How do you write when your heart says, “I can’t?” Simple – get out of your own way and let the madman take over. Here are five ways to write when your heart says no.
[This is the second in a series on the writing process. The first installment can be found here. The terms “judge” and “madman” in reference to writing were originally coined by Betty Sue Flowers, professor emeritus at the University of Texas.]
I delete everything I write.
Oh, not completely. I have journals scribbled to capacity, files tucked into crevices on every hard drive in the house. I’ve not yet begun to squirrel bits of paper into the floor boards like a certain poet we all know and love, but I do save my ramblings.
Except when I delete everything I write.
I’m sure by now I have thoroughly confused you, and for that I apologize. But I am thinking and writing my way through an unwieldy topic: the difficulty in the act of writing. Or the difficulty in getting started. Or the difficulty in allowing yourself to keep what you write on the page without striking it out before it even exits your head.
If I were in Wonderland, I imagine the Mad Hatter would tell me quite sternly to say what I mean, and the King of Hearts would follow:
Begin at the beginning, and go on through to the end: then stop.
So perhaps that is what I should do.
In the first installment of this series, I shared a poem I wrote for my last class of ninth graders, before I retired from the classroom to raise children. The piece details my struggle with the internal judge who criticizes my word choice, my phrasing, my sentence structure, my – well – everything.
To that judge, nothing I write is worthy of being read.
She sits pompously on her bench, squelching words and thoughts beneath her gavel and assuring me that, truly, I cannot write a single coherent sentence. It’s a wonder I ever get anything down. Every single sentence must be perfect from the beginning. “It must all be poetry,” she says, and there I sit, staring at the blinking cursor.
Scribbling little flowers in the corner of the page.
Sighing and thinking about chocolate.
And peanut butter.
Not a whole lot of writing gets done when she’s in charge.
Each of us has her own version of the judge.
No matter how confident or accomplished we are, an internal gatekeeper censors our thoughts, its entire existence bent on encouraging the hatred of our own writing.
Think I’m exaggerating?
When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth. – Kurt Vonnegut (London Times Online, April 12 2007)
Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. – Flannery O’Connor (Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose)
And there are others. Dorothy Parker even said that she hated writing, but loved “having written.” Learning to write well means that we must depose the judge and allow the madman, the Mad Hatter, to enter, rambling as he may about teacups and unbirthdays.
Telling yourself to let go of self censure is all good and well in theory, of course. The application of releasing the madman is far trickier, given the way most of us have been trained to write.
There exists in traditional writing instruction an overt attention to correctness, to form first and content later, to usage over the flow of ideas. While the generation of ideas and development of fluency might be a portion of what’s covered, the majority of instruction focuses on what one must do right, and how it must be done. Papers come back to students dripping with red (or green, or purple) ink, and for the most part, the commentary has little do with what was said and everything to do with how a student said it. I don’t speak from on high on this point, either: I was as guilty as the next instructor in my early teaching years. But there came a point about three years into my career that the scales were removed from my eyes. My students’ writing wasn’t getting any better, and they were paralyzed by the fear of writing something wrong, lest I slash it with my mighty green pen.
I’m not by nature a monster, but I had certainly become one in the classroom. So I shifted my focus away from what good writing looks like and toward what good writing feels like. How do you do that? Easy:
All the time. Everywhere. Keep a notebook handy for jotting quick thoughts. Use a family notebook to write notes and letters to each other. The more organic the act of writing becomes, the easier it is to do so without fear of correction.
Spill out all the words as freely as you can in a set time frame (say, five to ten minutes), not worrying about grammar, spelling, or mechanics. Let the ideas flow freely without concern for the hows and whys. That’s what revision – true, content-based revision – is for.
Do something else
Take a walk. Read a book. Make something yummy in the kitchen. You could even clean the bathroom. When you get to an impasse between what you want to write and how you want to write it, get up and do something else. Your brain will keep working and generating ideas as you walk/work/clean your way through it.
Share your writing
Really, even if it terrifies you. And don’t just share the finished pieces. Share the raw stuff, the still-in-progress word salad that you’ve spilled out onto the page. It might be painful at first, but you’ll come to appreciate the external lens.
Read your writing out loud
Chances are you’ve rarely had the opportunity to hear your written words spoken, either in your own voice or by someone else. The beauty of listening to your work rather than reading it is that you begin to notice the delightful music you’ve created. You’ll detect rhythm where once there was asymmetry. You’ll find depth where once there was triviality. It’s worth it, if for no other reason than to appreciate what you’ve created the way others will appreciate your work. It will help you learn to see the value in your writing.
So where does all this leave us? Oh, yes. Deleting everything I write. I still do it. I’ve done it a million times while writing this post. But the fact of the matter is that I’m getting beyond the critical, and I’ve decided it’s quite lovely to be mad.