Kafka was wrong.
He once said that writing is “utter solitude, the descent into the cold abyss of oneself.”
If this were true, no one would write because they’d be too busy committing suicide to connect with their keyboard.
At some point, you do have to chain yourself to your desk to type out the words that have been marinating in your mind. But that’s not the main part of writing.
Let me explain.
Writing, at least my writing, starts with an insatiable curiosity about other people. I spend most of my ‘writing time’ not at my desk, but out in the world having conversations, asking questions, and getting all messy in other people’s lives. Through this experience I get glimpses into what matters, and collect little idea nuggets to pursue.
These nuggets are raw, uncooked bits. Over the next few days, my mind simmers them. The best ‘idea cooking’ happens while I am running. As my limbs stretch out to cover miles of San Francisco asphalt, my mind opens wider. The nuggets bubble and pop and sometimes I have to stop mid run to write down a particularly juicy insight.
Then I write. I write what Anne Lamott calls a ‘shitty first draft.” I vomit up every single thing I want to say without paying attention to syntax or grammar. The first draft is not fit to consume, but that’s okay.
However, this first draft isn’t written in “utter solitude.” I write on the train on my way to work and in a café on weekends. I write where I am surrounded by people. I need people, everyday people, to inspire me. The warmth of their bodies reminds me that no one is in this world alone.Kafka’s personal abyss is really everyone’s abyss. We all share similar hopes and fears and dreams.
After I have written my first draft surrounded by the encouragement of strangers, I craft. This is the only part of my writing that is done alone. I go to a silent place and hack away at my shitty first draft with a butcher’s knife.Too many adjectives in the sauce? A rancid simile? A noun that will never be more?
And then I have a better draft. It’s ready. No no, not to publish but to share with a trusted audience to get THEIR help. It’s a beta test, to finalize the recipe before we go live.
“Don’t workshop your shit,” a good writer friend told me. “Find one person to help you edit.” If I could afford an editor perhaps I would do as he says. But right now, my work is edited by my community. Each piece has different individuals offering their unique help to make it better.
I was lucky enough to have poet preview a piece on lying, making my prose concise and poignant.
An infectious disease doctor helped me with the right terminology for the sickness of love.
An attorney has redlined my drafts, helping me craft a logical argument fortricky career moves.
My old roommate, a biology technical writer, has ensured I had structure (not sag) in a post about aging.
My cousin checks both my titles and my intention, telling me candidly when I’m totally off.
My mother, who has previewed almost every single damn piece I’ve written, will review it and walk me through the parts that are unbalanced, to make sure my nugget is fried enough on both sides.
You see, writing is a community sport. I am merely the mouthpiece, trying to harness the essence of people’s innermost thoughts, fears and desires.Anytime I get into a conversation, whether in a bar or on social media, I’m inspired. If I lived by myself in a mountain hut in solitude with only my own abyss for company, I would have nothing interesting to say.
Unlike Kafka, I find writing to be the greatest social connective tissue we have.
Please keep finding me, writing me, and talking to me. A myriad of voices is part of creating. Your thoughts provide not just added flavor, but the whole reason to sit at my keyboard in the first place.
And perhaps start writing more yourself. Anytime you reach out to the world and provide the gift of perspective, you ignite a conversation. People will learn from you or relate to you and we’ll all be reminded that perhaps we are not so different, after all.
**This post first appeared here. Please read it there to follow along the juicy discussion….especially on Kafka, and his own muses that he had.