It’s not easy being a writer. For one thing, the mantle feels daunting (am I well-read enough? imaginative enough?). Then there’s the fear of facing a blank page–manageable for me only because on most days, my impulse to describe and convince is stronger than my intimidation, and besides, when writing is going well, it’s a joy like no other.
So what does it take? Not necessarily what you might think.
Be talented. I won’t invoke the “2% inspiration, 98% perspiration” cliche here. Rather, I would posit that writing is 2% inspiration, 98% desperation. Forget sweat; you have to feel compelled to work a phrase or paragraph or novel over and over again until it bleeds. Kind of like self-mutilation, only people admire you for it.
Choose an interesting topic. I don’t select “interesting” topics, which other writers are invariably covering better than I could. Instead, I notice obscure stuff that makes my blood pressure go up, and start tinkering with that.
First, make an outline. Outlines are for people who already know what they’re going to say, and the precise relationships among all the ideas they’re about to explore. After I’ve finished an essay, I can produce an elegant diagram of it; does that count?
Remove distractions. Terrifying. Look, I’d love to be certain of my moral superiority over kids attempting term papers with iPods going, computer screens open to Facebook, and incessant texting with friends. I’d love to be the kind of Serious Writer who needs Peace and Quiet and an Office. But the truth is, my best stuff has been banged out at the kitchen table in between doing bills and peeling vegetables. How else to ward off the feelings of anxiety and isolation? This is not to say that the sound of mowers and blowers outside don’t set my teeth on edge, or that I don’t need absolute silence sometimes. But I don’t need absolute silence all the time; in fact, that would be scary.
Posture is important. I started writing fiction back in 1995 while lying on the living room sofa recovering from surgery. All jokes about the psychoanalytic couch aside, I think there was something about the prone position that allowed me to tap into a deeper level of creativity–in spite of my simultaneously watching, yes, the O.J. trial on TV. Most of my writing since has been done sitting across my kitchen love seat with my feet up, laptop where laptops go. The more a project skews toward straight nonfiction, the more likely I am to seek out a chair and table.
Buy beautiful notebooks. There is nothing less inviting for idea-jotting than a pristine bound journal with a stunning cover. Instead, I stash no-pressure paper in my purse, in the glove compartment, next to my bed, and in the bathroom, kitchen and living room. One man’s recycling…
Accept it: creativity is messy. Hand-wringing is messy; creativity is actually pretty neat. I’m not kidding here: researchers, curious about what bursts of writerly inspiration look like on an electro-encephalogram, have been surprised to discover that the creative groove produces a calm, steady line. It’s the stress of writer’s block that shows up as a jagged storm.
To write fiction, make stuff up. To write fiction, first figure out what haunts you; then think “what if….?” Do research, interview people, and read. A natural propensity toward obsessive-compulsive disorder also comes in handy.
Published in the Piedmont Post August 26, 2009