Keeping Secrets

This is a guest post I wrote for my friend Sarah Selecky’s Story is a State of Mind blog. You can read the original post and Sarah’s own thoughts on the subject here.

Keeping Secrets

Do you remember writing notes to your parents back when you first learned how to write words? Don’t look, don’t look! you’d say, hunched over the paper to shield your work as you labored over each letter. But when you were finally finished, you’d say Look, look! and if Dad had in the meantime turned his attention to a phone call or your sibling, you’d be quite determined in chasing him down to get him to read your work. My son’s first hand-written note to me was crafted while I was cooking dinner and presented, with great ceremony, when we sat down to eat: The fude is gros.

Every act of writing involves two distinct phases, fuelled by contradictory impulses: a solitary, private phase, where outside scrutiny feels like a threat; and a social, public phase, where the danger lies in being unread or ignored. In my experience, most writers strongly prefer one of these two phases over the other, depending on their personality.

I am secretive by nature and by horoscope (Scorpio: hiding in crevices, scuttling for cover, hunting at night). As a child I showed notes to my parents, but I also wrote notes and burned them. I wrote notes on gum wrappers, folded them carefully back into the Doublemint package and carried them around, so disguised, in my backpack. I wrapped notes in masking tape and wrote DO NOT OPEN UNTIL AGE 14 and saved them in a box in my underwear drawer. I wrote secrets, meant to be discovered by me and me alone.

In my teen years I wrote for recreation and refuge but also for revenge. Puritanical parents, meddling teachers, disloyal friends—all would be excoriated in my diary. I’d write outrageous things about them, disgusting things. I’d tell myself that if any of these people read my diary, the ensuing shock and hurt would be exactly what they deserved for violating my privacy.

Nowadays my daylight hours are anything but private. As an English prof at a big urban university, I lecture to 120 students at a time. I sit in meetings, hold office hours, attend conferences and research talks. At home there is homework to supervise, snacks to prepare, yard work, groceries, laundry. So more than ever before, my writing is my hideout. It’s the place I go to be alone, where I’m answerable only to myself and can actually hear myself over the clamor. Recently I’ve begun waking up at 5:00am to write before the school day begins. There’s no traffic outside, no footsteps on the stairs, no emails. A wholly secret window of time.

Research shows [link to article] that secret goals are more powerful than ones you share. If you gab about your goals—with friends and family, say—you’ll feel pleasant feelings of satisfaction, even accomplishment. But if you’re already feeling satisfied and accomplished you’ll be less motivated to strive for the actual accomplishment. For me, though, it’s even more than a desire not to dissipate the drive. For me the secrecy is an end in itself. The first draft of a new novel has the same delicious-secret sensation attached to it as my childhood hidden notes and my teenaged diary. The creative excitement of I am making something new is boosted through the roof by Nobody even knows. I am addicted to this feeling of audaciousness and transgression. Checking my manuscript’s growing word count gives me a dirty little thrill, like hoarding.

But what about accountability? What about the demoralizing, work-halting realization that if no one knows, no one cares? This is the downside of keeping secrets. I have definitely suffered from drifting off course—from letting work and life pull me away from my writing—and having nobody to steer me back. It’s a little easier now that I’m past the aspiring-writer stage. Having an agent and editors means that someone, sometimes, will ask after the work, and a deadline is always a great kick in the pants. But the real help comes from regular writing dates with a couple of like-minded friends. We don’t read each other’s work. We just sit together at a café with our laptops. These friends support me in showing up to the page without needing to show the pages themselves.

At some point, of course, the cat has to be let out of the bag. The difference between a novel and a diary is that eventually the novel has to find readers. Like all writers I yearn for the moment when my book has its moment in the sun. But when that moment comes, when I’m smiling and saying my thank yous and talking about how I came up with my ideas, I hope to be beavering away on the next secret first draft.

mapping it out

Photo 2015-03-02, 11 46 40 AMWriting a first draft–a “discovery draft,” as I like to call it–has to end somewhere. This is a blessed relief, because drafting is scary and hard. You do it blind. You have no idea whether what you’re writing is “going anywhere” or whether it’ll be any good (in fact, it’s not good, it’s terrible, that’s why they call it a ROUGH draft).

When do you know you’re finished with a first draft? For me it’s when there are no more gaps in the basic story. Figuring this out involves laying receipt tape on the dining table and monkeying with the order of the scenes I’ve written, each of which is represented by a sticky note. What you see here is my entire draft mapped out on a single tape, plus my notebook containing the scenes or part-scenes I still have to write.

What I haven’t done yet is make tapes for individual subplots, character development/relationships, significant objects or any of the many other aspects of the book that will eventually require mapping out. I thought I might do this today too–thus the extra (blank) tapes–but I realized that it’s too early. That’ll be second-draft work, the equally-but-differently scary and hard work of revision.

PS: Instead of sticky notes, Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black uses index cards–check out his amazingly organized process.

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?