What I Talk About When I Talk About Writing
In most cases learning something essential in life requires physical pain. – Haruki Murakami
Right now I’m in training to write a novel. I do think it’s strange to say I’m in training, but I am. If you read the best books on writing (King, Murakami and Bradbury are good places to start), there’s always a physical element to the way the masters describe writing that people who don’t do it professionally might overlook. I’m not putting anyone down who writes for fun (please, write, WRITE!), it’s just the truth. To most, writers are sad people. They drink a lot more than they should, shower less than they should and sit hunched over leather notebooks in dark corners of dimly lit coffee shops, stealing brilliant ideas from the cinnamon-spiced air to scribble down and publish.
From what I’ve ascertained, the caricature of the sad writer is just that. To write with longevity or depth, you have to put in place a personal and physical system that’s firm and unassailable, which frees you up in all sorts of other ways to create unharmed. Like the buttress protecting the medieval fort that is your mind, rigid structure is necessary for creativity to flow free.
I’m also inclined to think writers are people with an esoteric ability to take the feelings inside them — Murakami likens these to a kind of toxin — and spill their particular brand of poison onto the page. Other people might express this emotional toxicity another way. Their toxin, for example, is released on a surfboard carving ocean waves, or with a hammer nailing boards to rooftops or through the stroke of a paintbrush on a canvas still bare and dry. I don’t know. If you’re a writer, the toxin is dripped out in words.
There’s another misconception about writing (and maybe all art) that the greats will readily dispel, which is the notion of a silk-gowned woman who visits you in the pearly hours of dawn with green leaves stuck to her long hair, a pretty flush to her cheeks, and whispers into your right ear on a tone smoother than buttered scat, “Here it is. Here is the idea you need. Take this special gift from me, your Muse.”
Sorry to burst any bubbles that might’ve been set afloat but that’s garbage. Unless you’re J.K. Rowling on a train to London when by some stroke of magic the idea for a boy wizard appears in your brain, there is no Muse. There is only you, your talent and what you choose to do with it. I won’t go into my thoughts on talent (this post is long enough as is) but I do think a certain level of it is necessary to do what you want to do. Layered on top of talent is the ability to focus on that Thing You Do with a concentrated intensity that ensures it’ll always get done. (Warren Buffett said, “Intensity is the price of excellence.”) Call it Writer’s Block, call it a Muse, but teetering between focus and procrastination is no long-haired temptress of fates. It’s you. Do the thing, reap the reward.
Focus is different from inspiration. Inspiration happens when you have talent, when you’re focused and when your body and mind are primed to receive the innate cues that trigger a creative response.
I was reading “Lethal White” last night on my porch while eating a home-cooked grilled salmon and a salad of roasted beets. On page 123, a glop of oil spilled from my fork onto the bottom edge of the page, forming a pyramid shape perfectly centered between the book binding and page number. As I read, the glop became incrementally smaller, straying farther from the source of the original spill. By page 157 it was gone, and I almost missed it, the oily symbol of my seared salmon that I had watched fade away. This to me was inspiring. I thought about the idea of oil dying inside a book all night long.
To train for my novel writing, I’m building up my strength with a daily cocktail of physical and psychological exercises, the latter procured through writing about 1,000 words per day and reading two or three books each week.
In no particular order, here are the books I’ve read this June, linked for your convenience, though I took most of them out from my local library:
- What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
- The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life by Alice Schroeder
- The Total Money Makeover by David Ramsey
- The Ideal Team Player: How to Recognize and Cultivate the Three Essential Values by Patrick Lencioni
- The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
- Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
- The Bridges of Madison County by James Robert Waller
- Lethal White by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
- The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware
- Killing Commendatore: a novel by Haruki Murakami
I read exactly 10 books last month. This month, I plan to read 12. A minor increase but it’s a goal I’ve set out to meet. With each book I read on the list above, I felt my writer’s muscles growing stronger. As the pages turned, I could sense my mind quickening in its ability to hover across lines on the page and discern their meaning, figure out how they were made. I’m now better at scanning for processes and lyrical anomalies I’m drawn to in the prose. No writer is beyond plucking the good from others, the trick is to take what you like about a work and make it entirely your own.
The physical exercises are slower going but I’m spending more time at the gym, stretching with morning yoga before the sun rises, learning to skateboard so I can improve my balance and walking against the brassy light of a sunsetting beach to work my legs and clear my mind. Despite the prevailing image of a drunken writer with lightbulbs bursting as alcohol is swigged, I can’t say that picture fits the person I’d like to become throughout my training. The writing I’ve done of which I’m most proud was created when I felt (at least) physically fit. If I’ve learned anything in the seven years since I was first paid to write, it’s that creativity is exhausting, a battle against a festering toxin ever-threatening to wage war against your personal peace.
Some of what I write in this 1,000-words-per-day exercise might end up here on the blog, some of it might languish on the pages of my half-filled journals, unread. It doesn’t matter to me either way, what matters is that I wrote it. I put up a solid fight against the toxin and for the tenuous span of a few hours, can declare a win.