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Columns and Articles by Joyce Maynard

For Writers: Making Writing....
                               and confronting the Blank Page
by Joyce Maynard

I like to make things. Pies. Gardens. Pictures. Clothes. Parties. An old suitcase I buy in a junk shop and I give to a friend, after I've spent a week or so covering it with cut-out pictures from old magazines and seed packets and sheet music and photographs of people they love; after I've slathered the whole thing with a kind of goop called Mod Podge.

It's such a tangible thing, making one of these suitcases. A lot of feeling goes into the project -- enough, that I speak of them as Emotional Baggage. But there is also a very tactile aspect to the process. I cut out bits of paper. I brush the goop on the outside of the suitcase, and on the paper. My hands get very messy. So does my kitchen counter, where I work. The room takes on the smell of Mod Podge. Afterwards, there's a lot of mess to clean up.

Talk about making things. The ultimate creative act, of course, has got to be the act of making a child. And of the many reasons that go into why I love being a parent, there is the simple fact, once again, that I like making things. In the case of my children, it was a collaborative effort, involving their father, and something I call god, that I might not even have included in the list at one time, and luck, and genes, and their own strong selves. Nevertheless, when you have a baby, what you are doing is making a person. I loved that thought twenty-plus years ago, when I gave birth to my first child. I love it still.

I'm not getting into the game of comparing one art to another, and deciding which one's harder. But one thing about making a piece of writing, that distinguishes it from performing a piece of music, say, or a dance, or making a painting or a sculpture, is the absence of physical components for a writer to work with. What's an alphabet, compared to a box of gooey, glorious acrylic paints? What's a computer keyboard, next to a Steinway, or even a crummy old upright piano? A dancer has her whole body: legs, arms, fingers, neck. A singer can feel her vocal cords vibrating inside her throat, and feel her lungs expand. And what does a writer have? Ideas. Headaches. Paralysis.

I have been struggling with this fact about writing all my writing life, which is to say, all my life, period (because I started writing before I could, physically, write -- when at the age of three or four I literally gave dictation to my mother, who held me on her lap and eagerly wrote down every word).

I'm a physical person: I like to touch and taste and smell and hear and move. This is not an ideal way to be, if you're a writer. Because after you're done talking about the chair you sit in and the pitch of your keyboard, or the type of pen you've chosen, there just isn't much of a physical experience to talk about, when you're talking about writing.

What's to be done?

There is nothing, nothing, that can change the fundamentally abstract, intangible nature of the writing process. It's nothing like making a suitcase or a pie, this business of making a story, or an essay, or a book. A person takes words and ideas from her head, and records them on paper, using the device of language. Until the day comes when writers sculpt every alphabet letter out of clay, or dance their stories, or sing them, that will never change.

But I have learned a thing or two, over the years I've spent -- the literally thousands of hours -- sitting at one keyboard or another, engaging in this most unnatural act. I have developed a few tools -- maybe they're tricks, maybe they are tricks that work for nobody but myself -- that help bridge that terrible, lonely journey a writer has to make, every day of her life, transforming blank pages to filled ones. But on the chance that they might work for someone besides me, I am going to mention them here.

1. Control your environment. For me, this does not mean eliminating all stimuli, but it certainly means choosing the ones I want around me, and those I want to remove. It never works, for me, to write in a room (or even a house) where there is a lot of activity. Writing is an excruciatingly private act. You might be just sitting there, for an hour, but god forbid someone should walk through the room as you sit, and say (or not say, but think), "How's it going?"

In the years I've worked as a writer, I have worked in a number of very different spaces. For years, when I was a young married woman, and my daughter was small, I wrote at our kitchen counter, and got up periodically to stir the soup or stoke the woodstove. These were actually good activities to combine with writing; they gave me a natural break, they filled the room with good smells and sensations. But if my daughter had been part of the mix, I could have forgotten all about the writing part. I worked successfully only when she was not simply upstairs, asleep, but at her babysitter's house, or at school. When she was there, all I could think about was her, and no parent -- no mother, at least -- should ever try to convince herself it will be otherwise for her.

Later, after two more children came along, and I sold my first novel, we built a little cabin out in a field behind our house, where I would go every morning to write. That place was heaven, though it was heated only by a woodstove, which meant I'd have to get up around five, winter mornings, and trudge down the path to light the stove so it would be bearable by eight. Even then, I had to keep blowing on my fingers to keep them from getting numb, and I kept a little heater blowing, under my desk. But you couldn't have asked for a more perfect scene than the one I had out my window. In winter, even more than in summer. I'll tell you a little story about that cabin, though. One time, in summer, I left the door open overnight. (No need to worry about burglars. We lived miles out of town, at the end of a dead end road, with no neighbors in sight.) When I came back to the cabin in the morning, I discovered that a hummingbird had made its way inside, and couldn't get out. For a couple of hours I tried to catch that bird, without hurting it, but I couldn't do it. I tried to work, but the sight of the hummingbird, flinging itself against the windowpanes, over and over, and the sound of its whirring wings, was simply too distracting. I couldn't work for three days, except to sit there, watching, and trying to catch the bird. On the fourth day, when I came out to the cabin, I found the hummingbird -- still at last -- dead on the floor. I kept it in a box for a few years, until there was nothing left but dust and feathers.

No outside distractions, as I say. Except the ones you consciously choose.

2. Establish rituals. And then keep them. Mine, for years, had been to see my children off to school. Come home, clean the kitchen counter, and fix myself a second cup of coffee. I spent years complaining to my children about how much I clean up after them, when they were supposed to clean up after themselves. But the truth is, (though I would never tell them this) there is something valuable, for me, in the mindless routine of certain chores. Putting on a load of laundry (and, later, folding it) being one. Cleaning off counters being another. Making a pie is a core activity for me, as well, though I won't put that in the mindless category.

Several times, back when I lived in New England, I would leave home and check into a little dive of a motel I liked, just outside the town of Brattleboro, Vermont. I wrote the entire first draft of my novel, Where Love Goes, at that motel, in fact. And I know what I liked was the simplicity of the set-up. One room. No books to read, no children to cook for or to drive places. No pictures on the walls. The Connecticut River flowing outside the window. A TV I never turned on. No telephone. I brought nothing to wear but sweatpants and t-shirts, and one pair of sneakers, so there was no decision about clothes, and I never put on makeup or blow-dried my hair. Every morning, I'd get up, go to a diner down the road for a big breakfast, come home (home meaning, the Riverside Motel), put on music, and get to work. Every afternoon I'd drive to a music store and buy a new CD. Listen to it enough that I knew it, read over what I'd read. Eat. Go to bed. My whole world became the world of my novel. And so I had no choice but to get into it. There are only so many hours you can look at the Connecticut River.

3. Get into a zone. It's true for athletes (I hear. I have certainly never been one.) It's true for writers too. This one, anyway.

If I start my day by paying bills or trying to price out flood insurance, I can ruin my whole writing day (I'm speaking of what I consider a serious writing day. Not the other kind of day I spend, as a journeyman, doing a job, professionally and, I hope, well, but not one that requires a certain emotional pitch.) Likewise, I should never start a serious writing day by calling my Sprint operator with a question on my bill, fixing a stuck drawer, or trying to change a very hard-to-change lightbulb. Although of course, avoidance being what it is, these are the very activities I am sometimes most likely to engage in, first thing in the morning, on what is supposed to be a serious writing day.

When I'm not being self-destructive, however, I'll tell you what I do:

I sit there. I sip my coffee, or maybe even make another pot. (This is a physical act, you understand. Equivalent to stoking that woodstove.) I just think. I empty my head. (You've got to empty it, before you can fill it.) I may put on music, but if I do, it's a particular, carefully chosen piece of music -- often one I know so well I barely need to listen, that I put on, in the most self-manipulative way, to conjure up a particular kind of mood, an almost visceral response. I may go so far as to program my CD player to repeat this song a dozen or more times (good reason not to have nearby neighbors, or another person in the house). You could call this a form of meditation, and I think you'd be right.

4. Ease yourself in. You could say, there is no halfway point between being stuck and writing, but I will tell you what I consider to be mine. I jot down words. Phrases sometimes, but sometimes, just single words. I don't make outlines, and I don't draw up elaborate plans. I scatter a lot of loose words around myself. They may be actual, concrete elements I mean to incorporate in my story. But they may be nothing more than phrases that evoke a time and place, or a voice and tone. If nothing else, what these phrases and words do for me is to keep me from feeling that I have absolutely nothing to go on here. I may not have any actual sentences yet, but I have all these pieces of sentences, at least.

For instance. My novel Where Love Goes features a character called Ursula. She is a very troubled, lonely little girl whose father has fallen in love with the main character, Claire, leaving Ursula feeling betrayed and abandoned in ways that ultimately result in her taking extraordinarily destructive actions, with disastrous consequences for them all.

What did I know about Ursula? I knew she was a child who didn't have friends. I knew she watched a lot of television, and sought comfort in food. I knew she was very bright, and had a rich fantasy life. She wishes she were pretty. She's not.

So what might I have written on my little scraps of paper, as I set about the task of writing an Ursula scene? I don't remember, but I can guess it would have been a list like this one. "Barbie. Oprah. Disney movies. (Little Mermaid. Snow White.) Farting dog. Dolly Parton (outcast child, turns beautiful, Coat of Many Colors). Wrong shoes. Hating Barney. Birthday party. Dollhouse. Tattletale. Slightly retarded friend. Brushing her teeth with spermicide by mistake. Bike helmet and streamers.

Some of the elements I scribbled down got put into Ursula's story. Some did not. (Truthfully, I can only now remember the ones I used. But no doubt there were more.) Writing them down didn't give me sentences or paragraphs. But it did help bridge the void between nothing and something.

5. Write one sentence. No subsequent act you perform all day will be as difficult as that one, probably. In fact, every sentence that follows makes the next one that much easier.

And here's the thing about that first sentence (whether it's the first sentence of a novel, or an essay, or even just a letter): Don't over-think it. There is a power to the words that pop into your head. The right thing to say is frequently the very most obvious thing. If only we trusted our instincts more, we'd be in so much less trouble. (In life, as well as writing.)

The example that comes to mind here is something I read once, in one of the hundreds of articles I was devouring at the time of her death, about Princess Diana. A man who was a land-mine-amputee, who had been in one of the hospitals she visited, was describing what it was like to meet her. What Princess Diana did, when she met this man, was to shake his hand, look him in the eye, and ask him, "Can I see your stump?"

Stark words. A little shocking, maybe. You know Queen Elizabeth would not have put it that way. But it was the reason she was at that hospital in the first place. Also the reason why he was at that hospital. Those were the words that were most truly on her mind, and so she said them. For this man, this was exactly the right thing to say.

Writing for Health How To Begin a Novel




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