I’ve been writing since I was eight years old. I mean that when I was eight years old, I started telling people I was a writer. I’d spend my time drawing the covers of my future novels, agonizing over typography, devising pen names for myself. And I would write. By the time I was ten, I’d written at least twenty mostly murder-and-dismemberment-related short stories, not including my typewritten sequel to the movie Alien, which I typed in red ink (because: blood). At eleven, I won my first writing contest, with a story about a cannibal with a heart of gold. And this was at a time when most of my friends still couldn’t read. Well, they could read, but they didn’t. To paraphrase Twain, What’s the difference?
Point is, I was pretty sure of myself as a writer, and that stuck with me all the way through my twenties and thirties, despite a lot of practical evidence to the contrary. I wasn’t a writer at all. I could write well enough, just in a purely literal sense, but so could a great many other people who had better stories to tell. And I wasn’t even writing all that much. I started a lot of things and had grand ideas, but even if I wasn’t still drawing my book covers, I wasn’t putting in the real work of being a writer, either.
This is supposed to be an essay about my path to publication, and I believe the idea is to write something that might be meaningful to other aspiring writers. Of course writers are all different, and it’s not very profound to say there isn’t one right way to go about it. Half the advice we get as writers is probably wrong (for us) or contradicts the other half. There isn’t a magical list of rules to follow, or a set of universal strategies.
(But lists are fun. So these are just my own strategies, the things I remind myself of to get me or keep me going.)
If there was anything I believed in more than my natural-born writing prowess, it was my instincts as a storyteller.
Turns out that my instincts lead pretty often to a place that feels maybe too familiar. That makes sense. I’ve read tons of stories, and I know how stories are supposed to work, don’t I? So it’s natural, when I’m thinking about where to go, that my subconscious (filled with all those stories I’ve read since I was a kid) is whispering: This is the way a story gets told, this is where it has to go. These are the beats.
But any halfway decent writer can write that story, the one with those beats. And if it’s familiar to me as the writer, it’ll feel familiar to you as the reader, too. Familiar is good sometimes. Surprising is better. Surprising and true—resonant in any way you can find to be resonant—is best of all, and that’s always going to be a stretch. It should be a stretch. There’s a reason why no one describes anything as “formulaic and amazing.”
Doubt your instincts. Be wary of the answer that comes too easy, that just feels right, and that leaves you pleased but not shaken by what you’ve done. You ought to feel shaken if you’re doing it right.
Just as I thought I’d always been a writer, I thought I’d always been a reader. But there was no breadth to my reading. I read the same kinds of writers and the same kinds of stories, and as a result (see “Doubt your instincts”) I wrote the same kinds of stories. Again, it made sense, because my idea of what good writing was all about—style and content, both—was narrow.
Breaking out of that didn’t just give me new ideas to steal, although it did that, too. It kicked me out of the loop I was in, that I’d made for myself. Creativity is a muscle. Reading helps to build it so you can exercise it when you write. And reading widely and closely, I think, keys you into what other writers do well and how they do it. It also reminds you how many ways there are to tell a story that matters, how few limits there really are.
I have a full-time job. On a really good day, I think I may write for two or three hours, and finish anywhere from one to two paragraphs. Most of that I’ll probably throw out. Other days, I may only get an hour to write, or less, and I may end up with a single sentence that I’ve rearranged four times before deleting altogether. So it’s possible I’m not the person to give advice on churning out pages.
The great majority of us don’t get to write full-time. And even those who do aren’t always able to write, because of sick children, phone calls, birthday parties, house guests, holidays, needy dogs, household chores, whatever’s going on across the street that you totally need to check out, and so on.
I get stressed when I don’t write. We all do as writers. But among the best advice I received in grad school (and it was a throwaway line during a lecture) was to be at peace with not writing. Not because stressing when you have writer’s block or when you can’t find the time to write isn’t helpful, though it isn’t. Instead, the point was that a part of writing—maybe the biggest part—is being open to the world and paying attention, accumulating the raw material that will inevitably shape what you write. Which is just another way of saying that if you’re a writer, there’s never a time when you’re not writing. At least that’s what I tell myself when I’m spying on the neighbor from my office window.
I’ve had big ideas, ambitious ideas, hypothetically sure-fire ideas for stories and novels. Then when I start to write them out, I feel as if I’m transcribing, second or third-hand, the Cliff Notes version of someone else’s story.
That’s nice, I might think. And then I’ll put it aside, and a year later I’ll open the file again and read what I’ve written and try to remember why that seemed like such a great idea in the first place.
On the other hand, I can write a single odd description or a single surprising line of dialogue, and I’ll think:
Oh right, that’s who I am.
Which doesn’t mean I think I won’t ever write something big or ambitious. It just means there are no shortcuts to getting there. It can start with anything—small, goofy, sweet, horrifying, whatever—as long as it starts with something true. That’s what will keep me writing, but even more important than that, that’s what will keep someone reading, if anything will.
One of my MFA advisors critiqued a story of mine by saying this: “If you don’t care what happens to this character, why should I care?”
It’s easy for a writer to get caught up in language. It’s what we all care about, probably disproportionately to the rest of the world—even the smaller world of readers. It’s easy to zero in on craft (especially when we’re being told to focus on craft) and lose sight of the point of the whole thing.
To get back to where I started, then: I thought I was a writer because I had a decent grasp of the craft. Looking back, maybe I didn’t even really have that. And even if I did, what I needed to remember—what I still tell myself when I sit down to write—is that nothing matters if I’m not invested in whatever I put my characters through. Even if I don’t like them all that much. Even if I make them suffer horrible things. Especially if I make them suffer horrible things. If I’m going to ask someone to take the leap of faith that any act of reading requires, and believe (against all reason) in my made-up world and my made-up people, then the least I can do, and maybe the best I can do, is to always give a damn.
By Tom Howard