Participating in the Connecticut affiliate of the National Writing Project, where I am a teacher fellow, has required that I produce more original, first-draft writing in four weeks than I ever did in a whole semester of my M.F.A.
That means that I have to do what it often so hard to do: produce text, not just talk about it. Sit down and reflect on it for one to two hours, daily, with people. Show off the glory of what Anne Lamott calls those shitty first drafts. Lose any sense of writerly posturing. Show something half-finished. Think about how my students must feel when they come in exhausted from their nine million activities and show me the draft they managed to squeak out somehow–the one that reflects some, but not all, of their best efforts.
But really, what I have to do is sit down and write. And to do that, I have to confront the voices. The same ones that giveth taketh away. Or: the same ones that create projections of characters onto the bluescreen in my mind interrupt, pause, and paralyze.
During a reflective moment in the program, we had to sit and jot down–to be as honest as possible–and this is what I wrote, in the heat of the moment:
The voices say: I see what you’re getting at, but it’s not quite clear. You need to amp it up a bit. What’s at stake? How can you write a story about something you don’t know? Who are you speaking for, and what is the impact of your words? Why are you writing this? Could you live without writing this? Because if you could, you probably should. No need to add to the clutter of bad writing. Is the toilet clean? Wouldn’t sticking your hand down a toilet right now seem more productive and pleasant? At least you’d be accomplishing something you could see. Have you gone running today? You should probably do that; you’re going to gain weight if all you do is sit around and write all day, and then how would your book jacket author photo look? But wait, you’d have to write to get to that book jacket. Why aren’t you writing? Try just a few sentences. OK, you did it, congratulations—you’re the worst. Delete. Backspace. Start again.
Somehow, with strict deadlines, I manage to shut those voices up long enough to get a word in edgewise. I’m grateful I wrote a weekly column that I knew would be read by a wide audience in a dozen New England papers for nine years. It forced me to write weekly whether I wanted to or not. Some weeks, the ideas came early and with great wit; other weeks, I had to stare down the screen with 30 minutes left before deadline. Yet somehow, 800 words jumped onto the page. 50 weeks a year. For nine years.
Am I proud of all I wrote? No way. I do think it would’ve been a better investment to have stuck my hand down the toilet some weeks. But at least I wrote, I reason, as I look back at some of those columns and cringe.
Fellow writers, what are the voices telling you?