I used to reread Ann Patchett’s essay ‘The Getaway Car’ whenever I got discouraged. There’s something wonderfully reassuring about her stories about waitressing at TGI Fridays while working on her first novel. It’s also packed with practical writing advice that I take to heart: ‘Make it hard. Set your sights on something that you aren’t quite capable of doing, whether artistically, emotionally, or intellectually. You can also go for broke and take on all three.’
It might not be the best I’ve ever heard, and it certainly isn’t the most appropriate for this moment in time, but the advice I most often need to hear is: You’ve got to get out. Take a walk. At the very least, these days, leave the screen and stand by a window. So much work can happen while you’re not working.
Make it a ritual. Bind writing to a daily non-writing activity so that you have a cue: the coffee, the Kix, the computer. The toothbrush, ten pets to the cat, the computer. Take the pressure off yourself to initiate writing and build it into an external sequence so you don’t have to ask yourself whether or when to begin. It’s decided in advance. The dishes, the gingersnap, the computer.
Sagirah Shahid offers some advice about listening/reading. I’m not sure if it’s the ‘best piece of writing advice’ I’ve ever gotten, but it certainly is wonderful, so I thought I’d share it: ‘Read widely, certainly across disciplines and absolutely beyond the United States and Europe and without a doubt within your own cultural traditions, but also listen to the album, the chapbook, the holy book—listen to that textbook that actually is not a textbook but is the person sitting right next to you on the bus ride home. There is a lesson there, that might also be a poem but you will never arrive to the poem if you aren’t listening.’
Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life…offers most of the best advice I have encountered, including: ‘You must demolish the work and start over. You can save some of the sentences, like bricks.’ And: ‘Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.’
I’ve been terrible at everything I’ve ever wanted to be good at—dating, tying my shoelaces, athletics, writing, driving, math, drawing, fashion, parenting—the first time I tried it. But years ago, my father, who’s a musician and public-school teacher, told me about how much better his music had gotten when he’d just made it a point to commit to doing it—with focus and intention—on a daily basis. Even when it’s terrible. Especially when it’s terrible. Intentional, focused practice: that’s it. Maybe some people are phenomenal enough to not need it, but for me there’s no shortcut. Not for anything.
Joan Didion said, ‘I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.’ The idea of beginning in not knowing is a comfort to me—there’s so much I don’t understand about the world and our human hearts.
Alexander Chee once said something like, When you put something that actually happened to you in a story, you have to privilege the needs of the story and not merely what happened. I don’t remember the exact quote, but I think about that all the time.
In ‘Personism’ Frank O’Hara writes, ‘You just go on your nerve,’ which isn’t the best advice for everyone—especially the ‘just’ part—but I’ve found it to be useful.
As writers, we must try to keep the reader on their toes. If you start getting bored, there’s a good chance the reader will get bored. Surprise yourself; surprise the reader.