Category Archives: motivation

Relax–And Take Your Time With Your Writing

When I was 13, I made up a character I loved. I gave her an entire life history and figured out every detail about her. Then I tried to write her story. I tried writing it several times, from several angles. It never quite came out right.

Then, when I was 16–after a year or two of not thinking about her–I wrote her story with an angle I’d never thought of, but with all the details necessary for that angle. Finally, I knew I’d done her justice.

When you set out to tell a story, you may find that you don’t tell it just right. You finish the piece, you sit back, and you frown. Something about it doesn’t jibe, but you don’t know what. You look through it: Well, I got that detail right. . . . I mentioned that. . . . Why isn’t it working?

Honestly, who knows? If the story is based on a real-life incident, maybe you hewed too closely to the truth at the expense of your imagination. Maybe you never quite lost yourself in the story while you were writing it. Maybe you don’t know enough about the story in your own mind to be able to tell it just yet.

When that happens, it’s okay. Really. That story’s time has just not come. But no piece of writing is ever a failure, because even when you tell it all wrong, at least you end up with the knowledge of how not to tell it.

I like to say that Mother Earth takes her time growing an oak tree; likewise, I give myself permission to take my time with my writing. So instead of obsessing over trying again, just set it aside. The parts of the work that you told right will stay with you. Be patient with the work: in the end, the story will ripen and be ready for the telling. You just have to be ready when it does.

Writing by Hand

One of the biggest problems inexperienced writers encounter is editing themselves as they write. You know how it is: you sit at the computer, deliberating over the next sentence. You write it, finally, and then you go back and you rewrite it. You write the next sentence or two, and then you back up and fix one or two sentences. And so on, and so forth.

I can’t stress enough how detrimental to the creative process it is to edit yourself as you write. When you sit down to write, you simply need to write. Do not edit, “fix,” massage, or otherwise interfere with what you’ve written.

I know, I know. You’re painfully aware that what you wrote on the last page wasn’t right, that you could have said such-and-such better, that you need to look up the capital of Suriname.

Maybe so. But when you pay that sort of hyper-alert attention to your writing during the actual writing process, you’ve giving an ear to your internal censor. Your internal censor, you know, really doesn’t think you should be writing at all. If you pay him the sort of attention that results in your rewording, redescribing, adding to, and Googling obscure details, then pretty soon he will convince you that you shouldn’t have even tried to write whatever it is that you’re writing, and you’ll trash the whole project.

Pen and paperSo how do you overcome the temptation to edit as you write? One simple way is to try an antiquated way of writing known as “writing by hand.” Yes, back in olden times, people actually did write their novels and short stories with pen and paper—and you should try it, too.

Why? Because when you’re writing by hand, you flat-out have less of an opportunity to rewrite. You can’t easily delete, rearrange, and reword much of anything. Whatever you write, well, it stays there.

This might absolutely horrify you. You might think your first efforts are always so terrible that you don’t want to have to look at them.

Again, maybe so. But by writing by hand, you can more easily discipline yourself to do what you should be doing: just writing.

So try it out. Not just for a few pages; stick with it long enough to get the hang of it. Stick with it until you start liking what you’re writing.

You might be surprised how quiet that censor gets.

On Being a Beginning Writer: Give Yourself a Break!

In the movie Amadeus, which centers on a rivalry between the composers Salieri and Mozart, the character of Salieri bemoans his perceived lack of talent when compared with Mozart. “Why,” he asks the priest who hears his confession, “did God implant the desire, but deny me the ability?”

As a writer, you might identify with Salieri. You might feel that you have the Great American Novel in your head but suspect that you lack the ability to write it. And so, you tell yourself, you’ll write it when you are good enough to write it. Then you spend the next twenty years bitterly resenting every book on the bestseller list. And you don’t write your novel.

Why don’t you write it? Because you think you have to be really, really good to write it.

Not so at all. One of my favorite novelists, Joyce Carol Oates, is widely considered a brilliant author and is inarguably prolific. But what many people don’t realize is that that when she was in college, she wrote, as she tells it, “novel after novel,” all of which she considered so terrible that they’ve never seen the light of day.

Why did she do this? To practice learning how to write.

The patron saint of mediocrity.Maybe they were terrible. But what would have happened if Oates, having written that first awful effort, decided, like Salieri, that she just didn’t have the talent to write and quit after the first one? Or the third? Or maybe even the tenth?

This is the secret to actually becoming a successful writer: You have to give yourself permission to be an awful beginner.

You might think great writers start out great. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a Vonnegut ever writing anything mediocre. But no, most writers aren’t that spectacular when they first start writing.

When you sit down to write a piece, give yourself a break. Allow yourself to be a beginner. Allow yourself the freedom to write without telling yourself how bad it is. All you need to do is to tell the story you want to tell in the way you want to tell it. Really, that’s all.

Maybe you won’t surpass Neil Gaiman this time out. That’s okay. Neil Gaiman didn’t surpass himself on his first time out, either.

The point, though, is to be kind to yourself and your creativity—let yourself bruise your knees, stumble, fall. It’s okay. You’re learning. Someday, you too will be running.

Girls Who Stare at Goats: On Writing About Your Own Experiences

Back in college, I bought myself a book that I supposed would teach me how to write. Excited to finally learn the secret to what I had been doing so (I thought) inadequately all my life, I started the first exercise.

The exercise required that I write about an exotic location I had visited and try to remember all the details. Color me stumped—I had never been anywhere more exotic than Arkansas.

So I skipped it and went on to the next exercise. This one required me to write down all the details about my first horseback ride. Again, no sale: I’d never ridden a horse.

So I skipped that one, too, and then when the next exercise required me to write about swimming in the ocean, which I’d also never done, I closed the book.

I felt pretty grumpy by that point. Clearly, I had never done anything, visited anywhere memorable, or, well, experienced anything worth writing about. Like Christian in Moulin Rouge!, I thought, how could I write about something I’d never experienced?

Goat.But then I thought, Well, but I once tried to ride a goat. And when I did take swimming lessons they made me dive off the diving board even though I hadn’t actually learned to swim.

So instead of the exercises in the book, I started making a list of experiences that I had had. And I wrote about those instead.

You may think the same thing as I did: But I’ve lived my entire life in Wookey Hole, Nebraska! How can I write about STUPENDOUS AND SHOCKING EVENTS OF INESTIMABLE PROPORTIONS when nothing interesting has ever happened to me?

Well, whoever said you have to is lying. You don’t have to write about anything but what you feel passionately about. What do you feel most passionately about? People, places, and events close to your heart.

You might live your whole life in Wookey Hole, Nebraska, but guess what, a whole lot of people live in towns like Wookey Hole. When you write authentically and (this is important) with surprising insight on the experience of living in Wookey Hole, many, many people will recognize something new in their own experiences. Something they never saw meaning in before. That’s when you start holding up a mirror to society and asking readers to look in that mirror.

So the next time you realize you have absolutely, positively, nothing to write about, instead, write a list of experiences you have had. Pick one that jumps out at you and write about it. Better still, ignore the facts and riff off that experience. What should have happened? What might have happened? Show your readers.

And someday I just might share the story of when I tried to ride that goat.

Why Writers Don’t Write, Or, Don’t Wait Until You’re on Your Deathbed

Today, we’re going to take a time-out from grammar and such and have a pep talk. The text for today’s sermon is taken from Hemingway, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

You’re probably familiar with this story. In it, a man lies dying in Africa, near Mount Kilimanjaro, while he and his wife wait in vain for a rescue plane. The pertinent aspect of the story for us is that the narrator is a writer. As he slowly dies, he regrets that he no longer writes as he used to. At one point, he thinks to himself,

Now he would never write the things he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well. Well, he would not have to fail at trying to write them either.

Is this you? You know it is. We all have a writing project we’ve been thinking of for years, maybe even decades. The one that we’ve filed, the one that we return to at night when we can’t sleep. Maybe you bought a few books for research, but you haven’t opened them. Something prevents you from actually, truly starting on the project.

Maybe your reason is the same as Hemingway’s narrator. I don’t know enough, you think. I need to make enough money to travel to the area in the book, I need to learn French first, I need to gain a little more distance and wisdom. Or maybe it’s just simply, I’m not a good enough writer yet, I’ll just butcher it.

Why do we do this? Hemingway’s already told us. As long as we don’t write it, it remains perfect, unblemished. We can talk about our great novel idea, because as long as we haven’t started it, we can imagine how perfect, how beautiful our ideas are. But we know that once we do start writing it, it’ll sprout pimples and start talking back to us.

The fact is, we don’t become good at something by thinking about doing it, and we don’t learn how to write unless we actually do it. Yes, your first draft will suck. It won’t be Great Literature. It won’t even be Sorta-Passable Literature. That’s okay. Janet Burroway wrote that Great Literature never emerges in draft form for anyone, except maybe for one person she knows, and, she says, there’s no evidence God even likes that person very much.

So, you should write today. And tomorrow. And the next day. Really, just write. No fairy godmother is going to appear to make you a good writer. Not even knowing all the grammar rules I talk about on this site will make you a good writer. The only thing that makes you a good writer is writing.