Category Archives: Writing

The Writer In the Tower

A writer must be comfortable planting their own thoughts into the minds of others. That is what writing is. Putting your ideas, perceptions, feelings, fantasies out there as “attractive nuisances” that sit dangling from low hanging leaves and drop into the heads of passing Creatures Who Read. If you are good at it, your thoughts will propogate widely, because they will have a stickiness or hard-to-shake quality that lodges them firmly in the brains of readers.

And so you will change the world.

This suggests that one way a writer can fail to become successful is to lack either the ability, or the will, to have their thoughts take up residence in other people’s brains. The ability comes from all the zillions of books and lessons on writing, the examples of brilliance that have come before, the hours and years of practice that begin to accumulate the first time a four year old future writer prints the letter “A.”

That’s the easy part.

The hard part may be the hidden difficulty, the unconscious resistance to letting yourself communicate that freely and deliberately with readers.

Writers are often introverts, even closet social phobics, and the whole idea of writing for them may be organized around having some way to exist in the world without having to interface very intensively with other human beings. Writers are fond of “mountaintop retreats” and quiet rooms and being in but not of a coffee shop crowd. We want peace and quiet. We are sometimes afraid of making a peep. We may want to say “sorry” if someone notices that we have interfered with their idiotic monologue.

But this can become a psychological barrier. A kind of classical Freudian “neurosis” – a “fear of success” pattern that we aren’t even aware of having, but that limits our success as writers and engaged human beings. We can be too timid, too shy, to imagine that we can actually influence and change the thinking of others. “Who – me??” we may ask, as we skitter back to our garrets.

Like it or not, we are all nodes of the Network. Each of us is, on average, six degrees of first-name-basis separation from every human being on the planet. We may live on mountaintops hidden away from the prying eyes and loud voices and critical opinions, so also away from the caring glances and warm friendships and warm bodies of others, and we may feel more comfortable or safe or at peace, less jangled and impinged on, that way.

But I assert that we still need, as writers, to cultivate the ability to let our minds couple with those of others. To have something of ourselves take up permanent residence inside the thoughts and so the bodies (neurologically speaking, at least) of readers.

Not to allow this, to withdraw in permanent shy obscurity, is to risk entombing ourselves inside our own mental dungeons — like mad, forgotten prisoners long ago bricked up in castle towers, sliding sheets of foolscap through narrow window cracks, unaware, or worse, foolishly reassured, that our words of experience and cries for help lie rotting, unread, at the bottoms of silent moats.


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Filed under Phobias, Writing, Writing and society, Writing profession

Writing as Noticing

The art of writing is, in large measure, the art of emptying the mind. There are several ways in which this is true, and they are all important. First, and most conventionally, writing entails the creation of a clear-headed mental state — and even this is really two different things. In many cases, a “mind like clear water” is the best way to write, if we understand that to mean clearing away, or putting aside, the many, many worries and concerns and to-do items and projects and irritations and headaches that distract you, that cloud your awareness. Like they say, when you’re feeling up to your ass in alligators, it’s very hard to remember that the original purpose of being there was to drain the swamp. So for this kind of clearing, you may meditate, try to write early in the day, go to a new place like a coffee shop where you aren’t distracted by all the other stuff that stirs up cognitive dust storms in your life.

But there is also the clarity you can gain by catharsis — by finally saying, blurting, dumping onto the page (or into the ears of a therapist or friend) all your concerns and troubles and worries about your work or life, or this nagging thought about something you’ve read or seen that you want to somehow preserve, get down, get off your chest. (The image that’s right here is of a weight on your chest, something that as long as it’s there, you cannot breathe.)  This is not so much a moving away from the clutter and pain, but writing the clutter and pain away.  Getting it all down on paper (or onto your therapist’s notepad), so you can have that “there!  I feel clearer now!” experience.

So writing is sometimes about finding a clear, alligator-free space, sitting on a sunny hilltop on a pleasant day and being away from your cubicle and your bill pile and the screaming children and honking drivers, and letting your freak out on paper. And sometimes, it’s about taking all those cubicle nightmares and baby-screams and tales of idiots you’ve wanted to strangle, and writing about them, so you can finally get a bit of that clarity.

The third type of mind-clearing is perhaps the most important, and the least obvious. It’s not about finding peace and quiet just so you can write; it’s not about writing all the bad stuff down in order to find the peace and quiet. It’s a perhaps more craft-like process, in which you sit and notice what is happening down in that “clear water,” and write down what you notice.  Emptying your mind into your writing.  Just that.

How is this different from the first two ways of writing? It may first be important to say what it’s not. It’s less of a “nervous breakdown coping device” of trying to calm down or get all quiet or take enough Xanax so you can finally write. It’s also not a cathartic dumping of your turmoil-mind onto paper to get that fresh breath of “there, I said it and I’m glad!” air. Rather, the focus is on what happens when you have already managed to attain some degree of peace and quiet, when you can devote your attention to a kind of quiet awareness that “Hey! That’s a thought or experience or idea I am thinking, or on the edge of thinking, that I should capture on paper!”

It’s learning the art of sitting quietly and not being disturbed by anything for the duration of the writing session, of being observant, and taking the next, essential step of not just thinking, not just noticing what’s happening in the coffee shop or in the back yard around your hammock or on the news you’re reading — but  noticing that you have just noticed something to write about. That you can and should record this awareness, idea, observation you are having.  In short, it’s a kind of meta-awareness — awareness that you are aware, and then recording it.

Now, this seems like an obvious, even childish thing to say, but it’s really not. In fact, it may be the one distinguishing quality of a “born writer” or a self-trained writer, that it occurs to her or him to write it down. We all experience things all day long, have great thoughts, come up with witty observations or heartbreaking memories or dazzling scientific discoveries… and instantly forget them. They are lost forever — uncounted and uncountable novels, plays, poems, jokes, song lyrics, observations of nature or character or solutions to intractable problems, all gone. Most of the mind of humanity is a vast sieve through which three million years of collective experience has leaked into the sand, forever lost. Only a very, very few ever stop and write an experience or a thought down.  But almost all advancement in awareness, all expansion of the human heart and capacity for justice and compassion, all advances in science, flow from the efforts of those few.

More than anything else, the “art” of writing (or of photography, or of painting, or of being a creative scientist or inventor) is developing the skill of noticing that you are noticing something, and then capturing that awareness in words, in pictures, in laboratory notebooks. Scientists and inventors who change the world do so, most often, because they observe something and remember that observation, they value it, either as a clear, new, useful thing or as something at least worth pondering. Millions of people pick burrs from their pants and skirts and pry them from the fur of their dogs, and then just one guy starts to think about how these fibers work, and invents Velcro. A scientist comes up with a glue that doesn’t seem to work very well, and we end up with Post-it notes. A photographer sees the same, tired mother’s face that a whole nation is seeing all around them, but she turns this into a masterpiece that in one glimpse, captures forever and for all humankind the psychological impact of the Great Depression.

And a man or a woman, a boy or a girl, has the same kinds of thoughts that all their friends have, that everyone else in the same time and era has about the experience of being human, of struggling, of being alone or in a tormented relationship, of wondering what happens after death or why I deserved this life, but instead of merely suffering, they also write down what that life, that suffering is like. And by doing so, they create a literature, which not only records but, often, changes the very experience of being.


Filed under Writing, Writing and society

Hemingway & the fading of a writer’s gift

I’ve just been reading David Dobbs’ article on Hemingway… thinking about Hemingway’s despair at the end, when his words didn’t seem to work any more. And maybe it’s true — if you read some of his later things, they perhaps don’t seem as beautiful and as — he seemed to like the word “true” but that’s not quite it — so sensually and emotionally vivid, maybe… as did his best early work. I recently reread both Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls and I felt that the former (written much earlier in his life) was the better book, though anyone would have been proud to have written either. Personally, never could get into The Old Man and the Sea (too depressing for my temperament, maybe) but then, I did enjoy his last big work of import, Moveable Feast, and people often say that in that, he reclaimed some of his youthful skill.  (Which to a psycho-diagnostician suggests a speculation: maybe Feast worked because he was writing about himself when he was young, and so he had to become, psychologically, himself when he was young, and when he did that, a kind of “counterclockwise” time-machine effect took hold, and he literally thought more and felt more like he did as a young man?  In other words, it wasn’t that he wrote as if he were young again, but that when immersed in the memories of his earlier years in Paris, he literally became young again?)

So you want to know what happened to him, you look around you.

You see it in their eyes, the long-time alcoholics (“rummies,” as Hemingway called them and, probably with self-awareness and self-contempt, himself.) It’s not just the preoccupation with alcohol (telltale sign: you visit a new acquaintance’s home and bring a gift bottle of wine and he zeroes in on the wine, not on you), or the other things, the bad manners or the insensitivity or the rudeness that a full-blown drunken state brings. It’s something more instant that you pick up, something that if you’ve grown up around it, you recognize it from forty feet away. It’s the wet, vacant, staring quality to their gaze.

I see it in the waiting room where I do psych evals. From a bright outside, as I walk into the back door of the agency and look into the dimly lit waiting room twenty feet away, he’ll be sitting in the chair and will turn when I come in and even though my eyes haven’t adjusted to the dark room, I pick it up. Yeah, he’s the one. The referral sheet says, “screen for substance abuse problems,” and sure enough, he’s got the drunkard’s stare.  The stare that causes bar fights when an old guy is too slow to avert that wet-eyed glare when the younger, tougher, fragile-egoed but equally drunk young ‘un catches it from across the room, starts the “what’re YOU starin’ at?!” dance and God help the old guy if he doesn’t look down, defeated and cowed. But in the clinic, it merely says, yeah, be sure to ask him twice and directly about his drinking. Don’t accept “no more than anybody else” (another diagnostic sign.)   Don’t accept vague, moving you off the subject responses about why things never worked out so good and he’s 45 and unemployed for five years and never gets along with anybody or shows up just fine but the jobs just ain’t there.

It’s not belligerence, you figure out after awhile. It’s deadness. A kind of deadness not of the whole man or the whole mind, but of some faculty of alertness, of the feeling part, of something that makes emotions feel present and vivid for other people, but not for him. So when he’s staring at somebody and they glance back, the little warning twinge, the “look away now, sonny” feeling, just doesn’t flash anymore. It’s shorted out, dissolved away, somewhere in the old cranium. So he just stares.

Not that he can’t feel — he can feel plenty, depression, mainly, and thirst. But he can’t feel the subtle things, his nervous system cannot keep up so good with the signaling systems of other people. He’s half asleep when they are signalling. So instead, he stares, as if to ask, “am I missing something?”

A chronic state of being just a little bit numbed.

Everybody writes about Hemingway’s sense of losing his gift, but seldom do they write in the same paragraphs about the alcohol. The copious quantities. The multiple bottles of wine every day, and beer and hard stuff, and it was something that got more and more into his writing. Read his mid-life masterpiece, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and you see it. The drinking together, bowl after bowl of wine, it’s what they do. The highlight of the day for heroes hiding in caves.  You see it also in the younger man’s characters and stories, but then it’s the drinking of a young, strong, invulnerable-feeling body. By the time he’s writing later, that body is more vulnerable. But the thirst’s still there, a driving force.  That, and the yearning for a vividness, an aliveness, and the words to say it, that perhaps he could remember having once experienced, but not quite locate anymore.

And sometimes you think you can spot it — as the freshness goes out of his sentences. As the true petrified into Hemingwayian truthiness. A man writing as if he still felt things, but are they perhaps just the memories of the feelings of his younger self?  Emotional phantom limbs?  What the cool pebbles in the stream felt like when he was young, before the neuropathies took the vivid  and complex sensations away, leaving only wetness, and sharpness, and cold.


Filed under Books, Fiction, Social intelligence, Writing

Writing One Good Sentence

Writing one good sentence… you sort of need to have something to write, good or bad.

But that may not be the best approach.

The best approach may be to first feel around the cracks in the wall until you can find the one that’s a door. Then, pry open the door — just enough to slip inside the dream world. Like finding a passage inside a pyramid: there are mysteries we cannot get away from because we know this is not just an ancient pile of rock, but a psychotic (to us) universe that is built into the structure (in addition to the art, writing, corpses placed inside.)  You just want to know — what is in there, of someone else’s experiences, fantasies, soul?

Just say what you find.

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Filed under Writing, Writing tools and tricks