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. 🙂
I have started reading a book called The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World. It was written by Brenda Miller, who was of my creative nonfiction workshop leaders in my MFA program at Antioch, and Holly Hughes, who taught the poetry workshop I took in July at Fishtrap. As much as I love these writers, I hesitated to buy the book. It’s a lot about meditating, contemplating, slowing down, seeing with more than one’s eyes. As much as I want to be creative, artistic and thoroughly right-brained, I’m pretty practical. Maybe it’s all my years in journalism, or maybe it’s just how I’m wired, but I like solid assignments, deadlines and start-to-finish processes. Even when I do yoga, I’m ticking off the postures and rushing to the final namaste. Git ‘er done, as the comic says. Ring a little bell and sit and do nothing? Hm. Aren’t we going to talk about marketing?
But I did finally buy the book because that workshop in the woods with Holly Hughes got me writing. It also got me breathing, relaxing, and seeing. It untied a lot of the knots in my writing self. This morning, I pulled a dusty little bell off my mantel, rang it, contemplated my current between-carpets den (see last week’s post), and started writing. I wrote for an hour, and I like what I wrote. It started as prose, then became a poem that begins, “I ride my couch like a life raft/floating in a concrete sea.” I thought about being shipwrecked. I thought about how our human dens can be compared to the dens of wild animals. I forced myself to look at the paint-stains, nicks, dirt and ants on the concrete that lay all these years beneath my white Berber carpet. You can put a rug on it, but it’s still dirt underneath.
I will polish this poem, and I will think about getting it published, but for the first hour today I put all that aside and just wrote. It didn’t have to be a whole hour, but I didn’t want to stop. It felt too wonderful. When I finished, I rang my little bell. Ding. I did it.
Maybe, like me, you’re not inclined to get all New Agey with your writing, but slowing down long enough to play with words not only feels good, it enhances everything you write. No matter what you write, take a few minutes to warm up the brain and the fingers. Athletes do warm-up exercises, musicians play scales, artists make sketches, writers . . . Right.
In addition to their Pen and Bell book, you can visit Hughes and Miller’s Pen and Bell blog for their own mindful writings and more inspiration. The Pen and the Bell is more linked to meditation and mindfulness than most of the writing books I have read. Other good books that will get you writing include Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away, Wild Mind and her classic Writing Down the Bones. All are full of free-writing exercises. Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and The Right to Write are good ones, too. I also enjoy The Write-Brain Workbook by Bonnie Neubauer. If you like puzzles, that’s the one to get.
We’ll get back to marketing and all that other writing business stuff, but you can’t sell what doesn’t exist. You have to write first.
Now go write.
Have you heard about Natalie Goldberg and her classic book Writing Down the Bones? If you haven’t read it, you should. Its stories and exercises will knock the blocks right out of your writing practice. So will her other books, like Old Friend from Far Away and Wild Mind. Meanwhile, she has a new book, The True Secret of Writing, coming soon. I heard her speak a couple years ago, and I was transformed. Visit her website at http://www.nataliegoldberg.com.
U.S. writers, our income tax deadline is only about two weeks away. If you have put it off, my previous posts on income tax may help you figure out how to handle the writing part of your tax forms. The key things you need to know: keep track of every penny you earn with your writing and every penny you spend. You are legally required to report your income, and your writing expenses are deductible. For advice, visit “Last Minute Tax Tips.”
You open the door and find an Easter basket on your front step. Except this basket contains something you would never expect the Easter Bunny to bring. What is it? Use your imagination to come up with a story or poem based on what’s in the basket, maybe what you wish was in the basket or what you’re afraid might be in the basket.
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.