- Tobias Wolff once said, "writing is learning to sit alone in a room." I couldn't agree more. If you feel you have better things to do with your time than sitting alone in a room, I sincerely applaud you. Go and do these things! Tell me about them over a beer tonight. This writing business is, as they say, a labor of love, but also one of humor, surprise, fear, courage, hope, and hopelessness and infinite other things—but I can't experience them if I'm talking to you now, can I? Later. I'll text you.
- It's writing time. Everything else waits. Ergo, leave the cellphone in another room.
- But first comes daydream time. Meaning: take time to unhurriedly contemplate the story you're planning to write. Scribble down thoughts as they occur. I call this country road research—sometimes it helps to just get in the car and drive. Just don't sit down at writing time with no clue what you're going to write—that's a recipe for frustration.
- And where to sit? Find your place. It could be the reading room of the town library, your home office, a coffeeshop/tattoo parlor, the parking lot of the Finger Lakes trail—there's a certain place that has creative power for you because something about it makes your brain more cooperative to the nefarious demands writing makes. Find that place. Use it. Respect it by not bringing gossip magazines or over-sugared brownies or unlimited wifi.
- Find a time. I'm going to suggest one: 7:47am. It's early, but not too early, so you've had a chance to walk the dog, take out the recyclables, answer pressing email, and cycle once through your favorite newsites ("did you see what Gawker said about that Texas politician?!" "Oh, Andrew Sullivan, I agree!"). 7:47 is also not so late that your brain is full of and fried by societal demands and bills and whatever servitude you've undertaken for your family's healthcare.
- The two hours immediately following that time are holy.
- The first hour of those two is not just holy but sacrosanct. Which really means the same as holy, only more holy! Also, I just like typing sacrosanct.
- The point here: in writing you are undertaking a spiritual act. Trusting that mental slurry will clarify into something understandable and even readable takes profound faith. And it does on occasion. And that it does still amazes me, and I do believe things that require faith and provoke amazement are miracles and should be honored as such. Hence: sacrosanct. Don't be tweeting.
- Kitchen sink that first draft. Throw every damn thing in there. If you aren't sure something belongs, if you aren't even remotely clear what the point of a certain tangent is—in it goes. It can help to do this draft with pen and paper, in poor handwriting, so you can't be eying and judging what you've put down as you go along.
- The goal with the next drafts is just to be a little better each time. Don't be chasing perfect sentences and metaphors as beautiful as rainbow moonbeams reflected in baby unicorn eyes. Settle for making each draft a little better. This takes patience because some of these drafts will make you aghast. But if there's a kernel in each that excites you, trust it will bloom in time.
- And throughout the process, please recognize and celebrate the fact that writing is completely ridiculous. At any moment—say when you're agonizing over whether to use the word "recognize" or "understand" or even just the pedestrian "know"—at that moment, a single willow branch abounds with the glory of a thousand star deaths. Your own fingers typing away on the keyboard, in their fine motor control and patchwork unique-to-all-existence wrinkles, are the Grand Central Station of four billion years of evolution. Are your feet crossed at the ankles? Imagine that! Does it matter whether your obvious artistic brilliance is recognized and understood and known? It does not, brother. Drown your sorrows over this travesty in the dust motes dancing in the sunbeams or in your old dog's sighs. Life is too short and too glorious for resentment.
- Active voice please. Unless passive would really go better. Then go ahead and use passive.