How to Become a Writer

It’s often said that you learn to write by writing. This is true and this is false. You learn to write by writing with your eyes wide open. This is how you keep your eyes open:

  1. Don’t follow the experts. Experts know what they know about their own writing. Maybe 1% of what an expert knows applies to you. Which 1% is that? You can’t know that in advance. Expose yourself to experts, experiment with what you find, but always look beneath the surface and over their heads for the stuff that really belongs to you.
  2. Readers cannot tell you how to write. Readers only know what they want, and that may have little or nothing to do with what you have to say. Sure, grammar and an ability to engage a reader are important. And readers can sometimes even give you feedback that will help with both of those things. But readers cannot contribute even 1% to what needs to come out of your heart and imagination. You are on your own for that. Learn to jump, and learn to not care about the bruises and broken ego. Really; let go of that crap. So it hurts. Deal with it.
  3. Don’t try to get better. You are learning how to write, so you don’t even know what ‘better’ is yet. As above, yes, you can get better at certain things (grammar, reader engagement, vocabulary, et al), but those are just tools. What matters is your writing, which exists at a level above all that, in your and readers’ imaginations. Instead of trying to get better, start by expose your heart with your words. Open up your imagination and dump it all out on the page. Fuck ‘better’. Get open, get stupidly open.
  4. Think big. Write stories you think you can’t possibly write. Dig into emotional holes so big they scare the crap out of you. But that’s only a starting point. This is what really matters: do whatever you have to do to make it work. Need some research? Do the fucking research. Crying so hard you can’t see the screen? Get some tissues and keep them handy. Scared to death of what your imagination is dredging up? Grow some balls. Get used to being a big person with a big, dangerous cliff-diving imagination. That’s what writers do. So do it.
  5. This is art. That means that you must pick carefully what to pay attention to. Life is full of shit and art. Art is only full of art. Learn to tell the difference between shit and art, and you will go far. So what’s the difference between these two? Honestly, it turns out that is a much harder distinction that you expect it to be. Art sings; shit moans. Art soars; shit just sits there. Art makes you cry helplessly; shit bores you. Art can kill you; shit is just annoying. Art can save your life, pull you up out of the morass of existence, drag you to hell for a bouquet of daisies and get you back out intact. Shit just keeps you where you are. Art is adventure at the highest levels; shit needs to be flushed away or it just stinks. Learn to understand how ugly is beautiful, and how the obviously beautiful can be meaningless.
  6. Simplify. Writing is not a complex task; it’s a hard task. Every writer has some tolerable level of complexity; if you try to go past that, you’ll flounder. Sure, you need to reach beyond your grasp, but don’t be self-destructive about it. Don’t complicate—simplify. Right now, get to know one character deeply. It’s just like people: you’ll never forget that kind of encounter. Then move on to the next character, or scene or whatever. But don’t hover; if the connection isn’t there, come back later. Friends are always there for you, and so are characters. Except when they are busy, shy, or not ready yet. So simplify, but be patient.
  7. Make mistakes. Lots of them. Notice them, learn from them, move on. You are not trying to avoid failure; you are learning. You learn by making mistakes. See #4: think big. Then think bigger, make bigger mistakes, learn a lot.
  8. Hang out with the best writers who will tolerate you. In other words, always try to marry up.
  9. Create. Don’t sit around; create something. Take up the violin, write every day, learn to pull ideas out of your head even if it pains you to do so. Don’t let anything—pride, stupidity, loneliness, time, politics, random family plots—get in your way. Create as if you need it to breathe. You’re a writer. You do need to create to breathe. Don’t you? So stop starving yourself. Create.
  10. Ignore fear. Otherwise, it will choke you. Being fearless does not mean you somehow magically remove fear from your life. It means you feel fear and jump off the cliff anyway. Again and again. Until you are jumping off of cliffs just for the thrill. And looking for higher cliffs—that’s a sure sign that you are transforming yourself into a writer: someone who faces the truth, and does not flinch, but writes it down with willful potency.
  11. Repeat until done.

One thought on “How to Become a Writer

  1. Hi, Ron! I’m trying to catch up on my blogroll and your lovely list was sitting there for me to enjoy. You’re quite right that writing is hard. It’s been kicking my behind lately. ; ) But I’m hanging in there.

    Good to see you are still here. How’s work?


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