Films would have people believe that we writers are reclusive, brooding creatures, feverishly scribbling with ink-stained fingers by candlelight, dashing off masterpieces in a burst of inspiration as our Muse sings softly in one ear and her sister strokes a harp in the other.
I know friends have found my life very Hemingway and romantic, the expat writer crafting stories in foreign cafes when I’m not at my typewriter up in a garret or a turret or something...when, in reality, I’m most often in my flat at the computer, wearing yoga pants—maybe a sock-monkey hat—squished into the tiny second bedroom that also triples as my office and my husband’s closet. Writing is my work, so sometimes I just have to do what it takes to git ’er done. No frills.
Never mind getting published and marketing books after the fact—the writing and revising alone is work. All of it.
And that does psyche a lot of people out. Understandably so! What’s more intimidating than staring down a blank computer screen or sheet of paper?
But whenever I’m asked for advice on how to start writing, my response is pretty basic: “Start writing.” The only way to do it is to, you know, actually do it. You can’t sculpt anything without the clay. There’s nothing to polish and perfect without a first draft. A really rough, rambling, rookie first draft. That’s what you cut your teeth on.
So, just write. Write about everything; write about nothing. Watch people and things; observe behavior and sensory detail. And when you first write something down about it, don’t put the pressure on yourself to make it perfect. That all comes in due time. For now, just let go.
Getting in the habit of writing a little something every day warms you up and gets you into a groove. Stretching and flexing your creative muscles is just like exercising—the more you do it, the more energized you feel and the more you want to do it and inhibitions drop away.
I’ll admit it: My own process isn’t pretty. (Definitely not any prettier than me in a sock-monkey hat.) My creative process is messy and mental and just plain mean to me sometimes. Because all of my stories originate from a very scattered place: my brain. And the only way to get them out of my head is to kick up a windstorm in there and blow the ideas out onto paper.
And I do mean paper. I write my manuscripts on the computer, I do, but they always start as pen-to-paper. I don’t know why, but something about the physical act of handwriting dislodges ideas in a way that typing at the computer does not. And, honestly, I don’t even try to be organized about it—as soon as I have the bud of an idea, I go all-out brainstorming—writing any and all thoughts that come to mind onto any and all scraps of paper I can find—so then I can eventually look back at them from a bird’s-eye view and begin connecting the dots.
From there, I tidy it all into an outline. Granted, nothing neatly divided into tiers of A, B, C, 1, 2, 3 like I used to teach my students for five-paragraph essays. They’re more like back-of-the-envelope bullet points, but guidance nonetheless. Just enough to give me a sense of the story’s shape and direction without confining my creativity.
It’s definitely different for everyone, but I personally need to allow for some organic flow, balancing structure with spontaneity. I wouldn’t enjoy the writing process nearly as much if I plotted everything meticulously in advance. That gives me the breathing room I need to change my mind if I end up wanting to head somewhere else.
It also allows for those odd-and-wonderful moments of pure writing magic, when it’s almost like the characters are whispering the next scenes in your ear. As if the story already exists on some level, independent of you, but you’ve been chosen to tell it. When this happens, it’s a little haunting but so amazing. When, truly and almost inexplicably inspired, you just write without knowing where it’s going and end up creating something better than it ever would’ve been if you’d thought about it too hard.
Those are the moments when writing feels easy. But since you can’t force the magic, you need to enforce the method.
Ultimately, you need to find the method that works best for you, and surely your process will evolve with experience, just as mine continues to. But even setting our own expectations requires discipline as we make time for our writing and revise it until it becomes the best version of itself.
I wish I could say that I write every day, but I don’t. At least not creatively. Otherwise, sure, I’m writing. I write emails or text messages or social media posts (or keynote speeches). But creatively, some days I just don’t feel it. The story goes quiet and the characters don’t speak to me.
Those are discouraging times, and I always feel guilty. Because we can’t just sit around and wait for inspiration. We need to try to show up on the page in some way.
Sometimes I do so by revising what I’ve already written. Or, I take to pen and paper again to brainstorm. Or I don’t write anything at all but still think through my plots and characters away from the computer. I’ve had some great revelations hit me while I’m shampooing my hair in the morning or falling asleep at night. I’ve even gotten pages of material just from walking through the old Victorian cemetery near my flat and reading the gravestones.
So, whatever works. Go for a walk. Ride your bike. Sketch or color some pictures. Just because you’re not literally writing doesn’t mean you aren’t still “writing” in your mind—just as long as you do at some point jot down your thoughts before you forget them. Even writing just five minutes a day is better than none. You wouldn’t train for a marathon by running twenty miles your first day. You start small and do what you can to show up on the page.
Still, at those honest-to-goodness times when I feel too tapped out to create anything—well, then I show up on someone else’s page.
I sincerely believe we cannot be good writers unless we’re good readers. Every time we read, it’s an investment in our writing. On one level, we can observe how other writers structure and develop their work and craft their language. On another level, we can simply lose ourselves in the experience of someone else’s written world, rediscover the joy to be found in words and imagination to remind us why we’re writing our own pieces and recharge us for when we’re ready to return to them.
Because, why do we write? Why should we?
I'll explore that next in Part 4 of this keynote series...