Holleman: Mark Twain and the White Tennis Shoes

Welcome and thank you to Marybeth Holleman, our January featured author, for this guest-post.

It may be that we writers write best about not writing.

A decade into her writer’s block, Fran Lebowitz was browsing at Sotheby’s and was shown an original Mark Twain manuscript. The seller had called in a Twain scholar because there was one thing about the manuscript they didn’t understand: scattered throughout were little numbers. Lebowitz knew what they were right away. Twain was counting words. Perhaps he was paid by the word, said the seller. Perhaps, said Lebowitz, Twain told himself he had to write so many words a day.

It’s one of the tricks we writers use to get our butts in the chair and the words on the page. We count words, we count time, we even (I swear I read about a writer who did this) chain ourselves to our chairs with timers on the locks. The one I’m using now was told me by Ron Carlson. He calls it the twenty-minute rule. When you start to leave the page and get up for a break, make yourself write for another twenty minutes. Sometimes it’s only the twenty, which is something, but sometimes (oh miracle of miracles) it stretches to 30, 60, even 120 minutes.

Some years back, I sat in the world’s most perfect writing cabin at Hedgebrook, trying to get into my manuscript in progress, The Heart of the Sound. Instead I milled about the cabin looking for anything else to do besides write. I picked up the journal in which all the previous occupants had written their thoughts. One spoke (so eloquently, of course) about not writing. She doubted she would get any writing done. She doubted anything she wrote would be any good. She doubted being a writer, having anything worth saying. It was a beautifully written piece, absolutely absorbing—and not just because I was desperate for something to do besides my own writing. But what astonished me most was the author’s name: Gloria Steinem.

That night at dinner I shared it with the other five writers in residency, and we all breathed a sigh of relief. Steinem’s doubts and procrastination put ours in perspective. The desire to procrastinate, the doubts about our writing, it never goes away—so we might as well get used to it.

The publishing world certainly doesn’t help, but again, we writers have our tricks. Another thing I learned, this time from Ron Spatz , was to always have at least five things out at once. Five proposals or pieces of writing out into the deep space nine of publishing. That way when a rejection arrives, you’ve still got four others out there. You’ve still got hope. And more importantly, you’ve got momentum.

More and more I’m thinking it’s about momentum. When I started the MFA program, I talked with George Bryson. He said writing is like a muscle—it gets stronger the more you use it. I think he’s right. But it’s not just writing; it’s the whole writing life.

Even with so many things out at once, I can still get waylaid by rejection. Doubts jump in: this sucks. I suck. So I go back to that line from the Tao Te Ching on which I’ve based much of my adult life: Do your best work and release the outcome. We don’t have control over the outcome, so why fret about it?

Last January I gave myself only one New Year’s resolution: to feel content with the amount of writing I’m doing, with the words on the page, the hours at the desk, the number of pieces sent out. Not the amount published. And a year later, I have to say that it worked. It’s not that I’ve gotten more successful at publishing, but that I feel satisfied with my end of the deal.

And about those white tennis shoes. How many of you are old enough to remember when people put white polish on their tennis shoes to keep them looking new? A friend picked up an essay by Ayn Rand about, you guessed it, not writing. In yet another eloquent essay, Rand disclosed her own ability to procrastinate and told, as an example of just how far we’ll go to put off writing, the story of her friend who polished her tennis shoes in winter, long after the summer tennis season had passed. You can tell a good procrastinator, wrote Rand, by her white tennis shoes.

So, go ahead, look down: how clean are your shoes?

Marybeth Holleman is author of The Heart of the Sound: An Alaskan Paradise Found and Nearly Lost, and co-editor with Anne Coray of Crosscurrents North: Alaskans on the Environment. She’ll be discussing the topic of environmental writing and activism with author Nancy Lord and moderator Charles Wohlforth at a 49 Alaska Writing Center event at Out North Theater on Jan. 25 at 7 pm.

2 thoughts on “Holleman: Mark Twain and the White Tennis Shoes”

  1. Hi Marybeth!

    Nice piece. My shoes are filthy and I'm still struggling to make myself write, hee, hee.

    My big distraction is running. I know it sounds dumb but I'll sit down to write and the next thing I know, two hours have passed and I'm still trying to figure out the possible fastest marathon time I can run on the least possible training. (As if it matters!)

    What I don't understand is why is it so easy to go out for a run, even when most runs hurt, even when some hurt so much I want to puke; why is it so easy to lace up my shoes and run, yet so very, very difficult to plop my behind down in a comfy chair, sit in a heated room and write?

    Cheers and happy writing,

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