As I’ve written before in this blog, I write first drafts of fiction by longhand, so that means if I’m not writing in my outdoor office down beside the Alabama River (where snakes can fall out of trees right behind me—see an earlier post), I’m sitting in my actual office at a desk that doesn’t play home to a computer. Well, technically, it’s not a desk; it’s an old, somewhat small, dining room table with the leaves removed (and if you don’t know what I mean by “leaves,” maybe ask your grandmother). I tend to keep a very tidy office (okay, I keep everything neat and organized because clutter is where the devil lives), and my desk is a mostly bare surface, save for a lamp, a small globe, a telescope that is also somewhat small, and a few framed quotes by writers. Well, one of the quotes is not from a writer but a football coach. Maybe you can guess who that coach is.
The globe was a gift from my wife, Rhonda, who placed it on my desk and let me find it there. At first, I had to decide if it was clutter, or not. I decided not. Then the telescope appeared, and the same decision process occurred yet again, with the same resulting choice. At some point, probably months later, maybe longer, I finally realized why I needed to keep these two items on my desk. Writers of fiction try to tell stories that focus on unique individuals living in particular places, and we hope that, ultimately, we find our way in these stories to some larger, universal truths that speak to everyone. To put it very simply, we write about the micro and the macro. So one fine day, while I was looking up from the page trying to find the next words I needed to write, I looked at that telescope and thought micro (and yes, I know a telescope is not a microscope but it does allow one to focus in), and then I looked at the globe and thought macro (but you knew that already). What objects could be more fitting for a writer’s desk?
But it’s the quotes from other writers (and the one coach) that I really want to focus on here. On my left is this from an interview with the poet Alan Shapiro:
“You can only write what’s in you to write, whether it’s fashionable or not, whether people are going to be offended or not, whether people think you’re exploiting your own or other people’s suffering. I can’t control what people say, and to some extent, I can’t even control what I write. I have to write what I can’t not write.”
That last line certainly speaks to me. I’m not the kind of writer who has notebooks full of story ideas to chose from, but after I finish a story, or a novel, I’ll generally have a very few very half-formed ideas about what I might write next, and slowly one of them will push its way to the fore, seemingly on its own, and I’ll think, But how am I going to pull that off? Where will I go with it? I don’t know if that will work at all. How will I end it? What if people think I have no business writing such a story? There will come a point, though, where I know that it will have to be written, that it’s not something I can turn my back on. I know that if I don’t write it, I won’t be able to move on to something else. It becomes a compulsion, which I suppose is what I’m waiting for. And all that Shapiro says gives me permission to go right ahead and proceed.
All of which brings me to an untitled poem written by Sherwood Anderson that appears at the beginning of his collection of short stories The Triumph of the Egg. I have a copy of the poem in its entirety (in fact, my great uncle, Carl Beinert, who was a printer, printed the poem for me many years ago on his ancient letterpress—thank you Uncle Carl), but I’ll only quote a part of it here:
“Tales are people who sit on the doorstep of the house of my mind.
It is cold outside and they sit waiting.
I look out at a window.
. . . .
A short thickly-built tale arises and threshes his arms about.
His nose is red and he has two gold teeth.
. . . .
I am a helpless man—my hands tremble.
I should be sitting on a bench like a tailor.
I should be weaving warm cloth out of the threads of thought.
The tales should be clothed.”
I love that first line and also the idea of weaving cloth from threads of thought. Anderson’s poem makes clear how difficult it is to provide warmth for those tales, how hard it is to give a tale what it needs. And though the poem ends with the speaker finally failing his tales, unable to provide for their comfort, I take comfort in the acknowledgment of the struggle. So I keep working through those doubts I mentioned above, knowing, of course, that the work of writing at a cluttered or clutter-free desk can’t really compare to the work of digging a ditch or swinging a nine-pound sledgehammer or maybe even making a suit of clothes. One does have to keep some kind of humbled and healthy perspective.
Now for that quote from the football coach:
“Don’t think about how you are doing, think about what you are doing.”
I suppose those words “how” and “what” should really be in italics. If I ever meet Nick Saban, I’ll ask him if he stressed them in the middle of whatever rant he was on. Sometimes when I think about the state of my writing “career” and how I’m doing, I decide I’m not exactly where I want to be, that I’d like to have a little more recognition and more readers, not that I’ve ever really dreamed of having a best-seller, though I wouldn’t mind it. What I forget to do, and this quote reminds me, is to think about what I’m doing. Am I doing the work at my desk? Am I staying focused, trying to find just the right, and maybe unexpected, word or action? Am I doing the work of writing or am I thinking about its perceived rewards, which I have no control over?
Here’s another short one, from Flannery O’Connor:
“Sometimes the most you can ask is to be ignored.”
Now that might sound pretty negative, but I think she meant it was better to be ignored by reviewers and critics who did not understand, sometimes in the slightest, her work. She didn’t suffer fools gladly. For me, O’Connor’s quote echoes Nick Saban (I bet I’m the first to use those two names in a sentence) and is a reminder that working in some degree of, well, let’s call it solitude, though that’s not quite the right word (see, here I am failing with those threads of thought), is good for a writer, allowing him or her to stay focused on what’s most important (see Saban’s quote).
And here’s the final quotation, from “Berryman” by W.S. Merwin. It’s the newest to my collection, and it sits to the far right on my desk, next to the telescope and globe:
“I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t
you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write”
Words for any writer to live by, I’d say. I actually find them quite comforting. It’s good to know that I don’t have to be sure.
So, any quotes posted at your desk or around the house that help sustain you in your endeavors? If so, feel free to post them below in the comments section. I’d love to read them, and I bet others would too.
No thinking – that comes later. You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is… to write, not to think!
(I like this quote from the movie, “Finding Forrester.” )
Good one. I probably think too much. That’s why I’m such a slow writer.