There are many myths about writing. One is that the main challenge is to put words together in a way that is both beautiful and grammatically correct. A variation of this myth is that writing is primarily about plot, or argument, or form, or some easily discernible element of the final work.
Focusing on the final product is intuitive: it is the most visible part of the craft. Yet as many writers know, the text a reader enjoys is the result of multiple rounds of revision. The reader does not see much of the author’s labor, and the invisible work is often the hardest. A writer digs into her past in search of lost smells, places, objects and conversations. She might knit imaginary people out of the threads of real ones, finding the spark to make them live first in her own imagination, then in the reader’s. To do all this she has to understand what her story is about, a process that can take years of introspection, research and writing. Most difficult of all, she must convince herself to do something irrational: add her voice to the common noise, offer up her essay or story or poem to a world that has made it clear how little it values art.
It is possible to read many volumes on craft and style without finding guidance on the invisible work of writing. Yet there is also a robust history of advice that focuses on the art’s psychological demands: finding the courage to write in the first place, maintaining one’s motivation and trusting one’s intuition. Its early representatives were women. Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer (1934) and Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write (1938) shared the assumption that everyone has the ability to write well if they can learn how to connect to their imagination. Other sages followed in their footsteps: Julia Cameron, with her stream-of-consciousness “morning pages”; Natalie Goldberg’s Zen Buddhist-inspired writing practice; and Steven Pressfield’s military-themed guide to fighting inner resistance. Many of these books have a spiritual dimension. Others speak of tapping into the subconscious. Either way, they understand that creativity depends on an intelligence deeper than rational thought.
Three recent books on writing – by Cathy Rentzenbrink, Nikesh Shukla and Melissa Febos – continue this tradition. Those by Rentzenbrink and Febos focus on the art of memoir. Shukla’s book is aimed at writers of fiction, but he keeps nonfiction authors in mind throughout, adapting his prompts and tips for them as necessary. All three volumes combine much old wisdom with a few new insights. But repetition is not a flaw in this genre. Sometimes the counsel we most need to hear is that we already know.
“Almost all writers exist in a continual vortex of despair and doubt”, Rentzenbrink says in Write It All Down: How to put your life on the page. Reading Rentzenbrink is like meeting a chatty, friendly writing instructor intent on passing on every trick she knows for combating the fear of writing. Arranged in short sections with suggested titles such as “But Am I Any Good?” and “Deep Blocks”, Write It All Down is more commonplace book than rigorous programme, and it can be difficult to find good ideas again without extensive bookmarking. But the reader who is willing to dip into it here and there will discover much help and consolation.
Rentzenbrink works through all the possible anxieties an author might create for herself in order not to do her work. There is not enough time. Others do it better. Family will disapprove. No one is interested in this story anyway. “What we need to do,” she concludes, “is stop damming our flow.” Each writer is split into two creatures: one who dwells in the delight of creation, and another who fussily anticipates the work’s eventual reception. “I suspect that writing is broadly good for me,” Rentzenbrink notes in a discussion of whether writing can serve as therapy, “but that worrying about the quality and what other people will make of it is bad for me.”
Rentzenbrink’s answer to this conundrum – like that of many other writing teachers – is a series of prompts and games that guide the writer into “an authentic relationship” with herself and calm down her nervous system. She offers opening lines for journal entries, guidelines for tapping into emotions and senses, and letter-writing exercises. Playing off Ernest Hemingway’s “iceberg theory”, which held that omitting many of a story’s details would strengthen it, Rentzenbrink refers to the hidden psychological labor that underpins a project as “iceberging”. “The single biggest thing that trips up inexperienced writers”, she says, “is underestimating how much work … goes into any project, and how much of that work doesn’t end up being reader-facing but is essential to the process.”
The problem for a writer battling her fears is that she can find ample confirmation of all of them if she spends too much time on social media. Rentzenbrink’s description of how Twitter destroys creativity is excellent, and might have been a book on its own. An endless stream of suffering, boasting, shaming and the general grousing of “opinionated gobshites” might convince any writer to put down her pen or slam her laptop shut. Turn off the internet, advises Rentzenbrink, and “have dominion over your own mind”. The payoff is that if a writer can learn to calm her fear enough to write, the creative act will help her feel less afraid in the rest of her life. “Writing functions like anti-anxiety medication for me”, she writes; “If I take my two-hour pill of it every morning, then I have much more chance of enjoying the rest of the day.” This is good medicine.
Nikesh Shukla’s Your Story Matters: Find your voice, sharpen your skills, tell your story also strikes a casual, chummy note as it aims to help the budding writer through the preparatory work of writing. “Use this book as a comfort blanket”, he writes, “or a guiding, warm and moisturized hand leading you through the darkness.” Shukla’s persona is that of the cool teacher, nimbly drawing lessons alongside comic books and television series classical literature. (Even Mrs Bucket from Keeping Up Appearances finds her way in.) Stories come in many forms, he points out, and so do poetic voices; one can learn style from rappers as well as from Sally Rooney. Shukla is particularly winning in his willingness to be honest about his own life as a reader and writer: he admits to reading Madame Bovary for the sex scenes and, late in the book, tells a revealing story about an unignified response he had to see his work edited.
Rentzenbrink’s main assumption is that writers are blocked by anxiety; Shukla’s is that writers are blocked by not knowing what they want to communicate and why. Both can be true, but the emphasis matters. His technique consists of a series of focused prompts that encourage the reader to think through the story, beginning with the motivation for writing it and proceeding to its smallest details. “What will it mean to you if you tell this story?”, he asks. “What will it mean to you if you do not?”
These seem like simple questions, but they are essential and not easy to answer. Any long project requires perseverance. The writer’s dedication must be particulary bullish, however. She must steal time from her family, her friends and her job to write. No one – except, perhaps, a long-suffering agent – really wants her to be working on a book. Her taste surpasses her skill, so she is confronted with her own mediacrity. And if the book involves delving into painful memories or the ugliest corners of her soul, she must be willing to bleed on the page if it is to be any good. What rational person would do this, for years, without good reason?
Shukla has a practical approach and a poetic one. The first involves understanding that thinking is an essential part of writing: “Not all writing time needs to be spent putting words on a page”. Shukla takes the writer through story-planning, character development, world-building and the nuts and bolts of revising work. His chapters are short, clearly titled and supplemented with substantial prompts to train different writerly skills. One could use his book as a dedicated course or reference guide. At the same time Shukla maintains that it is impossible to teach someone how to write something that sparkles: “writing advice is great, but you are communicating with the cosmos”.
Where rules and instincts conflict, he maintains, the writer must honor her own creative impulse first. Yes, there are editors, agents, critics and readers who will eventually pass judgment on a work. But the first and most important audience is the writer themselves: “we’re writing for a version of ourselves that needs to read this book”.
“There is no pain in my life that has not been given value by the alchemy of creative attention”, writes Melissa Febos in Body Work: The radical power of personal narrative. In this collection of four lyrical essays, Febos defends the healing power of memoir and meditates on ethical ways to write about others in their most intimate and vulnerable moments. In doing so she enters a lively debate about the relationship between writing and therapy. Some teachers of creative writing insist that their students focus on craft rather than on their traumas. Others admit that writing can be therapeutic, but should not be confused with the care provided by a licensed professional. In general there seems to be a pervasive fear that fledgling writers will become so wrapped up in their own pain that they will forget to write something another person would be interested in reading.
Febos argues powerfully that writing about one’s life honest self-analysis, and that understanding oneself is a vital part of a fulfilling life requires. “Refusing to write your story can make you a monster,” she explains, “or perhaps … we are already monsters. And to deny the monstrous is to deny its beauty, its meaning, its necessary devastation.” Like Shukla and Rentzenbrink, she believes writers must connect to the “creative intelligence that resides beneath our intellect”, but she suggests that this creative instinct is closely tied to the worst parts of ourselves. The task of the memoirist is to “punch through” the superficial stories she has been telling about her own life, through her own comfortable assumptions and early drafts, so as to learn something true about herself.
Febos points out that we do not always have complete access to our own emotions during an experience; The work of the memoirist involves understanding both what happened in the past and what she could not perceive at that time. Then she must find words for “the many kinds of hurt and harm that lie between the poles of abuse and not abuse, trauma and not trauma”. Febos’s own prose – clear, resonant, beautiful – offers another answer to the worry that too much introspection will lead to unpalatable writing.
In her final essay, on memoir and confession, Febos takes on the modern idea that art must be made for its own sake alone. Art has always had many functions in our lives, as “a form of worship, a medicine, a solitary and a social act”. The distinction between creativity that serves an aesthetic purpose and creativity that heals is artificial. Writing, as all three authors recognize, can be done for attention, for intellectual stimulation or for money. But we also write because it helps us live with greater integrity, with a sense of wholeness and connection.
Irina Dumitrescu teaches medieval literature at the University of Bonn
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