Category Archives: General Writing Tips

Where to start?

I sit with a battered old laptop in my lap. It is still missing the keyboard cover for the letter C from the time the cat walked across it and took pieces with him. I type on the stub of the C, but a C still comes out, and I no longer notice the problem, just as I no longer notice the coffee stains that will probably never come out of the white surface of my elderly MacBook. Nor do I notice the chipped edges where plastic has started crumbling away. After so many times of being dropped on the floor and surviving, I suppose anyone’s edges would start to crumble a little. This Mac is an old friend. I bought it in 2009. I can already see 2015 peeking around the corner, and the two of us are still going strong. We understand each other by now, and even if I could scrape up the money for a new MacBook, I would miss this one. The two of us have been through a lot of drafts and projects and editing sessions and fabulous-wonderful-amazing brainstorming sessions in which we believed we were about to set our lives on fire. I think we probably did get the MacBook’s backside a little overheated on those occasions.

Still, I sit here looking at a mostly blank screen in front of me, wondering what to do with it. I want to talk to student writers and aspiring writers about how to be good writers. I know that some of this is about mechanics and some is about style. Some of it is about skill and creativity, but probably not as much as people think. As a writing teacher, something I hear often is “I don’t know how you teach that. You can’t really teach people creativity.” I don’t agree. Maybe that’s the reason I’m the one teaching the class. Everyone has creative potential. What I teach is how to access and shape what is already inside.

Even so, only part of what it takes to be a writer is about creativity. The world is full of people with fabulous-wonderful-amazing ideas who have never seen them through. The world is full of people with MFAs in fiction writing who have never finished that novel that has been kicking around in the back of the head for the past two decades. Okay, granted, the MFA population is a little smaller than the general population of wannabe writers who just can’t seem to get where they want to be, but they are out there.

Here’s the secret that everyone who finishes writing projects knows. Most of the work of writing is about managing yourself–managing your emotions, your moods, your time, your focus, your interest levels, your sense of balance between life and work and obligation and art. Some people have a lot of talent, but they don’t have the emotional skills to be writers on a long-term basis. They have weekend flings from time to time with writing, but they never manage to reach the relationship stage with their writing lives of moving in together and setting up a housekeeping routine.

Here’s another secret. The advice that is true for beginning writers is the same advice that is true for advanced writers. The advanced writers just need the advice more.

All of that brings us back to the question of where to start, and I think of Anne Lamott’s book on writing, Bird-by-Bird, in which she gives two of the best pieces of advice on how to start writing:

  • Give yourself short assignments.
  • Write shitty first drafts.

The French philosopher Voltaire said “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” and here we meet one of our major emotional hurdles to writing. People talk about writer’s block, but writer’s block as a condition in which otherwise healthy people are literally unable to sit down to write does not exist. What exists is a series of insecurity obstacles that every writer at every level battles on a daily basis if writing is to actually happen. Inspiration to write doesn’t just magically appear. It is created in the act of battling past all of the emotional obstacles we’ve put in our own way. It is created by sitting down to do the job of writing regardless of our current state of motivation or lack thereof.

Inspiration is created by sitting down to write a shitty first draft. It is created by cutting deals with ourselves that if we just do something, if we just sit down and get started, if we just write something short and manageable, then we will be allowed to run off screaming that we can’t do it and drown our sorrows in the latest flavor of Ben & Jerry’s that only yesterday we probably scoffed at in the grocery store as we sought out a little “brain food” for motivation’s sake. Even though we don’t truly know what brain food is, we probably think we need it before we can get started, but this is just another lie we tell ourselves to cover up for the fact that we are scared.

All writers bring their insecurities to the task at hand. Even people who have won Nobel Prizes don’t know whether they can write another book that lives up to the last one until they sit down and get the job done. The only difference in the level of insecurity that an advanced writer brings to the job as opposed to a beginning writer is that the advanced writer has more experience pushing past the emotional obstacles in the way. That doesn’t mean those obstacles are any smaller. In fact, they might be larger. The advanced writer also knows a lot more about all of the ways the writing project might fall apart.

The point is that no matter who you are or where you are in the process, you are not alone.

Ultimately, though, if you want to be a writer, you are going to have to sit down to write. When you do so, it will help if you take Anne Lamott’s advice.

  • Give yourself short assignments.
  • Write shitty first drafts.

That’s where everyone has to start.