This summer I stopped at my dad’s house on our way to Georgia. We all sat down one evening to re-screen The Valkyrie, that Tom Cruise film about a mission within the German army to assassinate Hitler. My youngest sister picked it; she was probably too young when the movie was originally released so had never seen it. As we got comfy on the couch, I noticed a half-finished puzzle on the table in the corner. Dad informed me it had been in that state since Christmas.
Six months! Well, this simply will not do, I thought. I pulled up a chair and assumed the role of Tom Cruise in the puzzle completion mission, finishing just as the movie wrapped up. I love finishing a puzzle—LOVE IT—especially one I didn’t start. I’m like Harvey Keitel, just bring me in when you can’t figure it out, and I’ll get the job done. The trick is not to stand too close to it; up close, you’ll think a piece is missing or the puzzle is somehow flawed. But those standing on the outside, the Closers, can see how the pieces fit together.
When I’m writing, I need to see myself as the Closer to get any writing done. When I push past the fear of inadequacy and the unknown and stop worrying about the big picture, I arrive at the place where real work can be done. I believe it was Nora Ephron’s mother who once said, “Everything is copy,” but Nora and her mother both sold their art short. Everything is only copy if you’re sharp enough to find the story amidst the anecdotes and mundane details. You gotta sort out the corners and stop focusing on all those stupid spade-shaped pieces.
I love reading about as much as writing. Lately I’ve combined these two loves with volumes on writing. Writing is an anomaly in the working world in that people who do the work sometimes also document the mechanics of what they do. You’re probably not going to meet many plumbers who turn around and say, “You see, the reason I used that vented trap is…”— unless they’re filming an episode of This Old House. But if you’re a writer, you just might enjoy writing about the process of writing. I’m sharing the articles and books I’ve been looking to for inspiration. Some selections have been out a while, and a few others are new pieces. If you have some favorites, please feel free to share them!
Books & Articles on Writing
No doubt you’ve heard of this one by now, if not in popular writing culture than in conversation with me. I love this book so much that despite finishing it many months ago, I still keep it on my nightstand to flip through from time to time. I’m not one to keep a stack of books by my bed (I hide them in my closet, where they can taunt me less). But this book is my security blanket, and a special friend deserves a special place.
“Writers are the custodian of memory.” These books are like if your favorite professor—the grandfatherly one, not the hip one—wrote a long letter of encouragement to you. Easy to read, easy to love.
“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Amen, brother. Whether you love the horror genre or not, you will love this book. This book is like if your funny uncle–the witty one, not the one who makes inappropriate jokes at the dinner table–wrote a book letting you in on his secrets. It’s open and funny—so funny I found myself laughing out loud almost once per page—and best yet, it gets the salient points across. This man understands his craft.
Dani is a writer and teacher whose expertise is in memoir, which if you haven’t noticed yet, is my primary topic of interest. I’ve only just gotten my hold copy from the library a few days ago, but so far I love it. I had already drafted the top portion of this post when I got to the place early in her book when she compares writing to a puzzle. YES! I nearly squealed in the gym.
I read her memoir Wild and ended up loving it. I say “ended up” because I didn’t start out feeling that way. Wild is about Strayed’s hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, but it’s also about her divorce, her mother’s death, and her troubles with drug addiction. At first, her life decisions made me so mad I could hardly keep reading. Then it occurred to me how infrequently an author is able to rile me up (Cormac McCarthy still holds the top spot in that regard. I’m speaking about the time I threw The Road across a crowded subway car because I just couldn’t hold it in my hand any longer at that moment). I gave Wild a second chance; I laughed, cried, and got mad all the way through it, and it was a lovely experience to have gone on that journey alongside her.
I keep coming back to re-read parts of this interview. I like a writer who gets to the point. Strayed is insightful about the writing process and is one of the most motivational I’ve come across since Anne Lamott (see above). Here’s a passage I like from the interview; it’s a response to a question about finding the time to write when you have other priorities:
I know, it’s maddening! It’s so hard, because you have to make a living, or most of us have to. I certainly had to, and have to still. So it’s really this balance between doing things you have to do because you need the money so you can pay the electric bill, and then doing that thing you really care about, your passion. I’ve done different things over the years.
One of the things I did is I never made excuses for myself when it came to writing. I prioritized writing time. Even if that meant taking risks financially. I’d apply for residencies—places that give you a free place to live and they feed you and sometimes also provide a stipend—and go off and write for these intensive periods of time. That’s why I was a waitress, because the job never meant anything to me, so I could quit. I’d quit my job if I got a residency or a grant and I’d go off and write.
The other thing I did more recently, once I became a mom and my kids were old enough that I could leave them for a short time, is I would just check into a hotel right near our house, you know, like, the Courtyard Marriott a half a mile from my house in Portland. I’d check in for two nights and I’d write more in those forty-eight hours than I would for weeks at home. So just finding all these different creative ways to say, this thing actually matters and we’re gonna do it, and we’re gonna do it whether we have the money or not, or we have two little kids, or whatever it is. And I know it’s hard. I mean, I truly know it’s just plain hard. But do your best. And really actually do your best. Ask yourself: What is the best I can do? And then do that.
What I like so much about that quote, and what I can’t get out of my head, is that she doesn’t accept excuses from herself for not doing the hard work. She just writes and writes, like a motherfucker. Again and again, she comes back to the second beating heart she feels and how she just wants to get it it out of her chest so she can move on with her life. I admire the courage it takes to stop worrying about whether you will publish it and just start writing, REALLY writing. It sounds easy enough, but I completely understand why it was so hard for her. It’s hard for me! Just do your best and Write like a motherfucker are my new mantras.
You are one of a kind, dear Reader, and I mean that literally (N.B. regarding literally: I must tell you my first grader used the word ‘literally’ today, and I think I literally saw the word jump a shark into The Waters of Amazing and Awesome). Really though, sometimes I feel like I’m shouting into the wind with my new writing venture, with only my supportive parents behind me to grip the wind sock. But that’s fine by me. I enjoyed having an audience once (and if you’re not my parents and are reading, thanks!), but I also like the idea of a place where I can yell into the abyss, Zach Braff-style, and see what bounces back.