Wednesday, September 08, 2010

An Elaboration

The Q&A part of a reading can be difficult for the writer. You're trying to understand the question which is sometimes asked from the back of the room with a mushy mouth. You're thinking of what you want to say to answer the question, and you're wondering if you are making any sense, and wondering whether you are going on too long, or not long enough. And so, I wanted to take a minute to elaborate on one of the questions that I was asked at last night's Barnes & Noble event, in hopes that if I didn't completely get the right answer out, I'm taking a second chance here.

Q: Do you get writer's block?

A: I don't. I've never had trouble getting words out of me, but I constantly have trouble getting the right words out. So far, at least, is has never dried up. I think non-writers ask this question because they think it's something that every writer feels every now and then. I think writer's ask this question because they are looking for ways out of it--they want to know if you have any practical strategies.

So, the only strategy I have is this: make your work less precious. Kill your babies, as they say. If you are having trouble writing, write something else. Write something you think is awful, something you'd never want anyone to see. You have to remember that you're a living, breathing artist, and the work you produce is going to be uneven. It's going to be fragile, and it's going to need time to mature and become something great. (This is why novels take a long, long time; we want you to feel the passing of time that happened during the making of it.)

This is not to say that I want you to make your work "less good." I don't, and you shouldn't either. It should be the most fantastic, the most political, the most beautiful, the most perfect version of the story you have inside you that is dying, unbearably, to get outside of you. But that kind of writing only comes with revision, and until you have a first draft, you can't revise. So write, write, write through the pain, through the blockage, just write.

And if you really, truly, impossibly, can not write....then do something else for a while. Pausing is not the same as stopping. While you're taking a break, make colored paper collages with cheap materials you buy from the 99 cent store. Make brioche. Listen. Listen deeply to what's close and . Keep the movement in your brain, and keep the movement in your fingers.

If you're working on a novel, at some point in the writing of it, it will want to be the only words. (I think Alexander Chee was the first person to tell me this would happen, and like most things he says, it was true.) You will be unable to read the newspaper, or other books. You will be unable to concentrate on anything but the narrative that your characters are living in. This is the opposite of writer's block, when the story and the paragraphs will be coming faster than you can get them down--like a storm on the prairie that you can see coming from far, far away. But until this happens, let yourself be distracted by the museum, by Bernadette Peters in A Little Night Music, by the brioche, by the long chatty conversation with your mother on a Friday night.

Well, now this post ended up being a bit rambling and not very sense-making either. This is a difficult question to elaborate on. Thank you to the guy who asked this last night--from the back of the room, in a clear voice.

1 comment:

Jane said...

Have you ever read the book Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking? It's not about writing, but so much of it applies to writing. Anyway, they say something similar to you: "Stopping is not the same thing as quitting." So, like you, they are very understanding when someone pauses or takes a break from their artmaking, which is quite different from completely throwing in the towel.

I have sometimes said to myself, No writing this week. It's good to be aware of making that decision, I think, so as not to feel like a shirker.