This is a version of a post I did last year. I figured it was appropriate given our last discussion, on the sources of inspiration.
I appreciate practical advice. When I first stopped drinking, a friend of mine told me that sucking on a piece of candy (with real sugar) can help lessen the desire for a drink. I tried this and it worked.
Today I’d like to offer some practical advice in the spiritual realm. If that sounds like too much of an oxymoron perhaps you’ll forgive me on the grounds that I am motivated solely by a desire to inspire. Okay, I’ll stop rhyming now.
My suggestion: obtain a recording of Alessandro Striggio’s (1536/1537-1592) Mass in 40 Parts. Try to get your hands on the performance conducted by Robert Hollingworth, which is, in my humble opinion, the best available. The performance below is conducted by Herve Niquet. In addition to Striggio, it contains the music of Francesco Corteccia (1502-1571) and Orazio Benevoli (1605-1672).
One of my favorite things is to write and/or meditate to this music. For me it serves to restore order to my soul, and to get in touch with a higher, better part of me–whatever that might be called. May it help you as well.
Do you like to listen to music when you write and/or meditate? What music puts you in a different realm? I look forward to hearing from you.
Last week I purchased and read Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles the subtitle promises. In the book he talks about that formidable foe resistance, and how it can keep us from practicing our chosen art.
One thing I like about the book is the distinction it makes between the amateur and the professional. The latter, Pressfield claims, is, inter alia, patient, acts in the face of fear, accepts no excuses, plays it as it lays, does not show off, doesn’t hesitate to ask for help, distances herself from her instrument, doesn’t take failure personally, and endures adversity.
A more controversial aspect of the book is Pressfield’s insistence that it is not the artist who is writing the book, making the sculpture, or painting the picture, but the muse or angel who actually does the work. The artist’s role is to take dictation from the higher source who, Pressfield admits, might just as well be labeled talent as anything otherwordly.
But there seems a genuine contradiction in the advice Pressfield offers. An artist, he says, must first show up and do the work, for starting, despite Tom Petty’s admonition about waiting, is often the hardest part. At the same time, however, we must allow ourselves to be directed by the higher source, which is more than present at the creation, but is the true power behind the finished work. But my question is what if we suit up and show up for work and the muse remains silent? What then?
I like Pressfield’s book, despite this perceived contradiction, and I certainly recommend it. I feel it ranks among the best of the books out there on writing. But I am interested in hearing your thoughts on the force behind the artistic endeavor and what we might be able to do to make it speak.
The following video is a trailer for Kevin McCauley’s “Pleasure Unwoven.” It is the best film I have seen in terms of explaining addiction and of showing how addiction is a disease. McCauley maintained a skeptical attitude toward the addiction-as-disease model, until further investigation and research showed him that addiction is a brain disorder. If you or someone you love has the disease of addiction, I strongly recommend the full video, which may be purchased on Amazon (among other places).
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I became much more active my second year of community college. I joined the Politics Club and participated in voter registration drives, television coverage of local elections, and the National Model United Nations Conference. I was coming out of my shell and forcing myself to participate in life, instead of observing it like an unwilling bystander. Cribbs was mentoring me, though I didn’t realize it at the time. It felt good, really good, to be alive. I was still drinking heavily, but excelling in school and that’s all that mattered, or so I thought. Actually, I was motivated by anger more than anything, but it was constructive. I resented my home-life and I was channeling my resentment into work, though part of it was turned inward, as manifest by my drinking. It was a three-legged race to the dysfunctional finish line to see which of these two tendencies–the constructive or the destructive–would prevail.
I made the dean’s list in both the fall and spring semesters and was appointed Head Delegate to the Model U.N. Conference in New York City. However, at the conference, I drank heavily and missed a morning meeting with the U.N. ambassador whose country we were representing. Cribbs, who was running the show, was pissed, to say the least. He called me down to his room, ripped the Head Delegate’s pin off my chest, and said there wasn’t much stopping him from sending me home. I couldn’t blame him. Part of the reason I was drinking so much at the conference was my terror of people; I had to make speeches in front of hundreds of college students. This would’ve been bad enough, but I’d developed a terrible case of cystic acne on my face and back. I wore a layer of skin-toned Oxy-5 in an attempt to cover up the cysts, but it looked like stucco or topography on a map. It was horrible and excruciatingly embarrassing. Despite these obstacles, my community college delegation won top placement at the conference, one of my most memorable achievements.
Though it’s only supposed to take two years to get an Associate’s degree, I spent a third year at community college. I went part-time one semester, but also wanted to improve my grades by retaking the Statistics course I’d failed. It was also a waiting period. I desperately wanted to transfer to Vassar College for my junior and senior years and knew that, at best, I wouldn’t be accepted until the following fall. I worked hard my third year, made the dean’s list both semesters, and did the Model UN Conference in the spring. It was then that two monumental things occurred: first, I got accepted to Vassar; second, I entered into a long-term relationship.
I met Debbie through my friend Joey, who was dating Debbie’s best friend, Janet. The first time I saw Debbie she was playing tennis. Auburn hair fell in waves over her face, parted in the middle, and hung halfway down her back. She had mahogany eyes, a cute, small nose, pursed lips, and a sweet personality–shy and reserved. In some ways, it was the most mature relationship I ever had.
Debbie and I dated for three years and I proposed marriage after two. Our relationship was only interrupted once by a hospitalization during the first summer after we met. I entered Vassar in the fall and became a slave to my work. It was one of the most productive times in my life. I promptly declared a major in Political Science and boldly stated the desire to become an international lawyer. I had no idea what an international lawyer did, but it sounded good. After graduating from high school, Debbie entered the community college from which I’d graduated, and majored in accounting. Our dates consisted of spending hours on end at the library.
I didn’t know how to relax and transferred all my obsessive tendencies to my schoolwork. As a high school dropout at a prestigious college, I had much to prove and felt less than on campus both academically and materially. I had neither the educational background nor the financial means of my classmates; they went to Aspen on spring break and I went to the pizza parlor. My academic success was fueled by such comparisons. While I wasn’t drinking, I was simply substituting one addiction for another–though at least schoolwork was more productive. The fact that Debbie didn’t drink helped a great deal.
The Vassar campus is gorgeous. Gothic buildings and old brick structures look a little like brownstones in the city. Antique streetlights guard the walkways and cast a mellow glow over the surrounding paths. The library resembles a castle and an iron gate, sort of like a portcullis, monitors entry and exit from campus. There is a beautiful lake on the property, aptly named “Sunset Lake,” with a small footbridge across the shallow end. It was there that I first kissed Debbie. I walked for hours through this idyllic Eden, conversing with the ghosts of intellectuals. I felt like a pauper at a banquet. I tried to put as much distance between my family and myself and used the bridge to higher learning as the surest form of escape. I really don’t think I would have done as well in college if I hadn’t done so poorly in high school; everything I learned was new. And new is enchanting.
I became an intern in the Political Science Department and presented an award-winning paper at the Naval Academy in Maryland. But I was motivated by anger more than anything. Now, anger can be constructive, if it’s channeled properly, but it only takes you so far. I ended up feeling exhausted more than accomplished, which is sad; for despite the fact that my intellect was developing and growing, I wasn’t–at least not emotionally. I seemed to be waiting for the time when I could relax and be a child, a little boy, since I felt robbed of a childhood. This feeling was so deep and so inextricably connected to my essence, that I didn’t even realize it then.
I am convinced to this day that education saved my life and helped turn me away from the dark and desolate path I’d started down. One of my hopes, as I’ve expressed before, is that there be more education in rehabs and prisons. And loving grace; yes, please let there be more loving grace.
It was spring. I was sixteen, no longer in school, and unemployed. My mother and stepfather got out of treatment to find I’d dropped out of high school. Neither were pleased. Sure, kids my age should be in school, but parents were supposed to be home raising their children–not in a psych ward, or a homeless shelter for drunks. If they weren’t fulfilling their end of the bargain, then neither would I.
I ended up spending a lot of time at my dad’s tiny apartment. Every night I stayed over, we’d go to the store to buy essentials. While this meant food and other snacks, I always managed to convince him to buy me a six-pack (or two) and some cigarettes. We’d sit around and talk, while I smoked and drank. Occasionally, he’d have a beer with me, but it made me uncomfortable unless there was enough to get me drunk.
One afternoon we were sitting in the living room watching TV. I must’ve realized my life was going nowhere. It’s hard to get a job when you’re sixteen and not in school–not that I was looking for a job, but it would’ve been hard if I were. I was drunk, which was usual, but I was thinking about the future, which wasn’t. I made the decision then and there to apply to community college. I’m not sure what motivated my decision; after all, I’d failed nearly everything in high school and there was no reason to believe I’d be more successful in college. I went there that same week to take a skills test to determine an appropriate field of study. I did well–well enough, in fact, to secure a place in the honors’ program, which started in the fall. While it may be true that all you need to get into community college is a pen, I was proud of my achievement.
Getting into the program was much cause for celebration–indeed, waking up in the morning was reason enough to tie one on. Now that I had a plan for the fall, however, I really let loose. When the summer of my seventeenth year rolled around I was a candidate for detox. I checked into the psych ward my mom had entered the previous year, for I had substance abuse issues and clinical depression. The combination of a genetic predisposition to depression and alcoholism, with one exacerbating the other, was something I struggled with from early on. I’d been on an anti-depressant since I was fifteen. Of course, with the amount I was drinking, it was hard to determine where my substance abuse ended and my depression began. For me, at least, drinking initially alleviated the depression, and made me feel normal. What inevitably happened, however, was the daily consumption of alcohol created an addiction; it took more and more booze to create the same effect and after a while I’d sink to a lower baseline of depression than when I began drinking. I’d then attempt to drink more to feel better, which left me at a lower psychological baseline and so on in a vicious, perpetual, downward spiral.
I don’t remember much about my first hospitalization, but I think it lasted two weeks. My mom and stepfather weren’t drinking at the time and they came to visit just about every night, along with my dad. I do recall feeling very safe and at home. There were two people to a room and as long as you weren’t bunking with a total psychotic it wasn’t that bad, especially since smoking inside the hospital was permitted in those days. We had groups every day and recreational therapy, during which I made my first wallet. Summers have always been difficult for me and I’d fall apart in June and July several times during the years to follow. The thought of entering college in the fall, however, kept me going that first summer I was hospitalized. For some reason, I thought it might be the answer to my increasingly insoluble life.
According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary to procrastinate means: to be slow or late about doing something that should be done; to delay doing something until a later time because you do not want to do it, because you are lazy, etc.
Ouch to the latter definition, but is there some truth to it?
I think there are two main ways to think about our job as writers.
One is to think of ourselves as literary artistes: we sit around waiting for the muse to hit, and write only when the inspiration moves us.
The second way is to think of ourselves as auto mechanics: we show up for our job, diagnose what needs to be done, and then go about doing it. Two things I would bet money on:
- Those writers who think of themselves as mechanics are less likely to procrastinate than those who think of themselves as artistes.
- Those who think of themselves as mechanics are less susceptible to writer’s block.
Because writing is a job, just like any other. You have to suit up and show up in order for it to happen, and that often means getting your butt in a chair and staring at a blank screen for some indeterminate amount of time, but sitting in the chair and staring nonetheless.
Now I want to offer a strategy to those of you (like me) who sometimes suffer from procrastination. I call it the 1-word goal strategy. It’s simple, and it goes like this: The next time you are stuck, or procrastinating, or have writer’s block, or whatever you want to call it that keeps you from writing, try this. Force yourself to sit in your chair with your WIP on the screen. Next, simply type one word that comes next, the first word of a new sentence or the next word in the sentence if you’ve left off in mid-air. Like Lays potato chips you probably won’t be able to limit yourself to just one (word).
Give this a shot the next time you get stuck, and please let me know how it works.
Last, but not least, I pose this question: Is writer’s block simply nothing more than procrastination by another name?
As always, I’m eager to hear your thoughts on this matter.
There is much written about where writers get their ideas, and I don’t plan on spending much time with this question. I think for many writers ideas come from reading, though some may come from real-life situations or from television/movies.
But what do you do once you have a basic idea of the story you wish to write?
The first thing I do is make sure my idea hasn’t been done already, or if it has, I try to come up with a variation on it. This involves reading extensively in the genre I’m contemplating, or at least checking with people who do read in the genre to see if I’m simply rehashing old ideas.
Among other things, I write thrillers that have a connection with real-world history. Consequently, after I formulate a basic idea of what I want to write about, and make sure it hasn’t been done to death, I read non-fiction to get the factual knowledge correct. I think research is crucial to writing fiction. This is true not only in the case of writing historical fiction or reality-based thrillers: As writers I feel we all need to do our homework and make our stories as believable and convincing as we can—that involves research.
Next, I start thinking of setting up the basic story structure. I don’t think there is anything more important than setting up the story structure effectively. It will come as no surprise to many of you that I use Dwight Swain’s approach to this issue.
In Techniques of the Selling Writer (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965, see especially pp. 131-135), Swain says we need two sentences and only two sentences to encapsulate the story structure. The first sentence is a statement that deals with character, situation, and objective, and the second is a question that deals with opponent and disaster. That’s all well and good, but what does this look like in practice?
It is hard to improve on Swain’s examples so I will simply relate one of his here. Say you are writing a science-fiction story. Your basic idea is that humans start growing very tall and the main character’s objective is to find out why. So your first sentence that deals with character, situation, and objective looks something like this:
Sentence 1: When humans suddenly sprout to twelve-feet tall, John Storm tries to find out why.
The first sentence of story structure is posited in the form of a statement. In it, we have the situation (humans suddenly growing tall), the character (John Storm) and the objective (trying to find out why this is happening).
The second sentence in story structure deals with opponent and disaster and is cast in the form of a question:
Sentence 2: But can he (John Storm) defeat the traitors in high places who want to kill him in order to make the change appear to be the result of an extraterrestrial plot?
Here we have the opponent and the disaster that threatens our protagonist—namely, death.
This may sound simple, but framing story structure in such a way, really helps.
After this is done, I try to write a paragraph synopsis of the story that includes the two structure sentences as well as potential answers to the story question (Sentence 2), to have an overall idea of where the story will start, how it will unfold, and how it will end (beginning, middle, and end).
Then I start fleshing out characters. Who is John Storm? Who are his opponents? Does John Storm have a sidekick? I try to answer basic questions about the characters along the lines of those I stated in a previous post.
Finally, I start to think of scenes (chapters) that must happen in the story. I try to think up a bang-up opening, because openings are huge, and start to think about what the middle of the story will look like, as John goes about trying to figure out what is happening all the while his opponents are trying to kill him. I also try to come up with a scene in my head that looks like the end of the story.
Once I have a few scenes in mind—and I do think of them in terms of movie scenes—I set about writing the opening chapter. I write the early chapters with the middle and end scenes in mind (to the extent I can think of them).
I try to write chronologically, filling in as many of the interstitial scenes as possible. There is a lot of give and take in this process, working back and forth between developing scenes, developing characters, and following my vision of what the beginning, middle, and end of the story will look like.
In terms of writing each scene (chapter), I follow the basic format developed in prior posts, using Swain’s distinction between the elements of action scenes and sequel scenes (the two main types of chapters).
I follow this along until I have written a first draft. If I’ve followed the structure set out here, my first draft is pretty solid. There will be many revisions, but the framework of the story is pretty well established.
What does your process for writing the first draft look like? I am very curious to know.
It is often said that alcoholism and depression are bio-psycho-social-environmental illnesses, meaning there are several factors (i.e., genetic, psychological, environmental, etc.) that go into producing them. I had the genetic predisposition for alcoholism and depression from my mother’s side of the family. Environment played its part as well, our low socioeconomic status and the arguments between my parents contributing to the onset of sadness and anxiety and eventually the use of alcohol to cope.
I do not blame anyone or anything for the way I developed. However, I would be remiss if I did not talk about my stepfather. I hope that by relating this readers might identify and be moved to share their experiences.
I was ten the last time we were evicted as a family. We were forced to move into a welfare motel, with all of the attendant indignities. My mom, who’d developed a penchant for writing obscenities on the walls of our rented houses–sometimes with lipstick, other times pen, or carved with a knife–went to work at the motel with the determination of a wacky Michelangelo. Each morning a new piece would be on display. “Fuck you Anthony” (my dad) was interspersed most frequently in a collection that also featured “Go to hell,” and “Fuck the cockroaches.”
My sister Grace (who was six years older) and I went to live with my aunt. Though my aunt received money for taking care of us, none of it was ever spent on clothes, food, or haircuts, at least for us. I remember hobbling around in shoes I’d long outgrown and told she’d gladly buy me a new pair if she had the money. I was able to eke out an existence by scratching her dandruff-filled head and scaly legs, for which I was handsomely rewarded a quarter or a fifty-cent piece.
I switched schools when I moved to my aunt’s house, and was confined to visiting my mom and dad, who were now separated, on the weekends. Eventually, I moved in to my mother’s apartment, while Grace continued to live with my aunt. My mom lived in a railroad flat attached to a carpet store. The front door opened on a kitchen, followed by a living room, a bedroom, and a bathroom, in that order. So embarrassed was I of the apartment and its location that I’d go across the street to the strip mall to catch the bus every morning. I felt that waiting in front of Burger King was cooler than standing in front of a carpet store with a ramshackle dwelling attached. We could not afford a television so I sold my baseball card collection to buy one.
My mother ended up managing the set of apartments attached to the back, top, and sides of the carpet store. These units were quite run-down, but larger than the three-roomed flat in which we lived. It was in this capacity that Dennis entered our lives. My mom had stopped drinking for a year or more when she met the man who would become my stepfather. From the beginning I sensed that Dennis was not good for my mom–or me. He’d visit us frequently and it was soon thereafter, when he and my mom started dating, that her drinking resumed. Dennis drank, and drank hard; his favorite drink was straight vodka. I seldom recall him sober those first few months. While he was a diminutive man, about the same size as my dad, his drinking seemed to inflate him to five times his normal size, despite his high-pitched voice and frequent crying jags. He was recently divorced and his three children had disowned him. At one point, he’d owned a painting company, but he drank that away a couple years before he came into our lives. He’d also been in the Navy, of which he was very proud. I think my mom was attracted to him for several reasons. First, he had a job and a car; he was working at a hardware store as assistant manager of the paint department. Second, he liked to drink. Third, he reminded her of my grandfather. Finally, he was not a bad looking man, though I wondered how my mother could stand his nasally whine, crying bouts, and, increasingly, his fits of rage.
Dennis tried to win me over by including me in the dinner dates with my mom, but I wasn’t sold. I felt very uncomfortable around him and blamed him for my mom’s resumption of drinking. It was bad enough having one parent who was an alcoholic (my dad seldom drank), but when Dennis threatened to become a permanent fixture in our tiny apartment, my fear and anxiety doubled. I spent a good deal of time appealing to my mom’s reason, trying to make her see the pitfalls of becoming involved in a committed relationship with him. Several times I begged her to break things off.
Dennis got wind of my feelings. I think he heard how I felt from the neighbor, but eventually, my mom confronted him with my opposition and attempted to end things. He came to our apartment one morning before going to work. I was sitting on the bed tying my shoes and getting ready for school. He walked in the bedroom, and put his hand out for me to shake, which I did.
“Congratulations, you son of a bitch, you won,” he said.
“No Dennis, don’t say that.” I was terrified and felt my internal tectonic plates shift in the direction of an unwelcome maturity.
“Yup, your mom doesn’t want to see me anymore. I hope you’re happy.” With that, he turned around and headed for the door.
“Dennis, don’t talk to him like that,” my mom admonished. “He’s just a kid.” I was just a kid–ten, in fact. Dennis marched past her and out the door. He staggered into his beige Oldsmobile, which swallowed him up like a whale, and left for work. I think they reconciled that night.
Eventually, my mom and I moved out of the railroad flat…and Dennis came with us. In fact, it was only because of him that we secured better housing. He was an asshole, all right, but an asshole with a job. He left the hardware store to join a painters’ union. The higher salary helped and we moved to Pleasant Valley, into a duplex that seemed palatial after the railroad flat. It was so big I had my own room. Once again, I switched schools. Dennis continued acting strangely. One morning I got up around ten. For some reason I didn’t have school that day or decided not to go. I looked outside and saw his car in the driveway. I knew he was supposed to be at work and wondered what he was doing home. Odder, however, was that he didn’t seem to be anywhere in the house or outside. My mom got up around the same time and, as the hours passed, we talked about Dennis’s potential whereabouts. Later in the afternoon, he walked into the dining area from the foyer. Apparently, he’d been hiding in the downstairs bathroom all day with a bottle.
“Jesus fucking Christ, wasn’t anybody going to look for me?” he said with the exasperation of a child lost for hours in a game of hide-and-seek. With that, he went upstairs and passed out on the bed.
It was at that house that I first witnessed the effects of Dennis’s physical battering of my mom. There’d always been verbal abuse, but up until then, I’d never known him to strike her and he never hit me, or even came close. But eventually I started seeing black eyes and scratches appear on my mother. I felt helpless. Though Dennis was small, I was still too young and frail to do much of anything to protect her. Moreover, I was terrified of the man. I never knew what to expect, or what was coming next. It was then I started drinking on occasion.
One day I came home from school, I was eleven or twelve at the time. I fixed myself a Tom Collins, trying to unwind from the stress of a day in the eighth grade. As the gin rose to my head, I noticed Dennis wasn’t home, which was normal, but I also saw that my mom was out, which was strange. My mother never learned to drive; she was always dependent on others to take her anywhere. Since it was only mid-afternoon, the evidence pointed in the direction that they were out together. They came home shortly afterward and said they had something to tell me, a surprise. Now at that age, most children, I assume, recall surprises that were good: a new bicycle, perhaps, or an unexpected trip to Disney World. Unfortunately, the news that day brought no such joy. Dennis and Mom had been married that day while I was at school. I had a stepfather.
As I said, I don’t blame anyone for my alcoholism and major depressive disorder, but I have felt empowered over the years by learning that environment does play a role in the presence or absence of these illnesses.
Dennis committed suicide when I was in my mid-twenties. At the time I was hospitalized for alcoholism and depression. The day he died, before I found out of his passing, I felt the most indescribable peace pass through me, accompanied by the realization that everything was going to be all right.