When I go to a writer’s website, I'm looking for information on why they believe they write, and how they go about writing. If you’re like me, then, this is for you.
I don’t think it’s unusual for people who move a lot in their life – and especially those who move to such diverse places as I have – to feel a desire to write about what they observe. We have to become very adaptable, very elastic, and we have to keep learning new things. We like to set these things down.
But so do writers who don’t move at all.
Writing has more to do with curiosity than with moving, doesn't it? Look what happened, writers think. Feel what happened. Why did it happen?
If you want your children to write, make these questions the basis of dinner-table conversation.
That’s what growing up in my family was like. My parents were insatiably curious. My father was a psychologist (a whole profession built around the question Why did it happen?) and jazz musician (more of a Look what happened! sort of occupation). He wrote the definitive biography of the virtuoso jazz piano player Art Tatum once he retired, and was still researching his many interests when he died at 82.
My mother, Valerie Lester, is still researching hers. She’s the author of three books (Fasten Your Seatbelts: History and Heroism in the Pan Am Cabin, Phiz: The Man Who Drew Dickens, and Giambattista Bodoni: His Life and His World) and is also the translator of the Vintage Classics edition of Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes. Her next project will be a biography of the important amateur botanist and archaeologist (and Esperanto poet!), Clarence Bicknell.
My brother, Toby Lester, formerly an Atlantic Monthly editor, is the author of The Fourth Part Of The World, about the 1507 world map that was the first to refer to the newly discovered landmass as America. He also wrote Da Vinci’s Ghost, which asks why Leonardo’s drawing of Vitruvian Man has become one of the most widely recognized images in the world.
Look what happened. Why did it happen?
Other questions I ask myself, both in life and in writing, are What have I got? and What do I need? These are the questions that helped me the most during the dozen or so years I spent performing improvised comedy. Practicing improvisation had a huge impact on how much I trusted my brain. If you worry about what your brain is throwing up for you to catch, then you’re in danger of self-censorship, and of missing a wonderful idea. Your brain will come up with a natural recommendation when you’re stuck, based on its particular take on what needs to happen given what has gone before. Improvisers, and writers, trip up when they discard their natural inclinations and make an effort to be clever.
Keith Johnstone puts it best, in his book Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre:
“The improviser has to realize that the more obvious he is, the more original he appears…. Ordinary people asked to improvise will search for some ‘original’ idea because they want to be thought clever…. No two people are exactly alike, and the more obvious an improviser is, the more himself he appears. An artist who is inspired is being obvious. He’s not making any decisions; he’s not weighing one idea against another. He’s accepting his first thoughts…. Striving after originality takes you far away from your true self, and makes your work mediocre.”
In 2010, I did a talk called ‘Stories on the Spot’ at a TEDxSingapore event. If you have time to watch it (11 minutes), you’ll hear about how important I feel it is to reframe what ‘the box’ is when we’re asked to think outside it, and will learn a wonderful exercise that improvisers use to increase their mental agility, trust their ideas, and have a rocking good time. You’ll see me assessing what I need on the spot, making links that would be impossible if I let myself worry about what was happening, or might happen.
For any writer experiencing writer’s block, I’d highly recommend signing up for an improv workshop. It’s hard. You’ll come up against your concerns pretty quickly. I certainly did when I started. I wanted to be able to do it so badly that I’d hit a wall in the middle of a scene, and sometimes I’d even cry. Doing comedy! Eventually I learned how to get out of my brain’s way, because it had amazing responses when I stopped trying to be clever and stopped pushing myself so hard. Now, when I sit down at my desk because it’s time to write, and things are quiet in my head, I know that something is happening and it will make itself known when it is ready. I wait. Things float to the surface when I don’t churn up the water with worry. Maybe the idea that comes along will be something that I’ll end up cutting later. So be it. Maybe it’s just a piece of scaffolding, and can be taken down when the structure is sound.
I don’t write in fancy notebooks. I figured out pretty early on that expensive notebooks were intimidating, and I couldn’t bear the look of my penmanship in them, let alone the words I was writing. I keep the ante low. I have often written in exercise books, on scrap paper and used envelopes. For me, the pen is more important than the paper. I often use my grandfather’s Parker 51 fountain pen because the ink flows so nicely.
Lately, I’ve been writing directly onto the computer more than I’ve been writing by hand, but I find that when I’m not making headway it can help to pick up the pen again. I enjoy the feeling. Maybe that calms me, and my thoughts flow better as a result. The more I relax, the more I write; the more I write, the more likely I am to get from What do I need? to Look what happened.