As April ushers in sunshine and flowers, and the spring holidays have adherents talking about new beginnings, the writing world is overflowing with people setting goals. Some are participating in the 100 days project, which begins today and requires doing something creative each day for 100 days straight. Others are embarking on Camp NaNoWriMo, a “practice run” month of novel-writing, and the more verse-inclined are scribbling a poem a day for National Poetry Month (either through the auspices of NaPoWriMo or not).
And even if we’re doing none of those things, but simply contemplating Ken Cosgrove’s choice to abandon his writing to get revenge on his advertising colleagues on the premiere of Mad Men, today is a good day to rededicate oneself to the craft. So here’s a collection of words from writers beyond the usual suspects — writers of color, feminists, genre writers, and even a Renaissance poet — talking about the hard work of building habits, agonizing over the writing process, and wrestling with the muse. If they don’t have you waking up at dawn tomorrow with a pen and a notebook, nothing will.
“And if you’re gonna be a writer, you just truly have to be a writer. You have to throw yourself into it and deal with the negative consequences of that. And there are negative consequences. I mean, there are. But, it’s also true that you wouldn’t be interviewing me right now if I had worked at the post office. You wouldn’t. I would be still writing, but I wouldn’t have gotten as far as I’ve gotten, because I wouldn’t have had the time.”
“Most people say, “Show, don’t tell,” but I stand by Show and Tell, because when writers put their work out into the world, they’re like kids bringing their broken unicorns and chewed-up teddy bears into class in the sad hope that someone else will love them as much as they do.”
Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she, dear she, might take some pleasure of my pain,
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,—
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe;
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain,
Oft turning others’ leaves to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sun-burned brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting invention’s stay;
Invention, nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows,
And others’ feet still seemed but strangers in my way.
Thus, great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
Fool, said my muse to me, look in thy heart and write.
— Sir Philip Sidney
“If I had a staff of even one person, or could tolerate a small amphetamine habit, or entertain the possibility of weekly blood transfusions, or had been married to Vera Nabokov, or had a housespouse of even minimal abilities, a literary life would be easier to bring about. (In my mind I see all your male readers rolling their eyes. But your female ones — what is that? Are they nodding in agreement? Are their fists in the air?)”
Don’t think about how your characters sound, but how they see. Watch the world through their eyes — study the extraordinary and the mundane through their particular perspective. Walk around the block with them, stroll the rooms they live in, figure out what objects on the cluttered dining room table they would inevitably stare at the longest, and then learn why.”
“And if there is one here, it’s this: I am emphatically not an example of someone who first was too busy with her kids to write, and then finally wasn’t too busy with her kids to write; so wrote. I am an example of someone who was a complete self-sabotaging head case, blocked, miserable, wasting days, years, despairing, depressed, mistreating the people around me, mistreating myself, certain that in old age I would feel a regret so keen that I feared that emotion more than I feared eventual death.”
“Oh my God, what if you wake up some day, and you’re 65, or 75, and you never got your memoir or novel written; or you didn’t go swimming in warm pools and oceans all those years because your thighs were jiggly and you had a nice big comfortable tummy; or you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life, of imagination and radical silliness and staring off into space like when you were a kid? It’s going to break your heart. Don’t let this happen. Repent just means to change direction — and NOT to be said by someone who is waggling their forefinger at you. Repentance is a blessing. Pick a new direction, one you wouldn’t mind ending up at, and aim for that. Shoot the moon.”
“The old incapacity. Interrupted my writing for barely ten days and already cast out. Once again prodigious efforts stand before me. You have to dive down, as it were, and sink more rapidly than that which sinks in advance of you.”
— Franz Kafka
“And we all get mired in the bullshit, the personality quirks, the personality disorders (ours and everyone else’s), the jealousy, the disappointment, the blocks, the financial struggle, our egos, I do it too, I do it too, but if you can’t remember it is all about the work and nothing else then I can’t help you and you can’t help yourself and you will lose. I promise you. You will lose.”
“I could give you absolutely sterling advice on how to avoid writing, how when you run out of things to do other than going to your desk and writing, when every closet is reorganized and you’ve called your oldest living relative twice in one day to see what she’s up to and there isn’t an unanswered e-mail left on your computer or you simply can’t bear to answer another one and there is no dignity, not a drop left, in any further evasion of the task at hand, namely writing, well, you can always ask your dentist for a root canal or have an accident in the bathtub instead.”
“I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten — happy, absorbed and quietly putting one bead on after another. ”
― Brenda Ueland
“This afternoon, burn down the house. Tomorrow, pour critical water upon the simmering coals. Time enough to think and cut and rewrite tomorrow. But today-explode-fly-apart-disintegrate! The other six or seven drafts are going to be pure torture. So why not enjoy the first draft, in the hope that your joy will seek and find others in the world who, by reading your story, will catch fire, too?”
“We have come to think that duty should come first. I disagree. Duty should be a by-product. Writing, the creative effort, the use of the imagination, should come first – at least, for some part of every day of your life. It is a wonderful blessing if you use it. You will become happier, more enlightened, alive, impassioned, light-hearted and generous to everybody else. Even your health will improve. Colds will disappear and all the other ailments of discouragement and boredom.”
― Brenda Ueland (again).
“The first two, three, four weeks are wasted. I just show up in front of the computer. Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too. If she doesn’t show up invited, eventually she just shows up.”
“At the same time, I probably am more plagued than most of my contemporaries with the feeling that fiction writing is selfish. I’m not sure what I’m contributing to. That’s different from being didactic. You can’t make a useful contribution by being didactic because the novel will be dead. But do I want my work to be culture shifting? The answer is yes. I need to feel I have made society less restrictive in some way, that I have promoted understanding, that I have provided a place of reflection that has enabled people to become more thoughtful. I do think that’s a manifestation of an interdependent orientation.”
— Gish Jen
“I remember standing on a street corner with the black painter Beauford Delaney down in the Village, waiting for the light to change, and he pointed down and said, ‘Look.’ I looked and all I saw was water. And he said, ‘Look again,’ which I did, and I saw oil on the water and the city reflected in the puddle. It was a great revelation to me. I can’t explain it. He taught me how to see, and how to trust what I saw. Painters have often taught writers how to see. And once you’ve had that experience, you see differently.”
“The process of writing a novel is like taking a journey by boat. You have to continually set yourself on course. If you get distracted or allow yourself to drift, you will never make it to the destination. It’s not like highly defined train tracks or a highway; this is a path that you are creating discovering. The journey is your narrative. Keep to it and there will be a tale told.”
― Walter Mosley
“First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.”
“The other producer of old age is habit: the deathly process of doing the same thing in the same way at the same hour day after day, first from carelessness, then from inclination, at last from cowardice or inertia. Luckily the inconsequent life is not the only alternative; for caprice is as ruinous as routine. Habit is necessary; it is the habit of having habits, of turning a trail into a rut, that must be incessantly fought against if one is to remain alive.”
“The habit of getting up early, which I had formed when the children were young, now became my choice. I am not very bright or very witty or very inventive after the sun goes down.”