Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Faculty Voices: Laura Ruby

Get Your Butt OUT of the Chair?

Some time ago, I was working on a novel that was actively trying to destroy me. This is not an exaggeration. I had already rewritten it in three different points of view, and once I settled on one of those, I revised it so many more times over the course of a few years that I’m certain I have permanent brain damage. But even with all that work, all those hours spent “butt in chair,” the story wasn’t gelling. Readers were confuzzled. I was confuzzled.

So, one day, after another fruitless morning spent slumped in front of my computer, I went out for a run (or, in my case, a shamble.) There I was, shambling around my neighborhood, slouching towards a nervous breakdown, when I decided that I was not going to think about the book that was trying to destroy me. Or, at least, I wasn’t going to think about it for the duration of the run. I was going to think about something else. Anything else. Hedgehogs. Otters. Becoming a vodka sommelier. Spinning yarn from cat hair. Knitting sweaters for tiny goats.

My mind wandered as minds are wont to do, and I started thinking about books again. But not about the book that was trying to destroy me. Rather, I thought about another story I’d written and set aside, another story I couldn’t quite figure out. It was written in alternating points of view, a 12-year-old boy’s and an 18-year-old girl’s, with a couple of other (adult and animal) viewpoints sprinkled in, you know, just for kicks. It wasn’t middle-grade or YA or NA or adult. It was, however, completely nuts. As I ran, I entertained myself by trying to unravel it. What was the story really about? Where did it begin? Well, that was easy. A mysterious man kidnaps a young woman and holds her captive. Kind of like Persephone, I thought. And then I literally stopped in my tracks, startling a man who was out walking his jaunty little pug. PERSEPHONE? WHAT? WHERE DID THAT COME FROM? And I thought about the characters, about their mythical analogues—they were all there. I ran/shambled/slouched home, got my butt back in the chair, closed the first file, opened the second, and began again.

In interviews, novelist and marathoner Haruki Murakami is often asked why he runs:
“When I am running,” he says, “my mind empties itself. Everything I think while running is subordinate to the process. The thoughts that impose themselves on me while running are like light gusts of wind -- they appear all of a sudden, disappear again and change nothing.”

The thoughts that impose themselves on me while I’m running shambling around are the same way: light gusts of wind that appear all of a sudden. And yet, they can change everything.

But it’s not only running that does it. Those light gusts of wind blow when I’m doing the laundry, cooking, sweeping, raking, walking, driving, chasing the cats, grocery shopping, even taking a shower. Anything, it seems, but sitting in front of my computer.

Thing is, I believe in the virtues of hard work, of consistency and habit, of planning and intention. Yes, of “butt in chair.” Yet there is such a thing as trying too hard, thinking too much, sitting too long, becoming so tangled up in words and ensnared in every story problem that you become mired in indecision and
doubt. You can easily sink into despair, or in the words of writer and teacher Dorothea Brande, into “the slough of despond.” (e.g., imagining that your manuscript is actively trying to destroy you).

In her book, Becoming a Writer, first published in 1934, Brande says that when writers aren’t chained to their desks, they can often be found reading or talking shop with other writers, and that this can be dangerous. “If you want to stimulate yourself into writing,” she writes, “amuse yourself in wordless ways.” Listen to a symphony, go to a museum, beat a drum, bake a cake, walk a dog, scrub a floor. What you’re looking for isn’t amusement per se, but a light state of hypnosis, a sort of “artistic coma” brought on by the wordless—often rhythmic or monotonous—activity. An activity that occupies a small part of the mind, freeing up the rest. When writers, people who create art with language, immerse themselves in wordless activities, we become starved for words:

Stay alone, and resist the temptation to take up any book, paper or scrap of printed matter you can find; also flee the temptation to telephone someone when the strain begins to make itself felt…In a very short while you will find that you are using words at a tremendous rate: planning to tell an acquaintance just what you think of him, examining your own conscience and giving yourself advice, trying to recapture the words of a song, turning over the plot of a story; in fact, words have rushed in to fill the wordless vacuum.

As much as I value the time I spend “butt in chair,” I need the time out of it. I can’t create a “vivid and continuous dream,” as John Gardner called a story, if I don’t allow myself the time to vividly and continuously daydream.

And so I run. I cook. I sweep. I pace. I dust. I dance in my living room. A book might be actively trying to destroy me, but if I can just forget about that for a few precious minutes, both of us might live through it. 


  1. Oh, Laura. That is just beautiful. Thank you.

  2. Wow, this is so timely in my own writing life. Thanks for the perspective/ reminder/ encouragement. I have a project that had me nearly in tears yesterday afternoon and was my waking thought this morn. I've finally decided to bake some gingerbread. I think having some time to let my thoughts run loose, free of pressure to corral them onto the page, will help. Great post!

  3. Love this, Laura! Shared on my author page.

  4. In his book, Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discusses this "artistic coma" and its virtues as well. What good news for writers! Chasing the cats every now and again is fun AND productive. Cue sunlight streaming in from thick overcast clouds. Hooray!! Thank you, Laura, for your post.

  5. Thanks, guys. And I'll have to pick up FLOW, Naomi.

  6. I love the idea of starving for words. Personally, I'm a knitter. I take my knitting with me when I write and when I'm stuck I knit for a few minutes until my brain gets into the rhythm of two needles and a ball of yarn. Then, answers come.

  7. Swati is going to knit the goat sweaters!!!!

  8. Anyone else done The Artist's Way? A WEEK-long reading fast is one of the assignments. F!!!!! Nearly killed me and I cheated. Definitely useful.

  9. I'm not sure I could do it, Elizabeth.