Tuesday, October 30, 2007

How to Write a Book: One

Start by starting. We learn to write a book by writing one. Each book we write teaches us something new.

In "How to Become a Famous Writer Before You're Dead", a wonderful book by Ariel Gore, Julia Alvarez quotes Robert Frost, who said, “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader." (I'm not sure what that has to do with this discussion but writers love to quote more prominent writers, as if by association, our status will be elevated. On that note, note the way, in that single quote above, I managed to pick up Frost, Alvarez and Gore in one sentence!)

And then note the way that, for some reason, the minute we start thinking about writing a book, we digress into discussion of publication--and celebrity... at least, I do.)

It’s about the work. It’s about the work. It’s about the work.
It’s not about my picture in a magazine, or book signings, radio interviews, or Oprah’s Book Club. It’s not about sold-out lectures or my name in the Omega Institute catalog. It’s about the work.

It’s not about the money or the big house I will buy on the water—and how, when they come home to that house with a friend, my children (who will be in college by then) will not say, “Sorry there’s no bathroom upstairs,” or “We keep it kind of casual,” or worse, “We could go to your house.” It’s about the work.

Not about my brother in law, Roger, and how, every time I see him he asks, “How’s the book coming?” And how I always say, “Great!” even though we both know that, unless it’s finished, he doesn’t believe me. It’s about the work, and not about the day when I tell Roger, “Oh, haven’t you heard? It’s done and it’s been published, and it’s a best seller. And how are you?”

Spike Lee said that the only way to be flashproof is to remember it’s about the work. I have to remember that. In the meantime, I should probably go work on my book.

Next installment... (because I wasn't really finished thinking about this and because I am putting off working on my book)
Keep your pen moving. Show up. Make writing time an appointment that you keep at least as responsibly as you get to the dentist. Imagine that, if you don't write, someone will send you a bill for 150 dollars. Show up. Make it important. Dont stop when you hit a wall (hump, setback) write through it, around it, over and under it. This is the moment that separates the writer from the journal-keeper. This hump-wall moment. This moment when you stand before your embarrassment, your uncertainty, your "I dont know what's next", your "I know what's next and I am terrified to go there" and you write anyway.

Installment after that: A poem by Billy Collins

Even if it keeps you up all night,
wash down the walls and scrub the floor
of your study before composing a syllable.
Clean the place as if the Pope were on his way.
Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.
The more you clean, the more brilliant
your writing will be, so do not hesitate to take
to the open fields to scour the undersides
of rocks or swab in the dark forest
upper branches, nests full of eggs.
When you find your way back home
and stow the sponges and brushes under the sink,
you will behold in the light of dawn
the immaculate altar of your desk,
a clean surface in the middle of a clean world.
From a small vase, sparkling blue, lift
a yellow pencil, the sharpest of the bouquet,
and cover pages with tiny sentences
like long rows of devoted ants
that followed you in from the woods.


Note: Don't do this. It absolutely never works. No matter how clean you get things. No matter how neatly you align all the cups in the cabinet, even if you scrub the black burned bottoms of every pot, pan and roaster until it gleams.

Just sit down, even if you are sitting in a puddle of milk that was spilled by a toddler during breakfast, even if the laundry isn't done and the undersides of those rocks look positively grody, sit your ass down and write.

That's what I'm doing, see? Though I have to admit that, before I began, I did clean out the car.


Karina said...

Well said. I wrestle with the same demons. ;)

Cindy said...

I, too, wrestle with those demons! They hang around like upside down bats, for much longer than I like. Usually means I need to figure out the next step -- which, when I make myself sit to do my craft, happens...and then I don't want to stop!

mary eileen said...

Oh the wonderful world of procrastination! I often dwell there with a blend defiance and guilt. How hard it is to get over those humps and bumps so inherent to writing. Then, somewhere along the line, I am comforted by the encouraging words of Anne Lamott: “Write a shitty first-draft.” And, thanks be to heaven, that I can do!

Amy Oscar said...

So many writers do wrestle with this. It's the most frustrating part of our craft, I think. I love Mary Ellen's suggestion (via Anne Lamott) that we write an imperfect first draft. That would help me so much with having to get everything perfect.

We could also, of course, start a blog, which has brought me MUCH closer to finishing a book than any other activity ever has. Especially when I keep my promise to show up and write each day no matter what.

Of course, that gets in the way of my promise to show up and exercise but I will work it out one day...