During the summer, I stay up very late. I love the early morning headaches and the Saharan thirst that hits your throat somewhere around two in the morning. I love watching the sky change color, from a deep purple to a pinkish orange, as if the heavens are the canvas and the light is the paint. But most of all, I love the way I write late at night: the creative juices flow, my inhibitions are gone, and it’s easier for me to feel, and to put into effect what’s on my mind. Late one night this past summer, I was watching Season 3 of AMC’s hit drama, Mad Men, which is about an advertising agency in New York during the tumultuous decade of the 1960s. It’s become one of my favorite shows because of the nostalgia, the depth of the characters, and the sharp dialogue, and around 1:42 a.m. one night, I finished a rather emotional season finale. Needing some time to let it soak in, I opened up Microsoft Word and began to pound away. By 2:13 a.m., I had a preliminary draft of a piece that developed into the lovechild of Mad Men and Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants;” in my piece, a successful businessman pays his ex-lover to have an abortion. That piece is just one of many I’ve written late at night. There’s just something about the freedom of writing while the world sleeps; no matter what I write, nothing is too clichéd, or too bold, or too confusing. Unlike people and most everything else in this topsy-turvy world around two in the morning, writing is always there for me, just like it was one sleepless morning in July.
Clouds are clouds.
I’ve never taken to lying on my back in itchy grass pointing at Energizer Bunnies or mustaches or elephants on unicycles. However, despite my sentiments, my 6th grade English teacher made us keep a cloud journal. We would spend the first 10 minutes of class outside in the courtyard writing about clouds, she said. Her name was Elaine Lupovitch, and somehow, calling her Ms. Loopy was an understatement. She wore sprawling skirts of every color of the rainbow. She kept her dirty blond hair in rather imaginative buns and drew out every word like it was a marathon. She spoke in a high-arching tone: each word had an exposition, climax, and dénouement. Her room smelled vaguely of incense, and once a week we would burn a candle and sit shoeless and cross-legged and share our journals. “Zach, would you care to share?” she would say. Needless to say, I did not, but I shared my entries anyway; sometimes we don’t choose to write daily. Sometimes it chooses us.
I write about what I feel. If I have a crush, you can tell. If I’m angry with The Man, you can tell. My transparency and predictability is not necessarily always a strength, but it’s a pattern I tried to break last year when I sat down to write “Tommy,” which is a series of prison letters Tommy wrote to people he knew before he was incarcerated. It’s melodramatic, and really exaggerated, and more than likely tries too hard to throw around curse words; nonetheless, it was me walking right up to my proverbial county line and stepping over it. Well, when the time came to share it with my workshop group, I couldn’t sleep the night before. I kept expecting them to berate me, to castigate me, to censure me, but each one politely and enthusiastically complimented and critiqued it. I learned a lesson that day: to improve your writing, you need others’ opinions. For a proud stag like me, that was hard to accept, but accept it I did.
Writing can be really hard or really easy depending on how much you care. I’m sitting here watching the cursor move with every word and marveling at how writing really is one of those things where you just have to put in the effort. There’s no lottery ticket you can buy with the hopes of winning the skill: you have to make your own luck. It takes repetition, it takes confidence, and it takes a willingness to probe around inside your head and heart and share things that make you ache and smile at the same time. I happen to agree with one of my heroes, Ernest Hemingway, here: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” You have to be willing to bleed before the words are anything more than an assignment.
It’s cliché, but writers really do need to carry a journal. We might be buying extra virgin olive oil at Whole Foods when we get blindsided with a phrase that we think will replace “the orgastic green light” in the canon. Picture this: I’m on a plane, trying to find the airsickness bag, when I feel the itch. I swallow hard, buckle down, and write a song on my phone somewhere over Avera, Georgia. It’s not like you have to block off hours and hours to be a writer. You’re always one.
Let me pose a question. What does writing have in common with your text messages, your Internet history, and sex? It’s personal. Writing encompasses every emotion on the spectrum, from clinical depression to sheer ecstasy and everywhere in between. It’s an agent of healing, and it will close up your wounds faster than time, or a therapist, or pills. Like G-d, writing giveth, and writing taketh away; it’ll beat you up and take your lunch money and your inspiration, and then it’ll turn around and kiss you goodnight, leaving the faint taste of an idea on your lips. Point is, writing is unpredictable, and this unpredictability is precisely why it’s so personal. Last year, I lost someone very close to me. They didn’t die, or move away. But they were gone. Gone like my dog that ran away in third grade. One morning, out in the courtyard, I sat with my Creative Writing class in silence, as we all just sat and wrote. I was hurting; I needed to write about it. I discarded the assignment, started a fresh document and began to bleed, just like Hemingway said. Hemingway also said, “Forget your personal tragedy. We are all b______ from the start and you especially have to be hurt like h___ before you can write seriously. But when you get the d_____ hurt, use it—don’t cheat with it.” Well, that morning, not only was I using the hurt, the hurt was using me. Each keystroke hurt worse than the last, and soon enough I found myself on the verge of breaking down in front of my whole class. Thinking on my feet, I grabbed Megan’s aviator sunglasses off the table and put them on. Everybody laughed good-naturedly and went back to writing, and I was free to cry with some dignity. I wrote and wrote and wrote, feeling better with each cathartic keystroke.
You might have a love-hate relationship with writing. You might groan when your teacher or boss gives you a written assignment, even if it’s a creative one. You might feel nervous before you have to share it with someone. But none of those are excuses to stop writing.
Never stop writing.