institute for documentary studies

{Week 10: Writing}

Week 10: Writing

“Usually you will have to rewrite the beginning–the first quarter or third of whatever it is. Don’t waste much time polishing this; you’ll just have to take a deep breath and throw it away anyway, once you finish the work and have a clearer sense of what it is about. Tear up the runway; it helped you take off, and you don’t need it now. This is why some writers say it takes “courage” to write. It does. Over and over you must choose the book over your own wishes and feelings.” – Annie Dillard, Notes for Young Writers

Before I begin, I need to preface this blog post with a warning; I woke up with a kink in my neck this morning. A “kink” — a monosyllabic, teaspoon hitting-the-side-of-a-teacup kind of word — sounds small, slightly uncomfortable, maybe even fun. No. I cannot turn my head to the right, which, it turns out, cuts my perspective of the world in half. If I move, or chew, or laugh at a joke, my neck goes into spasm and cry out and scream in a way that my boyfriend said “reminds him of childbirth.”

So. This is all to say my neck is in a knot, and I am on various painkillers and muscle relaxants. I don’t remember their names because I was in too much pain to ask those investigative type of questions, but they are oblong and white and make me feel like I am encased in bubble wrap. Proceeding forward, please take all that I have to say with a grain of Salt.

Being immobile and incapacitated has its upsides, though, including my aunt coming over to bring me ginger tea laced with whiskey, and, because I cannot lift my right hand without triggering my neck, forcing me to get off my computer and read (I am, I’ll have you know, currently typing with one hand). While resting against a mountain of pillows,  I read the compilation of essays, “In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction,” edited by Lee Gutkind, who was named by Vogue the “Godfather behind creative nonfiction.” Gutkind has published an innumerable amount of books on the subject, and rather than having to decide which volume to buy, I picked up the “Best of,” which marked the tenth anniversary of the collection.

In the introduction, Annie Dillard mentions the courage it takes to write. As I wrote earlier in the semester, overcoming that initial fear and getting down to business can be hard. Often you end up feeling like a lump on the bed with a kink in your neck (or something). But once you do recognize that you’re not a waste of space, and get the wheels turning, you’ll be so pleased with yourself for starting that you’ll think whatever you write down is brilliant. Like pure gold, Pulitzer-Prize winning sentences.

My friend once told me that while she runs she murmurs to herself “You go, baby girl!” which I thought was both strange and adorable. But I do the same thing when I write, just not out loud, and when I come back the next day, I read the first paragraph again, and think “Damnnnnn that’s still good”, using it as my anchor to continue writing. I get attached to my words because they’re the first thing I put down on the page — like a first love, right for sixteen, but not the person you’re meant to spend the rest of your life with. So when the editing stage comes around, I am too attached to the idea of my sentences, too nostalgic for what they represent (sharing a locker, the last of my youth) to give them up.

Being high on painkillers is not too different from beginning the writing process: a rush of excitement, a lack of clarity, insusceptibility to self-doubt or pain. Right now I am the sh**t guys, because I am writing, and all it takes to be a writer is to write, right??

Nope. Lee Gutkind waited ten years to publish his “Best of” collection because excellence takes time. The good stuff takes a while to rise to the top. What I think is treasure is probably trash, and just because I wrote it doesn’t mean it deserves a place in my final draft  (the culture and practice of blogging, unfortunately, encourages this kind of word-vomit writing behavior). Listen to Annie; “take a deep breath and throw it away anyway, once you finish the work and have a clearer sense of what it is about.” By getting attached to our prose, we are doing ourselves a disservice.

I probably won’t remember writing this blog post. What feels so clear right now might make no sense in the morning. Tomorrow, I might be able to look in both directions, and then I’ll have a clearer sense of things.