On Writing

“If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.” ~Stephen King

Stephen King, whether you appreciate horror or not, is a masterful writer. Over the years I’ve devoured nearly all of his books, while eschewing most other novels that would be considered horror. The first time I read The Shining, I was living in in a little house near the beach in Santa Cruz, and sat on the sofa all night waiting for my boyfriend to ride his bike home because I was too frightened to walk to the bathroom. Very few pieces of writing have made as strong an impression on me as The Shining. Seriously, how can walking bushes and the smell of oranges become utterly, paralyzingly terrifying? I dunno, but he does it.

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” is a proverb that’s been around since the 16th century, but lately I’ve been bouncing these words around- voiced in my imagination in the inimitable Jack Nicholson cadence- they say “All out-flow and no input makes Jill a dull girl.”

I am spent from projecting. I am drained and empty from putting on a brave face, producing, being “on” and providing for others. This is part of my role and responsibility in life, and also part of what I have chosen- I make no mistake of casting myself as any sort of victim. Yes, crappy things have happened- find me someone who gets out of this mess without any scratches- but I have chosen to what and how I respond. Sometimes well, sometimes not really. And lately, I’ve been more about stimulus/response instead of any real, meaningful introspection. Perhaps part of it has been just survival mode- making it though the first quarter back to school, optioning my grad school program, having three kids by myself for the summer while being a full-time student- really, I just had to prove to myself that I could do it and survive. I did. We did.

But now, I am feeling it. I am feeling the tanks sucking air. I can see how people start to lose sight of perspective, and how vacuums form. If you just keep making noise, then you don’t have to acknowledge you are alone. That maybe you are scared or sad, and if you just keep putting stuff out there, it’s easy to pretend you are having meaningful exchanges. Whether its on a blog or in 120 characters or to all your 350 “friends”. At it’s best, it’s connection. At its worst, it’s an echo chamber. I’ve been waiting to have something to write about- and sitting on my hands.

In his supernal book On Writing, King said:

In truth, I’ve found that any day’s routine interruptions and distractions don’t much hurt a work in progress and may actually help it in some ways. It is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster’s shell that makes the pearl, not pearl-making seminars with other oysters.

I need to stop copping-out and calling a friend update or a 120 character snippet writing. I need to fill my tanks with life- my messy, disordered, chaotic life and write about it. I need to read the fine writing of others, to stop, think, ponder and follow the white rabbit when he runs past me and down the rabbit hole. I need to stop being afraid of pain or of expressing myself and just write. And to be a good writer, you must live a good life, eat good food, read good books, and get out of the echo chamber.

So that’s where I am tonight- And have been for the last many days.  I’ve been paralyzed with what to do. Maybe I still don’t know- but at least I’m writing. And I am going to start tackling the pile of neglected books on my nightstand. Starting now.

14 thoughts on “On Writing

  1. I’m just finishing “Writing Motherhood”. I think you’d love parts of it. I’m also having a writing vacuum of a summer. For reasons that are different and the same. I’m absolutely forbidden from writing anything about my mother that she doesn’t like. And I sort of live with her right now. The stuff that’s really making up my life right now is stuff I’d get in trouble if I wrote about. So my writing turns to the hollow and asinine. No good.

    • Em, that’s so ironic-funny. I’ve been absolutely banned from writing about my mom for more than 4 years. It leaves gaping holes in my narrative and bogs down my process too, an I hate it. Sympathies.

  2. I read that top quote and had to respectfully disagree. Yes, reading can often help you appreciate the art of language and help you learn how to begin crafting your own thoughts though too often it merely leads to imitation rather than true creativity. I’ve found that those writers who are truly prolific, who are truly creative and masterful are almost exclusively producers, not consumers of language.

    For the amount of time it takes to be fluent in the art of writing one doesn’t have the time to simultaneously read and write. One has to, ultimately, choose which one will be–a producer or a consumer.

    Consider the most frequent complaint I hear from bloggers who become successful (however you define success): once they are writing and creating for their site and diving into the blogging world with their whole talent they find that they have very little time left for what got them started in blogging in the first place–reading blogs.

    But this popular idea that one must be reading all the time to write has caused the biggest problem to those who would be writers–the inability to produce anything original. They write screen plays, they write chic-lit, they write Twilight/Harry Potter knock offs, they write soap operas or crime scene drama as seen on television, or maybe they take the Cormac McCarthy route and write obtusely for the sake of appearing deep and introspective and intelligent a la James Joyce but the majority seem to be horrifyingly mediocre and uncreative all because they seek to imitate what they’ve already read. Poor Mr. King falls squarely in the middle of that sad state. His novels are glorified screen plays perfectly suited to the generation that only knows a flickering screen.

    So how would I change that quote? I’d say instead, “If you don’t have the time to think–to ponder and meditate, to form thoughts and original ideas–you don’t have the time or the tools to write.” Writing isn’t about imitation but a presentation of ideas.

    Thanks for giving me something to think about this morning! Love it!

    • Very good ideas, good addendum to the quote, and you’ve given me things to think about too, Michelle. I agree that there is a glut of mediocre drivel- essentially overwrought copying of work that was already spent or consumed. No argument from me there at all.

      What I would ask is- having read your blog for years now and knowing you a tiny bit- you are clearly well-read. You know and understand the classics. You can throw off literary references and understand the difference between Joyce and Papa H and you know why that matters. Understanding- or at least having a grasp of the classics and why they are classics is beneficial to us as a people. It gives us frames of reference, increases understanding of art, literature, film- and human creativity. You know that a lot of modern product is drivel (I agree whole heartedly) but I would postulate that part of the reason you do know that is that you also know what’s GOOD.

      As far as contempory writers, I am careful. For me, reading the mastery of a Toni Morrison paragraph and marveling the mastery of her words is inspiring. Alice Walker makes my heart sing. Louise Erdrich causes hitches in my breath and sepia on the edges of my vision.

      It’s a fine line though. And you’re right- even with the small success this blog has, when I’m reading, I’m not producing as much. When I’m writing, I am not reading. As so goes life.

      Thank you for giving me things to think about too…

  3. I have been banned from writing about my 11 year old girl, and my life is CONSUMED with the drama and minutae of being an 11 year old girl.

    Give yourself credit – you read quite a bit this summer – all that philosophy along with whatever else. School reading totally counts.

    Still, I’m curious – what’s on your nightstand?

    • Wiz, I feel ya. I don’t care to ever read Kant again. On my nightstand right now:

      Bonds that Make Us Free
      a book about communicating with my nine-year old Mr Moody
      The Left Hand of Darkness- Ursula LeGuin
      Superfudge- Judy Blume
      Latter-day Dispensation, collected essays of LDS writers edited by Angela Halstrom
      The Island of Bali is Littered with Prayers (a review copy I need to finish and write a review on)

      • The Left Hand of Darkness!! I read that not too long ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. I am not clever enough to be a writer but love reading and am in awe that Ursula LeGuin could think up and write that book!

        Love your blog writing too – its one blog I check every day ^_^

  4. “I need to stop copping-out and calling a friend update or a 120 character snippet writing. I need to fill my tanks with life- my messy, disordered, chaotic life and write about it.”

    Me too. The more people know who I am, the more I feel I should just shut up. I know who doesn’t want me to talk about what. Makes writing hard, fighting the forbiddens and still coming up with anything authentic, worthy of spending time and spirit on.

    I find your superficial stuff delightful, but some of your deeper stuff defies complements. It has left a forever mark.

  5. Tracy, I’m not really a writer, and maybe that’s why I don’t really understand your post. Sounds like life has just been very hectic and you’re ready to do something soul-satisfying. Not so different from the rest of us. We’re all gasping what little breaths we can when our heads break the surface, and that doesn’t leave us with air or enthusiasm to explore the depths.

    I am looking forward to whatever you come up with, though.

  6. Tracy, speaking of books on your nightstand, have you read the bonds that make us free? Or is it on your to read list? One that I’m still working on but have gotten a lot out of is the Anatomy of Peace so very good. Sorry kinda unrelated to your post, but needed to ask. Though your post makes me realize how sadly lacking my reading is. And it may have to stay that way until Dec 20th.

  7. Segullah did a reading challenge not too far back, and I totally scoffed at it—until it was my turn. I can’t remember the specifics, but I remember forcing myself to read a TON–much more than I usually do, and I consider myself an avid reader. It was hard work, just like good writing is hard work, but I got huge benefits from it. I was surprised, really, but I found I hate a lot more to write about, and that I was thinking on a different level than I usually did. So I definitely think there is something to Stephen King’s advice–you have to read to learn how to write.

    That said, I also think that you have to go to classes, too. I mean, I loved The Shining as much as you did, and still think it’s his most masterful book. Still, just because I love it doesn’t mean I’m capable of breaking it down in technical terms about WHY it’s so good. Being a part of Segullah, and getting exposed to people who, you know, write FOR A LIVING, has given me a perspective that it takes more than just reading or creativity or even talent to be a successful writer. Training is part of the equation to, as it just plain old practice.

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