Richard Manieri (’10) is currently deputy Opinion editor/columnist at LNP Media and lancasteronline.com in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His first book, We Burn on Friday, A Memoir of My Father and Me, is available at Amazon.com. Rich’s essays have appeared in publications throughout the country including the Philadelphia Daily News and Baltimore Sun. He is a Keystone Award winner for column writing in Pennsylvania and also winner of Inland Press Association’s Editorial Excellence Contest.
Barking Dogs and Other Distractions
by Richard Manieri
It’s pretty easy to answer the question, Why do we write?
There’s another question that’s more difficult, at least for me, to answer—Why don’t we?
Strip away all of the external influences – time, fatigue, responsibilities, barking dogs – and it becomes glaringly obvious that my biggest obstacle toward progress and creating new work is me.
Rachel Manley, my dear friend, mentor, and writing teacher when I was at Lesley, once told me, “There’s no such thing as writer’s block. It’s just laziness.” She’s right, of course. The only way to produce new work is to write something. Although, when I first met Rachel I was so terrified of disappointing her that I dared not send her something that wasn’t thoroughly worked and reworked. Excuses were not permitted.
Rachel pulled my best work out of me. I was accountable to her. She was constantly encouraging and challenging me to dig deeper. I needed to be coached and mentored, and it produced results.
Then what? What happens when the deadlines and accountability and mentoring disappear and you’re left to your own devices?
For a long time, prior to coming to Lesley, I was hesitant to write if I didn’t feel “inspired” or if I wasn’t certain I was going to produce something worthwhile. Rachel changed that. I realized my hesitation was nothing more than an excuse and, as Rachel would say, “absolute nonsense.”
I learned while writing my first book, which was born at Lesley, that writing is an exercise, a discipline, a habit. It’s like going to the gym.
I do this ridiculous Crossfit workout. At this point in my life, if I live through the workout, I consider it a smashing success. But there are many times when I simply don’t feel like going, for a variety of reasons, but I like feeling healthy and I like the results. So I drag myself in there and plow through whatever torture is planned for the day. But no one sees or feels the results of vigorous exercise by working out once or twice a month. Any writer would admit the same about producing new work.
You might have seen the documentary on the rock band the Eagles. There was one portion that really struck me. Glenn Frey, one of the band’s founders, was recalling his early days as a struggling songwriter, before the band was formed. At the time, Frey lived in an apartment above singer/songwriter Jackson Browne.
“Around nine in the morning. I’d hear Jackson Browne’s teapot going off with this whistle in the distance, and then I’d hear him playing piano, “ Frey said. “I didn’t really know how to write songs. I knew I wanted to write songs, but I didn’t know exactly, did you just wait around for inspiration, you know, what was the deal? I learned through Jackson’s ceiling and my floor exactly how to write songs, ‘cause Jackson would get up, and he’d play the first verse and first course, and he’d play it 20 times, until he had it just the way he wanted it. And then there’d be silence, and then I’d hear the teapot going off again, and it would be quiet for 20 minutes, and then I’d hear him start to play again … and I’m up there going, so that’s how you do it? Elbow grease. Time. Thought. Persistence.”
No magic, just effort.
I don’t mean to diminish the creative process. There is something inexplicable and mysterious that happens when thoughts and ideas make their way from our minds to the page. I don’t really know what that something is but it’s there and it happens.
I’m an editor/columnist for a daily newspaper so I write every day. I’ve been writing my entire career. It’s my job. So, to me, writing is more a trade than a supernatural experience. This too can be an obstacle and a trap.
If I allow it, writing for a living can be a barrier to writing for myself. The voice in my head says something like, “I’ve been writing all day. I don’t have anything left.” Also nonsense.
So, I read more. I search for more literary influences. I look for a different technique and I try it myself. I write bits and pieces of things, beginnings of stories, whatever. Sometimes I use the “notes” app on my phone to jot down random thoughts. About half the time these fragments lead nowhere. But sometimes they turn into a column, or a short story, or a chapter in a book.
As for “stealing” from other writers, I think T.S. Eliot was mostly right when he said, “Good writers borrow, great writers steal.” Eliot wasn’t talking about lifting content and making it your own.
I’m a lousy golfer but I’ll use the metaphor anyway.
My golf swing is horribly flawed but if I watch Tiger Woods, in his prime, swing a golf club, and if I break down the video and every aspect of his swing – his grip, how he shifts his weight, how he brings the club back, how he drives through the ball – there might be something, maybe just one thing, that I can apply to my own stroke. The next time I go out on the golf course, no one will mistake me for Tiger Woods. But if I practice and adopt some technique or nuance and apply it to my own game, I can improve my swing.
My first book was a memoir. But I’ve never heard anyone say, “That book reads just like something from David Sedaris. Thief!”
I’ve read and reread everything Sedaris has written. I’ve looked at how he uses humor, how he sets up a “joke,” his word choices, and so on. Sedaris has been the biggest single influence on my work but no would every accuse me of stealing from him.
For me, there’s no such thing as too much information. There’s also no substitute for discipline and perseverance. I write something, I hate it, I try it again. Most important, I’ve found that the best thing I can do to produce new work is get out of my own way.
What does it mean to be “original?” What keeps new work—if it’s using “stolen” material—from being derivative? Please comment below.