It doesn’t have to be good…

greenchairAfter several days of sailing along and writing (it seemed) like a genius, churning out 500-1000 words a day, I’ve been slogging these last two days. It feels as though I am writing just to be writing, writing snippets and scenes that I’m not even sure I’ll keep. It’s frustrating.

There are different schools of thought about bouts such as this. I believe it’s Robert Olen Butler who says one should just sit on a bench and practice not writing, at least on occasion. My friend Thom Lee, a potter, makes his students swear not to clutter the world with bad pots.

I have a different theory. “To write well, write a lot,” an early mentor advised me. And I’m not convinced that–at least not every day–I’m the best judge of the quality of what I write. Sometimes, too,  toward the end of my five pages I gin out a jewel that makes it all worthwhile, a jewel that often sparks the next writing session.

Sometimes, when I’m well and truly stymied, I write notes to myself. The notes help. It’s as if they are a secret way for one part of my brain to communicate with another. (Though other people would say for it’s a way of communicating with God, or one’s soul, or the spirit of creativity–and they may be right.) I write civilized little notes, or prayers (Dear God, this is your servant Bethany, the writer…), or I write curse words in big capital letters. You could try drawing, or writing with your off hand. Whatever happens, this process usually results in an idea. Think of free-writing exercises when your teacher instructed you to keep writing, no matter what, even if you had to write, “I don’t know what else to write! This teacher is an idiot! I hate this!” It’s as if your brain gets quickly bored by that and says, Fine, here’s a scene you can write. Anyway, it’s one of the strategies that, for me, results in more writing.

My goal for this project is 500 words per day. When I hesitate at the beginning of a writing session and don’t know what to write, I tell myself, “It doesn’t have to be good.”

As of today, I’ve typed 12,630 words on my new manuscript. Some of them are good.

Keep writing!

What to Write…

P1040289If you’re called to write, you don’t need any additional excuse. Writing can be as natural as eating, as natural as drinking water or breathing. If you want to write, you should write.

So you visit your local stationery store, you buy a gorgeous journal bound in leather, or a spiral notebook with Duck Dynasty on the cover. You buy a package of your favorite pens. You set your alarm clock — er, your phone — and get up half an hour early. You pour your coffee or steep your tea. You sit down at the kitchen table. That’s all you need.

But now what?

Freewriting, as I told the writing lab participants on Tuesday, is not free. You have to put that pen nib to the beautiful, clean pages and write non-stop for a set period of time. If you’re writing on your own, any amount of time is good — 10 or 15 minutes at a minimum. In lab, however, we write for 30 to 45 minutes, and that can be hard. After our first lab we shared our ideas for what-to-write, so here they are. Get started!

1) write a list of what you’d like to write

2) write a letter (you can write it to anyone that frees you; you can also write to the person who you imagine would not want you to write)

3) write, “This is dumb. I can’t think of anything to write. This is crazy. Why is Bethany making me write for 45 minutes? I could do ten, but 45??? Really? Bethany is crazy. Bethany is a fascist. This is …” (You get the idea. Just keep your pen moving.)

4) draw

5) draw a tic-tac-toe like grid and then fill it with 9 trips (to anywhere, the 7-11 last night at 11:00, or to Paris when you were 12), or 9 events (your sister’s wedding, the day you got your dog, your child’s birth, your graduation…anything like that)

6. describe what’s in front of you or the room you’re sitting in

7. you can buy a book of prompts such as Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and begin working through those

The idea of drawing or writing complaints, by the way, even of listing, is to get your brain to drop into a different mode of being. You can think of this in left brain/right brain terms, or anything else that serves you. But if you stick with it for a designated period of time (I like 15 minutes, as you know) you will break through. If you return tomorrow, you’ll begin to form a habit.

Eventually, you’ll stop complaining and find yourself actually writing something of interest. Next, we’ll talk about what to do with that.

And if you don’t believe me, here is Natalie Goldberg herself with a few ideas: