Wanna be a writer? Write.
That’s the Pinterest-style quote. It’s many the English major’s idea of a good poster, and rightly so.
Still, I work with an amended version:
Wanna be a writer? Write naked.
Creating something honest requires a total strip down. We shed the need to be funny or brilliant. We shed the need to be anything. We become absolutely nothing. And no one. We hold no expectations, no audience, no rewards (or awards). And we start from there.
Over the last few months, I have been writing from a stripped down (naked) place.
[For the sake of clarity, I do not mean literally naked. I am clothed when I write. I mean emotionally naked. It’s actually scarier to me.]
Writing from this stripped down place, I’ve excavated memory in ways I never imagined possible. I’ve written things I find more powerful for their honesty and more surprising for their display of small acts of bravery.
In this archeology, I’ve found five things to be true about writing naked.
- The pen democratizes.
Picking up that pen, we do what all writers before us have done. We are no different from Shakespeare or Jane Austen. And we’re no different from Murray Schissgagel, the Hartford podiatrist who wrote every day of his life and never published a word.
The act/art of wielding the pen establishes kinship, where everyone is a full and equal member in good standing. No special perks or advantages for that Ivy League education. No short cuts derived from the trust fund. Likewise, no demerits for a large backside or limited financial means.
2. “In the style of” is a crime.
It’s like DNA — we each have one completely original genetic code. Writing like someone else — in the style of Hemingway or Woolf or even Schissgagel, for that matter — is a lie. Maybe worse: it could be stealing. It’s fake. It will not produce honest work. I believe we can be inspired by and influenced by great writers. We should be, in fact. But mimicking or imitating is the road to ruin.
3. Showing off kills the work.
The big vocabulary; the clever repartee; the witticisms and word play; the obscure, in-crowd cultural references; the ability to perform textual gymnastics…all of this destroys the work.
The work lives beneath the grandstanding.
Push. Push through to the deep. What is it we are really trying to say? Really, really, really? What is it we’re (secretly) longing to reveal? Showing off cordons off the nub of honesty and dresses it up in designer finery, thus decorating the nakedness.
We owe it to ourselves to want more from our work than decoration.
4. Set out from a different origin.
Write what you want to write. Start where it feels comfortable to start. finish the piece. Then, ask yourself a question: What might it be like to start from some other place in the story? Some other emotion? Some other viewpoint? What are my options? Which one intimidates me? Ah…there’s the answer.
Say you’ve written about your divorce. You’ve given it a light touch, using your skills with humor to show the funny side of being dumped.
Now go to the other place. Go the place where the divorce is not treated as a lark. Where there is pain. Rage. Rejection. Fear. Where you cry ’til the snot runs from your nose and you scream at the mirror as you stare at your lumpy, red, distorted crying face, “What if I never get another chance? What if you were my last fucking chance? What if I never have sex again?”
It works the other way around, too. If you’ve started from the point of despair, reroute yourself through the land of hilarity. Live with and embrace the 180-degree turn. Start with something fantastic about being divorced. Give yourself an opening sentence like, “Plot twist! Now that he’s outta my hair and we’re getting divorced, I can finally [ ]!”
If the train you take always leaves from South Station, put yourself on the 6:52 outta North Station. Or hop a Hound. Blast off from the Cape Canaveral launch pad. Start anyplace other than the place where you started before.
5. Write to somebody. (Note the singular.)
Hold one person in your mind as you write. It can be anyone — your mother, the professor who said you write like an angel, the cute guy or girl at the neighborhood coffee shop. Write TO that person. Don’t write FOR them; write TO them.
As the writer, we get to choose who we write to.
I am open to suggestions from the universe on this one. I try hard not to choose an asshole.
I also try not to pick somebody so I can settle a score. Or convince them of my worth (“See what you missed?”). Clarify, sure. Thank. Explain. Apologize. Praise. Long for. Profess or admit love. All of these seem worthwhile.
Score settling is petty. It’s un-naked. In fact, it’s an un-naked as we can get, because it lets us yell and scream and snipe at someone else, lay blame, get snippy, and charge off into the sunset on a seriously high horse.
As writers, we need to get down from that horse immediately. We need to steer clear of the barn altogether, in my opinion.
Naked writers do not belong on high horses.
That would make a very good poster, too, I think.
by Amy Selwyn