A Silly Writing Habit That Works

Truth & BeautyI’m going to go out on a limb here and tell you an embarrassing habit of mine. When I’m trying to get some perspective on a piece I’m revising–trying to step back and see where improvements can still be made, where it’s not quite up to par–I pull a book off one of my shelves. I try to find the book that comes as close as possible, in appearance as well as content, to the one in which I imagine my own material one day appearing. I open that book to the first page of the first chapter, and, holding it slightly off to the side, I read my manuscript, as though I were reading it from the book.

I don’t know when this habit started. It was years ago. In middle school at the latest. And I think it had something to do with a particular evening when I was sitting at my piano teacher’s house, waiting for my sister to finish her lesson and reading a book by Janette Oke. I was enjoying the story, but what I remember most vividly is the rough feel of the book’s paper, its faintly musty smell, and the sense of possibility and hope inspired by the sturdy half-inch stack of pages that remained to be read. I distinctly remember thinking to myself in that moment, I have to make something like this one day. I have to be a writer.

Maybe it’s that original inspiration that I’m trying to conjure by holding a physical book in my hands as I read my writing. Whatever my reason, I’ve always felt very silly about the habit. I’ve never let anyone else see me do it. It feels like a child’s game, like making believe that I’m holding my own published book in my hands. But I can’t resist. And lately I’ve begun to think that it might not be that silly after all.

Recently, I was trying to get a handle on a spiritual memoir I’m working on. I’d been writing this material for three years but had only in the last few weeks started trying to give it definite form. I’d written five or six entirely different openings, and none of them worked. I was pretty sure I understood the trajectory of the book and its themes. It was the requisite voice that eluded me–the right emotional tone for this work that is both highly personal and on a very controversial subject. (It’s about religion, after all. And, for the most part, not the good kind.) After realizing that my latest attempt at an opening chapter was just as bad as all the others, for lack of a better idea I decided to try my old habit.

I perused my shelves. I quickly ruled out paperbacks. I knew my memoir had substance, and I knew I wanted it to be the kind of book that people wanted to have in hardback. That narrowed the selection down a bit, as I don’t often splurge for hardbacks (unless I find them at a library book sale). I considered Sarah Sentilles’ Breaking Up with God and Kathleen Norris’s The Virgin of Bennington, but despite the similarity in theme, I didn’t get the right vibe from either of those. Ultimately it was Ann Patchett’s Truth & Beauty that stirred my imagination. I have an edition with a light blue dust jacket and rough-cut pages. The perfect physical form for a book with the word ‘beauty’ in its title. And, I felt, the perfect book to represent what my spiritual memoir was striving to become.

So I opened Patchett’s book to Chapter One. And I stared out the window that sits behind my desk.

Within minutes, I had a new opening line. And as soon as I wrote it down, an entire two-page prologue followed. The voice was poetic but grounded. The imagery simultaneously earthy and spiritual. Suddenly the whole book came together in my mind. I had found my voice. By holding someone else’s physical book in my hands.

I don’t know how this works, but I’m sure there are some neuroscientists out there who could give me a nice theory. I’m reminded of an experiment in which young men were much more likely to call a girl if they met her in a dangerous situation than if they met her when they weren’t already having an adrenaline rush. It seems the human brain doesn’t neatly compartmentalize its inputs. And I think I can actually fool the creative part of my brain into believing I’m reading my own words out of a volume with another author’s name on it. Somehow, doing that tunes me in to the voice of other authors whose work I admire and want to emulate.

Now that I’m writing this, I’m also reminded of some stories I’ve read about real-life clairvoyants and the way their clairvoyance is triggered by physical objects. Is it possible that the voice of a book could actually find its way into my brain in this paranormal way? That some measure of that author’s skill could be imparted to me? I don’t know. But I don’t think of this process as any sort of hocus pocus. I just know that I do it, and that it works, however silly it seems.

Does anyone else out there have habits like this?

30 responses to “A Silly Writing Habit That Works”

  1. No, I haven’t done this. But, I’m going to try now 😉 Sometimes we try to understand things too much instead of just going with it. I have no idea how the inner workings of a car work and yet it gets me from point A to point B every single day.

    Although I am not a neuroscientist, this sounds similar to something I was reading recently in a book called ‘Thinking Write’. It’s about finding ways to tap into your subconscious where all your ideas and thoughts are saved. We have the conscious mind and preconscious mind which guard the entrance to the subconscious. Sounds like you have found a direct path to said subconscious. And, by the way, nothing is silly if it works for you 🙂

    One day you’ll be reading that memoir with a hardcover book in hand, but you won’t be looking to the side. You’ll be looking directly at your words on the printed page of that book 😉

  2. When I was fourteen I discovered that I could become Mick Jagger by putting my hands on my hips, cocking my head to the side, and widening my eyes. I don’t mean I was like Mick Jagger. I mean I became Mick Jagger in that strange way that mimicry can confuse the actor himself. I have no idea what was happening neurologically, but the simple act of hands on hips and widening eyes led to a strut, then a finger wag, and a whole kit-and-caboodle of Mick Jagger mannerisms both catalogued and uncatalogued in memory. It was marvelous, wonderful poolside entertainment, and it came complete with a world of instincts and observations that were previously unknown to me. It came, paradoxically, with everything but a singing voice. Alas.

    This is a fine post on discovering a voice for something. I’m particularly taken with the fact that your entire prologue, two pages worth, come rolling out as soon as the little door was jarred open by the rough cut pages (a fantastic detail). The voice for a piece, when it really arrives, arrives almost like another person, actual and entire, doesn’t it? It’s almost a ghost of sorts. It isn’t just a sound or a tone or something a writing workshop can teach you. It’s not a tool for getting the work done. It’s the author himself, herself. The voice turns out to be a whole individual with a particular take on the world and stories you’d never heard and a shared friendship that feels timeless and inexhaustible and just for you, personally, the writer living inside of it.

    And, heavens, when it is the voice for memoir there is almost something supernatural about it; the ghostly voice is your own You and yet apart. Freaky and wonderful!

    All of which to say: I look forward to meeting your voice and glad that I’ve discovered it here on your blog. A beautifully observed note.

    • The voice as a whole person, an individual entier et à part. I hadn’t thought of it in exactly that way, but I think you’re right. And I think that captures another aspect of the mysteriousness of the process. The voice of the writer doesn’t arrive (in my experience at least) piece by piece. It arrives all at once, in a sort of gestalt. When I was dating a Frenchman, we used to marvel at the way switching from one language to another was like switching to another brain. It wasn’t just about words. It was about another set of thought patterns and feelings, a different mindset, even a different personality that arose when we switched from English to French, or from French to English.

      I think your example about becoming Mick Jagger is spot on. And I don’t think that science yet has a handle on how things like this work. But guys like Rupert Sheldrake may be barking up the right tree.

      Your comment is stirring all sorts of new thoughts in my head…

  3. I LOVE this piece. I wonder what other habits people have that are secret? Thank you for sharing. I was just telling a friend who was struggling with revising her own work, to print it out, read it out loud in her car or somewhere else, like it was fresh writing. I like your idea even better! I think it’s like yoga class. You CAN do yoga alone and get a lot out of it. It’s different in a class. I’m not exactly sure what is different, but the energy or whatever, in that community space.
    Anyhow, it’s a great trick. Plus, it must feel good to visualize your book and to even select the books it is like (or not), if it would be hard cover, etc.
    You have made me want to know more about your writing and journey as well. I can see your book and I want a copy.

    • I’m so glad you connected with this post! I hesitated to write it because I thought, Man, I could turn out sounding really weird. But somehow it’s always our quirkiest traits that people identify with most.

      I hope one day I’ll have a hardback copy of my book to send you!

  4. Writers have such amazing, quirky habits. When I was writing my novel, I put in fake teeth from a gumball machine to get in touch with one of my characters. Thanks for sharing this—it was such a pleasure to read!

  5. Fascinating habit. I love it and will try it.

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  6. I love this idea, and I intend to try it myself. I’ve always had trouble understanding my own voice well enough to bring it out at will, and I have a feeling that this will help put me in the right place to find it. My own habit when I’m needing inspiration is to pull out a copy of Huckleberry Finn and revisit the simple idea of two people on a raft, moving downriver but bumping into the shoreline occasionally and coming into conflict with the real world.

  7. I can’t wait to try this!
    My weird writing thing isn’t a weird habit, it’s just weird timing. My best thoughts come to me before I fall asleep. This voice is very much like the one you mentioned above, “poetic but grounded.” Sometimes scenes from my book idea play in my head. I just have to make sure that I get the ideas out before I fall asleep and it’s all gone. I’ve constructed sub plots, quirky character traits, commentary, and metaphors all while laying in bed.

    • That’s happened to me a few times, too! It’s like we have to trick our brains into thinking they’re not working so they will…. Sounds like you’ve developed this into an art form in itself!

  8. I don’t think it’s silly at all! I’m going to try it. Perhaps its making the shift from writer back to reader that inspires you. Like Veronica, it’s when I attempt to turn my brain off to sleep at night that all my best story ideas start flowing. Naturally, I keep a pen and notepad by the bed!

    • I hadn’t thought about that writer-to-reader shift. I think you might be on to something there. The physical book in my hands might act like a switch, turning on certain ways of thinking and turning others off. Thanks for your thought!

  9. Very much enjoyed reading about your secret writing habit. I’m sure we all have one and that we can learn from each other by sharing them. I often ‘audition’ a line in my head and make it the first line of a book and then ask myself ‘does it make me want to know more’? Now that I am more aware of this aspect of writing, I’ll pay closer attention to other thoughts and behaviours I might have… very interesting!

  10. My cure-all when the words don’t come is to go for a walk. And not the kind where I have my headphones plugged into my I-phone, jamming out to Bands of Horses; I’m talking about hoofing it through the streets of South Tampa with a pen in one hand and a note pad in the other. There’s something about movement that gets my brain a-workin’, allowing me to generate ideas and see possibilities where there were only dead ends. (Something about endorphins stimulating neural pathways, perhaps?) Part of me muses how foolish I look, standing on the side of the road, jotting down notes about this, that and the other. Then there’s the part of me that doesn’t give a crap what other people think about me. It’s my process and I’m sticking to it. 🙂

  11. I’m not a neuroscientist, but I do know firsthand the power of magical thinking. Perhaps holding the printed book in your hand makes you ask yourself — consciously and unconsciously — what in your manuscript also belongs on the printed page.

    Your exercise makes me think of a similar exercise members of my poetry workshop do, which involves taking a published poem — a poem good enough for print — and using it as a sort of guide through revision of one’s own piece, or exploration of the themes in one’s own poem. After a couple of decades in the rules-based, systematic worlds of web development and technology, I’ve begun to appreciate the soft-focus thinking involved in the creative endeavors.

    I’m glad you found something that works for you, and I might steal your own exercise. I also hope you find a publisher for your book soon. Have you considered attending Grub Street’s big Muse and the Marketplace shindig? It’s being held the same weekend as the Mass Poetry Festival in Salem. I’m going to neither this year, but perhaps you’ll find inspiration — or something more pragmatic — if you attend. More information here:

    • If only I still lived in Boston! It would be so convenient, I would have no choice but to attend!

      I like your poetry exercise. I’ve started doing something similar with some flash nonfiction pieces by Ron Charles. I like his voice, and I’d like to be able to incorporate into my own work some of the things he does so well.

      • I’m not familiar with his work. Is there a link?

        I saw on your bio that you lecture at Brandeis, so I figured that you’re in the larger metro area. Getting in to the city can be difficult once you lose the habit, though — my parking kung fu is much rustier than when I lived in Cambridge.

      • Oh my! Well, congratulations on seeing daffodils in March this year. I have some friends in the DC area, including a lovely woman who’s a college professor.

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