Dear Leo # 1

How to deal with being a failed writer, writing to get in someone’s pants, writing with the blood, and a bunch of other stuff

by Leonora Desar

Truthalert! (Usually I write fiction and I lie.)


The other week I spoke to my friend’s class. Then I wrote them this longwinded thing. It’s about writing and a bunch of other stuff:

OK. So here is the part that I didn’t tell you. A few hours before I was supposed to talk to you I really, really, really didn’t want to. I had a bad day. I couldn’t write which for me = a bad day. I had been trying to write at this café and it was super annoying. For one, it smells. Plus there’s this guy there. I call him the Serious Writer (SW for short). SW makes me feel supremely guilty. For one, he always seems to be there—writing. And 2) he always has this super serious expression on his face, like whatever is going to come out of his mouth (or his fingers) is puregold.

So as I was sitting there I felt like this fraud. Like Serious Writer should be speaking to you instead, or Pink Scarf Lady (PSL). PSL looks like the heiress to some cookie fortune—she is always flouncing around and wears these big kooky earrings and looks like she’s just generally filled with brilliance.

Anyway, the point is that published writers get stuck. And feel like frauds. And that no matter how successful you are or how many pink scarves you wear or how seriously serious you look, you will want to fuck it all and throw your laptop/notebook/whatever against the wall, Kurt Cobain style (*if you don’t know who Kurt Cobain is please abandon this right now and look him up) (and preferably listen to one of his songs while you are reading).

And after I spoke to you guys and listened to all your awesome, intelligent, brilliant and caring questions I realized that I should have told you this. The thing is I am bad at speaking in front of people which is one of the reasons I chose writing (that and I’m not very good at math. Which is a bummer. I doubt mathematicians or accountants throw their calculators against the wall).

And then I went to get some Thai food which along with ice cream is the best way to get over a bad writing day. It doesn’t cure it but you can almost trick yourself into thinking of good ideas; your brain is focused on the food and the chai and the coconut-iness and not on all the ways you failed. I would suggest this. If Thai isn’t your thing there’s Indian and Italian and long walks on the beach. Basically, get out of your head, eat something good, preferably something immersive with chopsticks or weird utensils or something you have to focus on not getting on your shirt. This way you are thinking of this, how to avoid a big dry cleaning bill and not on your writing.

So as I was eating I thought of all your questions and how kind you were, and realized I wasn’t done yet, I had other answers and ideas. I started writing them in a notebook but my handwriting sucks and I realized I wouldn’t be able to read it later (plus writing in a notebook is hard).

Here is the basic gist—

  1. One of you asked about writer’s block and how to get over it. Good question. Here’s what I want you to do. Picture your writer’s block. What does he she or it look like? Describe it. Give me 300 words on it. Nothing more. Then reward yourself with ice cream
  2. Someone else asked about ideas. This is the million dollar question. I want you to go out with a notebook or your phone and describe five people you see. That’s it. Or even one—the most interesting, intriguing person. Don’t think that now you have to write a story about their life—you don’t—just stick with the basic physical description. Then reward yourself with ice cream
  3. Back to writer’s block. This might be the most important question because it’s what all the other questions are based on—where we get ideas and stories and passion and the language to write them down. This is what I want you to do. Write for yourself. Write the weirdest most fucked up dream you’ve ever had and don’t worry about it making any sense. Don’t worry about showing it to someone. Write for yourself. Write about the way it made you feel and if this feels disturbing good, it makes you feel something. I want you to be disturbed. Impassioned. The only time you have to worry is when the writing is cold and bloodless and beautifully written. Don’t worry about beautiful writing—it will come with reading amazing books and talking to people and practice. Just focus on the blood
  4. The blood: I stole this from a Mozart in the Jungleepisode. When you’re done with Nirvana download an episode from Netflix. It’s about music which is a lot like writing, it’s all about playing with the blood, which is passion (plus it’s really funny)
  5. Write to impress the hell out of someone. Yes, I know this goes directly against #3—write for yourself. But sometimes you have to change things up. Sometimes the thing that works one day is not the thing that works the next day or next week. Write to get in someone’s pants or to make them fall in love with you or see you in a different way. Then don’t send it to them. Or do. It doesn’t matter. The important thing is that you wrote it
  6. If you’re really stuck do what I always say I’m going to do and don’t. Don’t worry about imagination. That’s the hard thing about writing fiction; we feel the onus is on us, to make up something, to take something out of nothing and make it brilliant. Screw that. Take a familiar scene. Describe it. Describe the room you’re in or your bedspread or the messy socks under the drawer (the ones you forgot to put into the laundry). Here, I’ll go first:

my room’s a mess and there’s a dog toy on my bed. there is no dog though. the dog’s asleep. there’s a bedspread with some stains from god knows where and a chaise and some faint siren thing outside which I wouldn’t notice unless i was forced to find something to describe. i’m tired.

Now make something up. Just one thing. Don’t add pressure by thinking you have to make some genius story—just add something to the mix:

i’m tired and i don’t feel like cleaning these dirty socks. but sometimes they clean themselves. they put themselves in the drawer and say, leonora, why can’t you handle this?

  1. Write an email. This is my favorite trick. Sometimes I am completely stuck so I say, fuck this writing and email Ashley. I start talking about my day (not very exciting) but then it leads into one of those weird observations about a person and sometimes, if I am lucky, it turns into a story
  2. Pretend to write an email. If you have no one you actually want to email just open the email doc and write. It’s weird how the medium and feel of it will change your attitude about writing. You won’t think—this is a story—you’ll think, oh, email, I can relax. And the great thing about this trick is that it usually works even if you know it. Your brain doesn’t rebel and say—hey, I’m being tricked—it just goes with it
  3. When all else fails write when you’re really really really really tired. This is the best way to overthrow a rigid brain. Your brain’s defenseless or what the shrinks like to call the superego. This is that part of your intellect that wants everything in a box and for you not to have any fun. Fuck that. When you’re tired the ID takes over. The glorious ID which is all about sex and drugs and rock and roll and weird nightmares from your childhood, even if it’s not actually having sex or doing drugs—it can imagine it, write it, tap into things
  4. Write what excites you. Even if you don’t know why. When you feel a pull to write that’s your brain letting go and your heart pumping blood and your soul telling you to sing
  5. Don’t do drugs. They screw up your brain
  6. Seriously write sober. Let the writing sound boozy but do it with a clear and lucid brain
  7. Don’t go all didactic as I just did. Save it for your sermons. Let your characters speak for themselves and be ambiguous and flawed, and don’t tell us what it means
  8. Don’t do what I just did which was to switch to a word doc. Now I am all flummoxed
  9. Don’t listen to these rules
  10. Make up your own
  11. Then break them

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Leonora Desar’s writing can be found or will soon be found in River Styx, Passages NorthSmokeLong Quarterly, matchbook, Hobart, Quarter After Eight, and New Flash Fiction Review, among others. She recently won third place in River Styx‘s microfiction contest, and was a finalist/runner-up in Quarter After Eight‘s Robert J. DeMott Short Prose contest, judged by Stuart Dybek. She won third place in TSS Publishing’s Flash 400 contest, and was a finalist in Black Warrior Review’s flash prose contest. She received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Award, was a semi-finalist in American Short Fiction’s American Short(er) Fiction Contest, and was shortlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction Award. She lives in Brooklyn.