It’s week forty-one of 2019. How’s the writing going? Here at the garret, I’ve been thinking a lot about choices. It’s the time of year in San Francisco where there are simply too many good things happening at once: Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, the best camping weather of the year, LitQuake, a great new play at ACT, some of my favorite bands at the Fillmore and the Fox. And then next month there’s the perennial NaNoWriMo versus Thanksgiving showdown.
I realized this week that I was letting my regret at the things I will miss contaminate my joy in the things I do get to do. (Not to mention: how fabulously lucky am I to have this banquet of choices laid out in front of me?) So if right now is not your season for writing, don’t let my weekly question get you down. Last week I counseled you to have a stop date for your sprint if you are doing one. Similarly, this week I’m telling you to have a tentative start date to begin if you aren't writing. Put that date in your mind and on your calendar and then focus your joy and attention on those things you are doing right now.
On to this week’s book, Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do, edited by Meredith Maran. The writers profiled in this book are nothing if not idiosyncratic in their approaches to writing, and they are far enough along in their careers to convey confidence in their choices.
Sarah Gruen confesses that before starting each book, she arranges a collection of colorful rocks inside a golden horseshoe and then doesn’t touch them until the book is done. James Frey looks at a magazine cover of boxer Marvin Hagler with the headline “The Best and the Baddest” to remind himself of what he wants to be. (This is James Frey the author of A Million Little Pieces, not James Frey the mystery writer, whose book I reviewed here. Frey was the only writer in the collection to earn a WTF from me this week, for his confession that he wrote “a big, corny, DreamWorks teenage action movie” under a fake name. Apparently it didn’t fit in with his avowed goal to be “the most widely read, most controversial, most influential writer” of his time. Yeah, that got a 🙄)
Ann Patchett still writes in WordPerfect (which I didn't even know was possible). Mary Karr writes longhand due to repetitive stress injuries. Michael Lewis’s palms sweat so much when he writes that his keyboard gets wet. (Lewis also tells us that he happened to be living next door to Judi Dench when his first book was published. She told him, “When your book comes, just drop it on the floor and listen to the sound it makes.” He followed her instructions, Lewis reports, “and it was just great.”) Terry McMillan fills out a McDonald’s employment application for each of her characters and uses an astrology book to determine their birthdays. Susan Orlean needs a room of her own in which to write so she can “put things on the wall that don’t require approval from anyone else” and leave her “notes laid out in a certain way and know they’ll be exactly that way” when she returns. (“Your publisher,” Orleans also warns us, “is a frenemy in the most pure sense. You pretend you’re on the same team but in many ways, you’re not.”)
The steady “I,” “I,” “I” of this book was the perfect antidote to last week’s “he,” “he,” “he.” It’s not a book that will teach you much about how to write, but it’s a book that will remind you that writers – even famous, successful ones – are people just like you, with weird anxieties and secret desires and unreasonable enmities.
Why We Write will also remind you that writing can help us make sense of our strange world and the people who inhabit it. Kathryn Harrison says, “I write . . . because it’s the apparatus I have for explaining the world around me, seemingly the only method that works.” Writing provides a place of control. As Meg Woltizer puts it, “You can’t control other people or your relationships or your children, but in writing you can have sustained periods where you’re absolutely in charge.” Rick Moody calls the blank page “a peaceful and cloistered space . . . where I don’t feel pressured the way I do in the world.”
And you have free access to this control, to this peaceful space. As Walter Mosley says, “If you’re looking to get married, you need another person. If you’re looking to write, you really don’t.” Words, Isabel Allende reminds us gleefully, are free: “No matter how many syllables they have: free! You can use as many as you want, forever.” You just have to choose the ones you want.
Here’s to embracing your choices, y’all,
Next week’s book: Jessica Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn't for Us: A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing is Being Rejected