist who spends his time penning uplifting, ridiculous updates of canonical literary texts (think ‘Tom Soarer’) and scheming to take over the Dum Dum Donuts Intellectuals, who meet in Dickens’ donut shop to debate contemporary blackness and partake of the credibility associated with doing so in the ”Hood.’

It would be easy to misread Beatty’s accomplishment and (I suspect) intent. After all, in the world of the Sellout, bringing back overt racism and segregation has only positive effects. ‘Whites only’ stickers on the bus driven by our narrator’s one true love bring crime down. The local middle school’s performance improves significantly after a fake charter school serving white students is announced and the narrator convinces the principal to segregate the school. A shallow interpretation might read Beatty as implying that racism and segregation were good for black folks in America, and maybe we ought to go back to that, for everyone’s sake.

I don’t read it that way, though. What I take from the novel is that it’s not so much a return to segregation Beatty might be calling for, but simply a return to honesty about racism and segregation. That white America’s tendency to believe that what writer Charlie Pierce calls the Day of Jubilee has come, in which the Problem of Racism is Solved (thanks in no small part to our first black President) and that it’s All Good Now, and the pretense that our Original Sin has been, if not redeemed, then resolved, only serves to obfuscate the painful truth that things are not so much better than they used to be and may in fact be worse, since America is almost as racist as it used to be but won’t cop to it anymore. When the narrator and his friends cordon off a space to be theirs, it’s not so much the edification and uplift of black folks they’re seeking, but simply a space where they can be themselves, on their own terms.

I don’t know. I’m just an old white guy. But that’s what I got out of it. Either way, you should totally read this book, because even if you don’t come away with any big lessons, it’s goddamned funny as hell, and so deftly and expertly edgy that it shows the internet’s ‘edgelord’ boys for the whingey, overprivileged twerps that they are. Seriously. Don’t be like me and sleep on this one.

Black History Month Book Report #3: The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle

So, unlike many if not most spec fic writers, I never had a Lovecraft phase. I mean, I knew the name. But if I read anything until much later in life, it didn’t stick. So I hadn’t read The Horror at Red Hook, of which The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle is a retelling from the point of view of a black man.

Not that it’s required to enjoy this page-turner of a dark mystery novella set in ’20s-era Harlem and New York. Which is good, because I’m about three decades past the point where Lovecraft’s turgid prose and particular brand of cosmic horror was going to land. Victor LaValle, I’ll be reading more of.

Tommy Tester is a hustler and musician living in Harlem with his father, who makes his living playing music for white people and doing the odd odd job for them, too. When Robert Suydam, a mysterious and wealthy white man with a very strange plan to liberate New York’s poor and marginalized, hires him to play a party in his mansion, it opens the door (alright, eldritch portal) to a whole new (horrific) world for Tommy. Continue reading “Black History Month Book Report #3: The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle”

Black History Month Book Report #2: American Street by Ibi Zoboi

I wasn’t going to read this one second (though it was on the list). But then I cracked the cover and read the first chapter, and, just like that, I was hooked.

American Street begins with a loss. Fabiola Toussaint and her mother, Valerie, are moving to Detroit from Port-au-Prince. Fabiola is American born, and passes through immigration with no problem. But now she’s stuck on the wrong side of the glass: her mother has been detained. Reluctantly, she boards her connecting flight to Detroit, hoping against hope that her mother will follow along shortly.

I don’t think I’m spoiling much if I say that her mother does not. Instead, Fabiola (shortly Fabulous) joins her cousins Chantal, Princess (‘Pri’), and Primadonna (‘Donna’) and her aunt Jo in Detroit, where Fabiola must find a way to navigate this strange and dangerous territory while holding on to who she is and trying to find a way to bring her mother through the gateway and into America.

It’s a neat trick, establishing empathy with a character you’ve just met, and Zoboi does it flawlessly in those first pages and then never lets up. Fabiola must find her way through not only the culture shock of moving from Haiti to America, but also the discrepancies between the America she expected and the America she experiences, all while trying to build a sense of family with her cousins, who were only voices on the phone til she arrived, and restore the family she’s known her whole life by getting her mother through immigration. Add in the dangers of high school, the drug trade, and the particular precariousness of life in Detroit, fallen symbol of the 20th Century American Dream, it’s no wonder Fabulous feels lost. Luckily, she has her vodou practice, her cousins, and her memories to carry her through.

This is one of those books that just grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go. At least it was for me. Tautly-plotted and written in prose that manages to be visceral, poetic, and windowpane-clear all at once, I chewed my way through most of this book in a single day. I can see why it won the National Book Award.

Immigrant stories are an American perennial, both because of the long and mostly positive history of our lifted lamp beside the golden door, and because we can see it most clear through fresh eyes, both in its ideal form (both foreign and domestic) and its actuality. Here that actuality takes many forms: the injustice of splitting Fabiola from her mother, the Faustian bargain she’s offered by a local police detective, and the fruits of that bargain, too, which I won’t spoil but will have you nodding and saying ‘yeah, that’s about right’ even as you wipe a tear from your eye and read on, hoping Zoboi will take it back. But of course she doesn’t, because even though Fabiola is eminently root-forable, this is America, and she and her family – and everyone near their home at the corner of American Street and Joy Road – are black.

That’s not to say this book is a bummer. Much of it is so ebullient and alive that the reader will forgive the inescapably complicated state of things by the end. It is, perhaps, as happy an ending as can be asked for, and one that satisfies even if you don’t get all you root for.

Either way, this is a fantastic book, and one I’d recommend both for its all-too-relevant subject matter and its stunning fulfillment of the promise it makes in those first few pages. Go ahead, pick it up. I’m willing to bet you won’t put it down.