What should I write about?
There are basically two times I ask this question. When I am just starting to write in a particular venue (like now) or when I am stuck in a rut and want to get out (like now). I want to start a blog about writing. What should I have in it? I was thinking I might put my movie and book reviews here, or I might put sections of the things I’m working on here. Or both. But right now, just starting out, I feel uncomfortable with both those ideas. I need a candelabra to hold the candles of all my future blogs. And I think I have some general things to say about writing that might be interesting to somebody. So I’m going to start with the most obvious subject: writer’s block, because I was briefly afflicted with it before starting this paragraph.
Writer’s block is, essentially, when you want to write about something, but you don’t know exactly what that something is. You may know a lot about the thing you want to write about, but some maddening detail is missing. I’ve written several short stories, published one, gone through two or three creative writing classes, been a member of two or three writer’s groups, listened to several podcasts about writing, read several books about writing, and I’ve read many books about all sorts of things and paid attention to how they were written. But what do I have to say that’s any different?
Basically nothing. If you’ve done as much research as I have in precisely the same areas, then this might look like a blog post you made a couple weeks ago and you’ll have nothing much to gain from this. (Hello future me!) But maybe there are a few things that I’ve run across that you haven’t heard about, and that you might have some trouble finding.
The musical Sunday in the Park with George, has the most beautiful depiction of writer’s block there is. “White,” painter George Seurat begins, “…a blank page or canvas. The challenge: bring order to the whole through design. Composition. Balance. Light. And Harmony.” As George says each word, color and content is introduced onto the stage until all the players are ready to begin the production. That’s what a blank page is. It is a challenge, yes, but also a realm of possibilities. You can do whatever you want, but you have to do something. You can’t run screaming away from the possibilities like a little ninny. Appreciate them, embrace them.
Almost every movie about writing has some tortured writer agonizing over the first sentence of his or her novel. Usually they are pretentious and use a typewriter, typing the first sentence and then ripping the paper out of the machine and furling it in anger into a metal mesh waste basket. After a slow dissolve the wastebasket over flows with crumpled bits of paper, and the writer is half dead, smoking the thousandth cigarette and drinking the hundredth glass of scotch.
You should only do this if you think it might be fun.
The best thing to do is actually write whatever you’re thinking about. Finish the sucker, and THEN agonize about it. If you’ve written the first sentence forty times, then maybe it’s time to give the second sentence a go. If you spend all your time reworking your first sentence, then that first sentence is going to be awesome, sure, but the rest of your work is going to suck.
I don’t know much about Chess, but one of the things I do know is that there are only a few opening moves. To a large degree it doesn’t matter what you do in the beginning, it’s all about how you react to your opponent. With writing, your only real opponent is yourself, and more specifically the critical voice inside you. You have to listen to this voice, but you can’t be governed by it. You have to outsmart it. You don’t get better at Chess by trying out all the opening moves. You get better at Chess by playing the game. It’s the same with writing. You’ve got to write, and you’ve got to write a lot. You can’t be worried about how bad you are. You have to realize that this is where you are, and if you want to get better, you’re going to have to write again.
One final thing: you probably aren’t as bad as you think. If you’ve looked at some of the books and other writing that’s popular now-a-days you might find that the bar is actually pretty low. How can this be? How can someone like Iris Johansen, who couldn’t write herself out of a paper bag, much less a paper back, manage to sell so many novels? How does Nicholas Sparks get away with taking four pages of plot and padding it with hundreds of pages of worthless drivel? How can Snookie get a book out, and have it sell, when there is no discernible value in anything she might have to say? How are these “authors” successful and not me? What have they got that I ain’t got?