Zen and the Art of Writing Fiction

I envy folks who have a set routine to write.  I’ve tried several, but all too soon life interferes and my routine is scattered.  (Hmm, the same thing happened with my three times per week yoga practice.)

Listening to Kate DiCamillo at the recent NJ-SCBWI summer conference was like being struck by lightning.  How many times have we heard successful writers say that they get up every morning and write?  And every time I heard that, I thought two things:

1) I bet you don’t have kids (or aren’t Mom).

2) You must need less sleep than I do.

This time, though, when Kate said she woke up every morning, made herself a cup of tea, and sat down to write, I didn’t think those snarky thoughts.  I was too busy focusing on what she said after the bit about the tea.  Kate claimed she had to write before her “inner critic woke up.”  Revelation!  

I had tried writing to prompts to settle in at my desk.  I had tried clearing my desk of all non-writing work – no email, no bills, no “just a minute” tasks.  I had tried reading – passages that inspired me and passages meant to inspire me.  I had tried cranking out my book reviews.  I tried music versus quiet (or as quiet as my New York apartment near a firehouse, construction, and school playground gets).  I even tried going other places to write.  Heck, this blog started as one of those tries – thus, its title.

Nothing worked consistently.  Sure, there were plenty of times I wrote.  NaNoWriMo was a big kick in the pants, and I wrote more in one month than I had in three months.

But Kate’s words exploded like fireworks inside my brain.

Writing fluently is hard for me.  I write on my computer, not longhand, and it’s far too easy  to self-edit.  Eric Rohmann had changed my writing life last year when he told me during my mentoring session that I needed to focus less on words on paper and more on story.  After working with him, I had changed my process so that I now spend plenty of time with a notebook (no, not my petite laptop, a real notebook with paper and spiral binding, sometimes even a sketchbook).

When Kate spoke of her inner critic, I realized that my inner critic was always awake when I wrote.  I was not allowing myself to simply get that first draft down.  Each  time I sat down to write my novel, I was editing the prior session’s work, with the result that I found it nearly impossible to segue into draft mode, letting the words come as they may, flowing – or trickling – into a stream of  story.

Hmm.  Sounds familiar.  After practicing yoga for nearly seven years, I still find it difficult to silence my mind, to lose myself in the poses and quiet the monkey mind of everyday life.  Mindfulness is valuable, and a skill I always hope to attain.

Kate’s keynote speech was inspirational in many ways, not least because of her tale of becoming a writer as opposed to her desire of becoming a Writer. To me, though, her words were tangible, an illumination of process that allowed me to make a instant synaptic and emotional connection.  Silence the inner critic – or ensure that she’s not fully awake, sharp-tongued and sarcastic – and the rest will follow.  Quiet your monkey mind and become one with the moment.

Well, after a month of writus interruptus due to the ending of school, I tried it.  Woke up on the weekend, and got myself my tea.  Ignored my newspaper, ignored my email, ignored the box scores.  Then I scrolled right past the pages I’d written before, right to the end, popped my cursor in place and started writing.

Well, what do you know?  I cranked out 500+words before my husband woke up or my daughter wanted attention.  I tried again, and again, and success continued.  Sometimes the flow of words was a trickle, and sometimes it was really just random raindrops sprinkling from the sky, but the words appeared.

We’ll see what happens when school begins, and life demands a little more in the mornings.  I might need to set that alarm just a little earlier.  Or I might need to skip reading the paper in between making breakfast and bag lunches.  No matter what, I just need to slip quietly around that inner critic.  Let her sleep just a little longer.


2 thoughts on “Zen and the Art of Writing Fiction

  1. Oh, Leslie, I SO agree with this! Unfortunately, for me, I was half asleep for about half of Kate’s speech (my exhaustion overtook me; it was uncontrollable), but I DID hear when she mentioned about the two different writers defined, and loved that. I’ve actually read/heard that before, just not the way Kate mentioned about the “waking up” the one versus the other. I loved the way she put it, too.

    I am still trying to get myself in a place where I can truly begin writing at all. My intention is to TRY to go to bed early enough that I can wake up exceptionally early (no later than 5) to spend my mornings writing. It’s not just a dream (though that’s what it feels like), but a goal for me. My biggest problem is completely flipping the mindset of a night owl, always pushing the envelope and trying to squeeze 48 hours into 24.

    I, like you, am always editing/revising as I go because I’m such a freak for the revision process. I truly love it, love words, love the english language and making it “sing” on the page. Eric was right—at first it has to be about story, then about the words. To me, that’s what the plotting process is about—-the story. That’s what I’m shooting for, hopefully soon. Once I have my plotting in place, I “think” I’ll be able to allow my “creative writer” awake long enough to finish the first draft and then deliberately wake up “the critic.” 🙂

    Good luck!!! Great post!

  2. Thanks, Donna!
    I find that my ideas also need to “digest.” I need some time with them before I can put them on paper. Signing up to pitch at NJSCBWI this summer was a *HUGE* boost in the right direction. I realized if you can talk about your book, well, heck, you’re ready to write it. 🙂 I do love my editing, but I’m getting better at making notes on feedback and then putting it aside to keep going.
    Good luck to you!

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