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How Not to Write: The Art of Writing without Writing

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July 9th, 2011


08:13 am - The Dreams We Leave For Those Who Follow

Originally published at How Not To Write. You can comment here or there.

This post is more about writing than you might think.

Yesterday, I watched the launch of STS-135. Maybe you did too.

Before the launch I texted my son to make sure he was watching too. It was just a few minutes before lift-off and he scrambled to make sure everyone in the house was watching.

Later that night, I asked him what he thought about it. He thought it was sad because the program was over. I asked him what he thought about private companies going into space. He said, “I don’t think it’s going to happen.” I asked why, and he replied, “Because there’s no one to advertise to.”

What Ideas Are We Giving To The Next Generation?

This is NASA’s picture of STS-1 lifting off on April 12th, 1981. I remember it clearly. Do you?

sts-1-launch.jpg

What I remember most about STS-1, besides the white fuel tank, is being excited about space and the beginning of a grand voyage of human exploration and adventure. It was an idea that grew from the Apollo program, which itself had inspired an earlier generation. It was a gift of the best sort. The gift of an idea that we could do something even bigger than the last generation. That we could be more as human beings…

And now, with STS-135 zipping around for a final few victory laps around this blue globe of ours, I’m left wondering just what the next generation must think of all this, what they must think of us. What ideas do they see out there in the world today? What dreams have we sown by our own actions? How have we encouraged the next generation to dream bigger than the last generation?

The answer, I think, lies in the clear-headed response of a 12 year-old boy: In space, no one can hear you advertise.

So, What Exactly Have We Done?

I think it’s a fair question.

We’ve solved none of the pressing problems of the past. War is rampant and eternal. The energy crisis is worse than ever. We’ve destroyed much of our sense of community through aggressive polarization, and reduced our sense of humanity to the petty needs of instant gratification. We may have access to all of the knowledge in the world in the palm of our hands, but we no longer have the will to bend the laws of nature to our imaginations.

In short, we seem to have chosen a path of apathy instead of one of adventure. We’ve chosen to become static instead of dynamic. We are squabbling amid the wreckage of a civilization that has not yet died, creating evermore selfish systems in commerce, in politics, and in life.

But I think that all is not so bleak as it appears. If we put our minds to it, we can be more than this one moment in time. We can reclaim our dreams and reinvigorate the spirit of adventure which has defined the best in human achievement throughout history.

The Human Spirit Is Not So Easily Defeated

My younger son and I talked about the shuttle launch too. He was excited about the roar of rockets and the smoke and the flames. He talked like a boy who is seven about the majesty of such an incredible achievement, which is to say there was lots of “wow” and “cool” and whooshing whoops.

His excitement was infectious and I told him about the first shuttle launch. I told him how we watched at school and what it meant to us. We talked about space then and what lies beyond, and then we set about killing zombies because that’s what we do on Friday nights.

So while we can be sad about the closing of this chapter in the space program, we must be ready to write the next. Those who follow us are counting on us to live our dreams. We must supply them with nothing but the very best examples of our imaginations brought to reality through the willpower of the human spirit.

We must fight through the malaise of the moment. We must create. Because it’s not enough to simply shake our heads and walk away… We must repay the deficit dreams we leave for those who follow.


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July 3rd, 2011


12:31 pm - The Old Man and the Tweet

Originally published at How Not To Write. You can comment here or there.

WIRED has a post about what Hemingway would think of the Internet. The author is a little young to be writing about Hemingway. He’s not even 30, but if you read his bio you’ll see that it’s really just tongue in cheek (or rather some other body cavity) humor he’s after.

It’s unfortunate though. With a little effort, the author could have taken a fluff plug for his new book and turned it into something poignant. He could have sliced off about half of his monologue intro, dropped into the fairly predictable jokes quickly and then discussed what an older Papa would have been like on the Internet. He could have done that, but he’s really not that sort of writer.

You might think I’m being a little harsh here, but let’s consider that the author just published a sensationalist book lampooning a man on the 50th anniversary of his suicide. That’s just a wee bit crass, don’t you think?

So rather than complain about this piece further, let’s really examine what might Hemingway do on the Internet. Of course, we must select a Hemingway and there are so many from which to choose…

Are we talking about a young Hemingway on the battlefield? Say, a medic in Iraq or Afghanistan? A couch-surfing Hemingway learning his writing trade in the virtual expat community of Gawker and HuffPo stringers? An adventure junkie Hemingway flinging himself off mountains in wingsuits or war reporting in Africa?

“Those the world will not break it kills. The good, the gentle, and the brave. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too.”

Or maybe we have a Hemingway who’s best days are far, far behind him. A Hemingway bypassed by the world, whose last novel was a disaster. This Hemingway, the author of Across the River and Into the Trees (1950), would have a very different approach to the Internet.

“Sure they can say nothing happens in Across the River, all that happens is the taking of Paris …plus a man who loves a girl and dies.”

The author who finished The Old Man and the Sea would have something very different to say. That Hemingway called in favors from every corner of the literary world to get his name pushed to the top of the Nobel ballot. One can only imagine the endless flow of tweets and Facebook posts pushing for acceptance and visibility culminating in his inevitable acceptance speech.

“Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. A writer does his work alone and if good enough he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.”

But then, at the end of his life, we are left with a very different sort of Hemingway. This Hemingway could no longer bring his mind to craft particularly good sentences, let alone the great ones he demanded from himself. This Hemingway was slipping into mental illness, dementia, and paranoia (which may have had roots in fact as well). What sort of Internet presence would the author at the end of his life have? Would he be the Charlie Sheen of his day? Ranting like a madman, setting up town hall shows to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the torpedo of truth?

“It’s the worst hell. The goddamnedest hell. They’ve bugged everything. Everything’s bugged. Can’t use the phone. Mail intercepted.”

Then we come to the very end and perhaps in a moment of lucid realization he would dash off one final thought…

“He simply woke, looked out the open door at the moon and unrolled his trousers and put them on.”


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May 22nd, 2011


07:59 am - Return to Writing in Six Steps

Originally published at How Not To Write. You can comment here or there.

Yesterday, I was frustrated, pessimistic. I was disappointed and pissed off. Today is different.

I’ve taken steps to ensure that the coffee is up to snuff, but you can’t really avoid it. The down times, I mean, not the coffee. Problems with coffee can always be avoided. You just dump out the pot and try again. With writing, not so much.

When I’ve been Not Writing for awhile, I tend to get melancholic. You might recognize these symptoms in yourself.

You take a favorite book down and read some words. You think, “How the hell did this writer find the time to do this?” Or perhaps you say, “I live in a different age. No one will appreciate this sort of work today. Philistines!” And then you slam the book closed and console yourself with a nice little rant or maybe just work on your own personal storm cloud.

All of which is really Not Writing, isn’t it?

Of course it is, but it’s also part of the process. You let it come and have its say and then you let it fade away. Then, you begin the work.

The body retains the memory of what it has done before and so does the mind. The pathways may be a bit overgrown but they’re there. You just need to practice a bit to get back into the swing of things.

For me, that practice involves writing but also reading and listening. I listen to podcast stories while mowing the lawn. I read books with honest-to-god plots. These are the things that will spark your imagination in a fruitful way.

Well, that and extremely strong coffee.

Six Steps to Returning to Writing

I went way back into my notes this morning, and I found the same pattern repeated over and over. The fits and starts are easy to identify. They’re usually punctuated at either end by some external distraction that’s taken over my life. I’m sure the same could be said for anyone. In any case, I also noticed that I had developed a series of habits that led to successful runs in my writing life:

  1. Show up – This is the first step. You must appear at the desk daily. You know this. You also know it is not optional. There is nothing more important than this.
  2. Purge – This is the second step. You must put your hands on the keyboard (or pen to paper) and purge yourself. You cannot get beyond yourself if you are stuck on yourself.
  3. Write – Once you have purged, you must write. You must not break or go wandering about. You must not take the relief of purging as a sign you are done. Write.
  4. Stop – When you are returning to writing, it is important that you stop before you are written out. You wouldn’t try to run a marathon or even a 5K if you hadn’t trained. You’ll hurt yourself, or at the very least burn out the desire to show up the next day.
  5. Be Patient – I’ve written for over 20 years, and still I have problems with this one. If I return from a break, I expect my work to come off like it did before. It won’t. It may never be the same. Depending on how you view your work, that may be a comfort. The thing is to be patient and take what the writing will give. You will return to form (some form) after a time.
  6. Show Up – You begin the cycle again… Perhaps, you’ll think I’m cheating here by repeating the first step, but this is part of the method. When you leave the desk and step to the door, do you turn out the light knowing that you won’t return the next day? Leave the light on, if only in your mind. Remember that this is a process, a habit. This is something you know how to do, but you have to commit to it first and foremost.

A final word about planning… By design, I have not included planning in the six steps. Many of you may wonder why. After all, isn’t planning an essential part of writing? Yes, it is, but we are not writing just yet. We are returning to writing after a long layoff. If you do not show up and you do not purge and you do not write, you will spend your life planning and not executing. Ultimately, writing is keeping your ass in the saddle. Get yourself into that habit first.


Author’s Note: Yes, I’m fairly certain it was the coffee.</p>

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