My sister texted me this fortune a couple days ago because she knew I would relish it more than pork dumplings: "Be patient! The Great Wall didn't got build in one day." I know some fellow lovers of grammar who would lose their shit over this. In fact, I’m even going crazy over whether to use “who” or “whom” in that last sentence. And then I read the dreaded comments on a page where a blogger explains “who” and “whom” and it proves my point: people can get downright nasty about grammar. Which always cracks me up, because in the spirit of being what one considers “proper,” one is impolite — politeness being one of the cornerstones of properness! Ugh!
Anyway, the reason I bring it up is because one day I started embracing bad grammar, spelling, etc. Not for myself, oh no, and not for most things I read. Because I do like a clean sentence (however much my run-ons might tell you otherwise). But a stray and glaring mistake makes me happy sometimes. I marvel at the fact that something so obvious made it to print. And what I love most about it is this: it’s messy and it gets to be and there it is, hanging out for all to see. Something we humans (especially the literarily fastidious ones) don’t often get to be or do. A wayward or weird word is a reminder that messiness is OK. No one was killed over someone saying “The Great Wall didn’t got build in one day.” Oh shit. At least I hope no one was killed over it.
I grew up, as many did, having to fit into a certain box matching my hair, eyes, skin color, constructed by my parents and their morals and my parents’ parents and their morals, religion, what the neighbors might think, and other pleasantries. A huge reason why I became a writer is my dad would grammatically bat my mother and me around. If we didn’t say a sentence exactly the way it should be uttered he would grimace and interrupt (again with that impropriety emerging while trying to impose properness): “What do you MEAN, ______ ___ ____?” he would bark, inserting our offending words. I would defend my mother: “You KNOW what she MEANS.”
When I was sitting with the blank and filling page I had time to construct my thoughts. I could find just the right word so I could express myself and, if need be, spar.
The fact that my father now has dementia and can’t remember words a lot of the time is also strange and ironic (is it ironic? Darn you, Alanis Morrissette, I can’t remember half the time). Don’t-cha think? ;-)
So! A reminder that we humans get to be messy is a gift.
But as a writer I also always want to get better and cleaner. I want to have more and more impact. I want to be true. And no amount of practicing my own messiness or fitting myself into a box of my or my ancestors’ making on its own will make my writing better. Nose to grindstone, listening, taking it in, being true, not trying to be cooler than I am, coming from the heart, and reading. I’m sure I’m missing 12 other things.
For reading — that’s easy. Here are some of my favorite writing books (that would make great gifts — and since you can’t buy people the freedom of messiness, books are helpful):
Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg kills me softly with its song on every page. It’s a reminder that the craft is the most important thing when you’re a writer. The process of writing. Sure, it’s nice to have people love your work and to be recognized, she says. But if you pin your self worth and hopes on that you’ll never be satisfied. You and the page are the BFFs. And Goldberg. Because she’s wonderful.
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron is one of my favorites (even if I’ve never been particularly successful taking myself out on artist dates). Morning Pages — three pages longhand in the morning, brain-dump style, nothing pretty — are ridiculously helpful. I notice when I’m doing them consistently I’m better at all the things I love to do, from writing to music. I’ve always liked to take Cameron’s rules with a grain of salt, and cherry-pick what works for me. My friend who bought me The Artist’s Way well-meaningly told me Morning Pages were to be done before doing anything else with your day. I mistook that to mean before you speak to anyone, before you have coffee, before you have your constitutional. It took me several years to come around to The Artist’s Way because of this. So, if you do buy it for someone, be careful about imposing your own rules on the gift. Your friend might miss out because of the pressure. This creativity stuff gets dicey.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King is a great read, whether or not you’re a fan of his other work. It’s a clear and vivid vision into an artist’s method and life, and it helps you cut the bullshit from your own work. He even touches on how to write about defecating (however briefly), which I find refreshing (big surprise). Yes, it’s hilarious.
The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield is my bar-none jump start get over yourself and do your fucking work tome. That makes him sound like an asshole, though, and he’s not. The War of Art happens to brilliantly allow you to see Resistance as the entity it is, accept it, move forward. It helps you get serious enough about your creativity that you can stop being so precious about it and stop wasting time you could be spending on doing your work in the world. I can’t stress the importance of this book enough.
The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr made me consider writing and carnality in a totally new way. It made me take so many notes for my own work. And hot damn, it is written so hotly. I love it. I could quote the whole damn thing. Karr does not fuck around.
Karr: “…the self-aware memoirist constantly pokes and prods at his doubts like a tongue on a black tooth.” I can’t tell you how often I reference that black tooth. In writing, I tongue it. In life, I try not to. So there’s more room for tonguing it in my work.
Anything by Joan Didion, but namely The White Album and Slouching Towards Bethlehem are teachers of the highest caliber. Reading Didion taught me how to get inside editing. She taught me how to find just the right word. She is way cleaner than I’ll ever be, but I am way cleaner than I ever would have been because of her. If that makes sense. Even thinking about Didion while writing makes me feel like a hack. The vestments of holy men wish they were as smooth and clean as Didion’s work. But first they’d have to trudge unflinchingly into the emotional muck as she does. You don’t get that clean without getting really dirty first with the murkiest sludge of humanity.
And we’re back to messiness being a gift. What are you giving this year? What if we all wrote things for the people we love? I'll start:
You are lovely, yes you are
You make me feel like Darren Star
And the Sex & the City gals rolled into one
From writerly Carrie to Sam's sexy fun
You make me feel like a simpler time
When all I had to do was write and rhyme
This year has been tough, but there's no shame
Together we can embody the lyrics of "Fame"
("I want to live forever! I want to learn how to fly! High!" and so forth...)
It's me, Jennifer Bernice (rhymes with "Furnace": it was my Granny's name) Sutkowski
• More details about my writing here.