There’s only one way to write: by being honest.Posted: May 13, 2013
When my girl Ollie (a successful business woman and an author of more than 20 books) asked me to talk at Nulis Buku Club’s gathering at Urban Icon Store Senayan last week, I kept my cool and said, “Sure!”. Little did she know that I was actually panicking. I always find it challenging to talk about writing. I mean, who am I to talk about such thing? In the end, that was exactly what I did not do. I did not talk about writing. I got everyone to write instead.
I do not want to talk about writing because I don’t think we learn about writing that way. Learning about writing is similar to swimming or riding a bike. You don’t learn how to swim by reading books or follow instructions. You jump into the pool and get drowned and then you get it. You find yourself floating. The more time you spend in the pool, the more you feel comfortable and confident. Soon, you want to explore the sea and swim with the fish. Or jump from the top of a waterfall to a river underneath. You’re becoming more courageous and adventurous. The same goes with writing. You just have to do it, everyday, to find that level of comfort and confidence before even starting to push your limit and go for the extreme. (I am a sucker for Natalie Goldberg’s book on writing simply because she doesn’t give instructions about characters or plots or outlines. She wants us to write. She’ll give us a list of words or images or memories to play with and she’ll let us write about it, incorporating our authentic life experience into the pouring sentences on our notebook.)
There are loads of different ways to tell a story, but I believe that there’s only one way to write: by being honest. I guess, we always think that our lives are dead-boring and other people’s lives are far more interesting; thus we keep on finding ways to tell other people’s stories; because we think it will sound more interesting. But no matter how good we are in telling other people’s stories, we are not those people. We do not have their drive, their voice, their experience, their childhood, their tears. However, we have unlimited access to our own memories, our own childhood, our heartbreaks, our fear, our failure, our imperfection. We have our so-called boring lives that are rich with smells, colors, sounds, feelings, details. We can always try to sound like someone else. We can even imitate Hemingway. But we can never be him. We can never be as good. We can only be the best at being ourselves, by telling our own stories.
Now this doesn’t mean that we have to spill all the dirty secrets and be brutally honest about every little thing (though that would be effing interesting, too!). It’s more about that sense of authenticity. About seeing things from your eyes, feeling things with your heart, writing things down from your real experience. Being sad has very little to do with standing by the window, looking at the droplets of rain with instrumental music playing in the background (I committed this kind of sin in my previous writings, too, but I promise not to do this again!). When I came to think about it, the last time I was sad, I didn’t take a shower that whole day. I didn’t wash my hair. I drank too much instant coffee and I made myself instant noodles with 20 chilis so it would be both super spicy and stingy, and I finished 2 packs of Maicih super-hot casava chips. Then I stayed in bed, watching depressing movies on DVDs and listening to 30 Seconds to Mars’ From Yesterday over and over again in maximum volume. I turned off my mobile phone and cursed the whole world. You have your own way of looking at the world when you’re sad. We can’t all be sad the same way. So tell your version of being sad instead of going mainstream. Or else we would end up in our elementary school days, when the teacher asked us to draw the scenery and we all turned in two mountains, a road, a small house, two rice fields (left and right), the sun between the two mountains, three-shaped birds and blue-colored clouds.
So that was what the participants ended up doing at the writing club gathering. They wrote. For 3 to 5 minutes, on a certain topic. The challenge was to keep your pen moving, not to stop, not to think to much, just write things down, write whatever that crosses your mind, write from your memories.
It was intriguing to see how people were hesitant at first, having their pens hanging in the air instead of scribbling something on the paper. “Come on, keep your pens moving! Don’t think too much, just write!”—and it was amazing to see how they become more confident and write more freely during the second and third exercise. It was even more surprising when some of them stood up to read what they had just written: those were great stuff; written in only 3-5 minutes. I felt goosebumps when some of them read their piece; because they were so honest, so blunt, so bare… and yet they were beautiful, unique, and authentic. You could almost see this person and get the feel of who they are just by listening to them reading their piece.
Eva wrote about her experience that day:
“Write first, keep writing what’s in your head, don’t stop.
“We can worry about the other stuff, like plot, grammar, characters, etc, later in the editing process.”
We then did three three-minute exercises on writing, which I would invite you to try.
First, it’s about original details. Pick an object and write — without stopping — as much details as possible about it. This is what I wrote that night:
The lamps. Hanging right in front of me, slightly above. Silver with yellow-ish light. If we pay closer attention to it, there is one big lamp, surrounded by smaller ones.
At first I thought there were only five lamps, but a closer look would reveal there are two more, slightly hidden. Hanging on a black string. They are not that bright, swallowed by the other surrounding lights. Not as blinding, but still cool as accessories to the room. It does not really make the room brighter, except at exactly where it was. (And time was up as I finished that sentence).
Second, it’s about working from memories. Pick an object and write what it reminds you of. Three minutes. Go:
The last time I noticed this type of lamp was at a meditation retreat several years ago. My mind then jumped into something completely different. I remember my love for taking photographs of lamps and reflections, in all shapes and forms. Low light photography and reflections of mirrors, from building, structures, and so on, wherever it may be.
I looked to my left and saw the very reflection of those lamps in the mirror. A different angle of the same object. I remember taking pictures with my friends at her campus in Paris. A huge silver shining ball. That was so fun. The ball is of three meters in height. We experimented with distance. What if the camera is close to the ball and we are further away. What if one of us is closer to the ball than the other. What if one is standing on the left, and the other on the right corner of the camera lens. Reflection is so interesting. It provides a distortion — often more interesting than the original! (Time was up).
You wouldn’t believe what came up from the audience. It is evident that we are all writers. Beautiful, with a variety of styles. Mine feels rather factual. But I was just getting warmed up.
Third exercise: use object (I am a…) and write how it feels to be that object. This is mine:
I am but letters “F.O.S.S.I.L” — You look at me but you are not really looking at me. You are looking at me and you remember the remains of animals and plants from million years ago, turning into coals and oil; being put in the museum for display, lab for study and books to read.
You look at me and you remember, well, bags.
You look at me but you’re not really looking at me. I am but a six-letter word, written in black. I am written in ALL CAPS. But obviously, it is still not loud enough for you.
I was astounded. I have no idea how it came about. The exercise reminds us how rich our mind is. All we need to do is put our thoughts in writing, without any self-censorship.
Two years ago, I started bringing a notebook with me, where I could just write mindlessly while waiting for a meeting or a delayed flight. I write about a guy sitting across me at the airport, the conversation a family is having at the table next to me in an Italian restaurant, memories that wells up inside of me when I spot a guitar case… and the notebook is full of random stuff like this. When I read the notebook again after some time, I am always surprised knowing that I can come up with such writings or realizing that I can recognize such minuscule details. The notebook becomes a rich source for me to spice up the scene I’m working on or inserting ‘authentic’ conversations into my dialogues. Moreover, the notebook becomes an amazing portrait of my mind, of what’s going on inside of me, of how I see the world from the reality I choose. It helps me to see myself from a different point of view; and it reminds me of who I am, who I was and who I am capable of become.
- The Only Way to Write by Eva Muchtar.
- NulisBuku Club: A Sweet Encouragement, Classy Competition by Nana.
*) Photographs from Nulis Buku Club gathering are the courtesy of Ollie and Nulis Buku Team.
Special thanks to the wonderful bunch at Urban Icon! They came to me and said that they want to give a watch for me as a present, and I could choose whichever I want. They did not know then that I am a FOSSIL fan, and I have had my eyes on their beautiful Georgia watch for quite some time. And I hand-picked my pretty pink Georgia that evening :’) Thank you so much for this lovely surprise, folks! :’)