A lot of people have asked me about writing recently, especially how to make time for it and what it takes to write a book. I genuinely enjoy writing, and always have since I was a child. So I always processed my thoughts first through writing, and then through other things. (I used to make up plays and songs, and always set up stages as a kid… I’m not sure where this performing part of me went but I did try being in two bands when I was in my 20s.)
Anyhow, writing for me is a second nature. But there is a difference between writing spontaneously and writing in a more disciplined way. And I think the disciplined part is what people want to know about. It’s not easy. There is something about writing that seems inherently solipsistic; when you sit down to do it you have to get past all the thoughts in your head that say, “I have to be doing something else right now” or “someone else needs me”. No one else can do it for you, and you have to be alone to do it.
Usually when I sit down to write, the first ten minutes to an hour are filled with every thought but the thing I want to be writing about. I have sat in front of my computer just staring for as much as an hour, maybe typing one word, erasing it, and typing again. The dreaded writer’s block.
But there is way too much made of the “muse striking” sort of thing. I’ve known very few people who have a full, inspired picture of an entire poem, essay, song, book or story before they start. They may have the basic theme or plot, but the actual style, words and quality of thought are just plain old work, involving risk at the sound of your own voice plodding along as it reaches out in writing.
It does help to start by doing some heuristic writing exercises or by reading something you admire. That can get your thoughts rolling. From my own experience, usually the first six paragraphs end up in the garbage but they are important because they start you thinking in the direction you want to write.
But so far, my advice goes something like this:
1. Give yourself at least one hour once a week. If I know I’m going to be writing, I give myself four hours. I have made the time to do it in my life. I usually set aside Mondays. They are quiet, there aren’t a lot of other distractions, and we have a pretty strict principle of not doing business on Mondays. So that frees me up from thinking about all the “stuff” I have to do.
2. Most people hate what they wrote yesterday. Save it anyway. If you come back to it in two weeks or two years you might like it and discover you actually were onto something. In fact, save all your drafts. I have notebooks and notebooks full of drafts. The big problem with computers is that we can copy and erase everything with one click so print as you go.
3. Writing a long piece or a book is different than blogging. A lot of really good writers blog, but there because blogging has such an immediacy, and is made for spontaneous thoughts, setting aside time to write longer pieces should have a separate category in your mind. When I know I’m blogging, I let a lot of things go that I don’t when I’m working on a poem or essay. When I’m doing the latter, I am ruthless about style and form.
4. Write now, edit later. This is related to point #2. I sometimes edit as I go, but usually that ends up becoming really self-critical and I end up messing things up a lot. Most writers are intensely self-critical. Anne Lamott has a super-funny way of talking about this in her book on writing, Bird by Bird. It’s a great read.
5. Most writers have some kind of recording system to put down ideas as they go. A tape recorder, a camera, a notebook–anything to cement some image or idea that you want to write about later.
These are all just little suggestions but for those of you who are thinking about writing a book, it is not impossible. Most of you will struggle with some huge block at one point or another, and definitely will struggle with the “this thing totally sucks and I’m going to throw it out”. Whether you are writing something highly scholarly and intellectual, or a personal piece, or fiction, your work will always feel extremely vulnerable. The whole act of putting something down on paper (or computer screen) is a vulnerable one. It is your voice and your style and your way of expressing things.
Yes, people will read it, and they will think about what you are thinking about. That is the obstacle in the road for most writers. I have known people who 1. threw their entire manuscript away, 2. rewrote the entire thing before letting people read the first draft, 3. over-edit or under-edit what they wrote, 4. got halfway through a book but then stopped for years, and 5. only wrote when they felt like God was dictating: and all because of a fear that others will read what they wrote and not like it. Or because their style didn’t sound like so and so’s, etc. It’s all about the ego, friends. You feel egotistical for writing, you feel egotistical for thinking perhaps you have something to write, and you feel insecure (i.e., egotistical) about the value of what you wrote. You don’t need to write your opus magnus on the first try.
The whole reason we read is that we LOVE what others are thinking about, and I love to read styles that I know are not my own. I know those writers took a risk. I have come to the place where I know my writing is a gift, and while I do not have the corner on the market of all the thoughts in the world, my thoughts do matter. I am ruthless about believing that my personal voice matters, although it did take me awhile to believe that. Yes, at times my thoughts are immature. What I was thinking about four years ago is not what I am thinking about today. But by the time you finish a book, you will certainly already be onto some future and more grown-up thought.
Every writer has to let the things he was thinking about four years ago be important now–or no one would get anything published. We live far too much in an age of immediate information, new information, but there are people that are starving for what you wrote last year. So, on to writing… just do it. And do it in your style.