No, I’m not naked or drunk, but I am writing. I haven’t quite finished reading Adair Lara’s Naked, Drunk, and Writing, but I can’t wait to share it with you. The subtitle: Shed Your inhibitions and Craft a Compelling Memoir or Personal Essay tell you what this book published in 2010 by Ten Speed Press is about.
I have been writing essays and memoir for decades, but I have never found a book or a teacher that made the process so incredibly clear. It comes at a perfect time for me as I struggle to figure out what to do with almost 800 pages of journals I’m trying to turn into a memoir. Now, thanks to this book, I know how.
Lara, a longtime columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and author of 13 books, as well as a popular teacher and writing coach, has packed this book with information that will help you write personal nonfiction that will get published. She uses her own experiences and that of her friends, offers tons of examples, lots of great exercises, and clear steps to crafting an essay designed to please your editor, not your English teacher, and memoirs that read like the best fiction.
Topics include: finding the question that drives your essay or memoir, establishing tone and voice, mining your emotions, figuring out what to keep and what to take out, how to craft a scene, how to submit your work to editors, and more. Lara presents it all in a voice that makes you want to keep reading.
Read this book. Get inspired. Write.
I find it distracting to be naked or drunk while writing. Lara wasn’t naked or drunk either. She just thought the title would get people’s attention. So, put on your clothes, pour yourself a cup of coffee or tea, and let’s write.
Our moods have a strong effect on our writing. Happy, sad, angry, frustrated, too busy, distracted—it all plays into how well the words flow onto the page or screen.
This morning, for example, I got up extra early to drive into town for a blood test before breakfast. I was dressed and alert much earlier than usual. The sunrise was glorious, a bright half moon shining over Yaquina bay, clear sky above promising a sunny winter day. It was early, but I felt good. I had had a good sleep and had resolved a problem that had been bothering me.
I had jotted down a writing idea I was eager to pursue. A quick prick in the arm and I was free to eat breakfast and start writing. The words came easily. I could see possibilities, creative phrasing, fresh ideas. I could feel the magic.
I don’t always feel the magic. Sure I can slap words together, but it’s like processing one of those meals-in-a-bag where you open the little containers, pour everything into a casserole dish, microwave it and call it dinner. It’s edible, but nothing special.
So how do you get into a state of mind where the magic can happen? There are ways to encourage it. Having a regular writing practice in which you write at the same time every day helps. My dog has become an enforcer. She follows me around in the mornings until I sit on the loveseat with my notebook. She jumps up beside me, rests her head on my thigh and goes to sleep while I scribble away. If she could speak English, she’d be saying, “It’s time to write now. Stop all this other nonsense.”
It’s important to prepare the atmosphere. Tell everyone in your life that you’re not available during your writing time. Silence the phone, turn off the Internet, TV, radio, everything that makes noise. Brew a cup of tea or coffee, settle into your writing space and take a deep breath.
Often I have no idea what I’m going to write until I get there. I start by journaling, writing down whatever is on my mind. By pouring it onto the page, I’m able to let it go. Try it; it really helps. I’m angry . . . I’m worried . . . I can’t stop thinking about . . . Write it down and let it go. Maybe the very thing you’re obsessing about is what you should write, or maybe you just need to clear space so you can write something else. Be playful. Experiment. Feel free to start something, cross it out and start something else. Don’t worry about whether it’s any good or where you might get it published. Write on paper, on your computer or your iPad, just let words out. If something else calls for your attention, make a note for later.
Some people meditate, taking their minds to a quiet place where all the noise stops or least gets turned down. There are many ways to meditate. The easiest thing is just to become conscious of your breath, listening, feeling, thinking only breathe in, breathe out until you feel the stillness, until you are so quiet you become aware of sounds you don’t usually hear, the refrigerator humming, someone mowing the lawn down the street, the wind whooshing through the bushes outside.
To clear their minds and make way for the muse, some people take walks. Sometimes it helps me to play the piano, mow the lawn or wash the dishes, anything that does not require words. Do whatever works to find that still place where your mind can run and dance on an open field.
Take that stillness to the page and begin with one word, then another. Listen for the magic. It will come.
Now let’s go write.
People are always telling aspiring writers that they need to sit down and write. Write every day. I say that, too. Every week, I conclude this blog with “Now go write.” But you might be wondering “Write what?” Some days I wonder that, too.
If you have a paying writing gig, either as a job or a freelance assignment, you know what you need to write. All you need to do is get off Facebook and do it. But if all you know is that you ought to be writing SOMETHING, what should you write? Where do you start? When I’m between projects, I turn to my piles of prompts and the ideas I scratched out in moments of inspiration, but sometimes none of those seem right. To be honest, sometimes I play the piano, buy groceries or work on a puzzle instead. But more often, I sit down with my journal and just start writing whatever’s on my mind. Usually it leads me into my next writing project. Yesterday, for example, the date, May 8, reminded me that I made my First Communion in the Catholic Church on May 8 many years ago. That led to seven pages of memoir about what it was like at church in those pre-Vatican II days, so different from how it is now.
Many writers I admire preach the benefits of journaling, writing “morning pages” or doing free-writing exercises to get the writing juices flowing. Just get the pen (or the fingers on the keys) moving and don’t worry about whether what you’re writing is any good or has any chance of being published. You can turn to books like Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life and Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir for lots of ideas to get you started. Julia Cameron also preaches free-writing in her book The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life.The idea is that writing is like a sport or playing a musical instrument. You need to warm up. I agree. Lots of times when I feel completely uninspired, all I need to do is start writing and the inspiration comes.
Other writers will say this is a waste of time. If you’re going to do writing exercises, why not write something that advances your work in progress? All I can say is do whatever works for you.
Which brings us back to that work in progress. What is it? What kind of writing do you want to do?
Some readers here are firmly established in one genre or another. They write novels or poetry or essays or articles. Others are still trying to figure out where they belong. There’s nothing wrong with dabbling in lots of different kinds of writing, but eventually you’ll find one genre fits you better than all the others. Think about what you love to read. If all your dreams came true, would you find your byline on a feature in the New York Times, on the cover of a novel, on the spine of volume of poetry, or on top of the most popular blog ever? Do you just want to capture your stories for your family and friends? Or, are you looking to make lots and lots of money writing and don’t really care if you get a byline? Are you attracted to technical writing, corporate PR or advertising? Would you like to write movies? Plays? Porn?
Forget about money or fame. What kind of writing feels most natural? What kind of writing gets you so involved that you lose track of time? What would you be most proud of having written?
Today’s assignment is to write about what kind of writer you want to be and then write about what you need to do to become that kind of writer. Do you need to take classes, download programs, read books, apply for jobs, or join a writing group? What have other writers done to get where they are? Write yourself a plan. Then, next time you sit down to write, put that plan into action. If you have decided to write a novel, start writing it. If you want to write a movie, write the opening scene. If you want to be a technical or corporate writer, write your resume and start sending it out. Make a plan, write out the steps, and then take those steps one at a time.
I welcome your questions and comments.
Now go write. 🙂
I have started reading a book called The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World. It was written by Brenda Miller, who was of my creative nonfiction workshop leaders in my MFA program at Antioch, and Holly Hughes, who taught the poetry workshop I took in July at Fishtrap. As much as I love these writers, I hesitated to buy the book. It’s a lot about meditating, contemplating, slowing down, seeing with more than one’s eyes. As much as I want to be creative, artistic and thoroughly right-brained, I’m pretty practical. Maybe it’s all my years in journalism, or maybe it’s just how I’m wired, but I like solid assignments, deadlines and start-to-finish processes. Even when I do yoga, I’m ticking off the postures and rushing to the final namaste. Git ‘er done, as the comic says. Ring a little bell and sit and do nothing? Hm. Aren’t we going to talk about marketing?
But I did finally buy the book because that workshop in the woods with Holly Hughes got me writing. It also got me breathing, relaxing, and seeing. It untied a lot of the knots in my writing self. This morning, I pulled a dusty little bell off my mantel, rang it, contemplated my current between-carpets den (see last week’s post), and started writing. I wrote for an hour, and I like what I wrote. It started as prose, then became a poem that begins, “I ride my couch like a life raft/floating in a concrete sea.” I thought about being shipwrecked. I thought about how our human dens can be compared to the dens of wild animals. I forced myself to look at the paint-stains, nicks, dirt and ants on the concrete that lay all these years beneath my white Berber carpet. You can put a rug on it, but it’s still dirt underneath.
I will polish this poem, and I will think about getting it published, but for the first hour today I put all that aside and just wrote. It didn’t have to be a whole hour, but I didn’t want to stop. It felt too wonderful. When I finished, I rang my little bell. Ding. I did it.
Maybe, like me, you’re not inclined to get all New Agey with your writing, but slowing down long enough to play with words not only feels good, it enhances everything you write. No matter what you write, take a few minutes to warm up the brain and the fingers. Athletes do warm-up exercises, musicians play scales, artists make sketches, writers . . . Right.
In addition to their Pen and Bell book, you can visit Hughes and Miller’s Pen and Bell blog for their own mindful writings and more inspiration. The Pen and the Bell is more linked to meditation and mindfulness than most of the writing books I have read. Other good books that will get you writing include Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away, Wild Mind and her classic Writing Down the Bones. All are full of free-writing exercises. Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and The Right to Write are good ones, too. I also enjoy The Write-Brain Workbook by Bonnie Neubauer. If you like puzzles, that’s the one to get.
We’ll get back to marketing and all that other writing business stuff, but you can’t sell what doesn’t exist. You have to write first.
Now go write.
Once a week I am offering three quick tips that you can take and use right away. For those of us who would rather be writing than reading blogs, this is a place you can grab something useful and get back to work. If you have suggestions, please share them in the comments section.
Are you finding that grammar is a mystery? Why do people keep adding commas to your manuscripts? What’s the deal with lay and lie? Find help from grammar guru Mignon Fogarty at Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. She also has a Grammar Girl book by the same title.
The Poet’s Companion: a Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry by Kim Addonizio and Dorriane Laux. It’s got everything from getting started to getting published, including lots of poems to read and lots of writing exercises to try.
Rewrite a fairy tale. They’re doing it on TV and in books. You can, too. Start with your favorite fairy tale or myth, give it a modern setting with modern problems and a new point of view and see what happens. You can do this with current stories, too, but you’ll need to make it a totally new story to avoid copyright problems.