1.31.2012

What Liz Lemon Has Taught Me About Writing

There are a few pieces of writing advice I'm sure we've all heard over and over.  You know what I'm talking about: show, don't tell.  Cut the adverbs.  Don't infodump.  No prologues.  Write on a computer that's disconnected from the internet.  Don't ever, ever query a "fiction novel."

But this isn't the only useful advice out there.  If you're paying attention, there are meaningful lessons to be learned just about everywhere you look...

...and I have been watching a lot of 30 Rock lately.  So, without further ado, I present to you:

FIVE THINGS LIZ LEMON HAS TAUGHT ME ABOUT WRITING

 
 1. Feelings Are Not a Dealbreaker
"If I can pass on any lesson that will change your life it is for you to understand that your feelings will almost always take the path of least resistance. If we are going to accomplish anything in life we cannot let our feelings have a vote."
- Kristen Lamb

When it comes to your writing time, whether or not you "feel" like writing is NOT a dealbreaker.  Your feelings are irrelevant to the work you must do.

Your job is to show up.  Show up when it's raining and your coffeemaker's been broken for days and you can barely form a sentence.  Show up when your head is pounding from staring at a screen for 8 hours and you can't imagine putting in another second at a computer.  Show up whether you've gotten one hour of sleep, or eight.  Show up.  No complaints.  No excuses. 

Your feelings - good or bad - don't get a vote.

Don't get me wrong - there are dealbreakers:




...but not when it comes to doing the work.  Show up.



2. Teach Your Brain to Want to Go to There
"My prescription for writer’s block is to face the fact that there is no such thing. It’s an invented condition... Writing well is difficult, but one can always write something.  And then, with a lot of work, make it better.  It’s a question of having enough will and ambition, not of hoping to evade this mysterious hysteria people are always talking about."
- Thomas Mallon
So often I've heard writers say that if you write every day, at the same time, your brain will learn that that's when it's time to work.  There is no muse.  The big secret is, you sit down with the intention of writing, and you write.

In other words, you train your brain to want to go to there.



I've stopped fearing writer's block, because I know that if I keep my date with myself, something will get written.  The story will take steps forward - tentative wobbly baby giraffe steps, maybe, but steps.  Once I'm there, once I've set my mind to writing, the rest just kind of... falls into place.

It's such a relief to have the battle nearly won the moment I sit down in my chair.  I go to there, and there is where things get done.



3. Sometimes You Have to Climb Into the Crevasse
"There are so many different kinds of writing and so many ways to work that the only rule is this: do what works."
- Sophy Burnham

I've mentioned before that I'm a pantser.  And the reason I'm a pantser is because I used to be an outliner, and it failed miserably.  I discovered that I'm one of those people who loses all interest in writing a story once it's outlined, which has made me very, very paranoid about doing anything even remotely resembling outlining.

But sometimes, our resistance to something works against us.  Sometimes you have to crawl into the crevasse in order to find your way out.  Sometimes you have to let Tracy Jordan make a pornographic film based on your life do things that fall outside your comfort zone.

So I still don't outline, but I do spend some time plotting out each scene before I write it.  Even that feels uncomfortable for me, but I can't deny that it works - it keeps the story moving forward and keeps my eyes focused on what's ahead.

You have to do what works.  And this means that sometimes, you have to crawl into the cravasse.


4. We Are the Problem Solvers
"A novel is like a cathederal and you really can’t carry in your imagination the form a cathedral is to take."
- William Trevor

Somewhere along the way, I forgot that I'm not expected to have everything figured out before I start writing.  I kept beating myself up every time a plot twist or piece of backstory revealed itself - the little voice in the back of my head would pipe up, wondering what was wrong with me, why it took me so long to realize things that were blindingly obvious (blindingly obvious, of course, as soon as I unearthed them).  There was much gnashing of teeth, grumpy notetaking, time wasted taking stock of my own inadequacies.

Except when it comes to those seemingly-belated moments of insight... well, it turns out, that's just the way of it.  In fact, that's the point.  The not-knowing, and the writing toward that sudden jolt of understanding: that's what makes writing fun.  My job is to sit down and to be curious.  It is to discover and dust off and hold up to the light and examine. 

We're not supposed to go in knowing every answer.  We can't.  And we probably shouldn't.


Because we're the problem solvers.  And that's what makes it so much fun.


5. Shut it Down
“I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it."
- Anne Lamott


You can't write if you're worried about the following:

  • Whether your story is too trendy
  • Whether your story is not trendy enough
  • What your mom/kindergarden teacher/best friend/pastor/priest/rabbi will think of your book
  • Whether you have set aside "enough" time for writing today and should even bother
  • What people are talking about on Twitter right now
  • What people were talking about on Twitter the last time you checked (uh, six minutes ago)
  • The state of your kitchen/living room/laundry pile
  • How much your first sentence sucks
  • How much the last scene you wrote sucks
  • How much everything you've written in the space between your first sentence and the last scene you wrote sucks...


No. 

No! 

Do not lend your precious headspace to your crazy inner troll!

SHUT IT DOWN.

Yes, there are times when it's appropriate to ask questions such as, "Is this story likely to sell?" or,  "Am I prioritizing my writing in a way that works for me?" or, "Is there a way I can make my opening stronger?"  Those questions are valid, and they should be considered in a calm, reasonable manner.

They should NOT be asked in a needling voice that creeps into your ear like a worm when you're in the middle of drafting page 173.  That is self-sabotage.  It is the enemy of creative thinking.  Don't fall for it.



S.  That.  D. 
Shut it down.

Got it?



What is the best writing advice you've ever gotten?*

*(30 Rock-themed or otherwise.  But bonus points for 30 Rock references!)

3 comments:

  1. Ha! I love Liz Lemon. So funny. And I am so with you on number 3. Used to be an outliner and everything came out very contrived. I do much better going down the path of the unknown when I'm writing.

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  2. OMG LOVE your blog. So glad you shamelessly self-promoted it. I mean, Liz Lemon? Who doesn't love her? Greatest idea for writing rules ever! That should be your next book. Writing rules, according to Liz Lemon. You could work with Tina Fey, which in itself would be amazing. No really, I think you should pitch it.

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  3. I have no idea who Liz Lemon is (*ducks*), but I sure enjoyed this post.

    And I totally agree with everything. Well, except that one line about how there isn't a muse (if just 'cause I'm so superstitious).

    But yeah, it’s absolutely true that that you can’t wait for the muse to show up. You gotta be there, doing your work. That's got more magic in it than anything else.

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