People are always telling aspiring writers that they need to sit down and write. Write every day. I say that, too. Every week, I conclude this blog with “Now go write.” But you might be wondering “Write what?” Some days I wonder that, too.
If you have a paying writing gig, either as a job or a freelance assignment, you know what you need to write. All you need to do is get off Facebook and do it. But if all you know is that you ought to be writing SOMETHING, what should you write? Where do you start? When I’m between projects, I turn to my piles of prompts and the ideas I scratched out in moments of inspiration, but sometimes none of those seem right. To be honest, sometimes I play the piano, buy groceries or work on a puzzle instead. But more often, I sit down with my journal and just start writing whatever’s on my mind. Usually it leads me into my next writing project. Yesterday, for example, the date, May 8, reminded me that I made my First Communion in the Catholic Church on May 8 many years ago. That led to seven pages of memoir about what it was like at church in those pre-Vatican II days, so different from how it is now.
Many writers I admire preach the benefits of journaling, writing “morning pages” or doing free-writing exercises to get the writing juices flowing. Just get the pen (or the fingers on the keys) moving and don’t worry about whether what you’re writing is any good or has any chance of being published. You can turn to books like Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life and Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir for lots of ideas to get you started. Julia Cameron also preaches free-writing in her book The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life.The idea is that writing is like a sport or playing a musical instrument. You need to warm up. I agree. Lots of times when I feel completely uninspired, all I need to do is start writing and the inspiration comes.
Other writers will say this is a waste of time. If you’re going to do writing exercises, why not write something that advances your work in progress? All I can say is do whatever works for you.
Which brings us back to that work in progress. What is it? What kind of writing do you want to do?
Some readers here are firmly established in one genre or another. They write novels or poetry or essays or articles. Others are still trying to figure out where they belong. There’s nothing wrong with dabbling in lots of different kinds of writing, but eventually you’ll find one genre fits you better than all the others. Think about what you love to read. If all your dreams came true, would you find your byline on a feature in the New York Times, on the cover of a novel, on the spine of volume of poetry, or on top of the most popular blog ever? Do you just want to capture your stories for your family and friends? Or, are you looking to make lots and lots of money writing and don’t really care if you get a byline? Are you attracted to technical writing, corporate PR or advertising? Would you like to write movies? Plays? Porn?
Forget about money or fame. What kind of writing feels most natural? What kind of writing gets you so involved that you lose track of time? What would you be most proud of having written?
Today’s assignment is to write about what kind of writer you want to be and then write about what you need to do to become that kind of writer. Do you need to take classes, download programs, read books, apply for jobs, or join a writing group? What have other writers done to get where they are? Write yourself a plan. Then, next time you sit down to write, put that plan into action. If you have decided to write a novel, start writing it. If you want to write a movie, write the opening scene. If you want to be a technical or corporate writer, write your resume and start sending it out. Make a plan, write out the steps, and then take those steps one at a time.
I welcome your questions and comments.
Now go write. 🙂
How do you prepare for a day’s writing? It seems there are as many ways as there are writers. Where, what and how you write makes a difference. When I worked at newspapers, I didn’t have much time for messing around. Deadlines loomed, and the guy in the next cubicle was concentrating on his own writing. I’d lay out my notes around the keyboard, type a heading, and then go to the bathroom.
Wait, what? Go to the bathroom? Yes, for two reasons. I didn’t want to have to run to the ladies’ room once I got rolling, and I needed a minute to organize my thoughts. Often my opening lines came to me in that three-minute trip.
It doesn’t have to be the bathroom. One could go down the hall for coffee, or, if working at home, do what I just did and put away some stray clothes and start getting dressed. I was putting on my pants when I decided what to write about. Some people do yoga, some pray, some knit, some go for a walk. It doesn’t matter what you do to prepare to write, but your brain has to be free to think. No media, no talking, no texting. I have closed my Internet connections, opened a fresh screen on my computer, and placed hot tea on the warmer beside me. I’m ready.
I don’t have a deadline today, but that doesn’t mean I don’t need to write. I have plenty of half-finished projects and lots of notes scribbled on scratch paper that I can expand into stories or poems. I can always outline a new article or a query to get myself an assignment.
Writing muscles need regular workouts. You’ve all heard the advice to “write every day.” Actually it doesn’t have to be every day. Maybe you’re a Monday, Wednesday, Friday kind of writer or just weekends. That’s okay. Set a schedule and stick to it, whether you do it before work, while the kids are at school, or when everyone else is asleep. People rarely understand when you say “I have to work” or “I have to write.” Do it anyway.
Like an athlete, a writer needs to warm up. Creativity gurus Julia Cameron, Natalie Goldberg and others recommend “morning pages.” Just write whatever’s in your head. Don’t worry about whether it’s beautiful or correct or publishable. If you can’t think of anything, you can even fill a page with “I can’t think of anything to write.” But honestly, there’s always something. Write about what’s bothering you. Write about something you read or saw on TV. Describe something that happened to you yesterday.
One exercise I’ve been doing this week came from Poets & Writers’ series of prompts. They credit this one to poet Linda Gregg. Every day for a week, you briefly describe six things you see each day. They can be absolutely ordinary things to which you usually don’t pay attention. At the end of the week, pick two of those things and write a poem about them. I have been amazed at how many things there are to notice in my house, especially my living room. I can already see that I’m going to write about more than two and it won’t necessarily be poetry. There are essays, articles and short stories in those things I’m seeing, things like the flute I never play, the tambourine I bought in Portugal, the stained carpet, or the dog sleeping on her smelly blanket on the floor.
I’m never going to run out of things to list. If I exhaust one room or even my whole house, I’ll simply change location. Meanwhile, having filled several pages of my journal, I’m warmed up and ready to tackle the day’s writing project. As soon as I go to the bathroom.
Get comfortable and get started. Write.