Ernest Hemingway is often misquoted as having said “write drunk, edit sober.” However, as he took his craft very seriously, he would have dismissed this practice as an affront to his process. If he did take up pen while inebriated, it was usually for the purpose of letter writing. He composed his stories in the mornings, standing up with his typewriter on top of a chest of drawers, ready to start where he’d left off the previous day. His advice was to stop writing while you still knew where the story was heading so you had somewhere to begin the next day.
I am not a get up early in the morning and write kind of writer. I am not a set aside a specific amount of hours each day and write kind of writer. I am not a ten pages or ten-thousand words a day kind of writer. I am a daydreaming, journaling, walking, reading, listening to music, musing kind of writer.
I wish I could describe a day in my writing life as an overall positive experience; however, I can’t even truly describe it as a day. A day in my writing life can actually take several days or even weeks to feel like a day’s worth of writing. An essential, yet so often missing part, is inspiration. Sometimes, when I’m lucky, inspiration will come in, conveniently timed bursts that allow me to sit and work on an idea for an hour or two, maybe even a few, to get down everything I’m thinking and turn out something halfway decent and worthy of revision. More often than not I’ll find inspiration when I’m in class, at work, commuting, or otherwise incapable of doing much more than jotting down a few words or a sentence on my phone or in a notebook, convinced that later I’ll remember my thought process and intentions. This typically results in my squinting suspiciously at the words of my own creation several hours later, trying to place myself back in the moment or the mindset it seems like I need to be able to really write.
“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” If a writer writes, but no one ever reads it, is she still a writer? Does getting published make you a real writer? Perhaps validation is as simple as another author, friend, or someone you respect telling you, “Hey, this is good.” But what if I never find an audience, what if I write and paint and make films and no one ever appreciates any of it? Failure, I guess. But even in that worst-case scenario it’s not necessarily discrediting. Emily Dickinson was never published or recognized in her lifetime. No one even knew Vivian Maier was a photographer until her negatives were bought at an auction.
I suppose my definition of a writer is someone who cares enough to pen her own experiences, or tries to tell a new story, in order to address a universal issue or emotion. Someone who feels the need to use words on a page to explore herself, the world around her, and her characters’ place in that world.
Write every day. I kept getting this advice from teachers and those wonderful interviews in glossies about process. You just have to train your muscles to write every day, they tell us. I started obsessing over everyone’s writing rituals and daily schedules. “Tell me more, glossies,” I demand, flipping through those smooth, white pages. I needed more.
Some writers allege that they write eight hours every day. I gave those postulations a twisted face. Stephen King writes fours hours every day. I found this out during someone’s class presentation. I instantly turned to another student, and said, “If I could write one hour a day, I’d be doing it big.” We laughed, but that night, I went home, and thought what if I could write one hour every day? A challenge was born. One hour produced six new pages. Then one hour turned into two hours, then I settled into three-hour writing sessions. I got through a draft of my novel, then it was time to revise it. Producing new pages and revising old ones are two very different things: one is full of wonder and mystery and fuck-ups, while the other is tedious, nitpicky and ruthless. Three hours of one was not three hours of the other. Suddenly, I regressed back to one hour of writing, then no hours.
Theoretically, I have always viewed naming as fun, an honor. You get to help define a person, place or thing by providing the word that will distinguish that being or object from all others. You get to put your creativity on display.
In reality, I find naming stressful—starting with my own name. No, I didn’t name myself, but I have carried my first name (which elicits a question or a comment almost every time I am introduced) and shaped it by adding or dropping nicknames, returning to my first formal name in my twenties, and adding last names along with marriages. When I am asked for my name at a restaurant, I often give my more ubiquitous middle name, “Mary,” thereby avoiding the requests for spelling or the comments about garnets. Of course, I usually forget to follow the hostess when she calls out that my table is ready. Who is Mary, I wonder, looking around at the others in line?
In structuring my art, I am always faced with the dilemma: should my words try to organize my thoughts, or should my words be sculpted into new forms, new poetics of the page, including images and video clips that would mimic the many digressions that exist in my mind? Should my paragraphs even look like paragraphs? Or couldn’t I embed video clips or photos in my essays?
These questions about form occurred again to me recently—on a day when I was writing about my experience with breast cancer. I realized that my day of researching new immunotherapies at Mayo and Cleveland Clinics had been interrupted by a few hours of watching television. There was an Esther Williams marathon on the TCM channel. I became entranced by the synchronized swimming schematics and the elaborate planning it must have taken to get one hundred women in a tank with Esther Williams who rose above them, somehow, on a rope, that winched her up to her diving platform. From this diving platform, she dove back into the circle of women—with her mermaid crown still on. Amazing. I abandoned cancer research for the day and began to Google everything I could about Esther Williams. I found she had broken her neck filming this scene. The mermaid crown was too heavy and had snapped her head back when she entered the water. But in that grand Hollywood tradition she had managed to continue swimming while the film ran. I decided that when I wrote about my experiences with cancer, it would have to include my day with Esther Williams. At first she was merely an escape. But as it turned out, she was a role model for crazy-style persistence.