I’m reading a book at the moment called The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text For Writing and Life by Marion Roach Smith. When I bought it, I thought it would follow the structure of similar writing books – prompts and exercises and the like. I was wrong and she has some excellent lessons for writing. Chief amongst them is that we need to stop messing around with exercises and just write. Write and write. Exercises are good so long as they don’t stagnate us – get us stuck in a routine that you’re afraid to break or that is stopping you from getting to the meaty writing. You know, the writing where you are actually writing about something – about an event in your life, or a piece of fiction with intent behind it (like a short story or novel), or a memoir, or a blog post.
This is a lesson that I’m now absorbing. I’ve struggled a long time with a few things, like how so many writing advice books proscribe morning pages, or writing prompts. There’s nothing wrong with these, so long as they eventually take you somewhere. Morning pages, however, don’t necessarily do anything much, they act like journal pages, they clear your mind and help you work things out. In some ways, I don’t always consider what I put in my journal to be proper full on writing. They are fragments, often the same issues trying to be worked out over and over. I flicked through my current journal the other day and it is full of my neuroses – probably the same fears that all writers have, that you’re worried you’re not writing enough, when is the real work going to start, today is the day that I start…and so on.
Writing is hard work precisely because sometimes we are afraid to go deeper and stir up the dark things that live inside us. The fear is perhaps that we will reveal too much of ourselves or that we will break a dam and it will be impossible to go back. I think this is why sometimes, I blanch at the thought of writing. I’ve written long and hard before about things that hurt and things I want to forget but I can’t because I return to them all the time. This is what writers and artists do – we tend to obsess about the same things all the time. The motifs or events that we can’t help but look at in different lights, times of the day, angles.
What this book has given me is an acceptance that the real work, the writing, has to start today. It doesn’t start tomorrow in my journal, it doesn’t start next week when I’m going to start anew with a completely different outlook on life (!) – it starts now, when you’re reluctant and tired and would rather read a book or watch a film, or get a good nights sleep. I spent time earlier this evening writing out what had been disturbing me about life recently. How things have happened this past year that I want to move on from but are still flitting around my head. Maybe the problem is – I didn’t write about them. I didn’t sit down at my computer and type it all out. Instead I let myself head towards a kind of stagnation, not quite writers block because I was still blogging and occasionally writing in my journal, but a stuck feeling. A bit like feeling exhausted and wading through a swamp.
I’m surrounded by writing advice books – some of them valuable and important (such as Stephen King’s On Writing and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones), others less so. They glare at me with their titles – ‘The Five Minute Writer’, ‘365 Ways To Get You Writing’, ‘The Writer’s Treasury of Ideas’ – and make me feel inadequate. Yet their prompts are only starting points, often they don’t go anywhere, and it is up to you to go into your writing, digging and mining for that treasure in the dustheap. It sounds simple enough – just start writing. Take anything as your departure – perhaps something you did today, or what you do each day, no matter how routine. Its often the little things that lead to the best pieces of writing. The big topics, the big themes, are often hard to tackle, so its best to start with a sideways glance, or a zoom-in on something small. It reminds me of Haiku – something small, an observance, that is about something bigger.
My sister wrote an important post today, that triggered my thinking about New York. New York last year was amazing. It was amazing because there were small moments – moments that shine in my memory. The moment I complimented a woman on how beautiful her big red retriever was (it was truly a beautiful dog). Or when a man yelled at Dan to slow down because he was leaving me behind (he frequently does this). When I walked past a Church graveyard in the middle of the city with iron railings that had two beautifully lit Christmas trees standing amongst the gravestones, and I just had to stop and admire their loneliness and take a photo. Noticing things, like we do when we go away somewhere, doesn’t happen as often at home. This is why we need to pay attention. Those swirling dust motes in the morning sunlight? The way your cat purrs? They all mean something.
‘Sometimes it’s moments like that, real complicated moments, absorbing moments, that make you realize that even hard times have things in them that make you feel alive.’ – Nick Hornby, A Long Way Down.