Tag Archives: writing

Many of the aspiring writers I know talk about writing more than they actually write. Instead of setting free the novel or short story or essay that is sizzling at the ends of their fingers, desperate to set fire to the world, they fret about writer’s block or about never having the time to write.

Yet as they complain, they spend a whole lot of that precious time posting cartoons about writing on Facebook or putting up statuses about how if they only had more free time they just know they could get their novels written. They read books about writing and attend conferences, workshops and classes where they talk ad nauseam about writing. However, they spend very little time alone, thinking, much less hunkering down somewhere and actually putting words on the page.

The problem is, too many writers today are afraid to be still.

–Silas House, “The Art of Being Still

Guilty as charged. In my frenzy over the last few months, I have neglected blogging.

It’s been hard to be still to write properly while in the process of working out my next career move and relocating. I’ve tended my draft thoughts by scribbling them alongside endless to-do lists or muttering them to friends in passing. Sitting down alone with my ideas and words, nurturing them take root on page to flourish or wither, has felt too draining.

Noncommittal notes and casual chat are not the most fruitful pastures to cultivate thinking.

But new employer, new geography, and new experiences beget me to blog again. Back to putting pen on virtual paper—and as House describes—learning simply by doing:

We writers must become multitaskers who can be still in our heads while also driving safely to work, while waiting to be called “next” at the D.M.V., while riding the subway or doing the grocery shopping or walking the dogs or cooking supper or mowing our lawns.

We are a people who are forever moving, who do not have enough hours in the day, but while we are trying our best to be parents and partners, employees and caregivers, we must also remain writers.

There is no way to learn how to do this except by simply doing it. We must use every moment we can to think about the piece of writing at hand, to see the world through the point of view of our characters, to learn everything we can that serves the writing. We must notice details around us, while also blocking diversions and keeping our thought processes focused on our current poem, essay or book.

This way of being must be something that we have to turn off instead of actively turn on. It must be the way we live our lives.

The No. 1 question I get at readings is: “How many hours a day do you write?” I used to stumble on this question. I don’t write every day, but when I first started going on book tours I was afraid I’d be revealed as a true fraud if I admitted that. Sometimes I write for 20 minutes. Other times I don’t stop writing for six hours, falling over at the end like an emotional, wrung-out mess, simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated. Sometimes I go months without putting a word on the page.

One night, however, I was asked that question and the right answer just popped out, unknown to me before it found solidity on the air: “I write every waking minute,” I said. I meant, of course, that I am always writing in my head.


Among the brand-name French theorists of the mid-20th century, Roland Barthes was the fun one. (Foucault was the tough one, Derrida was the dreamy one, Lacan was the mysterious one — I like to imagine them sometimes as a black-turtlenecked, clove-smoking boy band called Hors de Texte, with the hit album “Discipline ’n’ Punish.”) Instead of constructing multivolume monuments of systematic thought, Barthes wrote short books built out of fragments. He was less interested in traditional coherence than in what he calledjouissance: joy, surprise, adventure, pleasure — tantric orgasms of critical insight rolling from fragment to fragment. He proclaimed the death of the author and advocated a style of reading he referred to as “writerly,” in which readers work as active creators of a text. His critical metabolism ran unusually high: he would flit from subject to subject, defining new fields of interest (semiology, narratology) only to abandon them and leave others to do the busywork. He treated canonical French works with such unorthodox flair it drove conservative professors crazy. (Barthes first rose to prominence, or notoriety, thanks to the furor surrounding his early book about Racine.) In his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France — a sort of mission statement for the most prestigious academic post in the country — Barthes announced that he aspired above all to “forget” and to “unlearn” and proposed, as a kind of motto, “no power, a little knowledge, a little wisdom and as much flavor as possible.

The most reliable and user-friendly source of Barthes’s special variety of fun — the bouillon cube, if you will, of his critical flavor — is his early book “Mythologies,” originally published in 1957. In it, Barthes basically invented what we think of as cultural criticism: he was the first really first-rate intellectual to tell us what our most mundane pop culture actually means…

Barthes’s basic idea (although with Barthes it’s always dangerous to reduce things to a basic idea) was that the operation of mass culture is analogous to mythology. He argued that the cultural work previously done by gods and epic sagas — teaching citizens the values of their society, providing a common language — was now being done by film stars and laundry-detergent commercials. In “Mythologies,” his project was to demystify these myths. He wrote essays about professional wrestling, celebrity weddings, soap advertisements, actors’ publicity photos, trends in children’s toys and an initiative by the president of France to get citizens to drink more milk. He wrote an essay about Greta Garbo’s face. (“The face of Garbo is an Idea, that of Hepburn, an Event.”) He wrote an essay about Billy Graham, who had come to preach in Paris. (“If God is really speaking through Dr. Graham’s mouth, it must be acknowledged that God is quite stupid.”) He wrote about plastic. (“It is the first magical substance which consents to be prosaic.”)

…The most basic lesson of “Mythologies” is that everything means something, especially things that try to seem beyond meaning. “In a single day,” Barthes writes toward the end of the book, “how many really nonsignifying fields do we cross? Very few, sometimes none. Here I am, before the sea; it is true that it bears no message. But on the beach, what material for semiology! Flags, slogans, signals, signboards, clothes, suntan even, which are so many messages to me.” (He was the Walt Whitman of critical theory.)

If 21st-century culture has embraced any of Barthes’s lessons, it is this one. What is the blogosphere if not a Petri dish of amateur semiology — the decoding of everything?

This also suggests, however, one of the major differences between postmillennial America and 1950s France. Barthes was writing at the dawn of what we think of as mass culture: a time when the average citizen’s relationship to images was changing rapidly, when the texts people shared were suddenly not just religious or civic or local but global: a common set of images drawn from commercial entertainment.

The dawn of that kind of culture has obviously long since passed. We now live at least in its late afternoon, possibly even its twilight. The Internet, notoriously, came along and broke the old model’s kneecaps. Instead of just passively absorbing a series of broadcasts from Planet Media, consumers today participate directly in the creation of culture.

To my mind, the thing that’s exploding into relevance in our era is not mass culture but the critique of mass culture — the Barthesian dissection of everything, no matter how trivial. This happens everywhere now, often in real time. And this critical analysis is often as vital and interesting and consumable as the culture it discusses. Consider, for instance, the way the TV recap has evolved into a nearly independent creative form. So the critical analysis of pop culture has itself become a kind of pop culture. We seem to be approaching some kind of singularity — a collapse of creativity and criticism into one.

My favorite moments in the book are those in which Barthes seems moved by, and invested in, the culture he discusses: when he writes, for instance, about professional wrestling as a spectacle of justice, and seems to be defending it against reflexive and shallow criticism. In Barthes’s posthumously published book “Mourning Diary” — a collection of the notes he made after the death of his mother in 1977, 20 years after “Mythologies” — there is an especially poignant moment. Barthes admits to breaking down in tears when he hears a song by Gérard Souzay, a singer he once dismissed in “Mythologies” as the epitome of melodramatic bourgeois art. In this moment of contradiction, he seems very modern, and fully Barthesian.

–Sam Andersen, “How Roland Barthes Gave Us the TV Recap

Write like a motherfucker would have to be my first bit of advice. What that means to me is that—as I say in the column—you really, really have to be a warrior and a motherfucker. And you have to be resilient and faithful. You can’t be a wimp. You can’t stand around bitching about how hard it is and how indignant you are that no one appreciates your work, about how no one will publish you, or how people at parties make you feel stupid, about how you’re really not only a waitress or whatever job you’ve taken, about how your parents don’t understand you, or any of the stuff I bitched about plenty myself. I don’t say this from a place of condemnation, but rather allegiance. You really have to buck the fuck up, do the work, and know that you’re probably going to have to do more work than you imagined you’d have to do to get to the place that you imagined as successful. And when you get there, you’ll see that “successful” feels less successful than you thought it would. Success in writing is about keeping the faith over a long, long stretch of time. This isn’t something you just do a little bit and then get a reward at the end of—it’s a life’s work.

I believe in that voice I trusted all along the way. I believe in writing as a calling. If you truly feel that calling in you, then listen to it and respect it, but don’t expect that anything is going to be given to you—you have to get it. That’s true of any art form; any artist will tell you that.

–Cheryl Strayed, on her advice for young writers (bolding mine)

This is just brilliant life advice, even if you don’t care about writing. I’m a big fan of ‘writing like a motherfucker’ (and totally own this mug) but I love her further explanation of what this means. 

And in case you don’t know who Cheryl Strayed is, she is the writer of the most amazing advice column, Dear Sugar. Dear Sugar is basically a combination of that warm mug of hot chocolate and freezing cold shower sometimes I find I need when I’m wrestling with life. Whether answering questions about fetishes or infidelity or student debt, Strayed consistently reminds me how the small questions that plague us are often the big ones in disguise–which is exactly what a good advice columnist does.

There are so many reasons not to write. But few are any better than because you are going to get laid. That is a good reason. Everything else, all these other distractions are meaningless. Friends betray you. There will always be another party. I remember when John Updike blew off some big important New Yorker Party because he was writing. The only thing I ever liked from him was the story about the supermarket, but he lived in the town I lived in and I used to ride my bike past his house and wonder what he was up to, typing away in his house. Adultery stories mostly. But it must have been unbearable for John Updike to show up at parties anyway. Everyone bothering him for something. Everything in the world is trying to distract you from getting something on the page. Our own doubts about everything we do is crushing. Don’t let it crush you. No one has any idea what they’re doing.

–Jim Behrle, “On How to Write the Great American Novel

Great writers require idealistic integrity–as do their readers.

The writers we admire most are propelled by a mixture of innocence and chutzpah — the nerve to write big coupled with a childlike need to cultivate the virtues they have always believed in. They may surprise themselves by the insistence of their own higher motives and values. They may also believe that as readers, we will surprise ourselves for the same reasons.

–Roger Rosenblatt, “How to Write Great“, pg. 2

Ray:  What in the world could be more trivial than intimacy? Hmmm? Is there anything real you can write about?

Hannah:  What do you think would be a real thing to write about?

Ray:  I don’t know. Lots of things. Cultural criticism. How about years of neglect and abuse? How about acid rain? How about the plight of the giant panda bear? How about racial profiling? How about urban sprawl? How about divorce? How about death? How about death? Death is the most fucking real issue. You should write about death. That’s what you should write about. Explore that. Death.

–the TV show Girls, episode 9, “Leave Me Alone”

This exchange is definitely on point in conveying (the idiocy of) criticisms often hurled at women’s writing.

But it also reminded me of conversations I’ve had with Rays  in academic research, activism, and policy– certain professionals who insist on delineating between the ‘political’ and the ‘interpersonal’ and prioritising the former alone as ‘real’.

As long as we all know what’s important.

I mean, I still get confused so don’t mind when you find me knee-deep in the ‘trivial’.

My recent ‘discovery’ of Twitter (what do you mean it’s been around since 2006?) has definitely upped my ability to find more internet awesome.

Latest find? John Koenig’s Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows (@ObscureSorrows).

With the mission “to harpoon, bag and tag wild sorrows, then release them back into the subconscious,” the Dictionary is a compilation of made-up words and definitions. Koenig surveys the modern day emotional landscape, draws out new and potentially universalising experiences, and labels them. Kind of like Adam naming animals. Except with silver-tongued snark. And no animals.

The simplicity of the project is what makes it so bold. Because seriously, who has the gall to write a dictionary of words no one knows for feelings no one has ever said?

Turns out some guy in Minnesota.

Some of my faves:

heartworm n. a relationship or friendship that you can’t get out of your head, which you thought had faded long ago but is still somehow alive and unfinished, like an abandoned campsite whose smoldering embers still have the power to start a forest fire.

kairosclerosis n. the moment you realize that you’re currently happy—consciously trying to savor the feeling—which prompts your intellect to identify it, pick it apart and put it in context, where it will slowly dissolve until it’s little more than an aftertaste.

trumspringa n. the temptation to step off your career track and become a shepherd in the mountains, following your flock between pastures with a sheepdog and a rifle, watching storms at dusk from the doorway of a small cabin, just the kind of hypnotic diversion that allows your thoughts to make a break for it and wander back to their cubicles in the city.

apomakrysmenophobia n. fear that your connections with people are ultimately shallow, that although your relationships feel congenial at the time, an audit of your life would produce an emotional safety deposit box of low-interest holdings and uninvested windfall profits, which will indicate you were never really at risk of joy, sacrifice or loss.

the kinda blues n. the sad awareness that the unfolding plot of your life feels new and profound but is not unique, just one of a few dozen possible riffs on the same chord progression, while the tunes reverberating from the jukebox in your chest are all covers of old standards from the Great Emotional Songbook, which is 98% identical to that of the chimpanzee.


Consistently brilliant, the Dictionary binds labels to the small moments of connection, frustration, nostalgia, fear and meta-ness that accompany contemporary existence. Koenig is especially fantastic at dissecting and commenting on the intricate dynamics within the interpersonal.

Currently at 49 words. Carry on, brother.