Yesterday morning, I took a cue from Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones in the “First Thoughts” chapter and wrote in my notebook, pen and paper, in five minute bursts. I used the timer on my iPhone and I started it up two times more. I spent a total of seventeen minutes more or less, which doesn't seem like too much time. However, five minutes or a group of five minutes is more than none writing.
Goldberg offers these guidelines for any timed writing session:
- Keep your hand moving.
- Don't cross out.
- Don't worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar.
- Lose control.
- Don't think. Don't get logical.
- Go for the jugular.
I used a pen and notebook because it kept my hand moving. I figured this would be a good way to start on some fiction I've been meaning to write. If I try to start on Microsoft Word, I freeze up. There's something about how it gives you a virtual page layout that makes it daunting to even start and helps reinforce the terror of the blank page. Even sitting down with a notebook with pen in hand can induce this anxiety, so having the timer on pushed me to get my hand moving.
As much as I like using the Notes app to write things out, it doesn't get my hand moving the same way. It does get my thumbs moving and the predictive text adds an element that's not present when I sit down with pen and paper, which brings me to editing issues.
I have to admit I still crossed out words in my brief morning writing session. It's a hard habit to kick. Most of the time it was the wrong form of the word or even one that was misspelled. And yes, I worried about writing down the wrong word and spelling.
I usually don't have much problems with punctuation. However, I do get fixated on sentence structure and worry about how elegant or inelegant they come out. When I am writing more quickly, my sentences do run on more. They can be long and unwieldy, which is the opposite of being in control.
It's not just spelling, punctuation, grammar, and sentence structure regarding control. It's scary to reveal things in writing, especially when it's deeply personal. Even when it's not so personal, it's easy to get caught up o in what someone might think about me based on what I say, what I present about myself. Also, style and execution at this stage can stop the process altogether.
On her guidelines for a timed writing session, regarding “Go for the jugular,” Natalie Goldberg adds the note “If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.” This where giving control comes in. In avoiding what's scary or naked in my writing, I avoid what's awkward or uncomfortable, but I also avoid material that can later on be what lets the reader in. This is the type of thing that makes personal essays compelling, but it can also add deeply to fiction. I should not avoid the things that may be difficult to discuss or things I'm ashamed of in these writing sessions. Emotions too as they can be very scary, especially in naked form.
I've often use emotion to put off writing. Most of the time, it's that I might be feeling drained or sad, so I tell myself that I will write when I'm in a better state of mind. Then I'm in a better state of mind later and I still don't get around to writing.
For this and just sitting through the writing, Natalie Goldberg discusses Zen discipline and then applies it to writing: “...you may feel great emotions and energy that will sweep you away, but you don't stop writing. You continue to use your pen and record the details of your life and penerrate to the heart of them.”
In my desire for stability and control, I found it easy to stagnate and not move. There isn't room for the energy of first thoughts, so letting go of what she describes as the ego, “that mechanism in us that tries to be in control, tries to prove the world is permanent, logical, enduring, and logical,” helps. Then there is room for the energy of the first thoughts.
I can go into my timed writing exercises knowing the value of first thoughts. I can also approach untimed writing in the same way. And being present compared to living in the past helps. This makes writing active.