Book Review : Getting Yourself Psyched Up for the Writing Game
Writing While You Sleep . . . And Other Surprising Ways to Increase Your Writing Power by Elizabeth Irvin Ross (Writers Digest Books: $12.95)
When my sainted father was alive, there was nothing he liked more than play the ukulele. He’d strum and twang and after he’d finished his repertory of “Oh, That Strawberry Roan” and “The Girl on the Government Pier,” he--loath to put down the instrument that gave him so much pleasure--might make up songs of his own. I know what he’d sing about this book: “Oh, it’s easy to say, but it’s hard to do, it’s easy to say, but it’s hard to do, it’s easy to say, but it’s hard to do--early in the mornin’!”
Yes, this is a wonderful book. Speaking personally, I live by these principles myself, or try to, and always have thought--in the back of my mind--that I’d like to write this book, except that Elizabeth Irvin Ross wrote it before I did, and she’s done an absolutely fine job. I can tell you for a fact that all these principles work--except for when they don’t.
Ross suggests that you take the standard consciousness-raising techniques that have been around (especially on this coast) for years: visualization, guided imagery, affirmations, dream-analysis, goal-setting, role-playing, and instead of using them to cure your headaches or lose 30 pounds, you use them to improve your performance as a writer. “This book does not cover the mechanics of writing,” Ross reminds us. “What this book does is give you a method to help you take control of your writing life. With it, you’ll learn how to break bad habits and reduce the stress that might be keeping you from getting published.”
Working Like a Beaver
So, what could be bad? as the saying goes. All writers know that attitude is everything; that when you choose to do the dishes or sign up for a dinner party you don’t want to go to, or fall in love with someone you shouldn’t, or get drunk all night and stay hung over all day, or have another kid or find a leper to nurse back to health--all this may look like “life” you’re living, but actually it’s your subconscious mind working like a rabid beaver in there some place, throwing up sticks and twigs and mud to keep you from working. Ross suggests that you give that crazed animal something else to do with its time.
For instance, when you’re blocked as a writer, you do the first three steps of the “Write Now Exercise” (which you must buy the book to find out), then visualize yourself making coffee, and “Now, imagine that you’re at your desk. Silently repeat the following suggestion 10 times: ‘My article/story/book is like the coffee. All the necessary ingredients are simmering in my subconscious mind; my mind will take the time it needs during the gestation period to blend everything together.’ ”
It’s easy to laugh at this sort of thing, but one must remember that Simonton is applying these principles to fool cancer cells into doing something more constructive with their time, and Norman Cousins has a task force at UCLA doing more of the same, and whether or not this exercise will really make you a better writer, it will at least snag the attention of the crazed beaver in your mind.
Of course this stuff works, and it’s time someone wrote about it as it applies to writers. Goal-setting, for instance. Really sophisticated artists don’t talk about it except offhandedly: William Styron, in an interview, declaring, “I knew early on, from the very beginning, that I had to be a great novelist; to write on profound topics. I had a vaulting ambition!” How different that is from the would-be writer whose dad told him, “early on,” when he took apart a watch, “You can take things apart easily enough, but you can’t put them together again!” For that would-be writer, the visualization might be: A sea of watch-parts, and the master watch-fixer puts them together into timepieces that last a century!
‘My Self-Image Is Positive’
See how negative thinking crept in here? The whole point of “Writing While You Sleep” is that when it works, it works. When it doesn’t, it doesn’t. The section here on “Dealing With Rejection” suggests that writers often become “emotionally addicted to approval from an editor,” that when they get a rejection, they fall into thinking “I’m no good.” Ross suggests that after steps one through four, after you’ve relaxed and cleared your mind, you “say to yourself 10 times: ‘I’m an intelligent confident person. I feel good about myself. My self-image is positive. I have many talents and abilities. Writing is one of them. Whether my work is accepted or rejected, I’ll still like myself.”
Well, if you can even change the percentages from 40-60 to 80-20 in your favor, you’ll be way ahead of the game. But why do I keep hearing, as I write these lines, “Oh, it’s easy to say, but it’s hard to do. . . .”