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Advice on Writing Personal Essay

Take Your Time: Let the Wine Mature

Short essay on craft.

[Image courtesy]

This short essay on craft was originally published in The Writer Shed’s Medium edition.

The best writing advice I’ve received was scattered over twelve years: from three people, none of them a writer.

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I was 20, and struggling to make my writing work. I thought I just had to produce more. More words. More stories.

A friend and I were moon-gazing. She told me that meditating helped clear her mind of words. Naively I asked, “Why would you want to do that?”

She told me how, when confronting an experience – cloud-shreds clawing the full moon, watching your best friend dying – if you let words come prematurely, words usurp the experience. Words distort your experience to fit themselves. Like storm-clouds obscuring the moon, words obscure from you the experience itself: which is pre-linguistic.

I shrugged. “I don’t mind. I just need some words, about some experience. Something that looks like a story.”

So I hurtled, from word to word. Until, years later, I was ready to heed the first piece of the lesson: Pause. Absorb experience. Words premature, salad-tossed together, are ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’

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At 26, I was in love. I didn’t want to be. I’d seen what love did to my peers – obsessive love, the only kind available in our shared situation of an endless PhD, with a frustrating lack of structure, in a dead-dull town. Reluctant to admit my love, I flooded my beloved with emails and text-messages. To avoid saying three words, I buried him under thousands.

He sensed my circumlocution. He saw that I had something to say, and was avoiding saying it. He told me about a Jewish wedding ritual:

“The bride and groom sit facing one another. Either one can speak, but only when s/he feels compelled to. Sometimes hours pass in silence… In my own life – whether it’s writing a paper, or emailing you – I do nothing until I feel compelled to.”

The second piece of the lesson: Let your feelings mature inside before uttering any words. Let a story mature inside before writing any words.

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At 32, I met a younger student. He puzzled me. He was a high achiever, but laidback. He set no deadlines; he deferred, for an evening’s impromptu fun, a complex programming task he’d been absorbed in; he seemed to enjoy anxiety-free the process and outcomes of work.

In the open-mindedness of a marijuana high, I finally felt ready for advice. I confided my problem: I loved writing, but my compulsion – to write more, write better, finish things both quickly and perfectly – made writing often the last thing I wanted to do.

“You have talent,” he said. “Just relax. Trust yourself: to do what you need to do, when you need to do it. Don’t push yourself. When you’re tired, just take a nap. When you’re restless, just take a walk… When you wake up tomorrow, when you come back next week – you’ll be ready.”

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Words of advice are bottles of wine in the cellar of your soul. But it’s you who must mature before you’re ready to uncork a bottle, savour a sip, and be better for it.

The best writing advice I’ve received was: Take your time.

Take your time to absorb an experience. Let this moment exist for you. Don’t rush to manufacture it into a product for other people.

Take your time to hear yourself. Often, what you really want to say can be said in a few words. All those other words are you deferring, with the hollow comfort of word-floods, the moment of meaning.

Take your time to write. Attend to your needs, animal and human. When you’re ready, you’ll find yourself writing.

END

PORTFOLIO of published and upcoming works

By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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