The Art of Memoir - Mary Karr (2015)

Chapter 19. Old-School Technologies for the Stalled Novice

Yes, I felt very small. The typewriter seemed larger than a piano, I was less than a molecule. What could I do? I drank more.

Albert Sánchez Piñol, Pandora in the Congo

It’s tough to keep going when you hit a roadblock in your own work. Many beginners just need to keep their heads in the game and their hands moving across pages till they gain traction. Some people tout writing exercises, but they never yielded squat to me. I’d encourage you to find intellectual enterprises to keep you studying craft. Maybe try some of the tools I’ve used to keep my ass in the chair, learning from my betters. Some of these involve writing longhand, shoving a gel-tip across an expanse. It will slow you down as typing can’t.

1.Keep a commonplace book: a notebook where you copy beloved poems or hunks of prose out. Nothing will teach you a great writer’s choices better. Plus you can carry your inspiration around with you in compact form.

2.Write reviews or criticism for an online blog or a magazine—it’ll discipline you to find evidence for your opinions and make you a crisper thinker.

3.Augment a daily journal with a reading journal. Compose a one-page review with quotes. Make yourself back up opinions. You can’t just say, “Neruda is a surrealist”; you have to quote him watching laundry “from which slow dirty tears are falling.” And you have to look up something about surrealism to define it.

4.Write out longhand on three-by-five-inch index cards quotes you come across—writer’s name on the left, source and page on the right. (Stanley Kunitz taught me this circa 1978. I now have thousands of these, from which I cobble up lectures.)

5.Memorize poems when you’re stuck. Poets teach you more about economy—not wasting a reader’s time.

6.Write longhand letters to your complicated characters, or even to the dead. You’ll learn more about voice by writing letters—how you arrange yourself different ways for each audience—than in a year of classes.