Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The worst advice about writing: “a writer writes.”

In the movie Throw Momma from the Train, Billy Crystal’s memorable character, a frustrated writing teacher, used to intone wisely, “a writer writes… always.”

Probably the most common advice given to writers:  “writers write.”  It’s also balderdash.

Which you realize if you consider the flip side of the equation:  if you have written anything – an email, an excuse note for your kid’s teacher, a “Lost Kitten” poster – you’re automatically a writer.

Sometimes, even the best advice is wrong.  Like when you have a baby and everybody says, “sleep when the baby sleeps.”  Of course, it’s great advice in a universe where you have nothing else to do but look after the baby.

Better advice:  a writer writes… sometimes.

When I first saw the title of this QuickSprout blog post, A Simple Plan for Writing a Powerful Blog Post in Less Than 2 Hours (yeah, I read blogs about blogging, and QuickSprout is among the best!), I was horrified. 

"I can write something in great in WAY less time than that," I thought.  My typing speed has been clocked at well over 90 words per minute when I’m in my groove – maybe even 100.  Then it hit me: 

Creativity is about more than typing speed; it’s about more than typing, period.

If you count total time spent being creative, not just total time spent clacking at the keyboard, yeah, it takes me more than 2 hours to create a blog post.  Don’t want to think of my actual words-per-minute in that case!

Just as a blog post doesn’t flow from my mind unhindered onto the screen, a kids’ book doesn’t flow from my mind, through my fingers, and out onto the page.  No, an organic process like writing is nowhere near as mechanical as that. 

We are writers, not writing machines.

cover_take3watermarkNot that long ago, I finished writing Yossi and the Monkeys, a short 10-chapter kids’ book (they’re short chapters), my longest effort so far.  (Thank you very much, but please, hold your applause!).  And BOY, did I realize then that it wasn’t just about sitting down to write.

Maybe, if you’re really good, or at least, really self-confident, it works for a short picture book… or maybe it doesn’t.  But no way does it work for anything longer than that.

What happens is way more gradual, way more organic and messy than that.

So while it’s true that a writer writes, in the most brainless, tautological sense of the words, it’s also true that a writer must stop writing to create.

Let’s say it again, Billy Crystal style:  “a writer stops… sometimes.”

Whether it’s a blog post, a feature article, or a picture book, you have to let the ideas percolate, bubble up, come to you one at a time – however you picture the process happening inside your mind.  And generally, this doesn’t happen when you’re typing.

For a blog post, I generally spend at least one evening thinking about what I’m going to say before I actually sit down to write it when I’m fresh in the morning.  Overnight, I don’t write; the ideas steep on their own until, by morning, they’re mature and tasty (I hope!). 

Same thing with this chapter book.  I started out, having just read the classic story Caps for Sale, by Esphyr Slobodkina, thinking I wanted to do something Jewish and fun, with monkeys.  Thus inspired, I wrote and wrote and wrote… and then ran aground. 

Okay, I thought.  Chapter one is done.

I stopped because I was done – not the entire book but enough that I felt I’d made a start.  And enough that I knew that I needed to recharge my batteries before continuing.  I kind of despaired until I realized the obvious truth of this:

Only a fool thinks they can complete a book in one sitting. 

Indeed, even with only ten chapters in this little book, a nice round number, it took far more than ten sittings… probably more than twenty.  Sometimes, I ran aground in the middle of a chapter.  Sometimes, I’d make it to the end and then wonder how to fix the fascinating story problems I’d created in that chapter!

And always, always, I’d stop. 

“A writer stops… sometimes.”  (imagine me doing my best Billy Crystal accent, which isn’t very good!)

This was a different experience from writing a picture book, but even with a picture book, there’s some starting and stopping.  I may write half or even the whole thing in one sitting, but then there are countless stoppings – going away to think, to fix, to tweak, to make it better in my mind before sitting down again.

Of course, I agree that carving out time to write is crucial – even the best ideas will go nowhere unless you make time to sit down at your desk (or wherever you write) and do the proverbial deed.

But always?  Nah.

Sometimes, a writer writes.  Other times, she just percolates and dreams… and her book grows better and better while she’s doing it.

What’s your ratio of “dreaming time” to “typing time”?  And what’s your favourite part of the process???


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