You've Got a Book in You
A Stress-Free Guide to Writing the Book of Your Dreams
Then you got older and in high school or even college you had to write papers. Oh, gosh! At this point there were so many rules that by the time you got them figured out, you forgot what you wanted to say.
Or maybe you took a creative writing class because you had a spark inside you that drove to you to write. I took one in high school. The only thing I remember was the teacher telling us that Ray Bradbury wrote a thousand words a day for ten years before he got somewhat good at writing. This was supposed to be inspiring.
I left school with an uneasy relationship with writing. (Big surprise.) I could do it, but it was hard. It made me worried. Yet I wrote, and I wanted to write well. I stayed away from creative writing classes and tried listening to authors directly. They all seemed to feel that writing is hard.
Red Smith, the most famous sportswriter of the twentieth century, said, "There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein."
He was just the beginning. Tons of really famous, successful writers say things like that all the time. I won't repeat them here because we don't need the stress. If you listen to practically any professional writer talk about what they do, you'll hear it, over and over. Lots of how-to-write books say stuff like that as well. The problem is, these people are believable because they're accomplished.
How could they not know what they're talking about?
So we believe them, and we try to write, and we struggle and bleed, believing that's the process. When we have a breakthrough and the writing comes as easy as breathing, we consider it a temporary gift from the gods, soon to be snatched away again.
After all, that's what they tell us will happen.
But they're wrong.
Why? Because they're stuck on all those rules, which are really details that have nothing to do with the core act of writing. And because of their belief in rules, they're stuck with the conviction that what they do is almost impossible.
The other thing is, and we must be honest, we must be unflinchingly honest here: it's an ego trip for lots of authors to tell how hard it was to write their books, how tough, how they almost committed suicide nineteen times during those long, long months of lonely struggle. Lonely, lonely. Struggle, struggle.
Ordeals lend writers legitimacy and charisma. Moreover, ordeals make us feel special. Ordeals give us excuses for taking five years to write a book. While drinking too much. The truth is, ordeals in writing are totally self-inflicted. Nobody's standing over you making you struggle, forcing you to suffer. Struggle and suffering in writing are matters of personal choice. We don't like to admit it, but we know it's true.
I realized that most successful writers are successful in spite of their belief that writing is hard. If they could relax and get the hell out of their own way, imagine what they could accomplish!
If you want to write a book, you can struggle and suffer too—or you can choose to write with patience, and receptiveness, and a heart filled with zest. You can have fun. By the way, isn't zest a wonderful word? In our careful world, 'feeling just OK' seems to be the new normal. I want zest, dammit. Zest, joy, and ferocious awareness.
You know, I don't feel particularly scared of writing. I don't feel that writing is hard; I love it.
You are an exemplar. I encourage you to share your attitude and experiences with others. Keep hold of that positive 'tude.
But writing being fun? I'm not sure about that.
If it's not fun, it's not worth doing. Boy, chisel that one on any spare piece of granite you've got lying around the house:
CHISEL IT IN STONE:
IF IT'S NOT FUN, DON'T DO IT.
Which raises the thrilling corollary, also chisel-worthy:
CHISEL IT IN STONE:
IF IT'S NOT FUN, MAKE IT FUN.
What's fun got to do with it? After all, this is serious business, writing a book.
The thing is, readers can always tell whether an author had fun while writing. They might not know what's wrong with a book they find boring; they simply don't like it. The book doesn't resonate with them, it doesn't sing. And that's because the author labored over it. The author didn't have fun.
It's true: No matter how serious the subject, you can only do justice to it—fullhearted justice—if you have fun with it.
I don't mean you have to make jokes or write comedy, unless that's really your aim. You can have fun with the most serious—even tragic or horrifying—of subjects. By fun I mean a sense of play, an attitude of willingness to try anything, to make a fool of yourself by making mistakes, to slam down something outrageous.
If you're having fun, you can't be afraid. So don't think you need to vanquish fear; just focus on having fun.
Let's take my claim to the extreme and see if it holds up.
A man who's been thrown to the lions knows he's got a high likelihood of getting his neck snapped and his belly devoured before he's dead. But he also knows that he's got a chance. A slim chance, but a chance! If he can figure out how to outsmart the lions and escape, somehow he'll live.
What if he goes in with fear as his chiefest emotion? He'll be tight and rigid, both mentally and physically. He might survive, but he has a better chance of not only surviving but decisively winning if he can relinquish fear and rigidity and bring a flexible plan to the fight.
He'll benefit by not seeing the fight as a fight at all, but as a situation that is not threatening. The greatest warriors, in fact, tell us that they approach war as an art—flexible, receptive, smart. The ultimate warrior brings an aliveness and a sense of joy to the battle, and a fearless immediacy.
You could call it fun.
By contrast, suffering is rooted in worry.
Worry is rooted in ingrained, life-force-sapping rules and expectations. Therefore, the only thing standing between you and your book right now is worry—and those damned rules. That's it. I'm here to help you find your way past all that nonsense.
Which brings us to:
CHISEL IT IN STONE:
PERFECT IS THE ENEMY OF GOOD.
Wise people from the dawn of time have said this. Shakespeare put it in his play King Lear: "Striving to better, oft we mar what's well." Your grandma said, "Let well enough alone."
It's true: Perfectionism stops us in our tracks far too often in writing and in life, holding us back from accomplishing important stuff we want to do, especially long-held dreams.
I learned this for myself, gradually, while writing my novels, nonfiction (including this book), and countless articles, essays, stories and poems. It came to me while counseling aspiring writers, teaching workshops, and talking with other authors. Writing, I realized, was really not the problem. The problem was worry itself. Anxiety is the evil conjoined twin of rigidity. Plus throw in fear of failure, which is maybe the incestuous offspring of anxiety and perfectionism, and you get a family tree from hell.
Once I learned to relinquish worry, my writing flowed freely. I had stopped being my own stumbling block. With what I've learned I've helped lots of writers. When I sit down to write, I feel like an otter slipping into the water. I love it so much. That's how I want you to feel.
Instinctively, you know it takes guts to write a book. You need courage to keep going through the process, and fortitude to shrug off negativity. That's OK. You've got guts. And the fact is, your guts are going to work a whole lot better when you're rid of worry.
The Great Open Secret
The real challenge is that writing requires patience. Patience for yourself, patience for your work, patience for other people's response to your work. The way to cultivate patience is to persist. And the way to succeed as a writer, by whatever standards you set for yourself, is to persist. That is the great open secret, right there in plain sight. Inborn talent is lovely to have. Good fortune is a fine thing. But over those things you have no control. You do have control over your persistence. Every day you choose what you will do. You choose what is important to be done, and you do it.
Writing also requires humility. It takes deep humility to put yourself out into the world as you are, to offer your work, to accept what comes to you. And humility begins with courage. You're being courageous doing what you're doing right now, reading this book. You have control over whether you behave bravely or cowardly.
You have control over being persistent, and you have control over being patient. Raise your hand if this makes you think of Siddhartha ("I can think, wait, and fast.")
You have control over acceptance. You can choose to accept all the wonderful and terrible things in the world that you cannot control.
If perfect is the enemy of good, then are you saying I should write without caring whether my work is any good?
Yes! Only by giving yourself permission to write poorly will you write anything at all. Once you've got something down on the page, you'll find it easier to keep going, to find the groove, the flow.
When you give yourself permission to write poorly, you are implicitly saying, "I've got the skills to make this better later if I decide it's no good." You're reinforcing your own inner strength.
To write the book of your dreams, all you really need are a few tools, starting with the calm knowledge that you can do it. Not the belief that you can do it. The knowledge that you can. That's where real gumption comes in. You're going to use your courage not in a big fight against yourself and your language and the world, but in acceptance and receptivity. You're going to allow yourself to write your book. It does take deep courage to do that, but the expending of courage breeds courage.
You're going to write your book the way you want to write it. And it'll be pretty decent, maybe even great, if you stay out of your own way. Developing flow in your writing is the thread that runs through this book.
If your idea for a book is still so vague that you don't have a title, think of one now. What few words describe your book? They can be as simple as My Story or as descriptive as Sewer Worker from the Bronx sets out to Solve Daughter's Murder in Peace Corps in Peru. You can change it later if you want to, but right now you need a working title.
That's a great term right there: working title. Because when it comes out in conversation that you're writing a book, somebody will ask, "What's the title?" or "What's it about?" Instead of answering, "Um, it's too early to have a real title," you'll simply say, "The working title is _________" and give them a calm smile.
But I don't always feel calm.
You don't have to. You can write scared. But know that confidence calms the nerves. Confidence banishes worry, and how do you gain confidence? By trusting the skills you have. You know you can write.
I get what you're saying, but I think you're overrating confidence. For instance, I could have all the confidence in the world, but unless I've studied and trained to do brain surgery, I can't simply walk into an operating room and cut a tumor out of somebody's head.
Well, you could, but the results would be really poor. No, to do brain surgery you'd have to study, and you'd have to practice, and you'd have to believe when you tie on that gown and put on your gloves that you've got what it takes to do the job. Because all the knowledge in the world doesn't help a surgeon who's hyperventilating at the door to the operating room because she's afraid of making a mistake.
It's also true that no beginning tennis player will ever win the final at Wimbledon, no matter how much confidence he brings to the court. No, he must learn his sport and practice it.
Is writing that much different?
Yes! Because while you weren't born with a scalpel or tennis racquet in your hand, you were born to words. Your whole life long, you've been thinking thoughts and telling stories, describing things, telling jokes, making puns, making up rhymes and little songs, repeating stories you heard and remembered, making up stories of your own, telling fibs, white lies, outright lies, writing thank-you notes, forging school excuses and permission slips, getting into arguments, defending your opinions, apologizing, writing papers, writing emails, memos for work, blogs, texting, letters of complaint, recommendations, sympathy cards, and, gosh, what else?
And you've been reading your whole life long, from ads on the sides of buses to online news, from comics to thick books, maybe even Shakespeare—maybe just a little Shakespeare?
A tennis player who's made it to Wimbledon has worked diligently to develop his skills, and he knows he can win only if he trusts those skills. He has also learned by experience that matches are not necessarily won by the bigger player, the stronger player, or the player whose parents have spent the most money on elite tennis camps.
They are won by the player who best puts aside doubt and fear, and who plays with relaxed focus: the player who lets his body and mind flow the freest.
Speaking of tennis, author Tim Gallwey explored and developed techniques for superior tennis performance in The Inner Game of Tennis. He also wrote The Inner Game of Golf, which as a golfer I've read and found wonderfully useful. I feel that my ideas about writing resonate with his in sport.
You can build your talent, but the fact is, talent is the thing you have least control over. By contrast, you have total control over the amount of patience, guts, and persistence you bring to your writing. And that's beautiful.
But isn't writing lonely and sad? Isn't the suicide rate for writers really high?
The suicide rate for people who are easily discouraged is high. If you are a writer, there is no need for you to ever be discouraged—at least not for long. A disappointment can sting, a sluggish day can put you in a funk, but you'll shrug it off quickly if you keep this in mind: If you can talk, you can write, and if you can write, you can tell the stories you were born to share.
Maybe it's fiction you want to write, or maybe you're feeling moved to write about your life. What's the one thing you wish you'd known earlier in life? Think about it. There's a book there! You can tell the world. If you could change one thing about your job or your workplace, what would it be and why? There's a book there, too. You can tell the world.
The best writers are the ones who have learned to believe in and trust their natural skills. That's why sometimes a first-time author wins a major prize or gets on the best-seller list.
It does happen.
What's the name of your book? Do you have a title yet? If so, write it down now. Go ahead. Print it carefully on an index card or something. How does it look? Beautiful! Put it in your pocket. That's your book in embryo.
Find books like the one you're going to write. Of course there is no book exactly like the one you're going to write; I mean go to the library or bookstore and find books in your category: fiction, memoir, how-to, history. Even reading only two—a new one and an old one that's been through at least a few decades' worth of printings—will give you tremendous perspective.
If you were to start writing your book right now, what would the first word be? The first sentence? If you can't think of the first sentence, write the second sentence. Just for the hell of it, go ahead.
FIRST CHAPTERS AND EXCERPTS:
Craft of Writing