Trailer Park Nirvana image created by Stefany Kleeschulte.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

How To Write

A month gap in blogging mostly due to settling into my 8-month house-sitting gig. But also transcription work picked up. And I've been writing a novel. I don't know how people can write more than one piece at a time. For instance, Cheryl Strayed wrote her book Wild while also penning various essays and doing the Dear Sugar advice column over at The Rumpus. Luis Alberto Urrea dusts off old pieces while working on new. I guess a lot of writers do that but that's hard for me. I started another book about life in a trailer park only this trailer park is in Mexico and not southern Arizona but there's this novel that's been nagging me to get on it so I dropped the trailer park book for that. And I kind of dropped blogging too.

There are a lot of books out there on how to write. I own a few: Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, Robert Olen Butler's From Where You Dream, Stephen King's On Writing, Ray Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing, some books on screenwriting like Your Screenplay Sucks by William Akers, and books specifically on memoir writing (Judith Barrington's Writing the Memoir). Each book offers at least one piece of advice I've latched onto. For instance Anne's shitty first draft and Ray's writing should be fun. Most writers advise writing every day. Stephen King goes even further and recommends 1,000 words a day. Maria Doria Russell (Doc) wrote on facebook that she'd only written something like 459 words that day but 6 of them were great (I'm paraphrasing because I can't find the exact post). If I remember correctly when I saw Luis in Tucson he said he went long periods without putting pen to paper but the words were percolating in his head so that when he did sit down to write, he wrote muy rapido, almost like transcribing the story as he saw it in his mind's eye.

One of the biggest impediments to writing is our internal critic. In the NY Times series Writers on Writing, Kent Haruf (Plainsong) says he writes in the coal room in the basement of their house.

It's the old notion of blinding yourself so you can see. So you can see differently, I mean. I remove my glasses, pull a stocking cap down over my eyes, and type the first draft single-spaced on the yellow paper in the actual and metaphorical darkness behind my closed eyes, trying to avoid being distracted by syntax or diction or punctuation or grammar or spelling or word choice or anything else that would block the immediate delivery of the story.

This is akin to Anne Lamott's shitty first draft - just write the damn thing and edit later. And Stephen King recommends that a) don't let anyone read your book while you're writing that first draft and b) after the first draft is finished, put it aside for a few months. When you begin the editing process you'll be seeing it with fresh eyes.

There's been a strange shift in the way I write from memoir to novel. With the memoir I wrote fast and furious, wanting to remember as much as possible - just get it down! - then hack away later (and I've probably hacked too much but that's another story). Every morning I got up and wrote. I was excited to be doing it. After all, I was writing about me! (two exclamation points in one paragraph is one too many, btw)

Now the a way it feels more like a chore. Kind of the way I feel about doing those saggy upper arm exercises when, really, they're not a lot of work and once I'm doing them, the time flies and I feel very virtuous afterward. However, there are ways in which the novel and the memoir are similar: I know the main character, I know how the story begins and how it ends. Unlike the memoir, it's all the stuff in the middle I'm not too sure about. But here's the weird part. When I sit down to write I may not know where the book is going next - does she have an affair with the nice man who's given her shelter? - but the book seems to know where it's going. I sit down and type out the next scene with no forethought. It just happens. A scene in this case is only a few pages long and I'm not really sure how many words that is. I don't care. I write a scene and usually stop there. But that book is always open on my laptop. Sometimes I'll go back and begin the next scene. Maybe just a sentence. Maybe a whole paragraph. It doesn't seem to matter because the flow is always there.

Another difference is the ease with which I'm writing dialogue. With the memoir, I sucked at dialogue so I pretty much left it out. Maybe because I was trying to write as close to the truth as possible and that's pretty darn near impossible when you're trying to remember conversations, most of which happened while you were drinking.

And one last thing: Even when I'm not physically writing the novel, I'm thinking about it. I'm thinking about my main character. She is the last thing I think about before I fall asleep. She is always with me. I guess she's telling me how we get to the end.


  1. Please keep posting when you can. You are my lifeline to Kino and the Islandia, where I spent some of the most blissful moments of my life, staring at the sea and pondering infinity.

    1. thank you Anon. i needed a kick in the ass to get back to this blogging thing and you provided it. look for some kino posts soon.

  2. Thank YOU!
    I made two trips there, the last one about six years ago. I took a backpack and rode busses from New Mexico to Kino. On the first trip, I was befriended by the late Roy Kinsey (you probably heard about him). I rented what used to be a shack, next to Roy's trailer. On my next trip, Saul had turned the shack part of a casita he was living in, so I rented a small trailer next to the bathroom/shower building.
    Roy told me he had been all around the world, and Kino Bay was the most beautiful spot he's ever seen.

    Cheers, Bill S.