On Writing, Coltrane, Hemingway, and Getting What’s In, Out

I work a full-time job, and have a growing family. To write is to be disciplined. What I’ve learned from J.D. Salinger, Steven Pressfield, and others is that writing is a lunch-bucket job. It’s a punch in/punch out kind of thing. People will say they don’t write until they’re inspired. I get up in the morning early. I am inspired by Murikami’s hour of 4:30 am. I’m not quite keeping monks’ hours (they get up for prayers at 4am), but I can always work toward that. I get up and say my morning prayers. Morning prayers are critical for my writing. I find myself in my prayers–my true self. Creativity is a way of being. Creativity is the authentic expression of who one truly is. I pray to see myself as I truly am: my brokenness, my weakness, and that all too often overlooked image of God within. Without the prayers, there is no writing.

After prayers, I have only about 30 minutes to write, which means I have to really hit it. I pull out the paper, and follow a hunch that has been building over the past 24 hours. Following Hemingway, I write hard until I have drained the tank, but not to empty, and then I leave it. During the day I am too busy to think about writing, but I know that my heart is there seeking out the next stint, preparing for that moment in time the following day when I can write. In that 30 minutes, I am getting about 3 pages of work. I am not going for gold here, just getting out everything I need to get out.

What I’ve learned from J.D. Salinger, Steven Pressfield, and others is that writing is a lunch-bucket job. It’s a punch in/punch out kind of thing.

John Coltrane was a master at this. Once while Coltrane was playing with Miles Davis, he cranked out a long solo. After the gig, Miles asked in that classic raspy voice (I can only imagine), “What was that?” Coltrane replied, “I was only trying to get what was in, out.” This is writing. This is any act of creativity–getting it all out. And that’s what I’m after in that 30 minute writing stint: just trying to crank out what’s sitting in there, in my heart.

That’s the other thing: You’ve got to write from your heart. I write on a simple wooden clipboard that I stuff with plain white copier paper, along with the added up pages of my manuscript. On that clip board I’ve got two lines from Hemingway that I really like: 1) Write what you know, and 2) Write what is true. To write what you know comes from the head. To write what is true comes from your heart. And writing is bringing the head and the heart together–that’s what makes it so damn hard.

After the gig, Miles asked in that classic raspy voice . . . , “What was that?” Coltrane replied, “I was only trying to get what was in, out.”

I write everything in ink–the whole damn manuscript. If I were a writer worth his salt, I’d write the draft out again by hand–is this not what Truman Capote did? That’s how his sentences could be so clear and concise–Hemingway’s too. That’s what I’m looking for: that clarity, that conciseness, that simplicity. Truth is simplicity. Whatever is not simple is not truth. So to write what is true is to find truth in your heart, and then impart that truth on the page. There is a lot to be written here about that.

So that’s all I can do right now–take those 30 minutes and turn them into something, and then let that something build up every day until I’ve got what’s in, out.

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