Wednesday, February 05, 2014

The Prose Space

Here are two related rules that can help you define the "space" of your writing process. I should qualify them by saying they don't forbid anything absolutely. That is, you're free to "break" them outside of your formal writing process. The point is just that there should be regular occasions (preferably at least half an hour every day) when they are observed.

Don't write onto a blank page. You are of course filling in the "white" space of the page, but make sure that the boundaries around that space are well defined. This means you should know not just what text you are working on, and not just what section of that text, but exactly what paragraph you are writing at a particular time. You can easily mark off this paragraph by giving yourself a key sentence to write to. That is, decide in advance—i.e., before you go to bed the day before—what truth you are going to be expressing in prose. Your task will be to spend 27 (or 17 or 13) minutes writing at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words that support it. This morning, for example, I knew that the space of my writing problem was a blog post with two main paragraphs, one defined by the first sentence of this one, the other defined by the first sentence of the next. I knew I would have about thirteen minutes to write each one.

Don't write in an unstructured space. The author you are needs to trust that there will be no interruptions during the scheduled writing time, nothing that you have to "see to" immediately. For many people this means having what Virginia Woolf called "a room of one's own", but this is by no means necessary, and for some people just not possible. In any case, it's not the physical room, the walls and the door, that protect your writing process, it's the respect you are able to establish around your process. A door works not, in the main, because you can lock it, but because people know that when it is closed they have to knock before entering, and that they have accept it if you tell them you're busy. I write my morning blog post at the dining room table and sometimes my family is up and beginning their day all around me. But they know that from 6:30 to 7:00 I'm not to be disturbed. They respect my writing for half an hour. In that sense, my space is structured.

Don't expect your author (the part of you that writes) to work effectively on a blank page in an open space. Frame the problem of writing with a key sentence and a modicum of tranquility. It only takes a little bit of resolve to make the necessary decisions about your text and maintain the necessary relations to those around you. Your author will thank you. And reward you with a reliable supply of prose.


Lee Sechrest said...

Many years ago, Charles Ferster described to me how he and BF Skinner wrote their book "Verbal Reinforcemnt." They had a small room at Harvard with two tables, two chairs, and two typewriters (imagine!) They had nothing on the tables but their notes for the day, no pictures, no books, etc. Skinner had the room painted in a sort of mauve color unlike any other room. Each of them had a small, funny little hat that he donned whenever he entered the room. They did nothing in the room but write. When (if) their minds began to wander, they left the room. Ferster said that they quickly got to the point at which they could leave in the middle of a sentence, not even think about it until coming back in the room, and then they could sit down and take right up where they left off.
Radical behaviorism, but pretty good practice.

Thomas said...

Thanks for that story Lee. I'll have to spend a post reflecting on it. Perhaps already tomorrow. Part of this jibes nicely with my approach, some of it is a bit too extreme (something many of my authors will be surprised to learn is possible), some of it directly conflicts with what I recommend. Then there's the hats. Hats.