Advice For Being (A Writer)

This is where the magic happens, baby!
This is where the magic happens, baby!

I was talking with a young screenwriter recently, and the conversation turned to how to continue being a writer. It struck me as odd. If one is a thing, then one doesn’t put much thought into continuing to be that thing. Existence fallibly entails continuation.

Writing is different, though. Being a writer is contingent upon making writing your practice. That means that after you make the choice to be a writer, in the beginning stages of your writing life, being a writer requires effort. There are things you have to do from the outset to make room in your life for this new way of being. If you’ve done these things from childhood, then you don’t even think about it. But if you’re creeping into your adult life and you’ve just decided that the writing life is one that fulfills you and that you want to pursue, then it takes work, even if you love it.

In Buddhism, there’s a concept known as the Three Refuges. These are the foundation that every Buddhist (or almost every Buddhist) accepts as the core of their practice. They are Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha: teacher, knowledge and action, and community. It’s a recipe for how to grow and develop your Buddhist practice, now and into the future. It’s instruction in how to make room in your life to be a Buddhist, in how to continue.

So I based my advice on the Three Refuges, and I am repeating it below, with some revision. Five steps to continue being, and to continue being a writer, for those starting on the writing path, with supplementary quotes. This advice should look familiar, because it’s been repeated over and over again by many many writers. To my memory, however, I’ve never seen these points iterated as an integrated system before.

1) Find a teacher. William Faulkner reportedly said in an interview in the Paris Review,

“Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer, he wants to beat him.”

I agree with the idea that there are no shortcuts to writing. But in terms of doing it all on one’s own, this advice is quatsch. Nonsense. Bull-puckey. Some writers can learn solely through trial and error, but most of us cannot. Having somebody there to share their experience, help you avoid pitfalls, guide you through the vagaries of structure, sensitize you to the different uses of language, and a hundred lessons else is an invaluable tool for not only continuing to be writer but excelling at it. If nothing else, having that knowledgeable support there, placing a gentle hand in the small of your back, will keep you writing when you would have otherwise given up.

2.) Read. This point can actually be divided into two sub-points: read narrowly, and read widely. Reading narrowly means reading within your field. As a playwright, I need to be reading plays, books by playwrights on writing, books by other theater makers on making theater, listening to theater podcasts, and so on if I want to stay good and/or get better. I hope I don’t need to outline the importance of that. However, I also need to be reading widely. Anything I can get my hands on. This is the practice that stokes the fires of the imagination, inspires us, increases our overall knowledge of the world, and expands our vocabularies and our vision, and lets us see what it is possible to do with the written word, no matter the genre.  One quote attributed to Stephen King, from his book On Writing, says:

“I am always chilled and astonished by the would-be writers who ask me for advice and admit, quite blithely, that they ‘don’t have time to read.’ This is like a guy starting up Mount Everest saying that he didn’t have time to buy any rope or pitons.”

3.) Write. Gail Sher notes in her book, One Continuous Mistake:

“Writers Write.”

This is the very definition of a writer. It makes no difference if you’ve never been published, never made a sale, never seen production: if you are a writer, then writing is your practice. It’s a part of you. The only way to fail at being a writer, then, is not to write. You can feel this for yourself. If you don’t write for a while, it feels wrong. It feels like your insides don’t fit inside your outsides. And when you start again, you’re rusty. You start making old mistakes, and have to remind yourself not to do that, even though you already know. That’s frustrating. Continuing to write, every day, keeps you fresh and on your game, even if nobody ever sees what you do…

4a.) Make something: The oogy version. …but people should see what you do. Why should they? I had a singing teacher who once told me that singing is part of being human. We have voices and we have words, and singing is really just lengthened speech that makes full use of our vocal apparatus. Therefore, singing is our birthright. If that’s so, then storytelling is also our birthright. Informing, entertaining, speaking truth, lying, and weaving a good yarn are all our birthrights. That means that novels are our birthright. Poems and essays are our birthright. Theater is absolutely a birthright of ours.  And if these things are inside of you, then you do yourself and others an injustice when you keep them to yourself. It’s a kind of stinginess, of greed. Good writers are generous with their audience. Practice generosity; make something, and share it with others.

4b.) Make something: the non-oogy version. Look, writing a play is a different ball of wax than writing in your journal. It requires structure, characters, often several plots, setting, style, and theme. It requires you to juggle these things until the words, “END OF PLAY,” roll across the page at the end.  Do you think that jugglers learn how to toss chainsaws in the air by sitting around and watching other jugglers do it? No. They learn by doing it.  They get better, more confident, more discerning by doing it. Suzuki Roshi says:

“After you have practiced for a while, you will realize that it is not possible to make rapid, extraordinary progress. Even though you try very hard, the progress you make is always little by little. It is not like going out in a shower in which you know when you get wet. In a fog, you do not know you are getting wet, but as you keep walking you get wet little by little. If your mind has ideas of progress, you may say, ‘Oh, this pace is terrible!’ But actually it is not. When you get wet in a fog it is very difficult to dry yourself. So there is no need to worry about progress.”

Sharing your writing with others also creates accountability. Many of us, perhaps even most of us, are afraid to share what we write with others because we have this built-in audio track in our heads that chuckles on repeat: “They’re all going to laugh at you! they’re all going to laugh at you!” Instead of being intimidated by that voice, use it to your advantage. Let it drive you to make the best possible play/story/poem/novel/essay you can before you share it with others.

5.) Find a community. There is a common, historical fallacy which states that writing is, in the end, a lonely process. Nothing could be further from the truth. One of the best things that ever happened to me, in terms of my writing and my personal life, was to be invited to join a playwrights’ circle called Playgroup. Playgroup was home to some of Portland’s finest writers for the stage, and I got to be one of them. We not only shared our work with each other, we provided each other with professional and artistic advice and support. Our individual styles went on to inform the writing of others in the group, and we developed friendships and working relationships that last to this day. It was a creative and artistic incubator that significantly directed the course of my writing, my career, and the way I think about theater.

The great thing about joining a community of writers is this: you don’t have to wait to be invited. You can seek them out, or you can create them. They can be as informal or as formal as you like. The point is that you gather and share with a group of people who are of like mind and purpose, who hold each other up and show each other how to walk the path with greater power, ease, and grace. Author Jane Smiley is quoted thus in the book We Wanted To Be Writers:

“If you look back at the history of the novel, nearly everyone who succeeded was part of some sort of literary group. There is hardly anyone who thrives on being solitary. Think of Virginia Woolf and her circle; they supported one another and talked to one another and talked about literature. Thackeray and his friends, the same.”

So there you go: Five Refuges for Writers. A way to continue. Do you have anything to add to the above list? Please comment below. And, as Brandon Sanderson says every week on the podcast Writing Excuses, “You’re out of excuses. Now go write.”

Fish Chowder

So thick you can stand a spoon up in it.
So thick you can stand a spoon up in it.

When I was a kid, my family used to drive out to Lake Oswego once or twice a year to a restaurant called “The Sea Galley.” The inside was decked out in dark wood that had been treated to look like it was sea-worn, weathered brass portholes, random fishing nets, and orange buoys. The lighting was dim, the thin carpet a uniform scarlet. It was supposed to look authentic, and to a nine-year-old it did. I could imagine being a cabin boy in there, or a sailor in a galleon treading the waves. It was also the first place I ever remember eating clam chowder.

Many bowls of the stuff later (the recipe for which, I am fairly certain, is a divine gift from the sea god Himself) and I now know that what I was eating there wasn’t chowder at all but a thin potato soup, barely seasoned with paprika, with a few nubbly, rubbery chunks of clam perhaps floating in my bowl if I was really lucky. Even so, the savory undercurrent of real clam chowder was present in this weak imitation. My young palate was hooked from the get-go.

No, I didn’t plan that pun. They just come out of me. It’s a gift.

By that point in my life, I had already learned to love seafood. My parents introduced me to sushi at age two or three; my favorite was the octopus. At a buffet or potluck I went straight for the cocktail shrimp. Don’t even get me started on crab legs. Fish and chips. Salmon. I still ask for the skin off of the salmon, and have not been invited back to at least one friend’s house for dinner on account of it. I believe the word they used to describe me as I rolled it up and tucked right in was, “barbarian.”

I’ve been working hard on revising a play over the winter break, and I needed a little bit of comfort food tonight. It being winter, either a soup or a stew seemed perfect. My wife got me a great cookbook for Christmas: Dungeness Crabs & Blackberry Cobblers: The Northwest Heritage Cookbook, by Janie Hibler. I checked there and found recipes for both stew and chowder, both of which look a-ma-ha-hazing. I plan to try them soon. However, instead of going that direction tonight, I went instead with a cookbook that’s more of a go-to in my house: Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom: Essential Techniques and Recipes from a Lifetime of Cooking, by Julia Child. Wacky Aunt Julia (as I am fond of referring to Ms. Child, rest her soul) has rarely steered me wrong, and her recipe for chowder was, for a change, not as complex as others. She gives a base recipe for the chowder base, and then directions for adding other ingredients (clams, fish, corn, or vegetables) as one sees fit.

I made my chowder with cod, and let me tell you, it ended up very close to a fish stew. Slices of onion, lots of yukon gold potatoes, and thick pieces of fish made for a very hearty soup. It’s the sort of thing you’d want to eat after spending two weeks on a fishing trawler. Or digging ditches. Or performing rewrites on a play, eight hours a day, for the last three days. Or cowering under your covers in the fetal position due to a monstrous attack of depression. You get the idea. This is a soup that lets you go on.

Here, then, is the recipe, courtesy of Wacky Aunt Julia. She would probably tsk-tsk me for using Matzo Meal instead of crushed crackers, bacon instead of pork belly or lardon, and (gasp!) canned corn. Oh well.

Fish Chowder

  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 2 slices of bacon, cut into matchsticks.
  • 2 onions, sliced (about 1 pound).
  • 1 bay leaf.
  • 3/4 cup Matzo Meal.
  • 4 cups chicken stock.
  • 2 cups milk.
  • 2 large potatoes, or 3 medium, diced (about 1 pound).
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt (or so).
  • 1/2 teaspoon white pepper (or so).
  • 2 pounds cod.
  • 1 can corn kernels.
  1. Combine your stock and milk and heat just below the simmer.
  2. Melt the butter in your soup pot, and sauté the bacon pieces on medium until brown. Add the onions and the bay leaf and stir, coating them with the fat. Cover, reduce heat to low, and cook the onions for ten minutes.
  3. Add the Matzo Meal to your onions and stir, coating the onions and bacon. Add your hot liquid and potatoes, cover loosely, and raise heat to medium-low. Cook for twenty minutes.
  4. While the soup is cooking, drain your corn, debone your cod (that is NOT a euphemism), and cut it into two-inch chunks.
  5. At the end of twenty minutes, season your soup base with the salt and white pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary. Increase the heat to below simmer and add your cod and corn. Cook for five minutes. The cod should be completely white and opaque; take a piece out and double check, otherwise it’s not done.

That’s it. Happy eating!