The Writer's Survival Guide: Chapter 6: Before the Draft

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It's an old truism about writing: all you need is a pen and paper. But everyone who has ever tried to write knows that you need more, much of which must develop before you even begin actual writing. What are best ways to get yourself ready to write?

The Right Mindset

People who haven't written at all often corner me at weddings and dinner parties and tell me how much they want to write. "I have a great novel inside me," they say, and then proceed to explain this phantom book, telling me about the narrative and characters, and how it's going to be a great book — a best seller. "So write it," I tell them, which triggers not a considered mulling over of the time and commitment involved, but more boasting: the setting, the title, the final scene. The world will think they're brilliant! People will purchase ten copies each — no one will ever want to buy any other book! By the time I manage to escape, I know the entire content, and I have learned all the reasons why they will win a MacArthur Genius Fellowship, but I also know without a doubt that they are not going to write this — or probably any other — novel.

The best mindset for writing does not involve planning content, or exulting over the great success-to-be. In fact, I've found that the students who had most thoroughly thought through their specific content, and the students who had dwelled most obsessively on their future fame, were the students least likely to do any real writing. They got so caught up in picturing what the book should be that they were unable to let it be what it could be. They got so caught up in seeing the flash bulbs in their penthouse publishing party that they couldn't climb the long, often dingy staircase up from the basement. They got scared. Few wrote, and those who did tended to convince themselves that they weren't good enough to reach their pre-established image — whether of the book itself, or of their own glory — and so they stopped. Then they moaned, "What's wrong? I know what the book is about! I know I'm a great writer! Why can't I write?"

Their problem is rarely a lack of talent, and it might not even be the inability to say no. Their problem is that they haven't adapted the most effective mindset. Which is, in a nutshell: it's okay to think some about the starting point and the destination, but your focus needs to be on the journey.

I know you've heard this before, both in terms of writing and in terms of life. You might be willing to accept it as a general concept, though if you're like most people, you don't really understand how to do that. Sure, you get it as far as daily writing schedules and all that, but you're not clear on what's involved in your thinking itself — i.e., in the components that make up this mindset. Over the years, I have tried to come up with a way to explain what's involved, and, after watching myself and others slip and slide our way through writing, I have come up with what I think are the three main components of the effective mindset: Faith — You believe that you can and will persist, day after day, and that your work will lead to a valuable piece of writing.

Spirit of Adventure — You are delighted by the prospect of exploration. You know that every turn, whether planned or unplanned, will lead to new vistas, and that some, though not all, of them will be just right.

Acceptance of the Process as a Process — You embrace the slow climb, knowing that with patience and multiple drafts you will work your way to something wonderful.

When combined, these three components provide writers with enough weather-proofing to head out and keep going, whether that's just to the corner store or on a cross-country excursion, and to do so while remaining calm. This is what these "failed" students need, much more than they need to know, before they've written the first word, how Chapter 17 will end, or what they'll wear to the ceremony for the National Book Award.

Nothing has made this clearer to me than the story of Colleen, one of the most talented and difficult students I've ever had. Colleen's difficulty was not uncooperativeness or a poverty of desire, but a persistently negative mindset. She believed she couldn't. She wanted to write a great epic of Irish history, covering generations of ill-fated romantic couplings and political scheming. She knew the opening. She knew the ending. She'd obsessed over this book for years, yet she couldn't get anywhere — including up to her study to try.

We spent most of our classes discussing her resistance to writing a book she claimed she wanted to write. At first, it seemed the problem was content-oriented; although she had moved to America years before, she feared alienating the family that remained in Ireland, knowing that they would recognize themselves in some of her details. Soon, though, we came to see that her resistance transcended this book, and infected other writing projects as well: on all new stories, Colleen would shoot out of the starting gate with gusto, write several pages of engrossing prose, and then — stop. She knew what to say. But she couldn't do it.

In time we learned that a large part of the problem was her mindset. She had never finished a story, and so she believed she couldn't. In fact, she saw herself as doomed, a fated failure. It was as if she'd been branded at thirteen, when her writing had been ridiculed in class by a nun, and now she would never be able to shake off that mark. Furthermore, Colleen believed that she had to write the stories as she'd originally conceived them, without allowing herself to try new possibilities if the first ones didn't feel right. And on top of all this, she was certain that if it didn't come out luminously from the get-go, then it was rubbish. Which of course meant that nothing was ever worth finishing. Which, in the case of her novel, meant that it wasn't even worth starting.

Colleen and I worked on changing this mindset, using the principles of cognitive therapy. This is so important that it deserves its own section in this book.

Cognitive Therapy

The premise of cognitive therapy is twofold. First, it's that we all walk around with a truckload of negative tapes which play and play in our heads, telling us we're no good, we're stupid, nothing we ever do will work, etc. Second, it's that these thoughts are irrational distortions, and that if we can recognize this, we can speak back to those tapes — in a sense, erase the negative phrases by replacing those tapes with positive ones. By doing this — consciously, and maybe even methodically — we can change how we feel about life.

Cognitive therapy is usually used for people deeply mired in depression. I have seen it perform miracles on some friends; they turned their intransigent pessimism into intransigent optimism, and so learned to smile, and gave themselves the permission to try.

When it comes to writing, cognitive therapy can be used to alter the initial mindset. This is what I did with Colleen.

We began by having her keep a process journal a few minutes a day. (I explain process journals later in this chapter in "Warming Up.") In her process journal, Colleen recorded all her thoughts about the writing process as it pertained to herself. Over a few weeks, she came to see how frequently she sabotaged her writing by believing in her own worthlessness. "Rachel gave me a great assignment, but then this morning I was too lazy to get to it. I'm such a jerk." "I loved class last night yet I can't implement any of the lessons because I know that I'll never get any better." "Rachel read that last assignment and said it was very good, but then added that it needed revision. Writing is never going to work out for me."

We then wrote down all the negative statements and discussed them. Was she too lazy to write, and did laziness make her a jerk? No. Laziness, as we know from Chapter 2, is absurd expectations courted by fear. Maybe it is a trait we associate with jerks, but it does not make us into a jerk. And just because she didn't write this morning does not mean she can't write at all. It only means that if she believes it. The same goes with Colleen's believing she'll never get any better. Just because she's had trouble incorporating the lessons into her daily writing does not mean she'll never get any better. Maybe they weren't the right lessons for her right now, and even if they were, betterness takes time. Besides, Rachel also praised Colleen's draft, but Colleen couldn't hear that. The final statement — Colleen's believing that writing is never going to work out for her — is derived from equating work with failure. Work only means work. It is not an acknowledgment of inadequacy.

Thus, by specifying the negative thoughts which ensnared her, we were able to counter them. We examined all the overgeneralizations (I didn't finish this story, so I'll never finish any story), the absolutes (I'll never, I'm always), the labeling (I'm a loser, I'm a bum), the black-and-whites (She just has talent and I don't, that's all there is to it), the dismissal of the positive (So what if my story is wonderful. It's not perfect and that's what counts). Then, we addressed each logically, and in writing, saw how fatuous every one of them was.

After this, we practiced. Every time Colleen tried to write and heard these negative tapes, she responded to them. So instead of taunting herself, she defended herself. Soon, she began to believe her defense. That is, she taught herself to alter her mindset — to move from a place of lack of faith to a place of faith, from a spirit of defeat to a spirit of adventure, from the belief that she had to be right immediately and that "right" must fit her preconceptions of the book, to the acceptance that the writing process might just be, well, a process. And as soon as she began to do all this, she was able to begin — and, at long last, stick with — a new and excellent novel.

How to alter your mindset? I urge students to use a process journal and then follow this procedure. I also suggest they read a few books on cognitive therapy. (One of the most popular and readily available ones is Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, by David D. Burns, M.D., Avon Books, 1992.) But I add that none of these efforts will mean anything if the students aren't also actively doing, since the development of positive mindset needs some time.

Ohhh, they sign, shaking their heads. This will take forever.

Not so. Faith, the first component of the right mindset, can come fairly quickly. All you need is to be writing regularly, which will enable you to see that, if you keep at it, your words can't help but shape themselves into something, maybe even a full and remarkable story. Witnessing this magic will lead to believing in yourself. Soon thereafter will come the spirit of adventure, the second component. This develops when you dare to experiment and find that — hey! — the braver you are, the better the writing seems to be. Once you have this evidence before your eyes, a spirit of adventure will evolve rapidly inside you. The third component of the right mindset, acceptance of the process as a process, tends to take the longest to develop because apprentice writers are usually resistant to revising — and when they finally step into those unknown waters, they are seldom comfortable enough with revision to do more than dainty, cosmetic changes (which, they find, do little to help their ailing stories). But at last does come the day when, often out of desperation, they accept the comprehensive nature of revision. Then they revise not just the cosmetic things, but everything — and then they revise again, and again. The text becomes fluid; process becomes how they see the world. This usually strikes as an epiphany of reassurance, a giant So what's the big hurry? Process is the promise of a payoff, and as a result makes all future writing feel easier.

So work on those negative tapes until you develop all three components of the positive mindset. Then it will become much less likely that you will suffer through all the old fears before you sit down to write. Instead, you will probably sit down eagerly, and calmly, and almost always find you get your writing done.

Devising Superstitions

I used to write only with a special pen. It was inscribed with my name, and skated across the paper with incomparable grace, and because I'd gotten it when I was an exchange student in England, it seemed enchanted, an Excalibur of silver and smoothness and ink. Although I took class notes in pencil, I did my real writing — my fiction and correspondence — only with my beloved pen. And that, I did only in the most sacred spot: on my bed in my dormitory, where I would listen to loud Led Zeppelin through headphones with my window propped open, the earthy fragrance of the cornfield out back wafting pleasantly past my posters and rocking chair, past my books and lamp, all the way up to the top of my quilt.

Then one day I happened to set the pen on my windowsill when friends stopped by. We did our usual three hours of advice seeking and giving, and after they left, I turned back to my windowsill to retrieve my pen. It was gone. In a panic, I fled downstairs and bolted into the cornfield. But no matter how frantically I scrabbled among the corn roots and poked through the shadows, I couldn't find that pen. It had sailed its way out of my life, and now it was no more.

Although it was only a small object, the loss felt like a death. I had relied on that pen to get me going, to make my images take shape, to draw all my narrative threads into one compelling conclusion. I had seen it as a magic wand. Now I had lost my magic.

For a few weeks I didn't write at all. I couldn't. Other ballpoints felt dry as an undipped quill, or else they leaked. Nothing would do. I would never recover.

But eventually someone loaned me a new pen. Not identical to the original, but a sleek gold pen made by a different company. I liked the way it felt in my hands; I set it on some paper, and lo! I could write with it. Shortly thereafter, I found that if I sat down at my typewriter and simply decided to write, I could do that as well. Then I found that I could write in places besides my bed, and listen to sounds other than Led Zeppelin. The park near my house, for instance, or the rock garden behind the library. Trains. Diners. The writing was inside me, I saw; it was not the consequence of an ink-filled catalyst. This became even clearer the following year, when I got my hands on a new pen just like my old favorite. I clicked it on, pressed the ballpoint to the page, and found that, instead of skating, it felt heavy, slow, as if weights were loaded into the ink. What had seemed perfect no longer seemed perfect. I had found I could be versatile, and that all the catalysts were inside me.

I have had friends who believed they could write only when they were naked, or sitting in their grandfather's easy chair, or riding an airplane over the Atlantic at sunset. Willa Cather felt she could begin writing only after reading the Bible. Truman Capote believed he couldn't write on anything but yellow paper — and that there be no yellow roses in the room. Gail Godwin writes in her essay "Rituals and Readiness" that Toni Morrison feels her work will be weak unless she rises before the first colors of dawn, lights a candle, and walks about her house. Gail Godwin adds that she starts her own writing sessions by burning two sticks of incense, one handmade by a Tibetan monk, the other manufactured in Tokyo.

Writing superstitions can involve anything: time of day, location, presence of others, attire, objects. Their rate of success with us is not, of course, the consequence of the superstition itself (I've broken mirrors and had no years of bad luck; I've avoided a black cat in the morning and still had a horrendous day). Their rate of success is the consequence of our belief. I don't believe in the connection between mirrors and luck, so that particular superstition doesn't matter to me. But I do believe — at the moment — in the connection between my writing and the doohickeys adorning my computer: I believe that I write much better when the back of my computer is dotted with pieces of polished quartz and my collection of plastic Wizard of Oz figurines. And because I believe this, and because the Wicked Witch still grins greenly at me from her perch and hasn't yet become litter in a cornfield, I probably do write better. Superstition is all belief — belief, and availability.

Superstitions can be both useful and detrimental. If you believe you can write only on unlined paper, and you find that this does indeed work for you, go ahead and write on unlined paper. The superstition may well work to your advantage. If, however, you find yourself with the urge to write and you don't have any unlined paper in the house, you need to work on shelving the superstition for that time. Or if, after a few years, unlined paper ceases to perform its helpful function, then, again, deep-six the superstition. In either case, pick up other kinds of paper and try them out. Be creative — if you hate staying within the lines and all you can find is lined paper, then try turning the pad sideways, so your writing runs across the lines rather than within them. By experimenting with one kind of substitute and then another, and by being inventive with your experimentation, you will most likely hit on something which will work just as well for you — or perhaps even better.

There is nothing wrong with superstitions, provided you don't become a slave to them, and you remain willing to explore new possibilities. Again, use a process journal to see what you like and believe, and whether or not it actually works. Then you can keep track of your preferences, and know when to hold on to each superstition, and when it's appropriate to discard it and jump ship.

Making Time

I have discussed this in several other areas of this book. (See "Finding Time To Write" and "Finding An Acceptable Balance Between Writing And Extra-Writing Activities" in Chapter 4, and "Defining Yourself As A Writer" in Chapter 5.) Those sections address wanting to write badly enough to plan ahead, prioritizing all writerly activities so writing itself comes out on top, getting a handle on other obligations by setting boundaries, and developing your self-image by enjoying all the benefits of writing.

Basically, here's the drill:

Think ahead.

Plan a schedule.

Keep your eye on your passion.

Say no.

And remember mortality. If you want to write, write, since there may be no next year. Before I begin a piece, I feel I must do it now because if I don't and something happens to me, that story will never be born into the world. For the same reason, I keep going once I have gotten into the thick of a piece.

You can make the time. It's up to you.

Warming Up

At last!

The time is arranged, the lucky footstool is beneath your feet, and you are feeling optimistic, adventurous, and ready to trust the process. So you settle in.

Now what.

I always recommend to my students that they start their writing time with a period of warming up. Warming up helps the many writing muscles get ready for more strenuous exercising. It eases you into the writing trance, slows your inner pace to the pace of your storytelling imagination, reminds your hand what it feels like to be a pitcher of words. That is, warming up gets you ready for the real work ahead.

To find the warm-up activity that is best for you, you'll need to experiment. Your goal is to find the activity that most effectively submerges you into the dream state, so that when you finish your warm up, you are able to slip right into writing. You might want to try one or more of the following options, or perhaps explore others of your own.

Journal writing — Journals can be used in numerous ways. There's the old standard of a meticulous log describing our day-to-day lives, in which we use complete, grammatically correct sentences, introduce all new characters, strive for the best word, and fancy that someone someday will reread these immortal statements. Then there's the emotional splat sheet, in which we dump all our fears and ecstasies without benefit of narrative and with a proliferation of fragments, exclamation points, and misspellings. And of course there is the inspiration closet, in which we record all our captivating story ideas and dazzling metaphors and every bon mot we've come across in our travels, sometimes even taping scissored articles into the pages.

However you approach a journal, you may find journal writing to be a helpful opening to your writing session. This is because, at its best, journal writing can slip you directly into a writing mode, separate you from your physical being, and nudge you away from experiencing while it propels you toward expressing.

I have always found that, for myself, the best approach to a journal is to have no set rules, except to date the entry. That way, there is no pressure to edit or invent some pithy phrase. I can strip away the verbal and emotional censors which, while useful in the world (great barriers to committing a social faux pas), hinder me on the page (great barriers to writing anything daring). Years ago I made a pact with myself that I would never show my journal entries to others, or reread them myself. This has enabled me to write anything I want, without concern of being judged by anyone, including myself. Thus I can loosen myself up through my journal writing, allowing me to be open and undaunted by the time I get to my work.

If you try journal writing as a warm up, I recommend you spend at least ten to twenty minutes on it at the beginning of your writing session.

Process Journal — This is a specific kind of journal which I've referred to earlier in this chapter ("The Right Mindset"), and which I urge all apprentice writers to have. Kept in a separate book from your regular journal, yet just as private as a regular journal, a process journal is a record of your thoughts about the writing process, particularly as that process applies to you. For one or two minutes every day, you note one or two ideas you've had about writing, anything from how you wrote today at the bus stop versus yesterday in your living room, to how using a fountain pen over a ballpoint makes you feel more like a real author, to a quotation from Oscar Wilde about the process of revision and what you think about it, to your negative — and positive — tapes about yourself.

A process journal will familiarize you with the concept of process. It will also help you see what works best for you by giving you an outlet in which to register your many reactions to everything you try.

Letters/e-mail — Correspondence is a different kind of warm up from journal keeping in that it is meant to be seen. Indeed, it is meant to be seen by a specific audience — the recipient. This may make the writing a bit more inhibited than it would be in a journal, but in return for that sacrifice you get some kind of direction. That is, some correspondents are interested in quantum mechanics and appreciate a subdued voice which relies on Latinate words, while others are more interested in your latest bomb of a date, and appreciate a colloquial voice which relies on creative profanity. Some want description, maybe of your recent vacation with your family, the tasks you perform on the job; others prefer analysis, maybe what you think about your family and job, and how your issues of dependence and authority are developing. Some write two-sentence letters; others go on for pages.

Letter-writing necessitates that you consider the content, style, approach, and length which would be appreciated by your audience. Thus, by forcing you to write within some guidelines, letter writing might turn out to be more liberating than journal writing, where you have so many options you might not be able to write anything.

Since I was eight years old, I have corresponded with scores of people, ranging from close friends who moved out of state to relatives I've never met to acquaintances I shared an office with for one day. I believe that the years I spent writing to these pen pals were excellent training for learning about the subtleties of audience receptivity, and the range of voices I could adapt. This training has helped me enormously in all my fiction, enabling me to have a kind of ventriloquism in my work. I could attribute this to my range of reading, but at least as important was my constant involvement with letter writing.

If you choose letter writing for your warm up, I recommend you write at least twenty minutes. You need not complete the letter for the warm up to be effective. Just make sure you stop when you feel warmed up and turn your attention to your creative work. Otherwise your designated hours will turn into a flurry of emails, and you'll feel that you didn't actually accomplish nearly as much as you'd planned.

Freewriting — Freewriting works similarly to journal writing, and provides similar benefits. To freewrite, decide on a certain period of time (generally, ten to twenty minutes). Then pull out a watch to time yourself, and start writing anything. Stories. Free association. Grumblings. Babble. You are to write for the entire allotted period without cessation, even if you have no ideas. During the dry moments, simply write, "I don't know what to say, I don't know what to say," until an idea comes to mind. Then follow it wherever it goes. Write until the time period ends.

If you can relax, freewriting will loosen you up like few other activities. You will find yourself pursuing topics and associations you had never thought about before, and perhaps you will even plunge into writing whole stories that you had no sense were inside you. Shortly before my collection of short stories went through its final edits, my editor asked me to come up with a new piece. Just in case we toss out one of the others, she said. I could see the logic, yet this assignment gnawed at me for weeks; I was too preoccupied with other aspects of my life to have even the speck of an idea. Finally I went to a library, determined to make some progress with this task. I sat down, pulled out paper, and decided that, since I had no ideas, I would just freewrite. Twenty minutes, I figured, that's what I'd go for, and if I didn't come up with a story idea during that time, then I would simply freewrite another twenty minutes, and then another, until I hit on something useful. So I freewrote, chattering away, until, near the end of the first twenty minutes, I hit on the idea of a teenager who pretends she's pregnant to persuade her folks into letting her stay home from school. I kept freewriting, continuing beyond the twenty minutes, and found that, as she was playing this legitimate hooky in her house, an escaped convict broke into the back door and confronted her. Bingo — I had my premise: little congirl meets big convict. I freewrote for another three hours, and at the end I had my the first draft of my story.

Freewriting can get you going, and it can keep you going. It can take you across new time zones in your unconscious, convey you over the curve of a globe you'd always been sure was flat. It can trade your old thinking for new, your skepticism for serendipity. And it can be more fun than you ever thought writing could be.

If you freewrite for your warm up, I'd recommend you start with ten minutes. Though consider doing more; some of my students do forty-five minutes, and so through freewriting alone complete most of that day's writing session.

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