Rules of the Halfway House
1. Surrender your weapons. We have abused and belittled ourselves for too long. We have been our own worst enemies, our own worst critics, the harshest arbiters on Judgment Day. We have shot down our fledgling works of art in infant form, before they’ve had the chance to take their first breath. The first rule of the Halfway House is to arrest our masochistic tendencies and let our work be what it is.
2. Seek shelter. Create structure. Build a frame to contain the vibrant, messy paint of your words. Erect a property line within which the wild animals of your writing can run without being slammed into by cars on the highway. Whether your structure is a timer at your desk, a writing class, a writing group or an accountability partner it helps to have structure within which to create.
As much as you may want to consider yourself a free spirit who writes with wild abandon, the truth is you need structure. Otherwise your writing will blob forth like an amoeba, Jello, the inside of the body without any skin. Or, it will fail to launch at all. We need a vessel to pour our words into. Create a vessel.
Ten minutes at a time is that vessel for me. It holds the beginning of something big or the entirety of something small. It’s a poem or a letter, the jumble of thoughts clogging up the brain like leaves and sticks and twigs in a gutter. Ideas lurking in the back of the mind or buried in the heart. The overwhelm of shoulds and to-do lists that could stop me before I even get started. But I do, because ten minutes gives them a place to sit while I move on, discovering what lurks beneath.
3. Free Write. I advocate for stream-of-consciousness, unedited, uncensored free-writing. Like Anne Lamott’s “shitty first drafts,” Julia Cameron’s “morning pages” and Natalie Goldberg’s “writing practice,” write now and edit later. Free-writing is the way in which we bypass writer’s block, get our engines revving, shoot past all the buts and can’ts lining the highways of our minds. Free-writing helps us develop our intuition, calls on us to trust ourselves, summons up from our subconscious what wants to be written.
When we are free-writing we throw spelling, grammar and punctuation out the window. We don’t try to censor or control ourselves. We begin to make our way back to the playground of writing we inhabited before the teacher/ parent/ ex/ priest/ego/addict tried to kick us out. Free-writing helps us reclaim our own voices, our stories and our right to exist.
4. Hand write. I suggest writing by hand with a pen or pencil in a notebook because it makes it much more difficult to check Facebook or research an obscure reference or decide to delete everything you’ve just written. Writing by hand is a basic, primal practice that will allow the pace of your hand to regulate the pace of your thoughts. Write your second draft on your keyboard or computer and – if you’d like – edit as you go. But write your first draft by hand.
5. Skip the small talk. If there’s an elephant in the room, don’t spend too much time describing the wallpaper behind the couch it’s sitting on. You don’t need to waste your time or anyone else’s pretending everything is fine if it isn’t. Writing doesn’t have to be a cocktail party where everyone looks glamorous delivering witty one-liners. Get to the meat and potatoes. Don’t fill up on candied mints and forfeit the meal. Writing the truth in this way may feel awkward and messy and vulnerable but it’s a good way to bypass the fluff and cut out the fat. Readers yearn to connect with the truth. Practicing telling the emotional truth is a good way to write, and to live.
6. Listen. As soon as you are done writing, read your work out loud. Something very different happens when we hear our words spoken than when we write them down. Read aloud to yourself, or to someone else – they don’t have to comment, critique or give advice. In fact it may be better if they don’t. Often we feel completely differently about a piece when we hear it, almost as if someone else wrote it and read it back to us. Someone we might actually like and treat with respect. I find that people cry, or laugh, or sweat or shake more often when they are reading their work out loud than when they are writing it. It’s a good sign. It means you’ve hit the right vein.
7. Don’t apologize. Don’t apologize for your work. Don’t apologize for being a human being who wrote something down. You don’t have to excuse, degrade or mock what you’ve written. There’s no need to explain that the piece in front of you is not perfect, that it might be boring, unfinished, repetitive, shocking, uncomfortable, intimate, TMI, self-indulgent or nonsensical. Practice letting it be what it is. See it as the rendering of a moment in time. It may be full of contradiction or paradox or moaning and groaning or gushing or trying to figure something out. It may read like someone tumbling naked down an avalanche. That’s fine. It’s a first draft. It’s part of a process, not the finished product. Let it be.