Finish Your Work

Some writing advice from a conversation with screenwriter Michael Almereyda:

Finish your work. Just get it out there. If you don’t finish it, nothing happens with it.

What if it’s bad?

It’s not a matter of good or bad. As long as there is genuine feeling in it, genuine curiosity or exploration, that’s what matters. Then you can move on and be better at what you do next.

Reverence for Your Tools

Have you ever noticed that masters of their craft have a reverence for their tools?

Maybe it’s the bike mechanic who takes really good care of her bike — lubing the chain, keeping the derailer’s high-lows lined up perfectly, etc. Maybe it’s a landscaper carefully oiling the hedge trimmer before/after use, stepping away from a giant shrubbery depiction of… Winged Victory. Maybe it’s a grandfather, carefully putting back his tools in their proper, outlined places. Maybe it’s a chef, always keeping the knife sharp enough to cut portals between worlds (like Will Parry’s in The Subtle Knife).

On Wednesday, I met the cartoonist of one of my favorite comics, Zits. His primary tool was the brush. When he described the brush, I couldn’t help but think of the wand dealer in J. K. Rowling’s Diagon Alley. The brush was made from hairs of the tail of a sable living in Siberia. The sable’s adaptation to the cold winters had made the hairs strong yet flexible. The brush costs $50. It lasts, if treated well, for one month, maybe two if you stretch it. No ordinary brush.

On top of that, the cartoonist mixed his own ink, from a thick ink with a thinner one, to get the viscosity he desired.

NB: Sometimes people make the mistake in believing that good tools/gear equates with being dedicated to your craft. Not so. Just because you have the best tool doesn’t mean you’ll know how to use it to best advantage. Yet, a dedication to your craft eventually leads you to seek good tools and materials, and sometimes, as with the hairs of the brush, the stories behind them.

Sensitivity Hurts

Sometimes you can get stuck in a loop while writing, lacking the ability to break out and get past a traumatic event. Instead, while writing, you make the channel deeper and deeper until you seem unable to liberate yourself from the awful memory of an embarrassing, shameful, or otherwise painful moment.

It cannot be denied that writing can be painful. However, where does this pain come from?

I think that the deepest pain experienced by writers comes not from bad posture over prolonged periods of time, but mostly from heightened sensitivity. This often stereotyped heightened sensitivity of the artist has more than a nugget of truth. As unpleasant at sensitivity may seem sometimes, it is tremendously valuable to a writer.

What if this heightened sensitivity were critical? Helen Keller couldn’t see or hear anything, but she was not a rhinoceros. She could touch and feel. Her sense of touch was probably closer to a star-nosed mole than any other human being alive. No offense to rhinoceros. The rhinoceros can feel too. But hopefully you know what I mean. This isn’t about the rhinoceros that’s coming close to being wiped off the face of the planet. This is about another more common kind of rhinoceros — someone who is mean-spirited or insensitive, even without meaning to be, in their relations with other people. Perhaps you even know one or two people who have acted this way. We’ve probably all been a rhinoceros or confronted a rhinoceros at one time or another.  It can be useful to have an impenetrable hide, but along with the painful bits, thick skin also tends to block some of the important and good stuff.

You may have turned to writing because you are aware of what many of people seem to be unaware about. Continuing to write has the tendency to further increase your awareness about whatever you choose to write about.

When you set something down in a journal and take the time to reread it a year later, your habits and hopes and dreams become painfully obvious. It becomes obvious where you have progressed and where you are still stuck in the same old habits. While it may not be fun to confront this, it is tremendously valuable feedback.

The key to writing in a way that’s not only increasingly well-organized brilliance, but also fosters your growth as a healthy human being is this: Treat writing as you would a position as an emergency medical technician.

Writers often confront difficult issues more directly than most people would care to think about. That can be traumatic.

In writing as in the EMT profession, you come face to face with people who have been disfigured, or who are dying, or who are in terrific psychic or bodily pain. You meet people who have made the wrong life choices and it’s too late to fix the plumbing of their body. Also, you meet people who have made the right choices — they were fit, ate moderately and healthily, never smoked, were kind to others — but suddenly through the twists of Fate, ended up in the ER or the OR. See: Book of Job.

Writing forces you to confront reality — writing which does not confront reality simply isn’t powerful. I’m not saying that a book can’t involve imaginary worlds — Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude was a powerful books, and falls under the category of magical realism. Even fiction — or especially fiction, if it’s good — heightens and focuses our understanding of reality and the way we relate to one another.

Whether you’re a writer or an EMT, you need to be sensitive to other people and to what’s around you. You also need to take good care of yourself to be ready for it.

Why do you write?