Wednesday, July 06, 2005


In Which I Am Asked for the Cheat Codes...

So I'm back.

So weird to be alone--and to realize I'll have several days of it. But it'll give me a chance to write, something that becomes increasingly hard to do in a house full of more tempting distractions, such as your children.

Writing was a topic that came up this weekend, as a friend of the family--a young woman just a couple years out of college--quizzed me quite a bit about what I do, and pumped me for tips and advice. This is a tricky area for me to get into with people, for reasons I'll get to in a minute.

But she was pressing me, and I didn't want to be impolite. "So if someone really wanted to write like, a book, or magazine articles, what would you tell them to do? What are, like, the three most important things they could do?" she asked.

Everyone's different, of course, but I told her the three things that worked for me.

Play. Playing with words is just about the single most important thing I could have done to prepare myself for a writing life. I'm not just talking about word games (although they are important). I'm talking about making up your own games, setting and lifting your own restrictions.

In college I started doing what a professor of mine called typing exercises. One week I'd write a 250-word item using no adverbs. The next week I'd write a 500-word piece, then 1,000 words, then a longer one, if I could. Then I'd try writing the same length stories, only this time using no adjectives. Then I'd write stories using no adjectives OR adverbs. Sometimes I'd write long features where I'd forbid myself to use any forms of the verbs to have and to be.

It sounds a bit like the writing equivalent of weight training, or writing with one hand tied behind your back. But really, what these little challenges do is force you to use other words you don't ordinarily use, construct sentences differently than you might otherwise. Forcing yourself down certain writing paths can reveal all sorts of rhythms in the language that you wouldn't otherwise see.

Word play can also take the form of nonsensical writing. I still engage in typing exercises where I substitute homonyms for the words I actually want to use sew that my riding mite begin too reed as though I've lost my mined. I have a great love of puns and one exercise I picked up--also from a professor--is to begin and end a story using puns along a common theme: colors for example. My story might begin with "'Mauve out of the way!' he yelled" and end with "As he left, he heard her cyan with relief."

Write regularly. This does not mean you have to write everyday. And it does not mean you have to keep a journal. Those are two "rules" of writing I've heard from many writers and if it works for them, great. It doesn't work for me. I think there are some days where you don't feel like writing and so you shouldn't. Push yourself on those days and it's like trying to run when you already have shinsplints. But I do think it's important to write regularly and probably more than once a week. Every other day is a schedule that works well for me.

And journals? I've kept travel journals, but only briefly and it always seemed forced. I think the main argument for journaling is that you can sometimes write your way to some interesting observations and truths that you might not otherwise find. That may be. But I have found I get to those same observations and truths more effectively if I'm writing for someone. Let's face it: writing is often an act of ego, and in such an act, the reader is never far from our thoughts. Keeping a journal, on the other hand, is like picking your nose: it's an activity by and large of interest to no one but you (and in my case, not even me).

For years, my alternative was to write long, cantankerous letters to people, usually my best friend. More recently, this blog has taken the place of that somewhat (which I regret only to the extent that I miss trading letters with my best friend). While I don't always write for an audience, I'm well aware that I have one, and knowing it has been a tremendous help. I'm sure I'm not the first to recognize that blogging also has the dynamics of a writing group or workshop. That you can develop a community where you all read each other's stuff and comment on it is the obvious similarity. But there's a motivational one too: I write here regularly not just because it's good practice and not just because of the audience, but also because I know there are others out there--writers as good as or (as is so often the case) better than I--who are posting every day, sometimes several times a day. Even if I can't match them for quality or quantity, they set a standard that keeps me going. That keeps me writing regularly.

Get to the ending. Anne Lamott's variation on this advice is to give yourself permission to write shitty first drafts, a lovely tip that is meant to overcome the inertia so many writers feel when they embark on a writing project. But it's important to finish the damn thing, even if it's bad. In fact, especially if it's bad. If it's so execrable that you have to stick it in a drawer for a few days--or a few decades--so be it. But get it as done as you can.

Unfortunately, I lost this woman at the first tip. "Play?" she said. "Oh, I hate word games."

"Oh. Really?" I said. "I've always found it's good practice--"

"I don't need to practice," she said. "I already learned how to write in school. Like, in English class, you know? And all that other stuff, that sounds like a waste of time. I'd rather be writing magazine articles and books."

And here I realized she was one of those people who, to paraphrase Ms. Lamott again, sort of wants to write, but really just wants to be published. I don't mean to generalize, but I've met too many of this kind of person, and all too often their logic is predicated on the assumption that writing is not real work--because hey, can't we all write? I mean, like, we all took English in high school, right? It's an attitude that is surprisingly pervasive. And annoying. Because in the end she wasn't really asking me for advice, she was essentially asking for short-cuts, as though writing articles and books were a kind of video game, and I knew all the cheat codes.

I don't mean to denigrate anyone who isn't a professional writer. I happen to think there are a lot of amazing writers out there who don't do it for a living (you'll find links to several of them at right). They may not play word games or write without adjectives, or start and end stories with color puns. But here's the thing: they still work at it. They still practice. They may not even think of what they do as work or practice, but I see it.

And maybe this woman does that too. Unfortunately, I have no way of knowing because she didn't have anything to show me. She doesn't keep a journal. She doesn't write letters to friends. She doesn't blog. In fact, she doesn't do any writing at all. But she wants to start. Pretty soon. One of these days.

"Well, orange you glad we talked about writing? I know I am," I said.

"Yeah," she said. "Maybe I'll write for your magazine soon. Do you need any writers like me?"

"Not for the foreseeable fuchsia," I said.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

hi, I followed the link from Shane's blog here, having read your comments for many months, and thinking to myself, "i really should go and read some stuff of his". I'm glad i did, this is a wicked cool post, as I started my own blog a couple of months ago, having never really written before, (because of Shane and Wil Wheaton also!). I would still not class myself as a writer yet, but i'm hoping with practice (if you can call it that) and experience I'll get there one day. I'm going to take in your 3 bits of advice, and see what happens along the way. so thank you very much!

take care
Like, that was so totally funny, ya know?

Excellent advice. Those writing exercises seem very challenging. I'll have to give them a shot - you know, for shits and giggles.

I don't presume to even think of myself as a writer. I'm just a blogger.
Capital advice MM, for someone such as I who, until just (and I mean just, as in the coffee's still pretty warm) recently wanted to be published but didn't want to write. Points all well taken.

You forgot one thing though. How much fun it is. Write now ohm pudding Penn to pay per and letting deep dark secrets out. Such as having a crush on an old boss. Such as the ideal relationship that never happened. Such as the colorful idioms your buddy uses that you always thought were funny enough for general consumption. The whole thing's cathartic.

I just read an article by a former editor who wrote that he'd rather tell his wife he'd run over the cat than write. Days are, so would I. But then there are days I'd rather write than read good books in the sun. Those are the days I move forward.

Thanks for the bon mots. They're delicious, 'specially the ones with the chocolate frosting.
You are so wicked ... :)

All she wanted was a quikie and you gave her the truth. How ungentlemen of you.

I think its really generally thing about people who wants to do something. I mean, they just want to but never really will.

I once had a young friend of mine who wanted to be a programmer, so I asked him, why? Well, he said he liked playing games. I told him he might as well be a game magazine critic, because thats the only profession that pays people to play.

As a programmer, you get to design, debug and decease. No game playing in that area.

Of course he never took my advice, and now slave as a system administrator for a bank.

I don't think I can do the word play thing, its just too unlike me to play with words. I am more of a direct person. I mean what I say.

But I do practice the end story thing often. Actually thats what I do most of time, most of my articles are based on the end in mind. Else, whats the point of writing anything?

As for practicing, well ... before I started my blog, I write diaries. And truth be told, what is written there should never be revealed for the sake of the english language. Its terrible.

Hey, even my comments sound like I am bloging. Thats what I get for having MM as my idol.

I am fan boy.
I'm glad I red that. Her attitude, it really blue, but she may have been good for a little purple prose at least. Ya know?
Wow, those are intriguing ideas. I find I often do 'play' with writing styles just to see if I can manage it. But I've never thought about writing a piece without adjectives or adverbs. A challenge, but a fascinating one. Maybe I'll try it out. ;-)
Superb advice and I feel genuinely honoured to be in your list there.

I'm fully in practice mode after allowing my friends to endure years of me talking about writing, I've finally started. I see myself in training and think your advice is absolutely tip-top.

I too followed Shanes link and have enjoyed reading your stories.

Not sure if you knew but Anne Lamott is blogging. Not heavily, averaging a post a week and mostly political/religious. But as always, shes very entertaining.

Heres the link:

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