The Adequate Writer: The non-advice of how I write
sketch: Jane Eaton Hamilton 2014
How I write? (Do not what I do unless it’s fruitful for you. This is non-advice gleaned over years of living with my idiosyncratic brain, and will not apply to everyone.)
I start with set but limited intentions. A story, I say to self, 3000 words, go. An essay, I say to self, longread, go.
I write scattershot. I slam a metaphorical hammer into a metaphorical mirror-brain for all those pretty glittering silvers, that debris-field. I’ve got 26 letters: slurpy, corkscrewed, percussive, hot-bladed, shivery. My job is to shape “bs” and “q”s and “es” and “rrrrrs” into sensical passages. Get letters to tinkle out, fall into nothing sharp at first, messes of lines like snortable black coke, every edge ruffled and bleeding into the next. Use them to compose some uneven, sloppy sentences and paragraphs while my eyes pretty much roll back in my head waiting to see if there’s a topic there, any topic there, a sentence, a phrase with energy, a sliver of glass that could cut someone, cut me, something to begin with. If I sit in one place long enough–an hour, two hours–it’ll arrive.
I see my brain as a bullet shooter, inexhaustible. Something that keeps language recycling, always good for a new burst. It just needs the cue, and the cue seems to be that one good phrase or sentence.
Like Hemingway said in answer to what is the hardest thing about writing: Getting the words right.
I get rid of the pre-writing, the casting about, the baloney. Those couple of hours’ work. Snap. Gone. New writers think they need to recycle these. I might be able to use this in a poem, they say. Or writing teachers tell them to. Thinking that way makes you small and hoarding, in my opinion, where writing needs to be expansive to make itself known. What I know after many years of doing this is that, barring my incapacity, there are always new words; if I accessed them to write one piece, they’ll be there for the next. So I toss those bad paragraphs out.
At this point, I don’t have a clue what’s going to happen next. Really. Story, 1500 words, has to be done today. I’d kinda like to write about weaver birds and the plight of songbirds in the Mediterranean. So this was the line I kept: My mama a woolly mammoth, hairy-legged, 100 feet tall and broad as a shack. What I had there I liked. I knew my character is a kid and that her mom was scary, so that gave me context. I could even see that woman’s legs.
So I said, Surprise me, little line. Take me along, little line. Tell me where you wanna go. After that, it was like grabbing someone’s hand. Where to?
More pre-writing and as I went, I tossed, I honed, I worked hard with each sentence and paragraph–is this one pulling its weight here? Any extra words? I ask all those questions writing teachers are forever telling you not to ask, all the editorial questions: am I repeating words other than for affect, what motifs am I running, here, does this make sense, what does it sound like, feel like, look like, taste like around the protagonist? That editing that’s supposed to come second draft, third draft, fourth, I do it as I go, rewrite sometimes 7 times, sometimes 20 times. Over and over till it sounds ok and suggests the next thing. I think that’s how I learn the story. I think getting the words right drags me forward to where the story is heading.
When I was writing my short story “Smiley” I was thinking, Why the hell is that character collecting bird nests?
I trust my noggin. I really trust my noggin, so I just try to get out of its way.
And also I was thinking, because that particular story felt so transgressive and dangerous to me, You can’t write that. Oh, for god’s sake, you really can’t write that. When I found out what that kid was going to do with that nest he found, I was as shocked as anyone else.
Also, I do a lot of chasing down obscure research questions like What is an owl’s favourite tree to perch in, go. I could not write my stories without google because the anwers I get to the questions I ask shape where that story goes, change the plot, define what the story will become.
It is chaotic and messy, my head, and in it, not a thing is linear. It’s looping and tangential and writes itself in curves. The best writing advice is probably, always, Work with what you’ve got.