Jump-starting the Writing Day (or Night)

“A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people,” said Thomas Mann, and it’s a quote that now peppers blogs and other sites across the web. One of the most difficult things about writing is often just getting started each day, whether you’re facing a blank page (or blank screen) or faced with an endlessly-piling sheaf of pages, thousands of words to be sorted, arranged, fixed — in that most awful and dreaded of terms: revised. 

It’s become almost a hackneyed question posed to successful writers: How do you write? What’s your routine? pencil, pen, computer? morning, night? standing, sitting, leaned back in the bathtub? Still, I understand the impetus behind the question — this sense that the right circumstances might be most conducive to what is, for many of us, a painful process. And those writers’ answers can sometimes be illuminating and helpful: At a Writer’s Center event not long ago, Ann Hagedorn said that she played the same music each time she sat down to write — a new piece for each new book she embarked on — and that eventually the melodies playing out became synonymous with the process of her mind gearing up to write, triggering her to get to work. (I’ve adopted this myself: In her case, it was some piece of classical music; for my own novel-in-progress, it’s Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth.) 

When my friend Kyle gets ready for a rare day of his own writing (see Saturday’s post), he always reads first, he tells me — reads something, as I understand it, that will immerse him quickly in language, in the way another writer has thought and written, but not enough that he subconsciously adopts another’s style. Once he’s read a little, then he turns to his own work and his own words. It’s a warm-up of sorts.

Another good warm-up is a writing exercise — one perhaps entirely separate from the novel or other project itself. My fiancée, Tara, and I sometimes embark on one of these simultaneously, just as a way of limbering up the mind and the fingers. Plenty of books out there offer advice and guidance to aspiring writers — I’ve got a backlog of them both from classes I took in grad school and from classes I’ve been teaching myself in more recent years — and Tara and I have found that these are fun ways to get the creative juices flowing quickly OR (even better) to remind us that writing can actually be FUN. I want to share one new source for these exercises here.

Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones, has recently published another book on writing — her first on the subject in 20 years. Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir offers up mini-essays and a vast array of exercises to help aspiring writers “pick up the pen, and kick some ass.” Some of these are little more than prompts for 10-minutes free-writes (or even shorter, three-minute “sprints”), but Goldberg prefaces them with thoughtful and provocative meditations on writing (and on life) that might provide inspiration for memoirists, novelists, short story writers and more. Here’s the one we tried recently:

“What was outside your bedroom window? Go for ten.”

Simple and straightforward — maybe even a little dull — but the short paragraphs that we compared at the end of those ten minutes showed us thinking in vastly different directions and opened up ideas for other stories.  

Here’s another, just chosen here at random (the way Tara and I usually choose these) but clearly a little more complex and a little more challenging:

Often we are pulled between two places. They can be where you were brought up versus where you live now; a country place versus a city place; the sea versus the plains. What are the two places the pull at you? (Of course, there might be more, but for right now distill it to two.) Often they are projections of our inner psyche.

Go. Ten minutes. Tell us about them. Give us the pull, the conflict, the desire. Write.

Not a bad exercise to get folks writing or thinking like writers or even just thinking. I’ll try to post some more soon, from other books, but glad to give a quick plug to Goldberg’s latest here.

Finally, speaking of navigating different aspects of your past and your persona, this morning’s Washington Post has an interesting and even intimate appreciation of David Foster Wallace, who hanged himself last week. The story, by Monica Hesse, whose father taught with Wallace at Illinois State University, offers a brief but revealing look at the man behind the work and one of the towns in which he lived.


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