Recollections of My Nonexistence

Recollections of My Nonexistence is a series of essays about growing up in the West, about becoming a writer, about being a woman who wants to do things in a society that doesn’t want women to do things. It’s also a story about a San Francisco that I worry doesn’t exist anymore, now that there has been so much money and so many tech people moving in and so many other people have been forced out.

But by and large, there is a thread of sexism and violence against women that runs through the book – these being the ways that women are kept in roles they don’t necessarily want. These are the ways that society tries to pretend women don’t exist, by silencing them in so many ways, including killing them.

Women, you, me, all of us, have a right to exist and to be heard, just as much as men do. These essays are the story of how Rebecca Solnit learned what that means for her and how she moves through the world.

Another book about writing

Big Magic is another book about writing and living creatively. It is specifically how Elizabeth Gilbert lives with her writing and in her creative pursuits. As always with these kinds of books, your milage may vary with her specific advice. (I never read Eat Pray Love, so I’ve no idea how it compares to that.)

Her main advice – or rather the main advice I took from the book – is to finish what you start. Which hits home with me. I’m very good at starting new projects and also very good at getting partway through them before deciding that the idea is crap or I’m just not a good enough writer to execute it well enough and then stopping. I realize that the Shitty First Draft (tm Bird by Bird) is supposed to get you through this. It has yet to work for me.

Big Magic was not super-effective for me. It might be for you, if you’re looking for creative advice. It’s, at the very least, worth checking out.

Writing prompts and zen koans

Writing Down the Bones is a book of something like zen koans combined with writing prompts. The chapters are never more than 4 short pages (the book is physically small), and are designed to get you to sit down and write after you read each one.

It was not super-useful to me, honestly. I’m not often in a space (physical or mental) where I can switch between reading and writing like that. I did try to just sit down and read it, but the chapters were too short and pithy to flow well.

I’m sure Writing Down the Bones works for some folks. It wasn’t for me.

Focus, dammit

Wired for Story wasn’t as practical for me as Story Genius was (also by Lisa Cron), which wasn’t to say that it wasn’t helpful. Lisa Cron’s emphasis on focus and making sure everything that happens in whatever you’re writing is there to drive action, which in turn drives character development is incredibly helpful. If it doesn’t cause your character to develop as a person, it shouldn’t be in the story.

But really, I love how Lisa Cron’s books have finally helped me define readability. It’s not how well-written something is, it’s about how tightly crafted the story is, how the characters develop, and whether what is happening is necessary or a reaction against what happened in the previous scenes. It’s about how not-shaggy a book is.

I would recommend Story Genius over Wired for Story, but, honestly, both are useful.

Nothing gets written without actually writing

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve got an idea for a story, maybe even a book-length story. It wasn’t going anywhere, so I checked out a bunch of how-to-write books out of the library. Bird by Bird is one of the original.

I didn’t learn specific methods, not really. A couple of good tips, like start somewhere, take it step by step (the origin of the bird by bird title), and the shitty first draft, sure. But my main takeaways from Bird by Bird were: nothing gets written without actually sitting down and writing, and, a writer needs to get out in the world.

Sitting down and writing means prioritizing writing, which is something I’m not necessarily good at. I’m a working mom, so there’s always something else that needs doing. (The current state of my desk is not pretty.) I have tried writing on my phone, using the cloud to store the document, a thing I know works for some people. It’s not for me. To get this story written, I’m going to need to spend more time with my butt in my chair, typing away.

The opposite, though, is also true. Writing is lonely, just you at your computer. And you need to know things for your books, specific details like what’s the name of that street, what did it feel like when you and your first significant other broke up, what the wire thing on the top of the champagne bottle is called. So when the loneliness gets to be too much, make a phone call. Have coffee with a friend. Do some research. You, as a writer, also need to get out in the world. Go into the world.

Bird by Bird didn’t necessarily give me a new way to tackle my story, not in the same way that Story Genius did. But it did remind me that writing doesn’t magically happen, and in the writing, don’t forget to live.

Reading about writing

I have started writing a number of books. Usually, I run out of steam while writing them, finding I don’t care as much about the idea as I thought I did. This last time, though, I care about this story and it’s not working. It’s not a matter of getting through the shitty first draft. Something in the story isn’t working, and I have faith in the idea. I wasn’t sure what it was, though. What was worse was that I didn’t know what to do other than start over. And then start over again.

So when Jasmine Guillory’s newsletter from a few weeks ago, titled “Secrets from the Deadline Cave,” came out, I put every single book about writing that she recommended on hold at the library. Story Genius was the one that came in first.

There’s a lot in the Story Genius about cognitive psychology and why we like reading, which is like catnip to me. But the real effective part of the book is the: now to satisfy this trait of the human mind, go do this thing about your story. The assignments range from “write three specific scenes from your characters childhood that affect who he/she is at the beginning of the story” to “look at your basic story structure and figure out where every single place of conflict could exist and put it in there.”

My story idea has new life, and I’m probably going to end up buying this book so I can keep it around to help keep me going. Is it this specific method? I don’t know. What I do know is that the method in Story Genius has given me a new angle to work on my particular idea. So yes, I’m recommending it.