"Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open."

by phil on Tuesday Sep 15, 2009 5:18 PM

I think I've found a learning space with regard to writing. A learning space is an expression I've settled on to describe a precondition for flow. For example, if you're an intermediate tennis player, you can get better by working on your serve, and then even going further by isolating different aspects of your serve, and perfecting them, and then synthesizing them into your game. In that case, you have a learning space; you have "room to grow." The first-time tennis player, on the other hand, may not have a learning space. She may not even know what to work on, or how to improve in a meaningful way. Every time she plays, she feels like she's going nowhere, just getting worse and frustrated. Likewise, why do players at the top of their game retire? They don't know what else they can do to improve.

With my writing, likewise, I've been struggling for a long time to find a learning space. Because writing, ever since I got active in it in 2003, has been something that strikes me like lightning, runs through my fingers, and puts out content. The process is fun, feels like heroin (never tried), but it's rarely something I can control. I keep obsessing about wanting to figure out "prompted writing," to be able to, at will, "turn on" and just write. In the positive space, when I'm writing, it's really fun, but the negative space, when I'm waiting to write, waiting for the inspiration to strike, it's incredibly frustrating.

Over the past month and a half, I've returned back to Julia Cameron's The Right to Write. Her signature advice is her "Morning Pages" where she urges students to, in the morning, write three full pages about whatever. The rest of her book is a corroboration of that idea. She refers to a screenwriter who now swears by the Morning Pages. I also found independent corroboration for the Morning Pages when I heard that Philip Pullman writes three pages by hand every morning.

So I gave this practice a second chance, and told myself to really push through. The last time I did Morning Pages, which was about two years ago, I gave it a two-week run, and then I got bored. I'd ask myself often, "what's the point! I hate this!" But I believe that IS the point. The point of the Morning Pages, to me, is to get yourself writing under conditions of no pressure or external interest. There's no editor giving you a deadline, there's no blog post you have in mind; you're starting from a blank slate, and then writing for writing's sake.

And now, alas, I feel like I have a learning space! I've been executing these Morning Pages nearly consistently for a month now, and I feel like I'm learning a lot about my writing instrument. I'm learning how it is that I write. I'm learning about what conditions make writing work for me and what conditions don't.

For example, in my Morning Pages, I've developed this practice of maintaining a high word-per-minute output. This helps me get closer to the stream of thoughts in my head. Because I can't type at that high wpm unless I'm tracking thoughts that are already flowing at that rate.

Little lessons like that strike me every one or two sessions, and help me understand how to use my creative muscles. It's a different way of thinking. I'm a programmer by trade and education, and I don't really have to prime my programming muscles at all. I don't have "Programmer's Block" or anything. So it's weird to think about Writer's Block. Because I think what's really happening is there's a conflict between what you think you want to write and what you actually want to write. People who don't get Writer's Block are simply writing what they truly want to say.

Philip Pullman writes three pages everyday on paper. The difference between writing and typing is that you can't erase words on paper. Well, you can, but it requires effort, and that interrupts the flow of your thoughts. As a result, on paper, the quantity of words is monotonically increasing, while as on the computer, you can backspace and back track over your words, maybe even erasing everything! So on computer, you're in both revision mode and drafting mode. Trying to do both at the same time would be anathema to successful writers, from Stephen King to Julia Cameron to just my general understanding of the global consciousness of successful writers. I have the sense that this idea is truly key:

"Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open." (Stephen King's On Writing)

So what do I do? I've tried writing on paper, but it's too slow and unnatural for me. I get too encumbered by the slowness of it that I just give up. Also, since computerized text is what I ultimately want, I hate having to transcribe the written pages. So what I've done now is I open up my text editor but move the window off-screen so I can't see what I'm typing. As a result, I can't look over my words and erase. The end result is that I really feel like I'm freewriting. I'm not even looking at the screen half-the-time, and I'm even writing with my eyes closed, almost like my typing is doing the daydreaming.

Now, there is a flaw to this that I think writing-on-paper doesn't have. If you handwrite, you can see what you're writing and that creates a feedback loop. You can see your thoughts taking shape. While as if you write off-screen or do improvisational speaking, there is this heavy emphasis on the present moment, and less emphasis on the branches and foundations laid in earlier.

So here's another idea, what if I got rid of my delete button while doing my Morning Pages. I think it would still break me away from confusing rewriting with writing, but at the same time, give me the benefit of referring to things I said earlier or building up and chaining sentences into mature paragraphs.

Who knows, that might be perfect at that point. Either way, I'm learning.

Creative Commons License