I’m standing in front of the shredder in the place where I work. I’m staring at the whirling blades the way a man might stare at a lawn mower after realizing some of his toes have disappeared.
Yesterday I had been going for a walk around a two mile track across the street from where I work. I had taken off my shoes and walked around the track barefoot carrying my shoes in my hands, enjoying the sand between my toes. I was thinking of the archaeological site of a Mayan ruin I had visited a long time ago. A poem came to me, the way a headache might come to me and I wrote most of it in my head as I walked. When I got back to the car, I didn’t even take time to put my shoes on before grabbing a some scraps of typing paper and scribbling it all out with a pencil. I looked it over. I liked it. I liked it very much.
I’m not a poet. But I liked this poem enough to want to be a poet, to take the notion seriously like child discovering crayons for the first time. I could do this. I had read once about how poets like T S Eliot kept works in progress handy in their pockets or desk drawers to work on them when stuff came floating by in the air that was worth snatching down and noodling over. I brought the poem to my desk. The desk became cluttered over the progress of the day. In a fit of indignation over my natural sloppiness I gathered up the papers.
And so now I’m staring at the shredder, realizing.
Hemingway once had a briefcase of short stories he’d written during his Paris days. His first and favorite wife had determined to bring it to him in a taxi cab. That turned out badly. He might have named his next novel “A Farewell to Briefcases”. A young Garrison Keillor left his fateful briefcase of manuscripts in a men’s bathroom when he was considering the idea of starting a variety radio show. He forgot the briefcase in the toilet but he stuck with the radio show.
At least you can’t stick a briefcase in a shredder.
Stephen King was luckier, he threw the rough draft of his first novel “Carrie” in the trash because he thought it was crap and that he was crap as a novice writer and should give up. But it was his wife who fished it out and talked him into giving it another shot, so maybe that doesn’t count. And don’t we all wish we had a wife like that.
But I still had this poem to rebuild.
In the afternoon I put my notebook in my pocket. Took off my shoes. And walked the track again in exactly the same way. I met the poem again along the way, gave it a hug and rebuilt it. As I was sure I would.
It wasn’t the poem I needed - it was the walk around the track. That very track. After all, you have to know where to look.
I write from the unconscious. The unconscious writes for me. We are a team when we’re working well and when we’re working well it shows.
I think what writers live for is being in “The Zone”. The Zone is that place where the machinery is humming, where the world recedes and you’re down in the story with the characters and on a good day the characters speak and you shut up and take dictation. Its the best place to be. Its the place to aspire to be. It’s the place I love.
There are as many schools of writing, as there are schools of painting. I come what might be the Zen school of writing, those who write best when they write from the unconscious. One of my literary heroes, Ray Bradbury, wrote distinctly from this school and had habits and rituals distinctive to that way of writing. This particular style of writing is well suited for erotica, because it emphasizes writing primitively from the senses alone. It is much like the act of love itself.
There are books that teach the craft of cultivating that relationship with the deeper depths and writing from them. Among these craft books you’d find Bradbury’s own book of aphorisms “Zen and the Art of Writing”, also Robert Olen Butler’s boot camp craft book “From Where You Dream”. The book that Ray Bradbury personally trained from, the book that inspired him to develop his unique style has been out of print for way too long but is still available on the Internet or Amazon if you look hard - “Becoming a Writer” by Dorothea Brande.
In the end you have to find where you write from. They say write from you know. That’s great, what if you don’t know much? I say write where you’re from. If you’re a cerebral person you might write from there. But don’t think about about writing erotica that way. Erotica is as primal as the turbulent Jungian waters of the unconscious and is best written from there.
Although I’ve been doing this for awhile, I still consider myself an apprentice writer. This is a good place to keep yourself, because you are best served by what the Buddhist’s call a “Beginner’s Mind”. I’m always hungry to learn how other writers, especially the ones I admire do things. Ray Bradbury learned his apprenticeship by studying Dorothea Brande’s book as a young writer and following it seriously. He sometimes mentions her book in interviews. One of the things he adapted from her craft lessons is the habit of writing by appointment. Brande states that you should assign yourself a place to write and a specific time to write and promise yourself mentally that at this time and this place you will show up and write and do no other thing. If you’re with friends, you’ll excuse yourself. This time is for your muse and yourself. If you stick faithfully to this the day will come and days will follow when your unconscious will be waiting for you like a writing partner with something special to surprise you with.
Another thing Bradbury learned from Brande was what is sometimes called “free writing”. I still do this as a warm up. It’s very simple. You’re trying to experience and become practiced at being in The Zone. A pencil, a notebook. A timer. You decide that you will write for, say, ten minutes without stopping. It doesn’t have to be about anything, it can be pure babble, but you have to hunker down and write and not stop for so much as a sip of coffee. Ten minutes of constant word loading. Let the intuition speak. You’re not trying to be profound although something profound may emerge. You’re trying to let the unconscious speak and teach yourself to listen.
Bradbury also experimented with playing with words and the unconscious. His first published short story was a kind of ghost story about two kids called “The Lake”. Where did he get the idea for this story? He sat down at his typewriter, put in a clean piece of paper and typed the words “The Lake” at the top and began free writing about whatever the two words suggested to him. He didn’t stop. He let the image carry him. The unconscious doesn’t deal in language. It deals in images, like dreams. If you can find yourself a powerful image to deal with, one that speaks to you, you begin. The novella I’m working on “The Tortoise and the Eagle” began with a simple image. I was watching a German movie called “The White Ribbon” and there was a scene of a young boy doing a high wire act on the railing of a wooden bridge over some dangerous water. Later when someone demanded what in the hell he was thinking of he said “I wanted to give God a chance to kill me.” Now, that’s an image to conjure with.
Like courting a girl (do kids still do that?) to court the unconscious you have to first pay attention. One of the most basic ways to pay attention is keep a notebook by your bed and write down your dreams. Try to do this consistently. Your unconscious has its own vocabulary, its own language of images that will be unique to you. If it sees you trying, if it sees you paying attention, it definitely will speak to you over time. It will speak to you in images and images are always more compelling than cerebral ideas. Mary Shelley invented her novel “Frankenstein” over an image she received in a nightmare. We get images like this all the time. The difference is you have to be ready. Like a little kid on the field with the big kids, if somebody throws you ball you have to be ready to run with it when it finally happens. You have to prove your attitude.
The last thing I recommend, although I could go on, is to set a goal for yourself. In one of the rooms where he wrote, Hemingway wrote on the wall with a pencil how many words he wrote each day so “you don’t kid yourself.” I use a calender. If you do this, you’ll be amazed at how little writing you actually do compared to how much you think you do.
When I get writer’s block it doesn’t intimidate me. I know the cause is a weak imagination, caused by too little exercise, caused by not keeping my end of the deal. The unconscious has gone under ground and must be romanced back by paying attention.
1) Make a appointment for each day, a time and a place - and be there.
2) Free write for 10 minutes to warm up.
3) Make a goal, how many words you will bench press for that day - and do it. It doesn’t matter if the words are any good. The point is to show up and write them, practice your instrument. Musicians practice. Painters practice. Writers should practice too. If you keep your end of the deal the good words will come.
You have dozens, maybe hundreds of excellent compelling stories inside your head. Your problem is not that you don’t have any good stories in you. Your problem is that your hundreds of good stories are buried under thousands of bad ones. The only way to get under the pile of bad stories is to pay your dues. You have to shovel shit with a keyboard until you tunnel your way down to the gold. You have to have faith in the beginning. There is no other way.