A monthly column of wit, insight, irreverance and inspiration by a published author and veteran of the publishing trenches.

The Ink-Stained Wretch: "Keyboard? I Don't Need No Stinking Keyboard"

Don Whittington

February, 1999 


They say you have to write every day.  Every damned day!  Set yourself a goal—so many pages, etc. and stick to it.

Who says this?  Everybody.

Is it true?  Welllll…yes and no.

Folks who've written a lot know that some days are great and other days are  pathetic.  The great times are the ones we spend in the zone.  Being in the zone is working in a trance, like when you drive across country and suddenly find you've crossed two states without knowing it, and without making a wrong turn.  My kids love this.  "Daddy's in the zone, let's get tattoos."  They know that there is little short of actual calamity that is bringing me out of there, and they are fascinated by the level of concentration.  Now if I could write like that every time I sat down to type, I'd be a happy man.

But I can't.  Most of us can't.  We run out of gas.  For every day of lightning fingered, revelatory creation comes weeks of stop-and-start, hunt-and-peck, scratch-and-sigh misery.  The machine runs out of fuel.  So what can we do to make it better?  How can we get out of our rut?

Well, for starters, we can stop typing long enough to remember how to dream.

Modern society frowns on contemplation.  It has convinced us we must be doing all the time.  If you work in a modern corporation you know that if you spend a lot of time staring at the wall, you're going to get your walking papers.  But what if you're the only one doing useful work, the only one taking the time to really think rather than just react, to weigh the pros and cons of action and follow their possibilities?  It won't matter.  You have to be going, going, going, proving to any who observe that you are actively engaged and interested.

Don't even mention what happens if you try this contemplation thing outside of work.  "What's the matter, honey?  Is something wrong?  You're so quiet.  It's about the dog and the policeman, isn't it?"  "Huh?  What?  We have a dog?"  No, folks aren't used to other people sitting around quietly with a glazed look in their eyes.  But we, as writers, need to do just that.

After all, writing is supposed to take place in the mind first.  If you are forcing your brain to keep up with your fingers then you've got things backwards.  Years ago a "Shoe" comic strip showed the Professor staring out a window while his typewriter sat untouched.  His nephew asked what he was doing.  The Professor said, "Writing."  The nephew asked, "Shouldn't you be typing?"  And the Professor replied, "Typists type. Writers look through windows."  That strip really hit me at the time.  It reminded me that telling a story isn't only about getting it down.  It's also about living it in your head, sorting through its parts, ironing out the flaws, letting it breathe.

Maybe you're the kind of person who cannot think unless your fingers are moving.  So be it.  But have you ever tried to just relax and dream?  Writing a novel is, in a way, just daydreaming that's been whipped into shape and  committed to paper.  Personally, I think daydreaming is one of the keys to writing successful stories because it lets you experience the things you are writing about.  Stephen King has written about seeing with the mind's eye.  And by this he means really seeing it as if you were a participant, touching, smelling, listening as only a writer can.  That's all daydreaming is, isn't it?

Even when we aren't dreaming, there are still ways to write without typing.  (Note to self; idea for book: 1,001 Ways to Justify Not Working)  Watching, for instance. We should learn to observe the way Sherlock Holmes observed, not merely seeing but delving.  Study everything and everyone for new ways of telling your stories.  See the father tying shoes for his awed toddler, the mink-clad woman at prayer, the boy in shorts on the bench in the mall who twists his legs this way and that to count his scratches and scars,  the diner who lifts the top slice of bread to peer suspiciously at the innards of his sandwich: every action, expression, twist of words you glean from such observation adds a little touch of recognition and reality within a scene.  It helps make it full and complete.  When you first self-consciously set out to see with a writer's eyes it may seem pretentious and unnatural.  But in no time it will become second nature. (Though it may well remain pretentious and unnatural.)  Everything is fodder.

It feeds the machine, the writing machine.  It's your ticket to the zone.

Quiet contemplation, whether lost in your dream or absorbed watching the life around you, can enrich your work with new vitality.  It's how you  reach that dizzying stage where you finish typing a terrific scene, lean back smiling and say, "Wow, where did that come from?"  It came from you.  You in your writer mode, looking through windows everywhere, all the time, giving your subconscious the fuel it needs.

Do I write every day?  You bet I do.  Hell, I'm always writing.

Except during "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer."