In Praise of Writing “Dull” by Leonora Desar
Or how a simple writing prompt is better than all the good ideas—
One day, instead of writing, I was doing my usual. I googled: “writers better than I am” and “writers that will inspire me to get off my butt.” I came across Mary Miller, one of my favorites. Mary Miller, if you are like me and obsess over your website stats, you are probably wondering what that spike was all about. Well, that was me.
After reading Miller’s pieces and obsessing over the fact I hadn’t written them, I found this piece. It was about her day. It was part of a series hosted by Cynthia Newberry Martin—“How We Spend Our Days”—where different writers talk about their lives. Miller’s piece spoke to me. It wasn’t a particularly intense piece. It wasn’t about affairs or ex-husbands or divorce. It had a wryness, an intelligence.
“The hot gym guy: not here. The hot gym guy: I am certain he also loves me but can’t approach me, and so we will forever love each other from afar.”
I wanted to imitate it right away. But I’m in quarantine, and there is no gym guy. There’s not even a towel guy. There’s just my husband, who hopefully isn’t reading this. I thought the best I could do would be to imitate the form. To write about my own day, even if it was just: got up ate eggs tried writing tweeted stuff instead. Advantages to this? While I wouldn’t be Mary Miller, or Mary Gaitskill, or even Mary Poppins, I would have a beginning, middle, end. I would have a structure, or a cage. I like cages. They keep me honest. By giving me a structure, they free me to think about other stuff. Instead of having a bagillion and one things I can write about, I only have a bagillion, which is one less thing I have to worry about.
Lately, it’s been a struggle. I can’t finish my Dear Leo’s. I can’t finish my own stories. I can’t finish my stories about not finishing my stories. I can’t finish my procrastination project du jour—a grand attempt to scan in 300 plus notebooks—which I started to avoid finishing my stories.
Instead of writing something linear—beginning, middle, end—I write in fragments. Pieces. I hope they will end up fitting in the end. Sometimes I am lucky, and they do. Or if I’m unlucky I end up with several beginnings, but no end, or several middles, but no beginning, or the most glorious ending to the best story never written.
I want to set fire to them like the drama queen I am. Instead, I lock them in a dark attic on my hard drive, like I am Rochester and they are Bertha in Jane Eyre.
I don’t want you to be like me.
I want you to write down a beginning. This can be when you wake up. Then write a middle: where you go, where you DON’T go. Here you can get creative. What is it like to “go” to Zoom? What does it smell like? And are you anything like me: is it hard to focus when you just can’t stop looking at yourself?
And then your end: where you dream. Where you lay your head at night. WHAT you dream (hello, gym guy).
You may surprise yourself: the day has given you a cage, and by writing this, and only this, you will invent. You will notice things you never did: how avoiding people during COVID is like playing Super Mario, that random stain, the smell of chocolate at 3 am. The way the guy in that Zoom box, upper right, is also looking at himself; does this mean you two are soul mates? Should you consult the Magic 8-Ball or get married now?
And what about all that other stuff? I’m talking about COVID, here. Here’s a silver lining: suddenly, you have resonance. Everything is fraught with stakes. You don’t even have to think about it, or even try. And if you ever wonder, who cares? Why am I writing this? Just think of all the favors you are doing for humanity. Someday, someone is going to want a record. Someone is going to want to know: not the big news items but the minutiae of the day-to-day, the small moments, the quiet. And why shouldn’t that be you?
Tips for Getting Started:
1. Don’t think too much. (Thinking can be the enemy.)
2. Especially don’t think: this is going to be the story that gets me into (redacted!) magazine. (My mistake for many years.)
3. Don’t know where you are going. Be like my dad when he used to take us driving on rainy Sunday afternoons: don’t bring a map, play the radio, loud, and ignore your family when they ask you, what the hell is going on?
4. Having trouble? Write everything in a Facebook post, or in an email, or in a tweet to the masses never sent. This will accomplish the following three things: a) Any notions you had of yourself as a Serious Literary Writer will immediately disappear. b) You will feel more casual, and your language will reflect this. c) You will have in mind a reader—consciously or unconsciously—and this will help you to connect.
Putting text in a FB post or an email also helps with one of my least favorite things: revision. Think of it as submitting work. Notice how—immediately after clicking send—you suddenly notice all of those mistakes? That’s because you are empathizing with the reader, seeing things as they would. A similar thing happens when you switch up mediums. It’s no longer just for you, even if you don’t click send. Your subconscious is automatically primed to shift, to think: ah, someone will be reading this! This is a good thing. You get to have your literary cake and eat it too: no one WILL be reading it, AND you get to identify that clunky prose.
5. Write when you first wake up. I know, I hate this, too. But writing when your defenses are down is your best chance at slaying the inner critic, of not building up that big idea so that it becomes Everestian, or insurmountable, or where it already feels done—even though you haven’t written down a single word.
6. Remember, writing is 50 percent procrastination, 40 percent reading and getting inspired, and 120 percent tricking your brain. Yes, those numbers don’t add up. That’s why I’m a writer. Not a math girl.
7. Remember (part two): the most complex idea might not be your best. If you’re struggling, like I struggle—go simple. For instance, this column here. Oh, the plans I’ve had! The designs I’ve carried! The conquests (literary) I’ve devised! My column ideas were good ones—I think.
There was the one where you write a letter to yourself, trick the postal service, and don’t use stamps—a trick from Leonora, aged eight.
There was the one about Miranda July. I am struggling to write (what else is new?) and she pulls me on her lap. We plot against my boss and team-building events in general. Ultimately, this concludes with MJ starting a business venture: one in orgasm manufacturing.
There was the one about Roxane Gay. The idea was to write about your dreams, because I had this brilliant one where Roxane Gay visits me in bed. She gives me writing advice, and then we watch the royal wedding.
Where are these Leo, I bet you want to know. The answer is: in the attic, with my other great ideas. Will I bring them down? Maybe. Should I wait, then, to have something fabulous and orgasmy to show the world? Also maybe. But it could backfire. It could be another three hundred years until you hear from me. This will probably upset me more than you.
TMI: For two years, I couldn’t write. I went to see a shrink. I told her: I just can’t write. Can you not write words? she said. Yes, I said, I can write them; they’re just not very good. For “homework,” she had me bring in two pieces: one that I’d written during my writing heyday, and one I’d written after, when I lost power, when the writing gods smote me down.
I waited for her to lie, to say the two pieces were the same. But she didn’t. She was honest. She said the first was great; the second was “good enough.” For some reason, this didn’t derail me. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was having a lower bar. Maybe it was like playing limbo: I didn’t have to be a genius, or a semi-genius. I didn’t even have to be double-jointed. I just had to be good enough, whatever that meant.
I want you to aim for good enough.
Write messy. Remember, the bar is low. Write: a beginning, middle, end. Tell me about your day. Give me detail, be specific. And remember: it doesn’t have to be amazing. It just has to be done. I think of what every boss has ever told me, or someone like me: “perfect is the enemy of finished.” How annoying, but they were right.
Bonus!!! Read this Mary Miller piece or the essays from “How We Spend Our Days.”
Eat ice cream. Avoid Zoom.
Leonora Desar wanted to be Mary Poppins briefly when she was eight, but then embarked on a career in letters. Her first attempt was sending a letter to the actor Ricky Schroder, which to this day remains unanswered. Since then, her work has appeared in places such as River Styx, Black Warrior Review, The Cincinnati Review, and Columbia Journal, where she was chosen as a finalist by Ottessa Moshfegh. Fun Facts: She’s writing this late at night without caffeine. In Zoom, she uses the “touch up my appearance” option, but pretends she hasn’t heard of it.