To Be, You Have to Do

There’s a well-worn story about a famous writer who was asked to teach a creative writing class. On the first day, she asked her students, “Who in here wants to be a writer?”

Not surprisingly, every hand in the room went up.

After a moment’s pause, the author asked her class, “So, who in here wants to write?”

The students glanced around at each other with nervous smiles, perhaps feeling like they had already answered this question or wondering about the fading mental capabilities of this famous author, who was aging after all.

Finally, one brave soul ventured to say, “Didn’t you just ask us that?”

But then the famous writer smiled, because here was her first lesson to the class.

She said, “No, there is a world of difference between wanting to BE something and wanting to DO something. You can’t BE unless you want to DO.”

abbemar_1327517970_charlesdickens2

Certainly, this same principle applies to most professions, but it’s an especially important lesson to learn about romantic figures like authors and musicians and movie stars. You can’t BE the thing unless you DO the thing.

That means getting out of your own way and letting the words fill page after page. And doing it as much as possible. Look at Charles Dickens in the above photo. He wrote so much he didn’t even put down his pen for this photo shoot. While the photographer futzed around with all his new-fangled equipment, Dickens kept working!

One of my writing heroes, Ray Bradbury summed up his own method with the phrase, “Vomit in the morning, and clean up at noon.” By that, he meant that you can’t allow your internal editor to stop you from writing. When you’re writing a new draft, you need to compose at full tilt.  Even if you think the sentences are choppy of the wordings aren’t quite right, just go as fast as you can and get it all written down. The “cleaning up at noon” part is when you come back and do editing. You can fix any of those problems later when you come back to the piece. Initially, your goal is just to get it down on paper, or in some word processing document.

Personally, I favor Scrivener for longer projects. The learning curve can feel steep, but they offer a free 30-day trial. Developed by and for writers (as opposed to most word processing software), Scrivener remains very affordable at just forty-five bucks with free upgrades, and it does all the things I want a program to do. Mostly, it gets out of my way.

Of course, by now some of you are thinking this is all well and good but worrying about so-called “writer’s block” and wondering what you’re supposed to do about that.

Well, it turns out that most successful writers don’t believe in writer’s block; they can’t afford to. Besides, they’re too busy writing. Craig Johnson, author of the Walt Longmire mysteries set in rural Wyoming (the books upon which the TV series is based), lives on a working cattle ranch. He’s up before dawn doing the ranch work all morning and into the afternoon. When his physical labor wraps up in the afternoon, he turns his attention to his writing and he never has writer’s block because he looks at writing like the rest of his work. He says, “Writing is work.  It’s just like digging a ditch. Have you ever heard of someone having digger’s block?  You know, I really want to dig today but I’m just not feeling the ditch.” We laugh because it’s ridiculous. You don’t have to be in the right mood to dig a ditch. You just need a shovel.

Which brings us to tools.  Make sure you can use your tools effectively and that you have everything you need, including a place to sit down and do your work uninterrupted.  I don’t currently have a home office that’s dedicated to my writing — the place is too small for that, so I sit at the kitchen table or work in my recliner. But, that said, I’ve also spent a lot of my writing career working in cafes. If you find the right place, you can sit there all day for the price of a cup of coffee and maybe a cookie. I’m not your nutritionist, I’m your writing coach, so you need to know what is healthiest for you, but I personally find an indulgence can at least initially prove enough of a reward to get you to sit down and I write.

The point is that you need to find what works for you, but I find that if you visit the same library or coffee shop day after day, the people who work there will come to expect you and that’s helpful because it’s an external commitment. The buddy system works well too. Pick a writing partner and keep after each other to maintain a good work ethic. We’ll do as much support as we can in this class, but we also want to get habits in place that will last beyond the end of the quarter, so think long-term.

You’ll also want to think about whether you like to work in longhand in a spiral notebook or on legal pads and if you like to use a pencil or a cheap ballpoint or a fancy fountain pen. Or maybe you’ll find that you want to work on a laptop and just pour through the words as quickly as possible. Personally, I go back and forth. If I need to write a fast draft of something, I’ll use my computer because I can type much faster than I can write by hand. I can also type comfortably for much longer because after an hour or two of writing in longhand I start to get writer’s cramp (and that’s a real thing, unlike “writer’s block”). Depending on the piece, I may choose to write by hand to deliberately slow myself down. A lot of my academic writing comes out in longhand at first. That’s because I need to really think through every word and every sentence. Sure, it’s a slower, more introspective process, but that’s the point. I find going slower makes my voice more sophisticated and my vocabulary more elevated.

When my goal is to sound smart, I write in longhand. I also like the idea of having a built-in editing process when I transfer longhand manuscripts into the computer.  But for magazine articles, conference talks, blog posts like this one, and most of my genre fiction, I tend to write drafts on a laptop. When I type, my voice comes out more rapid-fire, punchier, more off the cuff. That tone creates a more readable, more commercial style of writing. If you’re setting out to write a best seller, I’d say you probably want to type. That said, James Patterson writes by hand on legal tablets.

You’ll have to find what works best for you and stick with it.  Experiment with different tools and different places to see what makes you the most productive. But whether you’re using a MacBook Pro or a Bic ballpoint and a spiral notebook, make the commitment to start your writing habit today. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

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About Chuck Caruso

writer of dark fiction (crime, horror & western noir), literary & textual scholar (american gothic, noir, po-co, sf), and cultural critic View all posts by Chuck Caruso

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