On Tables

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I’m reading This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett’s essay collection.  It’s a writer’s autobiography in essay format.  She talks about MFA programs, saying that they are good for honing style and inculcating structural expertise, and offers advice on how to be a writer.

Reading advice on how to be a writer is a sublime form of self-shaming for writers.

Most of the advice is the equivalent of, “Eat less and exercise more!”  People who ask how to “get in shape” are actually asking how to “eat less and exercise more,” and there are many concrete options.  Try going to bed half an hour earlier.  No more wine with dinner.  Can you take the commuter train?  Do you like doing pushups?  Reducing all of those possibilities to a single rubric makes the problem of health mysterious.

“Just write!  Sit down and write!  Write all the time!  Write wherever you are, whenever you are!  Carry a notebook around so that you are never unable to write!  Keep one by your bed in case some opportunity to write arises in the middle of the night!  Join a writing group so you can write more!”

I love to write, and this advice still makes me feel terrible about myself.

The only satisfying writing advice I ever heard was from Colette (I’m paraphrasing): “Make sure you write at a square table.  If you write at a round table, your arms won’t rest comfortably, and then you’ll become irritable and you won’t be able to concentrate.  Square tables all the way.  Remember that.  Corners of four, win an award.  But if beveled the edges be, find a cafe in gay Paree.”

Most writers tell you to do it a whole bunch and then at some point you’ll have accumulated a novel.  And if you don’t want to put in that effort, you weren’t meant to be a writer after all.

Ann Patchett’s advice follows this model:

If you want to write and can’t figure out how to do it, try picking an amount of time to sit at your desk every day.  Start with twenty minutes, say, and work up as quickly as possible to as much time as you can spare.  Do you really want to write?  Sit for two hours a day.  During that time, you don’t have to write, but you must stay at your desk without distraction: no phone, no Internet, no books.  Sit still quietly.  Do this for a week, for two weeks.  Do not nap or check your email.  Keep on sitting for as long as you remain interested in writing.  Sooner or later you will write because you will no longer be able to stand not writing, or you’ll get up and turn the television on because you will no longer be able to stand all the sitting.  Either way, you’ll have your answer.

She’s very forgiving overall.  Most writing-advice manuals take this tone, too.  “I know.  Writing is hard.  It’s hard, hard, hard work.  Most people just aren’t cut out for it.  But if you can do it, it’s rewarding.  But don’t beat yourself up if you can’t.”

She’s much more successful than I am, having published eight or nine books.  She’s also much more professional and hardworking.  But I don’t agree with this advice at all.  I think it sets most people up to fail.

Giving people this set of directions for writing is like telling an aspiring artist to go stare at a blank canvas.  They may spontaneously start painting – there are probably many people who have been thinking art for long enough that there are pictures already glowing in their minds – but this process is fruitless for most people.  And a lot of them will eventually get up and turn the television on, despising themselves – not because they don’t like writing enough, but because words can only cohere when they have something to describe.  Being ordered to go write is like being told to say something funny.

I also think that there’s a crucial mixing here between aspiring and future.  The answer to this question is being delivered as though “writer” means “professional writer.”  I think it generally does when amateurs ask it – but they should understand that you don’t set out to become a “professional writer” any more than you set out to be an “artist who shows in museums.”  You can’t write yourself into skill, only into a habit of practice, and your writing probably won’t display much skill at first.  Inspiration is a skill.  You develop a sense of what can be written about, and you don’t do it through torture.

So I don’t think it’s a good idea to sit numbly in front of a blank page until inspiration strikes.  Writers mostly don’t write from nothing – not essayists or novelists.  They write a shadow-version of their life, with its own alternative plot.  (Ann Patchett’s first novel is one of these.)  Or they develop an idea from some subject that finds them.  By the time they’ve stumbled onto a theme for their second book or fifth story, they’ve had a lot of practice.

It may also be damaging to try to engage in Writing rather than an expansion of some theme or story that’s interesting to you.  If you go in with nada you probably will get used to thinking of Writing as “staring at a blank page.”

And so my advice to aspiring writers is to go out and get a subject to practice on – just the way an aspiring artist would go out and find some hills or a nude model.  Come up with something you want to write about, something that can sustain you for at least a month of words, and then get a blog or buy a diary and write a set of short essays.  Article summaries, responses, descriptions of something you saw or read, vignettes from your own life.  But make sure that they all share a theme.  Your job is to see how inspired you can be by that theme.

Choose something complicated enough to offer interesting detail and opportunities for research and intriguing enough on a personal level to sustain your attention and release you from a certain amount of self-consciousness.  Travel is a paradigm, but only because it’s an easy answer to this question – a pretty, novel experience parceled out each day from beginning to end.  You don’t need to travel.  It can be dogs or eyeliner.

But once you have your subject, resolve to write about it once a day for a month.

And if you need people to talk to, find people who are interested in your subject and who will hold forth on that, not people who are interested in “your writing.”  Nobody wants to read “writing.”  Even writers don’t like to read “writing.”  People want to read about hiking and bread and so on.  Readers deserve something to read about, too.

After you’ve done that for a certain amount of time, you’ll start to develop some skill with narrative and description.  And you shouldn’t think of this as some decisive test of your drive or your interest.  Just think of it as the first project, and see how much you can make of it.  Then maybe think about tackling a short story.  But don’t mortify yourself with a blank page unless you know that blank pages inspire you.

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