You just sit in a chair and write, right?
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Writing is so simple. If you want to be a writer, you sit in a chair and write. Right?
That’s what I’m doing here in this coffee shop. For me, a desk and long stretches of quiet don’t work. I need people around who aren’t talking to me and don’t want to talk to me. It’s tricky to find the right coffee shop. Some don’t have electrical outlets. Some have covered the ones that used to be there; that’s a signal to writers that they can rent a table for an hour, but don’t stay longer.
Fortunately, I’ve found Highwire here in Berkeley, and it’s just right. I’m sitting here doing the work on my new writing project. It’s not coming out the way I’d planned, but I’m just putting words on the screen. I’m weaving the cloth out of which the book will be made. I’ll cut it up, join one piece to another in various ways, and come up with a book that makes sense.
This is the first draft. It’s important to know that the first draft is for my eyes only. Stephen King calls it “the closed door draft,” because it never comes out into the daylight. If I don’t embrace the bad first draft, if my perfectionism gets its claws into the first paragraph and wants to rewrite it until it’s just right, I can forget about progress.
My seminary roommate and I used to write journals. Our dorm was bug-infested and slated to be gutted that next summer, so our writing spilled out onto the walls. A large quilt hung on one wall, and we would lift a corner of it and put private thoughts underneath. We made lists, mostly: fears, guilts, needs, wants, gratitude. That quilt fairly hummed with the energy of what was written behind it. Knowing that no one would see them until we were long gone was freeing. If I want to, I can pretend that the first draft is writing on a wall that’s going to be demolished.
The other thing I’ve learned to do while I’m writing the first draft is to send my inner editor on a nice vacation. She’s in Ecuador right now, exploring, and sending postcards once in a while where she’s scribbled “Write whatever you want!” “Don’t worry about a thing!” Once she comes back from this imaginary vacation I’ve sent her on, she and I will get to work, but not yet. Evaluating too soon can kill the tender shoots of an idea. That idea is just starting to look for the sun. It doesn’t need someone jerking on it, rearranging it, tut-tutting over it. It needs to be left alone to figure out what it wants to be.
Yesterday she showed up, worrying. “This is different from your other books. People are going to be disappointed. It’s boring, and you know you think boring people is a sin.” I have to keep writing anyway.
“Why don’t you just go on and do what you’ve been doing?” she asks. I keep writing.
“Why are you even doing this? What’s the point?” Ah. This is not my inner editor. This is the inner critic who wants me dead. I do what I usually do with him, which is give him a large classroom full of attentive and intelligent students who listen with rapt attention and take notes as he explains how I shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing, I should be doing something else, wearing something else, eating more vegetables, etc. I send him to his lecture hall and keep writing.
When I started sending out pieces of writing, I got some rejection letters. The first time I read them I thought they said “You’re a terrible writer, and we hate you.” They actually just explained that this particular piece didn’t fit their list of things they put out, or that it needed a little work. I got tougher about it pretty quickly, because who wants to imagine strangers writing you from New York telling you that your writing is terrible and that it would probably be better if you’d never been born?
Back when agents wanted hard copies of my writing I would put the manuscript into a manila envelope to send it off. One package of envelopes I got had very helpful advice on the strip which covered the sticky flap: “Detach Before Mailing.” It’s hard to detach, because these are pieces of your spirit you are sending out to strangers. A lot of hope and imagination attaches to the manuscript. Detaching is great when I can do it and just put my head down and keep on doing the work.
All of this is easier now that I have readers. They send me great feedback and gratitude for my work, and I think of these readers with joy as I write, hoping that the piece I’m working on will be helpful and inspiring. It’s a lot better than just tossing my thoughts into a void, hopefully. In another way it’s nerve-wracking to imagine readers disappointed, confused, or upset by what I say. That has happened, and it’s not fun for anyone. I feel like a kid on a tricycle, pedaling along, and then someone puts a stick in the spokes and I go head over handlebars. Does that mean it’s time to stop?
Is it ever a good idea to be squashed by fear of upsetting someone? The book I’m working on is about my life, so it’s about my family. It’s hard imagining family members reading the words, but since this is the first closed door draft I’m not letting that thought stop me right now. As Anne Lamott says, if people wanted to be written about more warmly they should have behaved better.
Writing is simple, all but for the editing, the rejection, the critic while I am daring to tell the truth so we all won’t be bored. “The truth is interesting,” my inner editor says, “but too much truth can be awkward and embarrassing.” I tell her I’ll keep that in mind and she should go back to Ecuador and forget about me for now. I’m going to put my head down and keep writing.
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The Rev. Meg Barnhouse, a UU World online columnist, is senior minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, Texas, and the author of several books, including Broken Buddha. She is also a humorist and singer-songwriter. (Author’s website.)