What Writing Looks Like

At my job I'm supposed to be writing, but at one point I pushed the chair back from the desk, crossed one leg over the other, put my hands behind my neck, leaned way back in the chair, and stared at the plaster wall for a couple minutes toward the end of which I worried that someone might walk in and doubt I was earning my keep. Had anyone asked what I was doing, I would have wanted to answer, "I'm writing," but probably would have said I was thinking because so few people would believe that, staring at the wall, I really was writing.

The look of writing differs throughout the process, changes according to the kind of work and the tools employed, and varies according to the writer. It even sounds different. I talk to myself while writing, whispering the lines as I work through something difficult. Sometimes writing is a good pen moving across and down the page. Most of my writing has me sitting at a desk rapping too hard on the keys and beating holy hell out of the space bar with my thumbs. I'd hate to share an office with me. But writing is also staring at the wall, looking out the window, filling the water bottle or coffee cup, crumpling a sheet of paper, massaging the eyes, and sometimes going for a walk or a run. Aaron Sorkin writes in the shower. I doubt he brings the paper and pen or his Macbook in there, but he's not taking a break so much as advancing the process.

No one questions Aaron Sorkin at this point. Not anyone with half a brain. I'm a lot less established and feel the need to account for what I'm doing. Good people are paying me money to write and I'd hate to have them think my staring at the wall is a waste of all that. I want to explain that looking at the wall got me the fix for the paragraph on page three. I pretty much wrote it on that wall, my body reclined in the chair, hands behind my head, but the pen in my head writing, scratching, and rewriting words. I found the words as if they were written in the textures and patches on that wall. I just needed to see their outlines enough to begin hearing them drop into place one after the other, one sentence and then another.

Now that's writing.

No one caught me in the act of it and had to hear my explanation. Except you.

I've been staring now at the two-word sentence that precedes this one, wondering, how will this end? Check back with me in a while. I'll still be staring out the window, into the pattern of the carpet, or maybe even at the painted wall. You'll have to get my attention. I leave this world when I'm writing even without pen or keyboard involved. I hate to come back until I've found the words and have arrived at the period that finishes it off just so.

No Apprenticeship. No Master.

Cutting potatoes for a recipe I got thinking about technique. I cut vegetables all wrong, holding my knife poorly, and though I curve my fingers away I'm sure I'm an accident waiting to happen. Sharpening my knife on the stone, I'm less than amateur, almost clown-like. Sorry, clowns. No offense. There are YouTube videos I should watch to help myself learn, but I really want a teacher.

My mother has never liked cooking. Her mother died too young and Mom got stuck preparing meals, feeling no joy at all. I learned to make a lasagna from her and enjoyed our time together in the kitchen. I like to think she enjoyed those times too, but cooking was such an obligation. I learned some from her, but she was no master. No one masters something they hate to do.

My brother enjoyed the kitchen as much as the workshop or garage. He watched The Frugal Gourmet, bought one of his cookbooks, and prepared dishes as he had seen them done. Never one to shy from teaching himself, he went in knowing he could do it and so of course he could. I started cooking with him. He taught me to curl my fingers under as I used a knife and a lot more.

We used Mom's kitchen tools which were no good. Her generation was under the impression that anything would do. Her knives were cheap, dull, and couldn't be sharpened. My brother bought some of his own things and I learned the value of proper tools and technique.

I've come a good long way since then, mostly by trial and error, and while I can put a meal together, I'm not doing things in the traditional and proven ways, and with the level of success I want to achieve. Which is a way of saying that I have a lot to learn.

My friend is a photographer and has taught himself the art and craft. He has worked at it but seems a natural. Polished, practiced people often do. I know it has all come to him over time, that he has tried and erred, but by now it's as if he has magic in him. He continues to work at it and is student and teacher all in one. He is his own school of photography.

I'm not as good at running a school for myself. Ironic, given that I'm a teacher. I wish I was better at it, but it's not my forte. This is why I often wish I could apprentice to some chef or, better still, some writer.

I learned what I could learn of writing in school and college. That was all twenty-five years ago. Since then I've been mostly on my own. That's not bad. I've learned a lot about writing but almost nothing about publishing. A mentor, teacher, guru, or master to whom I could apprentice myself seems like the way to make it all work.

That or I could just dig in and push myself to figure it out. Even if I cut the vegetables with less than perfect technique, the soup will taste fine. I just have to manage not to cut my fingers off in the process. Lucky for me, my pen isn't nearly as sharp.

Them's The Breaks

I haven't posted in a couple days. Things got busy and I've wondered about other kinds of writing I want to do. Posting daily takes work — though I don't want to oversell it since I can gin up a post in half an hour — and there are times it leaves me without the energy to write something longer. And then there are the streaks and the break.

Streaks sometimes work. They keep me going when I want to quit. A long streak gets me over my inertia.

But streaks can get in my way and become more important than the thing I'm really trying to do. That was how daily blogging had begun to feel. I was churning out mediocre posts that weren't making me happy and got in the way of other writing. I took a break so I might come back with a better idea of how to proceed.

I've kept my Morning Pages streak. People confuse the blog with those. There are posts that come from the morning's pages, but not often. Morning Pages are less about writing than about daily practice like meditation or prayer. I find balance through them. Without them the last five years of my job would have been unbearable. Morning Pages teach me who I am. That streak is easy to maintain. Every time I consider breaking it, I reconsider and keep going. The daily-ness feels necessary and good. It doesn't get in the way.

I'll try to keep publishing a newsletter each week. It's a great way to keep up with people, understand audience, and have fun.

Here are my guiding questions for streaks:

  • Is it making me happy?
  • Is it making me a better person?
  • Is it making me a better writer?
  • Would a break improve things?

It has been a good break. I'm back today, happy, better, and ready to see what happens next.

Those questions are a good guide to most anything. Go figure.

Morning Pages As Metaphor

First of May. Wet and rainy. This morning was cold. I woke early listening to the rain, trying to resist the call of my bladder. I lost that battle. Downstairs I pet the cat, told her she had to wait for food, disappointing her once again. I took pen and phone to the basement though lately I wonder why I bring the phone. I'm not listening to music as I write, preferring forty-five minutes of quiet. My life feels too noisy. I need some solitude.

I wrote the date and page number on each of the three pages and wrote that it was cold. Writing flowed from there, but distracting thoughts kept intruding. I thought of one thing I had to do today, then another, then another until it was as though I were trying to write one line of thought while screaming and having a seizure.

Rather than give up, I switched to writing the panic and anxiety. Then I wrote this one word: breathe. I stopped the pen, closed my eyes, breathed in deeply, held it, and exhaled. I went back to writing.

At some point I thought of how many lines I fill every morning. Three pages of thirty-one lines each. Ninety-three blank lines. I can write only one line at a time and when there are ninety-two to go, it can feel daunting. But if I write about it soon there are only eighty-three lines to go, then sixty-one, thirty, and half a dozen.

Morning Pages take me forty-five minutes most days. Once in a while I get distracted and they take an hour. Then there are times I wake late and have to rush through in half an hour. Whatever the case, it's one line at a time, one word after another, one page, two pages, and then three pages. There's no other way other than to give up. I've come so far that I don't want to break the streak. I keep going.

There are lessons about writing to be gleaned from doing Morning Pages, but the more important things have to do with living. I don't know all those lessons. I'm still learning. But these few come to mind: Do one thing, breathe, and do another. Fill one line at a time and understand that ninety-three lines only seems like a lot. Turn each page over and move to the next one. Don't stop until they are all finished. Remember to keep the hand, arm, neck, and body loose. Stop to pet the cat when she visits. Listen to the sound of the pen on the page.

One more thing thing I'm learning: it's going to be okay.

I finished my pages. I breathed that in. Then I moved on to the next thing. Tomorrow I'll fill three more pages. This is all there is to it. This is a life.