My sophomore year of college, I wrote my first good story. Or I should say, for the first time I enjoyed writing a story and didn’t want to hide in my dorm room once other people started reading it.
But as soon I finished the story, I couldn’t get back the feeling I’d had while working on it—the sense that something glittery and magical was happening, that the characters were coming to me fully formed, that the story itself was mysterious to me and yet familiar and easy to tell.
I went to my writing teacher in something of a creative panic, and what she told me sounded reassuring: “It can be a long time between stories, and the wait can be difficult.”
I wrote down her words with the reverence of a disciple for her guru, and I felt comforted with the thought that a good story would come again. I just had to be patient.
The problem was that while “waiting” for the next story, I wasn’t actually preparing for its arrival. Sure, I jotted notes in my journal, copied bits of overheard dialogue, and wrote the first pages of dozens of possible stories, but I stopped short of ever writing past the point when inspiration ended and boredom with my idea set in.
It took six more years before I completed another story. By that time, I was teaching middle school and making my students write essays and stories from beginning to end and then, on top of that, revise them after the first draft. It seemed hypocritical to ask twelve and thirteen-year-olds to sit through the hard part of writing without doing it myself, so very slowly, one sentence at a time, I hammered out a story about a failed painter struggling to forget the memory of the New York plastic surgeon who had fixed her nose and then betrayed her heart.
Spoiler alert: it was a terrible story. Stilted language, heavy-handed plot, and—despite what the ridiculous description above might suggest—utterly devoid of humor. I put away the story and hoped it would never find an audience.
And then I kept writing. Because while that story taught me that I was capable of writing badly, I also learned how to stay at my desk when I really just wanted to get up for another cup of coffee. That’s the kind of waiting I think my teacher was talking about—more prosaic than the lightening storm of creative inspiration I once expected, but also more practical for someone who wants to make a long career out of writing.
I continue to write terrible stories—though hopefully not terrible in the exact same way. I continue to want to warm up my coffee or look for jobs in countries where I don’t speak the language—basically, anything aside from writing that next scene in a story I’m struggling with. Every once in a while though, because I’ve been waiting for the story by actually writing and revising it, a more fluid process takes over, and the characters suddenly know who they are, where they live, and what to say to each other. It’s a pleasantly familiar feeling, and yet it always catches me by surprise.
1. Take care of yourself. Much like the announcements before flights regarding the placing of oxygen masks, you can’t expect to render your characters fully if you’re out of shape and eating poorly. Exercise regularly and eat fresh foods. Caffeinate moderately. Get eight hours of sleep every night. To underestimate the power of the subconscious, the breakthroughs that undoubtedly come from the dream-state and walks in the park, is foolish and undermining of the imagination at work. Never mind that your ability to contribute to the literary canon is severely compromised if you’re sick or dead.
2. Become aware of the effects of environment on your process—and change it up if need be. If you can’t settle in at your desk today, try the couch. If the sun is shining during your writing hours and you can’t stand being inside your apartment one more second, find a park bench or an outdoor café. If you’re in public and one-sided phone conversations keep intruding on your characters’ dialogue, seek out someplace quiet. Go wherever you need to be to enter the fictional dream as completely as you can.
3. Write first drafts in longhand whenever possible. My initial drafts almost always turn out truer to my vision when I’m connected to the physical page through a pen or pencil, thus saving time later during revision. I think there might be scientific data to back this up, but regardless, one obvious benefit is that you are much more apt to cross-out and play with alternative phrasing in the margins and between sentences, etc., sometimes literally question what you may be attempting to say on the page. Whereas in word-processing software, you don’t like a phrase, Delete-delete-delete, and not only is it gone forever, but so is your record of what you were aiming for, even if your initial attempts at grasping for an image or line fell short. When you type up the handwritten pages, you’re composing your second draft—added bonus.
4. Keep questioning the stakes of your premise. Often, at the beginning of a new story or before a revision, I’ll write, “Is this a great story of love and death?” across the top. If the answer is no, then consider how you might approach the premise differently to make it more gripping. If it is a novel, trace the narrative backwards to see where you may have gotten off-track, or strayed from the tension. You may be surprised in going over your drafts at how much of what you may have considered essential is in effect tangential.
5. If you’re stuck or between scenes or sections and uncertain where your protagonist goes next, take a short nap. Again, sometimes a quick dip into the subconscious is just the trick for stirring up new ideas/images. Although you’ll have to wait until you get home if you’re at a coffee shop.
6. That said, sometimes you have to just power through. This is tricky advice to give, when to step away (or nap!) and when to power through, and largely instinctive. But powering-through happens for me after I do a good bit of questioning and jotting down of potential ideas in my notebook regarding where the story needs to go next. There follows the sort of heavy feeling of anticipation, excitement, and despair regarding how I am going to accomplish what is to take place—but all that remains is doing it. That’s when it’s time to log out of Facebook, brew a fresh caffeinated favorite, push ahead, and trust.
7. The Internet/Facebook/Twitter/Etc. Figure out your relationship to it. I love nothing more than perusing for articles on strange happenings and the idiosyncrasies of my friends’ lives; as such, I’m a self-proclaimed Facebook addict. I’ve never been a big procrastinator, either, but when I arrive at my desk I tend to scroll the Facebook newsfeed until I have an overwhelming feeling that I’ve been pummeled enough by everyone’s happenings and achievements, and am then happily driven to the page and my inner world. In between scenes or sections and when I take a snack break, I will often log back on. Sometimes I go to coffee shops because although I have a smart phone, I am much less likely to be distracted by the Internet when I have actually driven somewhere and purchased menu items with precious dollars. Only you can figure out how to balance the work/Internet pull.
8. Learn to trust and develop your gut instincts regarding your work, and others’ critique of it. True, you’ll always be too close to it, because you’re the creator. And there will always be some voices ringing out in workshop that are way off for your vision of the story, your aesthetic, etc. But then there will be some who are right on, whose searing feedback or advice matches the quiver in your middle when you hold the draft up before your eyes. Better to have a handful—even one—of these voices in your corner than none. Cherish such readers, yet also keep in mind that someone who may have resonated deeply with a previous project of yours may not have the same relationship with the next one. Have the courage to seek out fresh eyes.
9. Realize the value of your work—because if you don’t value it, why should others? Delegate as many nonessential, non-writing tasks to whatever degree you can—to agents, interns, teenage children/siblings, eager grad students, etc. If you’ve got a $50,000 a year teaching gig, hire a maid service to clean your house once or twice a month so you can invest in those precious days off to write. Figure out which holidays you prefer to celebrate with family and which ones you can skip to attend a writers’ colony, or borrow a friend’s cabin in the woods for a couple of weeks.
10. Meditate on your death every day. This meditation will usually be fleeting and hardly morbid—but certain, yes. You are going to die. Maybe not today, or tomorrow, or six months down the road. Then again, maybe today. All that will be left of your essence in this life will be what you’ve left behind, written down. Is what you have to say essential? If not, how to make it so? Most everything pertaining to the craft of writing can be boiled down to those two questions.
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