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Writing Alone, Writing Together
A Guide for Writers and Writing Groups
By Judy Reeves
New World LibraryCopyright © 2002 Judy Reeves
All rights reserved.
A Writer Is Someone Who Writes
Gertrude Stein wrote, "To write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write." Who can say what she meant (she also wrote, "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose"), except perhaps exactly what she wrote: that writing is all and everything of it, the beginning and the end. That to write is to write. We just do it. How to get started writing? Write. How to keep going? Write.
Sadly, for many of us it just isn't that simple. We have trouble getting started, we have trouble keeping the pace and, too often, we simply give up or our enthusiasm and determination trickle away, like a stream petering out.
But because writing is in our hearts and souls and DNA, after a few weeks or months or even years, we're back at it again. More determined than ever that, this time, we'll stay with it.
Maybe we do and maybe we don't. In my experience as a teacher, more often than not people don't stay with it. For some, the cycle repeats and repeats. Because we can't keep the thing going, we begin to judge ourselves failures at writing, our self-esteem goes the way of our tossed out pages, and after a while, it becomes more and more difficult to begin again.
This is heartbreaking. Because we are writers and when we aren't being fully and wholly ourselves — when a piece of ourselves is missing — we can never feel at home in the world or at peace within ourselves. Writing is who we are. Not all of who we are, but enough of who we are that when we're not writing, we're not whole.
Claim Yourself As Writer
Until you name yourself Writer, you will never be a writer who writes (and keeps writing).
Most writers I know, especially those who have not published, say, "I want to be a writer." Or "I'm a [fill in the blank] and I like to write." Or "I've always dreamed of being a writer." But they don't actually call themselves a writer. Think of all the other names you give yourself: man/woman, mother/father, wife/husband, friend, teacher, technician, masseuse, lawyer, gardener, chef. We take each of these names as a way of identifying ourselves, both to others and to ourselves. We are what we say we are. In some cultures, new names are assumed when character-evolving events take place. These names indicate the person has been transformed.
Success for a writer doesn't necessarily mean being published (but it can), or even making a living as a writer. Each of us must determine our own version of success. For some it's writing every day, for others it's completing a particular project. Do a five-minute freewriting that begins, "When I'm a successful writer I ..."
If you announce you are a writer, rather than simply mouthing that you want to be or you'd like to be, you may be transformed. Try it. Right now. Speak your name out loud followed by, "I'm a writer." Let yourself experience the sensations you feel when you sound out the words.
"But I haven't been published yet," you might say, as if this were the thing that would give you the right to call yourself writer. After all, when you tell people you're a writer, don't they always ask, "Oh, and what have you published?"
Listen to this: Being published doesn't have anything to do with being a writer! It has to do with earning money as a writer. Maybe. Getting some kind of validation and recognition, perhaps notoriety and fame. Though truth be told, the majority of published writers don't earn all that much money or notoriety or fame. We might say, to be published is to be published is to be published. To be sure, getting published is the aim of many of us. After all, we write to communicate, and having an audience is the flip side of the communication coin. But it is not the reason we write. We write because it is what we must do. Anne Sexton said, "When I am writing I am doing the thing I was meant to do."
Besides, once we are published, this doesn't mean we will stop writing. We will continue to write. This is what writers do. I have this vision of me at my writing table, a fat roll of butcher's paper at one end and a take-up reel with a crank at the other end. The paper just keeps passing beneath my pen and I just keep writing. As the old joke goes, "Old writers never die, they just keep revising the ending."
How do you claim yourself as writer?
First, say it. "I'm a writer." Say it out loud. Say it to yourself in the mirror. Say it to your friends and family. Say it to the next person you meet at a party who asks, "What do you do?" Say it to a stranger in line at the grocery store. Say it to your mother. Mostly, say it to yourself. "I'm a writer."
Create a biography of yourself as writer. Begin with your earliest memory of "being a writer," and follow the path of your writing journey up to the present day. Include stops and starts along the way, high points and lows, celebrations and doubts. List groups you belonged to and projects you started (and completed, or not). Take your time and let memories surface. After you've completed your history, reread what you've written to discover patterns or recurring cycles.
Make a place for your writing, a sacred place where you go with joy as your companion, not dread or guilt or "shoulds" riding your shoulders like weights of sand. If you don't already have a room or specific place, make one. Take up a whole room or a section of a room. Before she created her own studio, my friend Wendy used a screen to separate her writing place from the rest of the living room. If the only space you can free up for your writing is part of a table, sometimes, when you're not eating on it, then make it a special place. When you go there for your writing, bring along a candle or lamp or some flowers, anything that transforms the space from the quotidian to the unique. Make it important and make it yours however you can. Claim the space.
Get the tools you need. Honor your writing with the kind of paper or notebook you like; buy your favorite pens by the box or spend a bundle on that Waterman or Mont Blanc you've always wanted. Have a computer that belongs to you — not one you have to share — and a good printer. It's amazing what just printing out your writing using a laser jet printer will do to make it look — and you feel — professional. Get a good dictionary, thesaurus, and stylebook. Find books on the craft and subscribe to writing journals.
Hang out with other writers. Go to readings and book signings, open mikes. Communicate with other writers. Drop a note to someone whose book you admire and tell them (not in a gushy, fan magazine kind of way, but as one writer to another). Sign up for workshops and conferences. Get in a group.
Read as a writer. Learn from the best. Study your favorite authors, and copy passages into your notebook to get the feel of their rhythm and style. Deconstruct their sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and chapters to discover their techniques and their secrets. Read the work aloud and discuss the books with your writer friends. Next to the act of writing itself, reading good writing will be your best teacher.
It may not be an entire "room of our own," but each of us needs to have our own writing space. Take five minutes for a freewriting that begins, "My ideal writing space is ..." After you've completed this exploration, do another freewriting that describes your current writing space. If the two don't match up (and they probably won't), give some thought to ways you can transfer some of your "ideals" into your present-day situation.
Make Time to Write
The second thing you must do to be a writer who writes is make the time to write. This is where many would-be writers fall short. Unless you make the time to write, you'll never write. Extra time won't just show up, and if you promise to do your writing "as soon as ..." you'll never get to it. Take it from one who knows. For the better part of twenty-five years, I was a writer who would write "as soon as ..."; I had more stops and starts in my writing career than a local train. It wasn't until I actually set aside writing time on a regular basis that I became a writer who writes.
Make an appointment with your writing self, write it down in your calendar: 2:00 P.M. Monday: Write; 3:30 P.M. Tuesday: Write; 9:15 A.M. Wednesday: Write; and so forth.
Find a time that fits you. Don't set aside two hours if you can only do thirty minutes. Don't set your alarm for 5:30 in the morning if you always resist getting up and hate the mornings. You may come to resent your writing as much as you resent the alarm clock. By the same token, don't say you'll do it at night after everything else is done if, by 8:30, you're supine on the couch and can't keep your eyes open. Find a time that works for you. Take half your lunch hour. Do it right after work. Get up half an hour earlier. If you have the flexibility to make your own schedule, set aside time during the workday.
In my classes I listen to the complaints of students who say they just don't have time to write, then I ask for a show of hands of those who watch television on a regular basis or those who surf the Web. When the rows of hands waving in the air look like an Iowa cornfield in August, I ask again, "Who can't find the time to write?" Sheepish grins and embarrassed giggles. Write instead of watching TV, instead of surfing the Web, instead of spending an hour or more reading the newspaper, instead of going out with friends. You have to give up something. Even if it's only leisure time in front of the tube.
Note: don't give up taking walks or witnessing sunsets.
Keep a writing calendar. For a month, note the times you wrote and the times you planned to write and didn't (and what interfered with your plans.) This exercise is especially helpful for those who have difficulty sustaining a writing practice, or keeping writing dates with themselves. If writing down the times you plan to write helps you keep to your practice, keep doing it!
You may have always heard that if you want to be a writer, you have to write every day. This is not an absolute rule. Few rules are. To be successful (i.e., a writer who writes), you do have to write several times a week — at least four or five sessions, and every day is best. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon swears by his 10 P.M. to 4 A.M. Sunday-Thursday routine. Part of it is the daily habit of it and part of it is the continuity. The writing will come easier with regular practice, too. You get better at something you do often. Mick Jagger said, "You have to sing every day so you can build up to being, you know, Amazingly Brilliant."
In a New Yorker (January 28, 2002) article titled "The Learning Curve — How Do You Become a Good Surgeon? Practice," Atul Gawande related the importance of practice. In writing about elite performers, he said, "[T]he most important talent may be the talent for practice itself." He referred to K. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist, who noted that "the most important role that innate factors play may be in a person's willingness to engage in sustained training."
Like exercise or losing weight or taking a class, sometimes it's a whole lot easier to do it with a supportive companion. Make a date with a friend for writing. If you can't get together in person, make a phone call or e-mail one another to say, "I wrote today" or "I'm going to write at 6:30 this evening," or "How'd the writing go today?"
Waiting for inspiration to descend before you write is like waiting for Godot. Interminable. It's been said that if you show up at your page at the agreed upon time, inspiration will know where to find you. Someone else said, "Writing is 20 percent inspiration and 80 percent perspiration." Besides, if writing is your daily practice, you won't need inspiration to get to it. Imagine waiting for inspiration to rest her shining arms around you before you take the dog for a walk or drive to work.
Finally, the third leg in the triangle of being a writer who writes is, of course, doing the thing. Talking about writing isn't writing. Thinking about writing isn't writing. Dreaming or fantasizing isn't writing. Neither are outlining, researching, or making notes. All these may be a part of the whole milieu of the writing life and necessary to getting a project completed, but only writing is writing.
"You can't sit around thinking," said fiction writer David Long. "You must sit around writing."
So every day, at the appointed time (or at some spontaneous gift of time), you sit at your desk (or your table in the café or on the grass in the park), you open your notebook or you boot up your computer, and you write.
Three Easy Steps to Becoming a Writer Who Writes
1. Claim yourself as writer
2. Make time to write
Do this every day and I will guarantee you, you will fill notebook after notebook, you will begin and complete stories, essays, narrative nonfiction — whatever you want to write. You will have bits and pieces and wild, imaginative ramblings. You will be a Writer Who Writes.
The Candle, the Prayer, the Morning Light: Rites and Rituals, Methods and Disciplines of the Writer
The small crystal pyramid on the windowsill catches morning light that laces through thick leaves of the avocado tree in the backyard. On the table, a book of meditations; pressed to the window ledge, a prayer written on a yellow sticky note. There is a candle, a blue one for serenity and peace. There is coffee in a black ceramic mug and three thick-nibbed pens. She has already worked through her morning exercises and stretched and downed a bottle of water. The neighbor's dog has already come for his morning treat, his tail thumping against the wooden boards of the porch. Now, it is time to write.
She will light the candle. She will say the prayer. She will read the meditation, and then she will open her notebook and begin. It is her morning ritual.
One or two days in the week, she gathers all her notebooks and sits before her computer and enters page after page of the raw, rough writing she's scratched out. Copying word for messy word, the scrawled convolutions and mixed metaphors and even the occasional fine image or phrase. She inputs all the intentions and ideas and half-wrought imagery. Mostly she does this without judgment. That comes later.
When all the pages are transferred from notebook birthing place to computer cradle, she will save them in files, print them out, take them to her kitchen table or spread them out on the couch beneath the brass lamp, or pack them up and take them to a café, where she'll order an Americano (single, with room for cream), and read what's there. She'll scrawl notes to herself and change words or phrases, stretch long lines between this paragraph and that, altering the order. In go the asterisks with accompanying notes of what to add or take away, doodles of little doors that mean "enter here, go deeper," references to what rouses her curiosity. And for days, back and forth she'll travel between computer and notebook, covering page after page with her blue-tinged notes until she can't read the paper and must start anew. Until finally, she's nearly satisfied with the draft of a scene or a story or a narrative that she'll take to her group for read and critique.
Write about your rituals and routines. Include where you write and when, what you do before and after. List what mementos or keepsakes you have in your writing space and what they mean to you. Include how you dress, what tools you use, and any other particulars that have to do with your writing practice.
Then it's back to the beginning. The candle. The prayer. The morning sun filtering through the thick green leaves of the avocado tree.
This is one person's practice. Ask any writer and you'll get the same kind of detailed answer. We all have our ceremonies and rituals that don't so much accompany our writing as form part and parcel of the whole thing.
Schiller sniffed his rotten fruit, Dumas père ate his morning apple beneath the Arc de Triomphe. Stephen King has "my glass of water, my vitamin pill, my music, my same seat, and the papers all arranged in the same places." Willa Cather read the Bible; Stendhal read the French civil code. We have our coffee or tea or stiff bourbon at 5:00 P.M.; we munch on nuts or raisins or M&Ms or red licorice or raw carrots. We write our ten pages before noon or we walk our twenty blocks before we begin. Music or silence, before the sun rises or after it sets, writing by hand or strictly by computer. These are the things we do.
Excerpted from Writing Alone, Writing Together by Judy Reeves. Copyright © 2002 Judy Reeves. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Writing Alone,
2 Writing Together,
3 Writing Groups,
4 Read and Critique Groups,
5 Writing Practice Groups,
6 Writing Workshop Groups,
7 Beyond Groups,
Appendix: Online Groups,
About the Author,