Really good writing advice from Slavoj Žižek
How to make writing disappear!
Slavoj Žižek (b. 1949)
Have I mentioned that I’m really stuck on my new book project? Yes, still! But, last week, I ran across a writing strategy on Twitter that may, I think, I hope, be spurring a breakthrough. It appears in a several-year-old, 52-second-long video of the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek shared by a now-suspended account of writer memes. (Sometimes Twitter is wonderful.) Here’s the clip:
If you don’t want to open the video, here’s what Žižek says:
I have a very complicated ritual about writing. It’s psychologically impossible for me to sit down [and do it], so I have to trick myself. I elaborate a very simple strategy which, at least with me, it works: I put down ideas. And I put them down, usually, already in a relatively elaborate way, like the line of thought already written in full sentences, and so on. So up to a certain point, I’m telling myself: No, I’m not yet writing; I’m just putting down ideas. Then, at a certain point, I tell myself: Everything is already there, now I just have to edit it. So that’s the idea, to split it into two. I put down notes, I edit it. Writing disappears.
That’s pretty good! As a writer, I typically try to make a given section as perfect as I can before moving on to the next section . . . which may be why, with less than six months to go until my book deadline, I’m still working on chapter one! 🤦🏻♂️ ☠️ But I’ve been trying Žižek’s approach for the last couple of days, and I think it’s working. I’m not writing—I’m just putting down ideas, and I’ll edit them later. I can do that. I’m going to go back to doing that right now. I’ll see you all in two weeks.
SHITTY FIRST DRAFTS?
Wait, some of you might be thinking, isn’t Žižek’s approach basically the same as Anne Lamott’s famous Shitty First Drafts advice, elaborated in her classic writing manual Bird by Bird? Well, sort of. Lamott writes, “The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.” That’s fine—but what if you have no romp left?? The Žižek Method is a more radical solution: It’s not about letting yourself write badly but contriving a way to not even “write” at all!
If you’re not familiar with Žižek, may I recommend this Robert S. Boynton profile, first published in Lingua Franca in 1998? In addition to being a good introduction to the sweaty, panic attack–prone philosopher’s life and work, it also makes one feel the deep strangeness of being a journalist on profile-writing assignment: Boynton and Žižek’s initial interview in a London hotel lounge reads like a bad blind date that both parties wish to escape but cannot.
And, of course, I can hardly write about Žižek without mentioning a certain legendary GIF featuring the philosopher, apparently unaware that he is being filmed, happily double-fisting a pair of hot dogs as he cruises down a Manhattan sidewalk (his reward for a successful day of writing-not-writing?).
SURRENDER TO YOUR MEDIOCRITY!
Just as I was implementing the Žižek Method last week, I also ran across the following piece of writing/life wisdom from the bestselling author Cheryl Strayed, shared by the writer Kara Cutruzzula on Twitter and subsequently in her Brass Ring Daily newsletter:
Your ambition is not to write the Great American Novel. Your ambition is to finish the damn book. This is a lesson I’ve had to learn over and over again. It’s true of so many things in our lives. Because we’re afraid of failing, sometimes we turn away from it and don’t do it at all. As much as it would have hurt to write a book that everyone hated, the only thing that would have been a failure was me going years and years and years and always continuing to say, Yes, I’m working on my first book.
I had to surrender to my own mediocrity. I’m going to write as well as I can. The measuring stick is not, Do other people love it? Did it win the National Book Award? But rather, Did I do the work? And, Did I do it as well as I could? Answering yes to those two things is my guiding light. That’s what I go back to all the time. We are in charge of the work we do and whether or not we give it our all.
Like so much good advice, I find this at once encouraging and kind of depressing. Read more here.
WITH THE BATS AND THE RACCOONS AT TWILIGHT
I feel like I may be getting worse at writing but better at talking about writing? (A nightmare scenario.) To wit: I had a fun chat recently with Jonathan Small about writer quirks and eccentricities for his Write About Now podcast, and I appear on a lovely BBC radio documentary about creative people who work best at night. Personally, I can barely stay up past 9:30 p.m., but I shared some historical examples of night-owl artists, including Proust, James Baldwin, Duke Ellington, George Sand, and Glenn Gould, whom you can watch describe his preferred nocturnal schedule on YouTube.