Some observations on writing and life, in the style of one of my Heroes of Simplicity, Haruki Murakami.
Minus the birds and cats and empty wells.
I had to give a presentation at the State Water Board the other day. “Testify,” they call it. It’s not my favorite thing to do, standing in front of a regulatory body directed and staffed by super smart people to tell them where I disagree with them and where they’re flat-out wrong. But as a wise man (my boss) once told me, “that’s why we pay you money to do it.” On top of which I happen to think what I had to say was important—certainly more important than my temporary discomfort.
But not only did I not want to stand up there and deliver my remarks, I didn’t want to put them together in the first place, either. I always write out oral remarks or speeches of any length longhand. It’s annoying and it takes a long time.
Between my handwriting and the way I space out lines and fill up a page, it comes out to more or less a minute per sheet of paper. I don’t do this on purpose. I’ve never tried to fit more or fewer words on a page. It just seems to work out like that.
But it takes about thirty minutes to fill up that page that will take a minute to say, at least on the first draft. And that’s after however many hours it took me to read and reread and understand whatever policy or regulation or report I’m going to be talking about. And I do three or four drafts, editing on the draft I’ve just finished and rewriting the new draft.
Ideally, on the last draft, I’ll reduce the full sentences to bullet points, and then I’ll switch to three-by-five notecards, where I’ll further distill my points to one- or two- or three-word phrases that I can glance at while speaking to make sure I’m on track or if I lose my place. Delivering remarks like this is a good combination of having a prepared speech and delivering something that seems more natural than standing in front of people reading.
So, I’m sitting down with a detailed technical comment letter on one side of my desk and a stack of blank paper on the other, and I don’t want to do it. It’s laborious to write out a speech. It would be so much faster to type it. That’s what I used to do, because it’s so much faster, but a lot of things happen when I type that don’t happen when I write longhand.
For one, because it is so much faster, I write a lot more, and this is not always good for oral remarks. Usually it’s not good.
It’s not great for fiction, either, which is why I handwrite my best fiction, too. Or, I should say, it’s probably why my best fiction is the stuff I happened to write longhand. I don’t always remember this, or I get lazy and am more concerned with producing and finishing stories than I am with making them as good as they can be.
This seems obvious as I say it, but it can be hard to remember, especially when writing fiction is something you do in between a lot of other things, and is all you ever wanted to do and what you want to be doing all the time, and you think that the only way to get there is to get stories published and since the stories you’ve written haven’t been published you think what you need is more stories. It’s not like you’ve got a shortage of ideas—you have more ideas than hours to get them out and down. And it’s not like the two novels you wrote longhand ever went anywhere, so what good did writing them longhand do? Probably what you need to do is stop messing around with all that ink and just get the story typed out and sent off.
Despite that impulse, I try to write fiction longhand, because I know that I need to take it slow. It’s also different because I don’t write fiction like I talk—or not exactly, though I do like stories that make you feel like you’re sitting in a bar listening to someone tell a story. Not that anyone would actually sit and listen to someone for thirty or forty minutes, which is how long a medium-length short story would take to read aloud. Anyway, the whole approach to fiction is different.
But when I’m writing a speech, I do try to write exactly like I’d like to sound. Not to a hypothetical bar-mate, but to the actual audience I’ll be addressing.
I go for conversational when I’m writing emails, too, and I write so many emails every day that when I’m in that conversational mode, I’m used to typing very fast and getting it all out. But like I said, that can really work against you when writing a speech. People don’t want to hear EVERYTHING. People have short attention spans, and minutes go by very quickly, and people can’t go back to the previous sentence and read it again if it wasn’t absolutely clear or if their mind wandered for a second. Their minds will wander in a speech, too—I know because I’ve listened to a lot of speeches and lectures and oral remarks, and my mind has wandered plenty—but if you’re being clear and concise and compelling, and you limit the tangents, hopefully people will wander a little less.
But when I write longhand, when it’s really annoying to write out each word and I know I’ll have to rewrite every word several times, I really think, “Do I have to say this?” I also try to think, “Would I like to hear this?” Maybe that’s why, even though I rewrite the speech several times, I have fewer different versions and make fewer fundamental or structural changes than I do when I’m writing (typing) an essay or some document for work. There’s a school of thought that trying out different structures helps you decide on the best one, and helps you think about things in a different way and opens up different possibilities, and maybe that’s true. Maybe I’m missing out on wonderful creative opportunities by writing longhand in a way where the structure seems to come together from the very beginning. But the idea of doing the labor of rewriting something so many different ways, just to see? It’s hard enough to write things out multiple times when I think the structure’s working well.
Also when I type, I edit as I go. If I put down a crappy sentence, I can delete it, so I don’t mind too much putting down a crappy sentence, throwing something against the wall and seeing if it sticks. You can always try to say the whole sentence an entirely different way, and if that doesn’t work, delete it and start over again. Write another crappy sentence and delete it. Write, delete.
You can’t do this with longhand. Knowing that I’ll have to go back through and strike out any really bad stuff I get careless enough to scribble down usually keeps me from writing really bad stuff or being careless, because it seems like such a waste of effort—when you don’t love tracing out each letter one letter at a time into words and words into sentences, you make sure you put down what you want to put down in the first place.
And once I do finally get going with longhand, even though it’s slow going and annoying and I feel like I’m in one of those dreams where you need to run and you’re telling your legs to run but you can’t move your legs any faster, there really does seem to be a flow. I’m filling up the page and making progress towards the bottom of the page. Which is another thing—there is no bottom of a Word document, no slimming of the stack of blank pages and growing of the stack of inked ones. It just goes on and on.
Anyway, the remarks to the State Board went okay. I didn’t leave myself as much time as I should have and didn’t get to do more than three drafts of the remarks, and never shrank them down to three-by-five cards. So I ended up reading a lot more from my prepared remarks, which made me uncomfortable and nervous. I didn’t freeze up or anything, and maybe people couldn’t even tell I was nervous, but I knew I was. People could definitely tell I was reading from a prepared speech, though. I was holding the pages in my hand!
What I take away from that performance is the confirmation of the importance of preparing. Way back when I started preparing, I didn’t want to start writing, but I knew that it would be worth it, so eventually I did start. Unfortunately, for a number of reasons—housework, the kids, other commitments, Father’s Day, the L.A. traffic—I didn’t start early enough, and couldn’t prepare fully. Probably I was procrastinating because I didn’t want to do it. The parts I knew really well I was able to deliver without reading my speech or even really glancing at it and I was able to talk about what I was talking about in a natural way, but there were definitely parts I was reading and that sounded like I was reading. I think I got the point across anyway, but it wasn’t in the way I would have liked.
My life is very busy with all those things I was doing instead of preparing, and very full, and very good. There are some pretty bad things happening in the world right now. I don’t have to tell you what they are—open Facebook or Twitter for half a minute, or just walk by a TV playing CNN or Fox News and you’ll get an eyeball full of them. Maybe, with all that bad stuff happening, it seems silly to take the time to sit down and write a couple thousand words on writing. My progressive heart blushes in shame for the time I should be spending talking about these affronts to human dignity and generally combating the rising tide of authoritarianism.
But I’ve got to tell you that all that bad stuff was taking a toll. Not that I was ever on the actual front lines of the culture war, of course, but you do get that feeling when you’re plugged into things and arguing with assholes and having people call you an asshole. Is this authoritarianism winning? I wonder. My resignation is, I know, what They want.
But I’ve come to suspect over the last few months that I don’t have the constitution for it. I’m not saying I’m swapping out my black mantle for rosy glasses. I’m no denialist. But despite how busy and full and good my life is, I was feeling really, really bad last year. It all came to a head in January, and I realized that I was letting all the bad in the world affect me more than all the good.
Since then I’ve been thinking a lot about it, and it seems to me that this has more or less always been the case, that I’m a cynical, pessimistic person. Or I have been for a lot of my life. Sure, I like a good time, I like a good laugh, and I appreciate the good things in life. I’ve set set goals and work hard for them under the assumption that things will pan out if I do that. But if you ask me to sum up my general outlook on society, our culture, America, humanity in general, I could do it in two words: we’re fucked.
And most of the stuff I’ve been reading, for most of my life, confirms or even reinforces this view. I read The New Yorker and The Atlantic and Noam Chomsky and Ta-Nehisi Coates and Christopher Hitchens. Lately I’ve been reading books by Hannah Arendt and Masha Gessen. In December, around Christmas time, I read a history of genocide in the 20th century. I’ve always assumed that this is what is important. That this is the truth. That this is what’s important to understand about humanity and what we’re capable of and what we need to guard against happening on our watch. Happy stuff and spiritual stuff and lighthearted fun stuff is a luxury those of us committed to human decency cannot afford.
At the same time, I’ve always had the desire to positively impact people with stories. I love a good story. I love hearing stories, reading them, watching them, and I love telling them. Barack Obama said that our ability to tell stories is the defining trait separating us from the other primates, and I agree—consciousness, in my view, is essentially the ability to understand oneself in place, time, and relation to the wider world. Maybe because our stories mirror the cycle of life: beginning, middle, end.
There are plenty of dark and depressing stories, too, of course. I’ve read a lot of Dostoyevsky, and while he’s really, really funny, he’s also pretty heavy and had a pretty dim view on life. Which isn’t surprising—they sent him to a prison camp in Siberia for four years essentially for reading fiction and essays that supposedly undermined the Tsar. And for a lot of my life I’ve been committed to reading these super heavy novels with super heavy themes about the super heavy difficulty of life. In the books I’ve read and loved, even a man’s lightness of being is considered unbearable. When I was younger, I read different things—various different kinds of fantasy novels, Tolkein, Tom Clancy, C.S. Lewis, R.L. Stevenson, Louis L’Amour. But around twelve years old, I read If Beale Street Could Talk and that was it, there was no going back to this other stuff that didn’t grapple with the emotional toll of some sort of oppression. Everything else seemed totally frivolous.
But you know what? I actually really liked reading that frivolous stuff. I still do. I may even prefer it. it seems strange to even write those sentences because it’s been more than twenty years since I copped to it, since I could read more than forty pages of a detective novel without thinking like I was wasting my time. Like I was wasting my actual life.
My wife likes inspirational stories and uplifting books and novels that really celebrate life, and she’s given these to me over the years, and I’ll read them for a while, but I don’t think I’ve ever finished one of the books she gave that most people wouldn’t consider depressing AF.
But I’ve found over the last couple months that it feels really good to lighten up, and I’ve decided I need some time to balance myself out. I think most people seek a balance naturally, but I’ve never been very good at it. Or, rather, I’ve thought I was one of those people who didn’t need balance. And maybe I was even mistaken in that—maybe there aren’t such people. Maybe Masha Gessen watches Hairspray every night to keep herself sane. I’ll probably go back to reading her—I’ve got The Man without a Face on my bookshelf ready to go, the visage of the Pale Moth himself smirking down on my every time I walk past. I’ll probably get back to some other “truths” about the darker sides of humanity soon enough. But hopefully I’ll do that because I’m really interested in it, and ready for it, and not because I feel compelled to.
For now, I’m trying to find what keeps me thinking like I’m lucky for all the gifts I have, instead of feeling like we’re careening towards the abyss. I need to practice balance. Because I do have a lot of good things. Certainly more material things and creature comforts than the majority of people on earth. And if I have to forgo some of my rigid principles to do that, I’m willing to. Because why do I have those principles anyway? Where did they come from? What do they do for me, really? And what do they cost? And who am I trying to impress with all my darkness and knowledge?
I know all this, of course, but I have to constantly remember it. It’s not like riding a bike. It takes practice. You don’t go out and practice riding a bike—you go out for a bike ride. You’ve already learned it. Not so with philosophy or spirituality or whatever it is I’m taking about. Those things, at least for me, take constant practice and reminding.
And so does writing, to return to the topic at hand. It takes preparation and practice. Practice is preparation.
I’ve been writing fiction for a long time, but it’s only recently that I feel like I’ve arrived at a sense of my own style—the kind of stories I’m interested in telling and the way I want to tell them and am comfortable telling them. I don’t know if I’ve hit that Gladwelilan 10,000 hours or not, but I have a sense of mastery. Not over other writers or the field of writing as a whole or even the English language, but over my writing, over the elements of which it is composed. This in turn gives me a sense of confidence, which allows me to trust the process.
Let me give you an example. I used to write down everything that came into my head. I’d carry around a notebook and if an idea struck me, I’d jot it down. I’d jot stuff on scraps of paper, on the endpages of books and the backs of receipts. I would pause a movie or interrupt someone talking. I didn’t want to lose anything. Whether it was something I was working on or an idea for a new story, I felt like I had to write it down immediately or I would never accomplish whatever it was the idea was going to help me accomplish. By “accomplish,” I mean how get a character across a room or make me the next Great American Novelist.
I don’t need to do that anymore. I’m not saying my memory’s gotten better since getting a few years older and having a couple kids, but I don’t depend on one idea to save a story anymore—or to change my life. I’ve also gotten over the fantasy, more or less, on most days, that Rich and Famous Novelist is something I’d like to be. That’s one of the advantages of getting past thirty and having a day job and a couple kids—your expectations get a little more realistic, so the potential for disappointment is a lot lower. If something occurs to me and I can’t write it down immediately and I forget it, it probably wasn’t that good of an idea. Even if it was, I trust now that I can come up with another good idea. It can be frustrating when you know you had a good idea for something but can’t remember what it was, but when that happens I tell myself that the next idea will be better, that the one I forgot was just the intro, the first spark along the fuse that leads to wherever it is in my mind that inspiration or epiphany happen.
Writing longhand helps me practice this, because while I’m writing, or thinking between sentences, a million things will occur to me, and I’m tempted to jot them down. When I’m typing, I do jot them down, in the white space below whatever paragraph I’m working on, and then, because I wrote them down, I feel compelled to go ahead and flesh them out. (How do you think this essay got to 4,000 words?) You can’t jot stuff down at the bottom of an actual piece of a paper, because you need that space for what you’re writing.
So, practicing writing longhand lets me practice shutting out the noise of my own mind to focus on what I’m doing. Which is one of the big differences between my longhand fiction and my typed fiction—the former is always clearer, simpler. Those are the kinds of stories and sentences I want to write—direct, solid, not frenetic and confusing.
As you’ll have noticed by now I use a lot of embedded clauses, sometimes between commas and sometimes between em dashes. I love a good em dash. My longhand writing has a lot less of these. My speeches have less because I’m conscious of how hard it can be to follow a tangential, parenthetical remark in a speech, especially if it’s embedded in a long sentence, and my longhand fiction has less because I’m not writing down everything that occurs to me and I’m doing it a lot more slowly so I can organize things. I can get to that later, I think, instead of finding a way (the em dash) to cram it into the middle of another sentence immediately.
Maybe if I’d started writing longhand earlier I would have developed this confidence earlier. Sometimes I think that’s the case, and I regret not having done it more earlier. But I didn’t, so I can’t dwell on it. You can forget about having a different past, I heard a guy say not too long ago. It was a different setting—we were talking about big life mistakes—but the sentiment is applicable.
Besides, for me, they’re very much the same. I can only write because I’ve had a life and have made mistakes and seen other people make mistakes, but I only know what those things mean to me because I write. I recently sent a whole bunch of stories to a friend, and I realized for the first time, seeing them all in a list and thinking of their endings, that I’ve written mostly pretty depressing stuff. There’s plenty of humanity in them, or at least I like to think there is, but even so, those small instances occur in worlds that fall pretty squarely under the rubric of Dark.
Except for the one I wrote in April. It’s more like the obverse of all the others: a bunch of dark and pessimistic stuff happens, but it happens under the banner of hope. I’m only realizing this now, as I’m writing about it. I wrote it longhand, of course, and because I did, I think something was happening or coming out that I wasn’t even aware of. Slowing down and giving into the process and trusting that I’ve prepared to do so allowed me to get in touch with something that is changing inside of me. Or that has already changed. Or is changed, at least for right now.
I wish there was an easy way to remember this, for the next time I have the bright idea to take a shortcut or feel like I don’t want to do what I know I need to do to prepare. When I don’t want to write something out longhand.
I should probably figure one out.