I learned my first major writing lesson when I was in graduate school studying English literature. I was a straight A+ student (nerd!) across the board, and the pressure was mounting with every assignment my professors gave me. One day, it came to a head.
I was taking a course called “American Minority Literature,” and the professor asked me to prepare a seminar on a new Asian American novel (the name of which I can’t remember now). As usual, I waited until the night before to pull the seminar together, and I had nothing. Nothing. The annoying A+ student was about to sit in front of a room of expectant eyes and FAIL.
I was stuck. Sitting at my little desk by the wall, all I could think about was the classroom full of eyes I was about to face, the disappointed professor at the head of the large table, shaking his head. I sat there staring at the novel and then back at my blank screen, blinking cursor, ticking minutes. I had nothing.
Finally, I decided that I couldn’t show up to my seminar with nothing, and that I’d better just write something. So I choked back my tears and wrote. I skimmed through the book for the fifteenth time, and I started simply writing crap. This is pretty much what it looked like:
The protagonist has black hair. She wears a yellow shirt. She is in a race. There is some wax. Corn in the fields…. Why is there all that wax?
Wax, corn, ears of corn. Ears. Labyrinth. Ears look like a labyrinth. Search. Identity. Asian American girl. Search for identity. YES! YES! YES! YES! YES!
Just from writing what I like to call “CRAP,” I completely solved the intricate symbolic puzzle that was this novel. I got an A+ on my presentation and its accompanying essay, and the professor suggested I submit the work for publication.
Fundamentally, though, in order to write crap in the first place, something very difficult and humbling had to shift for my perfectionist, high-achieving self: I had to dash all my high expectations, and I had to accept and be OK with the possibility of failure.
So here’s what I advised in my session, “Get into the Habit: Developing a Writing Practice,” at this year’s Blissdom Canada Conference:
WRITE CRAP: Just write. It doesn’t matter what you write; just do it. Preferably every day.
PICK THE GEMS OUT OF THE CRAP: Isn’t this gorgeous? It usually takes up to two paragraphs, but sometimes as little as two sentences, of writing crap for the gems to emerge. When you feel stuck writing a blog post (about any subject), just start writing crap around it, and the gems will come.
THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS WRITER’S BLOCK: If you feel blocked, just write — even if you’re writing “I suck I suck I hate myself I can’t write this is crap.” If you feel extra blocked, check and see what you’re actually physically looking at. Are you looking at the floor? A blank screen? Your thumbs? Not good if you’re feeling stuck. GO OUTSIDE. Look at the sky, the moon. There’s a universe of ideas out there.
BE OK WITH FAILING: You seriously can’t be perfect all the time. Even I am not that amazing. (HA! Bygones.) Sometimes you’re going to have to put out what you think is crap, especially if you blog a lot, like I do. And that’s OK. It’ll humble you. And that humbling is part of your writing process: it opens you up so that the good stuff is free to blossom — beyond the bounds of your typically critical, confidence-blocking ego. If what you write actually is total crap, then wait a while, get some distance, and revisit it before you publish. Sometimes all your crap needs is a good edit.
DASH YOUR EXPECTATIONS: If you approach your keyboard thinking, “I’m going to write the next great Canadian novel,” you will most likely freeze. Or you’ll wait, and you’ll read everything you can on writing the next great Canadian novel. And then you’ll never do it. So dash that expectation, dash the how-to books, and just write.
Developing Your Writing Practice
This blog, Cheaty Monkey, is a record of my writing practice. My mother often says I should turn it into a book. “I just know some publisher is going to snatch it up and make a book out of it,” she often tells me. But I don’t really think of it that way. This blog isn’t a finished product by any means; it’s very much a process.
I specifically started this blog to cultivate my writing practice. I had read enough Julia Cameron to know that if I wanted to be a writer, I needed to write every day. So I adopted her practice of “morning pages”: I hand wrote three stream-of-consciousness pages every day. I later evolved that practice into publishing a blog post every weekday. Through that rigorous writing practice, I was able to find and develop my own voice, and to observe the crap-to-gem process (the same process I learned in that epiphanic graduate seminar) over and over again.
Based on these experiences, this is what I suggest all aspiring writers do:
WRITE EVERY DAY: Write at least three pages about anything and everything that comes to your mind. And don’t underestimate the handwritten word! When I faced the task of writing about our family emergency last May, I knew I couldn’t face a blank computer screen; my expectations for myself (to do justice to the event) were too great. So I sat in my car one day during my daughter’s dance class, rolled the windows down, looked at the sky, took a deep breath, and I hand wrote the whole blog post on some blank pages at the back of a novel I had with me. Later, I was able to type it into my blog with some much-needed distance from it, and productively edit out the parts I felt were too personal, etc.
BLOG YOUR PRACTICE: If you put your practice online, you not only get all the benefits from your writing practice, but you also develop your online presence, and most importantly, you build a public portfolio. So, when you come face-to-face with, say…, the General Manager of a national parenting magazine, she knows your work, and your name. And she may just hire you!
In 2006, I started blogging my writing practice. I wrote every day, even if it meant writing at 3 a.m. between baby feedings. One day, in April 2010, I happened to meet the General Manager of Today’s Parent Magazine‘s website at a Marks Work Warehouse blogger/media event. A few weeks later, I was hired as Writer/Editor. Look for me on the magazine masthead (yes, that still excites me)!
It’s funny, around the time the book The Secret came out, I started writing down my career aspirations as part of my practice. I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I hadn’t really articulated what I wanted to write. Until one day, and I believe I actually posted this somewhere in this blog, I wrote: “I want to write for a magazine like Chatelaine or Flare.” And, what do you know? Down one hall from my desk at the Today’s Parent office is Flare. And down the other hall is Chatelaine.
As the great yoga guru, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (and my inspiring yoga teacher after him) famously said, “Do your practice, and all is coming.” Do your writing practice, and all is coming.
1. Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way.
2. Stephen King, On Writing.
3. Sarah Selecky’s writing prompts on Twitter, @SarahSelecky.
4. Natalie Rosenberg, Writing Down the Bones.
5. Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves.
6. Twitter: Build blog posts out of (or around) your tweets. They’re yours, so use them!
7. Instagram: Build blog posts out of your pretty, filtered pictures! It’s a great visual record of your ideas.
8. Novels, short stories, poems, plays, blogs, articles. Read what you want to write!
Next week I’ll share what my own writing practice is like now that I write all day at Today’s Parent!