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Question: How do I institute a writing practice that I feel good about?

FROM : Anonymous (via Ask TCI on our homepage)

Q: I am working on my first long-term writing project without any fucking clue what I am doing. I am a slow writer who tends to jump around a lot. I feel that what I am doing is wrong. How do I institute a writing practice that I feel good about? I am 26, with a few minor publications, working in publishing, and my inability to churn out a steady stream of work makes me doubt my work.

A: Ah, yes, doubt and writing. I feel I too at this point can write a dissertation on the subject, and this treatise would be riddled with holes and uncertainties. Let me turn to Marguerite Duras, from her series of essays on writing:

In life there comes a moment, and I believe that it’s unavoidable, that one cannot escape it, when everything is cast into doubt... And this doubt grows around one. This doubt is alone, it is the doubt of solitude, it is born of solitude. We can already speak the word. I believe that most people couldn’t stand what I’m saying here, that they’d run away from it. This might be the reason why not everyone is a writer, yes. That’s the difference. That is the truth. No other. Doubt equals writing. So it also equals the writing.

It seems that you are also in this community without a community, of the writers who long to write, who do sometimes write, but doubt what it is they are writing or that they are writing at all. You are a writer! Or, to be more specific: You are my species of writer. Welcome. So what does this mean, beyond platitudes? Perhaps what needs to change is your perspective, brought about perhaps by working in publishing, where what you are engaging with so often is the finished work. Perhaps instead try to think about what writing is to you, and to think seriously, even religiously, and, importantly, compassionately, about your process.

You write that you feel you are doing something wrong, working slowly, instead of churning out a steady stream of work. I think this is a myth of the good writer, this completely competent and disciplined writer who churns, who sits at a desk a certain number of hours a day and writes a certain amount of words. It feels so tied to capitalism and productivity, this writer who churns. Maybe you don’t churn out words! I do not churn either. Or: I churn, but it’s not always words in a computer document. That is only one stage of the writing process for me, and honestly, a pretty later stage in terms of envisioning a project. Sometimes, I think, working on writing, on a book, is trying to figure out, for you, what that means to work on writing. I often have conversations with friends who are writers about this question—what does it mean to work on writing, and why do we often feel that we are not working on writing? But I think that there are many ways you can and should work on writing—reading is writing, thinking is writing, researching is writing, walking can be writing, watching a film or seeing a work of art is writing, talking to friends is writing, doubting is writing. Perhaps the churning that needs to be done is not words on a page, but inwards. What are you thinking through? Perhaps you do not know yet, and you won’t know until you use language, and the doubt within that language, to write yourself out of this problem. And perhaps it’s never a steady stream! I think often of W.G. Sebald and what he has said about writing, that when he is working on a book, he follows after his thoughts like following a dog wandering through a field. Perhaps if you knew what you wanted to write completely, exactly what you wanted to say, it wouldn’t be worth trying to write about.

So how to establish writing as a practice? Try to think about your project every day for at least 15 minutes. Try to structure reading around what you are trying to write through—everything from philosophy and theory books to works that give you permission to be totally brave in your own work, to voluptuous and strange modes of research. Keep a notebook. Keep many notebooks. Be serious and particular about notebooks. Keep a daily journal as one of the notebooks—and see what of your project you begin to circle around in that dailiness. Title your project, treat it like a country or landscape you desire desperately to visit. Eventually, think about outlining, structure, how to write into it. Write tiny playful texts that have nothing to do with your larger project, write them in the margins of the notebook, and gather them up, and feel pleased and proud with how wonderful they are. Try to gather up time and space and solitude as much as possible, at night, on the weekends, even a week vacation if possible or a day to work on the project when it gets into a more advanced stage, when it’s possible to start adding words to the document. For that is what writing and art is—time—and it takes time, and it’s about both existing in the day and somehow transcending it.

Kate Zambreno

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I can’t speak for other writers, but you can’t let not knowing what you are doing stop you.

I’m always amazed when people are able to write. They say, “I wrote 5,000 words today,” or however many words they wrote. How do you write 10 pages?

I’m always reinventing what I do, the way I make things, or the way I look at things, or the way I write every single time I start a book.

I needed to approach it all these different ways and have all of these failed experiments in order to get to the place where I could feel like, “Oh, this is actually the way I want to be doing this.” Sometimes it takes a while to get there.

Writing for me is no different than playing basketball, it’s my body moving among and pushing up against and being moved by other bodies of language and the energy of language.

Mostly you need to realize that you make your own place as a writer. You make your own New York, your own Beat Hotel. Look, your friends are amazing! Just look at them, you don’t have to become famous and hang out with cool friends. Your mom is much cooler and more complex than you can even imagine.

I go on long walks, like probably every writer. I connect with the people that I really love and that love me back, because sometimes that reminds you of who you are. It cuts out a lot of the extra stuff that we require to be in the world. One of the most integral parts of that is returning to whatever art has made me want to pursue writing. If it’s a movie that reminds me of what’s important to me, or a poem that restarts my day, those kinds of things really remind me of who I am, and how what I want to do requires quiet time with the art that has galvanized me.

What’s weird about writing is that, in some ways, you’ve been sowing what you reap—you just don’t know exactly when and how you sowed it.

I get very worked up when I write. I’m a very slow writer. Half of what I write, I delete right away. Another half of what’s left, I delete the next day. It’s a lot of moving backwards and forwards and feeling stuck, but eventually it all accumulates.

Writing for me is like very elegant shitting. It’s involuntary. It just comes out of me. It’s how I get through the day. I don’t always put words on paper. Or I don’t always do the kind of writing I want to do. Or I don’t always put words down the way I want to, in the shape I want to, I don’t finish as much polished writing as I would like to right now with my schedule, so a lot of what I’m writing now is lesson plans. I don’t always read as much as I would like to or have time to. But I always keep multiple notebooks. I’m always planning for the next time that I can do the kind of writing I want to do. Always looking for that time. It’s just very mixed up with everything else in my life.

One of the most important things I kept telling myself once I started writing the book again was that I couldn’t be afraid of failing. I can’t. If I’m going to fail I want that failure to be spectacular. I want it to be big. I don’t to inch my way into it. I just want to push as far as I can and see what happens. If I fail I want to fail ambitiously, and not in some tepid way where I second-guessed myself to death.

There’s no one answer I can really give you about my research or writing practice because there’s no practice. That would be true to everything I’ve written during of my relatively long life… If you were to take a kind of God’s eye view of my life, it would be filled with thousands and thousands of little scraps of paper. They would just look like clutter to anybody else and sometimes look like clutter to me, filled with notes I’ve taken which probably have piqued my interest or seemed viable for a poem or an essay. They’re scattered all over the house; in the pockets of all of my clothes; they’re slipped into books; they’re on napkins; they’re on receipts. They’re on burger wrappers.

It was so hard for me to fit a structure or a plot around the kind of sentences I wanted to write and the feelings I wanted to evoke. This sense of discovery and elation and melancholy. That’s the stuff that no one, for the most part, ever talks about.

About the Author

Kate Zambreno

Kate Zambreno is the author of three previous books—Green Girl, O Fallen Angel, and Heroines. Her new book, Book of Mutter, is a meditation on memory and grief. Composed over the course of 13 years, the book examines the death of the author’s mother, adopting elements of memoir, essay, poetry and criticism. It’s a book that Zambreno doubted might ever be published… or even finished. It is being published by Semiotext(e)’s Native Agents.

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