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Monday, August 20, 2012

The Floating Half Hour of Writing (Lessons of Brande)

Part one about Morning Writing.

As I mentioned before, I haven't had writer's block in fifteen years.

I also haven't had the slightest trouble sitting down to write when ever I want in over a decade.  Morning.  Night.  Middle of the day.  I can sit down and the words are there, waiting for me...like I'm Willard and they're my red-eyed friends.

Sort of....

This is not because I am, in any way, special.  Professor X didn't try to recruit me when he heard I hadn't had writer's block. ("I'm forming a special team, and maybe you can write press releases for them...or something.")  And when me and Peter Petrelli got paired up as Laser Tag teammates in the tri-county championship bout, he didn't walk away saying to his brother, "Nathan, it's amazing!  I just don't get writer's block anymore!"

I'm just a normal dude.  I learned to overcome writer's block.  You can too.  Not because I am yet another white, heterosexual, male from middle class America telling you that anyone can actualize their visualizations if they just prioritize their positivization or some shit.  But just because creativity is a muscle and I know how to do "push ups."

I owe it all to Dorothea Brande, my number one posthumous peep--homey among homeys--who has written the single most useful book about writing that anyone could ever own: Becoming a Writer.  I don't know a simpler way to put this: if you are serious about being a writer, read this book.

Read it a lot.

Today, I can sit down to a computer at any time of day and write quickly and fluidly for hours.  Sometimes my brain doesn't cooperate about WHAT I'm writing and my gothic punk emofest characters end up having a food fight with the mashed potatoes and deciding to go to Disneyland for a funnel cake instead of cutting themselves, but at least I'm writing.

I also definitely have times where I write longer, better, and more creatively than others.  But Becoming a Writer can help you bridge the gap between staring at a blank screen for four hours and at least writing something--even if it's not going to procure you any accolades or conclude in the acquisition of "hella scrill."

The basic premise of this book, in modern parlance would be best summarized as "Stop being your muse's butt-boy."  And if they ever ask me to write the jacket for the next edition, that's exactly what I'm going to say.

"Do you go for weeks at a time without writing because you just aren't 'feeling it'?  Have you written one good story, and can't seem to think of anything else?  Have you written nine manuscripts in two years, but they're all basically the same book over and over again?  Did you take a $30,000 dollar MFA because you can't make yourself write unless some professor tells you it's due next monday?  Sound's like you're your muse's butt-boy.  Buy this book and learn to turn the tables so that instead you become like the wonder twins--except, like, with powers that don't suck.  Creativity is a muscle.  This is your workout routine!"

So the first step of Brande's boot camp for becoming a writer is the incorporation of morning writing.  Until you do that, your muse is just going to stand over you in bondage gear, holding a riding crop and shaking its head that you are not worthy of its pleasures.  Once you start doing morning writing, you won't switch places in the power dynamic, but you will become more equal--you might link arms and together go jump the hilly brush.

Once a writer puts the morning writing into practice, they will find their creativity gushing as soon as they wake up.  It'll be addictive. They'll wake up jonesing for it. They'll get cranky and irritable if they can't have it.  They'll start making up excuses to people around them, and hiding it with increasingly transparent lies.

"Me?  No...I'm not going to go write whatever comes to mind no matter how absurd or banal.  Don't be ridiculous.  Tabula Rasa?  What's that...some kind of tower defense game?  I want to check e-mail.  And Facebook.  And maybe play some Starcraft and...uh Minesweeper.  And look at porn.  Oh man...I'm totally going to look at porn. Just me and some crazy Asian cheerleader FMF porn! I'm not in any way going to just go write whatever comes into my head for the next thirty minutes to an hour.  I mean...who the hell does that, right?  Okaygottagobye!"

This is great.  You can feel the creativity flowing within you.  But it's not enough to feel it.  Control!  Control! You must learn control!  Learn to write when want to you do, you must.  (This is why Yoda doesn't use a lot of dependent clauses.)

Seriously Chris?  Obi Wan in the last article.  Now Yoda.
You do know writing isn't ACTUALLY The Force, right?

The next step is to control when it happens.  This will give you the power to call on your muse when you want it.  We can't always control when we write, and "it's not the right time" is an excuse.  You can crutch on morning writing if you don't move on.  Trust me!  (No seriously....TRUST ME.)  The voice of experience speaks to you now. Because even the best of us have dental appointments or loved ones on busses hijacked by penguins.

It takes 3 grown men to control how fucking creative I am!
Cause here's the thing about morning writing.  It's a gushing flow, but it's not under your control.  All you are is the conduit for whatever comes spewing out.  Your fingers are just acting as the medium for all the flotsam in your addled morning brain.   It's like a firehose spraying everywhere. You're still your muse's butt-boy, just in a different way.  This is like the dog waking you up to go for a walk.  If you've ever done an exercise routine at the same time everyday, you know what happens...you start to crave it at that time an feel lazy during others, and every fitness expert tells you to mix it up when that happens.  Creativity is a muscle too.  Time to mix it up.

The next step is to get control of the faucet.  Or...to teach the dog to go when you walk them.  Or to teach the muscle to work when and how you want it to.  Or...whatever metaphor you prefer to describe having the words come to you naturally the minute you sit down...on YOUR schedule.  Also, you need some level of control over what you write about.  Being able to conjure forth words is awesome.  But that ability has limited use when you blaze blindly within your soul only to write a "Fuck You" letter to all the Republicans who were mean to you on Facebook yesterday because you decided to "share" that Moveon.org meme.  That's not so useful.

So here's what you do.  You start to write for a half an hour every day, but you do it at random times during the day.

First of all, you stop doing your morning writing.  Just go ahead and scratch your track marks for now, and let people think what they'll think.  It might be easiest for you if you scheduled your first few floating half hour times for fairly early in the day.

Clear your schedule ahead of time.  Make sure you'll be home and with access to your writing tools (whether you normally use longhand or a computer does not matter).  Make sure nothing is going to interrupt you.  Take some care with this because you will actually TRY to find times that won't actually work so that you can sabotage yourself.

Brande calls this half an hour of writing a "debt of honor."  That's because she wrote Becoming A Writer about a hundred years ago.  Today what we will call this is ONE OF THE HARDEST THINGS YOU WILL EVER FUCKING DO; I'M SO NOT KIDDING.

You will want to move that half hour SO bad.  If you decided on 12-12:30 for a given day, you will think there's no reason not to do it from 12:15-12:45, or worse that you can just do it that night.  You will find yourself finding a million things that come up and feel urgent RIGHT before your half hour comes due.  You will find so many good, legitimate, wonderful reasons to not write at the allotted time.

In time you will call me.....master.
You can't fuck around with this.  This is your brain trying not to work.  This is what happens when creativity starts to feel like effort.  This is why you can find a half a million web pages with people saying they don't want to write every day because then it starts to seem like an obligation or a job.  (But let me tell you a little something about those obligation yahoos.  Writing once a week for hours and hours at a stretch is an obligation.  Writing every day...that's a habit.  And habits don't burn people's flesh like holy water to a vampire the way that these "Don't make it a CHORE!" types act like it burns them.) Your muse is struggling like a stallion being broken and it has no trouble commandeering your brain's ability for rationalization to help it worm out of this task.  Your excuses will be spectacular--they will impress even you.

Stay true!  Don't let anything deter you.  Ignore even a ringing phone unless you're expecting an important call.  (Though, why did you pick a time you were expecting a call to schedule your half hour, hmmmmmmm?)  Unless blood is fountaining out of your femoral artery or your kid is missing a limb (that was there earlier in the day), you sit down when you said you would, and you write for thirty minutes no matter how much it hurts. Your muse will kick. It will scream. It will act like you're trying to put it to bed at seven while there is a Disney cartoon special on NBC.

Be strong.

Kiddies, this step is so serious that Brande actually says to give up if you consistently can't make yourself do this half an hour.  Your desire to write is not able to overcome your brain's games and your inherent desire not to write.  Now I don't know if Brande gets to say that with any authority, but it's worth considering.  If you can't even sit down and write during the half hour you picked the day before, maybe she's got a point that you don't really want to be a writer.

The next day, you pick a different half hour.  Your brain starts its struggle all over again.

Move it all around.  Obviously you can't do your half-hour while you're at work or asleep, but you could do it during those times on your day off.  Do it early, late, midday.  Do it when your favorite show is on.  Later on, you can do it when you know you'll be tempted by distraction, just to show off how l33t you are.  But no matter what, sit down and write for a half an hour.

Do this for a month or two.

You'll know when you're done.  Might take three weeks.  Might take four months.  For most it's a month or two.  But you'll know.  Because suddenly...there won't be a fight about that time.  Your muse won't struggle.  It'll join you in knocking out some writing.  You'll cut through your own bullshit like Bruce Willis with your katana of righteous discipline, sit down when you're supposed to without any excuses or attempts to postpone, and find words come easily and smoothly.  Short of some asshole with four mechanical arms tossing a car at your head, nothing will break your concentration.

Now...you and your muse aren't struggling against each other ever time you sit down.  Now, when you say: "Muse Powers Activate!" your muse says: "SHO-NUFF!"

Now you and your muse are equals instead of your muse saying each time you try to work: "Bitch please, you're sullying the pleasure of my art.  Go get me a spiced pumpkin caramel macchiato.  Skim milk.  Two pumps.  Light steam.  And don't forget the cup holder you prat.  I nearly burned my pinkie last time."

These two exercises--morning writing and the floating half--will clear away 95% of what most people call writer's block.  You will write fluidly, whenever you want to.  And if you do your level best to write at the same time every day, you should find that your creativity is there waiting for you and you can easily think of WHAT to write, eliminating the last 5%.

If you find yourself having trouble down the line, returning to these foundational exercises for a week or two will usually get you writing again.  Your muse is like the fox in little prince; part of it wants to be tamed.  You may slip, but it is not because your muse hears the call of the wild.  It's usually because you haven't been exercising regularly like you should.   I have at times discovered I'm starting to slump into difficulty, and gone back to morning writing and the floating half.  Within a week or two, I'm back to being able to write when I want to.

I don't want to do the creative equivalent of The Gun Show here, but I have no trouble writing.  I sputter when I'm starting, and then things take off, but I never sit down and stare at the screen, and I never peter out after two hours.  The things that make me stop writing are usually hurting knuckles or eye strain.  But look, I'm not trying to tell you how awesome I am.  I've stared at my share of blank paper, and I couldn't always write anytime I wanted to. I'm not some freak like Marilynne Robinson with her "benevolent insomnia." (Seriously, if I meet her I'm going to go Sylar on her ass to get that ability.)

Wait.  THAT is Marilynne Robinson????
She looks all nice and stuff.  I can't go Sylar on HER.
Maybe I'll just ask if she  does any breathing exercises or something.

The only reason I haven't had writer's block or trouble writing when I sit down to do so is because I have followed Brande's exercises.  I am made up of the same spiral chords of DNA that anyone else is.

They work.  I promise.  Or if they don't, maybe you've figured out something important.  But this isn't just a case of "They Work For Me."  I don't know a writer worth their salt who doesn't echo many of the ideas over and over again.  If you line up all the authors with multiple credits to their name and a successful life of writing and all the authors with no credits, long periods of writer's block, and perhaps a single book they can't seem to reproduce, you will notice that one of the most consistent things that differentiates them is how they view the importance of writing daily and getting control of their creative flow.  All Brande has done is codify those observations into articulated insight and give us exercises that work to exercise that creative muscle, so that it's performing when we want it to, and not knocking us around with some muse version of restless leg syndrome.

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  1. I'm very happy to see someone else evangelising about Brande's book. I, too, cannot recommend it highly enough. Essential reading.

    I bought a beaten up 2nd-hand copy from Amazon a couple of years ago for £2 and loved it. I loved how she shot down in flames the 'born with it' and 'can't teach creativity' arguments in her opening salvo. I loved her almost prim efficiency; no coddling or ego-stroking. The precise no-nonsense approach she takes throughout the book was like fresh air after a day in a stuffy office.

    As you said, a tad dated at times (she suggests writing at work later in the afternoon when things quieten down), but none of that detracts from the message and the advice. I immediately ordered another three copies and handed them out to friends who aren't even writers, saying "Read this. Change 'writer' for some other type of creative expression, then just read it."

    1. Yeah, I suspect it would be *almost* as useful for any kind of artist.

  2. While I don't do "morning pages" because, you know, I have a lot of things to do involving grooming and pets and sometimes kids in the morning, none of which will wait while I spend an hour writing "sleep is beautiful," I do schedule and do something close to the floating half hour. When I am stuck on a book, I often go for a walk to think about it or review research material until I know What Happens Next. I can see both of these as useful to prime the pump. I also write formal poetry. Makes one think. Also primes the pump.

  3. Thank you for the recommendation. I now have the book, starting to read it :-).

  4. This begins to sound like Paul's letters to the whomevers. The advice always melts down to a couple of essentials: Keep at it and don't judge yourself harshly. I like your blog and read it often. Delicious!

  5. Awesome. This is the first post of yours I've read. I'm laughing loud here all alone at 3 a.m. at my 3rd shift job (which I do so I can make daytime colleges classes I take so I can have professors command me to write). Thanks for the book recommendation and echoing of all these things I've been discovering over the past year. Yeah, fuck the muse.