The Desk in the Corner

Over at The Habit Book Club we’ve been discussing Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. In the more autobiographical first section of the book, before he gets to the writing advice, he discusses (among other things) his addictions and other counterproductive attitudes and behaviors. And he ends with this remarkable reflection on his writing desks:

The last thing I want to tell you in this part is about my desk. For years I dreamed of having the sort of massive oak slab that would dominate a room–no more child’s desk in a trailer laundry-closet, no more cramped kneehole in a rented house. In 1981 I got the one I wanted and placed it in the middle of a spacious, skylighted study… For six years I sat behind that desk either drunk or wrecked out of my mind, like a ship’s captain in charge of a voyage to nowhere.

A year or two after I sobered up, I got rid of that monstrosity and put in a living-room suite where it had been… In the early nineties, before they moved on to their own lives, my kids sometimes came up in the evening to watch a basketball game or a movie and eat pizza. They usually left a boxful of crusts behind when they moved on, but I didn’t care. They came, they seemed to enjoy being with me, and I know I enjoyed being with them. I got another desk–it’s handmade, beautiful, and half the size of the T. Rex desk. I put it at the far west end of the office, in a corner under the eave…I’m sitting under it now, a fifty-three-year-old man with bad eyes, a gimp leg, and no hangover. I’m doing what I know how to do, and as well as I know how to do it. I came through all the stuff I told you about (and plenty more that I didn’t), and now I’m going to tell you as much as I can about the job…

It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.

My desk, as it happens, is right in the middle of things, but I take Stephen King’s point: if writing is the center around which one organizes a life, the writing will inevitably collapse on itself. Your writing has to be aboutsomething. It’s the rest of your life–the non-writing part–that gives you something to write about. 

Maybe that’s stating the obvious, but I know a lot of writers who bemoan the fact that their lives are so busy that they can only find an hour or two (maybe less) each day to give to writing (and one little corner with barely enough room for a laptop, because the rest of life has exploded in every other square inch of the house). That’s not easy, I know. But as I’ve talked to other writers for The Habit Podcast, quite a few of them have spoken with fondness of those times when they only had an hour or two to write; that time constraint developed in them a discipline and a seriousness that they couldn’t learn any other way. Last week I was talking to a writer whose productivity actually went down when she was able to quit her job and write full-time. She had to go back to writing only a couple of hours in the morning and build up from there.

Her story reminded me of a song recorded by the White Stripes (but written by Eric Clapton, as I just learned):

Well you’re in your little room
And you’re working on something good.
But if it’s really good
You’re gonna need a bigger room.

And when you’re in the bigger room,
You might not know what to do.
You might have to think of
How you got started sitting in your little room.

If what you’re looking for is an excuse for not writing, the busyness of your life is a good one. I should know: I use that one all the time. But having more time or a better desk probably isn’t going to help as much as you think if you’re not already using the hour or two you have at that little desk in the corner. 

As Stephen King said, life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.

Photo by Kari Shea on Unsplash

Be More Brilliant: The Back-to-School Issue

All right friends, we’re on the wrong side of Labor Day, and schools just about everywhere are back in session, so I’m devoting this episode of The Habit Weekly to academic writing. 

“Love your reader.” If you’ve heard me talk about writing very much at all, you’ve probably heard that one. You’re not really going to grow as a writer until you stop thinking about what you’re going to get out of writing (significance, respect, love, money, recognition, etc.) and start thinking about what you can give through your writing. What do you have to give to your reader that he can’t get for himself?

Most of us learn to write in academic settings. And in academic settings, the carrots and sticks are set up in such a way that you are almost always writing to get something. If you write well enough, you get gold stars, you get good grades, you get to move on to the next grade, you get into a good college. If you are a professional academic, you write to get published, to get a job, to get promoted, to get tenure. When there’s so much to get from writing, what does giving have to do with it? How do you love your reader when your reader is a teacher or professor?

Text and Subtext

The text of an academic paper can be about almost anything—mitosis and meiosis, the Weimar Republic, existentialism, federalism, Paradise Lost, What I Did Last Summer. But whatever the text is about, all academic papers share more or less the same subtext: GIVE ME AN A. THINK I’M SMART. APPROVE OF ME. Really, I don’t see how that could NOT be the subtext of any essay you’re submitting for a grade. 

But too often, I suspect, students think of GIVE ME AN A as the real  text of an academic essay, papered over with just enough information about the purported subject (Romeo and Juliet, the Whiskey Rebellion, etc) to make the A possible.

That kind of thinking is behind students’ diligent efforts to figure out “what the teacher wants.” Having been on the receiving end of hundreds, maybe thousands of student essays, I can tell you what the teacher wants. The teacher, like any other reader, wants to be surprised and delighted. And you can’t surprise and delight a reader with an essay about, say, French Impressionism unless you have thought about French Impressionism enough to form actual opinions and insights—which is to say, unless you learn to care enough about your subject to be able to say, “Here’s something I want to show you.”

What I am recommending is that you actually write about what you claim to be writing about rather than merely thinking of an assignment as a way to make the case that you deserve a good grade.

Be More Brilliant

I don’t have any secrets that will guarantee brilliance every time you sit down to write. But I do have some principles that will help make your academic writing more brilliant.

Principle 1: Your best ideas won’t come until after you’ve started writing. The act of writing clarifies your thinking; it triggers creativity and new connections. That’s why it’s so important just to get started. Get the pen moving. Do the best you can. And somewhere along the way you’ll figure out what you actually have to say. 

When you embrace this principle, you will hold less tightly to your original idea/thesis/outline. Obviously you have to have some idea to start with, or you won’t start at all. I usually need at least a rough outline before I start putting words on the page. But I’ve been doing this long enough to know that the outline is probably wrong. Sometimes teachers require students to submit a thesis statement before they write their papers. Even so, hold it loosely. Hopefully your teacher will rejoice alongside you when discover a more compelling thesis statement later in the process. Here’s my point in a nutshell: Don’t limit yourself to the amount of brilliance and insight you have at the beginning of the writing process.

It would be great if your best ideas came first, and then you could start with full confidence that the end product was going to be brilliant. Sometimes that happens. Usually not. Usually you have to take a step of faith, believing that if you just tend to your business, good things are going to happen.

Principle 2: Reorganize around your best ideas. If you’re writing a five-page essay, somewhere around the four-and-a-half page mark of the first draft you are going o have a brilliant idea. You will think to yourself, “Aha! I have discovered my conclusion!” Not true. What you have discovered is your introduction. I don’t care that it is on page five. You had to get those first four pages out of your system so you could get to that great idea. Take that idea—your new thesis—build an introduction around it, and start again.

You’ll probably be able to rescue a lot of your original draft. Some of those ideas that were feeling a little flat will now take on new significance in light of your new, better thesis. Some of your ideas, to be sure, will have to go. Your new thesis will clarify what belongs and what doesn’t. By the time you get to page five again, you probably will have come up with another brilliant way to articulate, summarize, and synthesize your ideas. There’s your conclusion.

Principle 3: Start early enough to put Principles 1 and 2 into practice. None of this is helpful if you start at 10:00 the night before your essay is due. It takes time to get to your best ideas, and it takes time to reorganize around them. So often I have received five-page essays that are dull, dull, dull until page five, then brilliant for half a page. Most of those writers knew where the real action was in their papers. They just didn’t have time to do anything about it.

I know if can be hard to start. I have procrastinatory tendencies myself. But I refer you to Principle 1 above: it’s a lot easier to get started when you give yourself permission to write a bad first draft. You don’t have to wait until the brilliance comes. Just get started and trust the process.

One more thing: try to remember that the person who has to read your academic writing is an actual human being with dreams and hopes—a person who values his or her time and probably isn’t getting paid much and has to read a whole lot of dull essays. Love that reader. Surprise and delight that reader. Your grades will take care of themselves.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Spending Our Days, Spending Our Lives

I’ve been reading through Annie Dillard’s book, The Writing Life, and I just got to that oft-quoted chestnut, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that hour, is what we are doing.”

I have had ample opportunity to reflect on these ideas these last three weeks. I’ve been the “Writer in Residence” at Furman University (my alma mater), teaching a creative writing course three hours a day and staying alone in an apartment near campus. The demands on my time are probably less than usual, but they are different demands, and I am just now settling into a routine that feels steadily productive. Actually, I’m not sure that’s true. I’m not settling into a steady routine so much as producing from a sense of urgency; now that my days as Writer in Residence are almost done, I need to do more writing and less residing.

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The Draft and the Marathon: Hierarchies and Territories

Last weekend was probably the busiest ever in my town of Nashville. The picture above shows what Broadway looked like on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

The two biggest events of the weekend were the NFL draft (200,000+ people per day) and the Nashville Marathon and Half-Marathon (19,005 runners, plus at least that many spectators). Both events were highly competitive, and both involved athletes who had worked very hard for the big day. But two different kinds of competitive spirit prevailed at the NFL draft and the Nashville Marathon, and the difference is relevant to the writing life. 

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The Sunk-Cost Fallacy

Okay. Clear your desk and pull out a pencil. This post starts with a pop quiz. For each of the following scenarios, answer 1 or 2.

Scenario 1.
You’re on vacation in Florida. You have reserved a spot on a snorkeling expedition. But when the big day arrives, you wake up and realize that you have a cold. This cold won’t make it impossible for you to make the trip, but it will definitely make for unpleasant snorkeling. You would prefer to stay at the hotel and read a book. But you’ve already paid $150 for this snorkeling trip, and the money is non-refundable. Do you:

  1. Spend a miserable day snorkeling so as not to waste the $150, or
  2. Spend a relatively pleasant day by the pool and forget about the fact that you spent $150 that you will never seen any benefit from?
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New Writing Habits for 2019

I named my weekly letter The Habit as a reminder to my readers and to myself that good writing is a matter of habit. True, writing often involves such things as inspiration and brilliance and raw talent–mysteries over which we have no real control. But there are factors that we can control. As you commit to the slow work of habit, you create places where the mysteries can find purchase.

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