Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Writing Fertilizer

Many years ago, I read a book that reawakened my young dreams of becoming a writer. That book was Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. One of Goldberg’s most effective tools is to “keep your hand moving” when you are in the throes of the creative process. In other words, do not edit as you write. In fact, don’t even think. To people like me who live in our heads too much, this was transformative advice.

A few years later, I read another book that transformed my life. It was The Artist's Way, by Julia Cameron. One of Cameron’s most effective tools is “morning pages” in which you start off each morning with a “brain dump” that consists of transferring whatever stuff is moving around your head onto 3 pages of paper, in longhand.

I married Goldberg’s and Cameron’s advice, and for about twenty years I have been doing morning pages by keeping my hand moving. I use cheap notebooks and an expensive fountain pen. (Tools are important. Writing is a physical process.)

By this time, I have a lot of notebooks stacked up in the spare room closet! Many, if not most, of my best ideas and most lyrical, moving pieces of writing are contained in these stacks of notebooks. (In fact, nearly the entire first rough draft of my novel Eating Mythos Soup is in there!) However, also contained in these notebooks is a whole lot of garbage and crap – whining, rehashing, angry outbursts, worrying, self-pity, listing of chores, rush-to-judgments – you know, the usual boring stuff that floats through your mind.

Great writing and crap go together. This is because writing is an organic process. Beautiful writing arises out of your mind’s debris. The French have a saying: “You can’t grow roses without shit.” The crap and garbage present in my morning pages is really fertilizer and compost that enable me to produce flowers of enormous beauty.

That’s why I named my blog Thoughts from the Compost. In it I share some of my harvest. Of course, not all of it will be scented scarlet roses or exotics dazzlers like birds-of-paradise. Some of it may be humble daisies, or even dandelions.
Kim Pearson is an author, ghostwriter, and owner of Primary Sources, a writing service that helps others become authors of professional and compelling books and articles. She has authored 6 books of her own, and ghostwritten more than 30 non-fiction books and memoirs. To learn more about her books or services, visit http://www.primary-sources.com/.
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  1. Crap and great writing go together? Well, smack my keester and call me Hemingway.

  2. Very well said. I love Goldman's books ... and I love your metaphor for needing to dump the crap!

    I too did that for years, and have a modest 'pile' of notebooks to look back on now that I have more time.

    I am presently in a state of percolating ... waiting for the brew to drip through the grains ... or perhaps ... fermenting the grapes I've crushed in the past...

    Whatever - I enjoyed your column!


  3. Hi Christopher, er, Hemingway. LOL

    Kim, I loved the post. What you said reminded me of the advice and inspiration in Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, one of my favorite books. She also encourages writers to just write what she refers to as "shitty first drafts" and get the whole story down before going back to edit.

  4. "Great writing and crap go together." - Love that for its truth and honesty. But now, thanks to you, I'll think of it as fertilizer. You make me want to dig out my old copy of Goldberg's book!

  5. I absolutely adore Goldberg's book. I'll have to dig it out again. And I think I should buy a fountain pen...I haven't used one of those in 30 years (do they still leak?). I find I'm much more productive in the a.m. if I just write and write before getting anywhere near the internet or social networking.

  6. Great blog. It's very hard for me to let go of the editor and just write. But things go much better when I do. Of course there's a lot of rewriting afterwards.

  7. That great writing and crap so often co-exist is a great reason to use a developmental editor, right, Kim? When you've lost so much perspective that all your work looks a medium shade of brown, an editor can help you shovel the crap out and leave the great writing to shine on its own!

  8. Thanks for the comments, everyone. Terry, I like your metaphors about your current state of percolation, and I much approve of fermented grapes. Maryann, I too love Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird" and those "shitty first drafts" no longer scare me so much.

    Karen H and Karen E, I re-read Goldberg every other year or so; like she says, it's good to go back to the beginning, to access your beginner's mind. (And yes, fountain pens still leak from time to time. Luckily I don't mind ink-stained fingers -- perhaps it makes me feel like Shakespeare.)

    Kathryn, you are right that part of a developmental editor's job is crap shoveler. And I love your phrase "medium shade of brown".

  9. Me too! I read and was influenced greatly by both those books. I don't do "morning pages" anymore, although I think I probably should.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.