I spent yesterday afternoon at the Lebanon Public Library with three aspiring writers and their YA librarian. It is just the kind of library I love—your basic, beautiful Carnegie library outside and totally modern inside. The YA section is especially nice. For one thing, the YA books are upstairs with the adult books, instead of down with the books for the little kids. So kids move naturally from one to the other. Plus, they have this really cool meeting room that has the feel of the Fifties soda fountain—a black-and-white checked floor, booths for reading and writing, tables with red chairs covered in plastic that looks like the paint job on a fast car. There are counters along the sides, with stools covered in the same stuff. No actual soda fountain, alas. But there are vending machines to keep hungry/thirsty kids happy. I love it that a community would make such a great place for its young people. Who wouldn’t want to hang out there?
I also love it that Marie, the YA librarian, did the writing exercises right along with the kids and read her work aloud.
The teen writers were Tony, Aubrey and Brandi—along with Brandi’s brother, Canaan (sorry if I'm spelling that wrong!), who came in about halfway through and gave us an interesting opportunity for a little point-of-view exercise. Did they both remember exactly the same things about the time Canaan broke his leg, the memory Brandi was writing about?
She was the one who got us going by asking why I thought writing was so hard, even if you had a really good idea and thought you knew exactly what you wanted to say. This is a question I love to answer!
It’s partly because writing is really a kind of translation, I said. You don’t imagine in words. So you have to translate what you know about the story, what you see in your mind’s eye into words—and a lot of the time the words the language provides us just aren’t the ones we need. So we have to find ways to put words together to come as close as we can to getting it right.
It’s also hard because most beginning writers (of any age) listened to teachers who told them that you have to plan and organize what you’re going to write (the dreaded outline) before you start writing. But you don’t! Very, very few writers I know work that way—and the ones who do make a plan before they start find that, once they get going, the plan often changes.
Knowing a little bit about right/left brain theory helps you know why this method gets people so freaked out about writing that they want to curl up in the fetal position at the prospect of even trying.
Your right brain is like a computer. It holds information about the world—stuff like the definitions of words, the way to McDonalds, how to tie your shoes, those pesky dates you memorized for a history test. It thinks logically, step-by-step. It’s literal. If someone said, “Two heads are better than one,” your left brain would assume it meant just that: having two heads is better than having one head—which, you have to admit, would look pretty weird.
Your right brain is, well, a mess—but a glorious mess. It’s where your memories reside—every single thing, large or small, that you’ve ever experienced, seen, read in the newspaper, caught a glimpse of in passing, overheard. And it’s all in there, churning around, kind of like a slush machine—just waiting to come out just when you need it during the writing process. The right brain makes patterns; its instinct is to focus. It recognizes connections between one thing and another, and creates metaphors and similes.
It instinctively knows that “Two heads are better than one” really means that a problem is more likely to be solved if two people put their mind’s to it. It thinks holistically. (If the left brain gets to step four, but doesn’t know what step five is, there’s no way it can get to seven. But your right brain can accommodate everything at once. 1, 3, 7, 12, 82—BINGO! You know that feeling you get when you’ve been thinking and thinking about a problem and can’t solve it, then, suddenly it’s as if a light bulb goes on inside your head and you know the answer? That’s your right brain doing what it does naturally. It works tirelessly, even when you’re taking a shower or hanging out with your friends.
The right brain is not only where ideas come from, it knows how to connect all the various aspects of an idea for you as you write. It’s the best place to start a piece of writing. The thing is, you have to learn to trust it—and, sadly, all too many writing teachers don’t trust it. They don’t even know it exists. So they say, “Plan! Organize! Outline!” Which totally contradicts the way the brain actually works.
Thus, virtually everybody hates to write—and that is a sad, sad thing.
I answered Brandi’s question with my favorite, no-fail “I Remember” exercise. I’ve written about this before, but to recap:
1) Make a list of memories, writing “I remember” before each one. Write as fast as you can, don’t think, let it happen randomly. Most will be one sentence; don’t write any more than three sentences for any one memory. Go for at least ten minutes, or until you get 15-20 memories. Each one is a little first draft.
2) Look at your list. Notice that most are small, very visual moments—you see the scene in your mind’s eye. Pick one. Do the “I Remember” thing again, focusing on that one memory. Remember everything you can about it.
3) Now freewrite the memory—that is, write without worrying about spelling, punctuation, organization, quality…just write. Let it flow the way it wants to flow. If you get stuck, look at your list of “I remembers” for a detail you’ve missed and write about that. Seriously. Don’t think, just write.
WARNING: Your left brain will try to interfere in each phase, telling you you’re doing it wrong, it’s not good enough, blah, blah, blah. Tell it to shut up! Swear at it if you have to! Keep writing.
This works! Look at my Lebanon writers! They all wrote, nonstop, for more than ten minutes and could have kept going if we'd had more time. They surprised themselves by how much they wrote—and by the fact that there was some pretty darn good stuff there. Sure, what they'd written still needed work. But so what? It’s a lot easier to work with words on the page than it is to stare at the blank page and try to squeeze words onto it one-by-one.
I told them about the chapter in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: “Shitty First Drafts. “ I actually said “shitty” in the library; I felt it was necessary. I said it pretty quietly, though.
This method works with a story idea, too. Instead of writing, “I remember,” try writing, “I know.” Make a list of what you know about the story you want to write. Then pick one item on the list, preferably something that wants to be a scene, and expand it. Make a list of what you know about the scene, even the smallest detail, anything that comes to mind.
Then…write. See where the story takes you.
I hope Tony, Aubrey and Brandi (maybe even Canaan) are writing today. Maybe they finished those memories, asked “What if?” and spun them into stories. How cool would that be?