Reverse Poison: Writing Advice

Chemical weapons are funny things. I remember doing research on them back in high school, and reading about what were called “medical countermeasures.” This meant, basically, that you would take someone who had been exposed to a nerve agent that, say, depressed neurotransmitters, and you would give them a shot of something that would overproduce them. Of course, you really had to be careful with this, because taking the antidote by itself would kill you just as surely as the chemical agent was. Essentially, you poisoned the body in the opposite way it had been poisoned, and that let you go on living. But the body had to have been poisoned that way in the first place.

Reading Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird reminded me of this, especially when, late in the book, she gave the advice that when one is suffering writer’s block, one must “resign as the controller of one’s fate.”

Now, the problem with that advice is that by itself, it is exactly the kind of advice that I-As-A-Beginning-Writer did not need to hear. It sounds like, “Hey, don’t worry about being blocked. Go off and fill yourself with the universe and come back when you are Inspired And Ready To Write.” And by itself, that advice is the Death Of All Writing. Because that feeling is rare and far between, and the only way I have ever found of summoning it with any chance of success is to write when I do NOT feel it.

Now, taken in context with the rest of the book, it’s pretty clear that what Anne means is more along the lines of, “You can’t summon brilliant writing on demand, so you have to abandon that hope and resign yourself to writing what feels like shit for awhile, even if it’s only a little of it, until you push through and it feels good again.” In that context, the advice is extremely valuable, and leads to good results. The problem is that the quote is so., well, quotable that you run the risk of finding it in isolation — or worse, understanding it in isolation — and poisoning yourself by taking the antidote to a problem you haven’t been privileged to have yet.

Wait for the problem of being a disciplined writer first. Then the advice to resign control of the forward motion makes sense.

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