Self (Publishing) Help: Birthing Originality and Truth

From Flickr User Swami Stream, Temple of Truth

I told a friend the other day that I honestly can’t remember the pain of child birth.  I can’t describe it specifically, the way I can describe the sting and itch of mosquito bite ages after it’s dried out and my flesh is white and smooth again.  My friend will soon become a mom, and she is worried and scared and she wants to avoid the pain.  I understand that.

There is no benefit to the pain.  Other than knowing that your mind can swallow anything it doesn’t want you to recall.

I think she asked me about it because she expected me to tell the truth.  She has read some of my blog.  I am a writer.  What are writers, after all, other than people who use lies, language, and literary devices to tell the truth?

What I did tell her was that whenever I try to write about it–in prose or poetry or essay–all I get is that the pain was like I imagine it must feel to have a cinder block slowly rotated inside your vagina: scraping and sharp and bloody.

The other week, I wrote about the Writer’s Digest webinar I attended, and Smoky wrote in the comments that she thinks that writing to a formula is wrong, and that she tells her students not to listen to Writer’s Digest’s advice about how stories work.

I think she is both right and wrong.  Doing it in a formula can be as helpful as it is unhelpful.  Every writer must find her own way.

But In reading Writing Down the Bones, which is one of the assigned readings for the residency, I found this chapter that really resonated with me, and that speaks to this very thing.

And I am even more convinced now that any writer at any stage of the game should own a copy of this book.  It is always relevant and inspiring and full of ideas.  But it is not prescriptive.  It does not say, “This is the way.”  It says, “There are many ways, here’s mine.  Let me help you look for yours.”

Trust Yourself

That’s the title of the chapter of Natalie Goldberg’s book that really speaks to me on this reading.

Here’s my favorite passage:

This is where the depth of the relationship with yourself is so important.  You should listen to what people say.  Take in what they say. (Don’t build a steel box around yourself.) Then make your own decision.  It’s your poem and your voice.  There are no clear-cut rules; it is a relationship with yourself.  What is it you wanted to say?  What do you want to expose about yourself?  Being naked in a piece is a loss of control.  This is good.  We’re not in control anyway.  People see you as you are.  Sometimes we expose ourselves before we understand what we have done.  That’s hard, but even more painful is to freeze up and expose nothing.  Plus freezing up makes for terrible writing.

And that’s what, I think, Smoky was saying when she said that Writer’s Digest will train the writer out of a person and make her into a factory fictioneer.  Following a formula that somebody else taught you means that you can stop trusting yourself.  “If I do it like this, then it will be right.”

That is wrong.  Right is, “If I do it like me, then it will be right.”

I and Smoky and Natalie Goldberg want you to trust your own sense of truth when you’re writing.  We don’t want you to ask Writer’s Digest how to make a story, or Donald Maass, or J.A. Konrath, or Mike Hyatt.

There are no new stories.  One of the oldest texts with popular readership is the Bible, and even in there it says, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

What it unique is you.  There’s no other writer in the whole wide world who has exactly the same life, experiences, expectations, ideas, values, thoughts, education as you.  So even if you’re telling a story that’s been told a zillion times before, it’s new because you are telling it.

Your truth is original because it’s yours.

So tell it.  And don’t be afraid.  And don’t limit yourself with too much thinking about structure or plot or tricks.  Just read and write and everything will come out okay.

After you do that, get an editor.  Or a book doctor. Or beta readers.  Or all three.  A post on book doctors is coming next week.

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It Doesn’t Matter How You Write, Just That You Do.

from Flickr User Puuikibeach

Over the next six weeks, I have to read three books about writing, the writing life, etc.

One of the books I have to read is a book I’ve probably read three or four times now.  I always assign chapters from it it in writing workshops.  It’s Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones.  I learned about it in one of my first creative writing courses in college.  It was an assigned text.  Thanks, Jennifer Holley.

The other two are On Writing by Stephen King (about which I’ll admit to having doubts, though have heard excellent things from a variety of circles), and Becoming a Writer by Dorthea Brande, which was published in 1934 originally.

Brande’s book is refreshing so far (I’ve read the first two chapters) in that she does not believe that writing is a parcel of genius and good fortune, and that people can learn how to be writers with strict diets of discipline and practice.  I appreciate that.  And I agree.

And Twitter, which is the only social media that makes me smarter (thanks, everybody I follow), linked me to an interview with Toni Morrison in Paris Review by Elissa Schappell who is a literary author/powerhouse whose energy and commitment to the genre I admire greatly.  Toni Morrison writes longhand with pencil on yellow legal pads to get a first draft.  Then she types it all into the computer.  Oh my.

Goldberg suggests writing with a pen that flows and in a cheap notebook, so you don’t limit your thinking with concern for the limited quantitiy of gilded pages in a fancy journal.

If I had all the money and time in the world, I would write exclusively in these, with the naked binding, so they lay flat and the soft, lined paper invites my sprawling thoughts.  I’ve traditionally written with one of like three superfine Pilot products.  But a British friend recently introduced me to this guy, who I’ll be ordering in bulk next month or so, because it’s sooo good.

But in practical land, I write with whatever’s nearby.  I’ve filled more of these than I care to admit, unlined, in all manner of pen, marker, pencil, crayon, whatever.  I like the variety of textures, the differences between the way it feels sliding across the page, the smudgability of the toothy paper.  And the size, the 6″ x 9″ is essential for portability.

When I was a kid and through high school probably, I wrote in those composition notebooks.  I remember they could be bought for 25¢ certain times of the year, and sometimes in three-packs with (true to the awesomeness of the 80s and early 90s) neon covers.  My favorite was and is neon purple.

I also loved it when we could take home those yellow lined institutional pads at the end of the school year.  That paper was toothy and felt great under a pencil.  Late in grade school, they got green and started making them out of this shiny recycled paper that squeaked when you wrote on it with a pencil, really made for a pen.  That pissed me off.

I do more of my writing than I should at the keyboard these days.  It’s so efficient.  I’m a fast typist.

But all this to say that each of us writers have our own pecularities about our preferred methods and materials.

And it doesn’t matter what yours are, just as long as you’re doing it.  Writing.  Whatever will inspire you to do the time is what you should use.  Once you’ve got the discipline, then you can change it up.  Or not.  Whatever works for you.

So writerly peeps, what’s your way?  Which is your favorite pen?  Favorite notebook?