A Guide to Writing
I started playing golf a couple of years ago, and found that I loved it. I love getting all Zen with the process, holding my stance, addressing the ball, letting everything else in the world fall away except my focus on that girlie pink golf ball at the end of my six iron. There is a simplicity to the sport, an elegance. Never mind it was invented by the same people who invented the caber toss, or that it was first created as a diversion during the great plague, hitting balls from one great mound of dead people to another. Seriously? Yes. But there you are: those Scots are a resourceful bunch, and I mean that in the most respectful way . Golf: walk in a park, strike a ball, walk some more. Golf has to be one of the more refined sports in the world. Unless you count water ballet.
Whether you’re talking about water ballet, golf, or writing; sport or art, there is one consistent truth: practice. Terra ballet or aqua ballet requires a laser focus on practicing the fundamentals so that in performance, the movements flow. I went to the golf course the other day for the first time in about two years (short romance; long story) and decided to hit some balls at the driving range. When I learned to golf, I got over the stand-in-one-place-and-hit-the-balls quickly. I wanted to play. But after a hiatus, it seemed wise to hit a bucket of balls, get used to the weight of the club, the swing of the hips, the tock of the ball when you hit it just right. Or contrarily, the wild flailing that occurs when you fail to focus, jerk your head up in time with your spastic swing, and miss the ball entirely (hoping no one else has noticed the putz with the bad swing trying to look like she meant to miss the ball). Practice, baby!
I mentioned the Bear Street Writers group and part of our weekly ritual before, but would like to delve into it with more detail now. What made our practice effective was that we adopted certain rules, and fooled them to the letter. We wrote each week at the same bat time, same bat channel. We never deviated from the prime directive: write, read, NO COMMENT. The no comment part was essential, I think, to helping build trust among us, that no matter how weak our similes, how badly mangled our metaphors, how hackneyed our prose, no one was allowed to comment. Though really, we were more likely to burst into spontaneous applause at some incredibly clever turn of phrase than one or more of us had plucked from the air like filaments of spider web, than to boo and hiss.
The process is ridiculously simple. Here it is in six easy steps:
- Assemble your group of writers in a place where you will not be disturbed during the writing or the reading process. Have extra supplies handy: pens, pencils, plenty of paper so you won’t be forced to beg off your compatriots. If you are meeting in a café, do the polite thing and buy a tea or coffee or pastry and support your local business owner.
- Once gathered, have everyone write a word or phrase on a slip of paper. Fold the paper into a tidy package and drop it into a hat or cup or ashtray or whatever.
- Over the agreed period, select one slip of paper from the stash, and write for a subscribed amount of time. For instance, begin with fine minutes. On the next round write for ten minutes. Hitting the zenith, write for fifteen minutes, and then begin the countdown. The next drill is ten minutes, and at last, wrap your session with a five minute free-write.
- You can use a stop watch or egg time, or alternate watcher of the watch. But you must keep time. You can’t know how important it is to have one person keeping track of time – so everyone else is free to write.
- After each round, read your work aloud. Do not use funny voices, do not use accents, to not alternate volume and tempo for emphasis. The writing, the words, grammar, syntax, sentence structure must stand (or fall) on their own.
- Under no circumstances under the moon and stars are you permitted to a) apologize or warn about your writing, or b) comment on someone else’s work. If you feel badly enough about your writing, skip your turn to read but understand that if you do this too often, you will be dis-invited from the group because it is a shared responsibility to stand nakedly before your community and read what you’ve created. It doesn’t matter if you don’t feel worthy or good enough or saturated with talent, you signed up for this shindig, and now must exercise the real courage it takes to write and be public. Everyone else is shedding pretense and defense and about a million insecurities to participate in this process, so just screw up your best brave face and read. It won’t be nearly as bad as you think it will be. No giant, gaping maw will open and swallow you into the catacombs. No comets will burn out of the sky and drop on your head. All you do is write. And read. And you survive.
But you didn’t “just write.” You wrote. In a public place. With other sentient beings and then demonstrated the audacity to read those thoughts aloud, risking judgment, ridicule, persecution, love. And you were loved. How cool is that? The scary part is never what you think it is. And after you get this process down, you will know what it feels like to win the word lotto. The words will just come gushing out of you like the mother of all literary rivers. And you will know what it means to have written.