what i do how i do whatchutalkinbout willis

20 Feb

I’ve read so much advice from writers on how to write, what to write, when to write…over the last 35 years that I’ve been seriously reading. I’m often asked, mostly by new writer friends, if there is any advice I can offer on the discipline. I cannot, really. Because what works for me one day, may not work for me the next. So I don’t know if I’m one to set things down in stone and then gloat about my professorial declarations. It’s really the reason I don’t teach. I cannot. Some can. A big handful of my friends who visit this site are educators. They teach. Day in and day out. They can do that. I cannot. I just write.

What has worked for me consistently, however, has been urgency. Or the vise-like feeling of it. Over the last twelve years I haven’t had much time to devote to writing, but I’ve jammed it in wherever and whenever I could. I recall writing on a DC Metro train coming in for my 3 pm-11pm shift with a horrendous migraine, in the middle of winter. The train broke down and stopped at a station above ground, keeping its doors open for close to 20 minutes in 5-degree F, windy conditions. I banged out one of the clearest, most lucid pieces I’ve ever written. It was short. And it got published; not that that necessarily means anything.

I remember writing in between the shows I was working on for CNBC/MSNBC in the mid 90s, in the public washroom, in the last stall, door closed, awful smells emanating from fellow slackers, hackers, pissers, shitters…and THOSE pieces were good and true.

I think Hemingway once said about learning how to write well: LIVE. True that. I think discipline helps. Not necessarily in the sense that you may think. Thomas Mann used to put on a crisp, white dress shirt every morning just before he sat down at the typer. He was clean shaven, fresh, lucid. He was consistent. He wrote every morning. He also enjoyed diddling little boys from time to time. Discipline is an elastic word. I have been turning and churning this bloody novel of mine for over six years in my head. I think about it every day. I don’t write on it every day, but the bloody thing haunts me. It follows me and seeps into everything I do or think. There isn’t one day I don’t think about this animal. I think that’s a kind of discipline. It’s not Thomas Mann, but it’s just as effective.

I love brevity in writing. It’s the times in which I live. Hemingway started it in 1920. We are now almost one hundred years removed…I don’t want to read long, Dickensian or Joyce-like discourse (although Joyce was known for pulling back the reins when he needed to); I want short, sharp stuff. I want to get in and out in no more than seventy-five thousand words (for a novel); one hundred and fifty pages at most. Brevity is the new old drug for writers.

Know when you’re bad and take appropriate action. I don’t know how to properly describe this one. Know yourself. Be brutally honest with yourself. If you stink, go to work at The Machine; there’s no valor in that, true, but there’s salvation. Somehow. In some way. And this, coming from a devout atheist. It’s quite all right that you are not a writer. There are plenty of them floating around the block. The world could use to redact quite a few of us, in truth.

Finally, this is what I go by in my writing: have the guts to destroy your stuff that reeks of mediocrity; eviscerate the shit out of it–literally. Split open its intestines and scoop out the nastiness. Write with big balls, write short, and write words that cut the rotting flesh. Not the reader’s, YOURS.

And know the way to the nearest emergency room; you’ll be sure to lose a lot of blood.

Alex

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5 Responses to “what i do how i do whatchutalkinbout willis”

  1. vibes01 20/02/2010 at 4:37 PM #

    Discipline is an elastic word…..such a truism……

    but how do you know when you are being too harsh with yourself, or not harsh enough….because we are always our own worst critic, right?

  2. Slyboots 21/02/2010 at 12:17 AM #

    See this is one of the things I value about you. You are uncompromising in your standards. That has true value. I have a totally different writing process, but think that yours applies more to my re-write and editorial methodology than my actual getting crap out of my head and onto the page efforts. I’ve been reading you now for what…4 years? 5? It’s been a while. And I always know that what I see is basically your best effort. No crap. No dithering. Total commitment. I value that. Tip of the hat to you, sir!

  3. (S)wine 21/02/2010 at 7:22 AM #

    @Sly…I think 5 yrs now. And you keep coming back. I appreciate that more than you can ever know.

  4. (S)wine 21/02/2010 at 9:39 AM #

    @Vibes, you simply must, that’s how. It’s hard to describe for me how or when, but it must come. There are also degrees of dynamics, I think. For example, I am much more diligent and strict about what gets written as I work on my book than what I put on here (which is short, urgent, almost never edited–once and out); but on the other hand I HOPE that what ends up on here is still good or solid–and I think it is. I’m not sure this explains anything…and that may be all right.

  5. vibes01 21/02/2010 at 11:39 AM #

    i understand what you saying…..para mis, people i know always tell me that im far too harsh on myself…i raise my bar too high which puts me in knots……now, i know i cant operate unless i place challenges on myself but i also know that i can get quite sick when i strive where no man has gone before….

    the blog i have is an outlet for me, as i made it clear to myself that automatic writing is the way forward – it helps lessen the perfectionism….and i really enjoy what comes out after ten minutes writing…….

    so maybe there are pros and cons to what you say? (if taken as a general statement and not particular to yourself, i mean)

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