Sunday, December 09, 2007

Some advice about writing

The end is near.

No, not that end. I’m talking about the end of the semester, the time when everyone I know starts scurrying frantically to finish up projects and to take/administer exams before we finally get to recess for the holidays. For my part, the students in my graduate seminar on cultural studies are turning in papers this Monday, and my teaching assistants and I are administering a final exam in my undergraduate class on—get this—the very last time-slot on the very last day of final exams here at Indiana University. No one’s thrilled, but what can you do?

A recent blog post from one of my former students (and current TAs) reminded me of just how much writing angst emerges around this time of year. I thought it might be worthwhile, therefore, to share a bit of writing-related advice that I’ve accumulated over the years. Maybe it will help some of you, who find yourselves stuck, to break through whatever impasses are getting the better of you.

(1) “Just write…”
This piece of wisdom was given to me by one of my former mentors, John Nguyet Erni, while I was writing my undergraduate thesis. I had hit a roadblock and told him I couldn’t go on; my head was just empty, my creativity, tapped. He responded by telling me to “just write.” I subsequently learned an important lesson about myself as a writer: I often write best when I start with a writing “riff.” Instead of trying to begin by forming complete sentences, I often compose short, half-formed phrases that I subsequently develop. Just getting something down on paper sometimes can be the key.

(2) “There’s a problem…”
I inherited this little pearl from another one of my mentors, Lawrence Grossberg, when I asked him for his advice about what causes academic writers to block (I was blocked at the time—notice a pattern?). He told me that writing blocks often result from specific errors or problems that can be easily fixed. These have tended to take two forms in my experience. First, they can be organizational, as in when I include material in the body or conclusion of my paper-in-progress that really belongs in the introduction. Bad architecture makes bad buildings, as it were. Second, these problems can be research related. I’m embarrassed to say that on too many occasions I couldn’t write because I simply didn’t have sufficient data to write about. I know enough about myself as a writer now to recognize when this is happening, and so I get myself back to the library immediately.

(3) “Thank You…”
This one I picked up during my research on Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club. Long about the year 2000 or so, Ms. Winfrey invited author Andre Dubus III onto her TV show to talk about his novel House of Sand and Fog, which she’d selected for the Book Club. There, he mentioned having discovered the writing diary of his father, Andre Dubus II, who was also a novelist and who’d recently passed away. Whether Andre Dubus II had written six or six thousand words on any given day, he chronicled the number in his diary and unfailing appended two words thereafter: “thank you.” Being able to write anything was something to be grateful for, as far as Andre Dubus II was concerned. He never beat himself up about not having had a stellar writing day, every day. Instead, he focused on the positive aspects of what he actually managed to accomplish. I’ve learned from the Dubus’ that maintaining an affirmative disposition can help you to avoid writing paralysis.

(4) “It’s not f-----g Shakespeare!”
This one also comes from TV. A few years ago I watched the American Film Institute’s tribute to actor Sean Connery. During the show, Andy Garcia reflected on what he’d learned as a relatively young actor when he appeared with the veteran Connery in The Untouchables. In one scene, Garcia recalled, his character simply had to answer the telephone and utter a few utilitarian lines; thereafter, the scene was Connery’s. There was just one problem, though. Take after take, Garcia couldn’t get it right. He flubbed his lines several times and over-acted them even more. Frustrated, Connery finally turned to Garcia and shouted in that thick, Scottish brogue everyone’s so fond of imitating: “My god! It’s not f-----g Shakespeare!” Garcia apparently delivered the lines successfully on the very next take, having been relieved of the feeling that his small contribution was supposed to carry the whole scene.

There seems to me a useful parallel to be drawn here when it comes to writing. Sometimes, you just need to be a hack who gets through the unimportant stuff so that you can focus on the really significant material. Now, I know what you’re probably thinking: isn’t it all important? No, it’s not. Get over it, and get over yourself. The trick lies in figuring out when to linger on certain aspects of your prose and when to let other aspects go. But at the end of the day, you must remember: much, and perhaps most, of what you’re writing isn’t “Shakespeare.”

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