Now when people tell me they’re desperate to write a book, I tell them about Edgar’s sign- in sheet. I tell them to give this great dream that is burning them down like a house on fire one lousy hour a day for one measly month, and when they’ve done that—one month, every single day—to call me back and we’ll talk. They almost never call back. Do you want to do this thing? Sit down and do it. Are you not writing? Keep sitting there. Does it not feel right? Keep sitting there. Think of yourself as a monk walking the path to enlightenment. Think of yourself as a high school senior wanting to be a neurosurgeon. Is it possible? Yes. Is there some shortcut? Not one I’ve found. Writing is a miserable, awful business. Stay with it. It is better than anything in the world.
As much as I love doing research, I also know that it provides a spectacular place to hide. It’s easy to convince myself that I can’t start to write my book until I’ve read ten other books, or gone ten other places, and the next thing I know a year has gone by. To combat this, I try to conduct my research after I’ve started writing, or sometimes even after I’ve finished, using it to go back and correct my mistakes.
Conducting research, which had never even occurred to me might be part of writing when I was young, has turned out to be the greatest perk of the job.
I have never subscribed to the notion of writing what you know, at least not for myself. I don’t know enough interesting things. I began to see research as both a means of writing more interesting novels and a way to improve my own education. Case in point: I didn’t know a thing about opera, and so I figured that writing about an opera singer would force me to learn.
One method of revision that I find both loathsome and indispensable is reading my work aloud when I’m finished. There are things I can hear—the repetition of words, a particularly flat sentence—that I don’t otherwise catch.
Do you really want to write? Sit for two hours a day. During that time, you don’t have to write, but you must stay at your desk without distraction: no phone, no Internet, no books. Sit. Still. Quietly. Do this for a week, for two weeks. Do not nap or check your e-mail. Keep on sitting for as long as you remain interested in writing. Sooner or later you will write because you will no longer be able to stand not writing—or you’ll get up and turn the television on because you will no longer be able to stand all the sitting. Either way, you’ll have your answer.
I have a habit of ranking everything in my life that needs doing. The thing I least want to do is number one on the list, and that is almost always writing fiction. The second thing on the list may be calling Verizon to dispute a charge on my bill, or cleaning the oven. Below that, there is mail to answer, an article to write for a newspaper in Australia about the five most influential books in my life and why. What this means is that I will zoom through a whole host of unpleasant tasks in an attempt to avoid item number one —writing fiction. (I admit this is complicated, that I can simultaneously profess to love writing and to hate it, but if you’ve read this far you must be pretty interested in writing yourself, and if you are, well, you know what I’m talking about.)
Even if I don’t believe in writer’s block, I certainly believe in procrastination. Writing can be frustrating and demoralizing, and so it’s only natural that we try to put it off. But don’t give “putting it off” a magic label. Writer’s block is something out of our control, like a blocked kidney—we are not responsible. We are, however, entirely responsible for procrastination, and in the best of all possible worlds, we should also be responsible for being honest with ourselves about what is really going on.
[...] as far as I’m concerned, writer’s block is a myth.
What I like about the job of being a novelist, and at the same time what I find so exhausting about it, is that it’s the closest thing to being God that you’re ever going to get.
You learn things about characters as you write them, so even if you think you know
where things are heading, don’t set it in stone; you might change your mind. You have to let the action progress the way it must, not the way you want it to.
[...] do your best to write it in the order in which it will be read, because it will make the writing, and the later editing, incalculably easier.
Chapters are like the foot pedals on a piano; they give you another level of control. Short chapters can speed the book along, while long chapters can deepen intensity. Tiny chapters—a lone paragraph or a single sentence—can be irritatingly cute.
If you wind up boring yourself, you can pretty much bank on the fact that you’re going to bore your reader.
I made a pledge that I wouldn’t start the sexy new novel I imagined until I had finished the tired old warhorse I was dragging myself through at present. Keeping that pledge has always served me well. The part of my brain that makes art and the part that judges that art had to be separated. While I was writing, I was not allowed to judge. That was the law.
[...] what I’ve realized over the years is that every new idea eventually becomes the old idea.
[...] not writing things down, especially in the early stages of thinking them through, does cause me to concentrate more deeply and not become overly committed to anything that isn’t firmly in place.
NO MATTER WHAT you’re writing—story, novel, poem, essay—the first thing you’re going to need is an idea. As I said earlier, don’t make this the intimidating part. Ideas are everywhere. Lift up a big rock and look under it, stare into a window of a house you drive past and dream about what’s going on inside. Read the newspaper, ask your father about his sister, think of something that happened to you or someone you know and then think about it turning out an entirely different way. Make up two characters and put them in a room together and see what happens. Sometimes it starts with a person, a place, a voice, an event. For some writers it’s always the same point of entry; for me it’s never the same. If I’m really stuck, nothing helps like looking through a book of photography. Open it up, look at a picture, make up a story.
I’ve often wished there had been a way for me to teach before being a
student—Teaching made me so much better at studying.
An essential element of being a writer is learning whom to listen to and whom to ignore where your work is concerned.
Based on my own experience, I believe the brain is as soft and malleable as bread dough when we’re young. I am grateful for every class trip to the symphony I went on and curse any night I was allowed to watch The Brady Bunch, because all of it stuck. Conversely, I am now capable of forgetting entire novels that I’ve read, and I’ve been influenced not at all by books I passionately love and would kill to be influenced by. Think about this before you let your child have a Game Boy.
I think that what influences us in literature comes less from what we love and more from what we happen to pick up in moments when we are especially
You don’t step out of the stream of your life to do your work. Work was the life, and who you were as a mother, teacher, friend, citizen, activist, and artist was all the same person.
Grace wanted us to be better people than we were, and she knew that the chances of our becoming real writers depended on it. Instead of telling us what to do, she showed us. Human rights violations were more important than fiction. Giving your full attention to a person who is suffering was bigger than marking up a story, bigger than writing a story.
I believe that, more than anything else, this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.
What begins as something like a dream will in fact stay a dream forever unless you have the tools and the discipline to bring it out.
It turns out that the distance from head to hand, from wafting butterfly to entomological specimen, is achieved through regular, disciplined practice.
If a person has never given writing a try, he or she assumes that a brilliant idea is hard to come by. But really, even if it takes some digging, ideas are out there. Just open your eyes and look at the world.
We all have ideas, sometimes good ones, not to mention the gift of emotional turmoil that every childhood provides. In short, the story is in us, and all we have to do is sit there and write it down.
Look at what we already have going for us: some level of education that has given us control of written and spoken language; the ability to use a computer or a pencil; and an imagination that naturally turns the events of our lives into stories that are both true and false.