I’d Rather Be Writing


When I first started working on this book I thought: Oh no, the jig is up. If I write the truth everyone will know how much time I waste being compulsive about cleaning the gunk off the bottom of the electric toothbrush. I’d written novels and short stories; I’d written about novels and stories; I’d written about literature and mythology and even punctuation. But I’d never written about writing before, and the prospect of doing so was daunting—like trying to talk about talking, making sense while moving your lips without tripping over your tongue.

No sooner would I sit down to write than I’d find myself going into the kitchen to brew coffee or defrost something for dinner. I’d force myself to get back to my desk and sit there, splitting my ends or examining my eyelids in the mirror. I’d put the mirror away and the phone would ring. With a theatrical sigh of impatience (knowing full well how delighted I really was at the interruption), I’d answer and get into a long conversation about skin cancer with a friend who was trying to put off something she was supposed to be doing. In short, I felt like I needed to read this book more than write it.

Then I saw that was the point. All writers struggle with issues of time management, organization, and productivity, and we develop techniques for coping with such concerns. But we don’t often put those techniques into words, even to ourselves. We pace from room to room, muttering and feeling insane, wasting the few minutes we have to be doing what we want to be doing without realizing that that is our technique for starting—pacing and muttering. Recalcitrant about varying our schedules the slightest bit to accommodate our family’s schedules, we feel guilty about hoarding those precious hours but hoard them nonetheless (and feel guilty), never catching on to how we have to do just that—hoard the hours for our writing. Reluctant to start, resistant to finishing—and yet we manage to do it. We have figured out ways that enable us to find the time and use it productively, to kvetch and moan but somehow start and continue and finish our projects. But most of us, if you ask how we do it, are apt to stare dumbly and say: Dunno. Sit, I guess. Start. Keep going. Finish.

There’s more to it than that, but writers who are successful at managing their time and energy don’t waste much of it verbalizing how they get from wanting to write to actually writing. Still, I realized it would be helpful to other writers—new ones who are trying to find their way and old ones who have forgotten theirs—to learn how to do this.

And so I began, doing what I love and watching myself do it. How did I get myself started? What techniques did I have for getting past the demon of doubt, the seduction of laundry? Just as I was building up a head of steam, revealing the secrets of my writing life, my husband suggested I interview other writers to find out how they got themselves going. My initial impulse was to pick up the first volume of the Oxford English Dictionary and hit him over the head with it. Instead I contemplated this idea for a few days. As reluctant as I was to ask other writers how they coped with the desire and dread of writing—a reluctance built largely on the fear of the telephone, not wanting to interrupt a writer’s train of thought with my impertinent questions, thereby incurring his or her eternal wrath—I became curious. Soon I had a series of questions I wanted to ask: How do you find the time? The self-confidence? Do you use dreams? Do you have rituals? Are there secrets to getting yourself started? To keeping yourself going? To finishing? What about revision? What about responses from other writers? I found it easier to mail my questions out than risk telephoning—hey, I’m a writer, I’m used to rejection in the mail—but when the responses began coming in I found most writers were not reticent about revealing their secrets. They had their writing woes, and they had their ways of coping with them. It seemed as if we were all walking around locked in this prison of solitary activity, feeling like the only weirdos on the block when the truth was we were a community of weirdos (and not-so-weirdo). As Firesign Theater put it, “We’re all Bozos on this bus.”

The purpose of this book is to help the reader/writer make better use of his or her writing time. The book should prove useful in two ways: First of all, there is a solace in knowing you are not alone, that there are published, even famous, writers out there who deal daily with the frittering imps, that the great demon god of writer’s block casts its shadow over us all, even those who have never actually shivered with its chill. Second of all, there are ways to combat whatever keeps you from writing—whether what stands in your way is the inability to start, the loss of inspiration in the middle, or a general inability to finish a project. People who want to write but have lives that are overextended between family and career as it is will learn techniques for finding time in the cracks . . . and for using such time to write, not eat pretzels.

The book has a narrative flow and can be read from beginning to end, but each chapter is self-contained and can also be read as the topic pertains to issues in your writing life. Tips and quotations are laced throughout the chapters. My hope is that some of these may inspire you. If you only have an odd half-hour in which to write, you may find it useful to work on a “Try This,” one of the many exercises that come at the end of chapters or sections within chapters and are designed to help you over a particular hurdle. There is also a whole chapter devoted to exercises, to get your creativity flowing again.

In fact, perhaps you’d like to do the following “Try This” now: Write a few paragraphs on what you would like to find in a book about writing. Do you want it to have ways to help you find inspiration? (Got it.) Advice on getting past the first sentence? (Got that too.) Help in keeping inspiration alive during the times when you have to put your writing away to work on something more pressing? (See Chapter 26.) Stuff on how to write and still be a loving, generous parent? How to write and still have a career? How to use magic and rituals and dreams? (Yup, yup, and yup.) Chapters on craft? (Some.) I tried to put into this book anything I could think of to help you do what you love to do. But in the end, you sit, you stare, you start. So what are you waiting for? It’s time to write.

Tips for the Aspiring Writer

Set a timer for five minutes. During that time describe any sounds that you hear—the hum of your computer, the banging of workmen, the grumbling of your stomach. The next time you are distracted by noises, write the noises down. Pretend each is an instrument in an orchestra. Blend the sounds into one background Muzak, a soft, boring non-sound that you can easily tune out.

Daydreaming is writing. Lie down and fantasize about your characters or subject. Let your mind roam. When you hook a good one reel it in by writing about it.

Buy a small notebook you are comfortable carrying everywhere, and carry it everywhere. Use it to jot down those passing ideas, even the ones that aren’t so good. Refer to it during your writing time for a phrase to help you get started or for a jolt to reawaken an earlier plan. Make the notebook as essential a part of your leaving-the-house accoutrements as the door key. And don’t forget your pen.

Read half a story by a writer you admire and finish it in your own way before reading to see how the author did it.

You can learn a great deal from people’s mistakes. If you are in a workshop, don’t dismiss the stories that fail as unworthy of your attention. Put energy into your analysis of them. You will benefit from this in two ways: It will help you develop your critical facility, and you will also get the reputation of generosity and others will extend the same courtesy to your work.

If you combine exercise time with “writing” you will have more time for both. Use mindlessness of automatic-pilot activities such as jumping or walking to think about what you’re writing. Fantasize about scenes while on the treadmill. Think through your outline while bicycling.

Read more about I’d Rather Be Writing.

This material reprinted from I’d Rather Be Writing © 1999, Writer’s Digest Books. Not for reprint without express written permission of the publisher.

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