I came across this quote on a website offering tips on “conquering” the blank page:
Richard has a point, but these days, if you’re like me, your work machine is also a games machine, a porno delivery system and a social media hole. It’s not a blank page, it’s a stark white rectangle that literally glows in your face until you decide to punch tiny holes in it with your thoughts. But, I think Rich misses the point in a way—he uses the term “we” in the sense that all writers are in this together, but I don’t think it’s that simple.
I’ve come across several books called, “On Writing,” in my search for something that will tell me how to do it. Stephen King’s is fantastic and contains a lot of practical advice; Charles Bukowski’s is interesting because he was interesting. There’s a story fragment from Hemingway called On Writing, and there’s another book called Stein on Writing, by Sol Stein. King’s book mentions The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, as a book that should be read by every aspiring writer—and I took his advice.
No matter who writes these books, though, they’re only telling you how they write and how they learned to write. It’s one person’s opinion put onto the pages, meant to sell books to other writers, and it works. But to really learn how to write, though, you have to learn who you are, how you work best, and what makes you think in the most in-depth way possible. All of the advice I take in, and have taken in, pale in comparison to the simple line: “find your voice.”
More on that later.
I have a running mind. I’d have nary an ounce of fat on me if I physically ran the distances I will allow my mind to run. I think more than I write, and I write a lot; but, for me (as Richard should have said), the thinking has to come first. Rarely do I sit down without a thought in my head, a feeling weighing on my shoulders, something tight in my chest or a burning sensation in my gut—it’s disastrous to operate that way.
Lately, I’ve been wondering how to get better. I read a lot of Ta-Nehisi Coates, and he’s the guy that who, if I was 14 again, I’d have a poster of on my bedroom wall. He writes with the clarity of a prism that refracts his cultural and life experience into a picture-perfect form. He is a craftsman in the highest sense of the term. I’m currently about one-third of the way through Rant by Chuck Palahniuk, and he unravels stories in a way that makes me unable to even begin to imagine his process. This is how I get better. Read more. I’ve been looking for books on the subject, or listicles online that will unlock the next level of skill for me, but I really think it’s as simple as doing the work, and reading other people’s work. If I can’t chart a course using these maps—I’m a lost cause.
Another thing I’ve noticed about all the books on writing, is that there’s very few by women. Is it the male vanity that makes us think we should tell people about our processes? I only wonder this, because as I’ve started writing this piece, I’ve been going back and forth, creating a list of my own. It turns out my male vanity wants to tell you how I write, and I guess I’ll let it out for now.
Below are the fundamentals of how I do what I do, and what I need to do to feel confident in performing the act. As it’s come out, I feel like all I’ve done is expand that original line, “find your voice,” because very little of this advice is purely about writing. It’s about the things that are nessesary before you begin, as you sit there punching keys or scratching pages, and after you’ve shared your work. The internet is a crazy place, and we’re not beholden to publishers and editors anymore; put your damn work out there. There’s legitimately no reason to hold it back.
1. Think a lot, and make notes.
I was the only boy in a house of girls and women. My step-dad worked a lot, and even when he was home, we didn’t have too much common ground, so I was alone most of the time. I used to think, make up stories and use my imagination to pass the days. It started a trend that I’ve carried forward into adulthood and use as the cornerstone of my writing. One of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever done was buy a splash-proof phone, so I could write notes in the shower. My best thinking gets done in the shower (as I’m sure yours does), and I was tired of losing gold, just because the thought showed up between the shampoo and conditioner.
From 1996 onward, Rosie O’Donnell’s voice has rung through my head almost daily. Her role as Harriet’s nanny, Golly, in Paramount’s Harriet the Spy, and that movie in general, is responsible for a lot of my habits today. I just didn’t know I didn’t want to be a spy back then. Golly’s advice to, “write everything down,” became my golden rule and seeing into the hidden lives of others became an obsession.
I’m not going to sit here and pretend that I’ve always kept journals. I’m not saying if you walked into my house, it’d be like the killer’s apartment at the end of Se7en with wall to wall notebooks filled from cover to cover, but about six years ago I started writing out my thoughts. I have a small collection spread between pocket sized Moleskins and full-sized composition notebooks, probably six or seven books, filled to the brim with thoughts on my relationship, thoughts on people at work, or people I saw around town, or on the bus. There’s story ideas with passwords and pin numbers in the margins; old codes to computers systems I don’t even use anymore and jokes—at least attempts at jokes. I realized that paper had become to me like hair was to Samson.
As long as I have paper with me, I can freely allow my mind to run and not be burdened with the risk of loss. Just remember to write half legibly, if you’re going to take this advice—otherwise you’re just damning yourself to a vivid hell on earth.
2. Listen a lot, and leave your ego at home.
My mother-in-law just taught me a new word, “Hearth.” It’s the thing that juts out of the wall underneath the fireplace, like the mantle, only below it. I can’t believe I didn’t know that, but she instantly had the word at the tip of her tongue when I needed it. After I thanked her for telling me, and finished my story, she told me that she was amazed that she knew a word I didn’t—something that I thought was silly, but I guess that’s the case. When you write as much as I do, and enjoy English as much as I do, I guess you end up with a label of “wordsmith” (which is what she called me).
But, in the face of great compliments like that, I have to tell myself and focus on the fact that everyone on the planet knows words I don’t know. Everyone has a funny term for something that I’ve never thought of. Instead of being the person that “knows it all” and needing to “spread it,” I have to shaddup n’ listen.
This was one of the most important lessons I have ever learned, and I learnt it from a man named John that I worked with for a year or two. He was my father’s age, and would always offer a wonderful word of advice, whether it was for your guitar playing or for the way you conducted yourself—he was one of the best assets a young man could have.
One night, right before close, a man came in who, for all intents and purposes, looked like Gopher from the Hundred Acre Wood was captured and taken to the Island of Dr. Moreau before coming in to buy guitar strings. He spoke with a whistle, a country twang, wore all camouflage and needed to be told which guitar strings to buy. My friend Ben and I were too-friggin-cool-for-school, so when this man walked out, we had smug little giggles and smiles to ourselves, thinking about the simple countrypolk. John snapped us into gear by mentioning that, sure we know guitars, but if we went into that man’s element, he’d make us look like children and fools ourselves.
This is where I bring up the thread from the first point, about the hidden lives of others. Once I began to contextualize people like John taught me to, it began to get easier and easier to see through the class/race/social barriers that can keep people apart. And, again, I have to emphasize that this is only my experience. Everyone is different, and I know this is a basic thing we all need to learn, but it took that moment for me to see how I was doing it wrong before. With one simple lesson from John, my empathy bladder grew three times that day (broke the little x-ray machine and everything). Empathy makes everything possible with humans. If you’re able to look at a person in front of you, and instead of focus on something you’re seeing in the “now,” and you’re able to see where they may have come from, or what world they’re living in, you’ll be able to relate to some part of them on the most fundamental of levels: the human.
Listening brings along the skill to know people, and be able to communicate emotions. If you can’t do this, you’ll have a hell of a time writing. On the other hand, listening gives you a lot to think about.
3. When it’s time to work, don’t think too much.
My friend Julian once described Hunter S. Thomson’s books as “a conversation over drinks,” and that’s always stuck with me as a bar to aspire to. The way I think about it is this: When you’re with people you love, talking about something you love, do you find it hard to speak? Do you search for every single word you’re going to say before you say it? Do you revise as you talk? No, you don’t—and if you do, I’m sorry your friends and family think you’re weird.
When I sit down to write, I imagine that my wife is sitting across from me, being fed the information word by word. My wife is a smart person, but she is not an anomaly. I’ve made the mistake in the past by overexplaining things and operating on the assumption that I’m soooooo much smarter than everyone reading me. That’s such bullshit I can taste it. You’ll never communicate effectively if you’re too busy looking down on the people you’re trying to communicate with. If you didn’t follow my advice about ego, and you brought it to the table (like a dummy), just pretend that you’re writing for a sea of yous.
A few years ago, I worked for a company with two offices, one in Edmonton and one in Atlanta. The man who ran the Atlanta branch was technically my boss, and when we’d speak to each other, he’d use a higher voice and call me “buddy” almost constantly, like he was my father. It grated my nerves onto hot coals and was eventually a huge factor in me leaving the company. No one likes being talked down to, even if you think that you’re trying to just be kind to them. It’s a huge mistake so many people make through life, with children, with the elderly, non-native English speakers, with someone who even remotely appears “slow.” It has no place in life, frankly, but it has no place in writing either.
Once you’ve framed your audience as smart, beautiful people, that can catch curve balls or water balloons of emotion, just talk to them. Don’t worry about dressing up your words, don’t worry about sorting them out—pretend like you’re trying on clothes or glasses. Try everything—throw the spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks. That’s what drafts are for, it’s like the dustpan you pick all the fallen noodles up with. If you just sit down and pretend like you’re talking to someone, like I said, even if it’s yourself, the foundation of communication is there. People become receptive to friendly tones, or they become hooked on a current of emotion they can relate to. Just speak from the heart.
4. Tell the truth.
Anecdotes are used by doctors to help relate symptoms and diagnoses to patients who haven’t gone to medical school. It’s because the truth is the truth, and seemingly unknowable things can be explained away using truths we’ve learned earlier in life. For a writer like me, who sticks around mainly in the “creative non-fiction” genre, or any essayist, anecdotes are as useful to you as they are a doctor—but we get the benefit of metaphor. How do you describe the pain of your estranged father committing suicide without metaphor, simile or allegories? How do you communicate the joy of finding the one person who can make sense of your entire life and tell you unknown things about yourself, without stretching the real around the feel?
This is something I can’t walk you through, but I promise, if you try to find the small connections in life—the bridges between seemingly unconnected things, you’ll be fine. If you can tell the story of why some things remind you of other things, or when you write fiction, use these connections to fuel your allegory, metaphors, or anything else like that, people will never be able to call you insincere. If you can’t find the words, look harder inside of yourself, because, I promise you, they’re in there.
This is what makes shows like This is Us so amazing, it’s full of universal truth. Family is family, good and bad; relationships are difficult sometimes, heaven on earth in others. There are certain things that are known to all humans from birth, these things can’t be taught, yet all of us know by instinct. Tap into these things; your pain, your joy, use the lessons you’ve learned in life to bring real emotions and maybe you can “take the sourest of lemons that life has to offer and make something resembling lemonade,” whether it be for yourself or others.
The lemonade line is from the pilot episode of This is Us and is really, truly one of the best lines I’ve ever heard. But, it got me thinking about writing, and how we, as writers, have been given the tools to harvest the wheat that has grown from the seeds of misfortune. We can thresh the edible portions from the straw and husks that dot our lives and make something better than lemonade—we can make bread.
I say, “we as writers,” but what I really mean is, “we as artists,” because almost nothing I’ve said can’t be applied to different avenues in life. This is the jawbone of the T-Rex I’ve spent years searching for, and only have just begun to uncover. This is the powerful truth buried in the mud—to be a better writer, I must be a better person. To be a better writer, I must become a better man, a better partner. The truth is always in the words, you just have to know what you’re looking for.
5. Write to work out, but become okay with not writing.
Music is entirely defined by the space between the notes and the room created by a groove. The universe was, and will continue to always be the only thing ever created in a vacuum. Your art lives in the world, because you live in the world. There will come a time where you just need to sit down and work at your words, to build skill and to flex your mental muscle into something you can do heavy lifting with, but there are other times when you won’t. The notebooks I talk about filling up, they’re full of crap. Unrecognisable crap—pure unadulterated egoslurry. I spent years pumping out shit stories, shit blog posts and just general chuffa, but it was nessesary. Through the mud of the early years, I found my voice.
A few nights ago, it was about three a.m. and I was sitting on the edge of my bed listening to my wife breathe, kept awake by nerves. I had this line from The Departed going through my head, “Feds are like mushrooms, you feed them shit and keep them in the dark,” and I found it kind of fitting to what we’re talking about today.
The way I think about the first few years, the first few notebooks, is that you're planting mushrooms; spreading the spores of talent that you have to bury in shit to mature. The good news, though, is that you're already in the dark. The lights stay off until you can find find the clarity of your own voice, it's like a flashlight you need to find the lightswitch. Once you turn the lights on, you can really get down on your hands and knees and start to work. You can sort through your shit and find the mushrooms of technique and craft.
The mushrooms of technique and craft, once chopped up and finely seared in butter and cream, will stain the walls of your house with their scent, constantly reminding you of what you need to do. That, combined with the light of your own voice, should be enough the keep your fingers on the keys, your pen on the page, and the ideas flowing like wine (water/cider/beer/coke/yoo-hoo/pick your poison).
When you reach this place, you have to be okay with having nothing. Sometimes your best writing will come after months of not typing anything longer than your email address. Sometimes, like me with this piece, you’ll sit down just to get a little thought down and when you stand up to walk away, you’re left with a behemoth. Writing is a lot like life in the sense that the breakthroughs, twists and turns come when you least expect it. The nice part about art though, is that you can (with enough time and dedication) begin to engineer these breakthroughs, or in the very least, set yourself on the road to find them.
This is the end of my vain little list and the advice you never asked me for. I feel like this was less for you, and more for me, actually. I’m currently training at a new job right now, and I’ve found that if I talk out my processes, they sit with me that much deeper, and that’s what this is. I will never be content where I am, I know that much about myself, and unless I’m hunting for the next level in my God-given skill-set, I really don’t know who I am.
I see a lot of my friends posting pictures of blank notebooks on their Instagram and Facebook pages, I try not to do that. For me, all I find that it accomplishes is the creation a physical record of all the times you’ve started—and that’s great, starting is a big part of it, but why don’t you show off the work you’ve done instead of the work you’re going to do?
My generation has a problem with this—we talk and talk and talk about doing, but we only do half the time. I’ve tried to reign myself in, because, in reality, no one really cares what you’re going to do. You’re only as good as your last piece of writing, your last album, your last movie, your last book. Don’t tell people you’re going to be good, show them that you are good.
That’s a lesson I’ve stolen from my love life and applied to my craft. I’m a bad partner at times. I’ve hurt my wife in many ways, and every time she forgives me, I tell her I’m going to be better. She tells me to show her—because I’ve said it so many times before. That’s what I say to your Instagram feed full of empty notebooks—show us that you’ve done the work, not the promise that you’re going to. The next time you sit down in front of a blank document and you want to pull out your phone for that “motivation post,” keep it to yourself, turn it inward instead of outward, pull the cord and let it rip. Find your zone and covet it, then do the work.
No, that’s an excuse.
Do. The. Work.
Do you think bear hunters post pictures to their Instagram accounts of the bears they’re going to take home with them? No. They respect the bear, they respect their craft, and they view it as an art form; but they attack the bear without question, and with their fear buried deep inside themselves.
Fear the blank page, but respect it—just before you kill it dead.