White Paper – Wilt Thou Be My Confident?: Grief and Creation

On July 8, 1822, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley died in a boating accident.

Months later, Mary Shelley wrote the following in her journal:

Mary Shelley Journal of Sorrow Quote

If you ever get the chance to read the whole entry, it will break your heart. (If you’re not a cold-hearted bastard, that is.) She continues to explain how the only comfort she has is in engaging her intellect – because it’s the only way she can distract herself. And, if you direct your attention to the final question:

“White paper – wilt thou be my confident?”

I don’t know how you read that, but I read that sentence as a plea. Shelley seems to be looking for something to kill the unbearable loneliness that comes with grief…and, in fact, that sense of being alone is probably the real, defining pain of grief.  So she’s asking this blank sheet of paper for help filling that hole.

But, as many of us know, holes are hard to fill.

We don’t often talk about how grief affects the creative process. I think, often – and like Mary Shelley – we look to our creative endeavors to help heal ourselves.

What happens when we just can’t?

Look, lots of things can cause grief and the loneliness that comes with it. Death – of a family member, a lover, a friend, a pet.  Divorce or breakups. Distance – from a move or an estrangement. Even the loss of a job means that you no longer see people you were used to seeing every day. Some of these things are a surprise. Sometimes you have a chance to “prepare” – whatever that means, right?

But, no matter the how or when…these things hurt.

Sometimes hurting means you just can’t pick up that pen, or touch that keyboard, or that paintbrush, or that camera, or whatever it is you use to create. You just cannot get your brain in the right space. All you can think about is how he would brush your hair out of your eyes. Or how she curled up right up against your ribcage. Or the way he cracked jokes at inappropriate times. Or how she twirled her hair when she was nervous.

Or maybe it’s been longer – and that one song came on the radio today and, dammit, you are FEELING THINGS.

As much as we like to think that our creativity can see us through anything, and despite the fact that often we’re thinking – “I’ll be able to use this in a story” …

use all the pain

… it’s like Stephen King said in his great book On Writing: “Life is not a support system for art, it’s the other way around.” And – not to be too prosaic – but sometimes life sucks.

So, if you’re like any other writer I’ve ever met, you’re probably pretty hard on yourself if you’re not in writing mode. And, when you’re grieving it can feel doubly hard…like your life has gone completely haywire. Like you can’t do anything that you used to do. Then you think “How can this be happening? I’m losing everything. First [insert loss] and now my writing.”

First: your life might indeed be haywire for a little while. I am here to tell you that, while it is incredibly hard – maybe the hardest thing you’ve ever gone or will ever go through – it will not be this hard forever.

Second: It is okay to hurt. People always try to make you feel better, and that’s incredibly sweet of them. Have some mercy on them and their efforts. But you have to let that loneliness, that pain, that anger, that grief do its thing. You have to let yourself miss your friend. And maybe that means you don’t write for a while.

I think Mary Shelley does some smart grieving things. (Does that seem rude? It’s not meant to be. I admire it.) For example, the entry quoted above was written in October, not July when Shelley died. Her life went haywire and she had to scramble and deal with that. Including getting some harsh backlash from her in-laws and her family, questions about where she could live, and how was she supposed pay for anything? Chaos.

And she allowed herself to hurt. It’s right there in the words. She is woman who is hurting and lonely and looking for somewhere to put all that emotion.  She chooses to put it in her journal…a journal she once shared with her husband.

The Kerouac-Ginsberg Letters: You Have to Write More than You Think

Jack Kerouac attended Columbia University for a while. It was there he met and started hanging around with some other names you may know – most notable fellow novelist William S. Burroughs and the poet Allen Ginsberg. Because we can’t talk Kerouac without talking about his crew, we get a two-for-one mentorship deal!

Starting in earnest in 1944 – when Kerouac was held as a material witness to the murder of David Kammerer – Ginsberg and Kerouac began writing a ton of letters to each other. If one or the other of them was outta town, in jail, or in a mental hospital, they wrote. Recently this avalanche of correspondence was collected and edited by Bill Morgan (for the Ginsberg estate) and David Stanford (for the Kerouac estate) in a great volume called Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg: The Letters. In the introduction, the editors talk about the quantity and quality of the letters: “Some of their letters are stunningly extensive single-spaced epics, longer than published stories or articles. There are aerogrammes from afar, words jammed to the edges, filling every inch, and handwritten letters on lined pages, tiny notebook sheets, old letterhead. Add-ons are scrawled on envelopes, and sometimes-lengthy postscripts tucked in.”

stunningly extensive single-spaced epics” they say. And how.

The breadth and scope and word count of these letters left me a little breathless – partly in awe, partly in surprise, and partly in bafflement at the sheer volume of insights, information, and bullshit they (Kerouac and Ginsberg, not the editors) threw around. They talked books, women, men, religion, publishing, poetry, psychology, sex, not-having-sex, having-sex, and, of course, writing. It’s easy to get overwhelmed looking through so much material.

I was easily distracted by such tidbits as:

But I do not wish to escape to myself, I wish to escape from myself.” ~ Ginsberg to Kerouac, letter ca. late July 1945

However I hate you. Because years ago you and Burrows [Burroughs] used to laugh at me because I saw people as godlike.” Kerouac to Ginsberg, letter ca. December 16, 1948

I filled a 150 page notebook in the last four days with a detailed recreation of the events of the last month.” Ginsberg to Kerouac ca. early May 1949

The thirteen year old girl wrote a story on my typewriter about the Giant in the garden and the little children who were afraid to go in because they thought the garden door was locked, but it wasn’t at all and the door opened, and they went in, and the Giant cried with joy. This proves to me that children really know more than adults. Children are preoccupied with the same things Shakespeare knew.” Kerouac to Ginsberg, letter July 5-11, 1949

(I could go on, but will stop there. Like I said, easily distracted…)

Reading through the letters gave me an insight more basic than whatever subject matter Kerouac and Ginsberg discussed. As I read the letters (yes, sometimes wondering if they would ever end) I kept hearing the voice of my buddy John quoting the ‘rule’ that a writer must write a million words of crap before you get to anything good. And here, right in front of me, was what the first million words looks like…not that they were writing crap, but that they were writing a lot.

Here’s what a million words looks like:

• unpublished novels and poems – Kerouac and Ginsberg both had piles of stuff hanging around. Kerouac’s first published novel was 300,000 words before it was edited, a staggering count

• journals and notebooks that are never intended to see the light of day – note Ginsberg filled a 150 page notebook in four days…time to turn off the T.V. people!

• letters – there were 300 letters between Kerouac and Ginsberg that the editors of Letters worked through to create the almost-500 page collection (the editors didn’t include the letters post-1963)

It is an ungodly amount of material. A lot of writers think that finishing the first draft of a first novel is BIG (and it is – just in a different way than they think). Think about it: if your first novel is 100,000 words – a respectable sum – you still have to do that 10 more times. Tired yet?

Hope not. Because not all words are created equal. If you’re just throwing down words without learning what goes along with them (grammar, meaning, story-process) then those words don’t count as much as the words you put down with intent and concentration. In other words: you must practice with those million words.

Yep. You’ve got to write more than you think you do.

Nowadays we don’t really write letters, and diaries and journals have been replaced by blogs and Facebook. But just because our methods are electronic shouldn’t change the amount of work we put into our words. Blasting off an email can be just as artistic as writing out a letter. When you tell your friend about your day or your thoughts in an email, make those words count. Be descriptive. Use details. Tell your buddy how a thirteen year old girl is like Shakespeare.

Blogs are also not a space to be sloppy. Sure, we all flub and typo, and it may feel more casual than other types of writing, but it’s still a place to practice and get thoughts down articulately.

Hm, from the length of this entry, seems like I’m trying to beef up my own word count….

Okay, that’s enough from me. How close are you guys to 1,000,000 words? Well? Whatcha waitin’ for? You’ve got words to write. Get crackin’!

Pace Yourself: Using Nora Roberts’ Insane Productivity to Inspire Your Own

Writing math is the only kind of math that I do. (I’m a writer, I do words. Numbers are another beast.) I’m constantly figuring and re-figuring how many words I need per day to complete my novel by X date. The date keeps moving because, inevitably, I’ll miss a day or three in my allotted schedule and have to adjust. And I ALWAYS feel like I’m going to slow.

Now, I know you’re not supposed to compare yourself to other writers, published or otherwise. Every writer has their own pace. Every writer has their own process. And one of the reasons I think writers read articles and books on writing (hello!) is to help refine their own process. At least, I hope that’s the case. It’s unhelpful to draw comparisons between two people’s situations. But it can lead to groundbreaking productivity if you find a nugget of advice that you can steal and apply to your own work. Like:

“Why, yes! I will write in the morning before everyone else in the family wakes up.”


“Why, yes! I will write in the evening after the kids are in bed.”

Either way, as long as you figure out your process, you scored. Right?

Sometimes, however, you come across a writer who is intimidating in their productivity. This writer will make other prolific writers feel like incompetent wannabes with no work ethic who’re sitting around, wearing tweed, sucking their thumbs and agonizing over why the muse doesn’t talk to them.

Nora Roberts is such a writer among writers.

She has over 200 books in print right now — with no backlog, according to her. She’s been writing since 1979, with her first published novel happening in 1981. So I did the math:

200 books/37 years (since it’s January, I just counted up to 2016 because she’s only had a couple weeks this year…) = 5.4 books a year.

Assuming each book is around 100K (the average-ish American novel), that means she has written at a NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) pace — 1,667 words per month — every month for three decades.

Suck it, Stephen King! — Who, I’m guessing, blasted out a short story while I was typing this sentence.

Being the competitive type, here is an illustration of my initial thought upon doing this math:


But no. It’s a vicious lie I’m telling myself right there. I’m not that fast. I believe that I can hit a Chuck Wendig/Stephen King type pace with some effort. (And, let’s be real, that’s some kind of pipe dream.) But Nora Roberts will forever kick my ass at churning out words. However, there are some things to learn from such numbers:
1. To produce words, you must show up and do the work — which means exactly what it means. This shows up in EVERY SINGLE PIECE OF ADVICE TO WRITERS. There’s a reason for this. Words do not magically show up on the screen and tell stories. Writers have to do that. Nora Roberts writes everyday. [website]

2. Those numbers are produced by a human — which means I (and you) can produce something. Maybe not the million-and-a-half novels that Roberts will complete by the time she goes to work at the great typewriter in the sky in a hundred years or so, but words can be put on paper. Lots of them. Probably even more than I think I can do.

3. Be bold and interested in what you write. I’ve read a handful of Roberts’ novel in the past month or so. One of them was Origin in Death, which I found fascinating because Roberts took the ethics of cloning, mixed it with murder, and created an intricate story that touches on a lot of current issues. The tangle she created is enough to drive several stories, if she was so inclined. If you want to produce more words, then pick subjects that fascinate you. You’ll want to get back to work because it’s interesting for you.

And don’t shy away from contemporary issues that inspire or anger you. If you want to write about politicians, or medical discoveries, or technology, then freakin’ do it — don’t think “Who am I to write/comment on these things?” — you’re a writer and a citizen of the human race, and if it moves you, if you have something to say: SAY IT.

4. Be consistent. And be patient. Roberts has been writing (based on her interviews and her author bio) for 37 years and a couple weeks. That’s an entire lifetime for some people. (i.e. Me.) Producing things takes the time it takes, but as writers, we need to put in that time.

In the interest of productivity tips: as a writer, what do you do to keep yourself putting the words down? What’s the best tip you’ve heard for producing material? Are you intimidated by Nora Roberts-type numbers, or do you find it inspiring? Or both?