Note: The WritingEssentials blog is on hiatus. Meanwhile, favorite posts will be published with updates. Ellen ~~
As the current COVID-19 pandemic continues, I have been doing a lot of workshops and conferences on writing and writing—all virtual and many of them free—ones that I might not have easily done in “normal” times. The great thing about workshops is the exposure to different writing techniques and authors, all of which offer interesting pathways to writing. Not only do they offer support to beginning and “becoming” writers, but they also emphasize that there is no one way to write or become a writer. There are some standard recommendations, however, which is why I am revisiting and updating this post, originally entitled “How do I become a writer?” (See especially the new information below on Irish writer Eavan Boland.)
You become a writer by writing. This may sound simple, even silly, but it’s true.
As the classic joke goes, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Answer: “Practice, practice, practice.”
You also become a writer by practice, by writing and writing, over and over again. As with mastering any art or skill, mastering writing takes repeated practice.
But, what do you write?
Experienced writers recognize the terrors of the blank page or screen, as well as the hauntings of negative self-talk, of the inner critic or censor, about not having any talent, about not being good enough. Even successful writers, writers who have published and have gotten acclaim for their work, can be plagued by these feelings of being an imposter: not only is each book, each project, a new start, a new challenge, but these authors have the sense that somehow they fooled the readers with that work.
What they do recognize is that they have to write. Joan Bolker, in her chapter “Getting Started Writing,” says that “the single most useful piece of equipment for writers [is] a bucket of glue” to fix you to your chair. Writers have to sit in the chair and write, or stand at a desk and write, as Hemingway did and the new health recommendations advise. (Writing your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day 32).
Naomi Epel, author of The Observation Deck, makes a similar point in her choice of the Yiddish expression, “Ribe Tuchus,” which means “rub your bottom on the chair.” She says “sometimes this is exactly what you have to do. Sit, even if you think you don’t have anything to write.” She goes on to relate how authors have used this technique. Flannery O’Connor would sit for three hours a day, even if she couldn’t write. To overcome the problem of getting started, Daniel Pinkwater began a regimen of one hour a day, and then increased to two hours, where he had to sit at a table; he didn’t have to write, but he couldn’t do anything else. For Pinkwater, the writing improved over time (50-51).
It is also a matter of reserving time for you writing and doing it regularly. Writing guru Tara Gray (Publish and Flourish) stresses the importance of making time for your writing, carving out time in your day, scheduling the writing session in your calendar, and not letting anything interfere or interrupt it. Fred White in The Daily Writer recommends working out a writing regimen around your social obligations—job, family, friends. Go over it with your spouse/partner/housemates. Put it to the test for at least 2 weeks and then make whatever adjustments you deem necessary.
Composition and writing teachers, like Peter Elbow, Natalie Goldberg, and Robert Ray, have been recommended daily writing for years. The kind of writing they recommend is free-writing or timed writing, setting a timer and writing whatever comes to your mind, sometimes using a prompt – a word or phrase or image as a starter – but not worrying if you’re on the topic or off it, not worrying if your stuff is connected or logical. Just play with your subject, make a mess. The important thing is to get the ideas out, to get your impressions down, recording what Goldberg calls “first thoughts,” the mind reflecting experiences and insights (Writing Down the Bones 68).
What does it mean to write every day? The important thing is to set realistic goals. Bolker says that you can define your “every day,” whether it is seven days a week, only on weekdays, or as the Weekend Novelist series of writing books by Ray recognize, it is the weekends that you can devote to writing. However, writing regularly, even if you don’t feel like it, has its benefits as noted earlier with O’Connor and Pinkwater.
Writing regularly, even 5 or 15 or 30 minutes a day, has shown to increase the quality and quantity of the writing—as much as four times as much. Gray refers to William Carlos Williams, the American poet (who was also a physician) who produced a large body of work during office hours by writing single lines of poetry between patients (14). The approach of Eavan Boland, a most prominent Irish writer, echoes that of Williams. Boland, who died in early 2020, shook up the poetical male field with her focus on a personal and feminine side usually missing from the men’s work. Of her method, Boland says, “I used to work out of notebooks, and I learned when you have young children that you can always do something. If you can’t do a poem, you can do a line. And if you can’t do a line, you can do an image – and that pathway that leads you along, in fragments, becomes astonishingly valuable.”
To paraphrase Gray, every writer has something to say. When are you going to start writing and share what you have to say?