In the past month, two of my former students have reached out to me for advice on writing. They want to know the details of my process, specifically how I motivate.
I was trying to type up a response, trying to come up with a spot-on metaphor to describe what it feels like to set out to write, when our cat Snickers edged himself over to my keyboard and began hacking up a hairball. And that was it exactly: starting is a painful but necessary expulsion. Sometimes I cough and nothing comes, and like Snickers, I give up and halfheartedly hunt the ceiling fan. But mostly I produce a netted mess of me – a result of obsessive thought-licking – and can breath again, unburdened of accretion. I am always, always surprised by the hairball. This is gross but accurate.
So, by way of encouragement, I told one student about words-as-vomit, and another that writing isn’t so much pulling teeth as being pulled by teeth, or rather one tooth, as if a giant pulpy molar has you hogtied by the thinnest of floss and is dragging you down a road paved with periodontal scalers. Sometimes, if getting started is especially torturous, the big tooth has positioned little dental mirrors all along the road like lamp posts and is forcing you to take stock of your idle reflection.
A typical afternoon of writing looks like this for me:
Open up a blank word document, make coffee. Read news headlines. Stare at blank word document. Walk to fridge, take out peanut butter, stick finger in peanut butter. Take out jar of jelly and stick another finger in jelly (the same finger would be unsanitary). Lick fingers. Pour coffee. Sit down at computer. Google search grade school classmates/ex-boyfriends/child stars. Change Facebook profile pick. Stare at blank word document. Write down two words – diamante and stroboscopic – that you have committed to using somewhere, anywhere, in the piece. Look up their definitions because you keep forgetting what they mean. Google image search “Kirk Cameron stroboscopic.” Turn on television. Turn off television. Hate-read a successful mommy blogger. Google search a birthing term that scares you – effacement, maybe – then experience an increased pressure to write, a whooshing claustrophobia, because in the not so distance future you’ll want to start a family and then there will be even less time for your terrible writing and look at all the time you have now for your terrible writing! Scroll through your online wedding album which is testament to your happiness. Wonder if you can’t write because you’re happy. Briefly resent your husband. Drink more coffee. Stretch in anticipation of a procrastination run (you hate to run but you hate to write more). Check work email. A client in Jamaica says you’re the best travel agent ever (love the sea view)! A client in Belize insinuates your reprehensibility (these macaws, which we were not informed of, are very, very loud). Google search “Macawly Culkin” to see if maybe somebody has superimposed his face on a parrot. When you discover that they haven’t, consider doing this yourself, until you realize you don’t know how. Google search “how to put a person’s face on an animal body.” Amend it slightly: “how to put a person’s face on an animal body when you don’t own photoshop.”
Miraculously, if I just sit there long enough, if I can cut through the jabber and fog, if I can re-center myself in the first person and focus enough to unfocus (a marriage of mental acuity and subconscious abandon), decent writing happens. It’s the starting that feels impossible.
In The Midnight Disease, neurologist Alice Flaherty explores the relationship between brain changes and writing. After losing twins shortly after their birth, she was seized by such a manic boon of creativity that she couldn’t stop writing, regardless of its quality, and craved even the physical sensation of pen on paper. She asserts that changes to the temporal lobe, or mood disorders like manic depression, can lead to a pathological need to write (or, as was the case with James Joyce, to hide in cupboards during thunderstorms). Conversely, writer’s block can be partly attributed to chemical cocktail. I’ve always been envious of authors who suffer from hypergraphia. I knew a guy in NYC who used to feverishly compose poems on his calves. (Of course, he also chewed wine labels during party lulls.) While I can relate to a mounting need to write, I’ve always been too irresolute, too fastidious, to get it all down quick in public. There are the calves and calves-not, and I am firmly a member of the latter.
Pathologizing my writing process actually complicates the issue – because even though I am slow, and prone to real-time revision, and easily distracted by crime solving forums and costumed cats, I suspect that this same deficient attention permits me wildly inventive associations. Flaherty herself even admits the same: “I wrote better when I was at least a little bit ill." It has been rewarding for me to learn to move daily through the persistent radio noise and emerge on the other end with a handful of grain. That’s what it amounts to – a daily handful of grain, no more than 600 words, no less than 300 – that I then put away for later. I like to think of all of these words accumulating in an essay silo. So I guess my blog is aptly named.
Anne Lamott has this great paragraph in Bird by Bird that I return to often:
"If you don’t believe in God, it may help to remember this great line of Geneen Roth’s: that awareness is learning to keep yourself company. And then learn to be more compassionate company, as if you were somebody you are fond of and wish to encourage.”
Aside from her advice to just write a little each day – to instill the habit, to approach longer work through the window of a manageable one-inch picture frame – this injunction to be kind to the self has transformed my writing the most. I have the tendency to abuse my inner worker bee. I think back to the way groups of Brazilian teenage boys treated me the summer I was a food service employee at Disney World: heckling me to break large bills, leaning over the cash register to touch my cabelo (Ariel! Ariel!), waving bread sticks in my face to get attention. None of this was encouraging. When I’m dismissive of my process and suspect of my voice, I’m essentially demanding a full refund in Portuguese. I’ve got my group flag raised in anger, my pushy fingers on the till.
I abandoned a novel in graduate school because it was taking too long to write. But because I could never shake the need to write, I decided I was really a poet. I now understand that I moved in the direction of poetry because it sanctioned my deliberate, plodding pace. My obsessive brain could tinker with a couplet for hours and that was OK. I could tend to a neat little square of page all afternoon without the pressure to produce anything of length, and freed from that pressure, I wrote more.While I still love poetry, I’m excited about this new-found faith in a long-form non-fiction project. It’s difficult to write 300-600 words a day and work a full time job, but it can be done. Hairball by hairball.