Every once in a while, I get a phone call from someone who will say, “I want to be a writer. Will you tell me how to do it? Could we have lunch or actually, I don’t have time for lunch. How about coffee? Or could you just e-mail me your answers.”
I know what they actually seek from me. They want to know the real writing secrets; the ones buried deep in the bowel of a mountain and closely guarded by a moat filled with hammer-head sharks.
They most definitely do NOT want the garden variety secrets that can be readily accessed by any old Joe Schmo with a library card or internet access.
In the past I’ve declined to reveal the secrets because when they were told to me by a cabal of tipsy mega bestselling authors at a writers’ conference, I was warned not to tell anyone, lest my tongue shrivel up, and turn to dust.
But, in the interest of educating my fellow writers, I have finally decided to risk a dusty tongue and lift the veil of silence. So here they are:
The 5 sacred secrets to writing.
If you’re working too hard, you’re doing it wrong.
You’ve probably been told writing is Sisyphean task. That great art only comes with suffering. Not true. The muse is actually a lazy girl who loves to putter. She doesn’t respond to bullhorns or whips or clenched jaws. She isn’t interested in your 4,000 daily word count goal or any of your other grand ambitions. If you poke and prod her enough, she’ll begrudgingly release some prose, but it’s likely going to be cliché, dry, and strained.
You must give your imagination time; don’t panic or over plan. As writer Brenda Ureland says in If You Want To Write “…Your soul gets frightfully sterile and dry because you are so quick, snappy and efficient about doing one thing after another that you have no time for your own ideas to come in and develop and gently shine.”
Give writing your full attention
When a brain surgeon removes a malignant mass from the cerebral cortex his mind is only on tumor and tissue, not Twitter. His attention is so rapt he barely needs a knife.
And so it should be when you’re writing. The muse flourishes best when the writer is living in the present moment with full attention to the task. Such sustained attention is difficult to maintain for long periods of time so you should always take breaks. Believe it or not, frequent breaks actually increase productivity.
Meditation also helps with attention. Fifteen minutes a day of quietly watching your breath and your thoughts will do wonders for your writing. When silly thoughts intrude during your writing time, whether they be moments of grandiosity or self-loathing, you’ll immediately recognize them and cut them off saying, “Please don’t pester me now. Can’t you see I’m writing?”
Write first drafts with wild abandon
Remember when you were eight and something marvelous happened at school, like maybe an alley cat wandered into the lunch room and the teacher chased it and fell on her behind and everyone got a peek at her days-of-the-week underwear?
Remember how that story came out in a great rush? And yes, maybe it was a mess in the telling but it crackled with enthusiasm.
Many, many years ago when I first started writing, several other women and I would get together and one would shout out a topic and we would write for twenty minutes and never quit moving our hands. (We got the idea from Natalie Goldberg’s book Wild Mind.)
Breathless, beautiful stuff would come flowing out of our pens, prose you’d think we would labored over like Egyptian slaves.
Except for one girl. Her writing sounded like an essay on her summer vacation to an earthworm farm. She couldn’t let go; she was too attached to making an impression or playing it safe or being writerly, which brings me to my next point.
Learn to Let Go
You’ve heard of the phrase “kill your darlings?” The truth is, everything you write is a potential darling, don’t get attached to any of it. Sometimes you might have to slash and burn great forests of words, and you will fret over word count because you are under the mistaken belief that the muse is stingy and won’t replace them, when, in truth, there are always more words to be had–newer, better, shinier, truer words. Words that will make readers shiver and quiver with recognition.
And when you finish the writing, you must also let it go, let it find its place in the world. Don’t get too attached to either the pans or praise and always remember the writing is of you but is not you.
But what about publication? Fame? Fortune? My interview with Terry Gross?
The only time you should ever think about publication is late at night when you are far away from your pen or your computer, and then you can dreams your dreams of bestseller lists and author action dolls.
But when you sit down to write, sit down because you are a generous soul who wants to share what you see and feel, and you’re passionate about what you have to say and you can’t bottle it up any more. Or maybe you write to understand something about yourself, and that’s why you must go at it. But never sit down with the idea of wowing anyone—agents, editors or the public. The expectations will weigh your writing down and it will hit the page with a sickening thud.
And now, I will leave you with this final sage advice; the most important of all:
Show, don’t tell. And for Godsakes never, EVER include a prologue.
Here is the biggest secret about writing:
The joy of doing it on a regular basis will always surpass the tangible rewards of writing for publication… yes, even the interview with Terry Gross cannot begin to touch it. You might not believe that now—I know it took me forever to come to that point– but one day you will and if the magic is going to happen, that’s when it will happen.
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