Friday, March 11, 2011

5 Lenten Meditations on Writing

Whether you’re Catholic, Christian, some other religion, or a hard-core atheist, you’ve probably heard of Lent, the forty-day period beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending on Easter in which Christians prepare for the feast of the Resurrection. Preparation consists, basically, of self-examination, of looking critically at your life, seeing what needs changing, and taking steps to do so. You give up something that entails a sacrifice, you are generally somber and contemplative.

See where I’m heading yet? Even if you’re not religious, I propose there is much you can learn from this tradition when it comes to writing:

1.       The past is the past, and what matters is the future. On Ash Wednesday, last year’s holy palms are burned, and the ashes are used to mark the foreheads of the congregation with a cross. The ritual symbolizes our own mortalityashes to ashes, dust to dust. Our petty little problems, as well as our most cherished triumphs, will all one day be dust. Gather up all those bad poems, all the snippets not worth revising, all the rejection slips, as well as the letters of acceptance you take such pride in, go over to the barbecue, and watch ‘em burn. Tomorrow you can sit down to write with a clean slate. None of your previous successes or failures has any bearing on tomorrow’s work. No one has ever told you that you are good or bad. There is no such thing as regret or expectations. It’s okay to make mistakes, to start over as many times as you need.

2.       The spirit of Lent is one of self-examination and revision, the two principal tenets of good writing. In our one-shot world, it’s really difficult to accept the value of these two principles. We prefer the quick judgmentthumbs up, or down?—and would rather give up than revise. Been on a diet for two days and haven’t lost those ten pounds? Off to the surgeon. You spend all day sitting in front of a computer screen and then you go home and eat a quart of ice cream for dinner, and you have no idea why you’re so fat? Every woman you ask out refuses to go for a second date, but you never stop to wonder whether it might be your charming array of fart jokes that’s turning them off. No. You just keep going on first dates, over and over and over. Must be something wrong with them, but you have no theories there, either. You’re too busy moving on to the next victim. The level of self-awareness in our culture is extremely low, yet good writing demands that you be able to turn a critical eye on yourself. Cultivate self-awareness for forty days, and it’ll transform you. Observe your writing habits, your recurring problems. Then, revise. You do your best writing in the morning, before anyone else is awake? Don’t just give up because you can only do that on Sundays. Rearrange what needs rearranging. Make it happen. You have a tendency to write bad dialogue? Don’t avoid it. Go online. Figure out who’s known for her good dialogue. Read, study, practice. Make it happen. Persist. Understand that professional writers often spend years on a single piece. It takes dozens of drafts, on the average, to achieve a finished piece. Yet, most beginning writers quit after the first or second draft. They start a new piece that they then give up on after the first or second draft as well. This is no way to growyou will always be stuck at the lower rungs of achievement if you don’t embrace the value of revision.

3.       Sacrifice. Our culture tells us that the only currency is money, but in truth most things have far greater and more elusive prices. In the Catholic tradition, you spend two days fasting during Lent, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. You don’t eat meat on Fridays, and many people give up something else, like drinking or chocolate or whatever, for all forty days. It’s a rare and wonderful gift, discipline. When you sit down to that first meal after a day of fasting, your tongue is reborn. The same plate of leftover chili that you rolled your eyes at before you fasted now tastes like ambrosia. Or, say you gave up chocolate. You thought you could never do it, and at first you nearly wept at a Hershey’s commercial. Butthere you are, forty days and not a bite. You are better than you thought you were. That which you thought you needed, you didn’t really. In fact, you’re better without it, stronger, clearer. What is keeping you from being a better writer? Is it a bad habit, like reading garbage? Is it lack of discipline? What do you think you need to write better? More time? A laptop? A class? Maybe you don’t need any of these. You may already have what you need. Sacrifice. Pay for this thing that you want, to write well. Give up an hour of sleep in the morning, the trashy novel, the dream of the room of your own in the perfect writer’s attic away from the noise of the world. They are nothing but crutches, excuses, demons! You may have told yourself before that you need to stop wasting time, but you’ll never appreciate the value of lost time until you pay for it with sacrifice, with an hour’s sleep, or the weekly trip to the mall that you gave up.

Walden (Concord Library)
The Ur-Text of Simplicity
4.       Pare it down to the bare necessities. The traditional time period of Lent represents the forty days Jesus spent in the desert, fasting, praying, and, of course, being tempted by the devil. It’s from that time that the famous saying, “Man does not live on bread alone,” comes to us. Having been fasting in the desert for so long, Jesus is tempted by the devil with bread and other niceties, to which He responds the above. It’s great to think about your writing in this way. Pare down your writing to the bare necessities, and you’ll see the higher truth beneath all the clutter. Do away with explosions, murders, bloodletting, bags of money, screams, tears, and all the other hoopla of melodrama. Get rid of clumsy adjectives and adverbs, of flowery words like incandescence. Simplify, simplify. Pick a clear noun, like fire, and say what it does: burns. Forget medievalgo Neanderthal. Let Tarzan be your guide. Me writer, you reader.
The Faulkner Reader: With A Forward By the Author
To read Faulkner's 1949
Nobel Prize Acceptance
speech and listen to
an excerpt, click here.

Letter to Artists (Meeting House Essays)
To read Pope John Paul II's
thoughts on the role
of the artist in society,
click here.

5.   Speaking of bread. Now that you are strong in the desert is a great time to reevaluate what you want from writing. What’s motivating you to write? The devil tempts Jesus not only with bread, but with the thought of tossing Himself from the pinnacle of the temple to prove that God would rescue him. One way to interpret this temptation is to see it as the height of arrogance“Look at me! I’m the best!” Jesus, not being Eric Cartman, was able to resist this temptation, but are you? Are you maybe writing because you want people to tell you how wonderful you are? Are you, in other words, showing off? Do you avoid readers whom you know will be critical, and rush instead to show your work to the mom-types who will shower you with praise? Tsk, tsk. The final temptation of the Devil is to ask Jesus to worship him. In return, he offers Him all the kingdoms of the world. Jesus, not being a Kardashian, says no thanks, but what about you? Do you search for inspiration in the bestseller lists? Have you suddenly sprung an interest in high-school vampirism, perchance? Tsk, tsk. Search for a higher purpose to your writing. Live for the word, not for the bread.

Of course, if you happen to be celebrating Lent anyway, you will get more from the tradition. Even divested of its spiritual significance, however, the rituals of contemplation, evaluation, revision, purification, and awareness are processes we can all benefit from in our writing, which is, after all, a discipline, a calling, as well as an art.

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