Curiosity: why does the practice of writing send me into flight, one kind or another, either manic optimizing, or, when I cut off that escape route, narcolepsy– sitting trapped at my desk or in my chair, counting the words or the minutes, desperate for it to be over? I have been reading and hearing stories of writers who don’t wander off. They do the hard work. Trollope tied himself to his chair. Set and met word goals. Did not seek pleasure.
Perhaps my problem is taking discomfort as a sign of failure. Believing that writing should feel good. Which is not to say make your life grim, but if your goal is to feel good, you might have trouble writing. Developing a skill is frustrating, often disappointing— you measure yourself and come up short; your attention is bad and then, when you finally write, your writing is bad. You can’t get yourself to the table and then you get to the table and find it bare.
I want to develop greater tolerance for those disappointments. When I meet them, greet them, and keep working. For me the task of becoming a writer appears to be, first and foremost, the task of holding and directing my attention.
Syd drove two hours looking for a hawk. They finally found one, sitting in a tree across from a barn. Hawks stay in the same spot for hours, waiting for prey. This one pounced on the trap before they could step back, so hungry it lost its bearings and caught a foot in a loop of wire. They put the huge hood over its head, bound its feet and drove for another hour with it in her lap, tiny heart thudding against her fingers. They were trying to find something better, in which case they would turn him loose, but it was a bad day for hawks, so they finally settled on him, mangey and starved, ulcers on both legs. The trainer pulled up to a local bakery and came back with donuts, which she didn’t take. Her hands crawled with parasites. When they got back to the house and took his hood off, he studied them, eyes darting from one to the other, but in ten minutes he took the quail right out of her hand. The trainer said he was probably sick. There was a chance he could die.
They looped leather around his ankles, attached a leash, taught him with more quail how to fly and come back. A week after they caught him, they let him fly free. As long as she kept him hungry, he would come, loop once or twice, land on her leather wrist, give her the back of his head, a gesture of submission. She never let herself think they were connected– her detachment makes her a good birder, even at thirteen. She sorts and processes efficiently, careful with details: the length of a crest, the color and curl of a claw. They studied each other the same way, girl and hawk, dispassionate appraisals, making deals: back in ten minutes, half a quail. Back in five, the whole thing. At night he slept in a plywood box with metal bars on the window. The trainer called it a muse. He stayed patiently, not making a sound, the coop next to him filled with gossipy, rustling chickens, loose feathers furring the ramp, the doorframe, the roof. He waited for her after school like a dog, perched on the post at the end of the driveway. She walked back to the house with him on her wrist. Every night she powdered him to get rid of the parasites, dipped his foot in iodine to keep the ulcers from getting infected.
The plan was never to keep him. Just to learn how to handle a bird. After five months she started weaning him, gave him more quail than he could eat every day, stopped touching him, cut his leads. You need to leave them wild, so they don’t fly up to people and scare them, get themselves killed. He went wild faster than the trainer expected, plump and vigorous, more wary each time she came to the muse. They drove him back to the field where they found him and let him loose. He rose on a few strong pumps, disappeared over the tree-line as if he had never known her. That night at the dinner table she asked for seconds. You would think she had never known him either, except that she could tell you, if you asked, how long he was with her: five months, a week and two days.
I’m beginning to see (after thirty years) that learning how to write is like learning how to put your baby to sleep, or keep your marriage happy, something that can’t be accomplished by following rules, even though the rules calm us down and help us stay in the maelstrom.
Let’s stay with that baby. People become rabid on the topic of how to get the baby to sleep, largely because it’s the first unpredicted moment of parenting– this force of nature, drilling itself relentlessly into the quiet hours of your night, depriving you of peace daily, hourly, until you are bleary and bloodshot and possibly psychotic, and you begin to understand that you are going to have to do this same thing for eighteen years unless you get the baby under control. So you read the books, and the books say, warningly, never touch the baby, or it will never learn to stop crying. Or: sleep with the baby, or it will grow up socially impaired. Or: whatever you do, don’t give the baby mixed messages, because then it will cry and be socially impaired. Each book layers a thin skin of hope over a cold kernel of certainty: you will not be able to follow any of these instructions. You are one big walking mixed message, a mixed message billboard. Your baby is going to grow up demanding, psychotic and omnipotent, while you go slowly insane. One day during this dark period of my life I read, like a voice in the wilderness, a person who said, here’s our rule: chef’s surprise. What we do with our baby on any given night depends on our mood, the baby’s mood, and how things go. In other words, there are no rules. There are ways. And you can try all of them without fear.
This is also true for writing. One day you will think, this is the best way, and the next day it will fail. Or, you might be like Trollope and wake up every single day for the rest of your life and do the same thing, without wavering, like one of those self-winding watches. When I first started writing I interviewed two famous writers because I was so desperate to figure out how it worked. I wasn’t interested in story, or metaphor, or character. I wanted to know, literally, what writers do every day. What kind of clothes you wear, where you sit, how you pay your bills and what happens when your mother calls asking you to meet the UPS guy at her house because you don’t have a job. They gave me two completely different answers. Lanford Wilson chased butterflies around his lush garden, ate pints of ice cream for dinner and wrote plays in wild twenty-day stretches. Richard Nelson woke up, put on a suit and tie, left his apartment and came back in after buying a cup of coffee on the corner, as if he were going to an office. You need to find your way. Try not to be intimidated by the guy who chases butterflies, if that’s not your thing, and don’t put on a suit if it drains you of hope. Some of the ways are pretty straightforward: nothing will happen if you don’t make words on a regular basis. Maybe a gush of words several times a year, or daily words, maybe ten words or ten thousand. The only truth is, if you never write, nothing can happen. Try to write words. And you should probably read some words that other people have written.
People who give advice make life appear pristine: march steadily from the imagined outcome to the successful outcome. So I imagine a pristine solution: write every day for three hours without fail. Then I fail. And then, mercifully, somebody says “people always say they write every day, but nobody does.” I try to remind myself: do my best.
Let’s talk about process. Let’s pull up the shades and let some air in and console those of you who, like me, have no idea how to do this, because you grew up in a very uptight family, where people kept stiff upper lips and sat in duck blinds for whole days at a time, freezing and taking tiny sips from a flask while they waited to shoot a Canada Goose right out of a hard blue autumn sky. In that world, either the ability to write happened to you by accident– maybe you were bi-polar, or alcoholic, or one of your parents was a painter or a composer or even a writer, so you kind of osmotically got it, or you were, like Stephen King, a natural. If your answer is none of the above, you didn’t get the skills. And then, when you finally asked your teacher in grad school how to become a writer, he said the ability to write is a gift. If you don’t have it, nobody can help you.
Part of my mission in life is to refute that assumption. Anybody can learn this art of making a story, the same way anyone can learn grammar, or running, or jump shots. There’s no right way, or one way, but there are lots of tried and true habits that can help. Including: you must read, and watch movies, and harvest the best parts– the aha moments when you think, wow, I never saw that coming, when the book reverses itself, and you realize that every single character is actually a ghost.