What an amazing essay by Claire Vaye Watkins. Her novel Gold Fame Citrus is on my “I need to read this soon” list.
Let us embrace a do-it-yourself canon, wherein we each make our own canon filled with what we love to read, what speaks to us and challenges us and opens us up, wherein we can each determine our artistic lineages for ourselves, with curiosity and vigor, rather than trying to shoehorn ourselves into a canon ready made and gifted us by some white fucks at Oxford.
Read: On Pandering | Tin House
Like the advice in pretty much all writing books, Natalie Goldberg’s advice in Writing Down the Bones boils down to the same core principles: write every day; don’t edit while you write; use detail; don’t worry about being perfect. Goldberg offers some useful tips for keeping a daily writing practice, but she also admits that you have to keep changing up your routine just to keep yourself interested. In other words, no one piece of advice is the magic bullet for all would-be writers, or will even work for one writer for the entirety of a writing life.
There are some useful nuggets to be mined here, and repetition helps the basic advice get heard. What I like about Goldberg’s approach to writing as a “practice” is that it takes the focus off the end product and puts it on the process of writing (or creating) just for its own sake. I think in American culture especially, we become too obsessed with productivity and sales and getting famous. We forget to do things for no other reason than our own enjoyment, and the spark gets lost that way.
Here are some key ideas from Writing Down the Bones that are worth remembering:
- Composting: It takes time for our experiences to sift through our consciousness so we can write coherently about it. In other words, you’re not going to write well about something you’re going through right now. That’s why so many writers start with their childhood, I guess.
- When you practice writing, it’s a good idea to separate the editor/internal censor from the creator, but that’s very difficult to do for many of us!
- It is the process of writing that teaches us how to write.
- Writers write about their obsessions. List your obsessions and you have a list of things to write about.
- Use original detail in your writing, but don’t be rigid about it. Fiction doesn’t have to absolutely mirror reality.
- To be a good writer, you must read a lot of good books and write a lot. (This is what everyone says, but I find it so dismaying to run into writers who don’t read.)
- “Show, don’t tell” actually means: Don’t tell readers what to feel; show them the situation and the feeling will awaken in them.
- Be specific. Use the names of things.
- Even if you aren’t sure of something, express it as if you know yourself.
- If you have a big topic you want to write about, break it down into its aspects. Write small to get big.
Some interesting exercises I gleaned from the book:
- List 10 nouns on one side of a piece of paper. Cover them and list 15 verbs on the other side that are associated with a profession. Try to match nouns with verbs in unusual combinations to make sentences. Think about actions–they have power.
- If you can’t think of anything else to write about, write about food. We all love to eat.
- Keep a box or envelope or file of topic ideas. Pull one out and just start writing when you get stuck.
- If you are unsure of a piece, put it away for a while. Reread it as a reader, not as the writer. Underline the good parts and throw away the rest.
More great stuff from Margaret Atwood! Brain Pickings shares a short animation that accompanies Atwood’s meditation on how technology shapes storytelling. Worth watching.
I’ve decided to go analog and carry a notebook with me for recording my to-do lists, ideas, upcoming events, monthly goals, and the like, instead of relying on my phone or tablet. (See my last post.) Sure, it’s one more thing I have to cart around, but I carry a backpack purse anyway. I’ve noticed that it’s become harder and harder for me to remember what I need or intend to be doing, and I’m wondering if it’s because I’m not physically writing it down. They say that the act of writing–pen on paper–aids memory. And I know that when I’m making notes or getting my ideas out, I prefer to write them longhand first before typing them in the computer.
Besides, I love notebooks, don’t you? How do you keep track of what you need to do?
Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon (austinkleon.com) is a short book–you can read it in under an hour–but it contains many gems of advice about living a creative life. Kleon is a writer, visual artist, and hobbyist musician, but his advice applies to anyone, from writers to entrepreneurs to people who just want to bring a little more creativity into their lives but aren’t sure how to get started. Here are my notes on his 10 pieces of advice.
1. There is only stuff worth stealing and stuff not worth stealing. Nothing is original–all creative work builds on what came before. Free yourself from the burden of being original. Your job is to collect good ideas to be influenced by. What is not worth stealing today could be worth stealing tomorrow.
Don’t worry about research. Just search.
To do: Carry a notebook everywhere. Jot or doodle during down time. Keep a swipe file of things worth stealing.
2. The act of doing our work helps us figure out who we are. You can’t know yourself first; that’s backwards. Start making stuff. Show up every day. Fake it until you make it. Learn by copying what you love. We are incapable of making perfect copies. Our failure to copy our heroes is where we discover ourselves.
If you copy from one author, it’s plagiarism, but if you copy from many authors, it’s research.
3. Write the book you want to read. All fiction is fan fiction.
4. Use your hands. Engage your sense. Get away from the computer.
To do: Set up two workstations: one digital and one analog.
5. Side projects (where you’re just messing around) are the ones that take off. Have a lot of projects going at once so you can bounce around. Take time to be bored. Keep all the passions in your life; don’t worry about unifying them. It’s important to have a hobby, something creative that’s just for you, that you do because it makes you happy.
6. When you’re unknown, you can do what you want. Enjoy obscurity while it lasts. Share your work. Give your secrets away. The Internet is an incubator for ideas. (You don’t have to share everything.)
7. All you need is a little space and a little time.
8. Be nice. When you get angry, make something instead of complaining. Show your appreciation. Don’t look for validation–be too busy doing your work to care.
9. Creative people live boring lives. Work every day; set a routine.
To do: List the things you do each day in a log book.
10. Nothing is more paralyzing than limitless possibilities. Place constraints on yourself.