Make it messy

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There are two bits of advice about writing that I return to time and time again when I am feeling stuck with my work.

The first: “Write drunk, edit sober.” This saying is attributed to Ernest Hemingway, that master of brevity and flourish-free language.

And the second: “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts.” This piece of advice is from Natalie Goldberg in the classic Bird by Bird.

Both of these insights speak to me, because I have a tendency to clam up before I really get going. Maybe you have this tendency too. I am often so caught up in the desire to tell a great story, to dazzle my readers with wit and charm, to surprise them with something unique, that I find it hard to get going. The pressure gets to me, and hello writer’s block. I get stuck striving for perfection and elegance right out of the gate, instead of doing the actual work of writing.

Writing a “shitty first draft” (Goldberg’s term) and writing drunk are not excuses for me to churn out bad, careless work. But it does mean that I have the freedom to write the raw material of the story that I need to write, without the fear of judgment. No-one will see my first draft except me. I have to remind myself to simply get the story on paper, in all its beautiful, terrible, first-glimpse glory—and then shape it into something that someone else might want to read.

Don’t worry about perfection or form or style or commas. Produce the beginnings of something that excites you. Write fast and sloppy. Let your characters do whatever they want. Use simple language and un-fussy descriptions. And write every day or as often as you can manage it, until you have a lovely messy first draft in your hands. Save the polish until later.

Writing is hard. Getting started is harder. Allow yourself the freedom to churn something out, poke around in the mess, and see if you can create something shiny and beautiful from it.

Give it away now

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In a previous blog post, I talked about my tendency to hoard my ideas.

I have a similar tendency with pieces of writing that I have developed to a stage where they have some potential.

Just last week, I had been working on a poem that I thought was promising. I revised it and got it into reasonably good shape, but I never felt like it was at that stage where I could consider it finished and submit it. The ending felt slightly off, and I wasn’t satisfied with the rhythm. It was so close to completion—but I couldn’t let it go. So I abandoned it and moved onto another project.

When I stumbled on the poem the other night, I realized I might never feel 100% happy with it. So, instead of closing the file and saying I would deal with it another time, I committed to finishing it and submitting it by the end of the night. I gave myself until 10:00pm before I had to “give it away” and submit it to a journal.

It worked. And it gave me the motivation to solve the niggling problem that I couldn’t quite fix before. After playing with the form for an hour, I was inspired to turn it into a flash-fiction story. It was an “a-ha!” moment that gave me the push to finish it and send it out on submission.

Will it be accepted? Maybe. But in the meantime, I can move on to my next project, satisfied that I had finished something, and that I had done what I could.

What’s preventing you from sending your writing out into the world?

  • Fear of rejection. “If I never submit it, I’ll never be told no.
  • Fear of not being perfect. “If I never submit it, I’ll never be told that my writing is not good enough.
  • Fear of running out of ideas. “If I never submit it, I’ll always have this idea to fall back on.

We writers must learn to let go of these fears. I’m not saying it’s easy, but we can’t allow these thoughts to keep us from finishing our work and sharing it with potential readers. Giving your writing away is a habit that can be picked up over time. And you might even find it energizing. My own experience with calling something “done” and submitting it has given me the motivation to do it again, with another almost-finished piece.

This same intent—of not keeping your writing to yourself—is expressed in a quote by Bill Moyers I found a few days ago:

You must never think that your most recent idea is your best or your last. You must be willing to keep searching your imagination and intuition for new versions of that idea.

Be generous with your writing. Don’t keep it to yourself. Finish it, and give it away.

Maria

The river of words

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Some days, the words come easily.

It can happen when I am indexing a textbook, critiquing a story, or working on my own writing. I am the grizzly bear in the river, plucking words like salmon as they hurtle past. They come fast and furious, and I must rush to catch as many as I can. The challenge is to not let the meatiest ones slip past un-scooped.

Other days, I am the salmon swimming up the river. I strain against the pressure of the work, the weight of the text, the burden of expectations. I try to find the path of least resistance. Each surge forward is a herculean effort, but somehow I make headway against the flow.

I have come to value both kinds of days. The former shows me the joy of what it’s like when the going is easy, and the latter teaches me that I can persevere even when it’s not.

Grizzly bear or salmon—which one are you today?

Maria