On Writing Badly

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I get a lot of emails asking for writing advice, so I thought I’d try to address some of the most common questions…

Sometimes the writer has already written a book and is facing the Herculean task of trying to get it out into the world. There are a ton of resources for people at this stage of the game and I don’t consider myself an expert. Ask your writer friends how they did it. If you don’t have writer friends, you should. Get involved in your literary community. Go to readings and events and classes and meet people. Put together a list of appropriate agents and send them kick-ass queries. Remember- you’re a writer, so write an awesome letter.

More often, I get emails from people who don’t quite know where to start. Or who have started and don’t know what to do next. Or have written two scant chapters of a memoir and want to know how to get an agent with it (hint- probably don’t yet).

Here’s the sucky thing… it takes time to write a book. A lot of time. That is also the great thing about writing a book. Because all that time will teach you a certain kind of patience and mindfulness that will benefit not only your writing but your entire life.

The part between staring down the blank page and seeing your name on the spine of a book is a mess. It will drag you to the depths of doubt and will require the blindest of faith. We live in a world of blogging and posting and send buttons, and our expectations have shaped themselves around that kind of immediate gratification. Writing a book requires the opposite emotional skill set. You have to go deep and throw words into what feels like a black hole. You have to sit for hours and hours alone with your inner life, with all its lightness and shadow. You have to write stuff you know sucks and keep writing anyway and then throw most of it in the trash. My latest memoir started out as an 800 page doorstop. 500 of those pages are now gone and forgotten.

Don’t quit. A boxer friend of mine once told me that the secret to being a good fighter is not that you like to hit people, but that you like getting hit. I think of that every time I face another rejection, another disappointment, another failure. It’s not that I like it, exactly. But I do derive some self-confidence from the fact that I have learned to get back in the ring. I trust now that I will keep fighting to have a life in which I get to create stuff.

Of course, there is also a benefit from not trying– from constantly walking around with that brilliant book “all in your head.” Because that way you don’t have to fail. You never have to grapple with the thousand ways your words will inevitably fall short. If you don’t try, you can always be the undiscovered genius. It’s basically just bald fear that prevents me from succumbing to this temptation. When I wake at 3 a.m. wracked with anxiety, one of the top five tracks in my playlist of worries is that I’ll find myself at the end of my life wondering, what if I had just tried a little harder.

Demand space for your voice. It’s hugely difficult for moms to demand space for ourselves. I’m not talking about a manicure or a movie once in a while. I’m talking about real, significant, daily time. Most moms are probably uncomfortable with even the word “demand.” To carve out a space for our voice, we need to fight against a ubiquitous cultural rhetoric that values maternal selflessness above all. I got a chain letter the other day urging me to, “Tag 12 great moms you know who put their kids first!” Right now, I am in my office overlooking the Silverlake hills, watching as a rare rainstorm blows in. I rent a desk here, because when I am in my own home, the call of selflessness is too irresistible. How dare I sit around playing with my little words when my kid needs a pizza bagel stat? Or wants to read Frog and Toad? I mean, what could I have to say that’s so important anyway? So I run as fast as I can from the house, and I don’t come back until the hours I’ve committed to writing that day are done.

I won’t lie. I trade things to be able to do this. I trade time with my son that I can never get back. Sometimes I trade homemade nutritious dinners in favor of corn dogs and that one precious more hour of writing. The juggling act makes me crazy, brings me to tears often. There is never enough time for anything. In order to write, I leave boxes unpacked for months. I shove piles of crap in my closet. I answer emails late into the night when I would far rather be watching Downton. I am banking on the fact that it will ultimately benefit Tariku to see his mom creatively engaged with the world and pursuing her dreams, but I can’t even be sure of this much.

Write a shitty first draft. If I could give you only one piece of advice, it would be this. I didn’t make up- I stole it from Anne Lamott, where I get all my best material- thanks, Anne! Not everyone does it this way- some people edit as they go. But for me, this is a great way to get out from under your own self-judgment and just write straight through to the end. Sometimes I barely even punctuate my first drafts. I like to soft focus my eyes and write as if in a trance, going on tangents, allowing the most treacly sentimentality and absurd hyperbole. I breathe and write and try to open my mind to the click, the spark, the flow. I soldier on this way until The End. By that time I usually have some idea of what my book is about. It’s never what I thought when I started.

Move around. Take a walk. Stretch. Breathe. Don’t live in your head so much that you forget your body. The body is one of our greatest recording devices– a goldmine of wisdom, memory and emotion. It digests and assimilates our thoughts and experiences, taking on a perspective that is often wiser than our intellect, and more accurate.

There is no secret. To those of you who write me hopeful, confused, searching emails…I know you don’t want to hear “write badly” and “don’t quit” and “wait around” and “take a walk.” I know what you want is my schedule (here it is: mornings, at least four hours a day, five days a week), a template of the perfect outline, a recommendation to the magic graduate school, a shortcut, an agent introduction, a way to make it not hurt so much. I often talk to people who are “stuck” with their memoirs, and watch their face fall when I ask them, “Have you thought about writing it straight through to the end and not looking back?” They usually have a million reasons why they can’t or shouldn’t do that. And maybe they shouldn’t. I don’t know what they need. But I do know three over-edited chapters won’t magically transform into a book one night while you’re sleeping.

Writers are readers. We have grown up treasuring the books we devoured late at night, by the light of a stolen flashlight. We dreamed one day we’d be the name on the cover of just such a precious object. That may or may not happen, but either way it’s a worthy quest and I honor yours. I hope to meet you one day on this twisty turny path. It’s so easy to forget, while caught up in the morass of self-doubt and self-pity that can swamp our fragile writer souls, that this life of struggle is a dream come. I love it fiercely. I hope I get to keep doing it until the day I die.

For inspiration, Here are my favorite books about writing:

Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott
The War of Art, Steven Pressfield
The Tools, Phil Stutz and Barry Michels
The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, Stephen Koch
Still Writing, Dani Shapiro
The Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick
Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg
The Hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell

Here are some terrific book coaches and resources:

Claire Bidwell Smith
Shawna Kenney
Meredith Maran
Samantha Dunn
Antioch’s (my alma mater) Inspiration to Publication program, which has both classes and coaches.

4 thoughts on “On Writing Badly

  1. Hi Jillian,

    This is a great list of resources for one post. I use Poets and Writers for agent searches too and it’s by far one of the best. Another resource is to search #mswl (manuscript wishlist) where agents post the types of genres they are seeking.
    P.S I love your tagline
    Mona (an AROHO sister) 🙂

  2. This is so true about carving out the time away to write…. I end up getting up at 5 am over a month to go write (to the end, as you say, half blindly). I’m sure Tariku will benefit from his writing mommy. (I tell myself the same thing about my two girls.) It’s all positive denial to keep us going and Not Think Too Much about the stuff that’ll dry up our writing flow and freeze us mid-step out the door to reach our desks.
    Thank you for putting it into words.
    PS. Love the tagline, too.

  3. Hi Jillian ~

    I must start by saying congratulations on your new book! I can’t wait to read your story. I know it will be great. I’m ordering a copy for my best friend too. Her son has sensory issues and as I read one of your most recent posts it was as though I were talking to her. She happens to be a very private person, so I’m even more grateful there are people like you who share what it’s really like.

    I also should say I’ve stared at your new blog for what seems forever. I’ve searched every which way, upside down, and inside out. I couldn’t figure out how to comment. Oh my god! I’m so embarrassed. Lie to me. Tell me others have written you with the same problem. Okay, I’m probably the only one. It’s alright, I can take it.

    You’ve written many posts I wanted to comment on, and couldn’t. I was almost driven mad when you recently asked people to leave a comment. I was thinking, “How? I’m sure everyone else knows, but me! I have to figure this out.” I should have kept this to myself, but I’m so happy right now!

    I love your blog and have much to say, but I’ll start with this post for tonight. Thank you again for your advice. I learned so much from you at Doe Bay. Since back I’ve been writing straight through, unedited. This was the best piece of advice, the one I needed most. I was previously stuck, trying to make every sentence perfect – to the point of frustration. But not only every sentence—I would do this with the whole storyline. I couldn’t figure it all out, so I’d up and walk. Ugh, I was just plain lost. Now, I’m laying this book out!

    And my gosh, just as you said, I love the places the story unexpectedly takes me. I never would have thought, or imagined. What’s locked away can be both magical and unreal.

    Thank you also for the book recommendations!

    Jen

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