1: Ass in Seat
Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Rhodes, in answer to the question, “how do you go about writing?” said,
“Ass in seat. There’s no other way to be a writer but ass in seat.”1
Joe Bob Briggs, America’s premier drive-in movie critic, expands on Rhodes’ statement with his advice for would be writers:
1. The way you become a writer is: you WRITE *Every day* No exceptions
Nobody believes this. Everybody wants to believe in something called “talent” or “inspiration” or “the knack for it.” Maybe there IS such a thing, but it has nothing to do with becoming a writer.
So when someone says “I wanna be a writer–what do I do?,” the first thing I say is “Go and write for two hours a day for two weeks, and then bring me what you’ve written.”
To a professional writer, this is a very LIGHT writing schedule. But ninety-nine per cent of them vanish forever.
It’s too mundane. Nobody believes it.
John Gierach discusses how he became a writer in the introduction to Death, Taxes, and Leaky Waders.
I think writing is a lot like fishing, especially when it’s about fishing, as most of mine is. Both take curiosity, patience, persistence, lots of time, some skill, a willingness to put things together in odd ways, an appreciation of the process itself (regardless of how it turns out), and faith that it’s somehow worthwhile. What sane person would spend a whole day writing a paragraph that reads like it was dashed off in thirty seconds? The same kind who’d fish for one big trout all morning just so he can look at it and release it. …
As for writing, I don’t remember why I first thought I’d like it, but I have to suspect it’s because writers weren’t very well thought of and because they didn’t seem to work…
My first revelation was that writing did involve some work. Lots of it, actually…
Then there are those who’ll tell you you’re blessed with talent, which is another way of saying you don’t work…
It really is grueling at times–the writing, not the fishing–but by now I’m so used to it I’d probably miss it.
4: F***ing Amateurs
I have a friend who has a great idea for a play. It’s called “Probate,” and is all about the reading of a will. It’s really a damned good idea, and he says he has all the characters and scenes worked out in his head and someday he’s going to sit down and write it–it won’t take long. I love the guy, so don’t tell him I said this, but he’s never going to write it. Because it’s not going to be easy, and he’s too restless to keep his ass in seat long enough.
For three years I’ve been working on a comedic play about an election. I’m flummoxed. I’ve got a good start, a beginning, a middle, and half an end. It’s about 20% of a play, maybe, and I don’t know where to go with it. But I haven’t sat down and worked on it daily for any length of time. I sit down and pick at it for a few hours every few months, so despite thinking of it almost daily, I’m always re-figuring out where I was, and where I got stuck.
I’m a binge writer. I can go for 8-10 hours easily, forgetting to eat, as long as I have plenty of liquids handy (writing is thirsty work). This can make the process of writing appear fast to the outside observer. The day after election day, 2012, I published a guest post here. In the comments, Chris asked, “damn, how did you put it together that fast?” My response was, “Lots of practice writing lectures.” In truth I started looking at exit polling data the moment it became available and I worked steadily until 4 in the morning. I think it worked out to writing about 4 words a minute, which may be fast writing, but is damned slow typing.
I’ve heard that many artists work that way, as well as a lot of programmers. I suspect everyone in this group is manic-depressive. The manic states are awesome, unbelievable, a sort of adrenaline rush. And they leave you drained and unable to work much for a couple of days. Sorry, Joe Bob, but I do get what you’re saying.
6. Writing Slow
But those binges are what I call slow-writing. Piecing bits together carefully, cautiously, with lots of time spent not pecking at the keyboard, just staring at the screen thinking, or re-reading section in books I’m citing, and making sure I really understand the authors and am using their ideas correctly, coherently.
I’m writing an on-line textbook, the process for which is the inspiration for this post. The most crucial component of my plan is the organization, because I want to sharply break away from the standard model of longcomprehensivedetailheavy chapters. That requires thinking, before I even get to the keyboard. My friend Rob–an expert on Congress and elections–joined me several times for lunch, beer, and hammering out the organization for those topics. How should each of those topics be divided? What elements of each should be clumped together in one essay, and which in another? In what order should they be addressed to make it as coherent as possible for readers? Two guys staring deeply into glasses of beer while their half-eaten sandwiches grow cold? That’s what writing looks like.
Breaking It Down
Sometimes the whole damn project is too much to think about. If I think about writing a textbook, I lose my nerve. I don’t have that kind of confidence, and it’s such a big project I can’t see the whole thing clearly. I learned this while writing my dissertation, from a guidebook passed on from generation to generation of grad students, which bluntly warned us never to think “I have to write a dissertation,” but only to think, “I need to write a section on [this particular topic].”
Once an art student was assigned to paint a cityscape, but couldn’t get started because she didn’t know >what in the city to paint. So her instructor told her to paint a building. She still couldn’t get started, because she couldn’t figure out which building. So the instructor pointed out a building and told her to paint that particular building. And she still couldn’t paint it because she couldn’t figure out where to start with that particular building. Exasperated, the instructor pointed to a single brick in the building and said, “paint this brick.” And she painted the whole building.2
A book is too much to write, so I write a chapter. When I can’t write a section of a chapter, I write a paragraph. When I can’t write I write a sentence. When I can’t write a sentence, I jot down notes–random half-formulated thoughts, questions, quotations. Getting stuff, any stuff, down on paper helps. It doesn’t need to be well-done at first–sometimes you need to just get pixels on paper so you can begin formulating your thoughts.
What sane person would spend a whole day writing a paragraph that reads like it was dashed off in thirty seconds?
Oh, hells, yes.
Forget revising. If you’re doing it right, you’re rewriting. It ain’t editing, understand. It involves re-thinking what the hell your project is about, what you’re trying to say, and whether you’ve managed to say it, whether you’re telling the story in a way anyone wants to hear.
Every story is interesting, if you make the effort to tell it right. One of the best books I’ve ever read is a history of the shipping container. You only think shipping containers might be a boring story because you haven’t read this book yet.
Rewriting involves moving whole chunks of text around, restructuring, deciding when you shouldn’t repeat yourself, and when you doing so strengthens the overall structure of the story. Writing words is not so different from writing music–themes can drop out, then be reprised at the right moment. Read Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men that way–it’s a textual symphony.
Every paragraph, and every sentence demands individual attention. People read them, and they understand them and keep reading, or they get puzzled and decide it’s not worth the effort. Each must be read as a discrete unit, and considered, pondered, before moving on to the next one. Rereading to rewrite cannot be done quickly–as authors we already know what we mean, and reading quickly that’s all we’ll see. Only by slowing down, and taking long moments of reflection for each individual sentence can we see what we’ve actually said, and determine whether it’s said well. There are sentences in this post that I’ve rewritten 5 times. I believe they are good sentences.
My most important publication took something like 13 drafts. The last draft involved John and I sitting down with a pot of coffee and a plate of cookies, going over the paper line by line, and haggling over the writing of individual sentences for about 4 hours. The paper was accepted for publication, with the caveat that we make some revisions.
That two hours a day for 14 days Joe Bob says you should write? You should spend more of that time rewriting than just plain writing. Prospectively it seems hard and unpleasant. Retrospectively it’s hard, but often very satisfying, because this is when you really see your writing take shape, when it transforms from a string of words to a rich text with depth and meaning. If you write for two hours a day for 14 days and all you have is a couple paragraphs, you might feel like a failure, but it just might mean you’re becoming a writer.
It’s hard work, to be sure. So don’t assume talent will carry you through. And don’t excuse yourself by assuming those who write well did it on talent. As Geirach says, that’s actually kind of insulting, negating the grueling labor the author put in.
Grueling labor? Sitting on your ass in a seat for hours, pecking at a keyboard? Oh, lord, yes. Your brain is an energy suck. A hard day’s physical labor often leaves me physically exhausted but mentally recharged. A hard day’s writing can leave me mentally, emotionally, and physically, wiped out. When my would-be-playwright friend and I were in grad school, both working on our dissertations, he came over one day to help me re-roof my carport. As we were moving around hammering in roofing nails, he looked up and said, “God, this is a nice break from writing.”
Sometimes you get deeply bogged down in a project, so focused on one small part that you lose perspective on the whole thing and become completely lost as to where you are, what you’re trying to accomplish, and whether you’re moving toward or away from that goal. Then you just have to walk away from the project for a day or two until your mind has cleared and you’ve regained perspective.
What really hurts is when your mind is cleared and you realize you have to excise that last 5 hours of work because you really were lost, heading off on a tangent that goes nowhere valuable and wholly loses the thread of the argument. You can spend a whole day figuring that out, as you first deny that the whole section is a corpse, slowly became angry that you’ve wasted so much time, begin bargaining with it as you try desperately to make at least some of it work, grow ever more depressed as you realize it can’t be revived, and finally–after several drinks and a lousy night’s rest–accept the truth and quickly highlight and delete the whole damn section and move on.
7. Writing Fast
My textbook project is a nightmare, because I don’t have time to write slow. It shouldn’t be this hard, because I’m a good writer. I have documented proof of that, a Creative Writer of the Year Award from my first undergraduate institution, and a Best Paper in the Behavioral Sciences Award from my last one. And I know this shit–by my count I’ve taught the class 25 times now. This should be easy.
But writing fast is not easy. I haven’t put in the time figuring out the organization for all these chapters. I haven’t cobbled together notes with ideas, quotations, and their sources. I’m scrambling to get each one up in just enough time for the students to read it the day before class, and I don’t have time to revise.
A week ago last Thursday I worked a 15 hour day, arriving on campus at 7:30 a.m., and leaving at 10:30 that evening. About 8 hours of that was spent writing, because I had to get that chapter on Federalism on-line so students could read it for class on Tuesday of the next week, and oh-by-the-way I couldn’t do it over the weekend because I had to go to Indy to work on a a friend’s house. It’s a terrible chapter. It’s a very bad parody of a standard textbook chapter, not remotely in tune with what I’m trying to do with this online text.
But at least the words are on paper, and I will rewrite it. No, that’s not right. I typed a chapter on federalism, and the next step is to take those words on the paper and write one.
Returning from Indy, I needed to write a chapter on Checks and Balances. I wanted to put it on-line by Tuesday, which meant writing steadily on Monday and Tuesday. Except I couldn’t. I was exhausted from the previous writing, and from lack of sleep over the weekend and my first night back home (arrive home after 11, in bed by midnight, up at 6, prep a lecture for 8). So I didn’t write it until Wednesday, and got it online at 6:05 p.m. the day before students needed to read it for class.
That’s bad. Some students do read further ahead than that; the type of student I like. And the chapter is a crappy first draft. But not as crappy as the federalism chapter, because despite not writing Friday through Tuesday, I was thinking about the chapter, and figured out the organization I wanted. It’s almost more a set of notes organized in a coherent structure, lacking sufficient detail, citations, and a loving attention to each sentence, but it’s got good bones, and when I go back to it, it will be a process of rewriting, instead of writing.
So why don’t I have more of it written? I’ve been trying to develop this project for 6 years, and I started the term with only two chapters written, both written 4 years ago? What gives, Hanley? Are you a writer or not?
Maybe not. A goodly portion of that time was spent thinking about how to structure this project, how to improve upon the standard model while making it readable in an on-line format, what conceptual approach to emphasize (rational choice, citizenship, democracy, elite dominance, etc.–each textbook has such a focus). Some of it was spent on false starts that didn’t lead to a structure and conceptual approach that satisfied me.
But this past summer, after I’d made the commitment to not order a textbook this term, and get chapters written, it was all about ass out of seat. It was a beautiful summer, and it never got too hot to stop working outside on my house and in my yard, so that’s what I did. Oh, it all needed to be done, but that’s an excuse. I let it all become an excuse to not put ass in seat.
I like writing to learn, investigating a new topic and writing about it to clarify my understanding of it. As E. M. Forster wrote,
“How can I know what I think until I see what I say?”
Writing something I already know is as interesting as a slug race. And so I walked into the start of the term having written precisely nothing over the summer, when I actually could have written slow.
Now I’m paying the price by having to write fast. And it’s grueling. This is not binge writing, where manic James goes off an hours-long tear, and comes out the other end weary but deeply satisfied. This is forced march writing, where James becomes ever more depressed and self-loathing, because I can’t write, as I understand the meaning of the term, because I can’t spend enough time thinking and I can’t spend enough time rewriting.
I had posted one of those chapters here, and said I’d post others as I wrote them. I’m reneging on that promise, because putting up first drafts for public view is an embarrassment. You can find them, if you really care to. I’d rather you didn’t.
8. Rewriting Redux
The not rewriting is psychologically painful. I’m so committed to rewriting that I can’t even send an email now without reviewing and reworking it. It’s good for my professional reputation, and it helps ensure that people actually read my emails. I have a colleague who sends long blocks of unparagraphed text in emails, and wonders why people don’t pay attention. I could explain, but I don’t think it would help.
Blog comments? Erm, well, each one does get at least one revision, with the rarest of exceptions, but, uhm, I’m frequently embarrassed by what I’ve committed to public view. But a comment I recently wrote that garnered respectful praise? I’ll tell you true, that took over an hour to write (about 8 words a minute), and involved substantial revision before I hit send. I hope it looks like I wrote it in a couple of minutes.
Blog posts? Not a one goes without revision, but blogging is a sideline effort, so the revisions are fewer and less careful. I can always correct, amend, and clarify in the discussion.
But as with any of my lengthy writings, a blog post sometimes take days or weeks to write. This one has taken several separate days of work over a little over a week. I finished a draft this morning, and now have spent about 5 hours reworking it. I’ve made major changes to the organization. I’ve cut out whole paragraphs, terminating pixellated words with prejudice, and with a stabbing pain in my conscience.
I wanted to make it shorter, tighter, and less rambly. I failed. I took a 3300 word blog post and cut it all down to 3300 words. But, hey, Memphis Minnie may have sung that there’s nothing in rambling, but she did it anyway.
Sometimes we write primarily for ourselves, and then throw it out there for anyone who’s willing to put up with it in the hope of finding some half-obscured nuggets of wisdom. Those who aren’t willing, especially in a blog? Who can blame them? But if you read all the way through this, thanks for your indulgence of my indulgence. I hope you found some value on the journey, because there’s sure as hell no big payoff here at the end of the trip, and you probably should have quit reading long before now.
1. Richard Rhodes, speaking to Adrian College writing students, March 13, 2013.
2. I no longer remember the source of this story, and I’ve paraphrased it from memory. My apologies, as well as my thanks, to the author.