Bigger Paper

I bought a bigger journal for this year. 8 ½ by 11 inches. Partly so I can interleaf it with my printed out blogposts. Partly so I can write longer things. It still fits in my big purse, which I purposely bought to hold file folders for work. It’s heavy, but I think it’s worth it.

It took a while to find it. I was weighing recycled content, fair trade production, size, shape, sturdiness and attractiveness of the cover, weight of paper and the whole book. I knew I wanted unlined pages. I looked in a variety of shops: Elephant Pharmacy, Global Exchange, West Portal Bookshop, Borders. I found it at Pearl Paint on Market St. in SF while doing my Christmas shopping for art supplies. It’s plain black on the outside, with a water-resistant cover.

It’s surprising to me how much the physical elements of writing affect the content. Virginia Woolf once wrote “what can I write with such a light and wispy pen?” Anne Fadiman explores this further in her essay “Eternal Ink.”

Somebody I like (Adam Gopnik? Anne Lamott?) once wrote about the rituals of writers. How there are writers who have always sharpened six pencils before starting to write, and they sharpen no fewer now that they write entirely on a computer.

What are your rituals?

I need silence. Background music is difficult, music with words makes it nearly impossible for me to write. When I remember, I turn off the ringer of the phone. I am easily enough distracted without telemarketers interrupting me.

I need solitude. I don’t like people looking at what I’ve written before I’m done. I like to talk, and another person tempts me to ask questions or engage in some way. Or else I just get into the depths of writing and then the other person has a question for me. Children are notorious for playing quietly while I’m futzing around and then becoming needy as soon as I get engrossed in my writing. Husbands are almost as bad.

I prefer to write in familiar surroundings. Otherwise, I am distracted by looking around me, looking at all the new and interesting things or books or people. Libraries are not actually a good place for me to write because there are too many temptations. The problem with writing at home is that there is always a load of laundry, or a pile of papers, or something that needs to be dealt with, that suddenly urgently needs to be done, right now before I finish this essay which I could finish later… It takes discipline to write now, while my kids are in school, and to wash dishes after they get home.

I like a clear wooden surface under my paper. I like an unlined journal for flights of inspiration and jotting notes, but I like narrow lined paper for fleshing out an essay. When I am serious, I like to use dark ink and I write in cursive letters.

Typing things into the computer works best as a introduction into editing, rather than for composing sentences. Typing helps me read over what I have written and aids in the editing process. Oh, the cut and paste buttons are my friends! But when I try to compose on the computer, I tend to stray into editing before I’ve even finished what I wanted to say, and that just becomes another distraction.

I’m thinking about taking a writing class. I haven’t had any instruction in the craft of writing English since I left high school. (My college literature classes were all in Spanish.) I found this book, On Writing Well by William Zinsser, on our shelf (except we have the old third edition). A friend directed me to this website, Holy Ink, which has occasional writing prompts. The woman who writes it also offers workshops at her home which is about an hour from mine.

Have any of you taken or taught a writing class recently? Do you recommend a particular school or type of class? Or a book on the subject?


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Robin, appreciated this recent entry. I was begining to think I was the last writer in the coffeehouse who doesn't use a laptop!

I use those journals with the mottled covers-- 81/2 x 11 and have for years and years. They take up two file drawers, and I finally broke down and bought in bulk, anticipating the day I would be just about to write my most profound thought on the last page and there were no blank journals left.

I should be good to go for a while now.

I write first thing in the morning, before the world can sully my mind. I enjoy various atmospheres (birds singing outside, smell of my coffee). I often burn incense.

I have also taken my journal to a large RC church in the heart of my city that is always open for reflection, and I love to be one tiny person in a grand sanctuary, hoping the Spirit will provide me with journal-worthy thoughts.

Every now and then I sit down and read over my old journals. My life has changed more than once by doing this, and several leadings have come to light (Light?) that may have taken longer to catch my attention.

I do not feel the need to write every day.

A paper journal is not the only way to gather and keep thoughts and inspirations. Some people choose blogs, some people simply jot down notes on the backs of envelopes, some use little tape recorders. And some people have an ability that I don't--they can simply keep stuff in their heads!


2/18/2008 3:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, on the topic of writing....I couldn't help myself. I scanned my reply like and editor and found a sentence I might have written better. LOL

I've been an editor--old habits and all. I think the speed of email and the internet in general has made us sloppy.


2/18/2008 3:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And now I spy a typo.

Stop me! Stop me! :)


2/18/2008 3:50 PM  
Blogger Martin Kelley said...

I'm sure it's going to come as a complete surprise that I actually have no writing rituals. Waiting till I have just the right kind of notebook or just the right kind of pen in hand before writing feels to me like a kind of distraction: before I write I'm going to pretend to be a writer. If it works for you, fine of course, but I don't write well when I think about writing. My best writing is in-the-moment. When I find myself obsessing in the shower or muttering to myself on the train, that's the time to find a keyboard and start writing. I don't really have time in my schedule to write, so when I do it's stolen time and it has to be fast (this was a problem with a recent commissioned piece!).

The best writing advice I ever heard is to make sure you regularly read good writing. Reading puts the rhythm in your head. I started reading the New Yorker religiously when I started editing, for this very reason.

2/18/2008 6:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


It's not "pretending to be a writer" to know when your creative juices flow best or to know when your home conditions are right or to know when you actually have the time.

I appreciate that you can be so flexible with your inspiration, but some of us cannot--and some of us have learned over *many years of writing* that certain things work better than other things.

Some of us are not pretending at all.

I sensed a bit a bit of judgment in your comments.


2/18/2008 7:00 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

cath, don't worry. I don't really take points off for spellig.

Martin, I think there's a difference between waiting for perfect conditions and knowing what are the most conducive conditions.

I agree about the importance of writing when the inspiration strikes. I find it inconvenient when essays compose themselves in my head while I'm in the shower. However, some of my best ideas come out then.

My favorite example is a blogpost I wrote a couple of years ago about different branches of Friends learning to respect each other. The words were coming, coming, coming, and at the same time, I had to make dinner. I don't remember what I was cooking, but I taped a piece of paper to the wall next to the stove and scribbled, stirred, scribbled, stirred, until both were done. I had to go back and edit (a lot) later, but I know that if I let an inspiration pass, I'll never write the same essay and I'll regret it for longer than it takes to scratch out the insights.

new comment from cath: take a deep breath. Don't let Martin's abruptness bother you too much. I always appreciate his input. Blog comments are not ideal writing conditions for any of us.

2/18/2008 7:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"cath, don't worry. I don't really take points off for spellig."


I wasn't worried about what you would think--I was just being my editor self. I can spend a whole evening on the linebreaks of a poem.


2/18/2008 7:47 PM  
Blogger Angelique said...

Hi Robin. Another excellent post as usual. (I check in with your blog every week or so. I hope you don't mind.)
I am a terrible person to give advice on this subject, as I have so many ideas for children's books and no time to write. (I've even had half a story written for the past four years and it remains untouched). I have decided it is okay to just keep an idea notebook for now, and someday, when I have more free time, I will get to work on them.
I read the book Writing Down the Bones years ago and I remember it being helpful. Did you try a local university or community college, perhaps in the continuing ed department? Let me know where you find a class. Not that I have the time for other classes or writing, but I would be curious.
I also wanted to say that I am like you that way - I need quiet. That is probably why I don't write much on my blogs. I just can't set aside the quiet time.
Good luck!

2/18/2008 8:02 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

cath, "spellig" was originally a typo. I caught it, but I decided it was funnier that way.

Angelique, I feel really lucky that I have had almost two years with both my children in school at least part of the day when I could work on my writing. I don't really have time to take a class either, but I think about it sometimes.

2/19/2008 12:52 PM  
Blogger Imperfect Serenity said...

When I first got the leading to write, I found If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland inspirational. It's basically an affirmation of the creative spirit in everyone. After that Writing Down the Bones and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott were helpful. But the best thing was taking a spiritual autobiography class at Pendle Hill where we each read aloud regularly. No one corrected my spelling or grammar or gave any writing feedback at all, but the process of writing and reading my work aloud to others really helped. I used to teach writing to women in prison and basically used this method. Although most of them had terrible writing skills, just writing from the heart and being listened to brought better work out of them. At a certain point, having a critic show you where you can improve is helpful, but I think many new writers err on the side of getting critical feedback too soon, rather than just listening to their words themselves. That's why I recommend writing classes where readig aloud is part of the process.

As for rituals, motherhood has made me more flexible. I no longer need two hours of utter silence. In fact I get most of my work done at a coffee shop where I won't be tempted to go put a load in the laundry.

Best wishes for the writing!

2/19/2008 3:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Came across your blog while wandering various Quaker sites and, as a writer, had to comment.

I find the type of writing I do and the type of paper I use go hand in hand. For journals, I like a no-lines, marble covered essay book -- easily available at the nearby college bookstore, easily carried around, easily stored together. For first drafts of anything, I use scrap paper -- helps remind my inner editor that all we're striving for is crappy first draft. By the time I get to the computer, I am more in editor mode, though with fiction I find characters can take off on their own, even when I'm working on the computer.

On good writing books -- besides those already suggested, I've been inspired by Writing Alone and With Others by Pat Schneider. She's a founder of Amherst Writers and Artists, and uses the writers' workshop method that the writer of Holy Ink is trained in. It would give you a good idea of what her workshops might be like.

Thanks for the link to her site -- I've just started exploring how I might host some spiritual autobiography or memoir writing groups, so I hope to find out more from her on what she's doing.

2/19/2008 8:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Can someone recommend a class on writing? A book?"


Write one yourself, and I'll recommend yours. Really.


2/19/2008 11:18 PM  
Blogger Liz Opp said...

Wish I had more energy to be thoughtful and more thorough in this comment, but it ain't gonna happen:

1. Rituals of writing - When I write a blog post, I would say about 1/2 to 2/3 of the time I review it quietly and ask myself inwardly, "What is it that God is wanting me to say through this piece?" The more tender or difficult the piece, the more time I spend discerning and seasoning... Sometimes I do something similar with crafting comments, but not always.

2. Writing long-hand - I sometimes write in a journal, similar to what several others have used: the "composition" notebooks with the mottled covers made out of heavy cardboard.

3. Resources - I've read "Writing Down the Bones," and "Bird by Bird." Never got into "The Artist's Way." Recently, one Friend turned me onto Google Notebook as a way to jot down (and collect) random thoughts on a topic and have some organization them.

4. Discipline - I find that the writing I want to do outside of blog writing is suffering very badly. I need a "personal trainer" for that sort of writing, where I can be given deadlines, topics, whatever. But maybe I should be careful what I ask for!

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

2/20/2008 12:25 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Thanks everyone for the book suggestions. If I read those Anne Lamott books, are they going to make me cry like her other ones do?

In some ways motherhood made me a writer. Or at least I never felt called to write more than personal letters until after I had children.

The same friend who recommended Holy Ink also recommended Pat Schneider's book. They both studied under Pat Schneider, who has also done a lot of writing workshops with underprivileged women.

Maybe one of these years I'll take a writing workshop at the FGC Gathering...

2/20/2008 12:31 AM  
Blogger Liz Opp said...

Though it's been a while since I've read Bird by Bird, my recollection is that it was more practical than Annie's other books... but she does draw on her own experience, too. So who's to say how close you should keep the tissues if you choose to pick up B by B?

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

2/20/2008 4:26 PM  

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