Eyes closed, then screen dialed to black (yes, you can do that and still write) to turn my mistake monitor off.
A strange feeling, this blackness, and at first it is hard to write without seeing words.
But it feels good to pay attention to something other than words, to breathe deep, to let my head rise and fall, to really feel what I am doing, to hear the world around me, that truck that just passed in the street, the almost Niagara-like sound of my computer’s roar, steady and strong, never concerned at all about what I am trying to do.
But then I hit that same dead stop I hit when the lights are on,
the most feared moment in the creative process,
because any rest introduces the possibility of running out of words, followed by the almost unbearable pain of having to figure out a way to start again.
I can touch the darkness now, and I can’t believe this, but I see a stalking lion, or maybe I’m just seeing what Jung wants me to see. Sometimes I wonder if the only archetype is imagination, but I was writing about rest and magic, rest and magic…
…and I want my eyes, my head, my neck muscles, my mind, spirit, fingers and heart to take me someplace else, anyplace else, someplace where flight is possible, where touching stars with burning hands and frozen fingers is real, where my mouth can kiss lightning and hold fire in its teeth, where day-to-day drudgeries and weight fall off in a world unrestricted by the gnashing constraints of life.
And for a moment I feel like I really can fly, and I really am free, until I start thinking about painting my Hook Man paintings, and my sister asking me
“Why do you feel so restrained?”
And that lets in the fight between wanting to be carefree and needing to be responsible, between moving somewhere I can dress in shabby clothes when I want to and shave only when I have to, and staying in The Comfortable States of America, where I can keep my reputation as a bad boy without having to be.
And now I let language and emotion lead, peeking at my fingers through half-closed eyes, watching them fly.
Until I feel how restrictive my keyboard is, how unlike my piano’s keys, how little room there is for dance. Once upon a time while playing my Fender Rhodes, the one I later sold to Bob Rhodes, I actually rearranged the parallel rows of black and white into sweeping fans stacked on top of each other.
Here’s a good Forbes article about why we have a hard time being creative, on the job, and personally. But in the end being creative, like everything else, is a choice we make. Decide it’s important to be creative and all these obstacles fall away. Decide you need a really good reason for not being creative and you achieve that goal with ease.
I’ve already suggested there is exactly one step to writing a novel: Sit in a comfortable chair during a block of time you protect like Fort Knox and write.
But we all want to believe – need to believe? – there is a plan we can follow, a series of steps, shortcuts, tips, something that will make it easier. So I’m going to play along. I’m going to tell you the six steps I follow to write a novel (although you abandon my single step approach at your own peril):
Step 1 – Before writing a word, I try to think well about what I’m going to write, without over planning.
Step 2 – I write intuitively until I hit a roadblock (which I almost always do).
I follow steps 1 and 2 because I desperately want to be that writer who somehow blasts through his first drafts without losing interest or energy, and because part of me believes that a writer’s best work is created when his built-in editor is sound asleep.
If only everything were up to me. But it isn’t, and that is where roadblocks come in.
Step 3 – While I’m stopped at my roadblock, I try to figure out what lesson that book is trying to teach me.
Thankfully, I’ve always been smart enough to stop when I muck things up (although one time it took me two years to figure out it was time to stop), and when I do get stuck I am not shy about asking for help. My good friend, Bart, unstuck me while I was writing Love In An Iron Bowl by telling me to write more about China (the Iron Bowl in the title) to balance the love story. “You’re writing a novel,” Bart said. “You have all the time in the world to be discursive.”
Lesson 1, while writing Love In An Iron Bowl – Allow the reader to touch, taste, and feel place.
Lesson 2, while writing OHM – Write real people, even if they don’t like your story.
Lesson 3, while writing Peculiar Hallelujah – Welcome surprise, even while writing the final scene.
Step 4 – I do whatever it takes to learn that lesson.
These are all lessons you can read about in any decent “How To Write” book, but reading isn’t writing. Trust me. You usually have to learn these lessons on the job, and often in the middle of trying to figure out what went wrong with your first draft.
Step 5 – I rethink the book I’m working on with that learned lesson in mind.
Step 6 – I write the new book that the writing of the old book taught me how to write.
Sounds easy, right? Correct a mistake by learning from it and doing something different. But what if that translated into reality this way?
Seven notebooks of double-sided hand-written pages, which you’ve already transcribed into eight hundred and sixty-eight typed pages, and then transformed into a first draft, turn out to be missing big pieces of place, and have to be re-written? What a daunting task! Not only would you have to go back and find all the places in the book that needed more description, or where more description would be interesting, you would have to find the right places to add description, places where more description would add to the natural layering of the book. And then, of course, you would have to write all that new description, make it interesting on its own, work it into your existing text, then make any changes that those changes mandated.
Or, if after one year of working on the second section of a five-section novel, you discovered that not one single word of what you had written during the last year was worth keeping, so you re-wrote that same section during the following year, only to learn, once again, that not one word of what you had written was going to make the final draft? (that’s two years to end up with nothing, if you’re keeping track)
And, of course, there is this bonus. You get to do all that new writing while feeling particularly inadequate, weak, tired, frail, fragile, and despondent. After all, you just spent months (years?) writing a first draft that wasn’t good enough, and no one can guarantee your second draft will be any better.
As a writer, you don’t get to know how you will get to the next level, or how you will solve a particular writing problem; you can only do your best thinking, aim, do the work, take the painful rebuffs, do your best thinking again, then wait, never knowing if you’ll break the cycle, until you finally do (or don’t).
So why do it? That’s the easy part. It doesn’t matter how long it takes to write a good book, or how many lessons you have to learn. In the end, you have a good book. Think about that.
Photo Credit: Jim Larrison @ https://www.flickr.com/photos/larrison/14866933889. License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ Modifications: Changed shop name to NOVELISTS at top of photo
I didn’t say a good novel. I just said a novel. A steady string of new titles once a year for the rest of your life. So here you go, the last piece of writing advice you’ll ever need. Lest you forget this (and I’m definitely paying homage to stealing this idea from Craig Vetter) FIND SOMEWHERE TO TATOO THIS ON YOUR BODY. While you’re finding a good ink shop, let me share my advice:
Find a comfortable chair. Sit in it for a PROTECTED amount of time every day. Don’t let anything, or anyone, convince you that it’s more important than this block of writing time. And now that you’ve found a comfortable chair, and a sacred time to write, do this…
Don’t ask me what, and please holy mother of all gods don’t ask me how to get over writer’s block. Just write. And then write again. And then perform the same task over and over again in lieu of all the interesting things your weak human mind will remind you you are missing while you are trying to be a “writer.”
If after a few pages you discover you are not that interesting, which you very well might unless you have been writing a long time, you definitely cannot afford to miss a day feeling sorry for yourself. You have a lot of bad writing to get out of you before you become competent, and then a lot of merely competent writing to get out before you write something inspired. Having fun yet?
Or maybe not. Maybe you will jump from here to there like a kangaroo on ‘roids, and the very next thing you write, or maybe the one right after that, will kick some serious artistic ass (usually pronounced arse) and you will enjoy the fame and fortune you seek, and no doubt deserve, much sooner than my surly middle-aged approach suggests. But guess what? You still have to sit down and write to get from here to there, even if far fewer times than I’m suggesting.
All joking aside (a place I am loathe to hang out, so please don’t make me stay here any longer than needed), I have a question:
This novel is stunning, as in emotionally and intellectually. If you read this book trying to add plot threads – 1 + 2 = X – you will miss the power and beauty (yes, beauty) of this novel, which is the experience of reading it.
Jeff Walter’s prose grabs you, his images shake you, and he is able to perfectly capture confusion, the kind that would naturally consume anyone who was part of, or lived near, Ground Zero (thus the title) on 9-11.
Please read this book without trying to understand it. You will be glad you did. I have read The Zero twice, and many sections of it more times than that, and I will continue to re-read it over the years – each time I do I feel as if someone has massaged my brain, and for that I am always thankful.