Julia Cameron

Like a Tiger in the Lowlands: Advice for Writers (Part Two: Writing)

Following on from my previous post, this one gathers some thoughts about the writing process. While craft can be learnt from teachers, mentors and writing friends, a writing process can only be acquired through doing. At the same time, much can be gleaned from those who have been in the trenches for many years, which is why I recommend some excellent books and essays here, where I learnt some of the tips that have worked best for me.


The Glide and the Scene

At NYU's Creative Writing Program, back in 2011, even though I was studying an MFA in Poetry, I was permitted to take novelist David Lipsky's craft of fiction class. It was boot camp 101, it was full on, it was David smoking e-cigarettes and real cigarettes out on the steps, conversations constantly interrupted and taken back up again and lectures delivered while rocking back and forth on a skateboard; it was hour-long craft conversations via phone while you were trying to get some work done; It was Nabakov and Lost (the TV programme); it was hilarious, and infuriating, and enlightening. What I took away and have never forgotten, is that - per Lipsky -writing both fiction and nonfiction can be reduced to two core elements: 

(1) The Glide, and (2) the Scene.

The scene you already know. You know you are in a scene when there is dialogue, action, mixed with some pithy description of characters, and description of landscape or cityscape to orientate you. Scenes are the core of the novel or short story or a piece of New Journalism. Getting from from Scene A to B to Scene G: this is where the glide comes in. The glide is everything that is not a scene.

The key point David made was:

Make your scenes as good as you can, employing all the tools of the novelist or fiction writer, even if - especially if - you are writing creative nonfiction. Then, make your glides as interesting as your scenes.

Show and Tell

David liked to remind us that writers are now up against the renaissance of television as a medium. Some of the best writers are writing for HBO. To fully employ our arsenal, we must tell as well as show. Some say show, don't tell, and for the most part it holds true. But we have both at our disposal, and some judicious telling mixed in with showing will go a long way. (In another sense, the glide is the telling, the scene is the showing.) When I first wrote the memoir project I am currently working on, back in 2008 I didn't understand why it didn't "pop". After David's class in 2011-2012, I picked it up again, reread it and realised immediately that 80% of it was telling, not showing. I completely rewrote it according to "show and tell" and "make your glides as interesting as your scenes". That advice alone was worth the dosh it cost to attend that MFA programme.


Draft # 4 by John McPhee

Draft # 4 by John McPhee is a superb book on the craft of nonfiction. If you are writing creative nonfiction, read it. If you are not, read it. The whole book is available on The New Yorker website, where these essays were first published. Here is the link.

On Writer's Block, read his essay "Draft No. 4". For structure - and here he is superb - read (you guessed it) his essay titled "Structure"

The Lead

McPhee offers key advice about writing a lead in this piece for The Wall Street Journal. He writes: 

"You're wading around in your notes, getting nowhere. You don't see a structure for the piece you're trying to write. You don't know what to do. So you stop everything and hunt through your mind for a good beginning, a good way to scissor in. Then do it; write it; get a lead on paper.

If the whole piece of writing is not a long one, you may plunge right on and out the other side and have a finished draft before you know it. But if the piece is to have some combination of substance, complexity and structural juxtaposition, you might begin with that workable lead and then be able to sit back and think about where you are going and how you plan to get there.

Writing a successful lead, in other words, can illuminate the problem for you and cause you to see the piece whole, to see it conceptually, in various parts, to which you then assign your materials. You find your lead, you build your structure, you are now free to write."


Your Memoir, Not Your "Memoirs", and Definitely not Your Autobiography

While we're almost on the subject of memoir, per Vivian Gornick - a memoir is a slice of your life, not your life. It is your life filtered through an arc, a story line, a through line. It is a memoir, not your memoirs, not your autobiography. It's your memoirs if you're Winston Churchill or a famous rugby player, or if someone else is writing the book for you, but otherwise not. Here is Gornick interviewed in The Guardian, linked to above:

"If a memoir is to achieve literature, it has to have an organizing principle, it has to have an idea, it has to have something that will be of value to the disinterested reader,” she said. “And that doesn’t happen so often, because most people who are writing memoirs are not writers.” The books that these other people – celebrities, crime victims – create she calls “testament”, a genre she traces back to the second world war and credits with creating the appetite for memoir in America. But she’s very clear on the nature of the skill involved in elevating the book to literature: “The ability to turn yourself into a persona who is able to generate drama, narrative drive, conflict, all the things that are required, is very hard,” she told me. “And not too many people achieve it.” 


For When Things Get Difficult


The Binder / Folder Method

If you are writing a longer project and need to work out where the various scenes in your draft belong, separate the scenes by page. What I mean is: 

Separate the book according to scenes. Each scene will start on a separate page. Then print out the whole book on single-sided paper. If a scene is a page long, great. If it is several pages long, staple those pages together. Then put the whole project in a binder, then spend some time reading through. Chances are that having the whole thing in front of you, you will gain clarity as to where things can be moved around.

(I was recommended this method by memoirist and essayist Jeannie Vanasco, author of The Glass Eye)


Note Cards / The Fanning Method

McPhee does something similar with notecards. Each scene will be summarised in a word or short sentence, and in this way the arc of the story can be discovered by utilising a bed or a large table - any large or long surface that can give you enough space to lay out your material. By the way, a similar method works for poets who are trying to work out how to order their manuscripts: fan out the poems on a table, or on the floor. It works best if you have a room where you can leave your work overnight, or over several nights. This will not work if you live in a tiny New York apartment.



If you need something more detailed than McPhee, then I thoroughly recommend Sean Coyne's The Story Grid. If the stakes are not high enough in your book and you can't work out what's going wrong, if an editor or an agent or a first reader gives unhelpful and vague advice as to why they think it just isn't working, Then Sean's book is a complete craft class and is incredibly valuable. His concept of the five commandments of story telling is very helpful, and is applicable to a scene or an entire book: 

  1. Inciting Incident

    1. Causal

    2. Coincidence

  2. Progressive Complication

    1. Active Turning Point

    2. Revelatory Turning Point

  3. Crisis

    1. The Best Bad choice

    2. Irreconcilable goods

  4. Climax

  5. Resolution

Often the literary writer will feel that hooking the reader isn't important, but, even literary writers have to keep the reader reading. This is something genre writers take for granted. (The downside of genre is that while the story might be compelling, the writing can be chipboard, not mahogany. Equally well, the problem with mahogany is that it can be "yawn!") Coyne can be a bit down on literary fiction, but if you ignore that and focus on the prize, then this book can be valuable, especially if storytelling isn't your strong suit.


Morning Pages (Per Julia Cameron)

One of the most valuable things I have learnt came via Julia Cameron's book The Artist's Way. As cheesy as some might think it is, apart from following the 12-week course she outlines in the book, her "morning pages" method of getting the ball rolling is invaluable. Since the age of 16 I have written a diary / journal on an almost daily basis, but Cameron's process-driven suggestions helped me to make it a fixed part of the day.

The process is simple: at a time that suits you best (usually the morning works best for most, as clearing the mind of psychological junk via journalling tends to set you on a positive path for the rest of the day), write three pages and do not stop for anything until they are finished. Three pages of Microsoft Word might be a little too much; best to use a size like a Moleskine notebook, which is 19 X 25 centimetres, or 7.5 X 9.75 inches. If you are working on a specific project, you can journal your way into it, as long as you free yourself from perfectionism and judgement as you write; you can write on a bus, a train, the Metro / Subway. The method can adapt to you, and is a valuable way of generating new work. After a week or two, when you have some time, go back over your diary and highlight / underline passages that could be used in a poem, an essay, the short story or novel you're writing. Copy it onto your computer, and there you go: you're already into the second draft. Steinbeck's Journal of a Novel is a great example of a process journal. On the left page he wrote his thoughts before the day's work, then he wrote the novel (East of Eden) on the right hand side.


Writing 15 Minutes A Day

Bearing in mind that writer's block is an issue - and one that isn't talked about enough - one of the best books I have read on the subject is Joan Bolker's Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day. I bought it during a lengthy spell of writer's block during a book-length academic thesis, and it saved my bacon. While other books I read about writing a thesis barely acknowledge the psychological difficulties of writing, this book tackles it directly. Her main point is that if you are paralysed, write 15 minutes of anything. "But I'll never finish like that!" I hear you wail. "I'll never get my 10,000 hours under my belt!" LMAO, folks. Yes, but, 15 minutes of writing is better than the nothing you are currently doing. And, the positive reinforcement that ensues once you start means that you will almost never stop at 15 minutes. Something that is in motion will tend to stay in motion, and all that jazz.

Bolker divides the writing process into

  • The zero draft;

  • The first draft;

  • The middle draft;

  • And the final draft.

The zero draft is that point where the manuscript is an unholy mess, where the file contains material not even related to your project; where the draft is disorganised and messy, and exciting, sparking with energy, and a lot of repetition, and dispiriting redundancy. Here is where you got it down on paper, everything can only get better from this point on. Why would the draft contain material not relevant to your book? Well, because one of the ways in is to trick yourself into a sense of safety, and that is by writing anything:

"I don't know what I'm doing. I hate this. I hate this. I hate this. I'm bored. I'm so scared, I wish I could stop. Ok, I'll just write for 10 more minutes and stop."

Until you reach the moment where you write: "What I really want to say in this book is..." Then the door starts to open.

In transitioning from zero to first draft, simply delete all of the throat clearing, print it out, and then mark up the text with a view to things that belong together and cohere. Take notes directly onto the hard copy, then add your changes to the digital version. At this point, you're beginning to make headway into your first draft.

Bolker is great on all of this. I highly recommend her. If you are writing anything other than an academic thesis and the title puts you off,, just substitute novel, poetry, short story, etc., for dissertation. It works for me every time. (On the book's Amazon page, there is some complaining from dissertation students that it would benefit creative writings more than academic writers.)

Finally, her key points are:

  • Write 15 minutes a day;

  • Use journalling to discover and refine what you want to say.

  • Use journalling as a way of writing while you are afraid, and homing in on your core thesis.

  • Use it to write your arguments and counter arguments. "What if A?... What if B?..."

  • Write first (once you've written, the rest of the day is yours).

  • Use the zero draft method;

  • Use the "chunking" technique, which is to split the project into do-able chunks. I.e.,

"Today I'll transcribe my notes"; "tomorrow I'll group them in the file by theme / subject"; "the day after I'll print them out and mark them up"; "the day after, I'll make those changes on the soft copy." You get the picture.


Writing Intelligence

Given that many younger or beginning writers wonder if they're "intelligent or smart enough", I have to admit that I have never heard the word smart used more than at my two years at NYU's creative writing program. I also hear it way too much in literary circles in New York, used as a compliment: the latest smart book or essayist. My side of the world equates "smart" with "a smarty pants", not someone you want to be. A particular book or poet or writer is "smart", a scene is "smart" or not "smart" enough. A sign of our times, too many writers believe a writer's intelligence to be paramount, but It depends on the type of intelligence. I believe that the best writers have in fact been stupid in certain respects. They have been slow, wool gatherers and dreamers, or seemed so to the outside world. Their "smartness" was hidden. Although we need our analytical side, we also need instinct and intuition, not only cerebration.

Things to Do While Avoiding Writing

By titling this piece “things to do while avoiding writing”, I’m presuming an intention to actually write. If you’ve, in fact, completely thrown in the towel on that specific day, and started deep vegeing (watching TV / cleaning out your email inbox / playing video games), then this post isn’t for you, though it might well be for you tomorrow, once the frustration level has gone down, and the prospect of beginning again is a welcome—well, prospect. "Joy cometh in the morning" (Psalm, 30:5), as Bartlet likes to say. What I do know is the morning is especially propitious for writing. The morning is where you can get a jump on the day, "the best part of the day" as my grandparents used to say. By the same token, late nights work well for night owls. If, like me, you have a long history of avoiding writing (in fact, I’m doing it right now), then perhaps this post might benefit you. In fact, it might benefit me—if I took my own advice.

Things to do:

(1) Clear your desk.

Don’t go as far as finding the perfect place for every object, because then you will have moved into decluttering-as-avoidance. What you can do is move the piles of papers, bills, (sweet wrappers that are mixed up in the bills) onto your bed, or (if you have more space – I don’t) onto another desk or surface. Visualise someone picking up a heap of leaves: that’s my level of paper work clutter. Clear your desk so that you can see it again, and have some elbowroom.

Bed as filing cabinet

(2) Make your bed (before you have moved all your clutter onto it).

(3) Do the dishes (again, just wash them. If you get into drying and putting away, then you have enabled yourself into further avoidance. I’m presuming you have a nice little rack beside the sink into which to slot them).

(4) If you like, spend 10 minutes writing a to-do list. Once it’s written (only spend 10 minutes), you’ll know your to-dos, and your Stephen Covey “urgent and important”, “not urgent and important”, etc., and can start writing unperturbed by searching your mind for what you should be doing.

(5) Do not begin doing Writing Business as a substitute for writing.

Writing business includes sending out work to magazines, emailing reading series to see if they’ll include you; as far as I’m concerned, it can also include working on the poems / pieces that are part of a writing sample that you might be sending to a fellowship / a teaching application, etc. Why might writing business include actual writing? It’s all about your attitude. If you are coming to your writing with the eyes of an editor, or a judge, then you’re later on in the process. That falls under editing, or revision. What I’m talking about is first draft or second draft. The urge to write because it will satisfy your soul, and put the missing jigsaw piece back in? Listen to that need. Don’t give business to what Julia Cameron cheesily, but rightly, calls “the inner writer”. Give her or him creative play. Business can come later.

(6) Turn off your Internet connection. (If you don’t, you might get into researching. Mona Simpson said that she researches after writing. I didn’t understand that at the time, but I do now. She meant, I believe, that you don't have to know everything to write about something. Use your imagination first, and then use research to fill in the gaps.)

(7) Give yourself a deadline. Say, “I will write for 1 hour”. If that is scary to you, bring it down as far as 15 minutes, and once the 15 is over, give yourself another 15 minute deadline. I got this idea from Joan Bolker's book Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day.

(8) Use Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages idea. Morning pages are ideally written first thing, in the morning. Three pages, or half an hour, of anything. This practice is ideal for psychological decluttering, using the page as a place to dream on, complain on, speak to. It is a great way of preparing yourself to meet the day, and whatever writing task you are engaged in.

(9) If the writing you are about to do is scary, then write your way into it by free writing. Start free writing, and then after a page or two, start to write about your project. I would be surprised if by doing this, you don’t actually start getting into actually writing. (This is one of Joan Bolker's ideas.)

(10) If you use a laptop, as most of us do, and you’re blocked, then downshift to writing with pen / pencil and paper. If your usual writing space isn’t helpful, then go to a library or a café. I have found over the years that it helps to print out the section you are working on. Then you can bring it to a public place, with your iPod, and a green / purple pen (we don’t like red), and you can edit on paper. You may even find that you start writing new scenes or ideas in the margins.

The main idea behind this is to break it up. Bruce Chatwin, writing in the age just before word processing, as it was called, was getting going, said that he could always spot prose that had been composed on a “word processer”. On the one hand, this smacks of preciousness to me. Though, on the other, it does explain all the internet “content” masquerading as writing that one sees out there, that has been slapped together, with the typical key words inserted into the text.

Don’t be a purist either way. Laptop, Ipad, Iphone / Android, notebook, pen and paper, pencil and pen: whatever works, works. I have a friend who has written whole stories on his phone, in increments. He writes while walking, emails it to himself, and then saves it as a Google doc. The story grows by increments.

(11) Get into process. Wean yourself away from writing-as-product.

This is especially dangerous for writers who have started to achieve some success. By success I mean anything from getting into an MFA program, to getting a story or poem published in any literary magazine that isn’t vanity publishing. If you have started to think of your writing as career, and not vocation, or something that you just do for you, then you may be in danger of “product-itis”. I know that I myself suffer from this. The danger is, the joy leaks away, and has been replaced by obligation. How to move back into process? Write the poem / story / novel / play that brings you joy. Stephen King has a great phrase for this. He calls it the “Toy Truck”. (Mentioned in Wendy A Hoke's Blog, Creative Ink.) He starts with the novel that is under contract; writes that in the morning. In the afternoon, he works on his Toy Truck idea. In other words, he works first, then he plays. I find I am needing to play first: essentially because the Business has recently been dangerously close to leaching the soul out of it for me.

You may not have the amount of time an established writer does, but, you probably can make time for a half an hour once a day or an hour every two days to work on something because it’s fun, because you want to, because it’s important that it be said or spoken forth into the human family, and not the marketplace. Or, at least: nourish yourself first.