This is how you write.
Because I’m a human and my mind is an asshole, I forget it every time.
This is how you write:
You just start.
While you marinate on that for a moment, here’s how you don’t write:
You don’t wait until you’re ready.
You don’t start only once the story is fully fledged.
You don’t begin after you’ve got it all figured out.
You just start writing.
But what if you start and have nothing to say? What if nothing comes out? The page stays blank? The well’s run dry? Nothin’ doin’?
Remember these tools:
- Answer a question.
Are you sitting with a burning question? Is it a question other people are sitting with too? Maybe it’s something you’re frequently asked. Help someone out. Help yourself out. It doesn’t even matter which question. Just pick one. Even if you don’t know how to answer it, you’ll get closer in trying. It’s like what E.L. Doctorow said: “Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.”
- Write to one person.
Stephen King says write to your Ideal Reader. Aim at everybody you’ll hit nobody. You’ll be less focused than a puppy in a flurry of tennis balls. Is it any coincidence that some of history’s longest enduring tomes are letters to a single person? Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. Seneca’s Letters to a Stoic. Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son. Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations to himself. (If you’re struggling with this one, crack open your email and compose a new message. Put one person in the To: box. Start writing. Or maybe you’ve already written it. Check your sent folder.)
- Shitty first drafts!
Anne Lamott, thank you for this one you wonderful soul. When you do start to write, what you write might stink. Luckily, as a writer, you’re also in the business of polishing turds. You’ll get better at polishing turds as you go. The turds may even get less turd-like. But they’ll almost always need polishing. You can polish whatever comes out. First: get it out.
- Grab hold of inspiration when it strikes.
Trust that trusty gut of yours. Sometimes inspiration will strike, and when it does, wrangle it down from the ether and plop it somewhere. Examine what you’ve caught. Almost every “success” you’ve enjoyed started with a curious fleeting whisper. Capture and listen to it.
- But don’t wait for inspiration to strike.
It’s a trap! Remember how William Faulkner replied when asked whether he writes on inspiration or on a schedule: “Well, of course I write on inspiration. Fortunately, it strikes every morning at a quarter past nine.” Elizabeth Gilbert said something similar. Do your bit, even when you’re not inspired. Especially when you’re not inspired. Strangely it’s the quickest route to becoming inspired.
- Show your insides.
You’re a human. Remember to act like one. Pluck your own heart strings. They sound a lot like everyone else’s. It’ll strike a sweet chord. Promise.
- Educational. Inspirational. Entertaining.
Two out of three is good. Bonus points if you can hit all three. Create some joy. Relieve some pain. Shine some light. Give ’em hope.
- Take us on a journey.
We want to be taken for a ride. We want conflict. We want conflict resolved. We want to know how it ends. We want a story. Thread it together. Complete the circle.
- Remember the headlights at night analogy.
“It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” (Turns out E.L. Doctorow has some great quotes on writing.) This sounds eerily like just start writing.
“Okay mister writey pants. Why should I listen to you?”
Good question. After all, I am just an Ohio-born engineer-schooled corporate-escapee who stumbled his way into this writing thing. Aside from a few viral blog posts and a humble following, I’m not a real author. I don’t have any books. I’m a fraud. A phoney. A fake. You caught me.
Now would be a good time to mention The Voices. I forgot about The Voices. Your asshole mind is gonna fashion a whole lotta voices.
This sucks. You suck. Nobody cares. Who do you think you are?
So… 10. Mind The Voices.
I’d tell you to ignore them, or not to listen, or to knock ’em dead, but that’s unhelpful advice and an impossible task. So just be mindful of them. They’ll show up like clockwork to chime in. Keep them snug at your hip and keep chugging along. Maybe mock them back in a funny voice or thank them for trying to keep you safe (and consequently, quiet and small). Or pretend like you’re on their side. Point and laugh hysterically at yourself with them.
Then finish your goddamn sentence while they’re busy wiping their eyes.
Your life is defined by what you do (or don’t do) when you hear The Voices.
And I hope you’ll write.
This is a letter to myself. I hope you find it useful too.
UPDATE August 2016: The good people at Visme created an infographic based on this article. Feel free to download and share.