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Those pesky writing rules – My take

September 28, 2012

*written in the wee hours of 9.28

Like so many writers, I love to read what writers have to say about writing and the writer’s life. Their rules. Their rituals. Their beliefs. Why? Because it helps me feel less alone in my crazy. It helps me see that we all have shit. See, most of us writers understand, embrace, that we’re a special kind of crazy for choosing to give in to that urge to write. And, honestly, it’s interesting to see what ideas about writing people come up with over the years. I may not always agree or identify with what they say (for example, if I don’t like a book, I’m not going to read it, no matter who says it’s a classic or a must-read or that I’m not a real writer/reader if I’m not totally blown away <– to this I say, “ah, shad up!”), but sometimes you come across something that really resonates, that speaks to you, that really grabs hold of you and makes you say, “Yes! Heaven yes!”

Take Zadie Smith, who said:  “Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand—but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.” Oh Zadie! Preach it! This very issue came up today during a conversation with my sister, Cynthia. We were talking about our trip to AWP (Boston ain’t ready!) and she insisted that I should bring my first novel, Woman’s Cry. I confessed that the book makes me cringe whenever I pick it up. “I’m just such a different writer than I was then.” I know it’s a powerful story. And, I also know that I’d never write another book like that again. She laughed and quoted a workshop facilitator who told her, “It’s a good thing when you pick up your first book and feel embarrassed. It means you’ve evolved as a writer.” So, yes, Zadie is on point here. We’re never satisfied with the work we do. I don’t think we writers ever “finish” a piece, per say, we abandon it because if we didn’t, we’d spend our entire lives working and editing it, moving commas, switching words around, deleting entire paragraphs. At this rate we’d never move on to the next project, be it a novel, memoir, poem, whatever. (If this makes you twitch, it’s time to abandon that piece, folks.)

Junot Diaz said: “in my view a writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, because everything she does is golden. In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.” Oh, how many times have I found myself unable to produce a lick of shit. I spent so many years feeling inadequate (I confess, sometimes, often, I still do), unable to write something that I felt had any worth. Shit, I walked away from a 352 page manuscript because the memoir took over. The good thing is I still love the story and the characters but I’m not sure I’ll ever return to the novel. I’ve become a slave to process. A willing slave. I know that the time may not come when I’ll want to return to the book and I’m growing more okay with that with each passing day. Why? Because there’s so much else I want to, need to write, and no matter, I know I wrote those 352 pages. I wrote a second novel and that’s a feat I can be proud of, even if it never sees the light of day again.

So, yes, what makes a writer is that we keep on writing. That we keep trudging at it. We stay up at night writing (like I’m doing right now), working, pulling the stories out of my insides, even when they’re kicking and screaming “no quiero” like a spoiled two-year old that you want to smack upside the head but you don’t because, well, she’s only two. I kept at it. I keep at it. Porque? Because I have to. Because it’s so hard. Because, in the end, it’s what I have. It’s who I am. I know no other way.

It was Colson Whitehead’s list of writing rules that struck me recently. In fact, I wrote an entire blog post about it and then lost it. (Tip: type your posts in a Word Doc FIRST then copy and paste it into your blog. Trust me, it will save you a world of hurt.) Why did it strike me so? Because it was so real and spoke to where I’m at, right now. The stories I’m mining. Those that I avoided for so long. Those that I covered up, put a mask on, decorated like a giant, gaudy Christmas tree with miles of garland and lights, and so many damn ornaments, the green of the tree couldn’t be seen. This is what I did in fiction.  It’s what I did for so long. Until memoir.

Colson’s Rule No. 2 states: Don’t go searching for a subject, let your subject find you. You can’t rush inspiration… Once your subject finds you, it’s like falling in love. It will be your constant companion. Shadowing you, peeping in your windows, calling you at all hours to leave messages like, “Only you understand me.” Your ideal subject should be like a stalker with limitless resources, living off the inheritance he received after the suspiciously sudden death of his father. He’s in your apartment pawing your stuff when you’re not around, using your toothbrush and cutting out all the really good synonyms from the thesaurus. Don’t be afraid: you have a best seller on your hands.

Memoir stalked me for years. I ran for so long. I ran into fiction. I covered up the stories that really wanted to be told. I wrote two novels in the process. Great! I created something with it, right? But the fact is, it was memoir that wanted to be written. And when I got stuck (for six months, mind you) in the umpteenth draft of my second novel, a novel that three publishing companies asked to see again, a novel that my agent badgered me about for months (maybe even a year), I knew it was time to just surrender. It was memoir I had to write.

I’ve been guilty of looking for inspiration. Of writing shitty short stories and poems because I was trying to force inspiration, bludgeoning her until she gave in to me. Picture the ol’ school cartoon images of a caveman clunking a cavewoman over the head with a club and dragging her by her hair to his lair. Except this cavewoman wasn’t giving in. She had her own club and talons and fangs for teeth. Shit even her hair was equipped with spiked edges. She was not coming with no matter what I did. So all I produced was really bad writing (which is necessary to the process by the way, but that’s an entirely different blog post).

Inspiration comes. It always does. Always. And, yes, she is “a stalker with limitless resources,” and this is a good thing, a very good thing. It’s a blessing when she arrives and takes hold. It’s up to you, me, to recognize it and run with her. Let her take you where she will. Trust me, it will be a crazy ride, but it will be a beautiful one. Painful at times but so worth the peaks and valleys. So worth the sleepless nights, the finding yourself a ball of snot and tears on your kitchen floor, the eating at your nails until their nubs, the bags under your eyes (where the hell did those come from?) and the new white hairs that your kid points out at the most heinous moment.

(My nena did it on the train in front a drop-jaw chiseled human of the male species. “Mom, you have two white hairs right there.” She pointed to my temple. I gagged. He stifled a giggle. I shrank into myself. But hey, I’m proud of those grays. I haven’t plucked them. They are evidence of the digging I’ve been doing. The cranking down. The doing the work. The focus.)

Surrender. Try it. You will be better for it. I know I am.

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