Bookend!

‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘‘ ‘‘ ” ” ” ‘Years ago, in a UCLA Extension Writers’ Program Workshop, I learned a technique called “bookending.” It’s a simple practice designed to keep one writing. The idea is to call someone, preferably a writing buddy, and to tell him or her that you’re going to write. Give as much information as you feel is necessary: how long you plan to write, what you plan to write about, where you plan to write, etc. Then, go write.

When you’ve finished writing, call your writing buddy again to tell him or her that you’ve written. Again, you can provide whatever detail seems appropriate or none at all. It’s okay to leave a voice mail message with the same information. You don’t actually have to talk to a real person. The act of stating to another person or to his or her answering machine that you’re going to write is what’s import. Telling someone makes it real, makes it a commitment.

‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘‘ ‘‘ ” ” ” ‘Today, you don’t have to leave a voice mail. You could send an email or text message. You can even post a “tweet” on ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘Twitter. Or, post an update on ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘Facebook, ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘MySpace, ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘YouTube, whatever. Just to do it.

I’ve discovered that blogging accomplishes the same purpose—for me, at least. Having a progress meter showing that I am writing is an incentive. It doesn’t matter if anyone else in the world sees it or pays attention to it. What’s important is that I know it’s there.

Bookends. They’re not just book props.

“Shitty First Drafts” and the Three Ps

‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘‘ ‘‘ ” ” ” ‘Anne Lamott’s advice about a “shitty first draft” is the most liberating advice I’ve gotten about writing. But, internalizing that advice by giving myself permission to write a shitty first draft is not so easy. When I went back to Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, to re-read the chapter on shitty first drafts, I was surprised to discover that a chapter entitled “Perfectionism” follows it.

Now, perfectionism is something about which I know a great deal. Does it surprise anyone to hear me say that I am a perfectionist? Of course not. Why else would I be hanging around writing and writers’ blogs. Perfectionism is the eldest and principal member of a triad of creative energy sapping demons. Together with Procrastination and Paralysis, they form an unholy trinity the sole purpose of which is to block creative expression. Characterized as a fire-breathing dragon using scorched-earth tactics to stifle creativity, Perfection arrives on the creative scene with Procrastination and Paralysis bringing up the rear to ensure the devastation of creativity is complete.

So, it’s easy to understand that getting around such powerful adversaries is more than an act of courage. In the face of fire-breathing dragons, it seems impossible. But, is it?

I decided to try a new tactic. If just saying “No!” can work for Nancy Reagan, it can work for me. So, I pulled myself up straight, picked up my pen, looked the dragon in the eye and—somewhat tentatively, at first—said, “No? No! Perfectionism, I’m not listening to you! I’ve given myself permission to write a truly shitty first draft. I’m just pounding it out.” Emboldened by the tenor of that initial thrust toward creative actualization, I continued. “I’m not even going back to read what I’ve written. I’ve decided I’m writing a hundred thousand words. I’m starting at the beginning and when I reach the end, taking the caterpillar’s advice to Alice, I’m stopping.”

Then, I pounded out the first one thousand twenty-five words. To be sure Perfection and her siblings heard me, I added, “Perfection, get off my dress! You’re ripping the train!”

That done, I thought, “why not claim my progress.” So, I added a progress meter to my blog to track progress on my non-fiction book. And that’s what I’m really after: progress, not perfection. Progress dampens Perfectionism’s fires and renders impotent her followers, Procrastination and Paralysis.

What made the difference? As I began writing, I acknowledged that what I am writing is shitty. It’s a shitty first draft that no one else will ever see. The strength of that simple affirmation is amazing. The words just came and I let them come. When I got to the end of the fourth page, I quickly scanned through what I’d written to note and to correct words underlined with that squiggly red line MS Word puts under misspelled and unrecognized words. I didn’t read what I’d written. I know what’s there and there’s no need to read it. If I start reading, I’ve given the fire-breathing dragon of perfectionism a thin-entering wedge. The next thing I know, I’ll find myself in a non-creative fetal position in a corner of my room.

The bottom line…

A draft of a hundred thousand words begins with the first word.

On Lunch, Gardening… oh, and Writing

Last Wednesday, I had lunch in Valencia with ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘La Belette Rouge. We were introduced by our mutual friend and francophile, the ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘Frogblog. I hadn’t given much thought to the meeting. It was Frog’s idea. I knew of Belette as our paths had crossed on ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘Francophila in December 2007. Belette recommended Eric Maisel’s ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘A Writer’s Paris which I purchased immediately and read with pleasure. I was preparing to leave for Paris at the end of the month for a two-week writing séjour.

At lunch, we enjoyed delightful conversation that eventually centered on writing. Each of us writes, has a nonfiction book or novel in progress (my “shit” novel, as Belette colorfully described hers), writes personal essays, short stories, and blogs. Each of us is, in some way, not writing. The conversation was lively. Even though, at one point, I tuned out to check email on my Blackberry—you’d think I was the Alice in Wonderland white rabbit, late for something important—I had no idea of the profound affect the conversation was having.

It’s all about gardenging! “Il faut cultiver notre jardin” (Voltaire). Seeds are sown. They sprout, grow, and, with careful tending, flourish. Without attention, nothing. Weeds take over, choke out the plants, chaos ensues, and eventually everything withers and dies. So it is with writing. I had no idea our luncheon conversation would sow seeds of inspiration that would lead quickly to renewed interest in writing—something I’d left for dead on the shoulder of life’s highway like road-kill I pass, white rabbit like, on the way to the next important whatever.

I’ve read countless books on writing and written scores of ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘Artist’s Way morning pages and ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘Writing Down the Bones timed writing exercises. I’ve written (imo) some good stuff. As a matter of curiosity, I checked my morning pages file. I had written daily morning pages with almost religious conviction since the beginning of February 2002. In September 2004, it all came to an end. I was dealing with my elderly mother’s senile dementia. At the point of near dementia myself, I sought the help of a therapist. Actually, I consulted the therapist for reasons other than my mother’s dementia, but my mother’s condition soon took center stage.

The therapy experience was successful in helping me deal with my mother’s dementia and I am grateful I did it. In the course of the therapy, however, the therapist asked if I keep a journal. “I’m a writer,” I said. “Writers write. Of course I keep a journal.” I talked about my journal, my morning pages practice, my novel, my non-fiction book. The therapist casually observed that it sounded as though the morning pages were used more than anything else to beat myself up and that perhaps they were not the best thing for me to be doing. The seed was sown! I stopped writing morning pages and, soon, I stopped keeping my journal. Now, four-and-a-half years later, I haven’t written a word.

I had no idea that lunch with Belette would change that.

First, “it’s never someone [or something] else’s fault that we’re not writing” (Maisel).

Second, not only do I have a novel to write, I have an important non-fiction book in the works that deals with being gay, being married, being a father, being divorced, and managing a healthy, loving, and fulfilling relationship with my ex-wife and with my two daughters. It’s an important book.

Third, to do this writing, I have to “write hard and clear about what hurts” (Hemingway). I must tend my garden! And, I must never loose sight of the fact that “writers do not write to impart knowledge to others; rather, they write to inform themselves” (Guest).

This morning I wrote the first morning pages in four-and-a-half years!

Favorite Books on Writing

Brande, Dorothea. ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘Becoming a Writer.

Cameron, Julia. ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity.

—. ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘The Sound of Paper: Starting from Scratch.

Goldberg, Natalie. ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life.

—. ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within.

King, Stephen. ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

Lamott, Anne. ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘Bird by Bird : Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

Rico, Gabriele L. ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘Writing the Natural Way: Using Right-Brain Techniques to Release Your Expressive Powers.

See, Carolyn. ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers.

Ueland, Brenda. ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘If You Want to Write.

Zinsser, William. ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘Writing to Learn.

Favorite Books on Editing, Grammar, and Style

Berry, Elliott Thomas. ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘The Most Common Mistakes in English Usage.

Harris, Robert, W. ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘When Good People Write Bad Sentences: 12 Steps to Better Writing Habits.

Hogue, Ann. ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘The Essentials of English: A Writer’s Handbook.

Maimon, Elaine P. ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘A Writer’s Resource: A Handbook for Writing and Research.

Plotnik, Arthur. ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘The Elements of Editing: A Modern Guide for Editors and Journalists.

Strunk, William. ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘The Elements of Style.

Warriner, John E. ‘ ” ” ” ” ” ” ‘English Composition and Grammar.