Thought for Day 25: What to Write About

This thought comes, again, from Steven Pressfield’s THE WAR OF ART.

I have noticed two major terms writers like to use when insulting other writers:  hack and precious.  I’m not exactly sure what precious means, except I get the impression that it has something to do with the kind of writing one associates with greeting cards.  I’m positive that it is always a matter of taste and opinion because I heard someone call Italo Calvino precious and Italo Calvino is a god.  See what I mean:

Precious, again, is a matter of opinion.

Hack, I understand, especially because Pressfield lays it out for us at the end of this book:

A hack writes hierarchically.  He writes what he imagines will play well in the presence of others.  He does not ask himself, What do I myself want to write?  What do I think is important? Instead he asks, What’s hot? What can I make a deal for?

(152).

Hacks sound pretty smart to me but I still don’t want to be one.  Hence, my poverty.

I found, during my MFA, that I can’t commit to a project that makes me feel like a hack.  I wrote about 200 pages of a novel and then stopped because I let someone see it who said that the writing was unimaginative.  That scared me, because imagination is a pretty big part of my (and your) identity as a writer.  If he was wrong, which I don’t think he was, I think I would have felt that and persisted.  I knew instead that he was right, that I wasn’t at all connected to the language in the book I was writing because I wasn’t really writing it from that, “I must write this!” place.  I didn’t care that much about the characters.  The situation, though interesting, was not really something that I felt like my life’s journey has given me authority over.

Today’s thought is about what to write.  Your intro to creative writing class taught you to write what you know.  I don’t like that phrase much.  Instead, I think “write what you’re obsessed with” is better advice.

If you’re obsessed with something, if there is a sliver of a narrative that you overheard one day and think about once or twice a week, you know enough about it to write about it.  You don’t have to know everything about what you’re going to write.  That’s why I don’t like the advice to write what you know.  Writing is an act of discovery, by gosh, and nothing is more dull than reading a narrative from the perspective of a “know-it-all.”

No. Write what you’re obsessed with.

Write what you need to know more about.  Write about what makes you curious.

My novel that I’m working on now came to me when a mentor asked, “What do you wish you could find on the shelf at a bookstore? Write that.”

There was a time when I only wanted to read the kind of novel I was writing, but due to personal experiences/circumstances/tragedies at the time, I knew that the book I was working on was the last thing I’d go to the bookstore to read.  I needed something funnier.  I needed something more triumphant, more strange, more delightful than what I was working on.

I spent a day grieving.  Deciding to put a novel down for a while (or perhaps drop all together) that you’ve worked on for 200 pages feels like taking a puppy into a field and shooting it in the head because it has some strange disease that you can’t afford to cure.  It’s awful.

I’m guessing that there will be a time, or five times, this current project will seem like a diseased puppy to me.  But I’ve already written a draft, so I am more confident that I have what I need to cure the puppy.  I have more in stock now, I mean. More tools to fix it.*

Plus, I have made it through a full draft so I know that enough about it works to keep going. (I ditch drafts a lot.  A LOT. I don’t recommend that, necessarily, but I also won’t say it’s something I don’t do a lot.)

*That paragraph is for the record.  Please remind me of this post when I start talking about my novel like it’s a diseased puppy.

Thought for Day Two: Endurance

A woman in my apartment complex told me she has a novel idea.  I’m sure she’s not the last person who will ever tell me that. I heard this girl at the airport once go nuts over her novel idea. She annoyed the hell out of me, this airport girl.  I wanted to interrupt her and say, “You have no idea what you are talking about.”  But you know, maybe she did?  Maybe her novel will come to be and maybe it will be a great novel.

In the book I recommended yesterday, The War of Art, Steven Pressfield spends a section of tiny essays explaining what makes a writer (or anyone) a professional. One such essay is called, “A Professional is Patient.”  On page 75 he says that the professional,

 … understands delayed gratification. He is the ant, not the grasshopper; the tortoise, not the hare.  …  He knows that any job, whether it’s a novel or a kitchen remodel, takes twice as long as he thinks and costs twice as much.  He accepts that.  He recognizes it as reality.

The reality is, I think, that most of us have novel ideas, or just really good ideas in general that will take a lot of persistance to make them materialize.  Some of us have entire drafts of those novel ideas but what separates those who actually follow through with those ideas from those who won’t–any good idea, says Pressfield–is the acceptance of delayed gratification.  Every day we must go to work and say, I’m going to take my time. I’m going to keep working until this is done.  And then I am going to keep working on it again until it is great.

So, today, on this second day of RTNM, I am going to slow down, take my time, and do my best to get lost in that work.  It’s that whole cliche about recognizing the value of the experience in the journey, not the destination.