I was a teenager when I learned that writing “in the heat of the moment” ends badly. For example, if in the middle of a lousy afternoon, I wrote a poem about my lousy afternoon, the poem turned out lousier than the afternoon. As another example, in an episode of the musical comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend the character Josh Chan becomes so jealous of his two friends’ romance that, at his dojo, he bursts into impassioned song:
“Angry! Feeling . . . bad!” he grunts more than sings. His emotions are raw, and as a result he struggles to be coherent. He doesn’t have what a writing workshop might call “temporal distance”–he’s too close to the situation to be able to see it and reflect on it with any kind of grace. If he sang/grunted about it later (maybe the next day, maybe months or years after the fact), he’d have the distance needed to create something eloquent and worthwhile. That’s what some people–me included–might say anyway.
But since I’m an essayist who uses writing to thrash about in muddy contradictions, I’ll include a quote from Annie Dillard’s book The Writing Life:
One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for . . . later . . . give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.
This passage (and, yes, do read the whole book) says adamantly not to wait, not to indulge in temporal distance, that if we feel the urge to express something, we should do so and do it now. Or does it say that? Dillard declares, “[T]he impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is . . . shameful” (emphasis supplied). Maybe this means that we must reach a place of wisdom about a subject before trying to tackle it.
But I argue with that. Waiting to write until we feel confident in our wisdom is like waiting to live until we’ve figured out how not to mess up. It’s the same logic commitment-phobes use to avoid serious relationships–“What if it doesn’t work out?” becomes the reason never to work.
Thus, the pickle is this: If we should write about what consumes us, but we should also have something to say about it that’s more enlightened than “Angry! Feeling . . . bad!,” how do we proceed? In another section of The Writing Life Dillard poses an illuminating Q&A:
“Who will teach me to write?” . . .
The page, the page, that eternal blankness, the blankness of eternity which you cover slowly, affirming time’s scrawl as a right and your daring as necessity; the page, which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledging that you ruin everything you touch but touching it nevertheless, because acting is better than being here in mere opacity; the page, which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut . . . that page will teach you to write.
These two Dillard excerpts in tandem suggest that (1) we must write about the thing that consumes us, (2) this writing must become wise, and (3) only the act of writing will empower us to accomplish (1) and (2). Put differently, Josh Chan can (should!) sing, “Angry! Feeling . . . bad!”–and he’ll have to keep singing to find his way to the real story.
As a teenager I learned that writing “in the heat of the moment” ends badly. As an adult I’m discovering that I should write despite that–heat is energy, after all–and I have to keep writing out of the original moment into other moments. As I draft and revise, the initial heat will transform into a stronger, more potent heat, a heat that dwarfs the disappointment, shame, ache, rage, or obsession that first goaded me.
So, this March and onward, write the tsunami in your head, the thing you dream and rant of, the thing you pen notes about on your hand and forearm, the hot thing that singes every article, book, TV episode, conversation. Write it in dumb words and broken sentences. As you write you will gain temporal perspective and build something that others need to hear–the page, the page will show the way.
5 thoughts on “When to Write What Consumes Us (And Why Josh Chan Should Keep Singing)”
Great post! Later today, I’m going to write what consumes me. I know I shouldn’t postpone it, but right now I’m reading what consumed someone else, and it’s inspiring me.
Thanks for reading! Best wishes for writing what consumes you. I just tapped out a rant on my phone–clearly I was consumed by something. I plan to revisit it later to wrestle it into coherence.
I love this, Nari! Also, the first part of that music video (angry grab at stress ball!) is HILARIOUS!! LOL.
In other news, yesterday, I picked a fight wtih Randi and, upon waking, think that I probably looked an awful lot like that dude in the video as well. HAHAHA
Thanks! A while back I posted another of his Crazy Ex-Girlfriend music vids on your FB wall and said he reminds me of you. I’m glad you see it too.