What to Do When You Cannot Write

What to do when you cannot write:

  1. Go to a place where you can stare at people. Write down expressions, gestures, tics (these really come clear when you case people you don't like).
  2. Write about five things you hate:
    1. A. to wear B. eat C. words D. roads (why you dislike them) E. places (where there are the people who annoy you. Annoyance fires up the style.)
  3. Start to read a really good new book which inspires you to snap out of it, fires up your style.
  4. Play big charged-up classical music (Alexander Nevsky always works).
  5. Write about a particular tree; a small piece of the garden you liked when you were a kid; how your brother cut off the lizard's tail and sat there waiting for it to grow back.
  6. Write some moment with your mother which you would never tell anyone.
  7. Walk to the market. Come home. Write about the person you did not like who told you to use one of the toothpicks to take a cheese sample.
  8. Write one of your characters a letter. Ask it where it is, what it's looking at and what it wants most for supper. The character will answer. (Does not always say '"fuck you.") Sometimes says it hates its name. Give it a new name.
  9. Make chicken soup.
  10. Swim.

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One year, one month and six days ago I was sitting at Sami's Ground Floor Café. The writers used to go there after our workshop at the Last Bookstore in Downtown L.A. The café is stark white. There is a rear room with a long curved sofa for the art gallery. We never noticed the photographs on the wall. We are writers and still thinking about our words. Are they good enough? Two or three people said they couldn't write last week at all "until yesterday." A couple of them have brought Post-its with small poems. "This isn't really writing," someone said. Evan brought his guitar and sang his new song. Chase sat close to me to catch the writing bug. I told them it is contagious.

I was slumped over my brie and apple sandwich. Tears. "Actually I can't really write," I said. Sami brought me my favorite fizzy French lemonade, "Unless I am working on a book I feel -- " I shrug, "hapless."

The buoyant new writer Katurah said, "You must just write a novel again."

"About what?" I snarled.

Barri, writer of witty detective novels, snapped back at me, "You tell us to write the story we're too scared to tell -- what we'd never write." She handed me a bit of her chocolate éclair, "Write about your mother."

"And," Katurah said, "You tell us to write what you know, hate and love all at once. That would be Hollywood."

So, as I said: One year. One month. Six days later, six copies of that novel, edited by the brilliant new novelist George Kevin Jordan, are on their way to readers.

"This," George reminds me today, "is only the first draft. You will be getting notes back from each reader. Then you will write the second draft. And we'll see."

"See what?" I hold the 476 pages in my arms, like it's my kid. Which it is.

"You've had me rewrite each of these 60 chapters like five times." (Like sidles into our sentences now. Just as TXT spelling seeps into new writers' WRK.)

Today, while George is organizing and addressing the manuscripts some want hard copy. I started to say "real paper." Some want it online. I run to get George a steak sandwich for lunch. "So has the book gone out yet?" says Charlie at Bristol Farms.

"Now," I say.

"Maybe," I say to George, "I should look it over again." I hold the manuscript tighter.

"No. Put it down with the ones going to the post office, and you don't need another Diet Coke."

This wasn't how it used to be with writing way back before the turn of the century when I started writing in the plummy days of publishing. You'd take your manuscript to New York City, put on high heels, hat and gloves and meet someone for lunch who was turned out so well you'd feel rustic even in your Saks Fifth Avenue suit.

The agent would give the book to an editor. You'd be sent an edited copy to initial. And that was about it. Until it was printed.

I got good reviews in the Publisher's Weekly, the New York Times and Studs Terkel interviewed me at the Pump Room in Chicago.

Sometime around the middle of 1968, I was having supper with a new editor, Ed Doctorow, at Dial Press. I'd published a couple of books. "I want this one to be tough," I told Ed, "sort of a Norman Mailer in Hollywood book." Mr. Doctorow is witty, really smart. He talked to me like we were buddies; that electric swift exchange I adored with some of my friends. Hard to find this talk with guys. He was as great to be with as my best friend, Johanna Mankiewicz. "So what do we do?" he said, when we finished dinner. "Do we spend the night or do I go home and read your manuscript?" Not easy choice. I thought it over. My husband had disappeared. Kids were with their dad. But I needed to finish this book, needed a great editor. However, he had this charm. He talked to me like I was a real writer even if from L.A.

I said, "You're so great, but I need you to read my book." Writing always comes first for me.

I'm reading a lot of writers' words about writing. No one, so far, seems to have been astonished to become a writer. My favorites are Ray Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing -- he knew at nine the stories came first -- and E. L. Doctorow's wonderful interview (by George Plimpton) in the Paris Review. Ed has just received the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction.

I always find it more interesting to tell my story of how it was than to tell it the way it seemed for everyone else.

I love Mario Vargas Llosa's A Writer's Reality very much. The best idea when you can't write is to read a writer whose work takes your breath away. Write a letter to that writer as if you're sitting across a small table. The writing will rise to the occasion.