Writing A Lot...And Then Some
By Becky Tuch
My family is about as Jewish as a Reuben sandwich. That is, we are Jewish more by association than any actual practice. (When was Hanukah this year? I’m still not exactly sure.)
Thus this holiday season, while everyone was buying gifts, scribbling out cards and decorating those strange looking green objects that stand in the corners of living rooms, I was mercifully free of holiday responsibilities.
So what did I do with this oceanic abyss of structureless free time?
Funny you should ask.
I wrote, of course. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. Then, when I was utterly exhausted and without ideas and losing my grip on reality, I sat down at my desk and wrote some more.
Did it feel good?
Ha. To be honest it felt mostly uncomfortable and sweaty. Also I was frequently slowed in my process by the letter “I” that keeps popping off my keyboard, no doubt from overuse.
But okay, in general it did feel good. What feels even better is having now, in addition to many many many new pages of raw material, some nifty new insights about the process:
Acknowledging your censor is important.
I consider myself a pretty honest and up-front person. (I am from Brooklyn, afterall, home to the words, “You stole my fucking parking space motherfucker now I’m going to kill you and your entire fucking family.”) Still, I am constantly astonished to discover the prissy little voice that pipes up in my head to tell me what I should not say in my writing.
Don’t mention that. Your friends will never speak to you again! the voice warns.
You witch! That was supposed to be a secret! the voice insists.
Can you honestly call yourself a writer when you’re just transcribing verbatim everything your mother ever said to you? the voice demands.
I don’t know about you, but for me this voice appears daily. Hourly. Relentlessly. I hear this voice every time I get to an exciting part of a story, every time I open a blank document on my computer, and most especially each time I’m about to explore a character’s emotional life.
I hate this voice.
But also, in a weird kind of literary co-dependence, I’ve come to rely on it. When the censoring voice appears to tell me that whatever I am about to write is best left unsaid, that is when I know that I absolutely must put the thing on paper. It’s a sign that what I’m saying–about myself, about people I love, about the fragility of human bonds and the depth of my attachments–truly scares me. It tells me that this is something that I, as a reader, would want more than anything to read about in someone else’s work.
Thus while the voice is a censor telling me what not to say, it also serves as a kind of bullshit detector, reminding me that everything I might say instead would be a lie.
You don’t need to have ideas. In fact, sometimes it’s best not to.
Writing a lot can be exhausting.
Throughout My Month of Obsessive Writing, I woke up just about every day feeling spent, with nothing to say, nothing at all to give. I spent many minutes in bed, assuring myself that I’d done enough the previous day, that last week’s work would suffice. I lay flat and thought about how few thoughts I was having. In fact I spent quite a lot of time thinking about my inability to think.
Eventually, I would remember an interview I once read with songwriter Leonard Cohen. “I haven’t had an idea in a long long time,” Cohen said. “And I’m not sure I ever had one.”
Well, if Leonard Cohen could call himself idea-less and produce what I consider to be some of the most beautiful songs of this century, then surely I could drag something out of the smudgy charcoal of my unconscious and produce something.
In fact, each day I discovered that I could, with no ideas at all, produce quite a lot. And I’ve come to love this concept. I love the way it implies the birth of something–some song, some story—not through rational intention but rather through organic growth. Through a gradual ripening, an evolving, a giving way. Something that cannot be willed on the part of the creator but which becomes manifest through simple allowance.
With no ideas, no plans, no willfulness guiding you to your desk, sometimes it’s enough just to sit there. To be in the space where writing happens. Soon you will invent a name or think of a word. You will get angry over some unresolved argument. You will want to say something you’ve never been able to say before. The stories will come. By not forcing them out, just simply giving them the room in which to be heard.
If you give yourself a finite amount of time, you can push yourself harder.
Where is your comfort zone? Is it writing for an hour a day? Is it writing ten pages a week? Is it writing only on the weekends? Obviously, a great deal of what you can do is necessitated by the time available to you, where you can squeeze it in between this and that responsibility.
But maybe, just maybe, there is a space where you can push against your comfortable limit. What might happen if, for just one week, you wrote a half hour longer than your usual amount? If you set a higher page goal for yourself? If you challenged yourself to write every day, instead of only on the weekends?
Again, maybe you are already just doing all you can do, snatching a word here, a sentence there, in between the demands of a super busy life. But chances are there are more opportunities that you realize for writing. And when you give yourself a finite amount of time—for just this week I’ll get up a half hour earlier, for just this month I will write a new story every single day—you might be amazed by how far you can travel beyond what you ever thought was possible.
In weight-lifting, pushing beyond your limit is called achieving Failure, that moment where your muscles have been so taxed that you cannot lift another thing. In my own writing process, I call this the Christ, This is Horrible! moment, also known as the Oh, For God’s Sake stage of writing. You are antsy. You are tired. You are restless and desperate to take a walk or check your email or be anywhere but where you are.
But what happens when you don’t react to that impulse to get away? When you stay the course and sit with your discomfort? When happens when you push yourself just one degree higher than you ever thought you could?
Try it. Just for one month. Set a goal for yourself that’s larger than your normal amount of writing. See what happens.
Then report back to me. We can have lunch and talk about how it went. I’ll have lots of free time next December.
Becky Tuch is the Founding Editor of The Review Review.