graffiti living: write to live, live to write

Posted: January 18, 2010 in graffiti living
Tags: , ,

I get a lot of people visiting this blog in search of graffiti, but it’s really about writing. Serves me right for calling it graffiti living! So, here are some notes on what I mean by graffiti living – adapted from handouts I did for creative writing workshops that I ran and talks that I gave.

graffiti living is an approach to writing. It encompasses a lot of different writing techniques and exercises, but in general it’s about enabling your creativity, learning to trust your own process, and writing like a lunatic.

There are two main elements of graffiti living – ‘write to live’ (which is whatever your personal ideal is for writing, be that earning a living, self-expression, or just your way of being in the world), and ‘live to write’ (which is how you get there).

If you want to write to live, you have to live to write. That’s what graffiti living is all about.

Write to Live:

I started writing because I did not want to die having done nothing with my life. – Hubert Selby Jr

Why are we writers? Why are we here? What does ‘write to live’ mean to you? The most obvious thing is getting published and writing to make a living. That’s the ideal. But most writers never achieve this and only about 1% manage to live solely from writing. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t dream about this, just that we should admit this and be willing to work very hard to get there. There are other things that ‘write to live’ could mean. Hubert Selby Jr said “I started writing because I did not want to die having done nothing with my life.” That’s very honest.

If you truly want to write to live, whatever that personal dream or goal might be, you have to focus on that. Be very honest with yourself about it. When you focus on what you truly want, you set the wheels in motion that will make it happen. You still have a lot of work to do, but this will get you going in the right direction.

Focus on the Goal

Never be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to be made a victim. Accept no one’s definition of your life, but define yourself. – Harvey Fierstien

Close your eyes (I know that you can’t read this with your eyes closed, but bear with me). Visualise what you really want from your life as a writer. It doesn’t have to be the usual stuff you say about why you want to be a writer. Focus on what you really want. Imagine your perfect life as a writer, the perfect situation. Where are you? What are you doing? What does it feel like to be there? The visualisation of that true goal begins the process that makes it happen. Explore your deepest desires, fantasies and motives, focus more and more on what you would like to happen in a perfect world, a perfect situation, taking away all restrictions and practical considerations. Forget about what you’ve been told is reasonable to expect in your situation, admit to yourself what you really want. Open your eyes, and write down what you saw. Your personal vision. Don’t share it with anyone, it’s a secret.

This is what ‘write to live’ means for you. And you weren’t given the ability to picture this, to want this, without being given the ability to make it true… you still have to write though!

If you want to write to live, you have to live to write. So, let’s go for it. You’ve got 30 seconds. Start writing… Did you find that easy? Did you find that hard? The more you live to write, the better you’ll get, and the easier you’ll find it to make the most of the opportunities to write whenever you can.

Live to Write

A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if one is to be ultimately at peace with oneself. What one can be, one must be. – Abraham Maslow

Dorothea Brande said that to move forward with your writing, you must first overcome three obstacles: lack of time, money, and fear. We do that by living to write. So how can we live to write, what can we do to overcome these three obstacles? Any suggestions? How do we overcome lack of time, money, and fear? In graffiti living you deal with these things in two ways – how you live, and how you write.

How you Live:

Your only obligation in any lifetime is to be true to yourself. – Richard Bach

Live your life in a way that supports your writing. Look at everything in your life and assess it in simple terms – does it move you towards your goal, the vision you hold in your mind, or away from it.

Dorothea Brande says “A wholesome self-discipline takes many forms, from sleeping regular hours to working regularly to exercising regularly, and has a cumulative, strengthening effect. Since it comes from yourself, a healthy self-discipline is not contrary to your freedom or individuality.”

Look at everything – how you eat, sleep, think, every moment of your day. I’m not saying you have to eat your breakfast in a poetic manner, hand held to your head, crying into your cornflakes. But look at are you eating healthily, are you exercising, are you taking care of yourself? And remind yourself that you do this because you want to be a writer.

See everything you do in terms of your writing. The Japanese novelist and short story writer Haruki Murakami runs marathons and sees the process as being similar to writing a novel. He runs marathons so that he has the energy and stamina to write novels. You don’t have to run marathons, but it’s a brilliant example of living to write.

Lack of Time and Money

Think about it. We are always told that time is money. But time is the only thing that once you have spent it, you can’t make more of. So be conscious of how you spend time, and check that you are spending as much as you can on your writing.

Write down everything that you do that doesn’t involve writing. Discard everything that’s irrelevant. Sometimes it means making tough decisions, ones you don’t want to make. But you have to. Too many writers complain that they don’t have time to write, but spend hours every day watching television.

On the other hand, most things will be indifferent. Things you cannot change, but that neither move you towards or away from your goal. Change that – align them so that they move you towards your goal. Or at the very least exploit the opportunities that they offer you for your writing.

You might not be able to change jobs or stop going to school, but you can at least write about all the horrible people there and use them as the basis for characters in your stories. You might have a headache or be really ill. Take notes.

Whatever your experience in life, it is your life. Things happen in your life that you won’t find reported on the news. “If a tree falls over in the woods and no-one was there to write a press release about it: it didn’t happen!” So what about you, who writes from your perspective? Who tells your stories? You do. You’re the only one who can, and you’re the only one who will.

How you Write:

You have to write – writers write, right? You learn to write by writing. It’s that simple. Look for opportunities to write – Dorothea Brande’s ‘Becoming a Writer’ is excellent on this. Here is a brief summary of the three main things that she advises:

1. Write Down Your Dreams

Keep a dream journal. Sleep with it. No girlfriend that I’ve ever had has been too keen on the idea of me sleeping with a notebook, so by all means keep it by the bed or under it. But get used to waking up, and going to it with whatever you have. Write down your dreams. Forget about trying to write them accurately, just try to write them as little stories.

2. Wake to Write

Wake up and before you do anything else, write something. Even if it is only for five minutes. Get up early if you have to, but make sure that you do it.

3. Write by Appointment

Set a time during the day when you will write. And no matter what happens, you must make that appointment and write for half an hour. If you’re in a meeting, excuse yourself and write in the toilet, if your with friends, turn one of them round and rest on them whilst you write, whatever. Just make sure that you write when the agreed time comes.

Overcome Fear

First Thought, Best Thought
– Allen Ginsberg

You are a genius all of the time
– Jack Kerouac

The first draft of everything is shit
– Ernest Hemingway

You have to write to overcome the biggest stumbling block to you being a writer. Not your homework, not your chores, not your responsibilities. You. Or more accurately, your fear. The three above writers have three different attitudes about writing. Take all of them on board when you write. Split yourself into two people. If you already have split personalities then give them jobs to do. The one who writes, and the one who edits.

When Writing, Write!

Quantity first, quality later. Send your inner editor out of the room. Write as though it is impossible to fail. If you don’t believe it, give yourself permission to write as though it is true for the next minute, five minutes, half an hour, whatever. Suspend your fear and disbelief for that time.

Just write words as they come out – don’t stop, don’t worry, don’t think. Just write. It doesn’t matter what, just write. It’s better than nothing. It’s better than just sitting there with your thoughts, just write. Don’t even look once you’ve done to see what you have written – just write, and put it aside. Go about your day – you have written, these pages are safe. Go about your day then with the knowledge that you have written SOMETHING!

Cluster and Write, Cluster and Write

A brilliant technique is to brainstorm or cluster and then write. Clustering is basically a brainstorming technique for writers. You do it just to get your brain working and keep your hands connected to your thoughts. Keep the lines of communication open. For information check out ‘Writing the Natural Way’ by Gabriele Rico and any of the books on brainstorming by Tony Buzan.

Keep Your Inner Editor Happy

Give your inner editor something to do other than pick away at you whilst you are writing. Negotiate times when you will sit down to edit, and times when it will just shut up and let you get on with it. Ask it to be the project manager for your writing, and to organise your life and writing projects for you.

Write and Review

Aside from your morning writes, which only have to be short, try and arrange to sit down with yourself and write part of your novel – write with a view to just getting the words out for that bit. And know that you will plan with yourself and negotiate with your inner editor to book an appointment later to come back and do something with it. You’re striving for balance – yin and yang, each has a seed of the other in it. Times when you just write, and times when you review what you have written.

What is your textual preference?!

If you don’t know what to write, think about what you love and hate in fiction. Be honest, what you really love – then that is a rough guide to what you veer towards. Also look at your morning pages, what form they take, what you are naturally inclined towards. You will be naturally inclined towards certain things, attracted by certain types of stories. That doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t experiment and try other things, do so by all means, but come back to what you are naturally inclined to and try that whenever you get stuck or lose your way.

Try Juggling

It takes as much energy to write one novel as it does to write two. Have another project to work on alongside your main project. Something that is the total opposite of what you are writing and taking seriously. Something fun and insane and that you don’t have to worry about whether it is good or not. When you are sick of one, write the other. This is how you rest – not stopping altogether.


You need not leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. You need not even listen, simply wait, just learn to become quiet, and still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet. – Franz Kafka

First Principles
To finish off, here are some basic principles of graffiti living to keep you going:

• rule number one: there are no rules
• rule number two: if you are still looking for rules, go back and read rule number one
• you learn to write by writing
• writers write, right?
• focus on what you really want as a writer, and you will find yourself subconsciously making decisions that move you towards that goal
• live in a way that supports your writing
• write in a way that supports your writing
• don’t confuse writing with editing
• where there’s a word, there’s a way
• whatever works, works
• it doesn’t have to mean, it just has to feel
• if in doubt, write it out
• risk everything
• write what you are afraid to write
• write what you are afraid to let people read
• the more you write, the more you’re right
• quantity first, quality later
• you can’t edit a blank page
• you already have all the resources that you need
• if you throw enough shit against a wall, eventually some of it will stick

Why are you still reading this? Get back to writing!


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