Thoughts On Writing

taking the mystery out of writing

The first book that turned my entire world upside down and made me realize that, y’know, not every story has to have a happy ending was No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy.

See, until McCarthy, the majority of media I’d consumed was pretty clear-cut sci-fi/fantasy: there were good guys, bad guys, and funny little sidekicks that quipped and provided cute commentary (The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Inheritance Cycle, to name a few).

While these stories helped me develop my moral compass and decide the kind of person I wanted to be, No Country for Old Men shook the foundation of everything I believed in. It was philosophical. It was dark. It was gritty. It was real, both in the sense that it took place in our reality, and that it was filled with real people who made organic decisions based on their personal situations. I mean, who hasn’t thought about what they’d do if they found a suitcase filled with money in the middle of nowhere with no one around?

McCarthy’s prose style is tremendously poetic. His descriptions are rich with colorful symbolism and often inform the grander narrative and character motivations. In my own writing, I strive for this level of detail, although I don’t find it necessary to be as “long-winded” as McCarthy. His dialogue often appears without quotation marks and is written with a strong sense for character’s colloquialisms. There are moments in which the characters seem to be talking about nothing—having casual conversation that all of us have every day—but he still finds a way to make it riveting. Sometimes, the lack of punctuation may seem pretentious, but it works with his overall writing style.

McCarthy incorporates the same kind of style in all of his writing. I’ve also read The Road (one of the saddest, most beautifully written books I’ve ever held in my hands), and I’m currently in the middle of Blood Meridian (definitely the most violent book I’ve ever read). McCarthy’s books are populated with uncomfortable things. People killing people. People killing animals. People thinking about the nature of existence, and what it all means, or if any of it means anything at all.

I’m currently writing a novella (a horror story about a dude with too much hair), and I often turn to McCarthy. Of the authors I’ve read, no one else executes violence so beautifully; menacing, but beautiful. His dialogue is something I try to emulate (though I’m sure some readers will find it derivative) because it’s so stripped and raw and primal.

It’s the nothingness that happens that I strive toward. The nothingness that means everything.

The tools of writing are as varied as writers themselves. Some writers prefer pen and paper. Some prefer pencils. Some use an old-fashioned typewriter, and many, if not most, use a computer.

People that prefer pens can be picky. I know people who swear by a cheap Pilot G2. I know others who love a nicely-weighted fountain pen. Over the years, I’ve had some pens that I loved. I even had a fantastic pen made from a Jack Daniels barrel. I need my pens to have some bulk to them — both in size and weight. I’m also left-handed, so I’m always looking for pens with ink that doesn’t easily smear.

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I love everything about conferences: learning, networking, and people-watching (post-conference drinking is a great addition, too). I presented at a few conferences over my academic career, my first being at the National Undergraduate Literature Conference (NULC) in Ogden, Utah, where I gave a talk on “Anti-heroics in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men.” I have also presented at several Writing Center conferences on a myriad of topics, ranging from the pedagogy of online writing consulting to incorporating elements of creative writing workshops into consulting sessions.

This marked my first year attending the Content Marketing World Conference (CMWC), and I can easily say that it was one of the best I’ve ever been to. Every session provided me with valuable insights into internal and external marketing, but also allowed me to dissect my own personal writing more deeply than I ever had.

The keynote speaker for CMWC was Tina Fey, someone who I’d never expected—or necessarily wanted—to see. Let’s just get this out of the way: she was great. She was an engaging speaker with an inspiring story and personable attitude toward her career. She spoke quite a bit about her writing process and her success as a director, writer, producer, and actor, and (as mentioned in previous posts) a lot of it comes down to #JustF***ingDoingIt™.

However, CMWC really got me thinking about audience and objective. While I believe strongly in the power of literature and storytelling, I also find myself (a little more often than I’d like to admit) asking: “Who the hell cares?” Sure, I feel a personal connection to my characters, settings, and sometimes-a-little-too-subtle-and-obnoxiously-cryptic narratives, but will the audience feel that same connection? Will they understand the objective of my story, or be able to interpret a purpose on their own?

What I think I’m trying to say is that conferences force us to reconcile that blurry division between personal and professional writing.

Of course there are differences between the two—because you can damn well bet that a technical writer isn’t going to give his one-act play the same monotonous tone as the automotive manual he’s working on; similarly, he’s not about to pepper an automotive manual with flowery words and stage directions—but keeping an open mind is absolutely essential if you want to make progress in your own writing.

For example: Why not apply the strategy of creating a documentary-style marketing campaign to a personal project, especially if that strategy has proven successful?

Writers (myself included) have a tendency to get distracted with the stories they want to tell, and end up writing, and writing, and writing, and end up altogether neglecting their objectives and audiences. Whether we like it or not, those two things are important because they give us they focus and determination we need to follow through.

I mean, if we don’t know who we’re marketing our stories to, who will?

As I’ve embarked on this adventure in writing, I’ve noticed a few things about how I work, and how long it takes me to get things done. As the leader of a software development team, I’m focused on communication. I dedicate two out of my three screens to email, instant messaging, and chat. At any given time throughout my day, I’m juggling multiple conversations and dealing with a variety of emails. By any definition of the word, I am not a doer. I don’t write code. I solve people problems, not code problems. To be fair, I do some technical things at work, but mostly I’m dealing in some kind of written communication.

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IMG_2769.JPGWhen I’m interested in a topic, I want to learn everything I can about the subject. This applies to technology, health, fitness, history, writing and more. I am an avid reader and have a reading list that only grows, and never seems to shrink.

Most of what I write is in emails, some short blog posts, and occasionally, some documentation for a project. Underlying all that has been a desire to do more, to “write more” as I mentioned in an earlier post. I’ve been under the mistaken impression that this desire has really only come up recently, but I realized that it’s been much longer.

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What’s the hardest part about writing? It doesn’t matter if you’re a poet, an author of a young adult fiction series, or a technical writer for a large corporation: from singer-songwriter to playwright to the dude who writes the dialogue for your favorite video game character, the struggle is the same.

Though I love writing more than almost anything (after comic books, chicken fried rice, and sleeping in), I’m the first to admit that writing is hard. I was once ridiculed by my professor for submitting a poem to a workshop that had a glaringly obvious typo. Later on, I wrote a research paper on Marvels (Busiek and Ross) and had to ask for several extensions for various reasons. Even now, when I’m writing copy for signage or an email, I often find myself getting caught up on finding the “right words” rather than making any real progress.

Whether it’s missing a typo, pushing back a deadline, or lacking creativity, I always have an excuse when it comes to writing:

  • I can only write in the [morning/afternoon/evenings/wee hours of the night]
  • I need a new [pen/desk/notebook/computer] before I can [start/finish]
  • I’m too [tired/busy/stressed] to [write/edit]
  • I’m not feeling inspired
  • I have writer’s block
  • I can’t find the time

I have an undergraduate degree in English Language and Literature (ELL) with a concentration in Creative Writing. I continued to study ELL and Creative Writing in a Master’s Program, where I branched out into several different genres and areas of discipline, ranging from poetry and experimental fiction to literary theory and applied linguistics.

TL;DR: I’ve written a lot.

Some of it good, tons of it passable, and even more that I’d probably be embarrassed to just look at again. Don’t get me wrong: I love writing. I mean, it’s not lucrative, and the process of putting pen to paper (literally or metaphorically) can be absolutely infuriating. Hell, something that should be simple—like a line break, or a thesis statement—is never remotely as easy as it seems.

Writing may be hard, but the excuses we come up with for not writing are just that: excuses. Yes, many of them are valid. However, if you’re truly passionate about writing—if you’re in it for the struggle of stringing together jumbled thoughts on a blank white page to make something meaningful—you’ll find a way.

Budget a timeslot in your schedule to write. Keep it exactly the same each day, anywhere from 5 minutes to an hour—whatever works for you. Committing that period of time to write is the easiest way to not only get in the habit but also change your mindset.

Rather than saying “I want to write good writing,” just let yourself write. There’s this myth that an author can sit down at a desk in a candle-lit room and vomit up the perfect paragraph. I’m telling you: it’s 100% untrue. That first line, that first stanza, that first drop of ink will almost never be perfect, and that’s okay. Let it be okay. It’s on the foundation of this imperfect thing that we build our own stories.

To say I’ve always enjoyed writing would be a lie. In school, we were forced to write and, like most teenagers, I did what I had to do but never really enjoyed it. I wrote research papers, opinion papers, book reports, and essays. I’m sure at some point I was even forced to write poetry. Once I started working as a software developer, my writing turned to requirements and design documents, and sometimes to user documentation.

It wasn’t until the early 2000’s when I started a blog that I began to enjoy writing. The blog was mostly about technical issues I ran into, but sometimes it was about experiences I had as a consultant or about a book I read or something going on in the news. I really enjoyed the outlet and received good feedback on many of my posts.

Read on at Medium.com