how to write without writing

This is ridiculous.  I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever had it this bad.  I sulk around all day and snipe at my family all evening.  I cannot physically restrain myself from leaping up seconds after I sit down.  I suffer nightmares about forgetting my lines, choking up, gagging.  I spend fortunes on notebooks, paper, pens.  These lie in a pile on my desk while I binge on Etsy.  I cancel social plans to punish myself.  I am obsessed with planning meals and keeping up with laundry-folding.

In other words, the writing is not going well.

But while I’m not writing, I am making lists.  To-do lists, groceries, lists of my goals and aspirations, ideas for fortieth-birthday bashes, titles for future books, gift ideas for everyone I know, research questions, favorite women’s-lib slogans, baby names (I know; what babies??).  I have dozens of lists and nothing else.

Anchor, Paperback, 9780385480017, 272pp.

So I turn to one of my favorite writing books ever: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.  Some Instructions on Writing and Life, is its subtitle, and this hints at the secret of its best-selling staying power.  Lamott stages an effective writer’s-block intervention by recognizing that writing is an activity deeply connected to a writer’s sense of self.  She reassures us, right off the bat, that writing is a cruel and lonely process, and that most everyone goes a bit nutty when faced with a blinking cursor or a blank page.

But the manual is also replete with practical strategies.  I review these with the sensation of being thrown a life preserver.  The next day, I sit down determined to follow Lamott’s sage advice.  Specifically, I give myself only a Short Assignment, and aim for only a Shitty First Draft (both Lamott’s terms).  But it doesn’t work.  Nothing comes to me, and within an hour I’m crawling with anxiety and shame at failing to meet even these most elementary standards.

The day after that I try again.  This time, after ten desperate minutes, I tell myself not to write a Shitty First Draft.  Instead I decide to write a list.

I decide to list, in full sentences and in order,  everything I need to say in the scene I want to write.  I pretend that my memory will be erased at the end of this writing session, and that I’ll need to refer to my list for any salvageable content.  I don’t write actual sentences, you understand.  Just a list of sentences.  Each time I feel myself slowing down or  becoming reluctant, I write “1-2-3” down the page and fill in the list.

In two hours I have more than six pages, single spaced.  I’ve lost track of my numbering system, of course; arrows and crosses and half-sentences abound.  It’s the shittiest first draft I can imagine.  But. . .it’s a draft!

Lamott’s wisdom sounds simple, right?: get out of your own way, avoid perfectionism, give yourself permission to be messy and proceed with half-measures.  But I need to hear it again and again–I need even to find my own, silly trick for enacting it–because for me, starting is always the scariest part of writing.  The self-discipline it takes is an utter paradox to me, in that getting to work means giving up control.

The nice thing about duping oneself into coughing some words–any words–onto the page is that having those words feels just as good as having written something instantaneously brilliant.  I feel like a million bucks tonight, prolific and generous and entitled to all sorts of treats.  And best of all, I feel hopeful about tomorrow’s session.

A draft in the form of a list.  Whyever not?

2 thoughts on “how to write without writing

  1. Paradox indeed. Good point! But…the other problem is that as soon as I become settled with one trick, I have to start another.

    Cruel world, the writing one. Sigh. Thanks for post!!


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