Opening Veins and Writing

On the Saturday mornings I don’t have my kids, I go to yoga and then my favorite café to write. I try to treat myself by getting a breakfast burrito or a Danish, sipping on a cappuccino, and trying to snag my favorite seat by the window. I try to make my writing time special because I know that if I do it at home, I’ll distract myself with domestic chores: making tea or cooking lunch or scrubbing the floors or vacuuming. If I stay home and try to write, I fear the whole day will go by and I won’t have written a thing.

I have an interesting relationship with writing, as most writers do. By that I mean I love it and hate it at the same time. Writing is a time to face myself, to get in touch with my psyche, to be my own best friend. It’s also about tapping into an undercurrent that flows through all things, a kind of collective imagination, a chance to put forth my own voice into the ether. That’s hard work. And while it sounds magical, and while it can feel magical at times, often, writing sessions are like having to eat green beans at dinner. Sometimes they’re from a can (the worst). Sometimes they’re in a plastic bag in the produce aisle, perfect for steaming if you add a little salt (better). And sometimes they’re haricot vert, cooked in butter and sauteed with mushrooms (the best).

There are plenty of famous quotes by writers that capture the struggle writers have. Dorothy Parker says “I hate writing. I love having written.” Or the one from Red Smith (who the heck is he? A sportswriter, apparently) that goes, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says in order to write, you have to embrace starting off with “shitty first drafts.” It’s about keeping  your butt in the chair until you have a certain number of words written each day, being disciplined. It’s about figuring out what you’re not writing until you see what you are writing. And it’s about seeing only a small distance in front of you, like headlights on a car, and not having to overwhelm yourself with the whole thing. Julia Cameron, who mentors writers with her books such as The Artist’s Way, says writing has to come first—before paying bills, before doing dishes, before answering emails. And Ann Patchett, of Bel Canto fame, says after writing her first novel and being frozen at the thought of completing another, she had to require herself to sit down for just one hour a day.

For a long time, I spent hours reading about writing rather than writing myself. I consumed fiction, and I consumed books about writing fiction. It was because the writing part was such hard work, and I didn’t have the discipline to force myself. Now, I’m much better, because I treat it the same way I do meditation. I make myself sit for a half hour. Sometimes I go over that time, and sometimes I don’t. But if I write for a half hour, I feel that I’ve done my duty for the day.

One of my favorite quotes about creating art is from Michelangelo, when he was asked about how he went about sculpting David, and he said, “It’s simple. You just take away everything that isn’t David.”

The idea is that the beauty, the form, the art already exists. We just have to get better at seeing it, brushing away the illusions that keep us from the truth.

When I wrote my novel a couple of years ago—the one I’m still hoping to get published by sending to agents—the way I did it was to sit down for a half hour every night. When I had my kids, I did it after they went to bed. When I didn’t have them, I did it when I got home from work, or went to a café to sip tea and write so I wouldn’t feel so confined and lonely in the walls of my apartment. I even wrote on my lunch break during the winter, trying to assuage my guilt at buying a cappuccino every day so I could get some writing in. And little by little, my book got finished. It wasn’t about being masterfully inspired every day, or being on a high. It was about looking at the clock at 9:02 and promising myself I’d stay in the seat until 9:32, at which time I could gratefully close the laptop, meditate, and go to bed. Some nights, I was on a roll and kept writing until—wow—9:45! 10:05!. Other nights, I was counting the minutes, happy to be done for the day, knowing I was fulfilling a commitment and a promise to myself.

Nowadays, I almost always write on my lunch breaks and the days I don’t have my kids. Sometimes I still write after they go to bed, if I’m not too terribly tired. I feel there’s so much to write, so much to say, so many drafts on my computer I’d like to finish. And it’s gotten easier, based on pure discipline. On the days I’m churning with an idea or excitement and I’m eager to get to the page, I open my laptop and start writing seamlessly, happily. On other days, when I don’t want to do it, I treat it like sit-ups, like exercise. I do it for a half hour and then feel grateful when I’m done.

Often, starting to write is like diving into a cold pool. It’s jarring, it’s awkward. I feel unsure, standing on my tippy-toes. But once I plunge in, go under the water, I can find comfort and warmth. I can float on my back and feel the sun. I can feel the strength in my body as I start to swim.


image: “story-starters-for-kids” by agilemktg1

Categories: writing

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1 reply

  1. Bravo, Jana… you really captured it. Why most of us don’t get close to where you are in your writing. But I did like the reference to Red Smith, who I knew right away (as most sports fans would). And you even used his line in your title. Just open a vein indeed!


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