Unstoppable Robot Ninja

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My high school English teacher, who I could probably blame for inspiring me to get a lit degree, is now a fairly successful writer in his own right. When I was stuck in that weird place between high school and college, and he beginning that equally weird transition from paycheck to freelancing with words, he’d complain to me about how much trouble it was to face down the blank piece of paper sticking out from the top of his typewriter. One sweltering summer afternoon, during a break from stacking wood outside his house, we gulped down lemonade as he told me about some advice he’d gotten from James Hayford, a local writer who had admonished my then-teacher to get past the romanticism of such terms as “writer’s block” or “finding inspiration.” “Some days,” James had told him, “it’s about the regular application of the seat to the bench.”

Starting a piece isn’t pretty, and it’s rarely easy. It is, however, work.

Still, to hear them talk about it, writers come off as a fairly mystical bunch when they describe their rituals for overcoming that first blank page. Some swear by the legal pad, others the typewriter or word processor; one especially terrifying poetry teacher at my college suggested “drinking enough martinis throughout the day so that your piss can open locked doors.” Douglas Adams would simply ignore his publishers’ frantic phone calls as he blew past his deadlines, and John Warner would simply have you haul your fat ass to the gym. Sadly, we haven’t yet bottled an elixir that makes the process hurt less than, say, a root canal from Laurence Olivier, so the search for consensus marches on.

Me, I’ve fucked ’round with several methods. College had me tapping out essays and journal entries into Word, producing documents usually set in some arch-pretentious font like Goudy Old Style, and usually written the night before the due date. Once I became one of the rentpaying legion, I toyed around with a pocket-sized 5-star notebook and a mechanical pencil, carried around in whatever passed for my jacket at the time (ah, the days before laptops and Moleskines). But while my medium’s changed a bit—hello, blank TextMate document—the actual mechanics of pushing past that awkward first sentence and into something tolerable, if not actually interesting, hasn’t gotten any easier.

Maybe I should start in on those martinis.

This is a blog entry posted on day 11285 in the Journal.

7 comments posted.

7 Comments

  1. Keith LaFerriere says:

    I’ve known you for quite some time and the most basic way to boil down how successful a writer I believe you to be is such: You are a gifted communicator.

    There are many who are expert in mechanics and grammar, but there are few who can easily convey a thought to an experience. Luckily, you have a fine mixture of “all the above”.

    Write how you speak. You’ll make millions.

  2. Dan Mall says:

    I also wrote about this recently. Lots of great ideas in the comments.

    What I do is just start, then edit later. It’s always easier to revise than to create.

  3. Elliot Jay Stocks says:

    Although it’s only a tool suggestion rather than a method solution, I’d heartily recommend WriteRoom, for its removal of all other distractions on the screen.

  4. Jenny Bergman says:

    I had a drawing teacher in art school who on the very first day held up a sign that said “JUST START. NO ART.” In other words, lose all of your preconceived notions that what you are doing has any kind of meaning or precious-ness and just GO. Find that raw place within you and bring it forth onto the drawing pad, the canvas, the copper plate, the monitor…the blank page. Worry about meaning and value later.

  5. The Robot says:

    Elliot, thanks for the link. WriteRoom looks brilliant—I’ll have to check it out. Wonder if there’s a TextMate plugin that does the same thing, though…hrm.

    Anyway, I think it’s interesting that you and Dan both recommend a clearing of the workspace: Dan with an anchor left on the page, and you with nothing surrounding it. That’s definitely something I could use a bit more discipline with.

    Jenny, I love the thought, but I’ve never been good at that. Bronwyn mentioned a great tip in a panel we shared a couple SXSWs ago —namely, to start a new email, and write in that. I never quite got good at that, but it seemed like a great suggestion for keeping an air of informality about the whole damned process.

  6. zeldman says:

    I only write when I have something to say. The words pour out of me quickly, and I’m done.

    This doesn’t work for the assignment-driven writer — deadlines are deadlines — but it works wonderfully for the self-publisher.

  7. Patricia says:

    In recent years I’ve become fascinated by reading about how writers write. There is a talent to it, I believe. Some have it more than others, but regardless of the ability to string words together, what it seems to boil down to is the desire to do it. If you have that, you’ll find a method that works for you. You’ll find the time and the energy. And even the frustration, I think, contributes to the process.

This was Ethan Marcotte’s Unstoppable Robot Ninja.

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