Writing to See What You Say
GrubStreet Instructor Steven Beeber talks "Beeber’s First Law of Emotion" and shares the importance of putting words on the page. You can learn more in his upcoming Online: Zoom multi-week class, Jumpstart Your Novel, starting Wednesday, July 20th.
Newton’s first law of motion—A body at rest tends to stay at rest, and a body in motion tends to stay in motion—applies to writers as well. Call it Beeber’s First Law of Emotion – A writer at rest stays depressed, a writer in action gets more traction.
I wish I could say that the literary equivalent of an apple landing on my head gave me this insight. But the truth is, I’m merely building on what I’ve learned through both listening and doing. When in grad school John Edgar Wideman challenged me to stop writing perfect stories and instead aim for page count, I found myself making breakthroughs I’d never imagined, weird fever dreams coming out of me that seemed to glimmer on the page.
Valerie Martin later told me to “go with that lyrical thing that you like,” and that pushed me even further, my lingering attempts to craft little jewels of prose shattering like a glass menagerie that caught the sun in a thousand points of light. In the process, I saw that writing breeds writing. The act, the experience, the fingers tap-dancing over the keyboard, the words filling up the blank white, the voice on the page trying to keep up with the one in my head as my heart raced and I got a high that caffeine and sugar (much less cocaine and crystal meth) could never match.
Writing breeds writing.
In my classes, I make sure that everyone starts filling pages. I push them as my instructors pushed me, prodding them to write daily if at all possible. And I emphasize that they should follow the half-conscious and dreamlike, starting each day letting images flit through their heads. If a student reported that one of these was “A girl up a tree looking in at a funeral while her two brothers look up from below, seeing her dirty drawers,” I’d scream, “Write that.” Or maybe not, seeing as Faulkner already did, starting there to create The Sound and the Fury. Like so many others, Faulkner knew that what he didn’t know but couldn’t stop thinking about was what he must write about to understand.
We do while waking what others do in their sleep, filtering and processing stimuli, putting a frame around experience so that we can see the picture, hear the tune, follow the thread.
The best work is that which begins in mystery, not theory. Writers aren’t philosophers. They’re shamans channeling the dreams of the culture. We do while waking what others do in their sleep, filtering and processing stimuli, putting a frame around experience so that we can see the picture, hear the tune, follow the thread. In doing so, we provide our readers more than just a service. After all, without dreams you’ll die. It’s science. And not the sort embodied in Beeber’s First Law of Emotion, but the kind found in textbooks.
So, get to your desk and get busy writing. Who knows, you just might save some lives.
Sign up for Steven's upcoming Online: Zoom multi-week class, Jumpstart Your Novel, starting Wednesday, July 20th! Scholarships are available.
Steven Lee Beeber is the author of The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk (Chicago Review Press), the editor of AWAKE! A Reader for the Sleepless (Soft Skull Press) and the associate editor of the literary journal Conduit. His work has appeared in The Paris Review, Harper's, The New York Times and elsewhere. He has an MFA in Fiction from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and teaches creative writing and creative nonfiction at Lesley University and Harvard Summer School. His website is www.jewpunk.com.See other articles by Steven Beeber