Stephen King and Writing by Questions

Writing, like any other art or discipline, takes daily practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats—both living and dead, famous and not—apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week’s inspiration comes from the prolific American author Stephen King.

“You’ve blown up your TV and committed yourself to a thousand words a day, come hell or high water. Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about?”

— Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

The first hurdle to writing is getting your butt in the chair and keeping it there. The second hurdle is getting the pen moving, or your fingers typing. The body only needs training. You only have to employ a few days of treats and punishments to get the hang of sit and stay but to get your mind to show up is like coercing a stray cat to follow you home.

I can get my butt in the chair but lately getting my mind to show up is near impossible. My body is easy to control. My mind, on the other hand, has one of its own. It wanders inside itself and finds plenty to do that isn’t writing at all. It thinks about all the things I should be doing, the dishes, the laundry, that email, that book I wanted to read, that movie I wanted to watch. I get antsy. I get tired. I feel guilty and decide that I don’t want to write. If it happens often enough, I decide I shouldn’t write. I’m obviously not good enough or disciplined enough.

I give up and get up and doing everything but write. I do anything but write. The pen doesn’t move the screen stays blank.

But there has to be a way to coerce the cat, and there has to be a way wrangle a mind and wring the words from it. One bit of advice I’ve come across time and time again is to start with questions. Questions get the wheels turning. Questions interest the mind and make it want to work with you. Questions lure it along the way you wish to go and reveal what it is you are setting out to say to write about.

The first question you should ask yourself is an easy one, what do I want to write about. You don’t have to be specific here. I like to write about humans, and emotions, and the way how we ought to live. Simple.

You can’t begin if you don’t know what you are talking about. What genre are you writing? Is it fact or fiction, persuasive or story telling. Are you going to write a poem? A story? An essay? Who are you writing about? Yourself, a celebrity, a person who doesn’t exist, are they even a person? You have to get these basics down before you can build a shape or structure but those questions aren’t so hard, and you can always change the answers when you please.

So, once you’ve gotten a start, the next step is getting you to the end, another writing hurdle. I’ve found that the best way is to keep asking questions of yourself, and your writing.

Begin with the what and then make a list of whos, hows, and whys to keep you going. You need this list of questions to tease out what you mean to say and how you can go about saying it in the clearest way possible. The list is personal. And after you have one you can copy and tweak it for every piece you write. You can have one for fiction and memoir and maybe one for blog posts and for articles you pitch. You come up with whatever questions you like, or you can steal them from other writers. Here are some of mine:

  1. What do I want people to get out of this?
  2. Who am I speaking to? Who am I speaking for?
  3. Why should they care?
  4. What am I trying to say?
  5. How do I want to make people feel?
  6. What will people learn? About me? Themselves? The world?
  7. What has been forgotten?
  8. What is the truth?
  9. Where does it hurt?
  10. What has helped?
  11. What is missing?
  12. What makes this any different?
  13. Is this boring? What would it look like if it wasn’t?

I don’t always have all the answers, and many of the ones I do have are similar, but the differences are subtle enough that they can help me illuminate what I think and feel and how I can structure my writing to articulate that to my readers. These questions aren’t perfect, and they do not guarantee concise or compelling writing, obviously, but they help get me home even if the path is rocky and winding and I get lost a few times along the way.

The answers can be long or short and often I can write the whole piece by taking my answers, expanding them, rearranging them, and adding a little emotional flair.

I tend to check in more than once while writing a piece. I write my first draft and go over the questions again to see if my convictions have changed and if I need to move n a different direction. I write a second and check in again, and after editing to grammar and structure, I glance over it one more time and ask myself if I’ve said what I needed to say.

Writing this way keeps me focused and on topic and whatever I wanted to say that didn’t fit can become another post or piece, and I can answer the questions all over again from another angle.

Of course, you can come up with your own questions, ones that work for you and the way you write and whatever genre you work in. You are free to borrow my list too, or you can search for other ones from writer’s who know much better than I. Here are a few I’ve found:

“We believe the one who has power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history you must ask yourself, Whose story am I missing?, Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there you get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”

― Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing

and

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:

  1. What am I trying to say?
  2. What words will express it?
  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

And he will probably ask himself two more:

  1. Could I put it more shortly?
  2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

— George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

Some others I am considering:

  1. Why do I need to write this?
  2. Am I ready to share this?
  3. Can I get paid to write this?

Sometimes I have more fun answering these questions than I do in writing the actual piece. And sometimes I get too focused on them and have a hard time moving from a list of facts to writing something with color and emotion. It’s easy to figure out what you mean to say, the hard part is figuring out how you mean to say it. So, when I realize I am only spinning my wheels, doing something that feels like writing but isn’t, I keep in mind the second half of Orwell’s advice:

But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.

I don’t think he was actually endorsing this method, but I think there may be some value in employing it as needed. Whenever you become too strict, too wound up, when the boundaries of all these questions make your mind move in mechanical ways, and your writing loses its humanity it may be time to open your mind and let whatever words float by make their way on to the page, for a while.

You have to give yourself boundaries, but you also have to give yourself time to just write it all out of yourself, no matter how bad or ugly it might be at first. Then, when you have exhausted your ready-made sentences and your mimicry you can go back to your list of facts and find a middle ground.

It’s good to have more than one approach, one structured and one not to keep you from getting bored or lost. The brain needs both, creativity needs both. If you find yourself having trouble finishing your writing, or maybe you have trouble writing when inspiration and motivation are running low, try beginning with questions and go back to them whenever you need a little leading to the end.

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3389Stephen Edwin King was born the second son of Donald and Nellie Ruth Pillsbury King. After his father left them when Stephen was two, he and his older brother, David, were raised by his mother.

Stephen attended the grammar school in Durham and Lisbon Falls High School, graduating in 1966. From his sophomore year at the University of Maine at Orono, he wrote a weekly column for the school newspaper, THE MAINE CAMPUS.

In the fall of 1971, Stephen began teaching English at Hampden Academy, the public high school in Hampden, Maine. Writing in the evenings and on the weekends, he continued to produce short stories and to work on novels.

In 1973, King’s first novel Carrie was accepted by publishing house, Doubleday. King had thrown an early draft of the novel into the trash after becoming discouraged with his progress writing about a teenage girl with psychic powers. His wife retrieved the manuscript and encouraged him to finish it. His advance for Carrie was $2,500; King’s paperback rights later earned $400,000.

King and his family moved to southern Maine because of his mother’s failing health. At this time, he began Salem’s Lot. Soon after Carrie’s release in 1974, King’s mother died of uterine cancer. His Aunt Emrine had read the novel to her before she died.

After his mother’s death, King and his family moved to Boulder, Colorado, where King wrote The Shining. The family returned to western Maine in 1975, where King completed his fourth novel, The Stand.

In all King has published 54 novels, including seven under the pen name Richard Bachman, and six non-fiction books. He has written nearly 200 short stories, most of which have been collected in book collections. Many of his stories are set in his home state of Maine. His books have sold more than 350 million copies, many of which have been adapted into feature films, miniseries, television shows, and comic books.

Seriously, I cannot recommend his memoir On Writing enough.

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Check out my previous quotes from Stephen King.

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Kahlil Gibran on Weariness and Writing

Writing, like any art or discipline, takes daily practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week’s inspiration comes from the Lebanese-American artist, poet, and writer Kahlil Gibran.

“I want to write more but I cannot. I am a little weary and the silence in my soul is black. I wish I could rest my head on your shoulder.”

— Kahlil Gibran, Beloved Prophet: The Love Letters of Kahlil Gibran and Mary Haskell, and Her Private Journal

These past few weeks something strange happened to me. I have been touching on it and mentioned it in post after post because writing it out feels like the logical way to solve this problem. The problem? I stopped wanting to write.

Writer’s block isn’t something I believed in. I learned from Austin Kleon that a problem of output is almost always a problem of input. If I felt stuck I only needed to get out in the world, in real life and online equally, to search for ideas to steal, to pull apart, to transform into something all my own. For as long as I have been blogging I have never had a shortage of ideas.

No, this was something different. I stopped wanting to try to write.

Writing felt like work. It felt pointless. It felt pointless because there are so many who are better than me. It felt pointless because I don’t know how to be more writer and less blogger—not there is anything wrong with blogger. It felt pointless because I am worthless as a writer. I want to say things, but I have no idea how to say them. Too much is flying around inside my head. I flit from one thought to another, one message to another, one interest to another. It felt pointless because I am so turned around and confused and insecure and scared and lost, and I don’t know how to get out.

I do know. I’ve written about that too. I just have to do the work, but first I have to work out how that looks for me.

In the meantime, I’m acknowledging how hard this is and why. I’m spending a little time letting myself feel what it’s like to try to be a writer. I’m looking at what is working and what isn’t, what sets my soul on fire, what turns it black, and what makes it go silent and keeping track of what I do in response.

I’m marking what I do when I can’t write, and what it is that gets me writing again. So far I’ve only found that rest is important and a sense of safety and support is crucial. Part of the reason I chose this quote specifically is that a shoulder to lay on has been the best help I could find.

Every writer I have read seems to have trouble writing, a revelation that is both comforting and frightening. I feel on more even footing with the greats but even more fearful that this dread, this pain, this fear will never go away. Writing will never be something I can do easily and with pure joy. It will always be this hard. I imagine it will always feel something like drowning, or like pulling teeth, or like healing broken bones. The only difference between the greats and me is that their pain produces better results than mine, for now.

If writing is so taxing for the soul, then all writers must have a home to run to too when they become weary. If they don’t, I imagine they write about that too. Maybe they move from writing poems to expressing themselves in other ways. Home can be found within yourself as well, you know?

As for me,  I have someone who loves and supports me. I am one of the lucky ones. I have a shoulder to lay on, arms to hold me, and ears to hear me whine and rage about my future failures. I have someone who cheers me on when I make progress and who supports me when I fail.

It’s wonderful to have such a home inside of such a person, but all the love, support, and self-reflection will only get me so far. The rest of the way has to be made with hard work and words on paper. I just have to fucking write.

So, I will keep a notebook with me at all times and keep my pockets filled with pens. I’ll have a journal to fill page by page every day and a tiny notebook to take with me wherever I go to jot every passing thought in. I will write on scraps of paper and in the margins of books making conversation with every author I whose work I read.

I will write love letters and thank you notes. I will write to rant and to praise. I will write essays and poems and stories both true and false. I will write what hurts and what feels good. I will write the lie and the truth. I will write what has been forgotten and what has yet to be known. I will spill secrets and expose my darkness to the light. I will write what life is and what it isn’t, what it should be and how we make it there.

I will do what I always set out to do and what I had always done before it occurred to me that writing could be something I do for me, for others, for money, and for recognition. I’ll just write and forget all the rest.

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khalil-gibran-9Kahlil Gibran was born on January 6, 1883, in the town of Bsharri in modern-day Lebanon (then part of Ottoman Mount Lebanon) to Khalil Gibran and Kamila Gibran. As a result of his family’s poverty, Gibran received no formal schooling during his youth in Lebanon. However, priests visited him regularly and taught him about the Bible and the Arabic language.

As a young man, he emigrated with his family to the United States where he studied art and began his literary career, writing in both English and Arabic. In the Arab world, Gibran is regarded as a literary and political rebel. His romantic style was at the heart of a renaissance in modern Arabic literature, especially prose poetry, breaking away from the classical school. In Lebanon, he is still celebrated as a literary hero.

He is chiefly known in the English-speaking world for his 1923 book The Prophet. The book, composed of twenty-six poetic essays, is an early example of inspirational fiction including a series of philosophical essays written in English poetic prose. The book sold well despite a cool critical reception, gaining popularity in the 1930s and again especially in the 1960s counterculture.

Gibran was an accomplished artist, especially in drawing and watercolor, having attended the Académie Julian art school in Paris from 1908 to 1910, pursuing a symbolist and romantic style over the then up-and-coming realism. Gibran held his first art exhibition of his drawings in 1904 in Boston, at Day’s studio. During this exhibition, Gibran met Mary Elizabeth Haskell, a respected headmistress ten years his senior. The two formed an important friendship that lasted the rest of Gibran’s life.

Haskell spent large sums of money to support Gibran, extensively edited all his English writings. Sometimes Gibran dictated his ideas to Haskell while Haskell found the proper words. Haskell’ contribution to his writing, including The Prophet, was such that by today’s standard she would be acknowledged as co-author.

The nature of their romantic relationship remains obscure; while some biographers assert the two were lovers but never married because Haskell’s family objected, other evidence suggests that their relationship never was physically consummated. Gibran and Haskell were engaged briefly, but Gibran called it off. Gibran didn’t intend to marry her while had affairs with other women. Haskell later married another man, but then she continued to support Gibran financially and to use her influence to advance his career.

Gibran died in New York City on April 10, 1931, at the age of 48. The causes were cirrhosis of the liver and tuberculosis due to prolonged serious alcoholism.

He is the third best-selling poet of all time, behind Shakespeare and Lao-Tzu.

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Biographical information via Goodreads and Wikipedia

Featured image via Unsplash

James Baldwin and the Education of People of Color

Writing, like any art or discipline, takes daily practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week’s quote is from the essayist, poet, novelist, playwright, and social critic, James Baldwin.

“Not a thousand years ago, it was illegal to teach a slave to read.”

— James Baldwin

The first laws prohibiting slaves from being educated were passed in South Carolina in 1740 beyond what was necessary to understand scripture. Other states followed quickly adding fines for anyone caught teaching a slave to read or write and even going so far as to prohibit freed slaves from living in some states in fear they might incite others by educating them and distributing abolitionist materials or ideas. By the 1850s public education for all black people was illegal.

Educated slaves were a threat to white slaveholders. To have slaves reading and reflecting, questioning authority, and getting ideas of rising and rebelling was not to be tolerated.

This discouragement did not end after the emancipation proclamation was signed. There were few schools or teachers available to teach black people, and they were not permitted in white school. What schools were established were poor and largely ignored by the government. It would be almost another 100 years between the signing of the end of the civil war in 1865 and the legal desegregation of schools in 1954. One hundred years of freed slaves and their descendants scraping by the best they could in a world where white people had the advantage.

And not much has changed since. A significant percentage of Black people in this country are illiterate or unable read above a basic level. They say we are all equal now. Legally we all have a right to an education and the same opportunities regardless of race, but anyone with eyes can see it isn’t true.

School in predominately black or poor neighborhoods doesn’t receive the funding needed to educate its student body enough to compete with the richer and often whiter schools.  It is their schools that have less money, fewer teachers, bigger class sizes, and lower graduation rates. Even in the school district, I work for, one of the best in the state and arguably in the country, there is a clear difference between the education and resources received between our predominantly white schools and the ones with a more diverse enrollment.

The same discouragement to educate exists now, black schools are still poor and largely ignored by the government and for much the same reason, to keep the power where the ruling class wants it.

Education carries ideas, ideas about who we are and what life is and should be. Education exposes you to ideas about what happiness is and what suffering is and how we end up with either. Education brings wisdom from the past to the present and cultivates the capacity to imagine a better future for oneself. It puts you into perspectives you might never see from. It makes us want.

Writing means utilizing logic and creativity for more than basic comprehension ideas. It means pulling those perspectives and ideas you encountered apart and recombining them into something new. The power of writing is in its ability to teach you how to think and reveal what you think. Writing makes it possible to share these new ideas and possibilities with others.

Writing gives you an independence that threatens the establishment. Writing lights your soul up, and gives you the power to light another’s, and another’s, and another’s. It gives you a freedom you don’t have to beg for, a freedom you take for yourself. Once writing has happened control is lost. You cannot keep the masses from reading it, and you cannot stop them from spreading it. The end of oppression becomes inevitable.

It can be slowed. A ruling class loathes to give up power, so they find new ways to restrict education. We’ve banned books and burned whole libraries, but the human appetite for knowledge is insatiable and compulsive. It comes naturally to us and is essential for success in our society.

Too many Americans never learn to read or are not taught the joy and power that words and ideas can give them. It’s a damn shame. A shame not only on those in power but on all of us who turn a blind eye.

Someone somewhere at some time thought that too, and it is because of them I can call myself a writer now.  It is because so many people who came before wanted that I have access to so much information and education, often for free and at my leisure. It is because of them that I can contemplate and reflect, forming ideas of my own and share them with you. As a woman and a person of color, I know how lucky I am to have this power. I feel like I owe it to them to wield this power, to practice it and share it. I can’t give in to self-loathing and doubt. I can’t quit or make excuses because that would be a dishonor and a disappointment to their legacy and sacrifice.

Every person who fought to get us here, no matter how small their resistance, performed great acts of courage. Those who still fight are true heroes. I want to be among those heroes.

The conclusion we all have to come to is that literacy is a human right, period! No person sound denied access to a fundamental feature of what it means to be a human being. No other species on this planet has discovered math, reading, or writing; it is our discovery, it belongs to all of us, equally.

We all have access to school, but we don’t have access to the same education. What we have is a deliberate attempt to keep certain groups ignorant and unable to think or think properly, or articulate their needs and imagine solutions to their ills. I say “deliberate” because the news that some schools are failing, are poor, and are overcrowded and understaffed is not news to anyone and yet is still not a problem politicians are willing to fix.

Who better to take up the fight than writers? As a writer, it hurts my heart to know that language is being used as a weapon this way. As a writer yourself, or as an artist or any creative type, you should feel the same. What would life feel like to you if you had been denied the tools to express your hopes, and fears, and dreams? What could a stunted mind imagine or believe in? How might you suffer if you had been kept from words this way?

No one should be denied to opportunity to fall in love with writing. Call you representatives, contribute to local school fundraising efforts, even if your children do not attend. Familiarize yourself with the basic literacy statistics and the reality of black students in public education. Read authors of color, especially women and queer authors of color. Raise awareness. Confront your own racist ideas, even the ones you deny you have.

And finally, make access to the very best education for everyone a moral issue. Make reading, writing and math, a human rights issue. Make it your goal to bring up other artists and writers the way you were brought up, or the way you wish you had been. Make sure they can read the classics, learn the rules, and know that expressing the human condition through fiction, poetry, essays, memoir, and more are noble and fulfilling endeavors. Let them know we need them, their ideas, and their words.

We need more minds lit up and souls burning in all of us.

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James Arthur Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, after his mother, Emma Berdis Jones, left his biological father because of his drug abuse and moved to Harlem, New York City. There, she married a preacher, David Baldwin. The family was very poor. His mother reportedly never told him the name of his biological father.

The oldest of nine children Baldwin spent much of his time caring for his younger brothers and sisters. At the age of 10, he was teased and abused by two New York police officers, an instance of racist harassment by the NYPD that he would experience again as a teenager and document in his essays. His adoptive father, whom Baldwin in essays called simply his father, appears to have treated him—by comparison with his siblings—with great harshness.

Baldwin developed a passion for reading at an early age and demonstrated a gift for writing during his school years. He attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, where he worked on the school’s magazine with future famous photographer Richard Avedon. He published numerous poems, short stories, and plays in the magazine. At age 14, Baldwin became a preacher at the small Fireside Pentecostal Church in Harlem. In the early 1940s, he transferred his faith from religion to literature. Critics, however, note the impassioned cadences of Black churches are still evident in his writing.

Baldwin’s first and probably best-known novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, a partially autobiographical account of his youth, was published in 1953.  He continued to experiment with literary forms throughout his career, publishing poetry and plays as well as the fiction and essays for which he was known. He garnered acclaim for his insights on race, spirituality, and humanity. His essay collections Notes of a Native SonNobody Knows My Name, and The Fire Next Time were influential in informing a largely white audience. Other novels included Giovanni’s Room, Another Country, and Just Above My Head.

James Baldwin offered a vital literary voice during the era of civil rights activism in the 1950s and ’60s. Baldwin’s novels and plays fictionalized fundamental personal questions and dilemmas amid complex social and psychological pressures thwarting the equitable integration of not only blacks, but also of gay and bisexual men, while depicting some internalized obstacles to such individuals’ quests for acceptance. Such dynamics are prominent in Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room, written in 1956 well before gay rights were widely espoused in America. His inclusion of gay themes resulted in a lot of savage criticism from the Black community.

On November 30, 1987, Baldwin died from stomach cancer in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France. He was buried at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, near New York City.

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If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for some existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering + some interesting reads from others. Or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee.

Also: James Baldwin on What Artists Know

Biographical information via Wikipedia, Biography, and Goodreads

Featured image by John H. White, 1945-, Photographer (NARA record: 4002141) (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Jorie Graham on Capturing the Past

Writing, like any art or discipline, takes daily practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week I have chosen a quote from the poet Jorie Graham.

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Jorie Graham was born in New York City in 1950, the daughter of a journalist and a sculptor. She was raised in Rome, Italy and educated in French schools. She studied philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris before attending New York University as an undergraduate, where she studied filmmaking. She received an MFA in poetry from the University of Iowa.

Graham is the author of numerous collections of poetry, most recently Sea Change (Ecco, 2008), Never (2002), Swarm (2000), and The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974-1994, which won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

About her work, James Longenbach wrote in the New York Times: “For 30 years Jorie Graham has engaged the whole human contraption — intellectual, global, domestic, apocalyptic — rather than the narrow emotional slice of it most often reserved for poems. She thinks of the poet not as a recorder but as a constructor of experience. Like Rilke or Yeats, she imagines the hermetic poet as a public figure, someone who addresses the most urgent philosophical and political issues of the time simply by writing poems.”

Graham has also edited two anthologies, Earth Took of Earth: 100 Great Poems of the English Language (1996) and The Best American Poetry 1990.

Graham is known for her deep interest in history, language, and perception; the critic Calvin Bedient has noted that she is, “never less than in dialogue with everything. She is the world champion at shot-putting the great questions. It hardly matters what the title is: the subject itself is always ‘the outermost question being asked me by the World today.’ What counts is the hope in the questioning itself, not the answers.” Graham has received numerous honors and awards for her work, including the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship and the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

She has taught at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is currently the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University. She served as a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets from 1997 to 2003.

“There’s no way back believe me.
I’m writing you from there.”

— Jorie Graham, Overlord: Poems

It seems like a sign or an interesting coincidence that I should come across this quote from Graham so soon after finishing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which was concerned very much about returning to the past. When I saw I thought immediately of a scene near the middle of the book, when the narrator, Nick, is talking to Gatsby about his longing to get back Daisy Buchanan, a girl he had to let go some years before, and who he hope to get back.

Gatsby has been throwing one of his famous parties and invited Daisy to attend. She didn’t have a good time nor did she seem to like the company Gatsby is keeping. He’s a bit disappointed at not being able to please her and make her understand what he is trying to do. Nick listens and advises him not to be too hard on Daisy, after all, “you can’t repeat the past.” Gatsby replies:

“Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can! I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before.”

Nick goes on to wonder about Gatsby:

“He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was…”

Of course, Gatsby’s longing to return to the past, to go after Daisy and try to recapture what they had will be his downfall, that is how these kinds of stories go. If he had only moved on, and let her move on to, he might have made a good life for himself. Or if he had discovered writing and found a way back to the past that offered closure and cleansing

The laws of this universe are such that time moves one way and one way only. The past can’t be returned to, but we can express our frustration at being forced to live with no instructions or guarantees and no ability to go back and fix what we got wrong. We can express our heartbreak and our loss and our suffering/. We can even express our wishes and our dreams of what might have been had we turned left instead of right at the fork five years ago. We can’t relive the past but we can sure as shit rewrite it.

It’s strange to think too that everything you read is from the past and everything you write is to the future. I mean, I know that but to consider the past, and the future too, as a physical place that writing is either going to or coming from feels weird.

By the time you are reading this, I will have left my place behind this screen and gone on to finish my day. You may even be reading it days, weeks, maybe a year or two from now. I wonder where I am? I wonder what twists and turns my life has taken in that time. I wonder what wisdom I could send out to myself, or to you from here?

As for the past, I may not be able to speak to my old self, but I can comfort the part of me that is still hurting. I can talk with an old self who feels joy and hope. I can sit with myself as a child and capture a bit of her innocence again, in a way.

This is the loophole, a poor one, but it’s all we have for now. We’ve been gifted with an ability to vividly imagine new worlds, and we have cultivated out knack for language and learned to share those worlds with each other. We found a way to beat time, to loop back, to jump forward, to redo this life or make a new one entirely. We can live on this planet or another, light years from here. We can live in another time. We can travel to heaven or hell. We can see our lost loved ones again and tell them what we never could in life. We can fall in love, give birth, beat our enemies, become the leader, the savior, the hero, the genius, the one that everyone wants to have or wants to be.

We can be Gods.

But only in our heads, and only on paper, and that just has to be enough. Trying to go back never works. It can’t be done. Writing can help though. It can get you through your feelings. You can get them out, you can find closure, you can have what you want, in a way. Writing can be your therapy and your friend. It can help you discover the thing, that part of yourself, that you missed and reclaim it. It can keep you from getting stuck.

We’ve never been able to revisit the past, but somehow we have never gotten over the desire. We’ve never been able to let go of regret, but we found another way with writing. Take advantage of it because there is no other way back.

Trust me, we are all either writing from there, or writing about then, and we should know.

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If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for some existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering + some interesting reads from others. Or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee.

Biographical information via Joriegraham.com and The Poetry Foundation

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Douglas Adams on Where Ideas Come From

Writing, like any art or discipline, takes daily practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week I have chosen a quote from Douglas Adams.

4Douglas Noël Adams, born March 11th 1952 was an author, scriptwriter, essayist, humorist, satirist and dramatist best known for his book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which originated in 1978 as a BBC radio comedy before developing into a “trilogy” of five books that sold more than 15 million copies in his lifetime and generated a television series, several stage plays, a comic book series, a computer game, and in 2005 a feature film that was completed after Adams’ death.

Adams’s contribution to UK radio is commemorated in The Radio Academy’s Hall of Fame.

Adams also wrote Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, and co-wrote The Meaning of Liff, The Deeper Meaning of Liff, Last Chance to See, and three stories for the television series Doctor Who; he also served as script editor for the show’s seventeenth season in 1979. A posthumous collection of his works, including an unfinished novel, was published as The Salmon of Doubt in 2002.

In the early 1980s, Adams had an affair with novelist Sally Emerson, who was separated from her husband at that time. Adams later dedicated his book Life, the Universe and Everything to Emerson. In 1981 Emerson returned to her husband, Peter Stothard, a contemporary of Adams’s at Brentwood School, and later editor of The Times.

Adams was soon introduced by friends to Jane Belson, with whom he later became romantically involved. The two lived in Los Angeles together during 1983 while Adams worked on an early screenplay adaptation of Hitchhiker’s. When the deal fell through, they moved back to London, and after several separations and an aborted engagement, they married on November 25th, 1991.

Adams and Belson had one daughter together, Polly Jane Rocket Adams, born on June 22nd, 1994.

Adams died of a heart attack on May 11th, 2001, at the age 49.

 

Toward the end of his life, he was a sought-after lecturer on topics including technology and the environment. He was known as an advocate for environmentalism and conservation, as a lover of fast cars, cameras, technological innovation and the Apple Macintosh, and as a “devout atheist.”

“The fact is, I don’t know where my ideas come from. Nor does any writer. The only real answer is to drink way too much coffee and buy yourself a desk that doesn’t collapse when you beat your head against it.”

— Douglas Adams

I’m suffering from a real writing crisis here. I am a writer with no ideas! I love to put pen to paper, to type away all day the thoughts that pop into my head, thoughts that don’t mean much and in the end don’t leave me feeling very fulfilled, accomplished, and are not at all as lucrative as I’d like.

To say I have no ideas isn’t exactly the truth. I have ideas, they are just bad ideas, and I don’t know how to find good ones.

I want to be a good writer, and that means that I can’t write stupid or pointless things, but I’m not a good writer, yet. The catch is I can’t become a good writer without writing all the stupid and pointless things first. It seems simple enough, just write, and you will get better, so write already! But the embarrassment hurts! It’s paralyzing to be such a noob! The shame of being bad at what you love and sharing it with the world freezes you at your keyboard.

But summer is coming, and I have to use the time to move forward. I’ve been stuck lately. I had found something, a community and publication to be a part of but just as I was really getting into it, they decided to move in another direction. I’m sad, but I’m trying to think of it in a positive light. This was never something that I thought I could do as a job, it was always a stepping stone, a place for feedback and practice. I’ll miss that, but maybe now I can finally make something of my own. But what?

I want to be a freelance writer, but I’m afraid without school or a ton of connections that dream feels too far away.

I want to write a book, but I’m not sure I have enough passion or talent for fiction.

I want to be an artist too but my confidence is low, and I have no idea where to begin.

Nothing feels small enough to start with. I don’t have experience, I don’t have mentors or peers to learn from and work with. I only have idols who are light-years ahead of me and the internet which seems severely lacking in information about how to go from knowing nothing about writing to knowing something about it.

Oh, sure there is plenty of information on the rules of writing and the best practices of publishing. Even if everything contradicts everything else you at least have an idea of where to start, but what do you do if you have a desire to be a writer or an artist, but you have no idea what it is you are trying to say or how to even say it?! What do you do when you feel like a stupid noob and you can’t muster courage enough to start?

I know how to write a blog post, I know how to fill a page of my journal, I don’t know how to make something someone might pay for. I don’t know how to put together a project that is unique and valuable. I don’t know what I don’t know, and I have no idea where to begin to get an idea.

But maybe I am going about it all wrong. No, not maybe, I am certain I am. I am waiting for the ideas and the inspiration, to come to me before I get started and if there is one piece of advice I have read over and over again from author after author it has been that you just have to do something until you stumble upon something worth pursuing and sharing.

So, I’ve been rethinking everything.

I’m pushing my big dreams back to work on something small, something tangible, something that feels like a place to start. I’m working with what I know and love. I love non-fiction. I love essays. I love creative non-fiction and stories about real people and what we feel and know. I love I am putting that together with simple art, doodles, and collage, and I’m spinning these ingredients around in my mind for a little bit every day and seeing what I can come up with.

I am taking the summer to make something, and I’m doing it before I have the inspiration and the ideas all squared away. I am just going to drink coffee and bang my head until something interesting happens.

And you know what? I have a feeling that is what everyone else is doing too. It isn’t magic, or maybe it is, just not the kind of magic we are used to wishing for. We want to walk through fields of flowers, or fall in love and let the words just come to us, but that’s just not how it works. Instead, maybe we just have to brainstorm like hell, write something, post something, draw something, and decide what we think afterward. Then wake up tomorrow and do it again, only a little bit better, and a little bit better, and a little bit better, again and again. You gotta bang your head like hell and drink liquid energy, or liquid courage, whichever you need, until one day someone declares that you are finally a “good writer.”

That is the fucking magic. That is where the ideas come from, and that is the only way to get the work done. The miracle is doing the work, and I plan to work until magic and miracles happen for me too.

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If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for some existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering + some interesting reads from others. Or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee.

Biographical information via Wikipedia and Goodreads

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Virginia Woolf on the Path from Reading to Writing

Writing, like any art or discipline, takes daily practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week I have chosen a quote from renowned English writer Virginia Woolf.

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Virginia Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen on January 25th, 1882 in Kensington, London. She was educated by her parents in their literate and well-connected household.

Her parents had each been married previously and been widowed, and, consequently, the household contained the children of three marriages. Her father, Leslie Stephen, was a notable historian, author, critic, and mountaineer. He was a founding editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, a work that would influence Woolf’s later experimental biographies.

The sudden death of her mother in 1895, when Virginia was 13, and that of her half-sister Stella two years later, led to the first of Virginia’s several nervous breakdowns. After her mother and half-sister, she quickly lost her surrogate mother, Stella Duckworth, as well as her cherished brother Thoby, when he was in his mid-20s. She was, however, able to take courses of study (some at degree level) in Ancient Greek, Latin, German and history at the Ladies’ Department of King’s College London between 1897 and 1901. This brought her into contact with some of the early reformers of women’s higher education

Her most famous works include the novels Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and Orlando, and the book-length essay A Room of One’s Own, with its famous dictum, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

Woolf suffered from severe bouts of mental illness throughout her life, thought to have been what is now termed bipolar disorder. She spent three short periods in 1910, 1912 and 1913 at Burley House, which is described as “a private nursing home for women with nervous disorder.” Though this instability often affected her social life, her literary productivity continued with few breaks throughout her life.

Woolf committed suicide by drowning in 1941 at the age of 59.

“For once the disease of reading has laid upon the system it weakens so that it falls an easy prey to that other scourge which dwells in the ink pot and festers in the quill. The wretch takes to writing.”

― Virginia Woolf, Orlando

Every since I can remember I have loved books. I learned to read early and easily, and my comprehension levels were always well advanced for my age. Books felt to me what watching TV must feel like to other people. I was transported right into the action, the emotion, into whole different worlds with different ways of thinking and doing things. I felt most alive, most like I was becoming future myself when I was reading.

During my 6th grade year, I volunteered to work in my school for part of my lunch period. It was so quiet in there, and it smelled like books rather than sweaty kids like the rest of the building. My job was to put the returned books back on the right shelves, but most of the time I just walked the rows and ran my hands over the worn spines. I flipped through the ones with dragons or spaceships on the front and scoffed at the ones about cheerleaders and love.

The ones I took home I could never put down. I read in the dark after my mother insisted we go to be until she grew tired of trying to force me and asked that I only keep to my room and keep quiet.

My father and his father loved reading too, and I often stole books with subject matters much too advanced for me from their collections.

I loved reading so much, and then I became a teenager, and between the depression and trying to be cool, I forgot all about reading. Then I became an adult and life got too busy for books. At first, I was busy falling in love and making a home. Then I was busy fighting for love and always working harder to build a better and better home. And no matter what there never seemed to be enough time for love and home and work and friends and sleep and reading.

Things have changed. Reading has come back to me. I realized that I had let something I loved go and I wasn’t at all happier for it. I realized I wanted something for myself. I remembered how good it felt to learn things and see the world in new ways. I remembered how reading made me feel more like myself all those years ago. So, I went looking for my old friend, my first love, and I found that she had been waiting for me all along to return. We picked up right where we left off, and we’ve been going strong ever since.

I’ve also come back to writing, another old love from my childhood. I’ve come a long way since those old angsty journals, and I want to go further still, and I know that in order to get there I can never take reading or writing for granted again. I have to make them a priority in my life along with love and home and work and friends and sleep. With them, never behind. Not when I can find the time, but when I make the time!

I wish I had learned this lesson a long time ago. If I had spent more time with books than I may be a better writer now, or at least a better person. But I am still grateful for the time I had, without having experienced the magic of words being worked on me I would never have craved such power myself, to wield over other minds and time itself.

I am grateful that books never leave you entirely and that reading is a patient and understanding friend who will let you leave and return as often as you wish. I have come back to my first love and friend, and I found that our passion for one another never really waned. I had only been a stupid human who forgot what life was really about, doing what makes you happy.

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If you like this post, check out my weekly-ish newsletter for some existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering + important reads from others, or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee.

Biographical information via Wikipedia and Goodreads

See also: Short and Sweet Reviews // Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf

Featured image via George Charles Beresford [Public domain], Wikimedia Commons

Margaret Atwood on Existing in Two Places

Writing, like any art or discipline, takes daily practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week I have chosen a quote from the Canadian poet and novelist, Margaret Atwood.

mg_5527Margaret Eleanor Atwood was born on November 18, 1939, in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Because of her father’s work and research in forest entomology, Atwood spent much of her childhood in the backwoods of northern Quebec and traveling back and forth between Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie, and Toronto. She did not attend school full-time until she was eight years old.

Atwood began writing plays and poems at the age of six and realized she wanted to write professionally by the time she was 16.

In 1957, she began studying at Victoria College in the University of Toronto, where she published poems and articles in Acta Victoriana, the college literary journal. She graduated in 1961 with a Bachelor of Arts in English and a minor in philosophy and French.

She is the author of more than thirty-five volumes of poetry, children’s literature, fiction, and non-fiction and is perhaps best known for her novels, which include The Edible Woman, The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Blind Assassin, which won the prestigious Booker Prize in 2000.

She has also published fifteen books of poetry. Many of her poems have been inspired by myths and fairy tales, which have been interests of hers from an early age. She has also published four collections of stories and three collections of unclassifiable short prose works.

Atwood is also the inventor, and developer, of the LongPen and associated technologies that facilitate the remote robotic writing of documents.

She is a noted humanist, and, in 1987, she was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association.

“I exist in two places,
here and where you are.”

— Margaret Atwood

This week I’m thinking a lot about Atwood and her book The Handmaid’s Tale. Of course, because today her book becomes a show, and I’m pretty stoked about that since I recently read it, but I’ve also been thinking about time. I’ve been thinking about what it means to be the writer and the reader, and for time to pass between both. I’ve been wondering what it means for me to exist as I am now, and for me to exist again with you when you read these words. I wonder in what forms I will exist when I am read after I am long gone?

I know that I am a human and I know that all humans are mortal and still my own death seems impossible to me. How can there ever come a time when I will not breathe, or think, or write, or love, or look to the sky and feel small, and here, and so myself and so a part of everything that exists? How can there come a time when my heart stops and with it the thoughts in my head while the world goes on spinning and humans go one warring, inventing, and evolving, doing things I will never witness or be a part of?

This makes no sense, and yet it is a certainty, and it hurts me so every time I remember it.

I am afraid, I admit, not to be anymore. I want to face the fact, but I also want to keep it out of my mind. Why let the inevitable distract me and keep me frozen? Then again, the fear can be a motivating and focusing force until my end comes. If I want to live on after my death, I must remember that I am going to die and use what I have to limit my fading into the nothingness.

When I read the works of other writers they come into me, into my time and place, or some form of them does anyway, and I am happy to give them life again. I suppose I want a bit of that too. I want to know what it feels like to exist again and again and yet still be me, growing and changing here and now.

I want to live in every person and in every time after this one and words are the only way to do that.. It is a selfish thing to want, but I can’t help wanting it either. I am afraid of not being.

I am angry too. To be limited to this body, to this mind, and to this time feels so petty and unfair. One day there may be better ways to circumvent these pesky limitations, but for now, all I have are words. I have the imperfect ability to write down who I am and the improbable hope that in the future, minutes or eons from now, you will read them and remember me.

But who will it be that you remember? By the time this goes out I will be a little different, and the longer the distance between now and then the more the difference between the Lisa that wrote this and the Lisa that exists. So, I suppose no part of me will live on really, only bits of who I was. Only a snapshot in my history. Still, it’s all I have, and I am happy to give it to you.

Because even though I am not that Lisa anymore that does not mean she cannot be of some use. She can be a friend, a comfort, and warning, or a dream for you. She can walk with you when you feel alone, same as she walks within me. She can exist far longer than I. She can travel through space and time and be what I cannot.

And because the Lisa I am now is jealous of where that past me is able to go and where she is able to be, I will send this out and immediately sit sown to write again. I will send myself out to you over and over again, and one day, if all my works, everything from my little notes and journal entries, to the stories I’ve endeavored to tell here, and the books I may one day write, were to be put together it would be the closest a person could come to time travel. To real, complete, existence in another place and time.

I hope it happens for me one day, and that something like magic will allow me to feel what it is like to be here and there, now and then, and me, with you.

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Check out my weekly-ish newsletter for interesting reads + some of my own existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering, or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee.

Biographical information via Wikipedia and Goodreads

See also: Margaret Atwood on Writing Poetry

Featured image via Unsplash