Making Order Out of Chaos
I don’t write much about the act of writing because I am superstitious about it. If I talk, think, write or otherwise focus on it too much I lose the momentum. But like most superstitions, it doesn’t really hold water. Writing is a delicate balance: part forced march, part relaxation until inspiration strikes, and fun when it’s working.
Writing is making order out of chaos. It’s regurgitating ideas on the page and then going back and arranging and trimming and plumping up.
Here are ELEVEN things I do that work for me.
1. I keep a schedule, but it’s a daily schedule. I am not someone who writes every morning then goes for a walk. Looser works best for me. Writing is about focusing my energy. I don’t have an endless supply and that’s why when I’m writing I wake up every morning and make a plan. That plan may be to hold off for a day and not write. I may write after a walk, or after I answer emails, or after I read something. Or I may jump right in. But everything else in my life, and I mean everything, is subjugated to writing. See # 2.
2. I have an M.F.A. in fiction from the University of Arizona, and for a long time I wrote short stories. One day I got a letter from an agent, Nat Sobel, and he asked me if I was working on a novel. I was. We stayed in touch for a while and he sent me a great article called, “Writing in the Cold,” about how hard it is to go from the relatively nurturing, safe environment of an M.F.A. program to try to be a successful writer in the real world. I remember it said to write well you must “forgo the love of beautiful men and women.” I took that to mean you have to make writing the focus. You have to let things/people go if they get in the way of writing.
3. Keep a pen and paper next to your bed. Go to sleep thinking about what you want to write the next day.
4. Stop writing before you finish a scene or thought so you can easily pick up the next day.
5. I take Ann Lamot’s advice in Bird By Bird and keep a piece of paper with me all the time to write down ideas. I have little scraps everywhere. I also talk into my phone a lot with ideas but these little scraps help me more. I think because they are tangible and tactile, and I have to do something with them. But I can channel William Faulkner on the phone.
6. Tell stories: Talk to people face-to-face. Tell them stories you’re thinking of writing. If they seem bored, or it’s hard for you to keep their attention, don’t use it. Tighten it so it’s shorter and try it on someone else. You have to develop good radar for how people react to your stories. You’re looking for engaged listeners. Sometimes I can’t let go of a story even though I never get a great reaction to it. But I don’t write it. I just keep telling it. Look for clues in body language: walking away, grimacing, shaking of head, taking a swing at you-- these are all clues your story is no good— or maybe just too long.
7. Do what you can. You have to do a lot of sitting down and staying put to write, but you also have to be in the world. And when you’re out in the world you have to be always looking at things and analyzing. I think for good writers this is instinctive. It’s in the DNA.
8. Walk or do some other exercise. It gets your brain working. I can’t write unless I walk.
9. Did I say 11 things? Okay. Here’s 9, 10, and 11: Do it, do it, do it. I talk with so many people who have great ideas, or they say they want to write something and it seems like they have great ideas and strong desire, but they don’t do it.