Often what we take for granted is news to other people, and maybe even fascinating.
Writing is a relevant topic for an end-of-work audience because it’s wrapped up with change and self-awareness, two pillars of the transition from a full-time work life to one of more reflection and self-awareness. (I’d argue that it’s relevant in those ways to anyone above the age of eight.)
Through writing, we form thoughts. It helps us think things through. And as the skill develops with practice, it becomes not just a way to inform and communicate, but to express and purge and open doors.
I stumbled on writing, didn’t think much of it, did it because most of us do it to some degree, seemed to do it well enough, then started taking it seriously when someone offered me a job (for $7,000 a year as the assistant editor of a ski magazine in the winter and a tennis/squash magazine in the warm weather). Writing has since opened thousands of doors for me, to say nothing of providing me with a bountiful professional life. It humbles me to think of the good fortune that writing has brought to my life.
And unlike a job, writing never ends. It just goes down other paths of exploration, like water. Which is why it’s so useful to us all, even those who struggle to do it. There are ways in that aren’t so painful. (Please see my note below on “Morning Pages,” a fruitful tool for anyone making a life transition.)
How do I write?
More and more by hand. At least that’s the way I begin. I’ve always taken notes by hand, of course, but I’ve spent most of my life on a keyboard, flying around with two fingers, eyes on the keys, first in my early twenties on an old Underwood manual typewriter with an inked cloth ribbon, and now, more than four decades later, on a video gamer’s keyboard with clacky electronic switches under high, fat keys designed to be banged hard at least a million times, as hardcore gamers do.
But handwriting is an older friend, and one I don’t want to lose. It feels to me like a different kind of conduit from the mind, one that helps form and link thoughts at a different pace than the keyboard, more organically and less mechanically, one that blends two pleasures: the physical joy of practising cursive with the fun of thinking while drawing.
It works. My thoughts these days seem to arrive in sequence like commuter trains pulling into a station, promptly, briskly, and well ordered.
The tools are important. I use canary-yellow Hilroy ruled newsprint pads and a Bic Atlantis blue medium ballpoint pen with a cushioned grip. That combination offers just the right degree of friction for my hand to channel my brain, and my script to flow at the right pace, not slippery fast but not arduously slow, as it can be with a fountain pen (although I like those too for times when I feel like evoking auspiciousness, which is almost never).
Then I riff, uninhibited these days after years of being contained within commercial boundaries, first in journalism, where you report and verify, and then in copywriting, where you persuade (with honesty, or else its a mistake) in meticulously rationed words that, if they stray even slightly off the mark, can lose the audience. It's a terrific discipline. And to be persuasive is deeply satisfying. There's frustration in its opposite.
The riffs can begin with almost anything. A word is seed. Regret. Stress. Time. Money. Freedom. Love. Release. Flourish. Flavor. Cursive. Bratwurst. It doesn’t matter. Plant the seed. Start the riff. Just go. Tell a story. Try long sentences on for size (while staying in control). Try short sentences to punctuate and thrill. To dramatize, shorten even more and declare. To add flavor and invite fascination, tell a story, preferably involving real people, often yourself. (We all want to read about each other.) To fortify, add facts and quotes that can be found so expediently now in the bottomless internet. To make vivid and memorable, add metaphor, like you would a spice blend. And always try to offer insight. Otherwise, it’s just adorned information, perhaps lovely, but dim.
I’m still a slave to audience and the capturing of attention. After 40 years of training, those obediencies are not just ingrained, they are implanted. But without the need to report, or to make money from words in the same relentless way from words, with the shackles loosened, the two fingers fly with greater abandon and the mind gets to wander. And in the wandering is the joy, these days.
It can be that for you too. Because it doesn’t matter where you go. It only matters that you stay in the chair for while and keep rolling the Bic Atlantis across the Hilroy canary-yellow newsprint. Or whatever you choose to use.
After the pen and pad, I go to the keyboard where the structure and flow and transitions are refined, and cursive turns into typography, another miracle of the digital age. In my early magazine days, type was set with eye and hand by hallowed professionals known as typographers — a profession that has been digitally extinguished. Then it was physically pasted into magazine layouts by graphic designers. Now, we can all write in any of the great typefaces, from Garmmond to Baskerville to Caslon to Futura and thousands of others that are all miraculously there. It’s like being drunk on licence.
Revision is the potent upper layer. Look for quotes from great novelists on revision and find out that they all do it, or did it, even when it was done with pencils and quills. Some books are rewritten 50 times. Revision is the finer strokes, the caressing of the detail (as Nabokov advised).
Sleeping on writing I consider essential. Something that sings one day will be off-key the next. Glaring errors that hid in the first draft are flushed out by the passing of a day, and flushed to a more exacting degree on subsequent days.
Then, at a point, you press the button that sends the email, publishes the post, completes the diary entry, or otherwise closes the lid on that sequence of thoughts, formed in that order, with those words, at that time, and in that frame of mind. You are richer for having done it, and usually eager to get going on something new.
If we can have a best friend that is not human, writing is mine.
Postscript: Most Sundays, I read a couple of short children’s books to my four-year-old granddaughter. It’s a sweet tradition. She curls into my chest and melts my heart. This past Sunday, she looked up into my face excitedly and said, “Poppa, I’m going to read you a book.” She got on my lap, snuggled in, and studiously read a photocopied “book” made at school, colored by her, that repeated the same sentence on every page with a single new word relating to a drawn animal or object as its subject. This is the first glimmer of reading in a person I love. Her pride was as immense as my praise. Her mother said, “She is loving reading and wanting also to write words. We sound them out and she forms the letters.” And it begins. There will be seven grandchildren by mid-summer. I ardently wish to devote a meaningful portion of my freedom in these later years of life to helping them open doors with this enchanted key.
Why Morning Pages Might Be For You
Julia Cameron, who was married to Martin Scorsese for one year in the mid-1970s, wrote a book in 1992 entitled The Artist's Way. Millions of copies have sold worldwide. It is one of the most popular self-help books of all time.
The Artist’s Way was intended to help us get back in touch with our creative selves, to gain, or regain, the confidence to express ourselves.
The key tool of The Artist's Way is Morning Pages, a simple method for emptying the contents of one's mind, without inhibition, onto three pages every morning. There are no rules and no onlookers, which makes Morning Pages an ideal tool for non-writers in the midst of a life transition. This snippet from Julia's website explains:
Morning Pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning. *There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages*– they are not high art. They are not even “writing.” They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind– and they are for your eyes only. Morning Pages provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize and synchronize the day at hand. Do not over-think Morning Pages: just put three pages of anything on the page... and then do three more pages tomorrow.
As with so much else in life, the fruit is in the practice. Try a 30-day challenge: three pages a day, every morning, for a month. Why not see what comes out?
Finally, this, about the catharsis of writing, floated in yesterday:
It’s from The School of Life, writer/philosopher Alain de Botton’s prolific publishing company. What a great summary about writing’s power to extract, order, and help us work through the unresolved:
We have so many vague feelings of hurt, envy, anxiety and regret, but for the most part we never stop to make sense of them. It’s too uncomfortable and especially difficult because we are so often busy and frazzled, hyper-connected yet a bit lonely. To really understand what we feel and think, we must turn away from distractions, common sense, and other people’s opinions. We need to develop intimacy with ourselves.
Our un-thought thoughts contain clues as to our needs and our longer-term direction. Writing them out is key. Through writing, we recognize patterns to observe and, perhaps, outgrow. We can strategize – a remarkably neglected task. We can ask ourselves why we make the choices we do. We can question faulty narratives and create new ones. We can consider ideas before we commit to them, and reinforce good ideas we already know.