I hope you had a lovely, relaxing holiday break. I am sorry this has taken so long. I have been waiting to hear back from my mentor, Sean Murphy, hoping to send his greetings with my answers. He is an award-winning published author and a trainer of young writers, as well as a creative writing professor, etc., etc. He is always very willing to help and it is just a formality that I emailed him to ask if I could give you his email address, but he is also a bit of a digital hermit. Thus, for the time being, I will answer your questions without his response. I am just going to free write in response to your questions, because it appropriately echoes my creative writing process.
So! Writing every day… hm, I suppose it is like doing anything every day: hard at first, then easier, and then it becomes hard NOT to! I have gone through that same process with running, yoga, meditation… anything I want to do every day is halting at first. Habit takes time to grow from seed to sapling to tree.
I only get to write every day in the summer. When school first gets out, my attention is fragmented, all too used to the rapid-fire, chaos of middle school (“squirrel!”). I sit down for fifteen minutes at a time, write a paragraph, then find myself editing or (alas) net shopping for leggings. Or eavesdropping on strangers’ arguments in a coffee shop or playing with the cat or doing dishes or any of what the zen monks call “the ten-thousand things” that distract us from the creative task.
But as I sit down, day after day, the story beckons me onward, gathering an energy and life of its own, far more beguiling than any legging sale or political conversation drifting across the room. My stamina near the end of the summer is easily 2-3 hours at a sitting, about two times a day. I don’t know if that would be the case if I was not working on a narrative: you’d have to ask a journalist, a poet, someone who often writes shorter pieces. It’s beautiful when that happens, akin to “the zone” in sports, samadhi in meditation, a place of utter transcendence that is, truly, the reason I write. Why I must write. Why, no matter if the work is never seen by any eyes but mine, I am utterly addicted and compelled. That is what happens to me when I write every day.
I will be honest- good, strong coffee helps, and I did not drink it until I was twenty-three. It does not affect the quality of the work, just the quantity. What I do before writing influences tone and mood, to an extent. I do believe that Earl Grey tea, first thing in the morning, sipped before the magical mists of the night’s dreams have dissipated, produces the best passages. That or an exhilarating run in the foothills: I wrote the backbone of my novel by running after school to really epic music (Metallica, sometimes, “Carmina Burana,” or the Braveheart soundtrack), then bursting into the house, flopping onto the bed, and without preamble, handwriting sweatily until my inspiration was spent. These were always free writes, scattered randomly throughout the eventual plot, full of dashes, and months afterward when I had to spend hours committing them to the digital world I had to superimpose punctuation. This is never a problem when I am not free writing: I am a natural punctuator, but somehow free writing moves too fast. That happens when i write every day: my imagination is much too fast for my hands, whether writing or typing. Sometimes I would record pieces on my phone, pacing and whirling around my house (I lived alone at the time— thank goodness!). To this day, those original post-run or post-sleep passages are some of the best, their texture is so authentic.
Are certain kinds of writing better for your brain than others?
Well, goodness, I don’t know. I am sure that it depends on the person. I also think that depends on your definition of “brain,” (it felt, mystically, like my body was writing the story after a run) but let’s not get too esoteric here. Ok, yeah, I think different types of writing are good for your brain in different ways, much like different types of exercise benefit the body differently. For instance, to be who I am, to be my best self and feel alive, I have to get some cardio. Sure, I love yoga and I dig any workout, but I really need my heart to pump in that special way it does when I run. Some people (cough, Mrs. Abling) don’t like running. For me, novel-length stories are the same: I just don’t get the same feeling out of any other kind of writing “workout.” Novel writing makes you sensitive to the energetic structure of a long, long work, as well as enhancing your sensitivity to detail. I have friends who are flattened by the idea of writing a novel, but are poets of astounding wit and sensibility. I would say that writing poetry trains your powers of observation, sensitizing you to the subtleties of nature and mind, so even writers who are disinterested in poetry have much to learn from reading and writing it.
Nonfiction, “academic” writing, whether a narrative or more essay-style work, makes you disciplined and organized. I can always tell when a student (or a bestselling author) has never really written much to convey actual information because their work often lacks grounding. It seems, to me, abstract and disconnected from reality. Take James Joyce, or Gertrude Stein, or even David Mitchell. Their work is usually unapproachable for me, obviously brilliant but an unearthly, acquired taste. Some people love the purely emotive, surreal, ethereal quality of their work, but it makes me fidgety and restless, craving more of this world. That doesn’t mean they were academics: J.R.R. Tolkien and Phillip Pulman for starters. They had such a solid grounding in how to write informatively about this world that their made up worlds had the same sense of believability as our waking life. In short, I would say academic writing trains to you think critically and deeply about the world, and even the most imaginative work must reflect some of the logical order of this universe.
I think. That’s all speculative, but I am sure there is good psychological research on the impact of writing on the brain.
I hope this helps- it is delicious to get to talk about, an indulgent feast for me after the dullness of jury selection. I will continue attempting to get ahold of Mr. Sean Murphy, who has written in all the genres discussed above, and would provide more credible perspectives than mine. After all, I am still only an amateur. The word amateur, fittingly, means one who does something out of love (from the french amour). My favorite english teacher taught me that— and now I pass it on to you. May it light the way when society tells you darkly that you must be paid for art in order for it to be worth doing.
Blessings on your continued work on this project, I can’t wait for the outcome.