R.S. Williams

All I want is to get the words right.

Tag: Advice

On Inspiration

When I write, the worst part is when I can’t figure out my emotions, when I feel numb and disaffected. Of course, I know from experience that it’ll pass. It always does—otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this. But the fear that whispers close behind the numbness can be mighty persuasive: “Give up. You can’t do it. You can’t make it happen again.”

Eventually, I do make it happen again. Always. However, this is not and has never been a matter of low self-esteem, poor self-image, or any other pop psychology cliché.

It is a matter of writing for a living.

Every professional writer experiences this unreasonable doubt and fear. Every professional writer works around and through it. The key here is acknowledging the whispers while continuing to write, instead of waiting for them to go away first, or for a brilliant idea to pop up before writing again. Taking action—that is, writing while we feel deeply uninspired—leads us out of the darkness and toward something worthwhile.

Do not wait for inspiration.
Write, write, write.
The ideas will thaw, melt, and flow your way.

I doubt this process every time.
It saves me every time.

There is no such thing as “waiting for inspiration to strike.” It’s just waiting, and it produces little of consequence. Most people who are not professional writers fail to realize this. As such, they become dilettantes along the sad, sorry way. My students teetered at the edge of dilettantism. It was my job to pull them back.

Where young writers are is not their fault. After all, their ideas about how excellent prose happens have been shaped by romantic, highly unrealistic beliefs about writing. They are completely enamored with the idea of Being A Writer. They are passionately in love with the Idea Of Writing. And inspiration, they are sure, is what fuels this searing, delicious tinderbox of an affair.

For all his promises, Inspiration is a lousy lover, more wet kindling than lighter fluid. Inspiration is full of tease but never delivers: “all hat and no cowboy,” as a Texan friend says. Inspiration is sexy, charming, mysterious, compelling—on the outside. Get inspiration home and in the sack, though, and all we’ve got is a whiskey-dicked frat boy who, for all his looks and talk, gives our crotch half a clumsy rub before rolling over, puking in his own shoes, and passing out.

Well.

Wake him up. Don’t let him put on his clothes. Don’t give him a chance to rinse out his penny loafers. (Because you know Inspiration still wears penny loafers with his Members Only jacket.) Slam the door. Bolt it shut. Do NOT open it again, no matter how he begs. Don’t call him a cab. Call him what he is: a dud. No, no, he’s worse than a dud. He’s a charlatan.

So kick his drunk ass back out in the street with the amateurs, where he belongs. It’s for your own safety. As Carl Sagan once explained, “Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”

When we depend on Inspiration, he stops us cold. Hard as it may seem, we must guide ourselves. We must trust in the process, even when we’re angry and heartbroken and numb and completely blank. When we rely on Inspiration, he’s a no-show. And suddenly, we’re all dressed up and dateless at the Winter Formal, stuffing those racking sobs back inside our rib cage and pretending to enjoy ourselves. We’re scared, humiliated, devastated that The One We Love has crapped out on us at such an important moment.

But we shouldn’t be surprised. Inspiration is out back of the Teke house, blasted on Thunderbird with our potential and our creativity. He’d much rather get schnockered on the cheapest poison around—and steal our dearest friends—than deliver what he promised. He lives for this. He controls us when we depend on the illusion that we cannot create without him.

How, then, to work around the seductive, greasy charms of Inspiration?

By listening—listening to everything and everyone, listening to tiny flashes of things and people and creatures and plants and moments. The way we get big ideas is by paying attention to the small ones.

Now, ideas are wonderful, but they need a while to grow on us, to get to know us better. By noticing the things nobody else does, we give the small ideas the time and space and care they need to become stronger ideas—to become sentences, images, story lines, characters.

A tuft of fur caught on a hydrangea stem, flapping helplessly in the wind. The daddy-long-legs crawling inexplicably up the truck tailgate in front of us as the traffic light turns green. The way Wednesday morning lights up the plastic rain bonnets of old ladies at the grocery store—all small, and all vast, all at once.

Write it all down.
Yes, even if it “sounds stupid.”

When I was still teaching, I’d hand back a set of papers and ask students to reflect on where they might have gone wrong. They’d often say, “Well, I was going to write about ______, but it seemed stupid.” And I’d clap my hands in wonder: “That’s not stupid at all! It’s what would make this essay work.”

And they learned, little by little, that Inspiration will not swoop in, all grandiose and deus ex machina, to save our writing asses. Good work happens in small pieces, and often almost imperceptibly.

In my first-year college writing classes, I’d often show students a portfolio of my work, from eighth grade to the present. Professional, academic, creative—it was all in there, the entire process. Some of it was under construction, some of it was pretty good, and some of it was capital-T Trash. “Look, dammit,” I always wanted to shout. “Look here and look hard. This is how we spin garbage into gold.”

Look, look, LOOK.
Soak it into your skin.
Soak it into your bloodstream.

This is noticing on the deepest, most profound level. This is where we build creative eye and ear and soul. This is where we begin: in noticing, instead of in waiting for someone or something to save us. In noticing the small, the insignificant, and writing down every last bit of it, we rescue ourselves from Inspiration.

And that is all I have to say today.

Photo: “Sky on Fire, Centralhatchee” (Heard County, Georgia – 30 September 2014)

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

NOTE: I first published this post on 31 January 2014. It appears today with revisions.

 

Some Quick Writing Advice

Recently, a friend asked me for some writing advice. In the midst of three different projects, though, I didn’t have many extra words to spare. But I did have these quick tips to offer. They often help me. I hope they’ll help you, too.

  1. Read a lot. Read the same things multiple times, and at different points in your life.
  2. Write down little pieces and snippets of ideas whenever you have them, and however you can write them down. Text them to yourself. Type them in your phone’s “notes” feature. Scrawl them on the back of your hand, or in the margin of your class notes. Get them down, any way you can.
  3. Save all those weird snippets. They will come in handy.
  4. Notice everything around you—especially the things that the rest of the world refuses to acknowledge.
  5. Let all this touch your soul.
  6. Write about it.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

An Epiphany, Post-Workshop

rswilliams_portrait01_13sept2016

Several months ago, I attended a marketing workshop on how to get more mailing list subscribers. The hosts covered some interesting and useful strategies. However, over the last year, I’ve been to at least a dozen similar workshops. They all miss the same thing.

In their quest to blast a message to as many people as possible for as little money as possible, these marketing folks forget the number-one reason readers sign up for email lists in the first place: because they like what they saw or read on a website. In other words, they sign up for the quality content.

Around Facebook, I keep seeing a meme worded along the lines of, “Don’t be impressed by degrees, titles, status, or followers.” Although memes often annoy me, this one contains an important truth: long-term engagement is what makes the whole social media thing work.

Likes and clicks are meaningless without an ongoing, sustained conversation between readers and website owners. If a website or social media account posts poorly written, poorly thought out content, people won’t be back. The Internet is far too large and far too interesting for readers to wait out the junk in hopes that something good will eventually show up.

After the seminar ended, I felt sad and restless. Too bad the hosts had missed the concept of great content. That, I thought, might be a big reason why many products, services, and authors never get anywhere in their online efforts.

But then I realized, as clearly as the day is long, that I already had a plan. I didn’t need to worry. Because if there’s one thing I know how to do, it’s how to make the kinds of photos and tell the kinds of stories that people want—the kinds they aren’t getting anywhere else.

Marketing seminars be damned. I’ll make my own path, tell my own stories, and create my own art. It’s what I want. It’s what my readers want. And it’s why I’m here to begin with.

Photo: “Self-Portrait B, 13 September 2016”

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

“You can’t know if it’s any good while you’re writing it.”

Like most professional writers, I get a lot of people asking me for advice. The other day, someone asked how I know if a piece is worthwhile. “Do you know it’s good stuff before you start? Do you know while you’re writing it?”

Those are fair questions, and ones I hear pretty often. And the answer is: DEAR GOD, NO.

Most of the time, I start with very little—the barest sketch of a scene, a snippet of conversation, a fragment of an idea written half-assedly on the back of my hand. I don’t dare judge my idea at this point. No, no, no. I have to get everything out before I know if it’s still worth pursuing.

Often, it is. Sometimes, it’s not. But having written about it is never a waste of time. The ideas need to percolate through my brain and out my fingers and onto the page. Then they need to sit a while. That’s how writers figure out if what they’re working on is worth a damn.

Easy enough, right? But, no.
I forget this truth all the time. And I have to remind myself of it all the time—as in, daily. Other writers remind me of it, too.

A couple years ago, I was having trouble hammering out the first draft of my novel. Nothing I did seemed to work. So I asked a writer friend for help. She had just published a stunning book of exquisite new poems—the kind of stuff that, as Emily Dickinson put it so well, “takes the top of my head off.” My friend invited me to her house on a thick July evening, where we sat on her back porch, sipped bourbon, and talked writing.

“I’m struggling,” I told her, “struggling like I never have before.”

“Mmhmm.” She nodded. The melting ice in her glass clinked as it collapsed on itself.

“The words are so slow to come. Paint dries faster than I can write. All I can think while I’m typing is, Oh my God, this is awful. This is the worst stuff I’ve ever written. And I can’t make it stop.”

“Yep,” she said. “Sounds about right.”

I took another sip of whiskey. “So what do I do? I’ve got a book to write, but all I can come up with is garbage.”

My friend was quiet for a moment. Fireflies blinked their evening hello-hello-goodbye above the giant hostas by her porch. Finally, she sighed. “You can’t know if it’s any good while you’re writing it.”

She got up and poured herself another drink. “If you stop mid-process and try to determine how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ it is, you lose your momentum. You lose your flow. Stopping to look at the details before they’re on the page blocks the process.”

“Right,” I said.

“There is no way you can know. There just isn’t. The knowing comes later. You have to get it all out there first, and then let it sit. Only then can you make value judgments.” She smiled. “To get to that point, maybe you’re just going to have to write a bunch of absolutely horrible first drafts.”

“Yeah. Maybe so.”

My friend sat back in her chair. “Remember last summer, when I went to New York? I spent three days there poring over Arthur Miller’s personal papers—Death of a Salesman, in particular. Today, we know it as a classic. It’s perfect. But looking at all those drafts, especially the earliest ones, helped me understand how much steady, persistent work he put into the play.”

I nodded. “How so?”

“Those first drafts aren’t very good. They’re immature, even didactic. I couldn’t see much of Miller at all in there. There were characters that didn’t make any sense, didn’t seem to have a purpose in the play. But I kept reading, draft after draft after draft. I saw all the lines and characters he cut out, or revised, or added. It gets stronger with each version, all the way to the one we know as the official Death of a Salesman. The one we cover in English 1102.”

She drank deeply from her glass, then spoke again. “Reading through all those drafts made me understand that it’s not just a great play. It’s a great play that began as a not-very-good play, and that got better and better in stages, over time. Miller took his bad drafts and kept on reshaping and revising them. Same with my book. Some of those poems I wrote while I was still in grad school. If you look at what I wrote in 1994, it sucks. But the version I put in the collection? With 20 years of distance, and at least 18 months of reshaping and revising? It’s great.”

I laughed, and finished the last of my bourbon. “Well, damn. If a bunch of horrible drafts are good enough for you and Arthur Miller, then they’re good enough for me.”

Sure enough, my friend reminded me of this great truth of writing: It never happens perfectly the first time we get it down. Often, it doesn’t happen the second, third, fourth, or maybe even 17th time. The strange magic here lies in our having faith in the process. We keep going, even when we think we’re just producing trash. When we keep showing up to meet our ideas and ourselves on the page, version after version, our writing becomes strong and clean and new—almost without our realizing it.

And that is all I have to say today—after 24 drafts.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

On Inspiration

When I write, the worst part is when I can’t figure out my emotions, when I feel numb and disaffected. Of course, I know from experience that it’ll pass. It always does—otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this. But the fear that whispers close behind the numbness can be mighty persuasive: “Give up. You can’t do it. You can’t make it happen again.”

Eventually, I do make it happen again. Always. However, this is not and has never been a matter of low self-esteem, poor self-image, or any other pop psychology cliché.

It is a matter of writing for a living.

Every professional writer experiences this unreasonable doubt and fear. Every professional writer works around and through it. The key here is acknowledging the whispers while continuing to write, instead of waiting for them to go away first, or for a brilliant idea to pop up before writing again. Taking action—that is, writing while we feel deeply uninspired—leads us out of the darkness and toward something worthwhile.

Do not wait for inspiration.
Write, write, write.
The ideas will thaw, melt, and flow your way.

I doubt this process every time.
It saves me every time.

There is no such thing as “waiting for inspiration to strike.” It’s just waiting, and it produces little of consequence. Most people who are not professional writers fail to realize this. As such, they become dilettantes along the sad, sorry way. My students teetered at the edge of dilettantism. It was my job to pull them back.

Where young writers are is not their fault. After all, their ideas about how excellent prose happens have been shaped by romantic, highly unrealistic beliefs about writing. They are completely enamored with the idea of Being A Writer. They are passionately in love with the Idea Of Writing. And inspiration, they are sure, is what fuels this searing, delicious tinderbox of an affair.

For all his promises, Inspiration is a lousy lover, more wet kindling than lighter fluid. Inspiration is full of tease but never delivers: “all hat and no cowboy,” as a Texan friend says. Inspiration is sexy, charming, mysterious, compelling—on the outside. Get inspiration home and in the sack, though, and all we’ve got is a whiskey-dicked frat boy who, for all his looks and talk, gives our crotch half a clumsy rub before rolling over, puking in his own shoes, and passing out.

Well.

Wake him up. Don’t let him put on his clothes. Don’t give him a chance to rinse out his penny loafers. (Because you know Inspiration still wears penny loafers with his Members Only jacket.) Slam the door. Bolt it shut. Do NOT open it again, no matter how he begs. Don’t call him a cab. Call him what he is: a dud. No, no, he’s worse than a dud. He’s a charlatan.

So kick his drunk ass back out in the street with the amateurs, where he belongs. It’s for your own safety. As Carl Sagan once explained, “Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”

When we depend on Inspiration, he stops us cold. Hard as it may seem, we must guide ourselves. We must trust in the process, even when we’re angry and heartbroken and numb and completely blank. When we rely on Inspiration, he’s a no-show. And suddenly, we’re all dressed up and dateless at the Winter Formal, stuffing those racking sobs back inside our rib cage and pretending to enjoy ourselves. We’re scared, humiliated, devastated that The One We Love has crapped out on us at such an important moment.

But we shouldn’t be surprised. Inspiration is out back of the Teke house, blasted on Thunderbird with our potential and our creativity. He’d much rather get schnockered on the cheapest poison around—and steal our dearest friends—than deliver what he promised. He lives for this. He controls us when we depend on the illusion that we cannot create without him.

How, then, to work around the seductive, greasy charms of Inspiration?

By listening—listening to everything and everyone, listening to tiny flashes of things and people and creatures and plants and moments. The way we get big ideas is by paying attention to the small ones.

Now, ideas are wonderful, but they need a while to grow on us, to get to know us better. By noticing the things nobody else does, we give the small ideas the time and space and care they need to become stronger ideas—to become sentences, images, story lines, characters.

A tuft of fur caught on a hydrangea stem, flapping helplessly in the wind. The daddy-long-legs crawling inexplicably up the truck tailgate in front of us as the traffic light turns green. The way Wednesday morning lights up the plastic rain bonnets of old ladies at the grocery store—all small, and all vast, all at once.

Write it all down.
Yes, even if it “sounds stupid.”

When I was still teaching, I’d hand back a set of papers and ask students to reflect on where they might have gone wrong. They’d often say, “Well, I was going to write about ______, but it seemed stupid.” And I’d clap my hands in wonder: “That’s not stupid at all! It’s what would make this essay work.”

And they learned, little by little, that Inspiration will not swoop in, all grandiose and deus ex machina, to save our writing asses. Good work happens in small pieces, and often almost imperceptibly.

In my first-year college writing classes, I’d often show students a portfolio of my work, from eighth grade to the present. Professional, academic, creative—it was all in there, the entire process. Some of it was under construction, some of it was pretty good, and some of it was capital-T Trash. “Look, dammit,” I always wanted to shout. “Look here and look hard. This is how we spin garbage into gold.”

Look, look, LOOK.
Soak it into your skin.
Soak it into your bloodstream.

This is noticing on the deepest, most profound level. This is where we build creative eye and ear and soul. This is where we begin: in noticing, instead of in waiting for someone or something to save us. In noticing the small, the insignificant, and writing down every last bit of it, we rescue ourselves from Inspiration.

And that is all I have to say today.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

NOTE: I first published this post on 31 January 2014. It appears today with revisions.

 

On Work, Secrets, and Lies

“So, what are you working on?”

I stop, and stammer. Then I lie.
I always lie.

When I tell someone about my latest project, when I tell them what drives me all day and keeps me awake all night, I give away my power. The object of my written desire and affection and obsession is mineminemineALLMINE. Until it appears in public, published form, it remains my secret. It remains my forbidden love. No one else can know it even exists.

Unreasonable? No.

Ten years ago, I wrote the first 50 pages of a novel. It was creative nonfiction, based on stories I’d overheard my grandparents tell their friends when I was a small child. It was the first non-academic piece I had ever written. Still, something told me it might be worthwhile, that maybe it could turn into something special.

But I wasn’t completely sure. So I took a huge gamble: I attended a writers’ conference to sit down with an editor, a literary agent, and my manuscript. “Lord knows it’s not finished, or anywhere near publication quality,” I thought, “but they can give me some tips to make it better.”

On my appointed conference day, I waited my turn to talk with the pros. Ahead of me were two dozen other writers, all of whom had at least 25 more years of life and writing experience than I. One by one, they huffed out of the conference room, slammed the door, and stomped back down the hall in hurt, insulted rage.

And then I was next.

Stomach cartwheeling, I tiptoed into the room. Editor and agent—both worldly and sophisticated people who knew the business well—greeted me and reviewed their copies of my manuscript. I readied my notebook and pen. The editor spoke first.

“Miss Williams, if you do not publish this book, it will be a damned shame.”

He paused, looking directly at me. He would not let me look away.

“Do you hear me? A damned shame. If you do not finish this book and get it into print, you will have robbed the world of a precious, exquisite gift.”

I froze, pen in mid-air.

The agent nodded. “This is excellent. I’d love to see it when it’s, say, ninety percent finished. I know I can find a good home for it.”

“And it’ll have to be a much larger press than mine,” the editor added. “I’d love to publish it, but the demand would be too great. Aim for the big houses.” He took another sip of coffee, then slid his card and the agent’s across the table. “People are ravenous for books like this. Get it out there.”

Since 2008, that manuscript has lay in the bottom drawer of my desk.

Once the mystery had been revealed, so to speak, the power and beauty of the tale I’d woven just disappeared. Poof. GONE. The natural path that the story might have taken vanished under the glare of others’ expectations. People in the know had prophesied Big Things Ahead for Me. Everyone was watching. Like a child who falls silent when Grandma calls, “Come in here and sing your pretty little song for us,” the raging, rollicking, fiercely private work withered when I betrayed it. No matter that I had betrayed it to people who thought it gorgeous and strong. I betrayed it just the same: before it was ready, before it was whole.

Oh, I tried to get it back. I changed the plot, the narrator’s motivation, the setting, the characters. No use. The result was forced, lifeless, trite and clichéd in a world of trite clichés.

When I finally walked away, I cried for months.
The book refused to let me forget what I had done.

Three summers ago, in the face of devastating creative terror, I swore a formal, binding oath to my work. I take this commitment to my art as seriously and as solemnly as I would a marriage vow:

I shall stay faithful to my story, forsaking all others.
I shall write every day.
I shall write no matter my mood.
I shall notice every small thing I can.
I shall bear witness to everything I can.
I shall tell no one what my work entails.
I shall tell no one even my smallest ideas.
I shall tell no one where or why I travel.
I shall not show anyone my notes or my idea board.
I shall distract, subvert, and outright lie to protect my story, if I must.
I shall reveal my story only when it is ready—no sooner.
I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.

When my story appears in final form, on screen or on paper, it is no longer part of me. It moves, lives, and breathes of its own accord. Only when it leaves my grasp, strong and sturdy, may others see and taste and touch it.

So, ask away.
I cannot stop you.

I know you mean well. I am grateful and humbled that you are interested in my work. But please know that I will always, always lie when you ask—not to trick you, not to hurt you, but to give you the best gift I can.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

NOTE: I first published this post here on 7 March 2014. It appears today with revisions.

 

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