So here you are, stuck inside – if you’re a person of conscience anyhow – for the foreseeable future. And while it’s a perfect time to tackle your to-read pile, or catch up on your binge-watching, maybe you’ve been thinking about starting that novel or memoir or other big writing project you’ve wanted to do for so long. To which I say hell yeah, go on with your bad self, let’s do this thing!
But maybe you’re not sure exactly how. You’ve got the passion. You’ve got the idea. But you haven’t ever had the chance to sit down and do the thing. You know it’s probably not like in the movies – it isn’t – but knowing what it’s not is only so helpful when you need to know what it is. ‘It’ being the kind of writing practice that can get a big project done. Because if you’re relying on flashes of inspiration and feverishly scribbling in a notebook til all hours of the morning to get you there, well, best of luck to you, cuz that never worked for me.
You may be asking yourself right now: ‘I’ve never heard of this guy. Who the hell’s he think he is?’ The answer is: no one of consequence. But I have written like three million words in the last fifteen or twenty years, and continue to write almost every day without much in the way of outside validation.
Now, one thing I can’t teach you is how to write. That’s something that can be learned, but not taught. What I can teach you is how – for lack of a better term – to writer. And yeah, I know, ‘writer’ is a noun. But it’s also, as we’ll see, a verb. And it’s the verb that makes the noun, not the other way around.
The key thing is to establish a writing practice, by which I mean an ongoing routine, integrated into your daily life, like going to the gym or to work. It means finding time – and space – to do your work, and keeping at it consistently.
Let’s break that down:
First, if you can, find or make a dedicated workspace for your writing. It doesn’t have to only be for writing – I am at my kitchen table, right now, because our house is small and that’s the space I have – but it’s good, in my experience to have a particular place you go to to work. Much of what I have to teach here amounts to self-programming, building chains of association and habit in your mind that will prompt your writing brain to kick in when you sit down at keyboard or note-pad.
For that same reason, it’s also good, if you can, to set aside a specific, regular time that you write. Lots of people will tell you first thing in the morning is best. Others will say late at night, when the day’s work and worries are done. Myself I tend to be most productive in the mornings, but the takeaway here is not that you need to write in the morning so much as it’s good to write around the same time every day, or every day you’re able to write. It helps prime your mind, teaches it that this is what you do this time of day, and it will, sooner than later, learn to grab its shovel and headlamp and descend once more into the word-mines to dig up today’s nuggets of gold and/or shit.
For now, especially while establishing your practice, there is no functional difference between shit and gold, by the way. You will also, for various reasons, sometimes think shit is gold and gold is shit.
Now for me, I like to strengthen those chains of association with the music I listen to while I write. By which I mean I have a writing playlist, which evolves over time, but which I listen to consistently and in the same order every time. It’s just as useful to have some ritual (Stephen Pressfield, author of the War of Art, which you probably ought to read, likes to read the invocation at the beginning of the Odyssey) or other that you do, no matter how simple or even what it is. It’s the ritual that’s key, the thing that signals passage from one kind of time to another, in this case not-writing time to writing time.
It’s important to remember: none of this is magic. It’s training and discipline, programming your brain to devote unconscious resources to the problem of turning the nebulous inchoate desire/idea/intuition into something that will move someone reading it, cause things to happen in their brain such that they, too, can begin to grasp this thing you’re reaching after. Okay, so maybe it is magic. But it takes a fuck-ton of practice to say abracadabra right.
Okay, so we’ve made time and space. We’ve got some ritual or trigger to activate our writer brain, and we’re ready to actually, you know, write. So what about that?
I said before I can’t teach you how to write, and that’s true. But that doesn’t mean I can’t help you teach yourself. So here are a few things I’ve picked up along the way, that have proved useful in my own writing practice.
Hemingway famously said ‘Write drunk, edit sober’, which is pretty on-brand for such a famously alcoholic person. But his formulation is actually pretty useful, because writing and editing are two totally different things. It’s like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, in which you can know either a particle’s position or velocity but never both at once and, in practice, the more you know about one, the less you know about the other. It’s the same with writing and editing. Put it this way, you can create or you can judge. Trying to do both at once is a recipe for failure.
I’m going to set aside editing, because that’s a whole other thing that comes way later in the process, and has no place here, where we’re establishing a practice and finding our way to the end of a shitty first draft.
Yes, your first draft will be shitty. Accept it. Embrace it. It’s what first drafts are for.
Put it this way: it’s easier to fix something that’s broken but already exists than it is to conjure it up in the first place. And that’s what you’re doing, right? You’re conjuring something into existence that wasn’t there before. Even if there are other things like it, that you made it makes it different from what anyone else can make. So give yourself, and your draft, a break. You can get all judge-y later, when it might do you some good.
Should you outline? Probably. I almost never do, and when I do, it never makes it onto the page how I meant it to. But it’s a good exercise, and it can save you some time if you’re the sort of person who sticks to plans that they make. Me, I’m more of a headlights writer, in which metaphor the draft is a journey by car, driven at night: you never see farther than the headlights, even if you know which roads you plan to take and where you’re ultimately trying to get to. It may or may not be the best, most efficient way, but you’ll get where you’re going, and you might find some things along the way you’d have missed if you’re too stuck on keeping to your itinerary. Still, outlines can be useful, even if you outline as you go. Planning the next night’s leg, in this metaphor.
What if you get stuck? Unlike a road trip, you can totally skip these parts, and come back to them later, either during the first draft or later, when editing or revising. I’m not much for it, myself, but I know lots of writers better and more successful than I am who won’t think twice about writing “[insert awesome swordfight/space battle/conversation about feelings here]” and move on to whatever’s next. In fact, you don’t have to do the whole thing in order at all if you don’t want to. I mean, I do, but the purpose here isn’t to turn you into me, but to take what I’ve learned to help you find your own journey to the end of the draft.
Another thing you can try if you’re stuck is to switch your method. Writing longhand? Switch to keyboard. Tapping away at the laptop? Bust out pen and paper. The two use different parts of your brain and sometimes you can get yourself unstuck by switching which part you’re using to try and solve the problem.
If all else fails, take a walk. Even if the solution to your problem doesn’t come to you, it’s good to get outside and get some exercise.
One thing, though, and I can’t stress this enough. Even if you hate what you’re writing, and intend never to show it to another living soul, try and get all the way to the end before you go back and try and fix things. Yes, there are writers who do edit as they go, but we can’t all be William Gibson, however much we might wish we wrote Neuromancer. He’s also been practicing since then, so…
Believe me, I know it can be hard. But it really is best to write one draft at a time if you can, in my experience.
So what about inspiration? Where do the words and ideas and stories come from? The answer is mostly ineffable. But let’s see if we can’t eff it just a bit.
The usefullest way to think about this I’ve found comes from Kate Wilhelm’s book Storyteller, about the founding and early years of the Clarion Writers Workshop (which I attended in 2010 and highly recommend, but that’s a whole different post, and not all of it’s about writing). In it, she talks about what she called her Silent Partner (her real-life partner, Damon Knight, called his Fred). Your Silent Partner lives in your unconscious brain, which I’m convinced is about ninety percent of you, and is where that canard that people only use 10% of their brains comes from. You can’t speak to one another directly, but you can send messages across the transom, and receive insight and inspiration in return. Training your Silent Partner what to work on and when, and yourself to ask the right questions and listen close for the answers, is what I was on about earlier, when I urged you to set up a consistent writing practice.
I call mine the Tinkerer. He has a giant workshop full of half-finished projects (not all of them having to do with writing, either) and is easily distracted. If I don’t keep the work orders coming, he’s really good at wandering off and thinking about things like how to build and run a socialist restaurant, or how life might have turned out if I was smart enough to date that one woman in college, or whether I ought to start an online magazine in my roughly zero hours of spare time. And of course I let him, when it’s not time to work on my novel, because he deserves to have some joy, too, and there are only so many hours I can write before I turn cross-eyed and things get weird.
I do my best to keep him fed and happy. I read, I exercise, I stare into space for minutes on end, letting him put on his conductor hat and play with his train-of-thought set. Most of all I take him seriously – I take my work seriously – and in return he keeps whispering more crazy and awesome shit in my inner ear than I could ever get on paper.
I know, things got a little woo-woo there at the end. What can I say? As pragmatic a person as I am, and as much of the practice I’m trying to teach you is programmatic, even mechanical, at the end of the day, creation and creativity remain ineffable, part of the spark – be it magic, divine, or just random chance – that makes us want to take that nebulous inchoate something inside ourselves and wrestle it into a form others can understand.
If you want to do that, you can, but it takes practice, and discipline, and faith.
That’s how I writer, anyway.