Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Writer, Heal Thyself

A few weeks ago I met a friend of mine for lunch, and she told me she wanted to write a book. We were co-workers long ago, but we formed a friendship because we discovered that we both loved to read. At some point, I told her that I also really, really wanted to write, that I had been trying to write for years, and would likely have something to show her even, in just a few weeks. She’s a kind person. She nodded and smiled and said, “That would be great!” Of course, as soon as I promised I would finish something, I froze. It was a bit like promising to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and then finding myself unable to climb over a speed bump in the driveway. Probably she had accepted my offer of a story draft in passing, with pleasure but without much thought. Sure! Fun! A draft!

I don’t think she knew at that point how very serious I was. It’s not just that I want to write, but I am obsessed with writing, not just with my own but with everyone else’s, too. So naturally, when I heard she was planning a book, I offered to help. Actually, I’m pretty sure I held a spork to her throat and threatened to poke at her jugular with it until she agreed to let me be one of her readers and editors. What can I say? We were at Boston Market. Their cornbread does strange things to me.

She agreed. Consented. Relented. Whatever you want to call it. Like I said, she’s a kind person, and she had no idea what she was getting herself into. After I calmed down a bit and released my grip on the spork, I started bossing her around. She told me she was having trouble getting started, facing the blank page and all, so I told her--in all my great wisdom--to write 200 words a day. I told her, “That’s what Anne Lamott says. Two hundred words, and if you can keep going then that’s great. Stephen King writes 10,000 words a day, you know, but no reason to start there. Have you read Bird by Bird? You should read it. You just write 200 hundred words without worrying about it. Don’t edit yourself. Just write.”

I should note here that I give myself this exact same advice every day, but I rarely heed it. Or I should say, I heed it, but I can’t get 200 words on the page. I’ve read Bird by Bird so many times that, well, let’s just say that if the number of times were a person, that person would be old enough to vote. Maybe even old enough to drink. Legally, I mean.

But my friend? That very day, she put Bird by Bird on hold at the library, and then she went home and wrote 200 words. And then she kept going. And she kept on every day writing her 200 words or more, and she hasn’t even read Bird by Bird! What the hell is up with that?

She called me a week after our initial meeting and told me she’d written two chapters. Two. Chapters. She wanted to know if we could get together over the weekend and talk about them. Of course! We met for coffee this past Sunday, and, as promised, she handed over her two chapters. She even had a good title and a little cover sheet with a picture. I suck at titles. 

Now, before you start thinking that I might try to sabotage my friend just because she managed to produce something and show it to me all within the space of a week, you would be wrong. She has a terrific premise, a great story to tell, and by-gosh-and-by-golly, just because I can’t get my own words on the page does not mean I can’t help her get her story on the page. Oh no. I’m full of help. In fact, I was the most pompous asshole you ever heard, or at least that’s how I sounded to myself: “Just write the narrative part. Just tell the story. Don’t worry about the order. You can change that later. Don’t edit yourself, don’t leave anything out. It’s easier to take away than add blah blah blah blah….”

And the whole time, I was thinking “Asshole! You can‘t even do that! How can you expect someone else to do it?” I was thinking of myself the night before, sitting in front of a mostly blank screen for several hours. I say “mostly” because the evening went something like this: 




Leave desk, find husband, rant and cry.  Drink martini. 

See how all those lines up there end with the word DELETE? Hence the blank page. Hence the martini. Hence my long stupid speech to my friend about just getting it down on paper! Why? Because even if I cannot seem to, I know others can, and do. Because I know it’s the truth and if I hear myself say it enough times, eventually it’s bound to work. After all, I wasn’t always like this. I actually used to write things that had a beginning, middle, and end (They were atrocious, but complete!), instead of just a beginning, beginning, and beginning.

And I’m still trying to forgive myself for using the phrase “aspiring writer” in my post on romance novels. Gag! Not only is that phrase pompous and annoying, but it tells an ugly truth: aspiring writer. Aspiring. Trying. Thinking about it and yammering about it and handing out advice, reading about it and giving it even more thought and consideration, but never actually writing. Never actually finishing anything. 

So I dug out my copy of Bird by Bird, and it’s sitting on my desk but I’m not going to read it. I’m going to write 200 words. I’m just going to let it sit there and remind me, “Two hundred words!” Because all I want to do is finish something. The goal is not to be published, to go on Oprah, to have Sofia Coppola adapt it for the screen. It’s just to finish something that isn’t so horrible that I could at the very least put it in the share folder on Google Docs and hope I can swindle a couple of people into reading it. 

Of course I will continue to impart all this wisdom to my friend. I suffer, so she won’t have to.

And by the way, you can buy Bird by Bird here.

*image from