I met a woman who wanted to write a novel. Let’s call her Reba. Reba said she knew she had a book in her and she’d wanted to write it for quite some time. She asked me what I thought of the idea. I said it sounded like a wonderful thing to do – what else would I say since I’d written several novels myself at that time, and had managed to get a couple published?
I asked Reba how much she’d written so far, general notes, background research, character development, plot structure, and so on. She told me she hadn’t actually started yet. But did she write something every day? She said no, she didn’t, she was very busy with everything in her life and she didn’t get time to write every day. Did she write every other day, or a couple of times a week? No. In fact, she didn’t write at all.
I asked the obvious question: how did she think she might write a novel if she wasn’t writing, and had no plans to write anytime soon? Reba looked puzzled, and didn’t answer for a while. Then she said she hadn’t thought of it like that.
I decided to accept the notion that I’d been transported to Dali’s surreal world of the Writer Who Doesn’t Write But Expects to Have Written – one day, some day.
Here’s the rub: just because you know your alphabet and it’s easy to buy a computer or pick up a pen and notepad, doesn’t mean it’s easy to write.
People don’t make the same assumption about learning the violin, for example. They don’t presume that once they’ve bought the instrument, they’ll be able to play like Nigel Kennedy. They accept that there will be practise and lessons, and more practise and more lessons, and that they’ll learn all the time, and fail all the time, and get better and fall back, and get better again, and reach for bigger challenges, and work still harder.
But only if they actually do it. And doing it is hard, just as doing anything worthwhile is hard. Starting is hard, continuing is hard, but there are ways of starting and ways to keep going.
Most of the books I’ve read about writing, for instance, emphasise the importance of routine in achieving your writing goals. One of the earlier texts, from which so many other contemporary publications have derived their writing models and guidelines, is Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer.
Dorothea published this seminal work in 1934 but it was out of print until 1981 when it was re-published with a foreword by John Gardner. Gardner nails Brande’s approach when he explains that she addresses the root problems common to all writers of any era, whether experienced or beginners.
These root problems relate to the writer’s personality: the ability to get started (or not), getting started but then getting lost or losing heart; inconsistent writing quality; one-off brilliance unrepeated; excellent work during a creative writing course, for instance, and then nothing. Gardner calls these issues, these root problems, “problems of confidence, self-respect, freedom. The writer’s demon is imprisoned by the various ghosts in the unconscious.”
Brande offers various means by which writers can get in touch and deal with the ghosts and “cultivate a writer’s temperament.” She is particularly strong on developing the routine of writing every day and to that end prescribes two exercises.
The first exercise is designed to get you in touch with your unconscious and develop the flow of writing. Brande asserts that “the first step towards being a writer is to hitch your unconscious mind to your writing arm.” Or in the case of most of us, to our writing digits and our keyboards.
The ideal time to do this, she says, is when the unconscious is “in the ascendant,” that is, when you first wake in the morning. She suggests getting up half an hour, or an hour earlier than usual each day and devoting that time to writing. If that seems too hard, and I must admit, I’m not a morning person, try starting with 15 minutes and build up by quarter-hour segments to an hour.
The trick is to begin as soon as you get up and not turn on the radio, or read the paper first. Do it straight away while you’re fresh to the new day and your conscious state.
What do you write? Anything at all. Describe your dreams if you remember them, or someone you met yesterday, what you’re planning to do today. Or write a conversation you’ve heard, or whatever comes into your mind that allows you to fashion coherent sentences.
In this way, Brande explains, you can train yourself to write in the most basic, uncritical way. Don’t censor yourself, and remember that this is for you alone, no one else will see it. Do this every morning and don’t re-read the previous day’s work. Simply write. And keep this writing, because there will be ideas in it that you will be able to use without a doubt.
Gradually, you’ll write more in the same amount of time, and gradually, the task of writing will become less problematic and more natural. Once the habit embeds itself, and you reach ‘on impulse’ for your keyboard or notebook when you wake, you’ll be ready for the next exercise.
The second exercise Brande prescribes to help develop the routine of writing, is to schedule writing periods into your day, apart from your morning writing. A fifteen minute block is all you need at first, but you must decide on a time, 10am, 3pm, 7pm, and stick to it for that day without deviating – unless of course, God arrives to announce the rapture, in which case write about that while you’re waiting in the queue.
The important thing with this exercise is to vary the times at which you write each day, so that eventually you overcome the deep ‘inner resistance’ of the unconscious, which, Brande says, is ‘incorrigbly lazy … and given to finding the easiest way of satisfying itself.’ It prefers not to be bound by the strictures of schedules, so it has to be pulled into line by the conscious application of varying the times at which you write and sticking to them. Eventually, if you keep it up, you’ll be able to attend to your writing schedule without resistance and your unconscious will be there and ready to lend its support.
Brande cautions that if you can’t keep up these two activities – early morning writing and writing by pre-arrangement, you should give up writing because your resistance is greater than your desire to write fluently at will.
However, I would add a note of consideration to this rather harsh conclusion for those of us who don’t perform well in the a.m. While it’s an ideal to get up early every morning and write while your unconscious is closest to you, you might find that mornings aren’t for you – they really aren’t for everyone, believe it or not.
I suggest an alternative that may restore the link to the unconscious even if you don’t write in the morning, and that is to develop the habit of meditation. You can meditate for 10 to 15 minutes by simply sitting quietly somewhere away from the chaos of life. Choose the same time each day and stick to it just as the early morning writers do. Have your notebook and pen, or your PC or laptop handy.
As you sit, eyes closed or open, follow your breath, noting each inhalation and exhalation. Focus your thoughts on the sensation of air moving in and out of your nose. Or count each breath as you breathe out. If intrusive thoughts arise, simply let them come and go – watch them pass by, imagine them drifting off, and return to your breathing and/or counting.
After 10 or 15 minutes of meditating, stay in the same place and begin to write Dorothea’s morning writing exercise. Do this every day and develop two skills for the price of one.
A routine may be hard to develop, but it is very rewarding and your level of satisfaction with your writing will rise exponentially. Give yourself a gift and give it a go.
Next time with The Memoir Detective: Angst for the Memories: what exactly do we mean when we say Memoir?