Oprah and I are just a question and answer away from being neighbors.
I am not sure of many things in life but, of this, I am certain.
It’s the age-old question: “If you could live one place in the world, where would it be?”
My closest friends know that without a doubt I would choose to build my bungalow on one of Toni Morrison’s points of punctuation. Then I could spend my days hopping from letter to letter, jumping along the bridges of the most beautiful words that I have ever read.
And I believe Oprah would feel the same way, her being a total fan of Toni Morrison and the magic that arrives each time Toni places her fingers to the keyboard. Yes, I can see it already, Oprah and I sipping daiquiris, laying in our self-made canopies out of the swooping U’s and O’s scattered throughout Morrison’s greatest novel: Beloved.
Honestly, this post has nothing to do with my new BFF Oprah, or fruity little drinks, but it does have to do with writing and how to write and when to write and where. And all the reasons why I believe that Toni Morrison would be better fit to write this, for when her sentences sit down on a page before my lucky, lucky eyes, I lose my breath. I cannot speak.
Her poetry swims through my blood and she somehow tells the tangled story of my soul as if it were a mess of knotted Christmas lights I have been trying to plug-in for a lifetime. That, to me, is good writing.
I don’t know how to tell anyone in the world how to be a good writer. I’d say we are all good writers so long as we are open to telling stories and we are adamant in uncovering our own storytelling styles. And so, I would say to anyone longing to let the writer pent-up inside of them out: Live all the days of your life out loud and then leave fifteen minutes after each one to spend some time bringing it to a page.
Oh yes, and a few more tips for those who adore pencils and adventures and waking up at three in the morning to write stories on the back of old Whole Foods receipts.
Five Thoughts on Writing
One) In writing, there are no rules. Only words waiting, like restless school children, to be picked up and given purpose: Writing rules discourage me. Proper nouns and punctuation points often scratch at my door when I sit down to write, panting to be set free and run loose wildly along the storylines.
I graduated college with a degree in English and though I despise individuals who don’t spell out words in text messages, I have abandoned the rules of “proper grammar” in my own ways. So you are off the hook all you “C U L8r” guys and dolls.
I pick out my own proper nouns and I decide when to place the final point of punctuation down. Because sometimes a yellow sweater is really That Yellow Sweater that you were wearing when the two of you first met by the mailroom, and other days a boy is really The Boy who taught you what it really means to laugh at life. And sometimes the story ends here. Or There. Mid. Sentence.
Never let rules of grammar ruffles the feathers of your story and how you choose to tell it.
Two) Always wear your Cloak of Vulnerability when entering into the writing room: The most difficult aspect of writing, by far, is that first glance at a snow-white document and the realization that follows shortly after: I need to find a way to make my heart beat on this page.
I have been quite honest in my writing through the years but that was not always the case. You are hearing from a recovering perfectionist here, a real life wannabe porcelain doll. But last year a girl that I hardly knew came up to me and handed me a sheet of paper.
“God has really been pressing this word into my heart for you,” she told me.
I looked down at the sheet of paper to see the word “VULNERABILITY” written in pencil.
That one word changed my writing for good. Changed my life for good. Taught me that our words are often most life-giving when we attach our own vulnerability to them, when we put ourselves out there and allow ourselves to be open books to others in need of a story they can identify with.
Three) For all Good, Good Heartbreak there is the Tracy Chapman Pandora station and your notepad: I might be the first one to say this you but…. I really hope you get your heart broken one day. Absolutely Shattered. Decrepit. Itty Bitty Shards & Pieces. And then I hope you have to get down on your knees and pick them up one by one. And learn how to live again with a slightly disfigured heart.
Of course I wish for other things when the Dawn of Heartbreak arrives to you: good friends, tissues, chocolate, all that jazzy heartbreak feel good stuff, resilience and the strength to become whole again.
But what I pray, more than anything, is that you have the courage and capacity to write it down. For a broken heart can be a writer’s best surface to start scrawling upon. It’s a fleshy, awful time, sure. But it is a moment to look back upon, to be able track the time when things broke. And star the time when things looked up again and you found your Two Legs again, and Two Arms, and your Ability to Move On after the storm.
Four) Start writing… Like now. No. Now: This is the most mondo piece of advice that I have to offer. Start writing… now. Ready, set… Whoops, the gun went off five days ago. You should have started then.
Write on the train. Write in waiting rooms. Start a blog. Stop saying, “I want to be a writer” and just out there and Become a Writer. Be a one of a kind, notebook toting, Barnes & Nobles roaming, Shakespeare doting writer.
You know, they say practice makes perfect but all of writing is so imperfect. In fact, all that makes this life crazy and complex and yet so irresistible is imperfect. Your father’s chin. My mother’s nose. The way kids scream out loud when the ice cream truck drives by. So imperfect and yet you don’t want to miss it for a second. Capture that. Practice imperfection with your words. Now.
Five) My Ultimate Cure for Writer’s Block: Lord knows I have done this dozens & dozens & dozens of times, turning myself into the freak that stalks around Target looking for inspiration.
Whenever I am lacking words I head in the direction of the grocery store, the train, or a nearby playground. Any place where people can be found, really, and I examine the way people hold one another. It’s fascinating stuff, I swear. People holding one another is something to watch and marvel at over & over again.
A woman in the Bronx holding the hands of her three children on the rickety subway will give you a writing spell so deep you might feel your feet levitating off the ground. The same with a photo of a young mother from Bangladesh holding her babe close to her chest. There is something about physical touch and how it translates into a more emotional yet foreign tongue that cries out: I need you, I love you, and so I hold you like this.
Just stop and look at that. You will write enough sentences to match each one with a star in the night sky, the Same Night Sky that blankets all its Little Writers and all their Syllables under one roof.