I did too much writing this week, and not enough of it was good. I was working on one essay for a long time, and the words were piling up but they weren’t getting me anywhere new or interesting. And then my brain stopped me, and I recognized I needed to walk away from the work for a while.
This was not a tragic moment. We do not need to be devastated when our writing isn’t working. We can recognize when we need a pause. It doesn’t have to be about beating yourself up. It’s just about taking care of your brain.
So I took a day and biked uptown to see some more of the Prospect 5 triennial I saw last week, this time the Elliott Hundley piece called “The Balcony” at the Newcomb. The piece is massive, sprawling organized chaos, but is perhaps best enjoyed for its details, the intimate parts of the collage, the pushpins, the miniature elements, the found objects, the cut-outs, the paint splotches. When I arrived, I realized I had forgotten my glasses, which I need to see close up. I would only be able to view it on a grand scale. I was forced to interact with it against what felt “right.” But it was not wrong. I was still able to take a step back and see the bigness of it. And I took pictures of the piece so I could examine it all more closely when I got home.
Anyway, I witnessed it in person. I got something out of it. And then at home I had another experience with the work, even if it was only on a screen. But it was a delightful surprise, to see the intimate details at last. It made me think I needed to go back to my essay and write it the wrong way first.
Because what I realized on that day away from the essay was this: I was trying to write something cute and cheerful that fit in a neat box. That’s what I thought was wanted of me in the assignment, but that was not how I felt about the question at hand. I felt messy rather than neat. This meant that I was writing dishonestly. I need to write this messy, I thought. I need to be messy. I need to be unafraid of being “wrong” or being viewed as such. I need to see this without my glasses on first. I need to stand back and look at the story from afar. I need to catch that vibe. I’ll get to the precise parts eventually.
I tackled it the next day. After a day solid of writing the wrong way, it’s still not done but it feels a lot better now. At least I don’t feel like I’m lying anymore.
Then today I went to a second line, more good messy, more good chaotic. We were all in such a splendid mood. It was one of the first second lines since before the pandemic. How happy the city was at that moment.
I ran into my friend Zach Lazar there. Zach is one of the finest writers I know, and also a treasured professor at Tulane. He’s good to talk to about writing; he’s able to be open-hearted about it, and curious, and he’s been talking about writing long enough that it’s an actual skill for him.
I said, “I’m thinking about how sometimes you have to write things the wrong way to get to the right way. Do you know what I mean by that?” He nodded. Of course he did.
“That’s basically my whole process,” he said. “It’s why I never throw anything away. Something that’s terrible, you put it some place you didn’t think to put it and it suddenly becomes magical.” He took a sip of his beer. “I write as sloppy and fast as I can. Then I circle the good stuff and cut the rest.”
He told me he could talk about this idea for a long time. He said he always thinks about being less linear. “You think the sentences should go in a certain order, but they don’t necessarily need to. I move them around into a different order, and then get rid of what doesn’t work.”
Helpful, I thought. Extremely helpful. He said it so casually, because he’d been doing it forever. I was trying to think about what I’d been doing forever. Just writing. Just that. Now I’m going to try it his way tomorrow. That out-of-order trick. Couldn’t hurt. They’re just sentences, after all.
Is this maybe a good week to fuck with your writing a little bit? Throw something away what “works” and see what’s left behind. Or maybe put a few sentences in a new, weird pile, or write against the assignment, or what’s expected of you? Move the end to the beginning or vice versa? What a relief it is to mess things up. Forget your glasses, answer the wrong question. What a relief it might be to do it wrong.
You are reading Craft Talk, the home of #1000wordsofsummer and also a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans (and sometimes elsewhere). This week’s donation went to Youth Empowerment Project.