I just finished listening to David Sedaris’s book The Best of Me on Audible and at the end, there is a bonus interview. Out came the predictable questions, “What advice to you have for young writers?” and the answer often given, be it William Stafford, Anne Lamont or David Sedaris—“Write!” And then the amazement that ambitious authors seem surprised by that advice.
And the same advice goes for aspiring musician (Play!), athletes (Train!), cooks (Cook!) and so on. And back to writers: Write every day, best at the same time and in the same place in some disciplined routine. Write when you don’t feel like it. Write when the bills are piling up (and pay them after). Write when you have absolutely nothing to say. Just pick up the pen or put your fingers on the keyboard and begin. Let it take you where it will, don’t judge, don’t aim for perfection (Anne Lamont’s reminder to write lots of shitty first drafts), don’t worry if the recycling bin is overflowing with crumpled up paper. (Though that probably doesn’t happen anymore, grabbing the sheet from the typewriter and littering the floor. Most likely, you simply don’t print it and neatly zip it to your electronic trash. Like not being able to slam down the phone in anger with the advent of cell phones, contemporary writers are missing an outlet for their frustration!) In short, simply write.
Then there’s all the next steps. Like “Re-write!” The composer Schoenberg once famously said that his most important tool was an eraser. Again, no satisfying rubbing out and sweeping the shavings off the paper, simply highlight and delete, but really, unlikely that any writers would actually complain about the mechanical ease of re-writing on the screen. But at some point, I find it useful to print and read with paper in hand and cross out or scribble in the margins before returning to the screen. Just yesterday, I brought a new book to Kinko’s for the double-sided copying and binding and that’s the moment when things really begin to feel real.
And I would add. “Read!” And “Re-read!” Then let it simmer a while, leave it alone, come back to it and “Re-read yet again!” Then consider reading it out loud—important to hear the music of the sentences. Share it with a friend or a stranger—and watch when their eyes brighten or when they yawn. Imagine yourself as a friend or stranger hearing it for the first time—is it something you would want to read? That's a lot of work after the initial sitting down. If you don't have the patience for it, maybe you're not a writer after all. Mary Oliver once said, “It takes about 70 hours to drag a poem into the light.”
A case in point. Usually when I sit down to write a blogpost, I already have ideas, thoughts, whole sentences churning in my head. But today I had nothing and thought it would be a good exercise to just start writing and see what came up. And lo and behold, it has turned out to be about what happens when you just sit down and start writing and see what comes up.
Minus the 70 hours of re-writing, re-reading and re-writing again.