Left Button Down Button Right

B EFORE YOU WORK OUT METHODS for how to write, it's probably a good idea to spend some time thinking about why you want to write. Is it for fame? Only the smallest handful of writers get recognized in the street. Is it for money? Fewer than 1% of living writers can support themselves by their writing. The average salary for a writer is $6,000 a year. Is it for the glory of publication? Fewer magazines are publishing poetry and fiction than ever before, and they're paying less for it.
So before you dive headlong into the surf, you might want to work out deeper, more soul-satisfying reasons for writing. For instance, I like Grace Paley's reason: "I wanted to get the world to explain itself to me, to speak to me." And of course, there's Dorothy Parker's classic: "Writing well is the best revenge."
In my mind, there's no more important human activity than the writing of stories and poems. Writing is, by nature, salvific. In other words, I believe the right words at the right time can save your life. I know this because the right words have saved my life. And they keep on saving it every day.
Whatever answer you come up with for yourself, every serious writer must ask why. No answer will completely satisfy you. That's part of what keeps you writing.
Writing fiction and poetry is hard. It takes a lot of work. If it were easy, no one would want to do it. You probably want to do it not only because you want to exercise your imagination, and not only because you'd like to try for a life where they pay you to do it, but because you like the challenge. Otherwise, you'd find some other, easier thing to be, like a bullrider or a knife-thrower's assistant.
Where developing writers go astray is when they think of their poems or stories as merely artful arrangements of words. That's only the topmost layer of what a story is, what a poem is. The other day someone said to me, "I have a knack for poetry! I wrote 100 over the summer!" What he had a knack for was bad rhymes.
Flannery O'Connor
Flannery O'Connor,
Our Founder

Heart Tattoo
Target Organ: The Heart
The thing to ask yourself, way down deep, is "Why does this story, this poem, I'm writing matter to me?" A piece of writing should be more than a game of words. It should be a piece of your heart. I don't mean that in the Hallmark sense ("From my heart to yours"). I mean it in the Janis Joplin sense ("Take it! Take another little piece of my heart now, baby"). I am referring, dear reader, to the bloody, pumping organ itself.
So how do you do it? The trouble is no one can finally tell you exactly what to do to make a story or poem work. You have to come to that knowledge yourself, in your own time and in your own way. But here are a few habits of mind that might make help:
  1 Write your guts out.
  2 Keep your eyes wide open all the time--you're never off-duty.
  3 Put in everything you know and half the things you don't.
  4 Revise, revise, revise.
  5 Steal material from family, friends, strangers, & your own life.
  6 Don't fall in love with your work (or yourself) for more than 10
minutes a day.
  7 Let your story overwhelm you, puzzle you, madden you.
  8 Read constantly.
  9 Worry day and night that you're a fraud.
10 Revise yet once more.
11 Make it matter.
12 Matter.
Does that sound like too much trouble? If so, there's a knife-thrower I'd like you to meet.
To write, you have to be willing to examine yourself (your behavior, your motives, your assumptions, even your body) in great detail. And what you find isn't always pretty. It hurts to write. Sportswriter Red Smith said, "There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and just open a vein." That's because the fundamental questions all writers ask, no matter what they seem to be writing about, is "Who am I really?" and "What should I do about that?" But these are not questions writers answer head-on. You have to approach them the way you approach a horse, from an angle and with reassuring gentleness. Which is to say, you have to approach writing with what I referred to before as a "beginner's mind." This doesn't mean you have to under-acknowledge your abilities. It means you have to approach the story or poem you want to write without baggage, without presumptions. Maybe Flannery O'Connor says it better. In her wonderful book Mystery and Manners, she says what every writer needs is "a certain grain of stupidity." I like that. I like it a lot.

Left Button Up Button Right Button

The Rock

Nebraska Center for Writers