A: They are legitimate challengers for your time, the real people and the real reasons it is sometimes hard to find time to write.
But here’s the thing, and there’s really no escaping it: Unless you are an emergency room M.D., a soldier in active battle, or the single parent of more than six children, you have time to write. You may not have time to write and watch the same amount of football you’ve always watched, or time to write and go out with friends every night, but you definitely have time to write.
Spend more than a few minutes examining your day-to-day life and you’ll see that I’m right. The problem isn’t that you don’t have time to write; the problem is getting yourself to set aside a time that is reserved for one thing and one thing only – writing – and then doing it.
So here is today’s lesson, and you should probably start scratching these lessons into your walls in giant letters:
CREATE A SACRED WRITING TIME, THEN WRITE DURING THAT TIME EVERY SINGLE DAY.
No buts, what ifs, or I have to do something elses. Create a sacred time, a time that no one has a right to question you about, a time that you let nothing or no one steal from you. Then write today during your sacred time. Then write tomorrow during your sacred time. Repeat, repeat, and then repeat some more.
After you’ve written 300 pages, or 300 poems, feel free to take a day off. For now, for the simple reason that you have never written a book, or compiled a volume of poems, you have no reason to believe you can or ever will. But have no fear; that is the beauty of creating sacred time. Respect that time every single day and you cannot help but add pages together, one at a time, until, one day soon, you will look up and say – I did it!
I have already done that, written THE END, not once, not twice, but five times and counting (and that includes only books I did not throw away after finishing). When you have done it just once we’ll talk about writing when you feel like it, or when the muse visits, or at different times on different days. For now, better to think of yourself as an apprentice who has something very important to prove, exactly one important thing: I can do it!
So do. Write today during your sacred time. Then write tomorrow during your sacred time. Repeat, repeat, repeat. When you reach page 300, or finish your 300th poem, email me at email@example.com and I’ll give you a shout out right here. You have my sacred promise.
Your back is against the wall, and that gun is pressed against your head. You have to make a choice – now!
Open Door #1 and you’ll enjoy the celebrity of success, the admiration of your peers, perhaps even wealth. The writing you did today – the outcome of your work – will definitely be recognized by others as “very good,” even though it practically killed you to get it there. Congratulations!
Open Door #2 and you’ll enjoy the satisfaction of doing, of drawing strength from purpose. The writing you did today – the outcome of your work – might only be seen as so-so in the eyes of others, but you still feel great about doing it, and you’re definitely coming back for more tomorrow. Congratulations!
Now let’s return to this choice when things are not going well, when the outcome of your work is – well, not good at all. No matter which door you choose today, the words you wrote will never be admired by others. It’s just one of those days – every writer has them – but that gun is pressed against your head again, and you have to choose – now!
Open Door #1 today and you’ll find deep disappointment, perhaps even self-loathing. After all, your words are no good, and your book will probably never be as good as Margaret Atwood’s, or John Grisham’s, or Milan Kundera’s. In fact, it’s obvious you aren’t a very good writer at all, which means you’re probably a rotten person too (heh, this isn’t me talking; outcome-focused writers are tough on themselves this way).
Now look what happens when you open Door #2. Surprise! Even when things are not going well, you’re able to draw strength from doing, from pursuing what you believe in. Your sense of worth does not depend on high-quality outcome; doing what you believe in is its own satisfaction.
A writer’s original sin – any creative person’s original sin – is placing outcome before process. Make that mistake and you set up a tortured path for yourself as a creative person.
Eyes closed, then screen dialed to black (yes, you can do that and still write) to turn my mistake monitor off.
A strange feeling, this blackness, and at first it is hard to write without seeing words.
But it feels good to pay attention to something other than words, to breathe deep, to let my head rise and fall, to really feel what I am doing, to hear the world around me, that truck that just passed in the street, the almost Niagara-like sound of my computer’s roar, steady and strong, never concerned at all about what I am trying to do.
But then I hit that same dead stop I hit when the lights are on,
the most feared moment in the creative process,
because any rest introduces the possibility of running out of words, followed by the almost unbearable pain of having to figure out a way to start again.
I can touch the darkness now, and I can’t believe this, but I see a stalking lion, or maybe I’m just seeing what Jung wants me to see. Sometimes I wonder if the only archetype is imagination, but I was writing about rest and magic, rest and magic…
…and I want my eyes, my head, my neck muscles, my mind, spirit, fingers and heart to take me someplace else, anyplace else, someplace where flight is possible, where touching stars with burning hands and frozen fingers is real, where my mouth can kiss lightning and hold fire in its teeth, where day-to-day drudgeries and weight fall off in a world unrestricted by the gnashing constraints of life.
And for a moment I feel like I really can fly, and I really am free, until I start thinking about painting my Hook Man paintings, and my sister asking me
“Why do you feel so restrained?”
And that lets in the fight between wanting to be carefree and needing to be responsible, between moving somewhere I can dress in shabby clothes when I want to and shave only when I have to, and staying in The Comfortable States of America, where I can keep my reputation as a bad boy without having to be.
And now I let language and emotion lead, peeking at my fingers through half-closed eyes, watching them fly.
Until I feel how restrictive my keyboard is, how unlike my piano’s keys, how little room there is for dance. Once upon a time while playing my Fender Rhodes, the one I later sold to Bob Rhodes, I actually rearranged the parallel rows of black and white into sweeping fans stacked on top of each other.
Here’s a good Forbes article about why we have a hard time being creative, on the job, and personally. But in the end being creative, like everything else, is a choice we make. Decide it’s important to be creative and all these obstacles fall away. Decide you need a really good reason for not being creative and you achieve that goal with ease.
I’ve already suggested there is exactly one step to writing a novel: Sit in a comfortable chair during a block of time you protect like Fort Knox and write.
But we all want to believe – need to believe? – there is a plan we can follow, a series of steps, shortcuts, tips, something that will make it easier. So I’m going to play along. I’m going to tell you the six steps I follow to write a novel (although you abandon my single step approach at your own peril):
Step 1 – Before writing a word, I try to think well about what I’m going to write, without over planning.
Step 2 – I write intuitively until I hit a roadblock (which I almost always do).
I follow steps 1 and 2 because I desperately want to be that writer who somehow blasts through his first drafts without losing interest or energy, and because part of me believes that a writer’s best work is created when his built-in editor is sound asleep.
If only everything were up to me. But it isn’t, and that is where roadblocks come in.
Step 3 – While I’m stopped at my roadblock, I try to figure out what lesson that book is trying to teach me.
Thankfully, I’ve always been smart enough to stop when I muck things up (although one time it took me two years to figure out it was time to stop), and when I do get stuck I am not shy about asking for help. My good friend, Bart, unstuck me while I was writing Love In An Iron Bowl by telling me to write more about China (the Iron Bowl in the title) to balance the love story. “You’re writing a novel,” Bart said. “You have all the time in the world to be discursive.”
Lesson 1, while writing Love In An Iron Bowl – Allow the reader to touch, taste, and feel place.
Lesson 2, while writing OHM – Write real people, even if they don’t like your story.
Lesson 3, while writing Peculiar Hallelujah – Welcome surprise, even while writing the final scene.
Step 4 – I do whatever it takes to learn that lesson.
These are all lessons you can read about in any decent “How To Write” book, but reading isn’t writing. Trust me. You usually have to learn these lessons on the job, and often in the middle of trying to figure out what went wrong with your first draft.
Step 5 – I rethink the book I’m working on with that learned lesson in mind.
Step 6 – I write the new book that the writing of the old book taught me how to write.
Sounds easy, right? Correct a mistake by learning from it and doing something different. But what if that translated into reality this way?
Seven notebooks of double-sided hand-written pages, which you’ve already transcribed into eight hundred and sixty-eight typed pages, and then transformed into a first draft, turn out to be missing big pieces of place, and have to be re-written? What a daunting task! Not only would you have to go back and find all the places in the book that needed more description, or where more description would be interesting, you would have to find the right places to add description, places where more description would add to the natural layering of the book. And then, of course, you would have to write all that new description, make it interesting on its own, work it into your existing text, then make any changes that those changes mandated.
Or, if after one year of working on the second section of a five-section novel, you discovered that not one single word of what you had written during the last year was worth keeping, so you re-wrote that same section during the following year, only to learn, once again, that not one word of what you had written was going to make the final draft? (that’s two years to end up with nothing, if you’re keeping track)
And, of course, there is this bonus. You get to do all that new writing while feeling particularly inadequate, weak, tired, frail, fragile, and despondent. After all, you just spent months (years?) writing a first draft that wasn’t good enough, and no one can guarantee your second draft will be any better.
As a writer, you don’t get to know how you will get to the next level, or how you will solve a particular writing problem; you can only do your best thinking, aim, do the work, take the painful rebuffs, do your best thinking again, then wait, never knowing if you’ll break the cycle, until you finally do (or don’t).
So why do it? That’s the easy part. It doesn’t matter how long it takes to write a good book, or how many lessons you have to learn. In the end, you have a good book. Think about that.