This November, I participated in my own version of National Novel Writing Month. Since I first started writing creatively, at age 14, I’ve been a poetry writer. Writing fiction for me is like trying to pull a train car down a track with my teeth. Poetry is like pushing a pick-up truck down a hill – I have to really put my shoulder into it, but once I get it going things proceed swimmingly. I took a long, long break from writing creatively at all: 8 years. Now I’m back, and learning how to do it all again has been pretty fun. As with most things, though, I’m fairly pokey and have some trouble following through on things once I start them. Working that way, I got about 6 decent poems out in 2 months of work. Not bad, but not stellar. Always a sucker for a deadline of any kind, I took November as a kind of mini National Poetry Writing Month (which is actually in April and actually requires you to write 30 poems within 30 days). I shot for 15 poems, intending them to, at best, be something I could turn into a finished work and, at minimum, give me stuff to cannibalize to make other poems. I learned a lot about how I work now (at 26!) and what I’m interested in writing about. Especially, I learned – again – how to churn out stuff that I don’t necessarily like or even think I’ll use or just needs to be completely rewritten de novo. So, I thought I’d pass on some of the imperfect advice I have for those might need it, or who just want someone to commiserate with.
1) Forgive Yourself
For not writing enough. For not writing more often. For not writing “well enough.” For not being a “real writer.” For not being able to think of the right word. For being too wordy. For taking frequent coffee breaks. For daydreaming. For not being done yet.
One of my rhetoric teachers in graduate school spoke to us once about writing as a process. He told an anecdote about one of his favorite writers. The writer, before he started writing, but after he sat down at his desk, used to ask for help. Not specifically from god, from any deity, but from “whatever happened to be listening.” Because he felt he needed it. I found that my version of this little ritual was to immediately forgive myself for any of the classic writer transgressions, and some that are particular to me. I will go on tumblr to look at pictures of attractive celebrities. I will get up and pet the cats for 5 minutes every hour or so. And it’s fine! I still produce stuff. It’s all part of my process.
2) You’re a Human Being, Start Treating Yourself That Way
Repeat as many times as you need to: I am not a robot, I am not a machine, I am not a robot, I am not a machine.
This is good life advice as well. You need sunlight. You need water. You need food. You need sleep. You need to shower. Do you pick up your pen, scribble things for awhile, then start to feel like shit? Can’t concentrate? Well, ask yourself a few simple questions before casting yourself into a shame spiral or giving up and watching 15 more Law & Order episodes. Hungry? Thirsty? Need caffeine? Need a cookie? Is it after midnight? Feeling antsy? Feeling tense? Eat a sandwich, get some water, have a cuppa, walk to the store, go to bed, get up and do some jumping jacks. You already know the answer to all these problems, but it is stupidly easy to not do these things, to ignore your own instincts. If you’ve done all these things and you’re still having trouble, well, the problem is probably more particular to your own brain than to your basic human necessities. I have those types of days too! They suck, but they will pass.
3) Just Because You Love Something Doesn’t Mean It’s Not Work
And don’t let anyone tell you differently.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard something along the lines of “if you don’t love writing/can’t keep yourself away from the craft/aren’t always thinking about it, you shouldn’t be doing it/you’re not a writer/jump off a cliff.” Here is the thing about passion: no one can define yours for you. I stopped writing creatively for 8 years. In that time, I got two academic degrees, a full-time job, was a radio DJ, played badminton, joined a Finnegan’s Wake reading group, taught college freshmen, and generally learned how to take care of myself post-living with parents. Now, I still have the job, I read for a literary magazine, work out 4 times a week, and bake and cook for myself. I make time for the writing when I can. I started again because I liked it before and had always wanted to return to it as a hobby. But I also won’t sacrifice the other parts of my life to be chained to my desk writing poems. I believe that in order to have something to write about, I should also live my life and think thoughts that aren’t about writing. The alternative just seems solipsistic. Maybe you are obsessed and can never stop thinking about what you’ll write next and run back to your desk whenever you have a chance, and, let me be clear, that is fine. That is awesome, in fact. But that’s not the only way to be a writer.
4) Alcohol Can Be Helpful
AKA “Hemingway’s Law.”
As the man once said, “Write drunk, edit sober.” My poison is red wine. It loosens me up, helps me break down some of the self-imposed walls when I write all those first drafts. Again, though, this won’t and shouldn’t apply to everyone. I felt like a little bit of a cliche sitting down with my glass or two of red to write, but it did make the process feel more special, cozier. This effect can likely also be achieved with tea, cookies, whiskey, scotch, a nice blanket, some comfortable pants, a glass of seltzer with a squeeze of lime, or any combination of these. Give yourself a happy accessory when you write, to put you in a nice place starting off. Unless you prefer to write while uncomfortable? To each their own state of mind.
5) Never Listen to Music with Words
Movie scores are good, also classical music!
Maybe this is just a superstitious personal rule, maybe it’s just because I’m suggestible, but. I can’t read poetry or listen to anything with lyrics when I’m writing. I just start copying the style, if I do! But, I also find things like This Will Destroy You and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo soundtrack soothing. Sometimes I can watch an episode of something while I write, but that can lead to a dark place (aforementioned 15 Law & Order episodes). I need background noise, man. But it can’t be too like what I’m writing, or I start to feel uninspired. Right at the end of the month I got a Dean Young book, Fall Higher, out of the library and tried to read it. I love Dean Young, he’s my absolute favorite poet. But touching that book, reading the words, felt like kryptonite. I wanted to cast it from my hands, cross myself, hiss, turn around 3 times and spit. It was an awful feeling, but it confirmed what I already know: no reading more than a stray poem here and there, and especially no reading it when I’m sitting down to work on my own stuff.