In this installment of How To Be A Hack Writer Like Me…we’ll discuss how you flush out and resolve a question or an idea itching at your brain.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks to being a writer (and this is true for a hack writer like me) is the enormous presence of the blank page. Where to write? What to write? How to write? Some like to brainstorm: mapping, clustering, listing are a few of the techniques people employ to generate ideas. Once that’s done and you have some shiny idea you want to opine about many like to keep organized with that old edifice, the outline. But, as far as I’m concerned you should probably skip all that and just write about the thing that’s itching at your brain.
When my mom passed I came to realize I didn’t know her beyond our parent/child relationship and I was determined not to repeat this mistake with my own children. Since my children and I always found common ground through music I isolated some big events in my life and wrote about them using songs that were meaningful to me (look here for examples). I had one big organizing principal, not knowing my mom, which spawned eighteen essays (that remain in limbo for the time being). The same was true for the Molly book. I always had this love/hate thing with South Buffalo. The place and the people were equal parts magical and frustrating. And, like not knowing my mom, this love/hate thing itched at my brain so I set out to resolve it. In each case I had no outline or steadfast rules, just an organizing principal. In Molly, one chapter pointed out some absurdity, followed by a chapter were there was magic. In those chapters a family and other characters were introduced, which spawned new ideas on how to express what was magical and frustrating. After three or four chapters like this, I just got out of the way and let it happen. And, it grew like weeds in a vacant lot.
To further demonstrate, here’s a little something itching in my brain that I’m working through right now: With my first book coming out many people have asked if I’m excited. I just saw on Facebook a local TV personality with a book coming out and not only was this person excited…they were soooo excited. That’s not me. At the risk of sounding like a complete ass, I have to say, I’m not excited. I’m something but it’s not excited and it’s itching at my brain.
When I read the email that my book had been pick up for publication late last spring during lunch at work I afforded myself one overly zealous, gratifying fist pump like I had just drained a putt at the Masters for my first Green Jacket. I was alone and after the moment passed I went back to work intrigued and frankly, a little scared with what would come next. Gratified and scared, but not excited.
When I told family and friends I had signed the contract with the publisher there was a sense of validation in the congratulations I received and in particular from a note sent by my sister that said: "I'm so proud of you." Since then its been pretty cool when someone at a barbecue or out having a beer asks and wants to chat about the book. Again, though, this was gratification and validation, not excitement.
Going through the process of putting the actual book together from the editing process to the art work has been a great and at times overwhelming learning experience. But meeting and resolving each new challenge just brought relief and a sense of forward momentum, but not excitement.
Excitement for me is when I'm grilling and tune pops up that makes me want to do my white man dance or when she says, "Yes," or when I punch that clock on Friday afternoons. And, as I build toward a launch. I've come to the conclusion that all of this: the thinking, the writing, the pitching of the writing, the putting together is mostly just plain old work.
My first true musical hero was Todd Rundgren. I can't really explain it other than "Hello It's Me,” spoke to me after my first girlfriend in the sixth-grade dumped me because I was afraid to neck with her. A few years later one of my older sibling’s friends left the lush synth laden masterpiece "Initiation," in our funky half-finished basement and that was it for me, he was my guy. So I was thrilled a few years back when Paul Myers put out the book: A Wizard A True Star: Todd Rundgren In The Studio. Finally, I would learn about the weird, wonderful creation of Todd’s music and the music he produced for a litany of other artists. What I found though, which was sort of disappointing, was not magic, but just this very earnest guy working really hard at his craft. It was laying down a drum track, working up a piano part, finding a bass line and when satisfied with the music he would mumble out lyrics to the melody. Those iconic lyrics that so stabbed at my heart started out as mumbles. That doesn’t mean they aren’t sincere or inspirational, it just means, almost nothing falls from the sky and everything needs a shoulder put to it.
So. how we went from people asking if I was excited about my first book to TR’s creative process was a twist I didn’t see coming, but I think along the way that thing itching at my brain was resolved. Beyond gratification and validation, if there’s anything magical about any of this it’s all the hard work it takes to piece a book, a song or anything else of value, together. That’s what’s exciting, the work.
And, what nut job gets excited about work?