To Write or Not To Write?
by Randall Brown
If you are like me, writing became the thing you asserted against a world that would make you into nothing, that would have you not matter. You took your terrible past and your trauma and your panic and your shyness and your invisibility in society and you transformed it, and someone said, "Wow!" And you realized that every time your wrote, you mattered. Imagine the stakes of each word. Your very existence is at stake. Not to have someone love what you write is to have the truth be revealed, the nothingness of your own worth. Maybe you are not like me in that respect. Lucky!
So how does a writer write given such stakes? Excellent question. Here are some things I found that worked for me to keep me motivated, energized, and writing.
I exist and matter whether you like my story or don't. There, I said it. And you don't have the power to determine my worth. And the stakes for my writing aren't about that—it's about writing a better sentence than in the last story, getting the conflict to be revealed in action, finding an ending that is both inevitable and surprising. The challenge is about improving, not existing or mattering. Making writing about that took a lot of work and a lot of time and sometimes I'm more there than at other times. But when I am there—writing to get better rather than writing to matter—I'm way more motivated to write. I can separate myself from the work, and even, sometimes, look forward to getting critiques because they offer not a chance to destroy my last remnant of worth, but rather, the opportunity to improve the piece I'm working on. Imagine a world where critiques give you impetus, rather than take it away.
And of course, there is that opposite reaction to negative feedback that comes out of deep maturity, out of being centered and calm: "Oh yeah! I'll show you, you blankety-blankety-blank." For me, these two things—the need to matter and the "I'll show you"—drove me to succeed and I couldn't imagine why I'd let them go. The problem with such motivating forces is that this attitude gives a tremendous amount of power to other people over your own sense of worth and self. It requires some kind of Zen-like distance and disassociation to say, "I am not my writing." That we are our writing has, for some of us, been embedded in ourselves since the very beginning, since, for me, Mr. Matthews stopped me in that hall and said, "What was that you turned in? You'll get an A, but you're so much better than that." No one had said my name and "better than" in the same sentence ever.
It's a lot to give up, this writing to matter, this force that seemed to drive us into our very existences. It's something an eight-year-old created within me to survive, and I'm glad he did it, but at forty something it's hard to imagine he got it right. Every story I've written and gotten published has been workshopped and critiqued, repeatedly, and the responses I've gotten, now that I'm more focused on writing to get better, more often than not drive me back to the story, motivated to make it better.
The Grail myth tells of the best and brightest of the village getting a vision of the Grail and then going elsewhere to grasp what cannot ever be grasped. They go out, the myth says, because the land has become dead and barren and sick.
And so we, as writers, often go out to conference after conference, book after book, for that one thing that will make us writers, finally and inevitably. But one interpretation of the Grail myth is that the land's illness results from all the best knights going elsewhere, leaving their homes and their desks, in search of something they might've already possessed. It's important, for sure, to go to conferences and post-graduate programs and workshops, but it's also important to realize that what we think of as an answer to our writing ills—going elsewhere—might, in fact, be the source of our woes.
Celebrate? Anne Lamott says, "Publication is not going to change your life or solve your problems. Publication will not make you more confident or more beautiful, and it will probably not make you richer. There will be a very long buildup to publication day, and the festivities will usually be over rather quickly." What a buzz-stomper that is. All I can say to folks like Lamott is "bless their hearts," but the average Joe Six Pack is darn right to be celebrating a story poppin' up in one of those lit'ature magazines.
Rules. Schmules. Now, I'm definitely not saying there aren't specific things to learn about writing, because there are. But knowing the rules, being aware of them in a rigid way, can stifle our writing. It's fun, knowing the rules, to break them, consciously and purposefully. I remember being told by someone that you can never use "suddenly" in a story. That motivated me to use it, to write a story that begins:
Never use suddenly. Nothing in a story should happen quickly, unexpectedly, without warning. Suddenly, a dark sky. Suddenly, a rock in the windshield, a spark among newspapers in the basement, a crack in the earth. Suddenly alone. Suddenly beautiful.
The middle ends with a friend, who is dying, catching a fish:
Suddenly, a fish. No! Rick misses it. A big one, from the size of the open mouth.
The rebellious spirit shines in many of the writers and artists I know—and it's fun to let it out but even more fun, I think, when you set that rule-breaking spirit against a concrete boundary. Having that clear goal—even if it's something tiny as in writing "suddenly" into a story—works as any goal does, to motivate and direct our energies.
There's writing as process and writing as product. Most of us got in it for the process, the otherwordly thing that happens whenever we write, the moment when we become writing. It happens as we read, too, when we are reading in a very literal sense, having transformed into the act of reading. What got in the way of that joy, as I see with my own kids as they write, is the writing as product. My eleven-year-old son says I can read his poem as long as I don't say anything about it, not a single thing.
So feedback and workshops and critiques are great, but there's also something to be said for writing when it doesn't have to become a product, or when the writing itself isn't the focus of readers. Along with the daily writing of short and very short fiction and/or a picture book, I find myself also writing:
Emails to writers whose stories/books I've read and liked.
Guest articles for friends' blogs.
Reviews of stories for various venues.
Comments on writerly blogs.
Comments in discussion threads on writer-based sites.
When Jane Yolen talked to me in the post-graduate picture program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, she mentioned that she works on a dozen projects or so at once. This is another great way to have that feeling of "newness" attached to work, so one doesn't feel trapped by a singular project.
OCD, Dr. Jonathan Grayson said on a recent Oprah show, results from an inability to tolerate uncertainty. This intolerance of uncertainty creates great anxiety, and the rituals become the thing that makes the anxiety bearable. So, in the beginning, the rituals arise from the unconscious to save the OCD sufferer, and eventually they become the sickness, the thing keeping the OCD sufferer suffering. Each time the OCD sufferer doesn't count to eight, says a word that has the forbidden letter in it, stands on a square, the sufferer faces the uncertainty of what might happen if he or she didn't enact the ritual. For the OCD sufferer, the deeply held belief is that the ritual is the only thing that allows him or her to exist. It's like asking the most devout Catholic to give up God.
Before I wrote, or thought of myself as a writer, I admired the courage of writers. It's when our butts are in the chair that we do what we ask our characters to do—confront their fears through action. It's hard to ask more of a character than we would ask of ourselves. That link of both our own confrontation with fear and that of our characters' excites me about writing, even with characters that have little to do with me.
In Vermont during one of my MFA residencies, I went fly fishing with a local guide. He said a line that stuck with me, "I used to be caretaker of a house the Indians couldn't burn down." That was it. He said no more about it. From the moment he said it, I wanted to write that story, pictured two kids in the woods and one of them says, "I want to show you the house the Indians couldn't burn down." Without a clue as to what they find there, I want to send those kids out into the woods. I want to know what fears they will discover and I wonder how and if they will be my own, or maybe yours, instead. Having them walk into those dark woods, the woods of Joseph Campbell and of fairy tales, feels, as these moments always do, like a metaphor for me as writer, for that need to face the fear of uncertainty with each word, and as Lacan tells us, even our words contain only an uncertain approximation of the Real, but still we set out word after word, like breadcrumbs and bricks.
So in short, perhaps we must fight to remember that it feels good to face the fear, something we do each time we write, and that doing so feels way better than not. I know I can't imagine life without writing, and maybe that, of all the fears, is the one that sends me to the keyboard each day.