December 9, 2010No Comments

Get past write fright to the first draft

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Write fright, or fear of the blank page, is hard to overcome. The white page on the computer screen seems naked, and my attempts at sentence fragments, much less paragraphs, offer it as much cover as a fig leaf. Maybe I should use a larger font. Try double spacing.

 

More experienced writers offer abundant counsel on how to handle write fright, and it usually boils down to the simple imperative. You wanna be a writer? Then write.

 

In her wonderful book on writing, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott wrote that an aspiring writer must free herself to write shitty first drafts. Just get the words down on paper. Revise them later. No one has to see the first draft but you. But you have to get the words down to have something to work with.

 

And you have to write every day, according to author Walter Mosley. In a timeless “Writers on Writing” article from the New York Times, Mosley likens writing a novel to gathering smoke.

 

I read that line and feel a wrenching inadequacy. I’ll never be able to write like that. An image that perfect must have sprung from his creative mind fully-formed, like Athena from Zeus’s forehead. I pause, remind myself that I could be wrong. Maybe it actually took him two months, seven drafts and a helping of self-doubt before he got it exactly right. Maybe he first thought that writing is like herding cats or climbing a mountain, comparisons he dismissed as clichéd.

 

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“Ideas are smoky concepts liable to disappear at the slightest disturbance,” Mosley wrote. Gathering that smoke onto the page every day keeps the story alive in your mind, and helps it form into something larger and more substantial.

 

Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, in his 2006 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, talked about sitting at his table, “for days, months, years slowly adding new words to the empty page.”  As a bridge or wall is built stone by stone, a writer uses words, he said. This imagery of words as stones comes alive for me, for writing seems like architecture and construction to me.  A combination of form, structure, detail and place.

 

My first stumbling block is that damned internal critic, who delivers writing critiques with shrill contempt. A writing instructor from hell. Where a wonderful  fiction writing instructor (like author Robert Eversz, who turned me on to the Mosley and Pamuk pieces I referenced above) would gently prod his students to think about the scene objectives, in my head I hear a sneering and rhetorical “what on earth is this scene about?”The answer, according to that critic, is that it is a scene about nothing, and I should give it up entirely because any good writer would, could, should write a brilliant first draft of any scene.  I relayed a less intense version of this to Robert, who told me to turn that voice off. If only I could find the switch. But I’m trying—at least for the first draft.

 

So I will take their advice and write. But more importantly, I will fill that blank page with ideas and words, remembering that I am travelling down a path already well-worn by successful and aspiring writers.  

 

October 27, 2010No Comments

Writing Humorously

Humor is a funny thing. It is easy to make some people laugh -- employees, mothers, bartenders, the guy at the coffee shop -- but being funny to strangers is an art form. I recently attended a workshop by author and comedy instructor Judy Carter on how to write funny. 

 

Let me stop here and warn the reader that this blog posting is not actually funny.

 

Judy boldly stated at the beginning of the workshop that she could make anyone funny. And by the end of the workshop, I believed her. The key is in finding your authentic voice, and then finding ways to embrace your defects and be more human.  Think about what other people (spouses, lovers, siblings) would say your defects are, and make it into a joke. My mother would say I spend too much money on clothes and shoes. To be funny, I would need to embrace that defect and make jokes about it. To do this, I need to put myself down in front of people.

 

For example:

 

You know you spend too much money on shoes when...

  • Your credit card is always maxed out.
  • You’ve never even come close to wearing out the soles on a pair of shoes.
  • You’ve taken photos of all your shoes and taped them to the shoebox lid so you can remember what you have.

 

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Yes, the last bullet is something I have actually done, as you probably guessed from the picture of gold sandals -- Taryn by Taryn Rose -- on sale!

 

But the example above also illustrates another point that Judy made, and that is that comedy is about lists. And the key thing to know about lists is that anytime you make a list, be sure that the first two items in the list are relatable to most people, and that the third item is spun to be funny.  According to Judy, specificity is funny. The formula for funny lists is general, general and then funny. Your list can be more than three, but should never be less than three. And your challenge in writing these lists is to think about the distinctions of whatever topic you are covering. What is weird about spending too much money on shoes? Not being able to afford going out in them. So I’m sitting in my studio apartment eating ramen noodles in a $400 pair of stilettos.  What is hard? What is weird? What is scary? Those are the other questions to consider as you try to write humorously.

 

I like to think of humor as something that comes naturally, but after Judy’s workshop, I realized that there is an art to writing jokes and being humorous to more than just a handful of loved ones. You can learn more about Judy at her website http://www.judycarter.com/. Thanks to the Independent Writers of Southern California for bringing her to its members like me.