Wednesday, September 28, 2011

¡Social writing!

Or, lessons in putting words together.

(Disclaimer: I am writing this alone at my desk at 11 p.m.)

I've always thought of writing as a solitary enterprise, something you do in a quiet spot, like an antique desk bathed in dusty afternoon sunlight or a cabin tucked away in the woods. But earlier this summer at the Wildbranch Writing Workshop I was introduced to an entirely new concept: writing as a social activity.

At the workshop, I was incredibly fortunate to be working with Craig Childs. If I had the power to temporarily assume someone else's life, Craig's would be high on my list (along with the frontwoman from Rubblebucket Orchestra). Not only did Craig write his first several books while wandering the desert between river guiding seasons and proceed to spend years living in a teepee, he now makes a living traveling to remote places and writing about them. And he's very good at it.

He also worked at a small-town newspaper for a few years (ahem, ahem) and learned there the valuable lesson that years of procrastinating in college never really teaches you: write fast, and write clear. Even if you're crafting the next Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, you'll never get anywhere if you mull and elaborate over every word, thinking that the mechanics of the universe hinge upon your nailing the flow and meaning of a single sentence. Writing for a newspaper, you learn that sometimes your best writing comes when you're forced to do it NOW.

Lesson number one is speed and clarity. I'm working on that. Lesson number two – the one more foreign to me – is that a writer can feed off the energy of his or her surroundings like a musician playing for a crowd. Sometimes inspiration hits you over the head and you are imbued with the gift of writing like a madman at 2 a.m. But depending on those moments to produce good writing is like waiting for a lightning strike to power your house. There is much to be said for the tired advice that writing is more about persistence than inspiration, but conversely, brooding alone over your laptop is neither glamorous nor good for your health. Sometimes you need a change.

Those inferences are mine, not Craig's. Craig, I believe, simply being an avid, AVID writer who takes notes everywhere and stops for nothing, was writing at a bar one night, sitting in the corner, channeling the energy around him into his words. A friend (or a stranger at the bar?) bet him he couldn't write a page on an assigned subject by the time the friend finished a rocks glass of tequila. Craig did – and at Wildbranch he read us what he wrote, a beautiful piece about surfing in California.

Eight hours later, I was carrying a six-pack into the Sterling College library – a lovely library that stays unlocked 24 hours a day and welcomed us to borrow books on the honor system. Around nightfall on a clear summer evening, about fifteen fledgling writers congregated outside the little library with laptops and beer bottles. Then Craig walked out of the twilight with a liter of Patron. Like children following the pied piper, we filed after him into the library, arranging ourselves in a small room – on window sills, on the floor with backs against bookshelves, at tables, on a couch. Craig put the bottle of tequila on a coffee table, deliberately poured himself a cup, sipped from it, and said, GO.

We wrote feverishly. Nonstop. Fed off the sound of thirty hands hitting 900 keys rapid-fire. I could almost feel people's thoughts shooting out from their heads. It was intense.

We did it four or five times, competing to see who could write the most, until Craig's already ruddy face was as rosy as a tomato from the tequila.

The writing from that night needed some polishing, but it was charged with the electricity of a room of creative people. Combine lesson #1 with lesson #2, stir, and the result is magic.

The next morning, as we did every day, those of us in Craig's class walked out to some mosquito-ridden nook in the woods, took off our shoes at his bidding and scattered barefoot with pens and paper to commune with nature and donate a pint of blood to Vermont's mosquito population. That writing was good too, in an entirely different way.

As in most everything, a balance seems best. Master the art of writing quickly and concisely. Go at times alone into the wild places, and at other times surround yourself with the noise and human energy of a city street, a subway car, a party or a bar or a group of other writers. And take notes.

Writers at the Montague Bookmill.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the encouragement to write! Speed and clarity! This is what I needed to hear. I have been shelving a lot of my "writing projects" waiting for that great inspiration to come my way. The illustration of waiting for inspiration is like waiting for a lighting to power the house is funny but very true. Thanks


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