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

The Leaf-Mould of the Mind: On Influence, Conscious and Unconscious

Speaking of The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote,

 it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mould of the mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long been forgotten, descending into the deeps.

I think of this remark whenever people ask writers about their “influences.” Writers aren’t always aware of their most important influences. Their answer will always be incomplete because they can only speak to their conscious influences–to the writers that they are trying to be influenced by, that they hopeto be influenced by. As Tolkien says, everything you observe, think, or read goes onto the compost heap that decomposes into a humus that ultimately nourishes new 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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Put on the Tennis Skirt

Years ago, my wife Lou Alice took up tennis. She played two or three times a week, went to the clinics, jumped in on the Saturday round-robins. By any reasonable definition, she was a tennis player. But she was reluctant to buy a tennis skirt. It too much like a declaration. More than that, it seemed presumptuous to her. There was always that chance that somebody might say, “Why are you wearing a tennis skirt? You’re not an expert tennis player.”

Eventually I just went up to the sporting goods store, bought a tennis skirt, and brought it home to my wife. Because if you play tennis, you’re a tennis player. You can have a skirt.

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Painting the Alligator Green

In the book club I’m running over at Field Notes for Writers, the topic of childhood creativity came up. When you put crayons and a piece of paper in front of a small child, she knows exactly what to do with them. She doesn’t get artist’s block. She doesn’t perseverate over whether or she has enough skill or whether she’s talented or whether she has earned the right to call herself an artist. She just puts crayon to paper and gets busy.

As we get older, almost all of us lose most of that creative freedom. We grow in self-consciousness, we learn self-doubt, and our exuberance in the mere act of making dissolves as we start to compare, as we are subjected to criticism.

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Joy Is One Kind of Courage

Richard Wilbur is one of my favorite poets. This lovely remembrance by Christian Wiman articulates some of the reasons I love Wilbur so much. In short, for Richard Wilbur, creativity and productivity didn’t come from deep within the subconscious of the tortured artist, but from gratitude and wonder at a world he didn’t make. His gaze was outward, not inward.

What was revolutionary about Wilbur’s work, Wiman writes, is the light–in spite of the fact that Wilbur himself dealt with depression and addiction and the losses and hurts that we all deal with.

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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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Make Friends with the Inner Critic

I’ve gotten a few questions lately about how to start writing a book or story or essay. For many writers, the blank page or blank screen is a terror and a seemingly insurmountable barrier. So how do you get started?

There are a million substitutes for starting. You can outline, you can puzzle out plot problems, you can research. For years I’ve been wrestling around with a particularly sticky point-of-view problem for a novel that I “want” to write. I put “want” in quotation marks because if I really wanted to write it, I would be writing it instead of wrestling around with point-of-view problems. 

So, again, how do you get started? You start wherever you can start. What captured your imagination in the first place? What image or idea made you want to write a particular story or essay? Start writing there, and see what happens. CS Lewis said the Narnia books began with the image of a lamp-post in a forest. He started following that image, and it grew into The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and eventually The Chronicles of Narnia. When I began writing The Bark of the Bog Owl, I started with a scene near the end. But the scene was particularly vivid to me, while the rest of the story was still a little hazy. That scene was a way into the story; as I wrote what I could write, things started to sharpen up from there.

In the case of The Charlatan’s Boy, the first sentence I wrote turned out to be the first sentence of the finished product: “I don’t remember one thing about the day I was born.” I wrote that sentence in a composition book, and the story unspooled from there. But that seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

Perhaps the most important thing in writing is to get your pen moving and keep your pen moving. You’ve got to get yourself immersed in the work and trust that good things are going to happen once the neurons start firing. To do that, you have to give yourself permission to write badly. If you sit with your pen poised over the page and wait until perfectly formed sentences present themselves to your mind, you will be sitting there for a long time. 

Or maybe not; maybe you’ll sit there a short time and then give up and go fold some laundry or check Facebook again. In any case, you won’t write.

I’m talking here about coming to terms with the inner critic. You know that voice—the one that says, That sentence isn’t good enough. That idea isn’t interesting enough. Nobody’s going to want to read that. People who give writing advice talk about how important it is to silence the inner critic. I get what they mean, but I think it’s more helpful to say, Don’t let the inner critic silence youWe have a name, after all, for people who have successfully silenced the inner critic. We call those people lunatics.

If the inner critic is causing you to experience crippling shame about your failure to write like you want to write, then ok—maybe you should silence the inner critic. Your issue, in that case, goes a lot deeper than writing issues (indeed, a lot of writing issues go deeper than writing issues). 

But if at all possible, I suggest that you try this: instead of thinking of the inner critic as your enemy, think of the inner critic is a friend who means well but needs to be told to shut up every now and then. To illustrate a healthy relationship between the writer and the inner critic, I composed the following skit:

 

The scene opens on a WRITER tapping away at laptop. INNER CRITIC enters and looks over WRITER’s shoulder.

INNER CRITIC

That sentence isn’t any good.

WRITER
(cheerfully)

Oh, I know. It’s a disaster, isn’t it?

WRITER continues tapping away at laptop.

INNER CRITIC

That idea is pretty obvious, isn’t it?

WRITER
(patiently) 

Well, sure. But I’m never going to get to the brilliant ideas if I don’t live with the less brilliant ideas for a little while. Besides, I don’t see you coming up with brilliant, original ideas.

INNER CRITIC
(petulantly)

That’s not my job, is it?

WRITER

Precisely.

WRITER continues tapping away at laptop. 

INNER CRITIC

Nobody’s going to want to read this, you know.

WRITER
(less patiently) 

No duh. Nobody ever wants to read a first draft. 

INNER CRITIC
(sullenly)

I was just trying to help.

WRITER

I realize that. And after I get a few pages written and it’s time to edit, you’re going to be a huge help. But right now you’re not helping.

If you’ll just go away for a little while, I’ll bring you a big pile that we can work on together. You’ll find tons you to criticize, and probably a few things that even you will like. I love what you do. But right now I need some alone time.

INNER CRITIC

You love what I do? Do you mean that?

WRITER

Absolutely. Now, run along. 

Exit INNER CRITIC, buoyantly.

WRITER continues tapping away at laptop.

 

I often tell my students that it’s quicker to write three drafts than to write one. I’m not just being clever. The inner critic is going to make an appearance one way or another (at least you better hope it does). You can wrestle around with the inner critic at the beginning, staring at yawning blankness until a good sentence comes to you, then staring at the next five inches of blankness until another good sentence comes to you, or you can tell the inner critic just to wait a cotton-picking minute while you revel in the freedom to crank out prose that might be terrible or might be brilliant; it’s not your job to determine the quality of the work while you’re writing. You can figure that out later, after you’ve invited the inner critic back into the room (and please, please don’t neglect to invite the inner critic back into the room).

Which brings me to a corollary: If you are comfortable writing badly, you also have to be comfortable throwing away bad writing. I know you might have worked hard for that bad writing. I know it hurts. But do you remember what I told you last week? There’s always more where that came from. Creativity is not a reservoir, but a river. It keeps flowing. If you keep the pen moving, good things will happen. I know it takes faith to believe that. Have faith. Be of good cheer.

I’m not done talking about this subject. More next week.

Yours in the cause of terrible first drafts—

JR

Photo by Marc Zimmer on Unsplash

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