As a rule, I don’t like to dish out advice that I haven’t followed. Now, it’s true that we all make mistakes, and we all learn from them, and sometimes that makes for fantastic advice…but if you keep making those mistakes, if you keep failing to take your own advice, that kind of makes you a hypocrite. So I’ll say this up front: when it comes to everything I’m about to say, yeah, I kind of feel like a hypocrite. I don’t think I’m particularly wrong about any of it, but I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve fallen short of my own standards here.
The secret to writing is this: you have to keep doing it.
You have to do it when you’re nursing a hangover from that party you went to the night before. You have to do it when the cat spent an ungodly hour yowling at your door, destroying the eight glorious hours of sleep you’d planned for yourself. You have to do it when you were at the office until an hour that doesn’t bear thinking about. You have to do it when the black cloud of depression is upon you. You have to do it when it’s a beautiful sunny day and you just want to spend it lying in the grass and you can’t take your laptop because the glare is just awful. You have to do it when you’re staring down writer’s block. It doesn’t matter what’s going on. If you want to actually make something of yourself as a writer, you have to stand up, put on your big girl pants, and then sit back down again and actually write.
If you wait for inspiration to strike, you will be waiting until wolves devour the sun and moon, King Arthur returns from Avalon, and the whole grand host of the sidhe comes riding down from Tir na nOg. Oh, I’m sure that some writers live in a land of milk and honey, where unicorns hand-deliver brilliant ideas on golden platters, outlines and settings and characters hand-written by their muses and sealed with big, wet, sloppy kisses. But the vast majority of us know that our muses are fickle, arbitrary jerks. That nothing comes without a price, and that price is the blood, sweat and tears we pour into turning that thin glimmer of inspiration into something full and vital and real. Writer’s block is not something that merely afflicts us, that comes for a season and drifts away on its own – it’s a dragon to be fought with everything we have, to be hacked at again and again until it thinks better of bothering us and goes back to its cave. And inspiration is not something that descends from on high: it is an elusive quarry, a stealthy beast that must be tracked and hunted and flushed out again and again.
So you have to carve out time to do the work. You have to take it wherever you can find it. And, once you’ve found that time, you have to set down your schedule and stick to it. Writing is work, and like any other work, it requires planning, and discipline, and routine. A lot of writers I know try to get an hour or two in every day. That’s a worthy goal. It’s a goal I’ve fallen short of more often than I care to admit, but it’s what I’m trying for. I do tend to get more work done on the weekends, but I try to get in at least an hour with Fall each day. In the last week, I’ve actually been taking my computer with me on the train – I have a solid forty-minute train ride between home and work each day, so even after I factor in booting up and shutting down, that’s thirty minutes coming and going, or an hour altogether. I don’t have Internet access on the train, and my iPod blasts my Fall-themed playlist straight into my ears the whole way, so distractions are minimized. I have to keep an eye on which station I’m actually pulling into, but I can manage that and still get a fair amount of writing done.
Even if you can’t actually put pen to paper – or fingers to keys – for some reason, you can still do the work. People were creating stories long before we had the luxury of computers, or typewriters, or ballpoint pens, or even movable type. If you really want to feel bad about yourself and all your excuses for not writing, take a look at the backstory behind The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a memoir composed entirely inside the author’s head and dictated to the outside world one letter at a time. I mean, I was in the hospital recently, as some of you may recall. I didn’t have it nearly that bad. I wasn’t nearly that dedicated to the work, either. Even so, I did spend my time in the hospital running through Fall in my head, and by the time I got out, I had a new character who filled in a lot of the gaps in the story. That playlist I mentioned? Well, on top of the 40-minute train ride, I have a 20-minute walk between the station and my house, and a 10-minute walk between the other station and my office. I keep the playlist running and I do my best to think about the book. Even when you’re not writing, you can be laying the foundation.
This isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon. You’re not going to bang out a novel in a single sitting. Neither am I. You have to keep chipping away at it. You have to build up your stamina, find a routine that works for you, and stick to it. If you’re not writing regularly, you’ll never be anything but a wannabe. I don’t want to be a wannabe. Do you?
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