The rewards of a daily writing practice. A yogi grapples with the challenge of writing about the "truth"
|Jul 10||Public post|| 1|
Hey all you hot summer bbs,
I’ve been away for a bit, but for good reason: I’ve been writing like a damn maniac!
I did the second annual session of novelist Jami Attenberg’s awesome #1000wordsofsummer—a challenge to write 1000 words a day for two weeks—and I’m pleased to report that after only three weeks, I have 21,000 words of a new book. (Yes, you read that right, I kept going after 2 weeks, and I’m making 1000 words part of my daily routine.)
That doesn’t even include my ghostwriting or book development work—if I factored those in, I’d be more in the ballpark of 35,000 words.
IN THREE WEEKS.
That is, length-wise, half an average-sized manuscript! And it didn’t even take up that much of my time—often, the time I spent on my own book was limited to an hour at night or one in the morning. That was all I usually needed to get 1000 rough words onto the page and out of my head. I missed the 1000-word target a few times, but tried to get at least a sentence or two of my book down to stay connected to the story and the characters, and then I just made up for it on the weekends. Sometimes I even missed a day, and I didn’t beat myself up about it—I just found a way to catch up.
I want to talk about the two powerful realizations a daily writing practice gave me:
1. It broke me out of my debilitating habit of “editing along the way.”
I’m a stylist and some days it feels as if making words pretty is all my brain can do—but I realize now that my habit of editing along the way is why I’ve lost steam on many, many projects over the years. If I push past that desire to futz with a sentence and sit with the discomfort of “What happens next?” I usually find myself with an answer.
So overediting too early on is a habit I am officially kicking in the butt. Goodbye, perfectionism (at least until the editing process).
Hello, shitty rough drafts!
2. It helped me remember the kind of writer I am.
Whenever people ask me what I write, I say, “Fiction, mainly” and then I wait for the inevitable next question which is so much harder to answer.
“What KIND of fiction?”
At that point, I send a prayer to the universe to transform me into an eel so I can slither away, back to the sea. When that doesn’t happen, I am forced to say,
“Uh…regular fiction, I guess?”
That’s an incredibly dumb answer that puts genre writing unfairly on the outskirts, but it’s a lot easier than to explain what I really do which is:
“Fiction about life in a capitalist country in 2019. Fiction that’s funny but heartfelt. Fiction about memory and love and obsession and addiction. Fiction that hints at a decade spent doing alternative comedy and two decades spent doing yoga. Fiction with a fair bit of pop culture references but not so many that you’d be lost if you spent the last five years in a cave. Fiction written by a queer heathen who was raised in a strict Roman Catholic household. Fiction that falls somewhere between the false binary of “commercial” and “literary.” Fiction written by someone who loves soap operas and campy horror and who will always feel like an outsider in the publishing industry despite having worked in it for 20 years.”
People doing small talk at, like, Home Depot do not want to hear that, so “Uh, regular fiction, I guess” it is.
But the question has been even harder to answer as of late because fiction is not all I write.
As some of you know, I spent the last three years writing a memoir. I love the memoir. It’s deeply personal, unapologetically cerebral, and meticulously crafted. It was improved tremendously by my agent who is a skilled editor and book developer. While we stepped back from the sales process after rejections from the big houses, I stand by that memoir’s creation because it forced me to stretch as a writer, and it was an important step in healing from some gnarly trauma. I know that at least some of that book will see the light of day in some form, even if now is not the time.
But I came up against some MAJOR problems as I was writing it, and I want to share those challenges in the hopes that they might help other artists understand the particular difficulty of making art about stuff that really happened and people who really exist:
· My story changed in the middle of writing it. I got new information about people I was writing about that profoundly changed my understanding of the story I was telling. There was no way to include that information while still protecting the privacy of those I was writing about, but leaving it out effectively killed my ability to get to the truth of what really happened.
· I changed as I was writing it. I received a new diagnosis, I began new kinds of therapy and healing work, and I made important changes that brought me closer to the person—and the writer—that I am.
· Even if there had been no new info halfway into the process, my ability to craft compelling scenes and a cohesive story would still have been hampered by my desire to protect the privacy of the people I was writing about. Even the people who treated me poorly. Especially the people who treated me poorly. Because while what they did was harmful and abusive, it wasn’t illegal, and I didn’t feel it was my job to throw them before the court of public opinion just because they’d behaved like shit.
Because I refused to call the behavior I experienced what is was—ABUSE—because I refused to share the most damning details, I wrote a story where I took the blame for everything, for all of it, just as I’d been doing my whole life, just like the good little Catholic girl I was raised to be.
For THREE YEARS I agonized on how to tell a story about abuse without bringing my abusers any harm. It was an agonizing, intense process of editing and deletion—and ultimately it left me with a book that editors felt was “beautifully written” but “fragmented,” “episodic,” and “distant.”
I am not a withholding writer so learning that the memoir form had turned me into one was something of a shock. Even though I had obscured details about others, I had been unflinching when it came to examining my own behavior and motivations. Wasn’t that enough for people?
It was not.
So I took #1000wordsofsummer as an opportunity to challenge myself to tell the story in a different way.
What if I used the novel form so I could chop-and-screw the harmful behaviors of people in my life with other behaviors so that I was no longer writing my own story of emotional abuse and codependency, but rather A STORY about emotional abuse and codependency—one informed by my own experience, one that does not shy away from calling abuse what it is, but one that will also not create any more harm to people who were just human beings trying their best?
FAILING MISERABLY, I will add, but TRYING.
My goal when I set out to write this book was twofold: to help readers heal from their own trauma, and to tell a story that would bring no more harm into the world.
But what if memoir isn’t the way to do that at all?
What if fiction IS?
I have spent the last ten years asking myself questions like, “Am I really a novelist? Is that really what I do best? And what kind of novelist am I? I seem to be a moralist, someone who writes satire with heart. But is that enough? Is that the entirety of who I am? And what about my 20 years as a yogi, a meditator, a practitioner of many occult and esoteric practices—I know my deep study of wisdom traditions is VALUABLE, but I have no interest in running an Instagram account that advertises yoga leggings and crystals. Is there a way for me to tell stories about spiritual transformation using the novel as my form?”
Some people would have reread their biting, funny, and heartfelt first novel and said, “Um, DUH.”
But I’m not that person—I seem to learn best from lived experience. And so I spent the last ten years trying my hands at a number of different artistic forms before coming home.
I am so glad to be home.
I am so glad to remember that fiction gives some of us access to truths than non-fiction does not.
For the summer, the newsletter is going monthly, so see ya in August! Who knows, I might even have an UGLY first draft of a book by then. It’s my hope that you have 30,000 words of your own. Or whatever that means to you: 30 new characters. 10 new sketches. A tight five, a pilot, a new song, or video…
While Jami’s official #1000wordsofsummer challenge has ended, I HIGHLY recommend checking out the archives of her newsletter, which lives online. And while you’re at it, preorder her next book, All this Could Be Yours. I’m reading The Middlesteins now and, damn, Jami is GOOD.
And the spirit of the challenge continues, as writer and producer Ian Goldstein has started his own #1000wordscontinued project and newsletter you can sign up for. One of the most powerful things about Jami’s project is the sense of community it created. Writing can be so isolating, but I promise you that all over the world artists are sitting down and doing their work. Knowing that makes me feel a little less alone…