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Rant #182
(published June 17, 2004)
How Not to Write
by Jenny Wright

So you sit down at your clean desk because you read a poem that said to clean before you write and you're not very tidy by nature but you like the poet and decided to humor him at his far-off typewriter. You've got your fresh pencil sharp enough to perform surgery and your paper brand-spanking new, new enough to give paper cuts at the first businesslike shuffle.

Having finished cursing the paper and your cut and the world in general, you settle yourself once more and pick up the pencil and poise it over the page and wait. And wait. And wait. You wonder why nothing is happening.

The wind is blowing outside the window and you watch a plastic bag bounce down the street like some suburban tumbleweed and think hmm, there's the tumbleweed now where are the gunmen? Your search up and down the asphalt for men with big black hats and guns or even just a couple of punks on skateboards renders nothing. But even as you sigh you squeak in delight and pick up the pencil— which you hadn't realized you dropped— again because you have an idea. You'll write a Western with tumbleweeds and men with big black hats and guns. And of course all this happens at high noon.

Or so you write. But as soon as you say as much on the page you pull your nose out of the graphite and frown. What kind of lousy beginning is that? Even the thickest five-year-old could guess that it would be high noon. It's so cliché. Then you'd be plagiarizing even if you didn't know whom, and the lawyers would come and take your mom's crystal vase and your dad's out-of-print WWII books and your sister's bike with its annoying horn you want to throw under the nearest street paver. Maybe you'd let the lawyers have the bike, but you'd rather not fork over the rest of your belongings over all for a little misstep in your writing.

So scratch high noon, you decide to be original and make it midnight. After all, it's essentially the same time, isn't it? Just change the "P" to an "A" and you're there. Now all you need are names for the cowboys.

We'll call the first one Jack. But wait— why Jack? Why not Dom or Bill or Jake? Jake's good. But you said Jack. Is it some suppressed childhood memory rising to the surface? Was Jack a valiant compatriot upon the rough seas of the preschool playground? And will said Jack's sudden rebirth in your story wreak havoc with fellow characters, with the plot, the theme, the entire heartbreaking saga?

Jack's out. How about Fred? You've never known anyone named Fred. Except for that goldfish in the third grade. . . But Fred's it. Now what about the other one? Shall we call him. . . Floyd? No. Definitely not— sounds like a hardware store owner. Really, what kind of moron could come up with a name like Floyd? You slap your forehead and moan at your own stupidity. Floyd. Who would ever— but back to the task at hand. How about Jessie? Could work as a bad guy. Potential jab for feminine name there. Whoa, what if people misunderstood and thought Jessie was a girl? That could pose some serious problems, my friend. Your former good guy would have to follow his code of cowboy chivalry never to pick a fight with a woman, and then where would we be? No jeered insults. No spine-tingling suspense. No gunshot. No plot.

Unless Jessie hooked our knight in slightly dusty armor into getting a drink at the saloon. . . yes! Brilliant! Fantastic! Lonely Cowboy Old Before His Time, Softened By Woman's Touch. From western to romance! Forty-percent of books published are romances, anyway! Publicity! Movies! Jack and Jessie, here we come!

But oh god, listen to how that sounds. "Jack and Jessie"? Might as well have one prancing around in red shorts with big white buttons, saving the other from Bluto's evil schemes. Why didn't you see this coming? What kind of writer are you, anyway? You can't even come up with suitable names for your characters. You've been sitting here for fifteen minutes and the one sentence you wrote you crossed out.

Calm down. Breathe in, breathe out. Think of all those recycled quotes for writers: "Don't bog yourself down with discrepancies in the first draft", "Keep writing no matter what", "Let it flow", "Show, don't tell." Wait— show, don't tell? You're one to talk! What was that noon thing about then, hmm? You could've described the sun on the backs of people's necks. You could've described the freaking shadows— or the lack thereof— at least. But you didn't even think of that, did you, Oh High and Mighty Novelist to Be. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, eh? You can't even write a paragraph!

You lean forward to check out the window again. Still nothing. No punk kids, no meandering dogs, not even any windblown plastic bags. You shuffle your papers and curse as yet another sharp corner nips into your skin. Maybe this is not your day to write. Maybe this is not your day at all. Maybe you should just stow the pencil and paper, close the blinds and take a much-needed snooze. Tomorrow. You'll write that work of genius tomorrow.

Sure you will.

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