Creating a Writing Practice
Create a writing practice. And, you now, what is often said is make sure you write every single day. And some people even say, you know, write 500 words or 1,000 words every day no matter what. I won't tell you that because as you've already heard me say I think that one of the greatest problems that people get into is writing before they know what they have to say. So I believe in dedicating a portion of every single day to thinking about my writing and that may well include scribbling a whole lot of ideas on my whiteboard. It probably includes taking a very long walk or a long swim or if I'm really lucky and I'm in my home state of New Hampshire when the weather is just right, a long skate. But I am focused on the work. And sometimes that looks like this and sometimes it looks like this. And you need to respect your own body clock. I happen to be a morning person. I could not write a good essay to save my life after eight p.m., truly I could not. But get me out of bed at three in the...
morning and tell me I need to write, I'll do it. Stay up till three won't work very well. But if I tell myself it's morning and not a very late night, I can do it. And in fact I love to do it. For many years I was writing as a parent of very young children, and you have to get up pretty early in the morning to beat young children. So that's what I did. And I was up before the sun, and sometimes I got my day's work done before six a.m. And I've actually, the children are long gone, out into the world, but I've never broken that habit. I like to be up with the sun. But that's certainly not something that applies to everybody. Some people are night time writers. Just know what your good time is and honor it. And give your writing, if at all possible, and I know this is hard for people who have day jobs, give your best hours to your writing. Not the ones that are left over after you've taken care of absolutely everything else, but save your best hours for the writing. I don't schedule appointments for the morning because I know morning is my good time. By four o'clock I can go to the dentist. But I'm not going to, if I go to the dentist at eight a.m., my writing day is shot. For me, and this also definitely was shaped by years of being a parent and then a single parent, the idea of writing every single day was not possible because there were lots of interruptions. And there were lots of other things that I had to take care of. And for me, one of the most challenging things was what I called getting into the zone. Putting away all the cares of my day. And getting into the zone, once you're there, then I could stay there for quite a long time. But to have to get into the zone every day for 45 minutes didn't make much sense, so for me, I would get more accomplished and did and have in five very concentrated days when I left the world. It used to look like just checking into a cheap motel in Brattleboro, Vermont or I went off to odd little places and wrote, and I could do more in those days. Sometimes a whole book was written in those cheap motel rooms. My novel, Where Love Goes, was by the side of the Connecticut River in a $25 a night motel room. And I just decided I'm not coming out until it's done. And I had children's spring vacations, spring break when my kids were with their dad, and I did not walk out of that motel room until the end of the break and I had the rough draft of a novel when I did. But that was me. For me, years before I discovered the actual phenomemon of a real writing retreat, I created writing retreats for myself. And if you don't, if you don't have the luxury of being able to write every day, every week, every month, locate a couple weeks. Locate even six days where you can just go and take yourself away. And remove all distraction during that period. My writing space needs to be quiet. I look in amazement at people who go off to Starbucks or Peet's and write. But maybe it's kind of a white noise situation. I don't even like, I'm a little bit funny about this, I don't even want somebody in the house. My dog, yes, but nobody else when I'm working. And that's more possible now then it used to be when I had kids at home. I don't have a very fancy writing space, I don't even really like a fancy writing space. I want a window and I want quiet. And I believe in treating myself really well. I'm going to have just a good chair and a good window and a nice smelling candle. There's no way that I can take away or diminish the hardship of going into the story. But everything that I can make nice, I will and I do. And one of the things that I think is really important, nobody talks about this, is exercise. You know, writers are sometimes a pretty unhealthy bunch, and I'm just going to be a little bit of standard barer for being a healthy writer. I don't believe it's a good idea to sit in a chair for eight hours a day. One of the ways you can solve this is to stand at a desk, to have a standing up desk. Actually in Guatemala I have an ironing board that I put my laptop on, and I don't iron, believe me, I haven't done that in years. But it just engages your muscles, and you don't, you don't just sort of drift off into this kind of apathy. You are fully engaged. Maybe this is partly because I have no sport but writing, so this is my sport. And one of the things that I do is leave my desk and move. And I'm sure it's a good thing for our brain to do it. It doesn't mean it ceases to be my writing day, but I'm thinking about my work as I hike or as I swim or as I fold the laundry. It doesn't work to do it as I shop. You know, it really needs to be a very solitary endeavor. And it doesn't look particularly impressive, which is one of the dangers here. Do people have a hard time sort of carving out the time and having people take you seriously when you say you're writing? You know, you're home, you're the one who can pick up their kids, or you know, drive them to the airport, you're available. You're only writing, that's all. You don't have a uniform to wear, you don't have a vehicle to drive, you're just sitting there at home. And nobody is going to make those boundaries around your time, but you. You have to claim it. One of the first things you need to do is believe yourself that what you do is important. If you don't believe it, why will anybody else respect it? You have to respect your time. Many people have a hard time, you know I said how difficult it was for me to say the word wife. Many people have a hard time saying the word writer used to applied to themselves. Or they'll very quickly say well I haven't published anything. I don't have an agent. Those are not my measures of whether you're a writer. If you commit to the work, if you commit to this hard work, and you dedicate yourself to telling the story in the way that we've been talking about all day here, you can call yourself a writer. And you can tell other people that you're writing. And make sure that they respect that and they know that that is every bit as important. They're probably not likely to, you know, interrupt your, if you said well you know I'm going to the gym. They're not going to say well, oh, no, why don't you not do that, but you know, go cook me a meal instead. But you're a writer, take it as seriously as all the other things that you do. And take it as seriously as you take all the other things that the people that you love do. Start of my day, make my coffee. I often play music. I cannot play music while I'm writing, I can't do that. I didn't even want music playing in this studio when I was thinking. Because music really distracts me, but and maybe I like music too much, so I really listen to the music. But before I write, I listen to music almost every day. And I create a playlist, this is my own little thing. I create a playlist for the particular book I'm writing. And sometimes, if I'm writing a novel, I'll create a playlist for a character. For The Best of Us, you can actually hear the playlist for The Best of Us because I put it up on Spotify. It's a bunch of real heartbreak songs, but also falling in love songs. There was a novel that I wrote a couple of books back that was involved a teenage girl in the summer of 1979. It's a pretty dark novel, it involves a killer on the loose and a couple of teenage girls who decide to catch him by using themselves as bait. Summer of 1979, teenage girls, first thing I did was Google what the top hit was of the summer of 1979. Anybody know? My Sharona. I played My Sharona probably 500 times. If anybody, I mean more than that. If anybody had been living in my house that summer they would have gone crazy. And actually I have to tell you this story that has nothing to do with helping you write, but it's just such a miraculous story. I put My Sharona, it was exactly the right tone for that novel because it was this kind of driving, pounding, somewhat ominous, very sexual song. My, my, my, my Sharona. I could of course sing it for you. And I had the lyrics, little pieces of the lyrics all through the song. And my editor kept on saying to me, you've got to take My Sharona out because it would cost a whole lot of money to get the rights to quote My Sharona. And I kept on putting off, putting off taking out My Sharona because My Sharona mattered so much to me in that novel. And I was down to the last day and I hadn't taken My Sharona out, and I had actually rented out my house for reasons I won't go into. It had to do with the sorry finances of writers probably, but, and the guy who had rented my house came and I asked him what he did for a living. And he said I'm a musician. And I said, oh really, what do you play? The bass, and I said do you play in any bands. And he said, well, I used to play with The Knack. (laughter) The author of My Shsrona, Doug Fieger, had died in his arms a couple of years before. And he called up Doug Fieger's sister and My Sharona is in that book. Anyway, back to our story. Music, music is really important to me. And if you're trying to convey a period of time or a mood, there's little that's better than music. So I play the heck out of my soundtrack, and then I turn it off, and then I write in silence. But that music has gotten into my head. Often I begin my writing day by rereading what I wrote the day before. And sometimes I read it out loud. I don't read the whole book because you know some people get really stuck, and they go back and back and they can't move forward. They're always fixing. Does anybody have that problem? You're so attached to revising, you don't move forward. And you get so sick of what you've written. Move forward, but read a couple of pages of where you left off. And read it out loud. I don't do a lot of reading of other people's books while I'm writing because I'm a kind of imitative person. I pick up, you know, if I'm hanging around a friend who comes from Tennessee for more than an hour, I'll start talking like her. So I don't read people's novels, but I read poetry. And I find books of poetry, and I keep books of poetry on my desk at all times. And they're short and the language is very pure. And that's a regular source of inspiration for me. I have a book, I guess I don't need the book anymore, this is all on the Internet now, but it's a book called The Chronicle of the 20th Century. And there's a page in it for every single day of the 20th century. Of course not it's out of date because we are well into the 21st. But I want to know what were the movies, what were the clothes. I want to, and when you're writing memoir, those are triggers that will touch off memory. You know, the person who mentioned the Trapper Keeper, I hadn't heard the word Trapper Keeper for a long time, but it came back to me then. Your memories are all in you, but it is likely to help you to trigger. Some people find smells very powerful triggers. If you watch a movie that you watched during a particular era if your life. Certainly listen to music. Go to a place that triggers memory. Put yourself in situations where memory and feeling and experiences where you experienced the story that you now want to tell. Put yourself back there. Sometimes it's painful to do that. I don't believe, particularly, in research. Some people, when they're writing a memoir, say well I'm going to call up my sister and have her, you know, tell me, remind me what it was like, you know, back then. Or I'm going to ask my mother to remind me about, you know, what I was like as a teenager. Well we know Irene's mother is not going to give us a very complete picture of Irene. What we would get would be Irene's mother's picture of Irene. And even your sister, as much as you may love her, is going to have her story, not yours. Years ago, for many years, I wrote a lot for magazines. It's lucky that I've moved on to books because so few of the magazines that I used to write for even exist anymore. But one day I gave myself the assignment. I went to a magazine that used to exist called More. And I suggested, my sister is also a writer. My older sister, Rona, is a very fine writer in Canada. Also goes by the name Maynard. And I suggested that each of us be given the assignment of writing about being the sister to the other one. I would write about Rona, she would write about me. We've had a complicated, difficult relationship as sisters. Certainly love each other, but we've had periods where we didn't speak, periods where we were very angry and very distance from each other. So when the editor said, well one of the ground rules is you cannot consult with each other on these stories, that was no problem whatsoever because months go by that we didn't do that anyway. We each wrote about the death of our mother. Which was in fact the event that triggered a falling out that lasted several years. We each wrote about it. Each of our stories was scrupulously honest and completely different. We were two people who had grown up with the same parents, with many of the same circumstances, and responded in radically different ways. And it was not that one of us was right and one of us was wrong. We just, there was my truth and there was her truth. There was not the truth. So asking somebody else to tell you what happened is only going to give you their story. And likewise, you know I do think that journals can be a very helpful tool. But I've also seen people get really bogged down with their journals. They take out their journals and it's a little bit like what happens when you start surfing the Internet. And one thing leads to another and before you know it, you've spent all day looking at, you know, what the stars of sixties television look like now or something. So and ultimately your journals, people would love it, and many people have tried to just paste in bits from their journals to their writing. But journal writing is not what we're talking about here. It's what you did to write to yourself. You didn't need to communicate to anybody else. So I would use the research in your own journals sparingly. And same with letters. You know you can get so tied up, so bogged down, with the research. I've seen writers who spent years doing the research for their book and not writing their book. So, my toolbox, first thing that I'll have in every room that I write is a white board. And if I'm traveling, I'll get one of those big pads of those post it notes that sort of duplicate the form of a white board. And I put them all over the walls. And I, I don't make an outline. An outline, anything that's, any piece of writing that's from an outline is going to feel stiff and rigid and like an outline, like a term paper. But I just scribble down a whole lot of stuff that I know I want to have there. So for instance, for the piece that I just read to you. The one about Jim's surgery and being at the hospital that day, I would have scribbled oysters, Fenway Park. And I would have scribbled first date, never ordered food. And I would have scribbled just a lot of just little images in no particular order that just allowed me to feel I had something to go on. Because you know a musician has his or her sheet music to work from. A painter has a pallet full of paints. A writer has nothing, the alphabet is about as close as we can get to it. You can't just have like a whole bunch of words scattered out. I think I'll choose that one. No, I think I'll choose that one. So the white board begins to give you something so you're a little less alone. And you don't have that horrible, completely blank page facing you with no alternative. Um, the Internet, let's talk about the Internet. This didn't exist when I started writing. I wrote, first I wrote in long hand, and then I wrote on a typewriter. I actually have a typewriter again. It's very exciting to hear that sound of the typewriter again. But, and the Internet is of course a great tool. I used to print out my books and then I would, I would cut them up and I'd lay out the different paragraphs and move them around and use tape to rearrange them. And of course all of this is no longer necessary. But it also connects us to so much random material and distraction. And if you don't have the discipline to say I'm going to stay off the Internet during my precious, hard one writing hours, there is a little program for you called freedom. And it's kind of like, you know that drug, Antabuse, that people take if they've got a little drinking problem, that will make them sick if they, you know, they take the Antabuse and then they drink. Freedom is a little bit like that. You cannot, it doesn't make you sick, but you cannot get back on the Internet for the number of minutes that you choose. And short of that, just the act of checking your email, brings your brain to a completely different place. And it's very hard to come back from that. So how many times in your whole life has it made a difference to get an email at eight in the morning rather then four in the afternoon? Is there anything going to be lost by not checking your email until the end of your writing day? Make a commitment to doing that. You've done so many harder things then that. First of all, you're here today in this room for hours. You're sitting there in your chair at home watching. You're lived through all the experiences that you've lived through. Just disconnect from the Internet.