Run Wild and Free – Regrets Can Come Later

While there is something liberating about writing “shitty first drafts”, as Anne Lamott famously called them, perhaps there is something more so about writing shitty first drafts on purpose.  You know, the type of stuff you come across when you finally remember your old LiveJournal password from when you were thirteen.  Write like that on purpose?!?!? you may ask.  Well, ok, as long as I can burn them afterwards.  But to that I say, nope!  A little shameful writing is good to have around for posterity.  And not just so that your children, children’s children and maybe even their children after them have something to laugh themselves sick over.

Apart from that picture of you in your prom dress - what *were* you thinking? Oh, you're burning it as we speak?



For one, writing is essentially a snooty act.  Didion has said it, Orwell has said it, and Deborah Brandt (“Literacy and Learning”) says it all when she describes a lawyer whose work was “supported by a flotilla of helpers” (148).  Writing is treated as a specialized task – as Brandt says, reading is nothing special but writing can not only earn you money but make you filthy rich, to boot.  (Stephen King, are you listening?)  Mentioning you’ve written a novel over the summer will earn you adoring members of the opposite sex.  Mentioning you’ve read a novel over the summer will earn you nothing much but sarcastic slow-claps.

Because of this uppitiness that surrounds the “craft of writing”, writers tend to take themselves too seriously[1][2].  What better way to lighten up than to demonstrate that you’re still capable of turning out prose that would make your former thirteen-year-old self jeer?  What better way to express your artistic side by thumbing your nose at conventional dictums and refusing to outline your potboiler short story heavily (heavily) featuring fratboy catchphrases?

OK, so I may as well be honest.  This rant owes a lot to my new favorite blog.  You can find it at (Shameless plug, I know.  And I’m not even getting paid).  This is an excerpt from one of my favorite posts.

This man is a genius.

Write When You’re Hungry

Bertha looked up. The building in front of her was the shape of a baguette standing on its end and the colour of mushroom soup. She walked towards the imposing front door and raised her ham-coloured hand to knock on the frosted (translucent, not frosted like a cake is frosted) glass. It made a noise like dropping a can of baked beans on a tiled floor.

‘Hello?’ she said. The building was as silent as refrigerated milk.

You know a funny thing, though?  I read that particular passage two months ago and I still can’t get it out of my head (“silent as refrigerated milk”!  Genius!).  Words can be like songs: even when they’re bad they can get stuck in your head.  Writing badly (although not necessarily doing it well) allows you to relax, kick back, and let the words take control.  And the words that come out of your pen (or come out of your banging furiously on a keyboard) can tell you a lot about your strengths and weaknesses as a writer.  For example, the following passage that I’ve written tells me that I am prone to long and verbose sentences.  Enjoy.  Nah, just kidding.  I would never share my horrible, horrible writing in a public setting.  Says the girl with a blog…

[1] See Stephen King’s press releases here.  For all you non-fans, yes, King also wrote those books his new book is compared to.

[2] This one needs no real explanation.  You can see it here.

Why I Write (with apologies to Evelyn Waugh!)

The following is an attempt to explain why I write while borrowing the style of a favorite author … I had to pick Waugh, didn’t I? (sigh)

The image comes back to me slowly, as if my consciousness itself is carrying it, bearing it carefully across wispy shoulders; a pallbearer to an idea that should have been long dead.  Still the illusion remains, when I thought I had discovered its origins and in so doing, had banished it.  So the image creeps up to meet my thoughts, sidling along like a dog in disgrace.  With it comes the recognition that what it tells me may yet be true, because I cannot keep up with the horizon as it receeds ever more softly into the distance.  In this moment and just past the treeline, there is the ocean.  Invisible it may be, but borne back to me is its treacherous evidence – the proof that is not yet proof.  The wind in the trees  is instead waves on a wind-tossed beach, the distant rush of traffic the crash of breakers upon a sand bar.  In this moment, when I close my eyes sea-scent perfumes the air.  Here, I know my meaning behind writing: to escape the very images imprinted on my mind.

Textbooks and Evelyn Waugh – My Favorite Things

I was asked to pick a sample of writing that I found well-written and intellectually engaging, and a sample of writing that I’m envious of.  The truth is, I’m envious of the style that both these authors have.  But first up, the intellectually engaging passage:

This book is concerned with the nature of British political institutions and the way in which they operate.  Both the institutions and their mode of operation have been shaped to a large extent by the nature of the society in which they have developed, and they reflect and embody the habits and assumptions of the people who operate them.  This is a general truth about political systems which applies not only to the government of Britain but also to the government of other nations; and not only to the government of nations but also to the government of small societies within nations.

The British System of Government pg 3

To tell you the truth, any excerpt from a textbook would do.  I have a (not-so) secret love of them.  Preferably, old stodgy History ones.  “I swear, you’re the only one I know who laughs at textbook humor,” my friend said to me just the other day, looking over her own reading to stare at me sprawled on the couch giggling madly.  I do admit – I laugh way more easily than I should.  But the point is, I am jealous of textbook writers.  Not because of their need to expose their (decidedly weak) senses of humor about their chosen field, but because they are so efficient.  They make writing look easy – I don’t know how they do it.  I like to imagine them, wrapped up in their thick cardigans (professional writers, to my mind, always wear chunky, ‘80’s-style knit-wear) cheerfully banging away at the computer as a steady and comfortable stream of economically boring words pours out of them.

But I digress.  Obviously I chose the above passage for a reason other than it is from a textbook, and besides I haven’t told you why I think it is engaging (after all, it’s from a textbook).  Like any reputable textbook opening, it simply throws information at you.  But it is calm – reserved.  The author intends the reader to understand what he is saying, and so the reader does.  This may seem self-evident, but it’s really not.  In three sentences, the reader must grasp what it is this book will be about – the roadmap of the author’s argument. The first sentence tells the reader what the book will cover – “the nature of British political institutions and the way in which they operate”.  That’s simple enough.  The second sentence reveals the methodology through which the author will examine his subject, which is through mainly a sociological-political view: “the institutions … have been shaped … by the nature of the society in which they have developed” (ital. mine).

The third sentence offers both a means of establishing credibility with the author in a couple ways.  The first is by allowing for the fact that political systems (or really any systems) do not operate in a vacuum and so credibly expanding the scope of the book.  Having said this, the author may reasonably bring in examples not strictly pertaining to British government or history.  The second is by embedding the author’s coming argument in a framework of familiar and commonsensical terms: the author reminds the reader that what he has said so far “is a general truth about political systems”.  By mentioning this, the author is providing a starting ground of shared knowledge, no matter how little the reader knows about British government.  And this is only in three sentences!

Now for an example of what I wish (and hope and dream!) I could write like:

My theme is memory, that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of war-time.

These memories, which are my life – for we possess nothing certainly except the past – were always with me.  Like the pigeons of St. Mark’s, they were everywhere, under my feet, singly, in pairs, in little honey-voiced congregations, nodding, strutting, winking, rolling the tender feathers of their necks, perching sometimes, if I stood still, on my shoulder or pecking a broken biscuit from between my lips; until, suddenly, the noon gun boomed and in a moment, with a flutter and sweep of wings, the pavement was bare and the whole sky above dark with a tumult of fowl.  Thus it was that morning.

Brideshead Revisited page 225

OK, what’s not to love about this one?  Even those who don’t have a romantic bone in their body and hate Evelyn Waugh (I can’t imagine going through life in this way – hating Evelyn Waugh, I mean) have to like this one.  What’s not to like about that mental image of a “honey-voiced congregation” of pigeon-memories flocking around you, there one moment and gone the next?  I love this passage especially because of the specificity of that image – the reader is diverted, for the better part of that passage, into paying attention exclusively to the figurative pigeons and remembering, with a jolt, that Waugh (or rather Charles Ryder) is talking about memories after all.  It’s sublime.

Six-Year-Olds Can’t Comprehend Hemingway

Re-reading over both Orwell and Didion’s well-known essays “Why I Write”, I was struck by a sort of despair.  Both Orwell, who believes that the act of writing about oneself at once concerns the wider public, and Didion, who insists that writers are writers because they “do not think in abstracts”, bring up genius ways of looking at the question, and I don’t dream of challenging their opinion that writing is inherently self-centered because it is as close to fact as opinion can be.  I was struck with despair because all the while I was reading I was disappointed that such greats had chosen to answer that question.  Because when it comes down to it, “Why do you write?” is a presumptuous question.  It yearns to be answered coldly, disdainfully – “because I like to” – and left at that.

Surely, I felt, “why I write” is a question beneath the dignity of answering.  And then I stopped mid-grumble because I realized that my snappish answer of “because I like to” would not only be uncharitable but untrue.  That is when I realized I couldn’t seriously answer the question, and that is where the despair came in.  But the more I think about that question (which is, after all, still foolish), the more I think it doesn’t matter to me why I write.  At least not yet.  To me, the pertinent question is not “Why do I write?” but, “Am I writing, and if not, why not?”.

This is a more telling statement than I’d like to admit.  Simply put, it means I haven’t had the time to work out why I write.  This confession may make some people consider me lazy and ill-motivated.  But some things in life can’t be sought out, and life-experience is one of these things.  To answer now with certainty the question of why I write would produce results as laughable as a six-year-old explaining Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.  That’s just the problem with being young, and being in school.  You haven’t had time to become self-centered in an introspective, proportioned sort of way.  And in any case, by virtue of being in school any of this writerly brand of introspectiveness you may have gained in your short years is promptly labeled “beside the point” and beaten out of you.  Sure, you are taught to think critically and to solve problems, but the manner of introspectiveness that I am talking about can only come when you are somewhere remote from everything, either physically or emotionally, after a long bout of experience.

Or so I’ve been told, by a number of credible and greying people who also happen to write.  Not having had vast amounts of experience at writing – real writing, not what Orwell calls “the made-to-order stuff” – I suppose I must content myself with the more immediate needs of becoming good at writing: paper, pen, and a good stack of writing by older, experienced writers.