institute for documentary studies

{Week 6: Writing}

Week 6: Writing

Write like a M*****f*****.  Hopefully by some leap of the imagination you can guess. A Midsized Forest. A Military Fort. A Marbled Furnace. You’ve got it.

The aphorism has become something of a meme in the writing world; written across mugs, pencils, and maybe even somebody’s chest. It came from the mind of Cheryl Strayed, affectionately known as “Sugar” in the Dear Sugar Advice Column. Along with every other devotee, I want Sugar to be my mother and my best friend and my penpal and my mentor and, well, I just want to be her, if there was room for two Sugars in the world. Unfortunately, I am not half as bada** or as charming, and I have no credentials or right to give other people advice. As per Mira’s recommendation, I will give myself advice instead. As an ode to school and sodium, my pseudonym will be Salt.

Here’s my letter, to myself:

Dear Salt,

I am tripping over words. Getting tangled in run-on sentences. I am a 20-something year-old writer who doesn’t write. I think about writing, I talk about writing, I obsess over my future career in writing, but I don’t write. Or, well, what I do write could hardly be considered writing; the dregs of a poem, the first lines of a story, an e-mail to a writer friend. I sit down to write and end up reading instead. I become paralyzed by words that I could never string together, and the jarring discrepancy between my “future potential” and my present shortcomings. My perfectionism bleeds into procrastination. Every sentence could be better, every story has been written before, so what’s the use in trying?

I know, I know. I am the first to recognize this is a flawed mentality, perpetuating a cycle of inactivity. Tolkien wasn’t letting his self-doubt get in the way of creating middle-earth. In fact, The Hobbit gained notoriety by accident–the manuscript fell into the hands of a London publisher, who urged Tolkein to submit it for consideration.

Somehow, obsessing about my hypothetical life as an accomplished writer leaves no time for me to write. Like so many others, I am worried I will end up drowning in “what could have been”, with nothing to show for it but a half-attempted dream.

The Writer Who Doesn’t Write

Dear The Writer Who Doesn’t Write,

When I was around your age, I sat on the carpeted floor of my childhood bedroom and began to panic. I was about to embark on a yearlong trip to Thailand. Why was I such a masochist, I wondered, forcing myself into discomfort, leaving somewhere good for somewhere uncertain? I stared blankly at my five-page packing list. My mother had painted my blue walls egg-yolk yellow in preparation for my return from college. But I was leaving again, after only a few months, and my suitcases were empty, and I couldn’t find enough pairs of matching socks, and I couldn’t speak Thai, and I thought to myself: maybe I just shouldn’t go at all.

And you know what happened, sweetpea? I went, because I had made a commitment and I had paid for my ticket and I could buy new socks in Thailand. I lived alone in a studio apartment, where I cleaned the dishes immediately after I used them–because there was no one else to blame–and I made the bed each morning. If I told you I didn’t ever question why I was there–when green sewage water splattered up my leg, when my communication ability was reduced to pointing, when my job in the tropics turned out to be nothing more than dull days in an air-conditioned office–I would be lying.  On the hottest and most miserable nights, I looked up the price of a ticket back to the U.S., and hugged my computer like it was my mother. By the time the year was up, I wanted to stay longer.

What I’m saying is, you have to start. And just because you start, doesn’t mean it’s not going to suck, but at least you started. You may cringe at the sound of your writing read aloud, but I promise you honeybun, you’re going to be cringing a lot more when you look back at your life and realize that you mistook potential for success.

Keep reading, writer. Read until your eyes hurt. But don’t take down a book from the shelf just to marvel at a writer’s talent and pity yourself for falling short. Obsequious readers are the most lazy kind. Read like a writer should; analyze, unpack, annotate to fill the page.

Remember, babies don’t pop out speaking in full sentences. You have to learn your way around a language. If a passage reads as smooth as butter melting on a pancake, it probably was written with most scrupulous care. Whatever sounds effortless takes effort. Great writers work hard to be great, and if they say otherwise, they’re lying.
You’re scared, Writer Who Doesn’t Write. But you’ve got a problem, because you’re cocky too; you think you can have the job title without the work. If that’s the case, then everyone else is a writer, too. We are all capable of manipulating language, and even the most prosaic folk speak in poetry. A street sign on my block says “Dead End”. Is that not the most beautiful thing you’ve ever read?  I am proud of you for identifying the writer within yourself, the voice that needs to be heard, the neat cursive of your fourth grade diary, because that’s ballsy and crazy and brave, but now it’s time to get dirty, and back yourself up with words. And by that I mean, be rigorous. Be accountable for your work. Push yourself like a drill sergeant. Write until your mind is out of breath. You have to earn your title, and standing around waiting for perfection to come is a waste of your time.

I still make my bed everyday. It’s a small pleasure, a habit I started in Bangkok on purpose because I thought the world was divided into people who made their bed, and people who didn’t, and I wanted to be on the other side. I assumed developing the habit would be arduous, because I was not, innately, a “bed-making” person, just a non-bedmaker who strived to do better. My conversion was easy; I found out the only difference between the two groups, is, really, the act of making the bed.


Want to know what separates writers and those who say they write? A pencil.

Start your habits now, darling. Grab that pencil. First, it will feel strange and unfamiliar and weird, but soon it will become like brushing your teeth—you can’t go a day without doing it. Emails and witty g-chats don’t count. Write a daily poem, keep a journal, or whatever it is you need to do to practice your craft.


You’re never going to be perfect, sunshine. And if you don’t start trying, you’ll never realize that that’s okay. Forget your best, most brilliant, writerly self. All you’ve got right now is an empty suitcase. Start packing.