Friday, August 10, 2012

The Bandages Come Off

For some reason, I’m the one standing up here, but the truth is, if we’re going to talk about writing, if we’re going to dissect a story, we should be on our knees. Not to worship – although yes, reading a great story is like being inside a cathedral, the power of the words hushing you, turning your head this way and that. We should be on our knees because we’re in this thing together. I have no monopoly on storytelling. You have stories – you’ve brought them with you, whether you know it or not – and I will have failed you if I remain standing behind a podium or on a stage instead of on my knees right here with you, our hands in the dirt. The truth is that if we want to get into this thing – this process of writing – we better be ready to get down and excavate.

I’m not trying to be flowery when I say these things. At any reading I’ve ever done, there is always someone who asks me, “What advice would you give to someone trying to publish?”  I tell them to forget at first trying to publish. I tell them to read and keep reading until they find some book, some writer, who sets them all aflame. Then practice getting close to that flame. Get your hand closer until you go from discomfort to sizzling palm, until you say, I cannot write as well as this writer and it makes me sick. Are you there yet?  Yes? No? Either way, read some more.

I tell my students that Sherwood Anderson, now no more than dust and bone fragments in a box, will teach them more than I ever can sitting across from them with some flimsy handouts. Read and read and read and then, Step 2: write fearlessly. What does that mean? To write fearlessly? Not to dump your diary on the page like a pepper shaker. Keep your diary. But dump your passion on the page. Dump your blood.

Look, you’re going to leave this talk and go eat a cheeseburger somewhere and go home and feed the cat and sleep and dream, but remember this one thing, if you remember nothing else I say: No one has ever read something and said, you know, there was too much passion in this.

Here’s something I wrote recently, fearlessly. And when I say fearlessly, I mean that I was fearless writing the words – I did not stop them – but I was terrified to let them be published. My ego said, my secret shame said, why would anyone care what I have to say? I took my ego and my secret shame outside and beat them to a pulp. They pissed their pants, and I hit send. Be brave. It’s okay to look foolish. Hit send.

By now you realize there is nothing glamorous about this. I write; I have written. What I do is go into a room, wrestle my butt into a chair, tug on my face, eat potato chips, write some words, delete those words, write new words, re-arrange the new words. Hate it, fall in love with it, do it all over again.

Here’s what I don’t do. I don’t walk around waving my arms, saying, “You know, I love the idea of being a writer.” You know what? Being a writer means being poor and anxious and vulnerable and competitive and grasping. It's not at all romantic. If you want a fantasy gig, try Iron Man, flying around with flames shooting out of his feet. It makes no sense to talk about all the great American novels you’re going to write if you’re never going to write them.  If you want to write, sit down, uncurl your fingers, and for heaven’s sake, write.

I don’t wait for inspiration or muses or bugs landing on my shoulders, whispering in my ear. Here’s what I also don’t do: aim for perfection. The biggest mistake my students make is that when I ask them to write something, they start acting like their world is made of glass. They get scared. When the stories come, they sound like they’re being told from inside a gym sock. It’ll get closer to perfect when you revise, but for now, just begin. Screw caution. Write with muscle. Write about work, write about what’s happening in the world or what’s happening in your bedroom. Aim to make someone feel something.

Go word by word. Write the way that Spiderman gets around. Let one image unfold into the next. A student wrote this sentence: “Those words haunted her, and soon it made her crazy enough to be checked into a mental institute.” I wrote this sentence as another option: “Those six words, thick and heavy as asphalt, haunted her, took her down a road so far and fast she couldn’t turn her head, took her, finally, to a place without windows.” Those words, what words? Give them weight, a number, connect them to the tangible. From asphalt grows the road, Spiderman’s web. From the road grows the journey (far and fast), the inevitability of “crazy” conveyed by the fact she can’t turn her head. She can’t see any other options. Mental institute just sits there. Make it “a place without windows,” and we feel what a mental institute could be, what it would mean for this character.  One image unfolds into the next.

You know what breaks my heart? On more occasions than I’d like to admit, someone will approach me and say, “I should sit down with you and tell you some of my stories, let you write them down.” When I ask this person why she doesn’t write her stories herself, she always says, “Oh, I can’t. I don’t have the time. I don’t have the gift, the way with words.”

If you have a story to tell – and you know you do – tell it. Write it. Get it down. Don’t leave your children to a stranger, to some uncertain moment in the future, what you imagine to be the perfect hour. Take off the bandages and describe what you see, scabs and dried blood. This is what good writing is, the things we don’t yet realize we need to see. If the bandages are tight, slice through them with your pen. Watch the ink stain the muslin. Be brave. Get down on your knees.

- Excerpted from a talk I gave at the Nye Beach Writers Series, May 2012.