You’re busy. I’m busy. We’re all overwhelmed, stressed, and frustrated — and in this hurricane of life, our writing is often put last. The danger of living frenetic, connected lives is that our excuses become comforting. We don’t write because we can’t write. Our artistic existences become romantic fantasies; they always exist next month, next year, when we retire.
Try this: you need to write. You need to write because other people think you should shut up. Because your words need to be heard.
I’m not the best or final word on this subject, but like you, I’m busy — I have full- and part-time teaching positions and am the father of young twin girls. But at some point in my life I decided that I was going to write like hell. Here are 15 approaches toward writing and publishing that have worked for me. I hope they work for you — and that you find the best path for your own method.
1. You need to find the rhythm, structure, and freedom to write the work you want to create, and to do so on your own terms. You are no other writer: you are not the writers you love (although they might inspire you), and you are not the writers you went to school with or studied from. You must write work that you would love to read. If you don’t, your lines will lag and your sentences will slog. If you can’t be honest with your art, what hope is there?
2. Make a lot of lists. Lists force you to be linear, and give you the feeling of completion. You don’t need to only make lists about writing. Feel free to cheat a bit (yesterday, after I took out the garbage, I put it on my to-do list, and then crossed it off — small victories matter).
3. Don’t rush your writing. Give yourself time to settle. Read something first. When I was writing a lot of fiction and poetry, I read poems to get me in the mindset. Gerard Manley Hopkins and Traci Brimhall do the trick for me: they are atmospheric, transformative writers. Find yours.
4. Recognize that different genres require different feelings and methods. I tend to write poetry in the winter, fiction in the summer, essays year-round. I like to write poetry on a clipboard, fiction on my computer, and draft essays on my phone. Change your location, change your method, and see if that jumpstarts your work.
5. When you publish, don’t read the comments, and don’t read the tweets. Both are contrarian positions. Similarly, be careful to whom you show drafts. The desire for reaction is often premature. Let a story sit. Let a poem rest. Get to the point where you can trust your own eyes.
6. I once took a novel writing course that my professor said would stretch us to our limits. It did. I hated the draft of my novel: all that seemed to happen is that my characters would go on walks through the woods to a pond, fish, talk, and repeat. One night when my roommate probably wished I would go to sleep, I wrote my professor a long e-mail, and he responded the next morning with the single best writing advice that I ever received: “worrying isn’t work.” It’s not. Writers love to worry. We — it’s okay to admit it — are rather melodramatic. Worrying has never finished a paragraph or fixed a slow opening. You can worry away your writing life, or you can catch yourself the next time you start to worry, go for a walk, and replace those worries with work.
7. Frustration can be good for writing, as long as you can keep yourself healthy. I am a firm believer that writers need to be strong. Call it resilient, call it “demon-driven,” as William Faulkner says.
8. Be able to answer this question: What do you want to accomplish? Write it down twice: once in pencil, once in pen. Be open to change.
9. Trick yourself into writing. I’ve known more than a few writers who have spotless apartments and drawers of perfectly-folded laundry in the days leading up to a deadline. Even if we love to write, sometimes the thought of working through a difficult passage or resolving a complex scene feels like more work than the most tedious or boring activity. Don’t fight this quirk of human nature. Instead, what I’ve learned works is always give yourself two writing “projects” at once; the one you find laborious and difficult, and the one you really want to write. Then the decision is no longer between writing and washing dishes (they can wait another hour);
10. Take care of the people you love, and the people who love you. They are more important than your writing.
11. Restrictive daily writing goals sound enticing but are dangerous, like overly ambitious exercise plans — if you miss one or two it is easy to stop. Ernest Hemingway’s dictum to stop mid-sentence is a bit better, but also rather sadistic (would you stop a wonderful meal half-bite?). Some days are meant for writing; for pounding away pages until your fingertips are sore. Other days are meant for watching Netflix or eating ice cream or helping your brother sealcoat his driveway. Go for longer-term goals that allow, or even anticipate, daily failures. Be open to changing your goals.
12. If you want to publish, you need to hustle. You probably already know how to do this; you work several jobs, you do what you need to do in order to survive. Apply that passion to your art. If you’ve never hustled before, just talk to your parents or grandparents. Treat editors with respect. Listen to them, let them turn your drafts (they are never as good as you think they are, admit it) into stories that readers want. Essayists: you need to pitch. Actually, you need to love to pitch. Start thinking in pitches. Be concise, precise. Write three paragraphs: hook the reader with a story, explain the current significance of your idea, and then show why you are the best person to write this essay. Be kind, but be direct. Stop assuming editors will say “no” — and when they do, pitch elsewhere. No one is going to come find you and beg for your wonderful ideas. Get pitching.
13. If you ever stop loving this, stop doing it.
14. Take a blue-collar approach to writing. As a kid, I would find my father’s penciled sketches on napkins, the back of church bulletins, and my construction paper. He was always planning his next job (after his day job as a probation officer, he was a night carpenter). He was meticulous about planning and preparing. He would think and re-think different cuts and approaches. Each job was new. He had to earn each check. It is fine to write for yourself; it is a beautiful thing to keep a journal, to craft poems to capture your feelings. But if you are writing for the wider world, remember to give writing its due. You are asking other people to stop what they are otherwise doing — they have the same responsibilities, anxieties, and bills as you — and spend time with your words. Earn it. Bring them back.
15. Everyone has an opinion about what you should write. But you should only listen to this one: write whatever the hell you want. Write until your eyes cross and you need to take a break. Write because the world doesn’t care — write until the world does.
Image Credit: Pixabay.