Have Paper, Will Write
December 2, 2010
A few days ago, I had a mentoring session with a writer I work with. We sat in the early morning over coffee at a shop in New York City, and we started talking about her work, and she started spinning a new scene for her memoir-in-progress.
“That’s great,” I said. “A key scene, I think it can be. Why don’t you scribble some notes right now?”
“Do you have a piece of paper?” she asked.
“I have paper for my own work,” I replied. “But not for yours.”
“You’re kidding,” she said. She couldn’t believe that I wouldn’t give her some of my paper. But I wasn’t kidding; I knew exactly what I was doing.
Call it tough mentor love, if you want. But a writer is a writer is a writer. And a writer, unless s/he’s someone just pretending to be a writer, carries a pen, a small pad of paper or a small notebook. Everywhere. (Well, almost everywhere. You know what I mean.)
The reason is that we get some of our best ideas away from the desk. Haven’t you found this to be true? You sit at the desk. You stare at the screen, at your notebook. You can’t figure out what to do with a sentence, a paragraph, a scene. You get up and go wash the dishes soaking in the sink. Bam! The solution is there. Which is fine for this particular moment of inspiration because you’re just a few paces away from your desk. But what if you weren’t? What if you were at a coffee house with your mentor and you came without a notebook?
Sometimes we think that these ideas that come to us suddenly, like the insight my writer friend had while we had coffee, will be there for the taking once we get back to our desks. But, I can tell you from experience, they won’t necessarily be there with that initial burst of clarity. And in some cases, they vanish. Gone forever. Down into that great sinkhole of fantastic ideas that the unprepared have lost.
It’s as if the creative spirit who looks down on writers has decided that today it’s your turn to get a blast of information to help you with your work. Such a creative blast can come when you’re walking, or driving a car, or tending a child, or sitting staring into space. She’s quixotic, that creative spirit, and she dishes out moments of inspiration whenever she feels like it. But when your turn comes, you better be listening, and you better have a pencil and paper handy and write down what comes to you, as soon as you possibly can.
I’m not the kind of writer who wants to piss off that helpful creative spirit. And because I’m superstitious where writing is concerned, I want to be ready (and grateful) for what comes my way. Because if I’m not ready for the presents she sends me (and I’m convinced the spirit is a she), I’m afraid she won’t send me another creative blast from goodness-knows-where anytime soon.
I once took myself into New York City to see a rerun of the film “Breathless.” I was writing a book called Breathless about my life as a person with asthma. As is my habit, I arrived at the theater early. I like to have quiet time in public places before meetings, movies, whatever.
The theater was dim. The seats were soft. I was relaxed. I wasn’t worried (it was long before bedbugs invaded some New York movie theaters). I just sat there, happily occupied with the pleasure of doing absolutely nothing, when, out of nowhere, I “saw” the entire book I was writing. It came to me as a diagram, and I fished out my pen and my notebook, and I drew a picture of the book that I would subsequently write. I included that diagram in the book, so if you want to see it, you can.
But what if I didn’t have pen and paper? Would that gift from who-knows-where have been available to me hours later? I don’t think so. Because it was an immensely detailed flash of insight, one that I never could have remembered in its entirety.
The creative process isn’t always like that of course. More often, I/we work in a muddle. But sometimes it is like that, and when it is, we writers have to be ready. And we can’t ask the person sitting next to us in the movies or our mentors if they have a pen and a sheet of paper. Because it’s our job – not someone else’s – to be a writer ready to write when an idea comes to us.
Virginia Woolf knew that, of course. I’ve seen her little notebooks. Seen her big writer’s diaries. (Exciting, I can assure you. To hold a famous writer’s diaries in your hand.)
In one diary, she sketches a diagram for how she “sees” the structure of To the Lighthouse. It’s two squares, connected by a long rectangle. If you’ve read the novel, you know that the long corridor connecting the two squares of the text is the “Time Passes” section. And that the first section is “The Window,” the concluding section, “The Lighthouse.” So what if Virginia Woolf didn’t have pen and paper handy when this big “aha” about the structure of her novel happened? She might never have “gotten” that uncommon structure of the novel; To the Lighthouse might not have become the miracle of a novel we know.
But of course Woolf had pen and paper handy. Because she took her writing seriously. Because, as a writer, she was always prepared to write. Because she put her writing (and not her husband) at the center of her life (although he supported her and work as much as any husband could, after the first rocky years of their marriage).
An aside about always being prepared.
Years ago, I had the good fortune to know the late Shihan Shigeru Kimura, who was my husband’s and sons’ karate Sensei. (You can watch one of the few teaching videos of him in existence if you go to this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=roYjsR8eUMk.)
I once asked Sensei Kimura how he prepared to teach his classes. I was a professor, then, and I sought counsel from everyone I came across so that I could perfect my teaching.
“But Louise,” he said, “I never prepare. Because I’m never unprepared.” It took me years to understand what Sensei Kimura meant.
I never prepare because I’m never unprepared. If you’re a Sensei, your obligation is to live your life in a way that allows you to teach at any given moment. You’re never not a Sensei, you’re never not a teacher; you’re never not a writer. It’s who you are. It’s your essential self. And it’s your obligation to always be prepared to do this important work.
Sensei Kimura could be a tough mentor – he knew when it was warranted. He didn’t coddle his students. That’s not the karate way. He would throw a student off the mat, expel the person from his school, if s/he wasn’t serious or if s/he disrespected him or another student. To not be serious was to disrespect karate, was to disrespect him, was to disrespect all the other students who were there to learn.
So on the morning I had coffee with that woman I’m mentoring, I wanted to throw her off the proverbial karate mat, and I did it, in my own way, by refusing her paper. I hope that she understands that when I said “You can’t have a piece of my paper,” she heard the subtext of my message, “You’re not taking your work seriously, so why should I? Your days of working with me are numbered unless you show me how serious you are.”
She was disrespecting me, yes. But more important, by not being prepared, she was disrespecting herself, her art. And this, no teacher should be forced to witness.