Writerly Wednesday with Zachary Bartels
I was on an author panel a few years—the kind where I don’t remember much of what we discussed, but I do remember that someone asked us, “What kind of books do you read to prepare yourself for writing?” My friend Tracy Groot said Steinbeck, I think. Someone else said they read John Ashbery.
I said I don’t read anybody. I watch an episode of Breaking Bad. And I have a cigar and a cup of coffee. Then I’m ready to write.
I should have felt silly about that, but I didn’t. I know what triggers get my mind in the right head-space to write what I need to write and I’m very intentional about using them. I know that I do my best writing on a particular bench overlooking the Capitol building and the Lansing skyline (you may never have heard of Lansing, which is weird because it’s the capital city of Michigan) while writing on this decade-old word processor I bought on eBay. It’s called a “Dana” and it has no internet, e-mail, twitter, or anything like that to distract me. I know that music and surroundings tend to affect how I write.
I like to have a playlist for each novel I’m writing, that evokes the mood I want to tap into, but also one particular song for each book that I can play to sort of Pavlov’s Dog myself into the right head-space in under a minute. For my book The Last Con, the song was “Crystalize” by Lindsey Stirling. I heard that song in a bookstore a couple weeks ago and immediately (involuntarily) started concocting new scenes. The problem is, that book came out in 2015. For42 Months Dry, it was all about Matisyahu—frantic, urban, and Hebraic.
For Playing Saint and the sequel that just came out, Playing Saint: All Souls’ Day, watching a little Breaking Bad was the thing that chambers a round for me, creatively speaking. Not that I wanted to copy Vince Gilligan’s style; just that I found myself wanting—needing—to be creative in a sort of uncharted way after forty minutes of consuming that brand of narrative. The writing flowed better when I crank-started the process that way (there’s a pun in there somewhere).
I think this is a fairly pervasive phenomenon. When I read 17th Century Puritans for half an hour (which I do frequently; see also, pastor), I find myself speaking and even thinking in more archaic language and with way more complex sentence structure than normal. Seriously.
Or I remember one week in college, I went with some friends to see Good Will Hunting (saw it again a few months ago—it still holds up, by the way). When we got back to our suite in the dormitory, I realized that my roommates and I were talking to each other in the same sort of quick, sarcastic, reference-heavy cadence of that film. The next night, we rented Bad Boys, and I noticed that we were all kind of gangster-leaning into our jokes and comments—much more laid-back and cool (or, ya know, as cool as dorky students at a Baptist college can be). We were being us both nights, just us percolated in a particular vibe.
Watching Jerry Maguire makes me want to write a mission statement, even though I think mission statements are usually stupid. Reading Stephen Lawhead makes me want to write a 200,000-word epic, until I remember how much research that would involve. What I’m saying—and I don’t think I’m alone here—is that interacting with a particular type of creativity really revs up my own creative engine.
So what gets you into the head-space you need to inhabit in order to write what you’re writing now? Is it TS Elliot? Awesome! Chuck Palahniuk? Even better! Phileas and Ferb? No judgment here… Just like a smoker trying to quit needs to identify his triggers and avoid them, a writer trying to write needs to identify her triggers and use them.
We’re two thirds through NaNoWriMo; maybe you need to find that shortcut that turns on the word-flow like a faucet in order to catch up! Just like that guy trying to quit smoking, maybe you need to think back to when you did your very best writing and reverse-engineer every variable at play. What did they have in common? The same setting? The same soundtrack? The same brand of tea? The smoker trying to quit needs to avoid those cigarette triggers; the writer needs to put them in her hip pocket and use them as a secret weapon.
Zachary is giving away a copy of his latest book, Playing Saint: All Souls' Day.
All you need to do to enter is answer the following question:
What do you do to prepare yourself to write or get into the "writing mood"?