This blog post by Peter Ball fills me with the desire to quote all the lines. Well, not all of them. And I haven’t read On Writing, so I can say nothing about the book either way, but. Here, let me just quote bits. It’ll be easier.
The weird part is that the good writing advice and the bad writing advice can be exactly the same; you’ve just heard it a different point in your career, or it works really well for you but not the next writer down the queue. I keep writing this in various places, but writing advice is not one size fits all.
It never occurred to me that I was doing the wrong thing. That Stephen King’s approach probably wasn’t for me. That my attention span, short and fragmentary as it is, is better served by walking away and coming back a few minutes later. And it wasn’t like I was new to writing. I’d been doing this for years, had a whole bunch of stories published. I worked under the illusion that I knew what I was doing, even though I didn’t.
The smartest thing you can do is figure out what your approach looks like and keep making sure it’s right for you, your life, and your goals.
And none of these quotes are new ideas to me. In many ways I was lucky in that it’s possible I’ve always held to these ideas to some extent. I’m one of those writers who has always told stories. I’ve been writing stories since I learned how to write — and to my great embarrassment my mother has somehow managed to keep a couple of them around — and telling them since I knew what they were, possibly before. It’s kind of been what I do.
But when I was little the world looked very different. It’s disorienting to know how old that makes me feel when I’m not actually all that old. There was no internet when I was little. It emerged as I did. It grew as I did. I had no (easy) access to writers’ blogs or discussions. My library was tiny. It had no How To books on writing. I might have been in my early twenties before I even heard of Stephen King’s On Writing. It was certainly in my late teens.
My point is, of course, that I have never had writers tell me how to write when I was just starting out. I had the books they wrote and little more. No one I admired/respected/could look up to as an example of how I wanted to be when I grew up to be a writer ever told me that what I did was wrong. No one ever suggested that there was a single way to go about writing, not even when the internet emerged and I discovered forums where I met with other writers. I got to see different approaches. I got to see my own approaches grow and change as I did. I got to see people discover things that worked for them and things that didn’t. We never said “Writers must do this”, but only “Let’s try this because it was suggested we do”.
And that was when I learned that writing advice is general given in a one-size-fits-all shape. (Sort of. Life is not quite as neat a progression and my memory may have left gaps that would alter the general line, but it’s how I recall it happening.) I learned of it long after I realised that it doesn’t work like that. I learned of it long after I learned to discard or adapt what didn’t work for me. I’m lucky like that, because I would have stood a very real risk of being one of those lost writers Ball mentions if I’d learned these lessons the other way around.
I catch myself giving generic writing advice at times, but I haven’t yet caught myself giving it without a note that people should discard what I’m saying if it doesn’t work for them. (In fact, this is how I approach teaching ESL and preparing for tests too. “Here is a way you could tackle this problem. Try it and if it doesn’t work, don’t do it again. Try something else instead” is not an uncommon gist when I’m asked for studying tips.) Because what works for me doesn’t have to work for someone else.
And sometimes it only works a little. Quite often I explain the rules for dummy-do by turning those rules into a superhero narrative (Superdo saves the day! Thank you, Superdo!). Every time I use that approach, my students (all teenagers) react. Most consider it ridiculous and don’t I think they’re too old for a primary school approach to teaching grammar. After all, they’re not kids dammit. At which point I explain how the story works (i.e. repeat the grammar rules they were bored by once again) and, sometimes, follow it up by explaining that the point of the story isn’t the grammar. It’s catching their interest and making an impression on them. (And then they get exercises because the best way to learn grammar is to use it and make it part of your thought processes.) Writing advice can by like that too. It’s not about the advice or the way it’s given. It’s about getting the writer to think about the rules and engaging with them (in a memorable way).
I’m… drifting from where I was originally going with this post. Oops. I wanted to ramble more on my own processes because Ball’s descriptions of how his methods are not like King’s are what resonated so deeply as to spark a post of my own. The lines that get me most are these
It never occurred to me that I was doing the wrong thing. That Stephen King’s approach probably wasn’t for me. That my attention span, short and fragmentary as it is, is better served by walking away and coming back a few minutes later. And it wasn’t like I was new to writing.
I’m aware I’m pulling them (slightly) out of context, no worries. But this quote is especially apt this year. I’ve been struggling with writer’s block for… some time now. This year I signed up for Inking It Out and, because I know I can get 50,000+ words in a month quite easily (in a good month), I’m not aiming for the minimum of 75,000 words in a year. I’m aiming for double that: 150,000 words. It’s May and I’m about 10,000 words ahead of where I should be. I’ve had an incredibly bad April and May isn’t shaping up to be much better. In these five months, I have not been writing consistently or daily. My best writing sessions have all involved copious amounts of (cryptic) tweets whenever I got distracted. My attention span is short and framentary. I take breaks. I quite mid-climactic scene to sing Danny Boy. I read part of a book. I watch TV. I chat with people. There are days where I don’t write at all. There are many days where I need my spoons to deal with the mess that is my daily life and I come home and settle at my computer and I just do not have the spoons to hammer out as much as a sentence. And I tell myself “It is okay to take a break. You are not a Write Every Day writer. You can catch up on your word count tomorrow” and do something less spoon-draining.
This worked better when I had more spoons to spend, of course. I am working towards writing more regularly and (ideally) more often. I want to write more words and regain some of the productivity I used to have. (Hopefully the fact that some of the daily-life things eating up my spoons deal with figuring out why I lost spoons will help with that.) I may never be a Write Every Day writer or I may become one. That’s okay. Ball’s post reminded me that it’s okay and I needed that reminder just as I needed Judy Blume’s comment that “[y]ou cannot write with a censor on your shoulder”, which certainly feels is an apt enough description of one of the reasons I’m struggling to write. (It’s not, I don’t think, but it feels like it.)
Ball’s final section is another reminder I needed: that we fall into habits. I’ve fallen out of the writing-related habits that Ball’s piece touches on, the habits I developed when I was growing up and everything was new and shiny (and I had more energy and the world was bouncier and there seemed to be infinitely more hours in the day). I’ve fallen out of the habit to try things and experiment with how I write. And I have changed. My life has changed. They’ve changed drastically enough (somehow) that everything I’ve said about being lucky to learn my writing advice the other way around no longer matters.
Because somewhere down the line I heard that advice (or advice like it) one time too many and it’s seeped into my system. I don’t believe there is One True Way to write. I don’t believe I should write every day, even if it’s just a sentence, even if it’s just a single word. I know I don’t. I have proof that my flighty methods do not significantly decrease (in fact, they increase) my output, for goodness’ sake. And yet… I’ve heard that advice so often that it’s eroding the first lessons I learnt as I writer. I’ve heard that advice so often that a post like Ball’s still aids in that erosion purely and solely because it tries to deconstruct why that advice is dangerous.
This idea that there is One True Way to write has made its way into my subconscious and I don’t know how to get it out because I don’t know what methods work best for me now. I’ve fallen out of the habit of trying new things.
I’m trying to get back into that. I’m currently trying to determine what kind of spoons writing eats up and how to get more of them, but it’s slow going and it’s not magically going to make everything better. It’ll take work (and spoons I can’t find even though I’m fairly sure I have them somewhere) and it’ll take time and it’ll take effort. I haven’t the first clue what I’m doing or how to go about this effectively and some days I’m okay with that and others I’m frustrated, but I’m doing something. I’m (slowly yet finally) trying to figure out what works for me now.
And some days I coax stories into cooperating for a while. Right now, I’m behind on my monthly writing goal, but I’m way ahead of where I thought I’d end the month. I’m proud of that and hope that June can be as much of an improvement on May as May was on April. I’m trying to think of new approaches I can try at least. I’ll find what works for me now yet. And for the curious have some notes on how my writing habits over the years.
In my teens I wrote to music constantly. I’d write poems based on the melodic line of some soundtrack piece or another. I couldn’t write prose properly if I wasn’t singing along to something at the same time. (It’s hard, but not impossible. It’s also easier if you start with singing, in my experience.) Nowadays, music is a massive no-no. If I hear music while I’m writing I get caught up in the song and end up distracted for hours. I get mesmerised by melodies or frustrated by that song I just can’t get right if there’s so much as a hint of music around.
I used to write prose and poetry by hand. This isn’t so surprising, really, because I was somewhere in my mid-teens by the time we got a computer with a decent word processor on it. If I wanted to write things down, pen and paper was unavoidable. I had a typewriter, but it was always more of a novelty than a crucial item in my writing kit. Nowadays I only write poetry by hand and, more rarely, prose only if I must get it out right then and there and if I have pen and paper on hand. My hand cramps up very quickly and I write in a barely legible scrawl anyway. With poetry I end up resting my hand more frequently because it’s hardly ever the steamtrain of words that prose is. Too, I find it easier to fiddle around with sentence. Scratching things out doesn’t erase them. It just makes them harder to read and easier to disregard, but once you press the backspace or delete button on your computer the text is gone. Sort of. The kind of comparison you can make when you write poetry by hand can be reproduced in a word processing program, sure, but it’s difficult and involves a lot more effort.
I used to write in Word. Nowadays I use Scrivener. This is probably the most recent change and my workflow is still in the process of transitioning, so I’m not quite sure what to say about it yet.
I don’t think I always had such issues with my attention span. Nowadays I let myself get distracted for a couple of minutes, whether it’s to tweet or stretch my legs. It helps me stay focused. Most of the time anyway. There are always exceptions.
I don’t drink at the computer when I’m writing. I may take breaks to drink stuff, but even in my flighty, distracted state, I tend to forget I made myself a cup of tea or coffee until it’s cold and unpalatable. I don’t eat either, but that’s mostly because the crumbs will get everywhere and I have seen many a keyboard wrecked because they got too dirty to clean.
Nowadays I tend to write in bed. It’s more comfortable than my desk. (My chair sucks. I remember there was a day when it didn’t suck.) And… I think that’s all I’ll be able to come up with right now, really. Hope you enjoyed the rambling!