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
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 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.
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:
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
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.
1 Write your guts out.
2 Keep your eyes wide open all the time--you're
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,
8 Read constantly.
9 Worry day and night that you're a fraud.
10 Revise yet once more.
11 Make it matter.