So you want to be a writer? Maybe you have dreamed of people mobbing you at a book signing as you write, “thanks for believing in me” over and over. Perhaps you dreamed of a fan telling you that your story meant more to them than anything in the whole world. You might think of your name in lights, as a writer for a feature film that takes best picture. It can happen, but there is only one way to get there.
Do the work.
What does that mean? Write all the time. Write every day. But it’s more than that. It means understanding the work at each step of the journey. The work that is necessary changes at each step. Work is funny that way. The work at the rough draft stage, the re-write phase, the editing phase and polishing phase are all very different. The resistance and fears shift and you need to become aware of them to break through and get past them. Each step requires a different commitment from you.
Let’s say you finally commit to getting that first novel done. You decide to sign up for nanowrimo and pound out that book in thirty days, surfing on a diet of caffeine and candy and the praise and affirmations of other writers in the forums. Great. But that’s not really doing the work. That’s just doing the first part of the work. And here’s the thing: it may be that you can write that fast and do your best work, but probably not. Most people can’t write that fast and put anything that isn’t a total piece of shit down on the page. There are exceptions. There are always exceptions. I’m betting many of you reading this have mastered thinking of yourself as an exception. You’d be better off not thinking of yourself as an exception. Most likely you are not. Do the work first and when you actually find out you are an exception then you can skip that step and that step alone. The key is finding out for yourself by doing something. It’s great to get a first draft down on paper, but that’s only one step. It doesn’t help if you did the step wrong. If you pounded out the novel just to finish it and you didn’t plan any of it, then all that work was pretty much worthless because now you have about ten re-writes on your hands. Instead, you need to figure out how fast you can actually produce something that saves you time later.
What are those later steps? Re-writing. Taking feedback. Re-writing again. Rinse. Repeat. All of these are different skills. Learning to listen to other people’s feedback is not easy. It takes time and patience. Initially, you are filled with resistance. They’re wrong. They don’t get what I am trying to do. Nope. They get it. You just wrote something that doesn’t really work and you wish it did, so you flip into denial mode and miss the whole point. Instead of fixing what’s really wrong with the story, you change a few little things instead of the one thing that would actually make it better. That one thing is often a lot of work. That’s the real reason you don’t want to do it. It might require a whole new scene or major surgery on an existing scene that eliminates two characters and adds a brand new one, while eviscerating the dialogue. It may be a complete tear down of an entire section of a book or the whole damn thing. Do it anyway. Here’s the litmus test: if it scares you, it’s the right step. If it seems impossible, it’s the right step. If it will “take too long” it’s the right step.
At every point in the writing process, there is another temptation to cut corners and half-ass it. I don’t need to get better at dialogue you think; it’s already pretty good. I don’t need to learn about tropes or what other writers do, that’s just cheating and it makes my writing stale and formulaic. I don’t need to plan anything about my novel or it won’t develop organically. It’s as good at it can get, I don’t need another re-write here. These are all lies we tell ourselves. These are all excuses to not do the work. Michael Jordan did not get good at basketball by telling himself he was the world’s greatest free throw shooter and then never shot a free throw. He shot them over and over and over. In fact, whatever you suck at the most is what you should be working on.
People will do anything to avoid doing the actual work necessary to achieve something that matters in this life. We seem to be wired to avoid the one step that matters most. I don’t know why. If I didn’t think that this whole fucking universe was governed by a flawless intelligence I might just consider that a major design flaw. People will bust their ass, working on all kinds of hours, doing all kinds of crap, except on the one thing that they really, really need to focus on. It’s almost pathological. Let me give you an example from my own life. A few years back I found some extraordinary martial arts books. I gave them to my friend, a fantastic and dedicated martial artist of more than a decade. We both knew many of the esoteric secrets of the ancient martial arts were revealed there. We sensed it. And yet we couldn’t understand what they were, even though they were staring us right in the face. It wasn’t until last year, when I made the internal shift with my writing, that I could see what was there all along. The problem was my friend and I were looking for something magic. Just like when people go to a writing conference, they are looking for a magical step that will allow them to write brilliantly without any effort whatsoever, in only ten minutes a day. It doesn’t exist. Just stop looking. The magic of the books was their simplicity. On one page, the author showed examples of Kung Fu masters tying rope to a bucket of water and doing turns. That’s it. Tie a rope around something heavy and do it over and over and over. No tricks required. In the old days, when people learned martial arts they spent their whole first year just standing in a horse stance and throwing a single punch. Nowadays, we want something faster. What is the secret to throwing a great punch? Throw it over and over. That’s it. Do it so many times that it is ingrained. As the Kung Fu Panda found when he got the final secret scroll, “there is no secret ingredient.” There is no magic. It’s just fucking practice. That old Kung Fu master who moves through his set with effortless ease got that way because he did the damn thing a million times. If you did it a million times, you’d be that Kung Fu master. If you write every day and drop all your delusions and fantasies about writing, you’ll be a writer. That’s really all there is to it.
Writing is not a team sport. It’s a wonderfully lonely exercise. Find a quiet place and do it. Forget talking to other writers. Forget conferences. You see writing shouldn’t require motivational speeches from an outside source, the support of your writing group or loved ones or friends. Your love of writing has to come from within. And here’s the truth: sometimes it won’t. Sometimes when you tell everybody that writing is your true love and your passion and everything you dream about, it’s nothing but a fucking lie. It’s a lie to others and yourself. Sometimes you’ll hate it. Sometimes it’s nothing but work. But a true writer pushes through that. They keep writing anyway. Some of the writing I am most proud of does not come on the days when I cranked out three thousands words as if they were divinely inspired. Instead it comes from the days when I stared at the page, browsed Facebook and Twitter, read the news and got distracted every other line, only to stay with it and fight through 500-700 words. That’s doing the work. That’s writing.
If you’re just starting out writing, then maybe you think you can’t write everyday. That’s a lie too. The truth is you don’t want to write every day. You know why? Because writing is hard. Eventually, if you’ve been at it long enough, you make an internal shift. Once you make that internal shift everything changes. Stephen Pressfield, author of The Legend of Bagger Vance, writes about this in the War of Art. He was driving a cab, wanting to write and was never doing it. Finally one day, he’d had enough. He came home, tired, worn out and he dug out his typewriter from under a pile of crap and he started writing. It was ten years before he sold his first book, but from that day forward he knew he was a writer. Nobody needs to tell you you’re a writer. You either are one or you’re not. Once you make the change, nobody can take it from you. That does not mean you’re successful yet. Time is a tricky thing. It takes a good deal of it for your dreams to manifest and there is even a chance that you will fail, but you have to keep writing even if there is little to no chance of it ever becoming a career. You make the internal shift and that’s it. It’s a sudden and complete change and you’ll know it when you’ve made it. It can’t be faked. It can’t be wished for. You can’t find it by talking about it, dreaming about it or thinking about it. You can only find it when you do it. It’s a commitment that can’t be taken back. Once you’ve made it nobody can ever tell you you’re not a writer again. You are.
Just to be clear, there are many writer like things that masquerade as, “doing the work” but are really nothing but distractions meant to knock you off the path. They include, but are not limited to, the following: Going to writing conventions, writing in groups, talking about writing, hanging out with other writers at a party, reading books on writing, researching, daydreaming, going to writing groups, watching TV/movies, discussing the process of being a writer, visualizing, meditating, exercising. It’s not that there is no value in any of this; it’s just that none of it is actually writing. And actually writing is the only thing that matters. If I have a choice now between writing or going to a conference, I choose writing every time. If I have a little extra time, then I might consider it. But I accept it for what it is: a distraction. I embrace the distraction. Of course, when you really think about it, then who the hell has any extra time, considering we are nothing but a tiny, laughable blip on the cosmic timeline, the equivalent of a picosecond to the universe, a flash of lighting and then we are gone. So choose writing. Most writers would rather spend their time going to conferences, reading about writing, watching movies or TV, talking about writing with other writing friends, all the while deluding themselves that they’re doing research or actually writing. Of course, watching great movies and TV and reading are prerequisites for learning your craft, but eventually they just get in the way. You have to let them go for real writing time. Eventually you need to turn off the TV and sacrifice time with your loved ones and friends and do the work. If all this sounds repetitive, that’s because it is. I will say it over and over until you get it. It took me a bit myself, so I know how stubborn we can be as humans. Apparently, we have this ridiculous trait of having to hear shit a hundred million times before we get it when it really could not be simpler. Even writing on this damn blog is a distraction that is keeping me from working on my fiction right now.
This is why it’s hard for me to talk to many artists these days. My tolerance for self- delusion and nonsense is about zero. At my artist co-work facility I have the place to myself on most Saturdays and Sundays. Now and again, people show up and annoy me with talking. It’s not that I don’t like talking, it’s just that when I sit down to write, I am there to write, not to talk and pretend that I am writing. I see people show up there on Saturdays and they agitate me a little because I hate seeing other people when I write. They move around and fidget and fuss and generally pretend to get shit down when they are actually just procrastinating. But I just have to wait. I wait like the sea as it hammers the shore. I see a rock and I know it looks tough, but I also know I will outlast the rock. Eventually I will hit it enough times to break it down into sand, no matter how hard it looks. The same is true of my artist’s space. I know I just have to wait a few months and they’ll be gone, off doing something else, distracted. Also, to be clear, I’m not saying there are no great artists at the co-work space. I know there are. I just don’t know them because when we’re there together, instead of talking, we’re heads down working.
Of all the advice you will ever get on writing, “write every day” is the most important. If you can do that, everything else takes care of itself. You will learn everything you need to know by taking it word by word. Making that commitment is hard. I know, I know, you don’t have the time. You’ve got commitments, job, family, kids, friends, and whatever. It’s all a lie. If you want it, you will make the time. You will clear the garden so new stuff can grow. It may take awhile, but eventually you will do it, if this is really what you want to do with your life. Write every day. I can’t emphasize this enough. Just write every day. It really could not be simpler.