I know I ranted a bit the other day about Natalie Goldberg’s books. I felt you probably deserved a bit more explanation.
My writing life has a certain perpetual frustration to it. On one hand, I’m actually a pretty decent copywriter, competent enough to engage at it freelance on a full time basis. On the other hand, the moment I try to sit down and write fiction, I immediately revert to some weird ninth-grade-level mentality where everything I turn out is garbage, and with no hope of making it any better. I always end those writing sessions ready to drag my typewriter through the street, tied to my car’s rear bumper.
That’s been driving me crazy for a long time now, and this year has been the worst. Been spending a lot of my time in a depressed funk this year.. and as much as may blame it on slow business, or PITA clients, or any other number of things, I know the truth. The truth is that I can’t write fiction worth a damn, and so part of me deep down sees that to mean that I’m not a “real” writer.
A lot of the issue stems from spending too many years taking creative-writing gurus like Goldberg seriously. I’ve no doubt she and her kind mean very well. But the whole freewriting-zen-mystic-unleashing-the-artist-within school of writing has probably mucked up my ability to write more than any other factor, and these days I really feel it. Dammit, the artist in me thinks that I should be able to sit at the typewriter and Zen my way into a masterpiece, even though the copywriter in me knows that good writing is the result of microsurgery and careful revision. As a result, I fail and fail with my fiction work, which gives me a good depression on everything else.
So tonight I give it another shot (“abusing the typewriter”, I call it), and sure enough, I’m producing drivel. Lots of character self-reflection that doesn’t actually go anywhere. Not badly written, per se, just pointless. So again I get pissed off, grab a cup of coffee and hit the Web. Surely, someone out there knows what I’m dealing with here and has found a solution. I Google for “i hate my writing” and “i can’t write”, and start reading what comes up.
Most of them seem to describe the same frustration at mystic fallacy.. as the Good Doctor once put it, the “desperate assumption that somebody, or at least some force, is tending the light at the end of the tunnel.” That if we just throw up words on the page and not think about it, they’ll take care of themselves. Thank neohippies like Goldberg for popularizing that notion.
Anyway, in my reading tonight I stumbled across this wonderful essay on deliberate writing. It hits the mark beautifully, pointing out that the real problem isn’t one of soulless grammar worship versus mystic self-indulgent drivel. The process should never be a war between knowledge and intuition. Instead, the problem is the idea that not thinking – either because you’ve memorized the rulebook, or you’ve thrown it out altogether – will ever turn out good work. Both popular schools of creative writing thought are dead wrong.
Again, great piece. Very similar to the positions taken by William Zinsser, my great guru of all things nonfiction. What’s even more interesting is that the same basic principle applies not just to writing, but to life in general. It all goes back to Thoreau’s admonishment to live deliberately: creativity, innovation, and joy aren’t bound by thought, but by the absence of thought. By the expectation that we’re better off without thought. When we set forth to be deliberate in all that we do, the spirit lifts and the mystic darkness abates. Thought sets us free.
I feel tonight like I’m turning a real corner here. More later.