I’ve begun reading Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, and it, more than any other writing or creativity book I’ve read - and there have been many - has me at my computer at 6:30 in the morning committed to “developing the craft so I can master the art” (yes, that’s a rough quote from Patchett).
This is the first morning of what I intend to have become a habit*, and already I can see it will take some forethought. It will take getting to bed earlier and not reading late into the night. And it will take remembering that in this game, writing every day is more important than a few extra minutes in my warm soft bed. My warm soft robe, on the other hand, is just one more reward for getting up.
I never think of Ann Patchett when people ask me about my favourite writers, and yet when I look at the list of her novels that I’ve read, I’m struck by how much I enjoyed those stories. Enjoyed is the wrong word. I savoured them. I re-read passages not because I’d missed something but because I wanted to spend more time in that scene; more time with those characters and in that setting. It shines through that she started out to be a poet, learned the skill and craft of story in short stories, and grew into being a novelist. Her skill with language and plot marry beautifully - perhaps even happily.
While This is the Story of a Happy Marriage might be the worst title ever for a writing book (from a marketing stand-point), it’s still a great book. And I’ve only read the introduction and the first few chapters. Oh, and the version I am reading happens to be large print. That’s the version that was in the bag of books my parents lent me last spring, so that’s the version I have. It turns out a large print book is about what I need right now. Ha. At least early in the morning on the bus in a day that has not quite burst into full bloom the large print makes a difference. Of course, I’d sort of rather that no one on the bus notice that I’m reading a large print book, but … what does that really matter?
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage makes me want to call in sick, brew a big pot of tea, and curl up on my couch all day. I guess I can do that Saturday. It’s also clearly the kind of book that makes me want to get up and write, which is not something that has seemed like a good idea for the last several months. Patchett makes really clear in her first couple essays that she practised her craft. She actively learned it. She sought teachers she admired and trusted and respected, read from them, and worked with them. She doesn’t espouse getting an MFA or doing a summer writing workshop (although she’s done both and then some) so much as getting down to it. Being disciplined. Doing the work.
Patchett’s entree into writing was freelancing for magazines. Some pretty big magazines. She got to be a go-to writer for GQ and the New York Times Magazine and others. Eventually she traveled on their dime. She conducted research for her novels on their dime (during her research Bel Canto, which is about opera singers, except it isn't, she was sent by Gourmet magazine to tour the great opera houses of Italy - they got a great travel series out of it, and she got familiar with the life of modern opera).
Patchett undeniably has talent. Perhaps she had a little luck. But more than anything what she had was productivity and willingness. She was no ‘artiste.’ She took what assignments she was given and made them into something. She did not protect her darlings but willingly cut words and sentences and paragraphs to make the article work for the editors. Yes, eventually she was able to stop that life.
She has long since become a prolific and respected enough author to focus full time on writing novels, and she still approaches it, according to her essays, as a job. As something you get up and do every day because that’s the career you choose, not because the whimsical whispers of the muse are stirring. She has never had writer’s block, mostly because she doesn’t believe in it. She believes in procrastination, and that writer’s block is mostly just a form of mental procrastination. To anyone who has suffered greatly from the ‘affliction’ I imagine that could be an affront, but maybe she’s on to something. Maybe the solution to writer’s block is simply to write.
That’s what has inspired me from Patchett’s story of her writing career. Nobody can predict when a muse will strike, but everyone who wants to call themselves a writer can get up a half-hour early, sit at the computer, and plunk out words from whatever is around them. This morning I happen to have a subject on my mind, and when I don’t, I’ll look at a photo on the wall and describe what’s outside the frame. Or I’ll see a colouring sheet (we’re into ‘adult colouring’ at my house right now) and share the story it is telling. Or I’ll look at one of the antiques in the room and tell a story from when it was new. Inspiration, it seems, is not in the wind. It is everywhere around us if we’re willing to see it.
As I sit in the living room nearing the end of my first 30 minute session, I’m thinking ‘30 minutes - that wasn’t very long.’ No, not the first morning it wasn’t. Not while my sails are full with Patchett’s admonitions. But what about in two weeks. What about when I’m tired, or ill, and it’s cold in here, and I DON’T WANT TO.
Well, I hope that in those morning when the alarm goes I’ll give myself a talking too, shrug into my soft warm robe, and get myself back in front of the glow of the computer screen with its blinking cursor. Because I am a writer, dammit, and writers write. And now I’m just stalling because if there’s one writing habit I’ve trained myself in, it’s writing things in blog-post length and I write that in under 30 minutes. But there is still one minute on the clock and I am not going to cheat myself of 60 seconds of writing time this first morning out.
*No, I don't intend to post every morning's ramblings - I just thought that posting this one would add another layer of accountability. :)