Writing/Life Advice: Don’t Get Overwhelmed

This is a reminder to myself as much as it is to others. I’m currently working on my first novel and by currently I mean it’s been several years where I’ve gone back and forth between different stories, characters, scenarios trying to find the perfect one as if something like that exists. Often times I’ve found myself planning more than writing. It’s a form of procrastination or pleasure-seeking where you feel accomplished because you planned something that you’ll soon do. Like a false start at a 100m sprint, I find myself restarting over and over again and I believe the main reason for this is that I focus on the big picture too much. I’m constantly thinking about 20, 50, 100, 200 pages from now when I should be focused on this blank piece of paper in front of me. This habit of wanting to get to the end can be overwhelming because it takes you out of the present. It gives you unnecessary doubt or stress because the present may not be going well. So, that doubt can take over and cause you to abandon the project altogether, as I have in the past.

Here is where Anne Lamont’s Bird by Bird comes in. In her memoir, she recites a piece of advice she came across in her journey to become a better writer. This advice hit home for me and perhaps it will for you as well.

E. L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.

Lamott likens this to her idea of the “one-inch picture frame” which is the idea of just focusing on this one sentence, get that right, get this one paragraph right, this “one small scene, one memory, one exchange” correct.

Often times our anxiety kicks in when we focus too much on the future. The reason for this is because everyone’s future is uncertain to some extent. Self-doubt creeps in with uncertainty and this becomes a recipe for a false start.

So, in order to avoid this, we just have to remember the one-inch picture frame or take comfort in the light your headlights are casting and enjoy the ride.

 

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Tell Your Truth Through Writing

I am one of those people who is constantly daydreaming. It’s almost an ailment because I am always thinking of different “what if” scenarios. I’m sure I am not alone in this. In fact, I’m positive that as a species, the ability to wonder and to allow our minds to create possibilities is one of the ways we have evolved to this point in history. I say this because one of the things a writer attempts to do is to put into words these “what if” scenarios and different possibilities.

And that is where the problem arises. If only it was as simple as copying what is in our heads and pasting it on a sheet of paper. Not to mention the greater issue which is that these words feel lifeless, these scenarios that excite our minds are rarely ever as exciting on paper perhaps because the act of writing requires one to flesh out the idea, to fill in the gaps which are bypassed by our consciousness and through this tedious act of unpacking a scene, we are left with something that is dull, bland, without wonder because our original aim was sensational pleasure rather than an attempt to say something that is truthful.

To say what is truthful to you takes courage because you open yourself up to the scrutiny of others. Yet, it must be done. One of the pleasures of writing is to discover who you are through your writing. By not aiming for the truth, you deprive yourself of this pleasure.

As Anne Lamott says inĀ Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life:

Good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are.

The natural question that arises from this is how do we go about doing this? How do we tell the truth? Where to start?

For Lamott, the process starts at our childhood.

Start with your childhood, I tell them. Plug your nose and jump in, and write down all your memories as truthfully as you can.

This task can seem overwhelming because there isn’t a clear direction, nothing to focus on. So, you must create your own boundaries so you can zoom in to a specific time period of your childhood and get a truthful picture.

So you might start by writing down every single thing you can remember from your first few years in school. Start with kindergarten. Try to get the words and memories down as they occur to you. Don’t worry if what you write is no good, because no one is going to see it. Move on to first grade, to second, to third. Who were your teachers, your classmates? What did you wear? Who and what were you jealous of? Now branch out a little. Did your family take vacations during those years? Get these down on paper. Do you remember how much more presentable everybody else’s family looked? Do you remember how when you’d be floating around in an inner tube on a river, your own family would have lost the little cap that screws over the airflow valve, so every time you got in and out of the inner tube, you’d scratch new welts in your thighs? And how other families never lost the caps?

Write down everything you can remember about every birthday or Christmas or Seder or Easter or whatever, every relative who was there. Write down all the stuff you swore you’d never tell another soul.

This exercise is useful because it makes you unpack your own life, your own thoughts, opinions, beliefs and most importantly, your own truth. It is not so much about the event that is being described rather it is the perspective of the individual describing the events that make the writing unique.

So, you must sit down with a piece of paper in front of you or a laptop screen or even a typewriter and write as honestly as possible. You must do this every day, around the same time, creating a routine which allows you to be open and vulnerable but more importantly, truthful.