Thoughts on the Writing Process: The Wisdom of John Lennon

So here we go, some thoughts on writing process as part of the blog tour. But first a little business:

My thanks to the previous stop on the tour, The Starving Artist, run by the amazing Devon Trevarrow Flaherty. You should definitely check out her post on setting goals as part of the writing process.

And I’m fantastically excited about the next two stops on the tour:

lizzy-mylittlebookblogLizzy of My Little Book Blog, who has been featured on this site before. My Little Book Blog is so wonderful, and Lizzy exudes so much enthusiasm for books and authors and writing, that I’m tempted to give up coffee and just head over to her site whenever I need a pick-me-up. My Little Book Blog is a highlight of the Internet.

And then there’s Hibou of the International Sanitorium Berghoff, the one-stop shop for intense engagement with the sturm und drang of literature and life. Hibou reads David Foster Wallace and Thomas Mann so we don’t have to, and his posts about parenting and travel are not to be missed either. There are very few first-rate noticers in this world: Hibou is one of them.

Lizzy and Hibou will be writing about their writing process next Monday, June 23. Mark your calendars! And now, onto the main event.

Writing process! I’ve broken it down into…

Jacke Wilson’s 4 Easy Steps for Writing Success

  1. Find a space that suits you. Make sure the light, noise, and atmosphere all work.
  2. Figure out when you’re at your creative peak, whether it’s early morning or late at night or sometime in between. Arrange your schedule so that you’re writing at that time.
  3. Fail for at least twenty years.
  4. Skip number 3 if you possibly can. But be honest with yourself.

Really, that last sentence in number four is the only advice I have. But it means everything in the world to a writer.

I’m reminded of a great story about John Lennon. When the Beatles were in Hamburg, before the rest of the world knew who they were, the bassist in their group was an art student named Stuart Sutcliffe, who couldn’t really play the bass very well. Or AT ALL, actually. The others used to make him turn his back for photos so that they wouldn’t be exposed as a group with a bassist who had his fingers in the wrong place. Too amateurish. Might not get any gigs.

What was he doing in the band? He was John’s best friend. John needed him there.

And then Stuart Sutcliffe died. Tragically, at the age of twenty-one. A brain aneurysm, possibly from getting kicked in the head after the Beatles kicked Pete Best out of the band and replaced him with Ringo.

“I’ve had a lot of people die on me,” John said later, and he had. His favorite uncle, who had helped raise him and who had served as the gentler counterweight to John’s demanding Aunt Mimi. And of course, his mother, who abandoned him, then reentered his life, and then died when John was only sixteen. After a visit to John at Aunt Mimi’s house, she was crossing the street and a bus hit her.  Just tragic.

And then his best friend Stuart. All before John turned twenty-two.

Stuart had a German girlfriend named Astrid whom the Beatles adored. Astrid was supercool and artistic and took iconic photos like this one:

Image Credit: Astrid Kircherr, courtesy of Vanity Fair

She wore black and read existentialist books and had ideas about style that the Beatles all loved. Their famous moptop haircuts? Astrid’s idea.  Stuart became the love of her life and the two were engaged. They used to wear each other’s clothes. And then Stuart suddenly died.

(Bear with me. I swear this is about writing process. We’re getting there.)

So after Stuart died, the next time the Beatles were in Hamburg they came to visit her to try to say what no one ever really knows how to express.  They knew that Stuart and Astrid were not like other young lovers. They were soul mates, everyone knew. And as sad as John, Paul, and George were for losing their friend, they knew that Astrid was even more devastated.

The three of them had lost one life, that of their friend. In a sense, Astrid had lost two: Stuart, and the person she herself had expected to be.

And according to Astrid, Paul and George were very kind and gentle and generally had no idea what to do, in the shocked and clueless way young people typically are. Or people of any age for that matter. Death is horrible, grief is horrible, we wander around and mumble and fall back on stock phrases because anything direct is too risky and might come across wrong. My sympathies to you in this time of loss. Please accept my deepest condolences. My thoughts and prayers are with you. That’s the kind of thing we say. I sort of picture Paul and George saying things like this, with their eyes down, doing their best.

And then John comes over. Astrid says something like, “I don’t know how I can go on without Stuart,” the kind of thing she’s been saying for weeks. And John hears in her words a feeling that he himself has gone through, and recognizes that she’s thinking something that he himself has thought. All that grief and loss: how can you deal with it? How can anyone? And suicide—well, it’s an option, isn’t it? It’s not just an abstract concept. People do it.

So John tells Astrid, “Well, you have two choices. Live or die. But make up your mind and be honest about it.”

That’s the part of the story I love, those last five words. Because so often we’re not honest.

Oh, we’re honest people – that’s not what I mean. We stop ourselves from telling lies to our spouse or our boss or our kids or the police officer who pulls us over when we’re driving. As adults, we’ve learned that lying is a bad idea. It’s too hard to maintain, it hurts people around us, it destroys trust, and it just winds up making things worse.

We know all that, so we tell the truth. To others.

And then we lie to ourselves. All the time. When it comes to ourselves, honesty is too raw, and too direct, and too painful. Much too hard.

We don’t see ourselves as us. We see ourselves in the third person. We think “what is someone who is in my position supposed to do?” rather than “what should I do?” We think “what I’m doing is working and everyone else is wrong” because it’s easier than thinking “what I’m doing is not working and I need to change.”

That’s why, when I tell you my writing process, or when you listen to others, you should take what works for you and ignore the rest.

We all have flaws. You might be an atrocious speller. That’s an easy one to fix: use spell check, ask a friend to read everything, hire a proofreader, make friends with the dictionary. If you’re lucky enough to get a professional editor, they’ll take care of it. But don’t tell yourself that spelling doesn’t matter and that no one will care about some misspelled words. They will.

And this goes for everything. Does your dialogue sound clunky? Find a way to fix that too. Maybe you need to read it out loud. Maybe you need to record it and listen to it with your eyes closed. Maybe you need to write longhand instead of typing it out. Maybe you need to highlight every passage of dialogue in your fiction and go through it line by line, asking yourself whether this is something that an actual person would actually say, or if it’s just there because you needed someone to summarize your plot, which is too confusing (in which case you should probably fix the plot as well).

In other words, do something. But don’t do nothing and tell yourself that your dialogue is just fine if it isn’t. And when someone tells you it sounded funny to them, don’t get indignant and tell yourself that they know nothing about your writing because you’re the writer and the artist and you know what works best. Be honest with yourself.

And this is where listening to other writers helps. Every problem has already been tackled a hundred different ways. If you can’t figure out how to fix your problem by reading good writing, do some homework on the writers and their process: read interviews, listen to podcasts, do some googling. Find out what writers have done. Try some things out. But only use what works for you.

And in that spirit, here’s a trick I’ve found that works for me. Whenever I write a story, I come up with an idea that I’ve kicked around a long time. Something I can’t stop thinking about. Something that makes me laugh to myself at inappropriate times.

That’s what I’m looking for, before I ever begin: ideas that grab me by my collar, shove me against the wall, and demand that I do something with them.

Then I have to spend some time thinking about them, usually a day in advance. Sometimes they’re big enough to be novels. Sometimes they’re not. And sometimes they’re not even ready to be written about at all. I need to have some kind of hook, some kind of twist, some element that turns them from mere memory into something a little more. A little more oomph, whether it’s a shout or a whisper. Once I have this, things usually flow. If I don’t have that angle, I struggle. I can’t get any traction.

Then I get started. I write with longhand, using a Uniball Vision pen. Blue ink, fine point. I like the pen for flow. And I write on a legal pad. I used to use ones with yellow pages but white works fine too, as long as the pages are clean and ready for the pen. I like to have several sheets still on the pad, a nice thickness for the pen to flow into.

Flow is everything on this first draft. Sometimes I’m not writing any sentences at all. Sometimes I just write notes. Here’s my first draft of Object #13 – The Monster:

Traveling through Scotland, dead of winter.
Most of the time spent holed up in a guesthouse
Reading Corolanus by a fire.
Make myself go do things.
Bus tour around a lake. The Monster. Why not?
Guy on board, from Mexico, we bond.
See snow, never seen before. Driver stops.
Goes tearing out.
Whole bus watches him roll around, holding it in his hands like gold.
Love the child. The enthusiasm. Infectious. Why am I so old? I was 22. Wouldn’t have done that when I was ten.

And on like that. As you can see, I’m really just writing down the framework of the story. The beats. Sometimes I get more detailed and write out a sentence or a paragraph. Sometimes whole stretches of dialogue come out quickly. Those are great: when I get to the next draft, all I have to do is type. But sometimes it’s just a word – weather  or sky  or scared – and that’s fine too. I’ll fill it in later.

Why does this work for me? Because I spent years dragging myself to a blank page and staring at it, cursing my inability to fill it with anything better. Spending hours doing nothing. Taking off days because I couldn’t bear to put myself through the agony.

Is that your problem too? Give my solution a try. Because I did all that until I found that it’s better to face that blank pad of paper knowing that all I need to do is fill it with the outline of a story. There’s no need to go sentence by perfect sentence, starting from zero and revising each one as I go along. That can come at the next stage, when I have a story in place (and no longer have the dreaded blank page). My house has been framed; I only need to hang the drywall and paint a few walls. I’m not trying to build the stupid thing room by room without knowing what it will mean to be finished, if I ever even make it there.

The key to developing my method, which took years, was to be honest with myself. Recognizing, in other words, that my stories were often meandering, or stilted, or clotted with prose. I would have fifty beautiful sentences in a row and the story would go nowhere. Why? Because I was stuck in the paradigm of the Artist as Tormented Prose Stylist, thinking I needed to work like crazy on each sentence before moving on. Story took a back seat to style and originality. That might work for others. It did not work for me.

Nor did it work to sit down at a computer and tell myself I had to write 500 words per day, like one of my writing heroes Graham Greene. My 500 words were usually worthless because I didn’t know where I was going or why. Embarrassingly, I didn’t have any particular goal in mind other than to write books like Graham Greene’s. The 500-words process worked for him, and since I wanted to be him, I wanted it to work for me too. Now I know that filling two blank pages with a story’s beats is a very productive day, no matter how many words that involves, and even if not a single one of those words winds up in the finished version. Once I get those two pages down, I can write a few thousand words the next day.

I’ve also learned that if I’m doing too much editing while writing, or if I find myself going back in and hammering away at myself and my earlier decisions, I usually wreck everything.

Again, it’s only honesty that taught me that. It was a painful lesson to learn, and I’m sure you as a writer have learned many painful lessons yourself already. Or there might be a few nagging ones you haven’t addressed squarely but you know you need to deal with at some point.

And here’s the most painful lesson of all: the painful lessons never stop. New ones appear all the time. I’m sure at some point I’ll detect some problem, or a new one will develop, and I’ll realize that my current method needs to be tweaked or (God forbid) scrapped altogether. But I’ll be ready.

Let’s say you hear that your favorite writer spends an hour a day meditating and works on a novel before lunch and writes poetry in the afternoon. You try that regime and IT DOESN’T WORK FOR YOU AT ALL. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Figure out what works for you. But – and this is what’s most important – find something that does work, and be honest about it.

Writing isn’t life or death (though it can feel that way at times!). But John’s advice for Astrid was about exactly that. After she lost Stuart, Astrid could decide to die – but if she did, she needed to do it because she wanted to, not because she thought it was necessary to demonstrate her love for Stuart or because others expected it of her. And if she decided to live, it was important for her to recognize that she was choosing life because she honestly wanted to. Life is hard enough even when you’re committed to living. If you’re not sure it’s what you should be doing, you won’t be giving life a chance.

After her conversation with John – who was still unknown, by the way, not JOHN LENNON OF THE BEATLES but just John, a friend of hers who had loved Stuart and cared about her – Astrid decided that she preferred life over death. Sadness and grief would be parts of her life going forward, of course. But she would go forward. Decades later she was still thankful that John had helped her see that truth.

Be honest with yourself. It worked for John. It worked for Astrid. It works for me, when I’m strong enough to let it.

And you, my fellow writer: it can work for you too.

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Hope you enjoyed the post! If you did, please pass it along with a link or a like or a tweet or however you like to do these things.

My book The Promotion, aka “When Biglaw Meets Big Trouble,” recently received a stunningly wonderful review from My Author Within. And you can check out my response to reviews of The Race by My Little Book Blog (“warm and full of life”),  Small Press Reviews (“an incredibly astute novella about ego and politics”), and Radical Science Fiction (“Self-Deception Is Human”). I’m terribly grateful for all of the fine reviewing I’ve received by these indie reviewers.

And of course, you can find The Promotion and The Race at Amazon.com (in Kindle and paperback versions). The Race is also available in other formats and locations.

Are you a reviewer? Leave a comment or send me an email and I’ll ship you a free review copy of either The Race (ex-governor of Wisconsin recovering from a scandal) or The Promotion (D.C. lawyer becomes obsessed with a woman he’s never met). Or you can enjoy the 100 Objects series, which are all available for free here on the website. Enjoy!

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19 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Writing Process: The Wisdom of John Lennon

  1. Great tips for aspiring writers. Thank you for sharing.

    I struggle with getting words on a page every time I sit to write. My own list would include staring down your fear and not letting it stop you from starting. I try too hard to have the perfect words already formulated in my head before I ever write a word, which never happens, so I end up walking away defeated all too often.

    Thanks again for the post.

    Like

  2. Wonderful post! I start out writing by hand as well, only with a Waterman fountain pen. I never know what’s going to end up on the page until I start writing. Thanks for visiting my site.

    Like

  3. Thanks for sharing your method and for continuing the blog tour! I really like the suggestion of writing longhand notes. I think I might try that one on my next story. I usually only do that when I am out and about, away from the laptop, but I have been sensing I need to do more away from the computer screen.

    Like

    1. You’re welcome! Thanks again for the invitation!

      Longhand has worked for me for first drafts. I don’t think I mentioned the positive aspects of disconnecting, but you’re totally right: you can leave a lot of e-baggage behind. Very good for focusing, and very fun!

      Like

  4. Thank you for the like. Really enjoyed reading this great post. I use longhand for my writing as you do, except when my lazy side acts up and then I type stuff in to the computer only to realise most of it is garbage. Then, its back to the notepad and ta-da shareable work happens.
    I really did need that being honest with yourself bit. Sometimes, it is so easy to look away and forget why you write in the first place. For me, it is something i have always wanted to do, and blogging and sharing my work helps me do that. But there are days that I end up making excuses, not writing and just being plain lazy.
    Those are the times I need to remind myself why I blog: to be honest to myself, I do it for me. Thank you for helping me see the light here.

    Like

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