Writing Tips to Spare You a Little Agony

When I was eight, I fell in love with a little diary. It had a pastel plastic cover, a miniature padlock and keys, and four different colors of lined paper. I convinced my mother to buy it (not very difficult, since she is to blame for my stationery fixation), brought it home, and began scribbling immediately. I cannot divulge the contents of those first sentences — too stupid — but since that day, I have written any chance I could. It is my default activity, like nail-biting, but with pen and paper. When I don’t do it, I rapidly devolve into a person no one wants to be around.

Discovering that diary taught me that getting things down on paper helps to arrange my thoughts and dreams. It is a physical sensation I cannot do without. For years, though, I never thought of it as writing. No, writing was what you had to do for school assignments, and it was my definition of hell. I wonder how I made it through my academic career, because from start to finish, every composition felt like a dip in scalding brimstone.

Or almost. From time to time, in the middle of some soul-gashing book report or the purgatory of an essay, I would come up with a sentence that shot me full of euphoria. I was the kind of child who takes aim at the kickball, trips over it, and falls flat on her face, so those seconds of ecstasy, however fleeting, afforded me a sensation of prowess and mastery I experienced nowhere else. Still, it did not occur to me until I was an adult that the pleasant hours I spent with my diary and the wrenching ones in which I bled out school assignments were the same thing.

The two seemed so horribly distant from one another, when I was living on Granny Smith apples, York Peppermint Patties, and stale coffee, cowering before my computer and a looming deadline. It took me years to connect them. I’m not sure those years were avoidable for me, but I do wish I’d known a few things from the beginning, and in the hopes I can spare even just one writer from a couple of minutes of agony, here they are.

First, find your ecstasy. Identify whatever aspect of writing is irresistibly appealing to you. When I was eight it was turning my teeny key in that diary’s little lock. Now it is a Waterman fountain pen with black ink and a specific type of lined notebook (not pastel). I will do anything to write with that damn pen, but of course not everyone gets worked up at the thought of steel nibs and cartridges. My college boyfriend used to write in a rickety beach lounger with an ergonomic mouse taped to a ruler that was strapped to the armrest, around which he had built a structure of scrap lumber that held his computer keyboard. I think he had to use a screwdriver to extract himself from this setup whenever he needed to go to the bathroom, but that’s what made him happy, and that’s the point. When you feel good, you want to do more.

And that matters a lot because you also have to accept the pain. Sometimes writing feels scary or intimidating, or just plain hard. “Too much like work,” as my dad liked to say. But what deep and rewarding thing doesn’t? When I was pregnant, my midwife introduced me to the idea of “productive pain,” which is what you’re aiming for in labor, where it’s okay that it hurts, and you know it won’t always hurt, and that the hurting won’t kill you. Now you and I both know that this labor/writing comparison has a limit, and that limit is called an epidural. I’m sorry to report that there is no equivalent in writing. You just have to tough it out. And toughing it out means…

Nothing. Literally. That’s the hardest part of beginning: You start from emptiness. If you’re like me, and your definition of productiveness includes tearing through the day crossing lines off to-do lists, that can feel like hell. But take it from one who knows and put that list down right now. Inch back over to your ecstasy. Go for a walk. Listen to music. Paint with watercolors. Do the thing that’s unproductive. Do the thing that helps to still your mind, because then the words will come. Consider them from the quiet you have allowed to unfurl inside you. After a while, you will notice a few things you could write down. Start there. And keep going. Don’t judge them right away.

Because listen, some of the things you write will be crap. Some of the things you write will be moved, reworked, or thrown away. Some of the things you write will be shelved for later. Some of the things you write will be wonderful, and some will be wrong. The problem is, you can’t tell them apart until after you have gone to the trouble of writing them all down. So go ahead and start. You can fix it later. You will have to, in fact. But for now, just hold still (ugh, I know) and stay that way until you have written it all down.

And don’t stop until you’ve reached what I call the medical minimum.The medical minimum is tiny. It is deliberately unambitious. It is what you KNOW you can achieve. Mine changes: sometimes it’s two inches of text; sometimes it’s ten minutes on a wind-up alarm clock with a chicken whose head moves up and down to count the seconds. Trust me, ten minutes is long. But not too long. (Not for me, at least — if you need five, take five. It’s not a contest.) Just power through your minimum, whatever it is, and then, if you need to, stop, go give yourself a treat and come back. Remember, when you feel good, you want to do more. And you will need that because right now, as soon as you’re done with your treat (or tomorrow, or next Thursday, or in a year, depending on your schedule), you’re going to start all over again.

That, my friend, is the real secret to writing. You’ve got to know — and sometimes trust — that you will start again.

On bad days, that’s a gift.

On good days, it’s also a gift.

The art of writing is an art of second, third, and fortieth tries. The people who finish books all have one thing in common, with no exceptions: every single one of them has learned how to begin again.

So get to it! Find your ecstasy, put up with the pain, accept the nothingness, and write down whatever you find there. And above all, remember: the sooner you start, the sooner you can begin again.

Miranda Richmond Mouillot is the author of The Fifty Year Silence, an account of Miranda’s journey to find out what happened between her grandmother, a physician, and her grandfather, an interpreter at the Nuremberg Trials, who refused to utter his wife’s name aloud after she left him.

This article originally appeared on Signature.

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